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Xiaomi’s budget smartphone redefines what you get for just $130 (REVIEW)

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

Startup phone-maker Xiaomi plans to sell 20 million of its Android-powered phones in 2013. It’ll do that with four models, the cheapest of which is the Xiaomi Hongmi. Costing only RMB 799 ($130), the Hongmi (it means ‘red rice’ in Chinese), doesn’t feel as cheap as its price-tag.

The bland design won’t get your heart racing or too many girls checking out what’s in your hand, but the Hongmi nonetheless redefines what you get for just $130.

Remember when people first started talking about $100 smartphones? Those things were terrible; just a gnat’s whisker above what you’d get from a Nokia Symbian phone, except with the awesome advantage that they ran Android.

Now that’s all changed.

Hardware and specs worth boasting about

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

Quad-core? Check. A HD screen? Yep. An 8MP camera? Indeed. With the Hongmi, you won’t lose too many bragging contests about smartphone specs. It even runs Android 4.2.1, which is just one tiny revision behind Google’s newest Moto X.

Of course, to hit the low price-point, some sacrifices have been made. That quad-core chip is a Mediatek MT6589 1.5GHz thingy, not the Snapdragon or Tegra 4 that Xiaomi uses in its three other models. Plus that plastic back is wafer-thin, and the metallic-looking side buttons are very basic plastic too. But there’s no flex, rattle, or squeak from the hardware itself. Note that the three Android buttons are not back-lit, which is hard to get used to; oh, and you’ll need a micro SD card. But you get extras, like dual SIM support (one for TD-SCDMA 3G, one for GSM).

(See also: Xiaomi hires ex-Android VP Hugo Barra, starts new job in October)

The 4.7-inch screen (720p) is an IPS LCD model. While it looks bad when switched off – a very depressing shade of grey – there’s actually no major downside to it when switched on. Indeed, it’s bright and vibrant, with really accurate colors. In bright sunshine – which, happily, fills the air today – it gets very hard to see; yes, the screen is on in this photo:

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

Despite these quibbles, the Hongmi is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s no other place where Xiaomi has noticeably cut corners to get the Hongmi price so low.

Antutu benchmark results

After running the Antutu benchmark test, the Hongmi scored not so well (score: 16,304), coming in below the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the Nexus 4, but just ahead of the HTC One X.

The Mediatek chip allied with just 1GB of RAM might be a worry for its long-term usability. Android phones tend to be bad at hardware-software synergy, and other issues with the OS – like rogue apps that hog RAM – mean that 1G is not really enough. Indeed, with a bunch of apps open, the Hongmi is at about 85 percent full RAM usage. The older but pricer Xiaomi Mi2S, with 2G of RAM, would be a safer bet for those who are really into mobile gaming or are concerned about eventual Android OS lag. Here’s the RAM usage of the Mi2S (left) and the Hongmi (right) compared side by side:

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

MIUI butters you up

We generally don’t review phones, so let’s stick to the big picture – like why this phone is significant.

As with all Xiaomi’s models – and a number of Chinese homegrown smartphones that are Xiaomi’s closest rivals – the Hongmi is so well suited to Chinese consumers that it practically feels like a snug blanket.

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia - Xiaomi Theme store

Inside the Xiaomi Theme store, contemplating a change of homescreen. An iOS 7 theme, perhaps?

Chinese consumers generally love customizing things, so Xiaomi’s Themes store (pictured above) has all that covered. You can choose from a selection of free and paid customizations in the Themes app for pretty much all the core parts of MIUI (pronounced Me-UI), Xiaomi’s own Android skin. The dialer, the SMS app, the lockscreen – all those and more can be changed (or undone) with just a couple of clicks.

Another neat touch for Chinese users is that, if you don’t have any MP3s to hand, Xiaomi’s Music app has an online section that refers you to Baidu’s streaming music catalog.

There are dozens more, and I cannot name them all; but many are welcome additions to what’s lacking in stock Android and some other brands’ Android skins.

For cash-strapped students

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

All that is a big threat to global and Chinese rivals in the smartphone space. Samsung currently leads the way in China. The Korean behemoth sold 30 million phones in China in 2012, and it looks set to break that record in 2013. Lenovo is second. Remarkably, Xiaomi is now up to sixth having vaulted past Apple’s sales figures.

The Hongmi, aimed at cash-strapped students, offers much of what rivals like Samsung and Lenovo do in their mid-range models, but pitches the package at a lower price. This particular variant is made for China Mobile, so it only supports that telco’s quirky TD-SCDMA 3G, so overseas readers best avoid this and wait for one that supports WCDMA or CDMA. But China Mobile is the nation’s top telco, and it tends to be the network that college students go for, so the smartphone has a large potential audience.

In conclusion…

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

Just as Xiaomi’s flagship phone, priced at RMB 1,999 ($325), is a threat to top-end models like the Galaxy S4, HTC One, or the iPhone 5S/5C, so this new Hongmi has the powers to woo younger smartphone buyers away from mid-range models they might otherwise have been buying. Xiaomi also has a fairly good ecosystem – cloud back-ups, a decent app store, mobile payments for themes – to keep people hooked. Plus, MIUI looks better, in my view, than Samsung’s awful Touchwiz, or HTC’s erratic Sense skin. You can get a lot for 130 bucks these days.

Feel free to ask questions about it in the comments; here are a few more photos:

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

The Xiaomi camera app is nice; the HDR option works great.

Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia Xiaomi Hongmi review by TechinAsia

(Editing by Josh Horwitz)

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