Xiaomi Mi4 review: China’s iPhone killer is unoriginal but amazing – Ars Technica

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Let’s talk about Google Play. Some Xiaomi devices come with Google’s apps and some don’t—it’s complicated.
The terms of the Google Play license agreement, called “Mobile Application Distribution Agreement” (or “MADA” for short), forbid an OEM from selling both Google and non-Google devices. “Devices may only be distributed if all Google Applications authorized for distribution in the applicable territory are pre-installed on the device.” You’re generally either all-in with Google or all-out.
There is one loophole: China. MADA demands that OEMs bundle all Google services for “the applicable territory,” but it just so happens that Google doesn’t do much business in China. The required number of Google apps in China is zero. We bought our Mi4 from China, so it didn’t come with the Google Play Apps installed. Mi4s purchased from regions that Google supports, like India or Singapore, will have Google’s apps pre-installed.
If you bought a phone from China and still want Google apps, no problem! A possibly shady app from the Mi Market is here to help. It’s called “Google Installer,” and it’s kind of a mini app store just for Google stuff. Downloading the app gives you a list of Google apps you can install from… somewhere.
Google apps aren’t single APKs, instead relying on functionality embedded in other apps like Google Play Services. The Google Installer is slick enough to detect that and offer to also install any dependencies. Outside of China, you only really need this app for the Google Play Store, but it turns out that requires three additional Google APKs to work. Thanks to the app, the install went smoothly. It even seems to be secure. The apps we installed have since been updated through the Play Store, which means they haven’t been modified.
Life without Google services makes China one of the few places a vibrant non-Google Android ecosystem has popped up. Ecosystems in China are how Samsung wishes they would be in the US: fragmented by device manufacturer. With no Play Store in the region, it looks like it’s up to each manufacturer to build and maintain its own store or partner with a third party. We bought a Xiaomi device, so we’re stuck with Xiaomi’s ecosystem, but it’s pretty good. It better be, because according to Xiaomi’s CEO, the ecosystem is the entire point of Xiaomi’s business.
Xiaomi’s app store is called the Mi Market, which offers the usual apps and games. The Mi Market is totally workable as an app store, offering a featured apps section, categories, top lists, big pictures, changelogs, reviews, an easy way to view permissions, and automatic updates. There is even a Web interface at app.mi.com. The install button on the Web interface directly downloads an APK to your computer, and it’s then up to you to sideload it. There is no fancy remote install feature here.
It’s hard for us to judge the app selection since most of our favorite American app developers don’t do business in China. Xiaomi is one of the top-selling companies in China, so we would imagine the Mi Market is a priority for Chinese developers. One way the Mi Market deals with app store fragmentation is that it offers to search other app stores at the bottom of its own search results, and it somehow manages to install them without needing the source app store.
The one thing that seems to be missing from the Mi Market is paid apps. We scrolled and scrolled and couldn’t find a single one, and there is no “paid apps” top list and no filters. This is strange, since Xiaomi charges for other virtual goods like OS themes. The only monetization option we could find for apps was ads.
The first picture in the above gallery is the “Theme” store, which offers free and paid themes. MIUI is all about customization, allowing you to change the icons, fonts, sounds, wallpaper, boot animation, and even the look of some of the packed-in apps. The Themes app is basically an app store just for themes and makes browsing easy with top lists, categories, and a featured section. Paid themes can be downloaded and applied for five minutes, making it easy to try before you buy.
Xiaomi has its own virtual currency called “MiCredits,” which are used in all of Xiaomi’s various stores (again, why this doesn’t apply to apps is just weird). As far as we can tell, Mi Credits roughly work the same way as Microsoft Points. You put your money in a virtual bucket and then take money out of that bucket to pay for stuff.
There are tons of options for getting money into your MiCredits bucket, everything from a credit card to various money transfer services to a MiCredit prepaid card that is sold in stores. You can also use any one of these services to send MiCredits to another person just by typing in their Xiaomi account number. The “PC” option sounds interesting, but it just instructs you to type a webpage into a computer, where you can fill in any of these options with a real keyboard.
There are themes for just about anything you could want, from slick, original redesigns to hideous crimes against design to outright clones of other software complete with ripped icons and buttons.
Our favorite item is the Chinese-language “Xiaomi Shop,” pictured above, which is basically a Xiaomi electronics store in app form. You can buy a phone from your phone or anything else Xiaomi makes. Right now that means phones, tablets, TVs, Wi-Fi routers, fitness bands, headphones, and accessories.
The tabs display roughly “mostly popular items,” “categories,” “sales,” and “account info.” The “account info” page allows you to do things like view receipts, order tracking, refill your MiCredits, view money or gift cards you’ve sent to other people, contact customer support, or review a product.
There’s a button at the top to look at your shopping cart, and then you can checkout and buy hardware with MiCredits. This is a really good idea. Why companies like Samsung or Google don’t allow you to shop for hardware from a device is beyond us.
