Can Xiaomi cement its place in the South African market with its latest Android flagship? Find out in our in-depth Xiaomi Mi 5 Review!
Xiaomi has made their first foray into South Africa, and largely that campaign has gone well. Following in the footsteps of Huawei, the Chinese firm have ingratiated themselves with South African consumers by way of offering smart, sexy devices at appealing price points; something that the local smartphone market has been beckoning for over the past year. Now, we’ve got our hands on the firm’s latest flagship – the Xiaomi Mi 5.
Before we begin, a quick word on Isaac Newton. While it wasn’t his own quote, the man who is often regarded as one of the most influential scientists in history is widely renowned for quipping, in a letter to an associate, that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
The reason I make mention of this here is that after weeks spent getting to know Xiaomi’s latest effort, I feel there’s more to love simply because Xiaomi has looked elsewhere for inspiration. There’s an abundance of heritage here; while the company has retained some of its Apple-style aesthetic, there are influences of Samsung, Sony, and perhaps even Huawei to boot. Read: Hands-on preview: Xiaomi Mi 5 ““ the times, they are a-changin‘
The real question is – does Xiaomi stand atop the shoulders of giants, or merely imitate the greats that have come before it?
It‘s time to get down to it.
The Mi 5 arrives sporting a powerful set of specifications; including an IPS LCD display at 5.15“³, with a pixel density of 428ppi. Powered by a Snapdragon 820 SoC, and complemented by 3GB of RAM and either 32/64GB of non-expandable storage. The Mi 5 arrives running the latest version of Android, 6.0 Marshmallow, underneath its custom skin, MIUI. Abreast of the times, Xiaomi have included USB Type C support.
The Xiaomi Mi 5 is an altogether different beast from the company’s previous efforts; in fact, the first reaction I, our editor Theunis van Rensburg, and many others have had is that the device is incredibly reminiscent of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5.
Is this indicative of imitation or simple flattery? At first glance, it comes closer to the former, while after weeks in use, my sentiments mirror the latter.
Out of the box, the Mi 5 bears a strong resemblance to other Galaxy-branded smartphones. On the front, there’s a thin, Samsung-styled fingerprint sensor that leads up to a large display, surprisingly thin bezels, a top mounted speaker, camera, and – of course- Xiaomi’s iconic Mi logo.
Around the back, similarities become more apparent. The phone’s metal rear gives way to gently rounded curves in the style of the Galaxy Note 5, while atop it lies its primary camera, and beneath it, Xiaomi’s Mi logo once again steals the show.
This is an interesting design, but it’s largely one that’s held aloft by its 5.6″ form factor. While to some the Galaxy Note 5 might be ungainly, the Mi 5 comes closer to the relative size of the iPhone 6 and 6s.
The Mi 5 is light as well, with a heft of just 129g. Altogether, this results in an incredibly comfortable fit that feels natural in the hand.
However, that doesn’t mean to imply that many parts of the design are iterant. While the Mi 4 shared heavy similarities with the iPhone 4 and 5, this is a design that amalgamates many different sources into one final product.
It’s usable, certainly. The phone’s light weight make it imminently pocketable, while its size sees a comfortable fit from which users won’t need to shimmy up and down to toggle buttons. The right-sided power button and volume rockers are well balanced, and give a simple sense of affirmation without the need to stand out prominently. Thin bezels lend a sense of luxry few devices can afford.
There is something I feel is missing aboard the Mi 5; and that’s a sense of personal identity. As I’ve outlined, Xiaomi has successfully distilled the better parts of many different brands to produce its flagship, but that endeavour leaves the Mi 5 without a character of its own. This is perhaps no more evident on the device’s rear panel, where – at least on the white version which we reviewed – a presence feels lacking as a lone Mi logo tapers off the packaging.
There are other caveats, too. The consequence of a Samsung-styled fingerprint scanner in lieu of a rear-mounted unit results in an incredibly thin module that’s almost unapologetically silly. There’s no denying its accuracy and speed, certainly, but that doesn’t mean your finger won’t be left aloft a thin button that hinges on being uncomfortable to grip.
