After my Samsung Galaxy SIII gave up the ghost some-time early 2015, I was on the look-out for a new phone. Being the thrifty sort of person I was, I wasn’t going to spend any more than about AU$250. I saw no need to pay over twice as much for a flagship model with the best of everything. This is especially because I saw it to be of little benefit when both phones would be just as durable, just as functional for my intended use, and just as easy to lose or break.
I considered some of the main Chinese phones – the Oneplus One and the Xiaomi handsets predominantly, but actually getting access to them was always difficult. I sat on my hands for a while before ultimately deciding on the Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 (16Gb), thanks to a promotion by Gearbest which bought it down to AU$206. I went ahead and bought it, armed with the confidence of the Xiaomi branding.
I really liked the specifications (for the price) – a Mediatek Helio X10 8-core 2Ghz 64-bit CPU, 2Gb RAM, 5.5″ 1080p IPS screen, phase detection AF, 13+5MP cameras, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, GPS + GLONASS + Beidou and a 3060mAh battery. Compared to a purchase made just a few years ago at the same price bracket (LG G Pro Lite Dual), it was a big step up in what you get in the mid-range price tier and would be enough to satisfy a good majority of users.
Since purchasing it in January, it’s been used as a primary phone since, and the few months has given me enough time to get a feel for what it is like, and provide some of my opinions about it. Unfortunately, as it’s a primary phone, I’m too busy actually using it to be able to properly run tests on it – having so many background apps installed is bound to cause problems, so I’ll be talking about it from an unboxing/user experience point of view.
The phone comes in a moderately small wood-pulp coloured box with simple logo print and short-form specification sticker on the rear. It is also complemented by the counterfeit detection sticker. The sides of my box were sealed with a pair of stickers with the CY lettering, I suspect this is due to the distributor.
The stock itself is labelled and dated to be 14th December 2015, making it mildly fresh, with a US label indicating the internal charger plug configuration. Gearbest also threw in an appropriate adapter for Australia, although as usual, when ordering such products from overseas, none of them have the necessary regulatory approvals but should still be safe to use (at your own risk).
The first thing you are presented with is the phone with a protection film applied for transit. Removing the phone and the top layer, the bottom layer contains the battery, charger, cable and leaflets.
My unit is a white colour product, which really means that the rear casing is white in colour. The front features a black bezel with hardware touch button areas marked in red. The order of these buttons are a common place for vendor fun with Samsung and LG having opposite layouts for example. There is also space for a few sensors (proximity, ambient light), and camera near the speaker on the top. The rear features the camera and flash, centred, with a mirrored logo and speaker grilles.
On the right side, we have the power button (lower) and volume up and down buttons.
The top side has a microphone hole, a port for the IR sender and the 3.5mm TRRS headset jack.
The bottom side has another microphone hole, and the port for microUSB charging and data syncing. The port is way to the left, rather than centred as with other phones.
Internally, there is space for a microSD card and two microSIMs and (of course), the battery. The rear cover is covered with a black conductive label likely to spread the radiated heat from the phone more efficiently and prevent hot-spots thus improving user comfort.
The cable and battery are wrapped in a protective milky-white plastic bag, and the charger has a protection film to prevent scratches on its glossy finish. As expected, the charger has a US pin configuration, and is a 5v 2A charger with universal input voltage. Its output is a regular USB plug.
The cable is a regular USB A to micro B cable, and is marked with a lightning bolt symbol on the side that should face up when plugged into the phone.
The battery is a bright orange large monolithic prismatic Li-ion cell. It operates at an extended voltage range for greater capacity, like many other phones of this era.
Finally, you get some information leaflets although all of them are in Chinese and are not particularly useful. That’s okay, since a phone is pretty much standard equipment and is easy to get along with without the need for instructions.
Checking the anti-counterfeit label on chaxun.xiaomi.com reveals that the unit is genuine, having its code checked only once by me.
