Xiaomi might not be a name that is instantly familiar to most western mobile users, but in its native China, the company sells more smartphones than Apple and Samsung. Despite being quite a young firm –– it was only established in 2010 –– Xiaomi is now the dominant force in its homeland and it has achieved this stunning success by emulating the world's most famous tech brand: Apple.
In 2014 the company experienced unprecedented growth in its native China. Handset sales grew by 227% and cemented the company as one of the fastest growing handset manufacturers on the planet. And, in the spirit of striking while the iron is hot, Xiaomi has just completed its first round of funding in the US where it raised $1.1 billion and earned itself a market cap of $45 billion. Not bad a company that is just four years old.
“Xiaomi sold 60.8 million smartphones in 2014 and is holding 14.97% of the market,” reportsAndroid Headlines. “Samsung is ranked second in this report, this Korean company has sold 58.4 million smartphones and has a 14.38% market share in China. I actually expected that the difference between the two companies will be even more pronounced considering that Samsung’s profits took a 50% dive in Q3 2014, as far as China is concerned, but Samsung is really close second.”
Just don't expect it in the UK or US anytime soon, as noted by Phone Dog. "In an interview with the BBC, Xiaomi exec Hugo Barra has said that 'it’s probably going to be a few years' before Xiaomi enters 'tier one' markets like the U.S. and Europe. Barra explained that Xiaomi’s strategy of building high-end products and selling them nearly at cost has much higher economic and social impacts in developing markets. Xiaomi is also 'not quite at the level' that it needs to be to enter highly-competitive markets like the US and UK."
It’s not all sunshine and cider, though. In 2014 the company was also forced to stop selling its handsets in India until February 5 after a patent dispute with Ericsson. Xiaomi is being investigated by Hong King officials too, following claims the company sent user data without consent back to servers in mainland China. Still, company founder Xiaomi Lin Bin is very optimistic about the future –– and he has every right to be too.
Xiaomi's attempt to imitate Apple is almost slavish; the firm even holds Apple-like press conferences complete with a "Just one more thing" slide at their conclusion. Xiaomi's Android-based operating system MIUI has, in its latest iteration, blatantly ripped off the look of iOS 7 and 8. However, while Xiaomi clearly wears its inspiration on its sleeve, it hasn't tried to clone Apple's hardware –– until now, that is.
Viewed from afar, the Xiaomi Mi4 looks like a massive iPhone 5s. It has the same chamfered metal edges, the same familiar front layout and an identical "Home" button symbol. This is brand worship taken to a hitherto unseen level, but the most amazing thing is that Xiaomi has actually pulled it off; the Mi4 is arguably one of the best-made Android handsets available right now. It also manages to combine amazing specs with excellent custom software and all at a price which is almost a third of the cost of an actual iPhone.
And all of this seems to be working for the Chinese company in its home country, as it is now listed as the third biggest mobile manufacturer on the planet behind Apple and Samsung, as noted by IDC's latest research: "Xiaomi jumped into the top 5 list for the first time at the number 3 position thanks to its focus on China and adjacent markets, which resulted in triple-digit year-over-year growth. Key to its success was the launch of its Mi4 smartphone in August, which was positioned as a high-end alternative to the status quo. What remains to be seen is how quickly the company can move beyond its home territories to drive volumes higher."
Xiaomi Mi4 Review: Design & Display
Ever since the iPhone launched, rival tech firms have taken large amounts of inspiration from Apple, but the Mi4 really does take things to an entirely new level. It's a shameless copy of the iPhone 4 and 5's design, with a metal chassis fronted by a Gorilla Glass screen and backed with a plastic rear panel. Along the bottom you'll find a single speaker –– again looking like the one seen on the iPhone 5 –– and a rather odd USB port. The phone uses MicroUSB-B, whereas every other mobile on the planet (aside from the iPhone, of course) uses MicroUSB-A. The USB-B connection will still fit, however, but there's the added danger of inserting it upside down here.
Once you've got over how similar the phone is to Apple's world-famous handset, you slowly but surely begin to fall in love with the Mi4. The build quality is fantastic, and the use of metal elevates this to a standard with isn't usually seen in the Android arena (outside of HTC's all-metal devices, of course).
The 5in IPS display is also striking and very impressive, sporting a full HD 1080 x 1920 pixel resolution and rock-solid viewing angles. It's also easy to see in direct sunlight, and boasts the kind of colour replication you'd expect from a top of the line handset. There's no corner-cutting going on here; this is a premium screen without a shadow of a doubt.
Xiaomi Mi4 Review: Hardware and Performance
While the Xiaomi Mi4's price may be well below what you'd pay for an iPhone 6 or Galaxy S5 –– in China, it retails for less than £200 –– it's rocking some fearsome specifications, including a quad-core Snapdragon 801 chipset clocked at 2.5GHz. That's backed by 3GB of RAM, all of which provides a silky-smooth user experience and amazing performance when playing 3D games.
The unit we reviewed only has 3G-access and came with 16GB of storage, but a 4G variant –– armed with 64 lovely gigabytes –– is expected any day now, for a slight premium. There's no way to add in more storage using Micro SD cards, so you'll have to choose wisely if you like downloading lots of content. NFC is also missing, which is a shame when you consider that the tech is likely to take off in a big way now that Apple is officially supporting it with its new iPhone models. According to Xiaomi, such a small number of Mi3 owners made use of the feature that it was deemed an unnecessary extravagance in this sequel device.