Ironically, the biggest bet Xiaomi has taken on the Mi 5 comes in the form of software, and not hardware. As is common with many Chinese manufacturers, Xiaomi employs a custom Android skin atop Google’s mobile operating system named MIUI.
For those familiar with the premise of Huawei’s devices, MIUI isn’t a concept that’s overly foreign. The lack of an app drawer, custom visual effects, unique app icons and a theme engine make this a distinct offering from the likes of more conservative rivals such as Samsung and Sony.
To return to our earlier analogy of standing atop the shoulders of giants, one area where Xiaomi invest in inspiration from is the look and feel of MIUI.
Don’t get me wrong – the interface is clean, simple, and despite its tendency to rely on showmanship rather than practicality, is still a rival to the likes of Huawei’s EMUI. However, that latter brand have had time to acclimatize to an international market and have thus been able to pivot their software offerings towards Western conventions.
Here’s my biggest gripe; as I said on Bandwidth Blog On Air, Xiaomi have yet to adjust the type kerning on their devices for international languages. Space on menus, in-apps, and contextual pop-ups where Google hasn’t left its mark are adjusted for Mandarin.
That might not sound like a problem; Mandarin logograms require a great deal more space on a menu to display fine details, and further, not all logograms necessarily correspond to words themselves. In essence, for a Chinese market, small spaces can be maximised.
However, the caveat of this means that English and other international typesets are ill-supported. Where an entire screen might be available, a small, thin English text might be used – leaving a blank space to be uncapitalized on. While Huawei have had the time to polish their offering, Xiaomi’s haste to compete in international markets have left this a compromised offering.
Sure, this might be a niche issue. I, for instance, look at text all day – and by the time I retire for the evening, I don’t want to have to squint to make out a system message. Those with poor eyesight might find themselves similarly frustrated here.
On the whole, though, MIUI has seen definite performance improvements. Panes and effects load speedily, apps clear quickly when dismissed, and overall the operating system leaves behind a suitable, clear sheen that Xiaomi might have lacked two years ago when the Mi 4 was first unveiled.
If we’re going to speak about influences, one of the most negative attributes the Mi 5 has inherited – ironically from its forebear, the Mi 4 – is its propensity to overheat.
Now, most Android smartphones – and some iPhones – will overheat at some stage; it’s a natural occurrence when hardware is pushed to its limits.
Yet, the Mi 5 almost seems to enjoy becoming toasty to the touch – whether its left charging or is in the midst of a power-using session, the Mi 5 very quickly becomes warm.
One of the most frustrating parts of the experience is that taking pictures rapidly – which is something you’ll want to do, as I’ll outline later – can cause the device to warm up. A small area underneath the primary camera – I’m left unsure if this is where the CPU is located, as a teardown wasn’t within my luxuries while reviewing the Mi 5 – becomes hot while the camera is engaged.
While I noticed very little impact on system level – apps performed and multi-tasking remained easy – the experience is an irritating one which disrupts the pleasure of using the phone. It is a pity that such as imminently holdable and covetable form factor can be let down by the fact that it can become too hot to be carried comfortably.
Beyond that, the Mi 5 offers a great performance package for its relative price point in the South African market. The device’s 3GB of RAM is well used, while thankfully Xiaomi have increased the Mi 5’s standard storage offering to 32GB. While it remains a somewhat disheartening advent that the rising star of the East can neglect expandable storage on its flagships for this long, at least the paltry 16GB offering has been surpassed.
The 1080p display is one of the best in the business; text is crisp, while the screen’s colour and detail have few equal competitors in the smartphone market at present.
The unit’s fingerprint scanner is quick and clever, and despite its ludicrously slim width functions well. While apps might take a few split-seconds longer to load than conventional rivals, MIUI’s visual effects offer a far more appealing experience. Typing input is swift, and the handset’s touchscreen remains as responsive and vibrant as ever.
Another area where the Mi 5 falls short is its battery life. As is custom with many of Xiaomi’s devices, the Mi 5 doesn’t benefit from an inordinate amount of stamina. Standby time remains short – usually after 12 hours left alone the device will run out of juice – while I struggled to endure a full day’s joy out of the Mi 5.