This is where buying such overseas market phones can get somewhat tricky as they are often localized for their intended market, which may mean that you don’t get access to your favourite languages or app stores without some work. Xiaomi’s phones have their own official ROMs with MIUI for both China and Global models. The languages, markets and inbuilt app support for both ROMs differ somewhat as a result.
Depending on your channel of purchase, things can be completely different, as they themselves take it upon themselves to second-guess what ROM you would like and pre-load that onto the phone (and test it) before committing it to their inventory. Gearbest goes one step further and notes:
Any alterations such as upgrades, modding with custom ROMs, rooting or flashing the Android device with other firmware will automatically void the device’s warranty.
It’s a little unfair, although I suspect it is necessary as the novice may brick their phones with improper flashing procedures or make alterations that put the device out of warranty and the importer cannot be expected to foot the bill for repair. Unfortunately, this can mean that you end up receiving a phone installed with a ROM you didn’t expect and one which may contain more than you expected (in some cases, adware).
The phone I received from Gearbest did not have the official Xiaomi ROM installed – neither Global nor China. The installed ROM was a Xiaomi.eu weekly beta test ROM that wouldn’t have any OTA updates and was somewhat dated (5.10.16 if I recall correctly).
I decided to forego my warranty practically immediately, while ensuring my own security against vulnerabilities and having the best functionality by continuing with the Xiaomi.eu weekly ROMs, updating every month or so when I am bothered. The latest at this point is version 6.3.31 which I just applied yesterday. I also replaced the Mi Recovery with TWRP, and rooted the device with SuperSU v2.65 (at the time of writing). Upgrading gave me back some functionality that was missing – for example, the FM Radio app.
At the present moment, this ROM is based on Android 5.0.2, with no Android 6 available yet. The number of ROMs available for Mediatek based devices are generally fewer than for the flagship Qualcomm based devices, so I don’t expect updates to be as frequent or numerous. If you want the latest and greatest Android has to offer, maybe you should consider a Qualcomm based phone instead.
If you want to be extra secure, you should probably wipe the phone and install the official Global ROM image just to ensure that no additional spy-ware or adware had been installed.
After having used the phone for a few months, on the whole, I like it very much for several reasons. Everything should be read considering it’s a phone you can buy outright for AU$200 or so.
Aesthetically, there’s not much to say, as the phone looks rather generic as with most other phones. The phone fits in the hand well, and the rear casing which “wraps around” the edges makes it feel a little more solid than other plastic-based phones. It’s light as can be expected, and the majority of its volume is consumed by batteries. The button placement is slightly odd, with all side-mounted buttons on one side, but I suppose these are the changes manufacturers have to make to avoid treading on each others’ toes.
Having never used a MIUI based ROM full-time, this was my first experience with MIUI. On the whole, it is clean and relatively easy to use, although some of the ways apps are arranged are a little “forced” in a similar way to iOS (i.e. all apps show on the home screens). The configurability of MIUI really impressed, with a lot more features available in the settings which are quite useful, including the ability to restrict certain apps permissions without going to the lengths of an modded ROM. The ability to remap the hardware buttons made transitioning from another model of phone easier – as habits are hard to change. I liked the inclusion of a notification LED on the phone, as I missed that on my LG. Thoughtful modes such as one-handed mode, child mode are also provided. The ROM was very stable, and only very rare misbehaviour of apps causing a reboot every 3-4 weeks.
On the downside, it seems that the ROM very much desires for you to be part of the Xiaomi ecosystem in having a Mi account, and offering to use Mi Cloud, and the Mi equivalent of Android Device Manager for anti-theft. As most western users are probably more comfortable with Google, it seems to be a little bit of a doubling-up. The included bundled apps also prompt for you to agree with their terms and conditions – everything down to search and the Mi Remote app requests that you agree, and the conditions themselves don’t seem particularly lightweight either.
