Review: Xiaomi Mi 3, first Mi phone that will go on sale in PH

·Editor. You may tweet her at @aloraguerrero.
Xiaomi Mi 3 rating on Yahoo TechnoStorm
Xiaomi Mi 3 rating on Yahoo TechnoStorm

Specs of the Xiaomi Mi 3 (Philippine price: P10,599, availability: June 26 via Lazada):
2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 MSM8274AB chipset
Adreno 330 GPU
2GB RAM
16GB internal storage
5-inch IPS display with Corning Gorilla Glass 3 (1,920 x 1,080 resolution)
13-megapixel BSI rear camera with dual-LED flash
2-megapixel BSI front camera
3,050mAh battery
Android KitKat 4.4.2 (MIUI v5)

(UPDATED PRICE AND AVAILABILITY, June 17) Earlier, we reported that Xiaomi is indeed coming to the Philippines after conquering the mobile space and building a cult following in its native China, where it sold 100,000 handsets in just 86 seconds. The company will be first selling the Xiaomi Mi 3, a smartphone tour de force which embodies what we consider to be the current trend in consumer electronics: high specs, low price. In case you were wondering, it's the same unit that sold in the hundred thousands.

The Mi flagship promises tons of processing power and software tricks at a price even major manufacturers would be losing sleep over. The Snapdragon variant with 16GB of onboard storage is expected to be priced the same in the Philippines as in China and other countries where Xiaomi has officially set up shop: RMB 1,699 (around P12,000 sans taxes and other fees). If we haven't already driven the point home, you're looking at a smartphone that undercuts its pricier competition by a decisive margin yet somehow manages to keep up with the industry's finest.

The Mi 3, while not likely to steal the limelight from the HTC One or iPhone 5s, looks dapper in metallic silver and feels more durable than what we're used to seeing from devices in its price point. The body is made of plastic, though it comes deceptively close to looking like metal. As such, it hardly collects any fingerprints and seems rather resilient to scratches.

What we really like about the Mi 3 is how great it feels in the hand; its curved sides allow us to curl our fingers around its 8.1-mm-thick body and cradle it with ease. And while far from being one of the lightest handsets around at 145 grams, it's designed in such a way that it doesn't feel unwieldy when used for extended periods.

With its hero phone, Xiaomi is hoping that it has found the proper balance between aesthetics and ergonomics, and we believe that it has. Whereas many of today's flagships feel like small tablets and require the use of both hands, the Mi 3 can easily be whipped out of the pocket and used to post a photo on Flickr one-handed.

The smartphone's 5-inch 1080p IPS screen, put simply, looks fantastic. Individual pixels are impossible to make out when holding the Xiaomi Mi 3 at arm's length; colors are rendered with a vibrancy few devices can match; viewing angles are consistently generous; and the panel is bright enough to be used under strong sunlight.

The pixel density works out to 441 dots per inch, a bit higher than the 432ppi of the Samsung Galaxy S5 and a vast improvement over the 326ppi of the Apple iPhone 5s. Underneath the display is the usual hat trick of capacitive buttons for menu, home, and back, which is somewhat disappointing given Android's increasing preference for on-screen keys that adapt to any screen orientation.

Inside, the Mi 3 packs a 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, which, according to Xiaomi global VP Hugo Barra in a briefing a week ago, is faster than the Nexus 5's. It comes with Adreno 330 graphics plus 2GB of RAM. Unfortunately, just like the current Nexus handset, it lacks microSD expansion, so you'll have to be prudent when it comes to apps and content.

There's also no 4G LTE support, which is perhaps our biggest complaint about the Mi flagship, though you do get a full array of sensors, in addition to a garden variety of connectivity options: WiFi Direct; GPS; Glonass; NFC; and Bluetooth 4.0.

At 3,050mAh, the non-removable battery is the same as that of bigger devices; thus, it sails through a day and a half of reasonably constant use.

The rear and front cameras have 13- and 2-megapixel, backside-illuminated sensors, respectively, and they're quick to focus and even faster to snap photos. Another observation: The main shooter does its finest work in HDR [high-dynamic-range] mode. We'll let the sample photos speak for themselves.

As for performance, we've already begun using the Xiaomi Mi 3 as our daily driver, and it has shown itself to be faster and more responsive than anything we've used before. Our test unit handled everything we threw at it with ease; we have yet to encounter any app- or software-related problem. Really, that's all we could ask for.

On the latest version of AnTuTu Benchmark, a comprehensive benchmarking utility for Androids, our unit notched a high benchmark score of 32,970, easily surpassing the average mark of similarly priced
octa-core smartphones we've tested. The result speaks for itself: The Xiaomi Mi 3 performs briskly in a way no other handset in its price range can.

Hugo Barra actually credits MIUI (pronounced "mee-you-eye"), the Android-based custom OS running on every Mi hardware, for the Mi 3's impressive showing. Obviously, having bleeding-edge silicon also helps.

Which brings us to software. Our review unit runs the latest version of MIUI on top of Android KitKat 4.4.2, the software that will debut on Mi 3 phones that will be sold in the Philippines, and we can summarize our experience with MIUI in one word: better.

Not only does MIUI give Android a complete visual overhaul plus a curated selection of hot-swappable themes, it also improves on the latter's fundamental user experience. For instance, you can switch on the Mi 3's flashlight app by simply long-pressing the home button, as well as access the native music app, from the lockscreen. Xiaomi asserts its influence on Android in cleverer ways.

It's hard to nitpick on the Xiaomi Mi 3 because it does everything well, and the fact that no other product on the local market is as capable and cheap only makes it harder, if not next to impossible. It has far exceeded our expectations, and as such, it has raised the bar by which the value of future releases from all ecosystems will be judged. The lack of 4G LTE aside, it is indeed a phone worth owning.

Got questions? Tweet us at @aloraguerrero.

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