Sunday, 10 March 2019

Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite

The Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite was generously sent over by the company for us at PSC to review and this Global Version arrived in a simple box with the unit running Android 8.1, September 2018 Google Security and MIUI 9.6. This was rapidly updated to December 2018 and MIUI 10.2, but no Pie. The device was released in September 2018 and now in March 2019, it might still represent a good value option for some, being around £200 to buy SIM Free.

In the simple box came a charger, USB-A to USB-C cable, 3.5mm to USB-C audio adapter, pokey-tool and minimalist smoke-coloured TPU. The unit has a very attractive glass-sheet front and back with an aluminium frame between. It's of medium weight and the same height and width as my Moto Z3 Play, though a little fatter. The dual lens camera island is slightly proud of the back of the phone and nestles up in the top-left corner next to the LED flash, though with the supplied TPU in place, this all becomes flush with the glass back. Underneath this is a round fingerprint scanner, which is on the small size, but quick and easy to set up, faultless in use.

Around the edges, we have a hybrid dual (stand-by) SIM Card/microSD Card tray (and the card is happily playing with my 512GB Samsung version) with the choice of microSD or second SIM, various antenna-breaks and microphones - and on the bottom a single mono speaker. On the front we have an LCD panel with a visible screen which is slightly off-centre, top-to-bottom, making an odd space creating a chin. This, however, is offset when the user chooses to hide the notch at the forehead, which makes you think that it was an adjustment at design stage! USB-C charging/data port is next to the speaker at the bottom, in the usual way. Volume rocker and power button on the right appear well made and are firm in use.

Yes, there's a notch! It's quite big at the top there (though not relation to the Pixel 3XL) and appears to house the selfie camera, earpiece for audio calls and LED notification light. It really could have been smaller. The screen itself is a 1080p IPS LCD sized at 6.26" with a 19:9 ratio. It's another tall'un, if you leave the notch in place. It's also a good bright panel, though nothing like the Nokia 8's gold standard. It certainly challenges many an AMOLED though it does have a slightly warm cast. You can play with 'Contrast and colors' in Settings, so change to what pleases your eye.

I'll come to the Settings in a minute, but just to say that it took me half an hour, literally, to find the setting to swap the navigation buttons around, which are the wrong way round out of the box. The buttons are simple circle/box/triangle, so that's good. The notification area is pure blue and grey buttons on white, iPhone-style. This, remember, is on Oreo so it's not a Pie implementation - it's a clear iOS copy and we'll come back to that. Plenty of options up there for editing what is in the main tray, clearly laid out and accessible.

Homescreen elements can be moved around and arranged as you like, but I can't find a setting anywhere to change the layout and arrangement to have a standard App drawer - again, it's all done iPhone style with all the apps cascading off into screens right. I can't find any way to add the Assistant Cards to the left of the homescreen - this seems to be reserved for their own 'app vault' pane of shortcuts, notes and calendar events (as long as you use their calendar and not Google's). You can turn this pane off completely if you choose. I also can't find any way to adjust the screen's time-out, like you'd expect in Display settings. It just seems to do its own thing and appears to be somewhere between 30 seconds and a minute. There's a range of widgets available from Xiaomi along with the usual array from your apps.

The home screen experience is not a bad one. I've seen worse, even if there's no app drawer option. The user can, of course, make folders and name them in the usual way. The UI animates slickly and is cute and cartoon'y in many ways, as we've come to expect from toys from the east. There is a face-unlock option which registered my full-bearded face (after asking me to 'show my lips'?! - I pouted, and done!) and works flawlessly with every attempt.

Again, as we've come to expect from such firms, there's an array of apps included which double-up the Google ones and can be used by choice if people want to. Gallery organises photos taken with the phone, but not much else. Their browser seems functional if users want to go that way and it has a reader mode. Calculator is white and bright, but perfectly good enough. Clock is dark-themed and has the usual functions - along with a world map, Psion-style(!) - when you add a City, it plots it with a blue dot! Nice. Contacts is again white and bright. I wonder, if Pie does arrive on this, whether a lot of this white will go dark.

There's a Mi Drop app to share files with other users, scanner - which scans documents or barcodes, a handy screen-recorder for showing granny how to turn off notifications - and a voice recorder which seems to do the job. The only offensive pre-installed app I can find is Facebook, and the system let me uninstall that quickly and simply. There is a system optimiser app, Samsung-style, which I was going to say doesn't aggressively bug the user to employ, but on reflection it won't actually let you get 100% optimisation as it considers not being signed into a Mi Cloud account a security risk! There are loads of other ways to use the tool, however, which are functional and reassuring.