Some included apps are quite useful – Mi Remote supports emulating the remote control of hundreds of different brands and types of devices, making it a winner compared to LG’s Quickremote. However, it exposes the fact that the Mi applications are all exempt from permissions lock-outs! Mi Remote for example, detects whenever the network changes, requests location at every network change and opening just to show how “far away” your devices are – and you can’t stop it. It feels like there may be a secondary reason for this, and I don’t feel comfortable with it, so sadly, I’ve had to disable the rather useful app just so I can sleep better at night.
The Mi apps also have a constant need for attention. Every-so-often you are told you have xxxMb of trash on your phone you need to clean (despite it not necessarily being trash), and you are told you need to do a scan. You’re also reminded to use the Mi Cloud or join it, despite electing not to do so during installation. There’s even a security app, but I’ve never had it complete a scan successfully or actually do anything worthwhile that other apps couldn’t do. The notifications will eventually become annoying, and you will learn to silence them completely.
The FM radio works well on the phone, and is the best implementation I’ve come across so far – it works even when no earbuds are connected, with adequate performance in stronger signal areas. It also allows for the received audio to be sent to a connected Bluetooth speaker. When earbuds are connected, the radio is sensitive and holds a stereo signal for longer than my LG does, and mutes any and all hiss.
Integration with the Mi Fit wrist band seems to do rather well for phone unlocking, with it working about 90% of the time. Other times, it seems the Bluetooth needs to be toggled on and off due to an issue with the driver which makes it stop working, which is slightly disappointing.
The MIUI tinkering with the dual-SIM integration and network provisioning has a side effect that the Mobile Data usage graph doesn’t seem to be available in the ROM I’m using, instead, claiming that it doesn’t know of the provisioning page for my particular telco. On the whole, the Cat. 4 LTE modem was quite sensitive, and throughput easily reached 100/30 under real-life circumstances. The dual-SIM capability was, however, problematic as the non-data SIM slot is only active on GSM which many networks have scaled back on coverage. As a result, it’s dual SIM standby, LTE + GSM as similar with older Mediatek devices. Also, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t support 850Mhz or 700Mhz LTE, so in Australia, it can only use the 1800Mhz LTE band which has slightly less coverage and more congestion. Better than no LTE though!
Wi-Fi generally works very well, in mixed-deployment 802.11ac, I was able to easily achieve over 100Mbit/s on a speed test. During lots of walking around, it can mistake a network for being “weak” and “unreliable” and need a manual connection which seems relatively common.
The integrated GPS+GLONASS+Beidou works extremely well – under good sky conditions with A-GPS, times to fixes of under 5 seconds are repeatably achieved – something I haven’t had much success with on older GPS-only devices in this price bracket.
The screen was very satisfying to use, although the touch sensitivity is a little high around the edges with its thin bezel, leading to occasions where holding the phone prevented it from scrolling as it thought I was touching along the edges. The screen has very good sharpness (400ppi is greater than most printed material and is as sharp as most eyes can perceive) with nice colour and good viewing angle. It’s able to dim down relatively low, although its brightest setting might not be quite bright enough in full sun. Its ambient light sensor feedback is also a little iffy especially at low-light where it tends to cause the screen to suddenly change brightness markedly in steps. The coating is very fingerprint oil resistant, which allows it to wipe off easily, and is resistant to scratches (although I do take good care of my phones).
The speakers generally sound okay, as their size generally means you can’t expect too much. I wouldn’t use them as primary playback devices, and their positioning on the rear isn’t optimal for media consumption. The headphone jack audio output was relatively good, with no significant hiss or digital noise apparent.
By far, the 13MP camera was most satisfying to use. It seemed to have a relatively wide field of view, and the phase detect autofocus was much faster than I was accustomed to. Their Camera app also has the novelty of face detection with age and gender, and several other modes.
Under extreme lighting conditions, the lens itself can have an opalescent flare.
But under more sane shooting conditions, the HDR mode really does help the dynamic range, with no apparent ghosting at all even with moving subjects.
HDR Only, moving
The images from the camera seem to have a sensible amount of noise reduction added, but that seems to result in unusual effects where all the overhead wiring in all of the shots is tinged blue by the sky, when they otherwise turn up a dark dirty brown with other cameras. This had a “chromatic aberration” style look to it, and wasn’t exclusive to HDR shots – the below is a non-HDR shot with the same effect.
