Introduction and design
What if I told you that you could get a phone that’s as stylish and powerful as the Samsung Galaxy S7, but for a fraction of the price? You’d probably think I was the guy who creates those web ads that say ‘This stay-at-home mum earns £3 billion every week using Google’ or something similar.
But here’s the thing: the Xiaomi Mi5 is exactly that Android phone – a powerful, beautifully designed handset that costs around £300 (US$450, AU$515).
Price and availability are something of a moveable feast, however, because while the Xiaomi Mi5 is available in the UK through some retailers, it’s never going to be sold on a carrier.
This is one of those phones that you have to track down yourself, buy upfront and plug your own SIM card into, although for experienced users this is hardly a challenge. The question is, is the Mi5 is worth seeking out?
Spoiler alert: yes it is. At least that’s my opinion, although there are some caveats with this phone too, and we’ll get to those as we take a closer look at this interesting little device.
There are two variants of the Mi5. I’ve been testing the basic version, which has what Xiaomi calls a ‘3D Glass’ back, and comes in 32GB or 64GB storage options coupled with 3GB of RAM. There’s also a Pro model that has a ceramic back, and comes with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM.
“Glass?” I hear you say. Don’t panic though, because this glass is tough. How do I know? Because the Mi5 has slid off my desk twice since I received it. This is because the glass rear offers very little friction, and on both occasions I’d placed it either on top of another phone or on another low-friction surface. But those mishaps did at least demonstrate that this phone is far from fragile.
You may have preconceptions about the build quality of low-cost Chinese phones, but in this case I urge you to cast them aside. The Mi5 is completely solid in every way, and nothing about it would give the uninitiated any reason to believe it wasn’t a high-end device.
The metal frame looks and feels like it could have been designed by Samsung, while the 5.15-inch screen extends so close to the edges of the phone you wonder how Xiamoi managed to build such a marvel.
The display is equally impressive when it’s turned on. It has a pretty modest resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels, which, compared to phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5 is a little low – those phones have similar screen sizes, but 1440 x 2560 resolutions.
I’m not a fan of looking only at the numbers though, and I can assure you that the Mi5’s display is bright, colourful and full of detail. It’s an IPS-type screen, rather than an OLED, but that doesn’t seem to have a huge impact, as it still offers the kind of ultra-vivid colours you’d see on the Galaxy S7.
Xiaomi has opted for a USB-C connector on the Mi5 – and if you don’t know what that is, then just know that it renders your old charging cables entirely useless, and requires you to buy extra cables for anywhere you might want to juice up your phone away from where you keep your main charger.
I’m grumpy about USB-C in general, as at this stage it doesn’t add much apart from the ability to plug the cable in either way round. In the long run USB-C will be a good thing, but you won’t be saying that when your phone runs flat at work and you’ve left your charger at home.
One feature about which I’m far from grumpy is the fingerprint scanner on the front of the Mi5, which is concealed beneath the home button.
I initially concluded that this was some kind of magic – either that or it wasn’t really scanning my fingerprint at all, and the whole thing was some sort of joke. Why do I say this? Because it’s so fast that I simply didn’t believe it could really be scanning anything.
My theory was quickly disproved, however, by using a different finger to try and log in to the phone – it didn’t work. So the fingerprint scanner is just really, really efficient. I didn’t expect that – although maybe I should have, because most fingerprint scanners these days are fast and work well.
The headphone jack is located at the top of the phone, and next to that is an IR blaster that you’ll never use. If you really did want to use it, it could be employed to control your TV – but you have a remote for that already, and I’ve yet to be persuaded that this kind of extra functionality is of much value.
Key features and performance
The Xiaomi Mi5 runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, and as mentioned the model I’m testing is equipped with 3GB of RAM. It’s fast – really fast; in some benchmarks it shows up as being the fastest phone on the market, although my tests didn’t return quite that result, so I suspect that’s the Pro model with 4GB of RAM.
It’s also worth noting that this is a dual-SIM phone, a feature that’s popular in Asian markets. That’s probably one of the reasons why it won’t show up on any UK networks – who wants to give someone a handset they can use on another network? – but it’s a nifty feature, and will be worth its weight in gold when you travel and want to avoid your mobile network’s roaming charges.
Another feature of the Mi5 is customisability. I’ll give you an example: you can change the name of your SIM networks if you don’t like the given names, and while that’s a tiny point, most phones don’t allow it.
You can also customise the look, you can install beta versions of MIUI (the UI Xiaomi uses), and even the ROM installation is made much easier than on other phones.
It’s also possible to change the UI to match standard Android a little more closely. For example, by default, notifications aren’t shown at the top of the screen as they are in Android, but changing this is only a menu-tap away, and you’ll then see email, message and other notifications as you would on any other phone.
