Xiaomi Phone is an Affordable Dual-Core Beast – But Can It Compete?


Engagdet goes hands-on with the Xiaomi phone at its launch event.

After some tantalizing tasters last month, Xiaomi’s Android-powered phone launched yesterday at an event in Beijing. Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun took to the stage and wowed the crowd with China’s first-ever 1.5 GHz dual-core smartphone.

The Xiaomi team – best known previously for its work on the gorgeous-looking MIUI ROM for Android – managed to hit the lowest price-tag expectation, promising to sell the phone for 1,999 RMB (US$313) when it goes up for order on August 29th. Shipping begins sometime in October.

At 1,999 RMB it’ll significantly undercut HTC’s Weibo-oriented Weike phone, and it’ll be the exact same price as Motorola’s brand new China-first XT531, which has better-looking but less powerful hardware.

Some novel price savings will be made by avoiding the usual bricks-and-mortar retail channels, and selling the device on B2C e-commerce sites such as Vancl.

The Android-powered phone will effectively run the MIUI interface that Xiaomi has worked on for so long, and made available for free to Android customizers. Some regard it as the best-looking Android interface mod that has ever been made. Others, however, dismiss it as a tiresome attempt to ape Apple’s iOS.

Engadget’s China editor Richard Lai went hands-on with an early prototype of the phone, including a video, right after the event, and reported that the Xiaomi smartphone felt “a bit like the HTC Sensation but smaller.”

Xiaomi’s timing is not too hot, though. Most Chinese gadget geeks know that the iPhone 5 will be announced in the next month or two, and they’ll likely be able to get their hands on one before the Xiaomi phone even ships. There are other challenges facing the device…

Ambitions to rival HTC, Apple?

Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun channels his inner Steve Jobs. Image source: Xiaomi's BBS.

Hardware itself is not totemic to a brand; just having your logo on a device will not elevate your name. It’s worth remembering that before HTC’s rise to selling 12.1 million smartphones in Q2 2011, it labored for years as a no-name OEM, making handsets such as the Palm Treo Pro.

If Xiaomi has a long-term future, there’s a long path ahead. Remember Meizu? You know, the company that made an iPhone clone and then got lawyer-whacked by Apple? Yeah, those guys. Funny story: making a phone is easy, but building a brand that people want to buy and be a part of is infinitely more challenging than putting all the bits together in the right place.

Indeed, there are those who’ll say that building a phone in this way might be detrimental to a brand. Some in China will see the new phone as too cheap, and perhaps dismiss Xiaomi’s superphone as a shanzhai effort that wouldn’t look very impressive when ostentatiously placed on the table at a coffee shop, next to the keys to your Audi.

There’s also a legal danger this year in wading into Android, with a tide of litigation hitting Samsung and HTC. Taiwan’s HTC is facing a costly showdown with Apple over user interface and gesture elements in Android which Apple claims infringe on its own copyrights.

Having said all that, we wish the Xiaomi good luck – we like the way they embrace the (fairly) open nature of Android, and improve it visually and practically. It’s just that these are choppy waters, and China’s middle-income smartphone buyers are more concerned with brand-power than dual-core power.

[News source: Engadget; Image sources: Engadget (main photo) and Xiaomi’s BBS (lower photo)]

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