Calendar, apart from being white, is really well thought out and attractive, with good options. Plenty of apps, then, for those who wish to use them and do things the Xiaomi way, but not, like Samsung, intrusive - pushing the user into using them at every opportunity, serving up layers of prompts and reminders. The Mi Video app picked up my RIP'd DVDs on memory card as .mp4 files and played them with no problem at all, has an array of options to fiddle with to get the picture aspect right and the Mi Music efficiently plays stored music with no fuss. The built-in speaker is mono and bottom firing and for a small quiet room, it's perfectly adequate for listening to sounds. It's not tinny if not pushed and can, in the usual way, be adjusted when using an app with software equaliser options, embracing that usual sacrifice of volume for quality equation.

There's no equaliser options until headphones are plugged in, at which point the device produces, as far as I'm concerned, fabulous sound. Loads of options and rich immersive sound. Testing here with AKG K702 Reference Headphones and Razer Phone 3.5mm to USB-C DAC dongle. There's one in the box, which doesn't produce the same, but it ain't half bad either. Point is, you can get some great sounds out of this phone with decent supporting gear, including bluetooth options, reporting aptX.

The device is driven by a Snapdragon 660, so the same as the Nokia 7 Plus, and feels perfectly fast and adequate to run demanding tasks. This review unit is the 64GB Storage/4GB RAM version, which, again, swaps between running tasks perfectly well and I couldn't get it to fall over, in that respect. I'm sure some heavy games would see to it! There's also a 128GB/6GB version out there available for those who would be not convinced. However, the target market for this device at this price-point, I can't imagine being bothered.

The cameras on the back are a main 12MP f1.9 supported by a 5MP f2 acting as a depth sensor. Again, this is perfectly adequate at this price-point and the photos I took in testing seems perfectly adequate for the potential owners of a phone like this, posting to social media. As always, Steve Litchfield will give us all a more in-depth analysis of the camera's ability or failings when I sent his unit over, along with the disproportionately seeming 24MP selfie on the front! Seems like Xiaomi reckon the average user of this phone is going to be pointing it at themselves and not taking landscapes! What I will say though is that like most firms making phones now, they've integrated the usual stuff, which actually seems to work really well - Portrait mode and AI intelligence, Manual mode in which close-focus is really quite impressive and loads of settings and other modes to play with. At this price-point, very good.

The battery is obviously a sealed one, rated at 3350mAh. This has performed well in my initial testing, bombarding it in 48 hours with review demands. I charged it up with the supplied 18W QC3 charger and it seems to be holding up very well. There's also controls you can drill down into via the aforementioned 'Security' app, where you find that Optimisation stuff, to get all sorts of analysis and information about battery state and use. On my short testing, which I know is not the same as using a phone week-in-week-out, but based on having assessed many phones in a similar fashion, I conclude that the battery will be very good for well into a second day of my average use.

Settings are, in my view, unnecessarily complicated, white and centralised - iOS and Pie-style! Having said that, there's an awful lot going on here under the hood and controls for all that, have to have a place. I guess I'm too used to the Vanilla way and so when thrown into a system I don't understand makes for a learning curve which I don't have time for here - but people buying this phone for a two year period will get used to where stuff is. Added to which, as I said earlier, the target market for this phone at this price-point will probably only go to Settings when they can't do something very specific, not like we folk who consider Settings to be a Control Panel to be tinkered with in order to push boundaries!

I do say that some stuff is missing, like the screen timeout, but I also wouldn't be surprised if that's in there somewhere and I just can't find it! But then maybe that's another price-point thing. For those of us who need an App Drawer to feel at home there's always Nova Launcher (and others) to fix that and the Companion App to supply the missing Assistant Cards, right-swipe. But actually, I'm not sure if I would.

I came into this review thinking that I was going to hate this device but actually, I really like it! Maybe my recent months with a Samsung has taught me to not be so transfixed on what I know and that everything just has to be Vanilla flavoured to be right'n'proper. If I had to, I certainly could use this phone long-term, and I'm now wondering if some of the very small omissions above would be fixed for me by going up the range a bit. The Mi stuff, even when using MIUI feels much less intrusive than Samsung's - more like an LG level - and to me, that represents a middle-ground in which I could make camp. This phone is currently just over £200 and for that money, yes, it's a congested segment of the market for Android phones, you get an awful lot of capable phone that would be far more than adequate for pretty much anyone outside of our nerdy geek circles!

4 comments:

  1. Great overall review.

    Just one comment on audio, Ted. When you talk about the great sound output, you're ONLY reviewing your reference cans and DAC. Sound output through USB Type C here is purely digital, I think, so there's nothing related to audio quality exiting the phone?

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    Replies
    1. OK Steve - maybe you can assess that when you get it over there. I tend to test based on the equipment that I normally use. If I had access to a range of Xiaomi earphones and headsets I could include that. Whatever you plug in is going to be influenced by the adaptor or other gear used. Maybe the best test is bluetooth, which I did test and sounds great, but it's also influenced by the quality of the bluetooth headphones used. Or am I missing the point? What would you suggest I do?

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    2. My point is that if the output is digital, then it could be from a £2000 phone or a £50 budget device and the bits and bytes will be identical. All the audio you hear is coming from the plug-in DAC etc. and not the phone itself.

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