Monday, 26 November 2018

Xiaomi Mi Note 3

This is the first time I've had a Xiaomi phone (or any device, come to think of it) in my hand - and like all good buses, they come along in two's! Thanks to Mike Warner for sending these over for me to to have a look.

The Mi Mix is a giant device, very nice indeed, and Mike has imported this then reflashed it so that it's now running LineageOS. Another first for me. I'm so impressed with that, that I am sending over another of my devices to him and I'm going to ask him to put it on that. When it comes back, I'll be keen to review LineageOS (from a user's point of view). But for now, it's the Mi Note 3, centre stage.

The first thing the eyes are bombarded with on opening the box is the bling! It's like a shimmering mirror and sea of oscillating blues on the back! One could argue that it's tacky, when another would declare beauty! It's very shiny and bright though, so until a case is applied, it won't be missed! The second reaction is iPhone. Yes, it's another Chinese manufacturer making their phone look like an iPhone. I muse on this sometimes and usually conclude that it's meeting the need of the masses who can't afford an iPhone but want to be seen by their peers (at school?) to be a part of that iPhone set. Apart from the argument that the design is good and well thought out, which could be true. My standpoint is that it just makes the world a less interesting place when all phones look the same. Anyway, I won't bore you again with that one!

Now then, it's another glass/aluminium sandwich, of medium weight, fits in the hand nicely with glass curving with subtlety around the back but more slightly on the front, ensuring that the screen is flat. I'm swinging back from curvier to flat these days, I must admit. The curved edges of various phones including the Samsung devices and my beloved Nokia 8 Sirocco are very pretty to look at and make for glorious jewellery, but the flat panel is much better pragmatically.

While we're here, the front panel is a 5.5" 1080p IPS LCD with a 16:9 ratio and protected by Gorilla Glass 4. The device feels like it should have a 2:1 panel really, because there's a Chin and Forehead, unusually these days. No attempt has been made to pull the screen out top and bottom, nor make the device any smaller in those directions. It almost feels like the Chin and Forehead have been made a feature! But it's OK with me. It actually has a Nokia 8 feel about it with the capacitive cluster in the chin, providing for a Moto-style 'pebble' fingerprint scanner cum Home button and one 'dot' each side for Recents and Back (which you can thankfully switch in Settings). Up the top is a selfie and speaker, on the bottom another speaker and USB-C port. Right side has volume rocker and power, left, Dual SIM Card Tray and on the glossy back, on the left, there's two flush camera lens holes and a twin-LED flash.

The LCD panel is bright enough without being amazing. Next to the Nokia 8 it looks decidedly dull, but that's a bit of an unfair match! Outside in an overcast UK day today it is perfectly usable - though how it would cope with bright sunshine I can't tell. Basic Settings can be adjusted (warm, standard, cool) along with Contrast controls - but they're all a bit basic and don't really seem to make much difference to me. But having said that, the colours on the screen are bright and pleasant enough without being anywhere near Samsung Saturated or Sony Black! The average user would be very happy with the screen.

I've Got a Little Behind!
The Note 3 is currently running MIUI 9 with Android 7.1.1. and May 2018 Google Security, which feels like a disappointment, though I do remember Mike saying something about MIUI 10 and Oreo so, given that he's a ROM tinkerer, maybe an off-the-shelf unit would be different. Maybe he could comment.

Under the Bonnet
The phone is driven by the Snapdragon 660, which we know from the likes of the Nokia 7 Plus and represents a good trade-off between performance and power efficiency. It seems to trot along quite nicely, multi-tasking adequately with the 6GB RAM and ordinary users won't be waiting around. The 64GB Storage and no microSD Card slot, however, in my view, is a loss - though it seems that I'm alone in this respect - as everyone is being driven to not having any data on their device rather permanently linked up to the cloud and paying (in one way or another) for data transfer on-the-fly. The more time goes on, the more old fashioned I get to feel! (I am aware that there is a version of this unit out there with 128GB, which, for me, makes a huge difference - even without a memory card.)

Faux Functions
I was surprised to find that stereo speakers are present - well, that becoming-popular 'faux' stereo which pushes high-end sounds out of the earpiece and the rest from the bottom (main) speaker actually. The overall sound experience is a bit weak and tinny at top volume. Drop it down a bit and things improve but this is not a ghettoblaster, by any stretch of the imagination! It's perfectly functional and, in actual fact, the stereo effect is much more impressive than the overall sound output. This 'faux' stereo thing does, somehow, much as it sticks in the throat to admit, seem to work. On the face of it unbalanced and, well, just not right - but you can't argue with results and at this tiny pocket-sized computer level, it exceeds expectation. So, OK for most non-party room-filling uses.

Dangle Dongle
There is no 3.5mm audio-out socket present, they, like most others, going with USB-C. The output via headphones is 24-bit and I tried it with what dongles I had present and it sounded amazingly good - but then I'm no audiophile and I always seem to say that, whatever phone I try! I will say that it sounded even more meaty and loud with the dongle that came with my Razer Phone over others, so what that says about dongles, phones, built-in DAC, DAC-in-dongle and compatibility, I'll leave for you to decide with your friendly sound engineer! Bluetooth 5 is present with A2DP and LE, but no aptX.