With no Google account, Xiaomi needs its own account system and syncing back-end. That’s called “MiCloud,” and it handles all the usual tasks you’d expect. It syncs contacts, pictures, notes, music, and even a few things Google doesn’t sync, like call log entries and SMS messages. Xiaomi even has a Web client at i.mi.com, where users can view their files and track a missing phone. Sadly, we couldn’t get the setup process for the Web component to complete, probably because the SMS verification that the service relies on doesn’t like to cross international boundaries.
The Mi4 comes with a top-of-the-line spec sheet: A 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 and a whopping 3GB of RAM. Things get a little more complicated when it comes to the software, though. MIUI has power settings. Under the battery settings, there are modes labeled “High Performance” and “Balanced,” with “Balanced” being the default.
Balanced mode doesn’t feel like it makes much of a difference in normal app usage, but it will slow down a game or benchmark. The benefit of Balanced mode is a longer battery life. “High Performance” seems to be closer to the normal mode that most other phones run in. In this mode, the Mi4 gets similar benchmark scores to other devices but has a below-average battery life. We’ll show you scores for both modes, but keep in mind “Balanced” is the default.
While the Mi4’s low price gives us reason to be suspicious about Xiaomi’s component selection, we haven’t found a single spot where Xiaomi cut a corner. All the components perform on par with similarly specced devices in our benchmarks, with only software getting in the way of the benchmark scores.
Battery testing on our Mi4 is a tough proposition. While we can throw a SIM card in and activate it (and we did), our version of the Mi4 doesn’t have an LTE modem. We have one of the first batches of Mi4s, which only support 3G. Later versions will have some kind of LTE support and will be more comparable to everything else in our list. Our test doesn’t use the data connection much, but presumably hunting for an LTE signal would use some amount of battery.
Our battery test keeps the screen on and automatically loads cached webpages every 15 seconds until the battery dies. For each run, all devices have their brightnesses set to 200 cd/m2, as verified by a colorimeter. We also made sure to install the Google Play apps and sign into an account, so the phone was getting texts and e-mails just like any other device we test.
The 3G-only Mi4 lasted 519 minutes in “High Performance” mode and 727 minutes in “Balanced” mode. Again, “Balanced” is the default, meaning most Xiaomi customers will experience longer battery life in exchange for lower game performance. One of the benefits of having highly optimized software is that you can throttle the CPU and not notice it much in normal apps.
The “High Performance” mode, if it is comparable to the way normal smartphones work, is on the low side and disappointing for a 3080 mAh battery. If you’re looking for a long runtime, just don’t change the power settings.
The really bad news about the Xiaomi Mi4 is that you can’t buy one—at least not officially and not for the MSRP. We got ours through an importer, which drove the $350 price up to $490. Anyone wanting to import one would be wise to wait for the LTE version and make sure the bands are compatible with your carrier. An LTE version is coming with some kind of international support, but the exact details are still unknown.
Xiaomi started in China, but it plans to set up an international HQ in Singapore. It currently sells devices in China, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and India, and later the company will be moving to Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico.
Moving to America and the rest of the litigious West is a problem for Xiaomi because of how derivative the company’s products are. Cloning designs in China goes without punishment, but here the company would be sued into oblivion. It’s not just the Mi4 that’s a problem. Xiaomi also makes a tablet that looks like a cross between an iPad and an iPhone 5c and a Wi-Fi router that looks just like Apple’s Magic Trackpad. Samsung was sued by Apple for much, much less than what Xiaomi gets away with in China, so if the company ever hopes to internationalize, it will have to drop the Cupertino-inspired design.

Xiaomi would also have to deal with much more ecosystem competition in the West, and for a company that claims its ecosystem is the entire point of its hardware business, that’s a big deal. With Google bowing out of the race in China, there was an ecosystem void that Xiaomi could take advantage of. In the West, Google is dominant. Xiaomi seems to understand this, which is why it packs in the Google apps with all its devices outside of China. Again, though, if the whole point of Xiaomi’s business is the ecosystem, why include your biggest rival?
This review was not supposed to go this way. When we decided to order the Mi4, we wanted to learn more about Android in China, but we also expected it to be kind of a laugh. It’s easy to look at the pictures and dismiss the Mi4 as a cheap iPhone knockoff, but it is so much better than that.
Take a Galaxy S5, give it more RAM, a bigger battery, up the build quality, and for the final kicker, cut the price in half. Spend just a few minutes with a Mi4 and you’ll get an idea of just how much disruptive potential Xiaomi has. It has built a premium, no-nonsense smartphone that nails every important category, which makes it one of the best smartphones of the year.
Xiaomi is a company in need of some self-confidence, though. It has built an amazing device, but it has sullied the Mi4 by cloning the iPhone design. Xiaomi is like an extremely smart student that still cheats off the person next to it because it doesn’t trust itself to come up with the right answer. You can do it Xiaomi! Just be a little more original.
Xiaomi’s continued derivative design hurts the company in so many ways. It makes it easy for people to dismiss the company as yet another cheap clone maker. It also limits the countries Xiaomi can expand to, because in many places, Apple would sue the company out of existence.
Everything here is top notch: The best specs, fantastic build quality, a beautiful screen, a dirt cheap price, and software that, while different, works both aesthetically and functionally. If only the company came up with its own hardware design. If Xiaomi ever does apply itself with some original designs, look out world, because this company will be going places.
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