I took it outside on a very dark night, and took a photo of a sign, handheld, under street lighting. Its noise reduction kicked in dramatically, but the result was very much usable, with some “colour patches” due to the algorithm. It performed much better than expected, and didn’t result in a blurry mess as I would have expected based on past experience.
Of course, with a low-cost unit like this, you don’t get 4k video, but that’s not really something you would expect to have.
(All images straight from camera, click for full size)
The unit is also available in a 32Gb model, and also a prime version with 2.2Ghz CPU, however, the need for this is probably less as there is a microSD card expansion slot, which I’ve been able to successfully use with 128Gb cards. The battery life of the phone does leave a little to be desired, only just enough for my usage. A larger battery would probably be nice – so I tend to use Redmi Note 2 Tool to down-clock my CPU anyway. The use of a faster CPU seems moot in light of this, especially since I still find it to be very responsive with no major lag in any way with the CPU capped to 1.6Ghz. The 2Gb of RAM is “enough”, but more wouldn’t go astray.
Charging was not bad compared to other phones, completing in about three hours and eight minutes. It didn’t consume all the 2A capability of the charger, but was able to charge about 42% in the first hour, making it relatively quick charging for something that doesn’t violate USB protocols or use proprietary charging protocols.
It does, however, seem likely that the unit does “microcycle” and draw from the battery after charging has completed, and then tops it back up periodically which could result in wear-out of the battery. That being said, replacement batteries are widely available, and the battery is user serviceable, so this isn’t as bad as it might otherwise be.
One rather sad down-side is that the Redmi Note 2, along with many other value competitors, still omit NFC functionality from their phones. While this is not immediately useful to an end user, it’s becoming more important as transport cards offer balance checking apps and increased number of NDEF tags are used in trigger control, signage and advertising. The vibrator in the phone is also particularly “weak” and hard to feel in my pocket, with it making more of a high pitched buzz rather than actually shaking the phone. It also seems that the SoC may be capable of USB 3.0 connectivity, as the USB descriptors seem to claim the device is a superspeed device resulting in the “This device can perform faster” prompt, however, the connector isn’t of a USB 3.0 type, so we are not able to take advantage of this mode of connectivity. I suppose it’s probably a good thing, because if they opted to go with USB-C, then we would be in for more expensive cables.
I also did a test of the charger standby power usage which showed that the power consumed at idle was 62.874mW, passing the requirements, however, a little higher than some other chargers. The new Apple chargers have about 11mW standby, my old LG has 24mW, whereas my Samsung charger had 101mW and my Asus tablet charger had 111mW. On the whole, it makes the charger idle power performance rather “average” – at AU$0.25/kWh, you’d be paying just $0.14/year to keep the charger idling all year.
For a hair over AU$200, this phone is quite a good performer. It does most of what I want, and it does it well. Connectivity is good, the screen is excellent and MIUI is not bad either although the included apps are a bit annoying in permissions requests and notifications.
It’s stable, reliable, and fast as I need it to be such that I’m never kept waiting. The microSD slot means more storage and no worries if the phone dies – as all my photos are safe and easily read-out. The camera is a stand-out upgrade from my previous phone, and its HDR mode is practically flawless. That being said, dual-SIM coverage can be a bit of a problem, battery life could be a bit better and I wish it had NFC.
It’s worth noting that there is a Redmi Note 3 with the Mediatek X10, which has a fingerprint sensor, and larger battery, but falls down on not including a microSD slot. So I suppose it’s not quite as simple as “newer is better” as you lose one of the big features.
On the whole, I have no regrets. Instead, I’m quite pleasantly surprised that in a few years between phone purchases, the same amount of money gets you a lot more value through technological progress and competition. I would recommend it only if you’re proficient with Android phones, rooting and ROM flashing, because it’s highly likely that you might need to upgrade the ROM or change ROMs at one point in time.