Xiaomi has always been successful at combining cutting-edge mobile tech with eye-catching design and unique software, but it's the company's ability to sell its products at such astonishingly low prices which has garnered it the most attention from western buyers.
While rivals such as Samsung, LG, Apple and Sony are happy to ask for £500 or more for their flagship devices, Xiaomi's products usually retail for less than half that amount, yet they boast almost identical specs and features. The Xiaomi Mi5 is no exception, and is – in terms of pure hardware – the most impressive phone the firm has ever produced.
The catch is that the Mi5 isn't intended for release outside of its native China, and getting one in the UK requires a bit of additional cost and effort. Is it worth it? Read on to find out.
Xiaomi Mi5 Review: Design & Display
2014's Xiaomi Mi4 was criticised for its similarity to Apple's iPhone 5 and while Xiaomi is still content to borrow some design ideas from other firms, the Mi5 does at least stand out largely on its own merit. The phone is a combination of metal and Gorilla Glass 4; the back panel is made of the latter, with gorgeous rounded edges that make it easier to grip. The brushed metal chassis adds a touch of premium class, while the front of the phone is striking for its almost bezel-less 5.15-inch, 1080p display.
Below the screen there's a button which also acts as a fingerprint scanner for security. Either side of this you'll find capacitive Android commands for "recent apps" and "back" (the functions of these can be edited if you so wish) while the physical power button and volume controls are located on the right-hand side of the device. On the bottom there's a USB Type-C connection, and on the top there's a 3.5mm headphone socket and IR blaster.
Despite the quality materials used in its construction the Mi5 feels surprisingly lightweight; it's only 129 grams, and perhaps lacks a little heft for a device with a metal frame. This aside, the Mi5 serves as yet another example of how far Chinese phone makers have come over the past few years. This is a handset which effortlessly matches the work of Samsung and Apple when it comes to aesthetic quality and construction.
The 1080p IPS panel might not have the pixel depth of the quad-HD screens seen on the Galaxy S7 or LG G5, but it's impossible to make out individual pixels and in terms of colour, brightness and contrast, it's a superior offering to the one seen on LG's phone – in terms of impact it's a close match for the S7's Super AMOLED panel. Offering a 1080p resolution doesn't seem to have any drawbacks as far as I can see; all those extra pixels simply put more load on the processor for no real gain.
Xiaomi Mi5 Review: Hardware Specifications
The Mi5 may retail for less than £300 but that doesn't mean that Xiaomi has cut back on components. The phone is powered by the Snapdragon 820 – Qualcomm's latest mobile chipset – and is backed up by 3GB of RAM in the basic model (4GB is included in the more expensive version, which also bumps up the internal storage and increases the clock speed of the CPU).
Because the 820 is having to power a 1080p screen and not a more pixel-rich panel, there's a definite feeling of increased pace when compared to the S7 and G5, both of which pack Snapdragon 820 chips. Switching between applications is a breeze, while intense 3D games run smoothly and without any niggles.
The aforementioned fingerprint scanner is one of the best we've used in terms of accuracy and speed, and acts as a capacitive "home" button, allowing you to drop back to the main home screen without having to actually press it down. The fingerprint setup process is straightforward enough and the only niggle I had was the thinness of the sensor itself – a few times the phone failed to register my print and required a second touch. However, it's just as precise and swift as anything Apple, Samsung or LG have come up with.
Xiaomi has traditionally ignored NFC tech in the past, claiming that few people actually make use of it. That may have been true back in 2014 when the Mi4 was released, but the uptake of contactless payments on mobile has resulted in a surge of interest in this feature, and as a result Xiaomi has wisely decided to include NFC in its latest flagship. That means you can make use of contactless payments when Google decides to launch Android Pay in the UK, at least.
While the Mi5 supports 4G, in the UK it's a rather hit-and-miss affair. Networks like 3 have support for 4G on Xiaomi's phone, but O2 and Giffgaff don't. If you're on those networks then you'll be limited to 3G speeds. This might not be a permanent problem and in the future we may see a "global" ROM which opens up support for more 4G bands, but it's something to be aware of if you're looking to import the device right now.
Xiaomi Mi5 Review: Software & User Experience
While manufacturers like Samsung and LG are scaling back their custom user interfaces to offer a more "stock" experience on their handsets, Xiaomi is a lot more aggressive when it comes to customisation. Its MIUI software is almost entirely different from Android, removing the app drawer and presenting a series of customisations which are intended to add value and distinguish the device from its rivals.
For example, you can record phone calls using MIUI and Xiaomi places a strong emphasis on user customisation, allowing you to download hundreds of skins which change the way the menus look. You can also activate the "wallpaper carousel" option which randomly alters your lock screen wallpaper every 15 minutes, seamlessly downloading new wallpapers from Xiaomi's servers to ensure variety. There's granular control over app permissions and notifications, something which Android 6.0 introduced but Xiaomi has been dabbling in for a while, and MIUI's one-handed mode will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used the feature on iOS.
