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Mi Note 3,Xiaomi Mi Note 3

Xiaomi Mi Note 3 review: do you need a flagship phone?

The Xiaomi Mi Note 3 might not be officially available in South Africa, but prominent online retailer Gearbest has them in stock.

At around R5000, it makes for a very favourable comparison to the locally available Mi A1 (review). Is it worth the grey market import though? Let’s get on with the review…

Design

I’ll get this right out of the way: if you want a headphone jack, you’ll need to avoid the Mi Note 3. Much like the Mi 6 flagship, this device follows that divisive trend, making the Mi A1 the winner by default if it’s super high on your list of priorities.

Other than this glaring omission, the Xiaomi device is definitely one of the more premium-feeling phones I’ve used in quite some time. And this is in large part due to that piano black glass back (say that fast three times) and metal rim, very very reminiscent of iPhones.

There are two major disadvantages to this design though, starting with the fingerprints. Much like the original PS3, the Mi Note 3 is a fingerprint and scratch magnet, quickly accumulating finger grease and nicks. But a more serious concern is the slippery nature of the back — it brings to mind the Galaxy S6. It’ll fall off seemingly flat surfaces, forcing you to think twice about leaving your phone on your laptop, for example.

Xiaomi Mi Note 3,xiaomi

These two issues can definitely be fixed by a case, but you’ll probably want to buy said case from Gearbest along with your phone (grey import means no locally available accessories).

If it weren’t for the polished back and lack of a headphone jack, the Mi Note 3 wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. The front plays host to a 5.5-inch full HD LCD screen with thick borders (no tall screen here) and a front-mounted fingerprint scanner flanked by capacitive keys. As for I/O, you’ve got a USB Type-C port at the bottom, power/volume keys on the right, SIM tray on the left and IR blaster at the top.

It all comes together to make a phone that’s mostly premium, but also stuck in the past in a way. Here’s hoping we get a variant with a tall screen and thin borders, making for a more ergonomic design.

MIUI – love it or hate it

Mi Note 3

It’s worth noting that our review unit came with the Chinese ROM for some reason, which is strange because Gearbest usually ships global ROMs on their phones. But a cursory glance at the Mi Note 3 store listings show that they do indeed pack global ROMs. It’s most likely a once-off issue with their review units, and our previous Gearbest devices shipped with Google Mobile Services anyway.

Aside from the Chinese apps and the need to install several Google apps, this is still the MIUI you know and love. Or hate. So that means no app drawer, an iOS-like settings screen, Apple-like icons and pastel dropdown bar. Basically, if it exists in Android, it’ll be customised by Xiaomi.

Things like the Play Music buttons in the dropdown menu have been needlessly reduced in size, making it tougher to hit the correct button (pause, next track or previous track). And this applies to third-party music players like Shuttle as well. I actually don’t know what the logic is for this change.

What about bloatware? It wouldn’t be fair to count the Chinese apps, but you’ve got the Mi Remote app for IR blaster stuff, a gallery app, weather utility, the security hub that’s become all the rage (a one-stop shop for battery tweaks, data usage etc), screen recording utility, Themes tool, Mi Home app and Mi Drop (Xiaomi’s take on Air Drop), to name the more prominent apps.

Are they useful though? I only find myself using the Mi Remote app, gallery, security hub and Themes tool. I could see myself using screen recording in some scenarios, but everything else seems like a waste of storage space and/or duplicated by Google.

Xiaomi Mi Note 3

Then there’s the aggressive battery management for apps, killing almost every app by default as soon as it goes into the background. At the very least, we should have a battery prompt after installing an app (“Do you want to receive notifications from this app? It’ll impact your battery usage” or whatever). As it is right now, you’ll miss WhatsApp and Instagram alerts if you don’t visit the battery settings and explicitly remove these restrictions.

Nevertheless, MIUI does have a few handy additions over stock Android, such as the aforementioned theming functionality (no faffing necessary), dual apps feature, a neat mobile data usage widget in the dropdown menu, a full-featured camera app and loads of tiny but appreciated features (colour temperature adjustment, quick ball overlay for UI navigation, customisable button/gesture shortcuts, a one-handed mode, customisable headphone buttons etc).

There are definitely a few useful features then, but it’s probably not enough to sway die-hard Android purists. Then there’s the update dilemma. Xiaomi does a solid job of issuing updates at first glance, but these are often MIUI updates rather than core Android version updates. Opt for the Mi A1 and you should be getting core Android updates in a speedy fashion. You decide what’s important to you. Me? I’m okay with trading updates for a faster phone and better camera.

Performance

xiaomi mi note 3 antutu

Pop open the hood (not literally, that would be silly) and you’ve got a rather beefy proposition on your hands. There’s a Snapdragon 660 chip (octacore, with semi custom Kryo cores) that’ll go toe to toe with 2016 flagships, paired up with 6GB of RAM in our review model.

This translates to a very brisk experience in general, from launching apps and taking pictures to multitasking, slowdown is almost non-existent. I say “almost” because one occasion saw multitasking slow down, but it’s just one major instance I can think of. But what about benchmarks and gaming?