When trying out the various features on a new phone it’s easy to forget that it is, actually, a phone. And so I departed from my normal habit of staring constantly at the screen, and made a telephone call. The call was clear, with ample volume; the speakerphone was also easily loud enough, and the quality here was good too.
There you go – I made a phone call so you don’t have to.
Here at techradar we like to use GeekBench 3 to compare phones fairly, and to give us a picture of what a handset is capable of achieving. The Xiaomi didn’t romp to victory here, and again I think that’s a RAM issue. It returned a single-core score of 1470 and a multi-core score of 3093.
For comparison I ran the same tests on a LG G5, which has the same processor but 4GB of RAM, and got a single-core result of 2296 and a multi-core score of 5277.
Now, I like to run benchmarks as much as the next person, but I also want to know how a phone performs in the real world – and the Xiaomi does brilliantly when it comes to all the usual things you’re going to be doing with your handset.
Apps launch quickly enough – a short pause is inevitable when an app isn’t already running in the background, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was waiting for the phone.
Games are a pleasure to play. I tend to play Pocket Mortys a lot when I’m testing devices, and that’s not a hugely demanding game – but games that use 3D graphics won’t suffer on the Mi5, because it’s powered by the Snapdragon 820 and has the Adreno 530 GPU pushing things along.
To truly test its graphical grunt I fired up Real Racing 3, not because it’s the latest and greatest game, but because I’ve played it loads and know what to expect from it. Again, no complaints here – I didn’t see any frame drops or general stuttering, and the graphics look, as they should, amazing on the HD screen.
Now seems like a good time to talk about audio quality too. In general I worry about the more left-field Android phones. Apple used to have trouble as well, but these days it’s very solid, phones from LG and Samsung always perform well too, and the Xiaomi Mi5 was a pleasant surprise.
It has some utterly dubious EQ profiles built in, but if you ignore those and go with the defaults it sounds ace with Spotify Premium.
I also have some lossless and high-resolution tracks from Qobuz. I tested Selena Gomez’ Hands to Myself – don’t judge me – and it sounded excellent. I also have tracks from The Who and Taylor Swift that I use for testing, and again, no complaints. The LG G5 or HTC 10 might beat the Mi5 for sound, but I doubt most people would be able to hear much difference.
Bearing in mind that this is a dual-SIM phone, I feared the battery life might no be great – and I was wrong.
In general, a 3000mAh juice pack like the one in the Mi5 is more than ample to keep a phone going for a whole working day; however, I found that I could get 24 hours out of the Mi5 on a full charge. Obviously for some of those hours I was asleep, and so was the phone, but it’s still impressive.
It’s worth pointing out here that Xiaomi has some novel approaches to saving power; the battery menu is a little hidden, but it’s worth seeking it out. As with most phones there are power profiles – some are provided, but you can also create your own to suit your needs.
To tweak the battery life you can manually set the screen brightness level, and how quickly the phone sleeps. You can switch off sync, Bluetooth and GPS, and turn of the haptic feedback when you tap the screen. Interestingly you can also have the phone clear its memory when locked, which Xiaomi seems to think will help with battery life.
You can also schedule times for profiles to activate. I kind of like this idea, because unless it’s been a really good night I won’t be needing my phone to do much from 2am to 6am, and at the end of the scheduled time you can tell it to switch to any other profile – pretty nifty.
Beyond that you can also get the Xiaomi Mi5 to switch itself off at a certain time, and back on again at another time. In fairness this probably won’t save much more power than putting the phone into a heavy sleep, but it could be useful to have a period during the night when the phone can’t make any noise whatsoever.
It’s also possible to manage the power consumption of individual apps. The phone will do this automatically by default, using its own metrics to decide what apps are over-using power. You can adjust this to have no restriction, some restrictions, or completely ban apps from running in the background – doing this with the Facebook app might buy you a lot of extra run-time.
The flexibility offered here is, I think, pretty great. Battery life on the Mi5 is good anyway, but there’s so much here to tweak that you can develop a nicely customised experience that will suit how you use your phone.
In the GeekBench battery test the Xiaomi Mi5 managed 6 hours 30 minutes, which gives it a score of 3905. Those results put the phone around the same level as the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge –but here’s the problem with benchmarks, because I found the Mi5’s real-world battery life to be much longer than that of the S6 Edge, which is my main Android phone.
I also ran the standard techradar test of battery life, which involves playing a 90-minute HD video with the screen brightness set to maximum and the phone connected to Wi-Fi; the handset does its normal syncing in the background, and we test the battery life after the video finishes.
After 90 minutes, rather amazingly, the Mi5 had lost just 9% of its charge, with 91% remaining. This is an impressive result, and beats the Samsung Galaxy S7 quite comfortably.
