Cheap and powerful Chinese smartphones are something of a mystery for most western buyers, which is ironic when you consider that so many of the best-known tech brands create their products in that part of the world.
This is slowly but surely changing as companies such as Huawei, ZTE and UMI are gaining solid reputations thanks to their impressive, low-cost mobile offerings, but even these firms are left in the dark by the mighty Xiaomi. A company often described as the Apple of the East, not only because it creates gorgeous products, but because it has a habit of copying a lot of what Apple does.
Thankfully it is breaking out of that bad tradition and its most recent handset - the Redmi Note 2 - is unique, powerful and astonishingly good value, coming in at around £125.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 review: Design & Display
The Redmi Note 2 is pretty basic in terms of appearance, with largely plain front and back. It's made almost entirely from plastic and is pretty thin, which keeps the weight down. The back of the device actually unclips to grant access to the battery, dual micro SIM slots and MicroSD card bay. This is great news for those of you who like carrying a spare battery around with you, but it does compromise the sturdiness of the phone - the left-hand side of our review unit creaks when gripped, something an entirely sealed unit would fix. Still, you can't have everything.
The phone's vivid 5.5-inch, Full HD IPS screen predictably dominates its front, offering superb viewing angles and incredible clarity. A very thin bezel runs along the left and right sides of the screen, which ensures that it's not too wide to grip properly with a single hand. This is the kind of display you'd expect to find on a top-of-the-line blower, not on a £125 offering.
Contactless payments are big news right now, with Apple Pay already established and both Google and Samsung readying their own challengers. Sadly, the Redmi Note 2 lacks NFC so won't be joining the contactless payment party. Xiaomi's stance is that NFC is rarely used by consumers, and isn't worth including. It's worth keeping this in mind if you're looking to purchase a phone and use this new payment standard.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 review: Software & User Experience
The Redmi Note 2 is running Android 5.0.1, but under a heavily customised interface made by Xiaomi. Dubbed MIUI, it's now up to version 7 and is arguably one of the most refined Android skins out there. Not only does it boast a gorgeous minimalist design, it's packed with useful features which give it an advantage over stock Android. It's also incredibly optimized, which ensures smooth performance and slick animations.
Furthermore, Xiaomi rolls out updates on a weekly basis which means new features are constantly being introduced, making MIUI feel like one of the most vibrant and active operating systems out there. All of which adds to the already pleasurable user experience, of course.
The Redmi Note 2 is an utter joy to use, with no stuttering or awkward pauses to speak of. You can also change themes or create your own, and the only time we experienced any kind of annoyance was when we tried to assign custom tones to our email and text alerts; it's possible, but it is less straightforward than on stock Android, as Xiaomi forces you to use its own apps to make any changes to audio profiles.
Powered by the Helio X10 MediaTek MT6795 64-bit octa-core chipset - the same hardware which is seen in HTC's One M9+ - the Redmi Note 2 is no slouch when it comes to processing grunt. It handled all of the HD video footage we threw at it and played 3D games without breaking into a sweat. 2GB of RAM helps to keep things nippy; 3GB would have put it on an even footing with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6, but because the Xiaomi has a lower-resolution screen, that additional 1GB isn't missed. In fact, in everyday use the Redmi Note 2 feels notably smoother and faster than Samsung's more powerful flagship.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 review: Memory, Camera & Battery Life
The Redmi Note 2 comes with 32GB of internal storage, but you can add to that figure using the phone's MicroSD card slot, a feature many cutting-edge Android handsets omit these days. Taking this into account and the existence of cloud-storage services such as Google Drive and Dropbox it's unlikely that you're ever going to be short of space with this handset.
The phone's rear-facing 13 megapixel camera boasts phase detection auto-focus which means it can grab the shot you want faster than its rivals. The sensor is Samsung-made so the image quality is superb, and effortlessly outranks the shots produced by Google's Nexus 6, which is also much slower to achieve focus. Various custom shooting modes are included, and 1080p video recording is also on offer. The front-facing 5 megapixel camera is good for 720p video, too.
The phone's 3060mAh battery is a roomy beast and allows you to get well over 24 hours of use out of a single charge without too much bother. Because it's user-removeable, you can buy a spare and swap it out if you're away from home for long periods. However, the phone doesn't have fast charging capability, despite what some early reports suggested. It's not a massive loss and unless you're switching from a phone which has the tech, you won't have cause to complain.
The Redmi Note 2 isn't a perfect phone by any means, but it's powerful, reasonably good-looking, has great screen and a fantastic camera - as well as other bonuses such as a MicroSD slot and two SIM slots. Add in a truly brilliant interface in the shape of MIUI 7 and you've got a device which wins you over the moment you pick it up.
However, what's truly stunning is the price - retailers such as ibuygou are shipping the unit to the UK for around £125, which places it in the same price bracket as budget Android blowers with far weaker specifications. The only real complaints are the lack of fast charging and NFC, but these will matter less to entry-level buyers who just want a fast and versatile handset.