Audio Control
There are Music and Video Apps supplied by Xiaomi and they seem to work well. Like Huawei and Honor devices, there is no global sound controls, no Dolby, no control of equalisation of sound outside of specific apps - and then many of them are locked to headphone use only. A person could get used to a system-wide audio control like Dolby Atmos, running in the background, applying its settings to anything that is being played through speakers or headphones at all times - then feel very short-changed to discover that their next device has no such control, bringing less enjoyment. Shame.

Straighten Up
The main camera is a 12MP f1.8 unit with a 'usual' field of view with OIS, and the second, 12MP f2.6 2x Optical zoom with AF. There's a simpler 16MP selfie camera round the front. The camera interface is again very iOS, but laying that aside it's very functional and clear (point taken!) and has a few extras like vignetting effects, beautify, detection of groups in selfies and a 'straighten' mode which I've never seen before! Like a compass, I guess. Point the camera at something where straight lines are present and it adjusts the frame of the picture about the be taken to make sure it's 'square'. If you point it at something with no straight lines, it just disappears. That's useful! Close focus is really not bad at about 2 inches and then there's that 2x optical zoom. You can also shoot 4K video at 30fps. Results are excellent as far as I'm concerned, for a tiny camera in a tiny pocket device, until you get to low-light - then the budget nature of the hardware shows its face. But for most people, most of the time, for most purposes, it'll be just fine.

Day and a Bit
The phone has a 3500mAh battery, which, for the size of the device is really big and though I don't have time to test that thoroughly, early indications suggest that it's perfectly good to get most people doing most average things to bedtime and beyond. Scouring commentary around the internet it seems that most users are agreeing with that appraisal. It's equipped with Quick Charge 3 which means, in this case, and hour and a half from flat and 50% in half an hour.

Finger on Chin
The fingerprint scanner on the front chin works well, setup is quick and simple and execution fast - first time, every time. There is of course no other fancy unlocking stuff at this price-point like Iris or Face recognition but there is lift-to-wake and DTTW, wake for Notifications and even wake with volume buttons! More importantly - and not to be taken for granted with devices out of China, NFC is present, which means Google Pay will work, along with the other NFC benefits. As Xiaomi establish a foothold in the West, this is certainly something that they're not going to leave out in future. And finally, an IR port for controlling your TV and other devices in the old fashioned way!

Saving the best(?) until last, we turn to MIUI. Big gulp. No prizes for guessing how much I like this thick, all-encompassing, plastered overlay on top of Vanilla Android. Yes, I know, I've made mention of the boring nature of Vanilla sometimes and that devices need to have USPs and something, well, just different in terms of design or functionality to make them different from the boring pack - well I might have to eat my words! This device already clones an iPhone physically and the UI is littered with all sorts of design items that is also blatantly trying to copy iOS. As I was saying earlier, I'm not sure of the motivation, but if one of the factors is trying to get current iOS users across to Xiaomi/Android, then I can see what they're up to. In many places it looks just like iOS, the Settings pages, icons, colours, switches/toggles, Notification colours, buttons, paths and routes to get to central controls - it's all there, plain as the eye can see.

Uniform Compliance
As you will guess, I just find this annoying and difficult to imagine why anyone would choose it over much cleaner setups and 'traditional' use of Settings and placement of controls etc. Having said that, it is also clear that Vanilla is going all iOS too with design element in Pie, so I'm not sure what the future holds for miserable gits like me hankering after the old ways. It is clear that the baseline UI of Pie has been made to look all Apple. Apple Pie, eh. At least the default icon set here is not childish LG/Samsung like it could been and there's not much 'bloat' in evidence, though I'm not sure how much of that might have been down to Mike and ROMs etc. Security, optimisation, management of running tasks and app control is all present as has become expected with most devices developed in China and the East, rather than just trusting Google and Android to sort it all out. It feels like there's so much here that's just not needed and that, in itself, becomes the bloat.

Prime Cuts
Armed with Nova Prime Launcher of course things can (at least) look different - and they do. Many a device I have had in to review and not got very far because I just can't stand having to try and negotiate what on earth they have done with Android - and Nova saves the day. It provides some continuity across devices in a way that Google Now Launcher used to do. It makes it usable and workable, though at the end of the day, underneath that Nova skin, the user still has to know where to go to find stuff and look at some of the UI, some unchangeable beyond even Nova Themes.

Most will be Fine
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of device here for the money and I'm sure that someone coming into it for 2 years on a contract, only device, would get used to how it works and where things are (if they care) and would be just fine. If they are coming from iOS they'll be right at home in Settings/UI and there are lots of bells and whistles to play with in terms of individual tweaks and functions, many of which I've not had time to cover here.

Lineage Love
I love so much what Mike has done with the other device however, the older Mi Max, that I would love to see this Mi Note 3 running under a LineageOS. I can't wait to get my device back from him so that I can play with that and review it, with nightly updates, just like Cyanogen back in the day! This phone could feel so much better with that onboard. But leaving that aside, there's a lot to like about the Note 3, if only one can get used to (or hide much of) the MIUI.

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