Xiaomi Mi4 Review: Software & User Experience
Xiaomi's MIUI (pronounced, “Me-You-Eye”, in case you were struggling) is based on Android. In the case of MIUI 5, which ships with the Mi4, it's built on Android 4.3. However, unlike other manufacturers (Sony and Samsung, for instance) Xiaomi has been quite aggressive with its UI skin. To a western user, one of the most obvious differences is that no Google apps are included whatsoever; Android phones sold in China rarely come with such software pre-installed, although it is relatively easy to overcome this issue. For example, inside Xiaomi's very own Mi Market, there's a Google Installer application which allows you to load up everything you need, from Gmail to Google Play.
While MIUI 5 was the OS that shipped with our review unit, we've since upgraded to MIUI 6 (based on Android 4.4), which isn't officially available as yet but can easily be flashed to the phone using a dedicated application. As we stated before, MIUI 6 is heavily inspired by iOS 7 –– and, more recently, iOS 8 –– and takes the whole iPhone clone thing a step further. Gone are the shaded app icons and skeuomorphic imagery, and in their place you'll find a "flatter" design just like Jony Ive’s iOS 7.
Another feature of MIUI that makes it feel like iOS is the lack of an app drawer. This isn't new to MIUI 6, and seasoned Android fans may find it hard to get used to. You can still use widgets as normal, but all of your apps are dumped on your home screens. Whether or not this works for you is a matter of personal taste, but we found that having the apps front and center all of the time was a mixed blessing; it reduces the amount of time it takes to launch something, but we did miss having everything stored away neatly in a different part of the UI.
Android has always been praised for its robust notification system, which is why the stripped-down version witnessed in MIUI is perhaps a bit jarring. The notification bar at the top of the screen no longer displays any icons, and instead you have to slide down the notification panel to see what messages you have. It's a minor change but one which can be very disorientating if you've used Android in the past; we found we often missed notifications or ignored them purely because they didn't flash up in the bar. To compensate, notifications now pop up at the top of the screen no matter what activity you're involved in –– just like they do in iOS.
Overall though, the additions and enhancements in MIUI 6 are very welcome. It has a "Do Not Disturb" option built into the OS itself, and there are little customizations to play around with, including a menu which allows you to control the colour temperature of the screen.
Most of all though, MIUI is fast; perhaps not as swift as stock Android on a Nexus 5, but certainly very nippy. MIUI 6 is still in beta but Xiaomi is unique in that it releases weekly updates for the software that deal with various bugs and add new functions. Considering that it's not the final product just yet, it's very polished indeed.
Xiaomi Mi4 Review: Battery and Camera
The Mi4 has a large 3080mAh battery, which is bigger than the one seen in the Galaxy S5. However, the increased size can't entirely take credit for the phone's incredible stamina; there's clearly a bit of work going on behind the scenes to ensure that the Mi4 lasts longer than most of its big-screen rivals.
We were able to get almost three entire days out of the phone during the review period, something which hasn't happened on an Android phone in quite some time. While it's possible to select from different battery profiles, we stuck with the "Balanced" mode that left most features running and intact, presumably dialing down the Snapdragon 801 chipset in order to save on the juice. Regardless of what tactics Xiaomi is adopting to preserve battery life, the Mi4's stamina is remarkable.
The phone's Sony-made 13MP camera is equally impressive, offering excellent picture quality and fast focus times. The usual issues with shooting in low-light remain, but when you've got a well-lit environment the Mi4 is capable of producing some spectacular images, even if it does occasionally struggle with high-contrast areas.
Xiaomi's almost overbearing desire to ape Apple might leave a bad taste in the mouths of some tech consumers, but if you're an Android user who has long admired the talents of Jony Ive and his team at Cupertino, then this could provide the perfect solution. The Mi4 combines Apple's design philosophy with the software flexibility of Android, making for what some will regard as the perfect mobile union.
There are drawbacks –– no Micro SD card slot being possibly the most obvious –– and the lack of 4G in this launch model is also an issue. Not including NFC seems very shortsighted, even if the tech hasn't taken off in China over the past few years. All such concerns dissolve away when you take a look at the price. Nothing else comes close to the Mi4 in this regard. NOTHING. For instance, even if you order from the Far East and incur a price hike and custom charges (as we did), you're still only looking at around £260 (UK-based resellers are offering units for over £300 on auction sites). That's quite a price jump from the Chinese RRP, but still well below what you'd normally pay for a phone of this power and build quality.
The phone's origins might prove to be more of a stumbling block for prospective buyers; although the OS supports multiple languages, it's still clearly aimed at consumers on the Chinese mainland. Even when using the English language option parts of the UI remain in Chinese, and core elements such as the Mi Market and video services follow suit. Xiaomi is currently testing an international version of MIUI 6, which reinstates the Google apps and removes the China-only elements, but in its default setting, it's pretty clear that this is a Chinese handset aimed at the Chinese market. Whether or not you're comfortable with this situation is very much down to personal taste, but it's worth putting up with it just to own one of the fastest and most aesthetically pleasing Android handsets we've ever seen.