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Review: Xiaomi's Mi Note Could Pose Challenge to Apple, Samsung

Xiaomi's Mi Note shows that Chinese design and engineering can compete with Apple and Samsung, for much less.

Garrett Hubbard Studios

For this week’s column, I reviewed a smartphone made in China.

Wait! Don’t stop reading yet!

Yes, I know that nearly every smartphone is made in China, including the one you may be reading this on right this second.

But this phone is different. It wasn’t just assembled in some giant Chinese factory. It was designed and engineered in China, by a Chinese company, for the massive Chinese market. And after testing it — both in China and in the U.S. — I found it to have the kind of quality and beauty that makes it a worthy rival to the best and latest models from Apple and Samsung — but for much less money.

It’s called the Mi Note, and it comes from a young Chinese company called Xiaomi. It’s thinner, lighter, shorter and narrower than Apple’s highly successful iPhone 6 Plus, yet it packs a 5.7-inch screen versus the big iPhone’s 5.5-inch display, very good battery life, a very good camera and decent software.

It starts at about $370 for the 16 gigabyte model, roughly half what the base iPhone 6 Plus costs, fully unsubsidized, in the U.S., with the same memory. A second version, with 64GB, is about $450, roughly $300 less than the full unsubsidized U.S. price of Samsung’s new 5.1-inch Galaxy S6 with the same amount of memory.

But what’s really important is that the Mi Note is tangible proof that Chinese consumer tech companies can do very good products of their own. That means they pose a huge potential challenge to all the Western companies which have for many years seen China as mainly a place to fabricate, and then sell, products designed elsewhere.

Although Apple’s sales are booming in China, up 71 percent in the most recent quarter, Samsung is being pressed there by a variety of Chinese phone makers, and Xiaomi claims it was the No. 1 smartphone maker in China last year.

 The Mi Note smartphone from China costs just $370.
The Mi Note smartphone from China costs just $370.
Garrett Hubbard Studios

The Mi Note is drop-dead gorgeous, like something I’d expect to see from Apple. It’s a large-screen flagship model, with a brilliant 5.7-inch screen housed in an aluminum frame, with curved Gorilla Glass on both the front and rear. The overall effect is elegant and comfortable to hold, for a large phone.

For now, Xiaomi is offering the Mi Note only in China, and is selling it only online; the company says it has no plans to offer it in the U.S. The phone doesn’t support most of the U.S. wireless bands, or fast LTE data in the U.S. In addition, Xiaomi has no plans to localize the phone’s software for the U.S. But I decided to try it out because it’s a great example of a new reality in consumer tech: Chinese companies are showing they are capable of doing quality, original products, not just making things designed elsewhere.

 Using the Mi Note in Hong Kong
Using the Mi Note in Hong Kong
Dawn Chmielewski

While I was able to test the Mi Note for about a week in China over both cellular and Wi-Fi networks, my U.S. testing was limited to Wi-Fi.

Because of Chinese government censorship and other restrictions, the Mi Note doesn’t come equipped with the standard suite of Google apps, including Google’s Play Store, inside of China, even though it’s an Android phone. I could only download and test many apps familiar to American users once I left mainland China, and then only because the company equipped my loaner test model with what it calls the “global build” of its software, which includes Google’s standard apps.

In my tests, the Mi Note was fast, fluid and easy to use. The company’s proprietary user interface, which sits atop Android, is clean and, unlike Samsung’s, avoids adding lots of confusing extra features. In China, the company provides weekly updates to the interface, called MIUI, partly based on feedback from its customers.

This interface has some useful features. For instance, there’s a “reading mode,” which reduces background glare and can be used in all apps, or just ones you select. I used it with Amazon’s Kindle app. There’s also a special control that makes rearranging app icons easier. You can shake the phone three times when in this mode to automatically line up your icons and eliminate unused space on the home screens.

 The Mi Note’s curved glass back gives it an elegant look.
The Mi Note’s curved glass back gives it an elegant look.
Garrett Hubbard Studios

Like Apple, Xiaomi has built in a special gesture to temporarily shrink the contents of the giant screen, to make one-handed use easier. You just swipe horizontally from the home button to do this. And you can even select different sizes for the shrunken display, which remains fully functional.

While I didn’t perform a formal battery test, I found that, in mixed use, the battery easily lasted a full day and part of a second between charges. And that was while I was simultaneously testing things like streaming movies, making Internet video and audio calls, and operating multiple email, messaging and social networking services.

The camera was impressive in my tests, almost as good as the iPhone’s. Photos and videos were sharp and vivid, and the camera app’s rich controls are hidden away in a sliding panel so they don’t clutter the main shooting screen. Like the iPhone 6 Plus, the Mi Note offers optical image stabilization. But unlike on the larger iPhone, the lens remains flush with the case.

I was easily able to beam content from services like YouTube using Google’s Chromecast TV device.

I did find two downsides to the Mi Note. First, like many Android phones with their own user interface, the Mi Note — when used outside China — has some confusing duplication: Two Web browsers, for instance.

Second, in most locations where I tested the phone, its Wi-Fi speed badly trailed that of the iPhone 6. Speeds weren’t terrible, but at my home, they were typically only about half as fast as the iPhone’s.

Overall, though, the Mi Note is an impressive device. I believe that if it ever went head to head globally with Apple and Samsung, its quality and price would make it a tempting competitor.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.