The modifications made to Android 6.0 may not be a hit with all users, but MIUI definitely feels like a smoother and arguably more user-friendly experience overall. The colourful design and attractive menus might be a little too close to Apple's iOS for comfort, but everything is slick and appealing, and this makes MIUI one of the most interesting Android skins on the market.
Because it's primarily intended for the Chinese market, the Mi5 is very much geared up to use Xiaomi's own services. While most re-sellers will install Google apps on the phone, you may need to tinker with the device for a while before everything is up and running as expected. It's not the end of the world but it's certainly not as smooth as process as configuring an Android device intended for sale in the UK.
At the moment, the latest "stable" ROM is Chinese, but comes with an English language option. It also has loads of Chinese applications pre-installed, the majority of which can thankfully be removed. However, because MIUI is built around Xiaomi's own services rather than Google's, you'll find that you're constantly pushed into the Mi Store for downloads and updates.
"Development" builds of MIUI are also available, and these are pushed out to phones on a weekly basis. Switching to a dev build is only recommended if you consider yourself to be a seasoned power user of Xiaomi's software, as it often brings unwanted changes and has been known to wipe data – an Mi4 I had a while back did this on multiple occasions.
Even if you decide to stick with the stable build, you're not guaranteed an entirely smooth ride. For example, at the time of writing MIUI seems to prevent the Twitter app from sharing data to other applications; the only choice available is Google Drive. This bug is merely one of many which are constantly being highlighted on MIUI's official forums, and while these tend to get fixed quite quickly – perhaps quicker than Google responds to Android problems, in fact – it doesn't hurt to be aware that while Xiaomi is committed to improving Android, such tinkering can have unwanted consequences as well.
Xiaomi Mi5 Review: Camera
The Mi5 is rocking Sony's new 16 megapixel IMX298 imaging sensor, which boasts phase detection autofocus, 4-axis optical image stabilisation (a first in the smartphone sector) and is accompanied by a dual-LED flash.
Image quality is generally excellent, perhaps not in the same league as the mighty Galaxy S7, but still very good for a phone that costs less than £300. Low-light shooting is surprisingly good, with shots exhibiting the minimum of graininess, while images captured in strong light showcase vivid colours and excellent contrast – even more so if you choose to keep the High Dynamic Range option switched on.
The Mi5 has a manual mode for those who like to have as much control as possible over their photography, but there are a raft of other options if you're just keen to take the shot. Panoramic images are possible, and you can even add a fish-eye effect to the image. Filters are also included, and can be applied by swiping to the right before taking a snap.
The Mi5's front-facing camera has a resolution of 4 megapixels but takes surprisingly decent images, so selfie-lovers will also be pleased.
Xiaomi Mi5 Review: Memory and Battery Life
The basic model of the Mi5 has 32GB of storage, but more expensive versions offer 64 and 128GB. There's no MicroSD card slot so you can't add to that total. If you're keen on having as much space as possible, you might want to cough up a little more cash. Even if you do, you're still getting a handset which is cheaper than the competition.
With a 3000 mAh battery the Mi5 is more than up to the task of making it through an entire day, and with quick charging included, it doesn't take long to top up the juice. If you want to make that power last as long as possible then you can use MIUI's built-in battery profiles, some of which allow you to throttle performance and limit background activity to extend stamina.
Xiaomi Mi5 Review: Conclusion
Xiaomi is one of those firms which consistently manages to surprise us with its products. The Mi4 was a gorgeous powerhouse that left the Nexus 5 in its wake, while the Redmi Note 2 offered a phablet experience at a bargain basement cost. The more recent Mi4C delivered the same kind of performance as the Nexus 5X at a much lower price, but the Mi5 is perhaps the most striking handset the "Apple of the East" has ever created; it looks amazing, has cutting-edge tech inside and is capable of snapping amazing photos - and all for around half the cost of its big-name Android rivals.
The only sticking points with the Mi5 are its limited support of 4G networks in the UK and the MIUI software it ships with. While the UI is mostly excellent and has a lot of cool ideas I'd like to see incorporated into other phones, it takes a lot of work to get running properly and Xiaomi's changes often produce unexpected problems. The company has confirmed that a global ROM will be arriving for the phone in the near future however, and this could take the sting out of importing one of these devices from the Far East.
Taking the cost of the handset into account, it's easy to live with a few teething troubles, however. For £275 you're getting a Snapdragon 820-powered behemoth with a crisp screen, super-fast fingerprint scanner, superb 16 megapixel camera, fast charging capability and NFC - in fact, the spec list wouldn't seem out of place on the latest effort from Samsung, Sony or LG. For the time being Xiaomi seems content to sell its devices in China and India, but the fact that it chose to unveil the Mi5 at Mobile World Congress in Spain speaks volumes – the Chinese are coming, and every other Android handset maker should take note.