Popular smartphone manufacturers like Apple, HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung should be worried about China’s best smartphone makers, companies that are increasingly creating desirable smartphones at prices that undercut the expensive flagship phones we’ve become accustomed to, even if many of them don’t sell their devices to customers in the United States or Europe. But as illustrated by the flagship phone that Xiaomi showed off at Mobile World Congress, tech enthusiasts even in countries where these devices aren’t yet available have reason to look forward to the day they’ll be able to buy a phone from Xiaomi instead of one from Samsung or Apple or LG.
Mark Walton reports for Ars Technica that in a “surprisingly slick, if odd press conference,” Xiaomi vice president Hugo Barra pitted the company’s brand-new Android-based Mi 5 phone against smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the iPhone 6s. On paper, at least, Samsung and Apple have plenty of reasons to worry; the Mi 5 is powered by the latest Snapdragon 820 chip that runs at 2.2GHz, a 5.15-inch 1080p edge-to-edge display, up to 4GB of RAM, up to 128GB of storage, a 16MP f/2.0 camera with four-axis optical image stabilization, an NFC chip, a fingerprint scanner, a 3,000mAh battery, and a high-quality metal and glass or ceramic body.
The new phone costs just $398 for the high-end 128GB model with a ceramic body, or $306 for an entry-level model with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. Xiaomi will also sell a 64GB version, and all models will be available in black, gold, or white, and will ship with Android 6.0 and Xiaomi’s MIUI 7 interface. The phones will be sold via Xiaomi’s website in China beginning March 1 (which will make the Mi 5 one of the first commercially available phones with Qualcomm’s latest chip).
But in Walton’s estimation, the most impressive thing about the Mi 5 isn’t its price, but its high build quality; the phone is light and comfortable to hold, with rounded edges and a curved back. And while the Mi 5 has roughly the same dimensions as the iPhone 6s, it manages to integrate a larger 5.15-inch display and a 3,000mAh battery with a 685Wh/L density, which Xiaomi claims is one of the highest in the industry. The camera module lies flush with the body, and the camera system uses a 16MP Sony IMX298 module with f/2.0 aperture, a sapphire glass lens, 4K video recording capabilities, phase detection autofocus, Deep Trench Isolation, and four-axis optical image stabilization. As Walton explains, “The build quality is excellent—I especially like the clicky feel of the home button/fingerprint reader—while the features Xiaomi has piled in for the price are remarkable.”
The biggest issue with Xiaomi’s Mi 5 is that the company was surprisingly vague about if or when it will offer the device in the United States or Europe. Xiaomi’s direct sales model means it sells it phones via its website in limited numbers to customers at near-cost prices.
Right now, that model doesn’t offer an easy way for U.S. buyers to purchase its phones, though Walton thinks that that could change, either with the Mi 5 or with its next flagship. “This year’s MWC was a chance for Xiaomi to test the waters, to see if people in the Western world might want to join the 70 million others who bought a Xiaomi device last year,” Walton writes. “I think they will, and I think they’ll eventually ditch their Samungs and their LGs to do it.”
Walton isn’t the only one who thinks that at least a few consumers would buy Xiaomi’s latest smartphone if they could get their hands on it. The Next Web’s Owen Williams calls the Mi 5 “a phone I want but can’t have.” As Williams, and other reviewers including The Verge’s Vlad Savov, have noted, the Mi 5 shows Xiaomi building something that’s distinctly its own. Though Xiaomi has a reputation for shamelessly copying Apple’s device, and the Mi 5 somewhat resembles Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the curved glass back and the ceramic option illustrate that Xiaomi has created a design that’s its own, instead of simply emulating the other devices that are out there.
Williams notes that for the price, the Mi 5 is “an incredible phone” capable of delivering great performance and high quality for a very low price. “What’s amazing here is that a small Chinese manufacturer that hasn’t even gone global yet is leading the pack with a high performance, well designed smartphone for a low price,” he writes. “Instead of just following, Xiaomi showed today that it can actually lead the smartphone discussion.”
The problem, for American or European tech enthusiasts who want a high-performing smartphone that won’t break the bank, is that it’s going to be pretty difficult to get the Mi 5. That may buy dominant brands like Samsung and Apple some extra time to push the features and specifications of their own smartphones forward, even if their flagships won’t be able to compete with Xiaomi’s when it comes to price.