Interestingly, despite the Mi 5’s propensity to overheat, I noticed very little correlation with a loss of battery life. What did, however, tax the handset was app-switching as well as using the primary camera. As a result, I’m left to predict that MIUI is the culprit once again.
Before we even got to see the Mi 5 earlier this year, we were treated to a test image captured by Hugo Barra, Xiaomi’s Vice President of International.
That image – which showed palm tree leaves – was inordinately crisp and detailed, with a near perfect balance of highlights and lowlights. While the prospect of that image left me giddy, I decided to restrain my judgement – and excitement – until I had the Mi 5 in my own hands.
It’s very seldom that the hype around a mobile device can live up to expectations, yet that is precisely what the Mi 5 achieved. A no-nonsense, simple affair, the Mi 5 is capable of capturing incredible detail. In many regards, I’m left to feel that this is the endeavor Sony has been trying to create over the past few years.
The Mi 5’s primary camera – despite its small size – seems bizarrely well-equipped for depth-of-field effects and macro-lens style focus. Detail is crisp, savvy, and is a delight to behold not only on the Mi 5’s screen, but on any other device as well. Colours are accurate to a tee, and exposure is well-mastered.
On the secondary camera, things don’t follow that pace. Colours hedge towards the warm side of the spectrum, while detail pales compared to what the unit’s primary camera can achieve. Further, the unit overexposes, and you might notice a blowout especially on white-lit areas.
So, where does the Mi 5 stand tall and fall short? The answers are, funnily enough, quite simple.
Let’s begin with the negative. Whereas its predecessor, the Mi 4, might have striven with giants for its ability to walk its own path, the Mi 5 instead draws from a wellspring of inspiration which I am left to feel that Xiaomi doesn’t have explicit mastery of.
Externally, Samsung style influences abound, and fall short nowhere more visibly than on Xiaomi’s style of fingerprint sensor despite its accuracy. On the rear, a sense of Apple-style minimalism falls short, where I feel the device looks barren to the point of being boring.
Internally, overheating issues persist, and the Mi 5’s battery life is woeful. That together is a disappointing revelation to make for a company that have had two years to pull their socks up from their last endeavour.
However, the moments where Xiaomi have managed to climb the golden ladder and ascend to the realm beyond do shine through. The Mi 5 is perfectly pocketable, is well-balanced, and is an absolute joy to hold thanks to its size and light weight. Buttons are crisp and clicky, and internally, a better MIUI experiences shines through while the device’s rear camera is one of the most usable, simple, and savvy offerings to hit the market this year.
Let’s reach the core of the issue. Is the Xiaomi Mi 5 worth its heftier R7,999 ZAR price tag?
I have a difficult answer to this question – and that’s because I gave the Xiaomi Mi 4 – which I fell in love with – a glowing review.
The Xiaomi Mi 4, for a first effort, did a number of important things right. It covered its basics – it had a great camera, savvy user experience, a beautiful build quality, and what’s more than that, it satisfied something that the South African market desperately needed at the time; a hard-hitting contender at the relatively affordable price-point of R4,000 ZAR.
Now, the times have changed. Xiaomi is no longer a newcomer in the South African market, and it needed its flagship to solidify its foothold in South Africa ASAP. That means that as South Africans, we won’t benefit from a lower price tag as we did with the Mi 4. Altogether, this can’t approximate that same, well-timed offering.
Let’s not beat around the bush. The Xiaomi Mi 5, despite its woes, is a successful amalgamation that stands taller (technically speaking) than its predecessor for standing atop the shoulders of giants. It successfully ties together several influences with aplomb, and is only let down where Xiaomi’s time and experience couldn’t tie several frustrating frayed ends together; ends I’m left to be rubbed raw by after living with this smartphone through a very critical lens of introspection.
If you want to get onboard with a Xiaomi device, the time is now. In fact, you won’t probably find a competing flagship at the Mi 5’s price tag for a long, long time.
However, if you’re looking for a budget contender, you’re faced with an abundance of choice. As the Samsung Galaxy S6’s price begins to drop, another choice will emerge. Further, if you’re looking for an affordable shooter at a sexy price point, you might be well directed to look at the elder LG G4.
What are your thoughts on our Xiaomi Mi 5 review? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!
Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA