Xiaomi (pronounced "Shiao Me") has been mentioned a few times before on TechRadar, regularly picked out as "one to watch" for the future as the emerging smartphone brand becomes more widely known.
That's for two big reasons: it has a reputation for making good phones at very low prices, and the fact that former Google/Android man Hugo Barra joined the Chinese maker last year to head up an international push.
It's an interesting company. It sells mobiles direct to customers via its website, so the money it saves on marketing pushes is passed on in offering solid hardware at a budget price - it's not too dissimilar to the OnePlus One in this respect.
Xiaomi's current high-end model is the Mi4, but before then it was the Mi 3 and it offers specs similar to those of most of 2013's flagship Android models, combining a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 chipset (as seen in the Nexus 5, LG G2, Xperia Z1 Compact and many, many more top-spec mobiles) with a 13MP camera, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage and a 5-inch 1080p resolution display.
In terms of what's inside it, the Xiaomi Mi 3 is very nearly as good as it gets in the world of on-paper performance, if you ignore 2014's brand new models with their superior Snapdragon 801 chipsets.
There's a catch, though. Xiaomi hardware is not officially available outside of China, so buying the Mi 3 or its cheaper RedMi model in the UK, US or Australia, means paying someone else to source them, import them, and pass them on at a significant mark-up.
Happily, though, the Mi 3 can be bought from around £229 (about US$390, AU$415) online including taxes and delivery from several import suppliers, meaning that even after eBay and the sellers have made a few quid there's a substantial price saving to be had.
The Mi 3 is pleasingly thin and angular, with a squared-off look from the front accompanied by curved plastic sides, which seamlessly round into the unibody casing.
I like it. It's minimal and futuristic looking, if not more than a little reminiscent of the Nokia Lumia 900. It does manage to avoid the common fate of looking like a Samsung Galaxy clone that afflicts many budget smartphones.
There's a big speaker grille at the bottom, with microUSB connector to the side. I'm not massively keen on this trend of placing speakers in the bottom edge of the phone, as it means sound gets muffled very easily by your hand when holding it in landscape to watch media or play games.
The top edge of the Mi 3 is also clean and sharp, housing access to the full sized sim car, with the 3.5mm headphone jack alongside it. Power button placement is of the standard right-hand variety, with volume up/down toggle above the power button.
The notification light can blink in different colours, plus there's an option within MIUI to specify personal choices. It can blink red for SMS messages, blue for incoming calls and so on. It's great to see hardware and software working together as well as they do in the Mi 3.
It's slimmer and lighter than Sony Xperia Z2 and, for my money, has more to it style wise than the Huawei Ascend P7, the latter of which is probably the nearest competitor to the Mi 3 in terms of budget brand promises.
The Mi 3 feels like a solid, high-end piece of kit. There's a lovely bit of detailing where the glass of the screen meets the bottom of the phone, with the bezel overlapping the corner a little and creating the impression that there's a thick lump of glass on the front of the Mi 3.
The main negative here is the decision to use capacitive touch buttons instead of using Android's on-screen software buttons that have been widely used for a couple of years now.
This is no doubt down to the fact that the Mi 3 runs the popular MIUI software, a thorough and comprehensive reskin of Android 4.3.
It feels like these buttons are organised backwards. When holding the Mi 3 in the right hand there's a bit of a cramped squeeze to get to the back key, a button used much more widely than the easier to reach menu. That said, if you hold your phone in your left hand it's ideal. Perhaps Xiaomi has its eye on the left-handed phone market?
Also, despite Xiaomi going to great lengths to point out that the Mi 3 comes with an "aluminum-magnesium alloy frame, coated with 3 layers of thermal graphite" it feels like it's made from plastic.
Decent and solid plastic, yes, but perhaps not quite up there with Apple and Sony in terms of impressive, premium feel.
Key features and interface
The Xiaomi Mi 3 runs Android, although in places its MIUI interface is barely recognisable as using Google's code and owes quite a debt to some iOS features, too.
Much like the Android skin adopted by Chinese rival Huawei, MIUI dumps the key Android idea of the app drawer. Instead there is an icon for every app installed on the phone upon one of its infinitely customisable home screens.
This seems like a workable idea once you've got used to it, although, as with iOS devices, it invariably means you end up with a few folders in which you dump things you know you won't ever use.
One reason to shuffle your icons around is Xiaomi's haptic feedback. The Mi 3 creates the most satisfying sci-fi "badabum" vibration effect when plonking icons on the home screens.
The icons look lovely too. MIUI's key strength is in the design of its home and lock screens, with the icon sets doing a great job of adding uniformity, colour and style to the Android core.
The clocks are great, the many choices of screen transition effect add variety, plus the years of development that's gone into MIUI means the software is ludicrously customisable.
The OS features almost as many toggles and options to play with as the hardcore CyanogenMod code that's available as an aftermarket DIY install option for many phones, or preloaded in the Oppo N1 and OnePlus One.
Creating folders is as simple as dragging one icon atop another. If you're new to Android, Xiaomi pre-loads a "read me" app on the home screen, which provides a checklist of common Android and MIUI features to help newcomers to smartphones acclimatise themselves.
On the Mi 3's MIUI you can customise the name of the network in the top-left of the status bar (or hide it altogether if it offends you), plus there are options to define the actions of the capacitive buttons.
By default, the backlight of the buttons turns off after a few seconds, meaning you have to guess where back or menu is, so it's really nice to have a permanently on option.
One quirk of MIUI is that Google Now isn't accessible from the lock screen. Instead there is a shortcut that turns on the camera flash's torch option behind the home key long-press where Google Now usually sits. An odd choice but one that might suit people who prefer illumination to knowing about local cinema listings.
Despite this being a Chinese model, the fact that the MIUI Android ROM has been in development around the world for years means you get a full English experience. Select English as the system language from first boot and it's perfect, with the Xiaomi phone, managing a better tone and translation than the officially-available-here English Huawei models.
From that point on you can forget it's a China-only mobile, and enjoy direct updates of the MIUI software when they become available.
Performance and battery life
The Snapdragon 800 chipset has been benchmarked to death, seeing as it's inside the majority of flagship smartphones released in the last year or so.
The Xiaomi Mi 3 generates a Geekbench 3 score of 2,998 on the multicore test, an impressive number that eclipses the 2,579 scored by the similarly powered Nexus 5.
It also obliterates the 1,792 multicore score of the Huawei Ascend P7, a phone that claims to offer a similar high-end level of performance to the Mi 3.
The phone in operation supports these numbers. The Mi 3 is smooth to use throughout, with the home screens quick to scroll, apps downloading and installing in the background without interrupting performance.
There's also a generally solid performance when using GPS apps, running 3D games and flipping between apps.
The one small hindrance to ultimate smoothness is the lack of a dedicated multitasking button. Android's recent apps tabbed section is accessed through a long-press of the options button, which, depending on where you are on the phone, might mean the phone first tries to open an app's settings tab, before closing it quickly when it realises you're keeping the button pressed for longer than usual.
Battery life is impressive for the most part. I was able to get two days of moderate-use uptime out of each charge of the large 3,050mAh capacity battery, but only when being a little careful about screen brightness settings.
The standard TechRadar video test involves playing a 90-minute clip with the phone set to full brightness and volume. The Mi 3 battery went from 100% charged to 67% remaining after this, which is quite a whack of power eaten up by playing a clip.
Given that the onboard speaker is very loud and the screen brightness is very high when at maximum, the Mi 3 seems to use more power than its rivals when operating at full brightness and audio output.
If you're a full brightness kind of person, battery life will suffer accordingly. But leave it low or on auto and you'll get two days from most charges without too much effort.
The MIUI interface may make the Mi 3 look a little different from most Android devices, but the core experience is much the same underneath.
The notifications pull-down bar is completely customisable, with MIUI going so far as to offer two alternative layout options that adjust the size and position of the tabs and toggles on offer.
As is the Android way these system messages can be individually swiped away, leaving some remaining as little reminders, while the toggle bar at the bottom scrolls to let more shortcuts appear.
It's responsive and quick to pull down, plus there's a custom MIUI setting page specifically for adjusting the notifications system. This allows users to deny individual apps from sending you alerts, have it auto-collapse after an action, add a data connection speed display to the status bar and much more. It really is a super-customisable OS.
The calling and contacts section is split into two tabs. The first thing you see when opening the dialler is your recent calls up top, with the actual dial pad beneath.
A second tab at the top lets you access the contacts section, where your lists of everyone you know appears. First on the list are any you've pulled out as favourites by starring them; followed by an alphabetical list of all the other numbers you've amassed.
The settings tab within contacts helps you sort the wheat you often call from the chaff you only occasionally text by accident. From here you can have the list of names sorted by first or second name, choose which social media accounts to mask, or activate the Smart Groups feature that offers to split up your contacts by company name, location or most recently contacted.
The messaging system sees Xiaomi and MIUI offer some nice features. It's nice not to be made to use Google's Hangouts for one, plus there's a nice overlay pop-up notification window that appears if an SMS arrive while you're staring at the phone waiting for it to come.
The default keyboard on the Mi 3 is the TouchPal third-party option. It's not great from a visual or usage perspective, appearing rather clunky and not operating as smoothly as the default Google keyboard. Thankfully, switching keyboards is easy, as long as you know it's possible.
Xiaomi's put on a lot of its own apps here, as smartphone makers tend to do. Many are needless duplicates of the superior Google suite of apps, like the Mi 3's generic music player that offers to play any tunes you've shuffled onto the internal memory. It's really basic, offering just a list of everything, a sorted-by-artist tab and the option to create your own playlists.
Anyone using this over Google's Play Music app would be rather mad, as would anyone who uses the generic webkit browser Xiaomi has pre-loaded instead of the vastly superior Chrome. I found the stock browser would hang while loading pages, taking forever to render even simple sites. There's no such problem using Chrome, which has the Mi 3 functioning perfectly as a swift and usable web browser.
Also exclusive to the Mi 3 from Xiaomi is the Mi Cloud suite. This offers Wi-Fi text messaging, data, photo and SMS backups to some Chinese cloud, remote locking features and more.
Once activated via a password and having a text sent to your phone, the option to sync call logs, contacts, SMS messages, notes and personal notes recorded via the Voice Recorder app to the cloud appears.
Impressively for an import phone from a Chinese maker, this all worked in the UK, with one verification text opening it all up for use, and unlocking 5GB of cloud storage space for photos captured on the Mi 3, too.
There's also a custom gallery as part of the MIUI software, with the developer creating a simple, square-based grid populated with your pics. It looks a little bit like the one Sony sticks in its Xperia models, only without the fancy resizing features.
It's a bit boring, but it's fast and also incorporates a simple editing tool that lets snappers crop and rotate shots, draw over the top of them via a doodle feature, add a selection of vignette and colour/brightness filters and stick the end result in a variety of fairly pointless photo frames.
The email app is a slightly skinned version Google's stock client. It's simple to setup and use, automatically managing account creation for most major providers with only an address and password needed to get it going.
The camera in the Mi 3 is a 13MP model, outputting its full resolution images at the 4:3 aspect ratio of 4208 x 3120. If you'd prefer widescreen shots, the 16:9 output is cropped to 4208 x 2368 resolution.
You might expect a budget model to skimp on the optics, but that's not the case here. Xiaomi's camera produces superb results, managing to capture good contrast and realistic colours quickly, and with the option of a burst mode too.
The camera app is relatively simple when compared with the feature-packed tools found inside the Samsung Galaxy series and Sony's Xperia series.
You get a toggle to switch between stills and video, with the key features hidden behind a settings button and a quick toggle to switch the flash on and off without having to trawl through menus.
The Mi 3 lets you activate an audio-trigger shutter tool, which starts a three second countdown when it hears a loud noise. It's much better than the usual self-timer feature, as it means you can balance your phone on a rock or table, then run around, get your smile right and shout at it to take a shot.
Also useful is the selection of auto-focus modes. You can have it automatically focus, or choose a manual mode that refocuses only when you tap the screen. This is particularly useful when capturing video, as you can use it to calm down the amount of refocusing you see when shooting moving subjects.
On the MIUI side of things there are more toys to play with. The camera setting lets users allocate shutter or zoom functions to the Mi 3's volume keys, and choose if the long-press shutter button input should activate burst mode or act as a cue to refocus the viewfinder.
You can also have it detect faces and add a reference line to the viewfinder, should you stress a lot about having a nice horizontal horizon in your shots.
It's a straightforward camera app that produces good results and is fast in operation, with extra usability coming via the clever MIUI additions. I like it.
Xiaomi has made a superb phone in the form of the Mi 3, offering high-end performance and an interesting, angular physical design that helps it stand out from the masses of other budget Android models.
The Mi 3 feels like a quality device. It's thin, smooth, solid and has a stylish look about it that so many of the budget makers fail to achieve. The use of standalone capacitive touch buttons is a bit of a shame, but overall the feeling is of a phone vastly more expensive that its unofficial import cost.
Camera performance is great for a cheaper phone. Outdoors in good light, image quality is up there alongside the output produced by the high-end competition, with only a slight drop in quality when taking shots in low light. The flash saves the day here, though, nicely illuminating scenes without blasting away colour and skin tones.
The 1080p display is superb. Viewing angles are great, colours realistic and it makes the MIUI icons appear vibrant and sharp. It's perfectly readable outside in direct sunlight too, as long as you've got brightness set to auto.
The physical buttons aren't as intuitive to use as the software options found on many Android models these days. In most leading apps software menus have long replaced the menu button, so the Mi 3 feels like it's lagging behind the curve a little in having the physical menu option.
A long-press on this pulls up the multitasking feature, again making a little less easy to use than on rival phones that have adopted Google's preferred way of doing things.
Import buyers might find the odd bit of Chinese language on here, but it's not a deal-breaker. The Xiaomi themes portal doesn't translate to English, but that's OK as it's mostly populated by local pop-culture wallpapers, which you probably won't to want to install.
The pre-loaded TouchPal keyboard also asks you to buy skins in Chinese, but that's kind of OK too as it's a pretty poor keyboard, and you're best off switching to the stock Android keyboard as soon as the phone powers up for the first time.
Sound quality is patchy. The onboard speaker is very loud, but there's nothing in the way of meaningful bass. It can fill a room in volume terms, but after a few minutes of listening to its tinny output, it starts to grate.
It's a lovely phone for the most part, with the Xiaomi Mi 3 combining a surprising amount of style with high-end power and a supremely polished user interface.
The fact it's only available on import is the only substantial issue, as buying one from China through a third-party means possible stress and misery should a warranty claim ever need to be made.
Aside from that, though, there's very little not to like. It's probably too late for this particular model to make much of an impact in the US or UK were it to launch now, but the solid and impressive Mi 3 ought to get smartphone fans pumped for Xiaomi's next move.