I must admit to not being one for selfies, but the front-facing camera on the Mi5 is good – images are detailed, and the angle is wide enough to get all your mates into the shot.
The selfie camera will also tell you your age and sex if you have ‘beauty face’ turned on. It told me I’m 30 – I’m a bit older than that, and this phone and I are now best friends.
But the real camera business is happening round the back, with the 16MP sensor capable of producing some genuinely impressive photos – I’ve used it a lot and the results are sometimes amazing, often great and, at worst, still pretty good.
The first thing to mention is HDR (high dynamic range). It’s important to note that HDR requires subjects to be static in order to work well – any movement in the frame will result in ghosting, so this mode is best avoided if you’re taking photos of children or pets, as the results are likely to disappoint.
For static scenes, however, it’s good, and will help balance out images where you have a bright background and darker foreground.
Turning HDR off is easy, and indoors there’s not a huge amount of reason to use it. Sometimes, against a bright background, it can help boost people in the foreground – but only very still people. In regular, non-HDR mode images look great – even in low light the results are very good.
I took some sample shots when it was dark outside, under typical overhead lighting. The camera bumped the ISO up, but the images retained enough detail to be usable; there were signs that the software was suppressing noise, as you’d expect, but it does a good job of this.
I was especially impressed with low-light images. While these aren’t entirely free of noise, what noise there is looks enough like film grain to be passable. Moving subjects will fare less well in low light, but the flash on the Mi5 is to be commended, offering two colour options to produce more natural-looking images.
Photos still suffer from the flattened nature of basic flash photography, but it will give you bright subjects if you need them. I took a picture of BB-8 with the flash and the colours and detail were great; the camera kept the exposure about right too.
At its reasonably modest price – depending on which model you buy – the Xiaomi Mi5 is nothing short of staggering value for money. This is a phone that offers the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, 3GB (or 4GB in the high-end model) of RAM and 32GB, 64GB or 128GB of storage.
Add in a decent camera, solid battery life and stunning design, and far from being a phone of compromises, this is a phone of winning and awesomeness.
Quite how Xiaomi has achieved all this for a bargain price I don’t know. It’s also made this phone incredibly light, courtesy of a super-light aluminium frame and thin but strong Gorilla Glass 4.
All in all, there’s a lot to like with this phone, and not much to grumble about – and for a grumpy phone reviewer to say that is really quite something.
Camera performance was, honestly, a surprise. This phone shouldn’t produce photos that rival those from high-end handsets, but it does. Perhaps images aren’t quite as sharp as those from the iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy S7, but they’re damn close.
I love the design too. The Mi5 is light and feels premium, and that’s a hell of a trick to pull off with a handset that costs as little as this – in the region of half the price of the competition. It’s the weight that constantly surprised me; this phone feels like it’s filled it with helium.
The price has to be the biggest plus with the Mi5. Its premium hardware is hardly unique, but getting it at this price is. There are so few compromises here that it’s hard to believe how cheap the Xiaomi Mi5 is.
I don’t like the fact that Xiaomi, and other phone makers, are moving to USB-C. Cables for this standard aren’t that common yet, which means you’re going to have to buy new ones. In addition to that, it’s not unheard of for cheap USB-C cables to blow phones up – all this just so you can have a reversible connector like Apple’s Lightning.
While I got to grips with the Xiaomi user interface quickly enough, it’s quite different to the standard Android UI. That’s not a problem in itself, but unlike with Samsung’s TouchWiz, customising the interface can be quite an involved process. I also love the fact that Samsung added the ability to search menus, and I wish Xiaomi would do the same.
However, these issues are really just nits to pick with a phone of this price and overall quality.
The one-word review for this phone is “impressive”. That’s the word I keep coming back to. The Xiaomi Mi5 is impressively designed, impressive in its battery life, and genuinely impressive in terms of power and performance.
It’s reasonably easy to build a cheap phone these days, and it’s reasonably easy to build a powerful phone – but you usually can’t do both. For the £300 (US$450) or so that the Mi5 is available for you would expect a fair few compromises to have been made, but there are almost none.
The main weakness here is in the software, but I’ve seen a lot worse in phones that cost a lot more. And it’s not something that will stop you enjoying the handset; it’s just a different way of doing things.
Usually, when you’ve finished reviewing a phone you take out the SIM and go back to your ‘main’ handset. In this case I’m in no hurry whatsoever to return to my regular phone, or pick up the next review handset. The Mi5 has impressed me as much as the Samsung Galaxy S7, the iPhone 6S and similar phones at the high end; as for the low end, it leaves them in the dust.
It’s impressive. Remember that when you’re choosing your next phone, because it’s a rare commodity.
First reviewed: April 2016
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