The respected Antutu benchmark application has seen a drastic update, with new benchmarks and tests, but the Mi Note 3 manages to deliver a  score of 136 000. At the time of testing, we didn’t have an in-app ranking of where the Xiaomi device fits, but the Galaxy S8 scores around 170 000 for the new test. So that means the Mi Note 3 is still upper mid-range, but not quite flagship.

Benchmarks only tell part of the story, but gaming is another worthwhile piece of the puzzle, and you shouldn’t have trouble here. We played budget phone killer NASCAR Heat Mobile, Suicide SquadLeo’s FortuneRiptide GP 2 and slow-mo shooter FZ-9. The NASCAR title sees more than 30 cars on-screen at once, but it was a very playable experience anyway, albeit not 100% smooth all the time.

Meanwhile, Suicide Squad, FZ-9, Riptide GP 2 and Leo’s Fortune all ran at a fluid pace — and looked great to boot. In other words, it’s clear that the Snapdragon 660, while not quite hitting 2017 flagship levels, can still handle advanced games with ease. You might see slowdown in next year’s advanced titles, but unplayable? Not likely.

Camera experience

Mi Note 3 review samples
left right

Mi Note 3 Sample

Using the main camera, we get some pleasant results, but the telephoto version of this shot surfaced some neat detail.

Mi Note 3 Sample

This telephoto shot brought out detail that the regular shot couldn't, such as the white stop sign.

Mi Note 3 Sample

The telephoto camera delivers more detail on the parachutist, foreground buildings and Lion's Head.

Mi Note 3 Sample

The regular camera shot didn't have as much detail, while the blue sky plays host to some noise as well.

Mi Note 3 Sample

This HDR scene is difficult for many cameras, owing to the outdoor light. The Mi Note 3 didn't fare quite as well as the non-HDR version of the Galaxy S8 shot, which did a better job of taming said light and showing what's outside.

Mi Note 3 Sample

This was a virtual tie with the Mi A1, the top of my hair and one of my shoulders being a little blurry. But a shot worthy of Instagram anyway.

Mi Note 3 Sample

A neat dusk shot here -- the phone capturing some neat cloud details while preserving the foreground. The road is super noisy though.

Mi Note 3 Sample

A ton of noise in the night sky, lights on the left overpowering everything, and players that are barely visible. You'll probably need multiple shots at best for this kind of scene. Here's a shot with the Galaxy S8, albeit in 16:9.

To the untrained eye, the Xiaomi Mi A1 and Mi Note 3 share similar camera specs. Both have 12MP dual camera setups with the secondary camera being a telephoto shooter. Both have a portrait mode for some slick shots. But that’s about all there is to them as, bar the telephoto camera, the Mi Note 3 ramps things up (right click and open the images to view full-res shots).

The first big addition is optical image stabilisation (OIS) which should reduce jitter in video and blur in photos. Then there’s the larger f/1.8 aperture, being another key upgrade in mobile photography as it lets more light into the sensor. I understandably struggled to see any difference between the two phones when snapping in broad daylight, but the Mi Note 3 definitely delivers better shots in low light. It definitely won’t challenge Samsung and Huawei flagships when the lights go down, delivering noisier results and being more prone to flared up light sources, but it’ll definitely hold its own against other mid-range offerings.

Daytime shots were replete with detail, and I seldom had to re-take pictures, save for portrait shots. Dynamic range is pretty solid too, although the likes of the Galaxy S8 (review) still do a noticeably better job in this department. Heck, the Xiaomi phone lost out even when it had HDR enabled and the Samsung phone had HDR off, I found.

Xiaomi Mi Note 3

Portrait mode isn’t always reliable, occasionally taking two or three shots to get the right effect, or sometimes more in dodgy lighting, while edge detection can be hit and miss too. But on the whole, I found it to produce some slick Instagram-worthy portraits. It’s just a little disappointing that we don’t see anything more substantial than a portrait mode, such as depth-of-field adjustments or refocusing after the fact.

The telephoto camera is pretty much the same as the Mi A1, so that means if you were disappointed by the results in that review, well… It’s also worth mentioning that, much like Apple devices, the telephoto shooter switches to digital zoom using the main camera in low light. I’m still a fan of wide-angle cameras, as seen on the G6 and V30, but the telephoto zoom can be handy nonetheless.

Selfie fans will like the 16MP front-facing camera on here, allowing you to crop your more attractive friends and random photobombers out of the shot. But I often found backgrounds to be incredibly blown out when shooting during the day.

Hoping to use video recording in a pinch? Well, the Mi Note 3 tops out at 4K, delivering steady, crisp clips and saturated (but not overly so) colours. And unlike the Huawei P9 (review), videos are still usable when shooting indoors or in less-than-ideal lighting. But the biggest issue is that Xiaomi still hasn’t offered 60fps recording, being an aesthetically pleasing format for sports and in general.

The Mi Camera is solid in terms of options, but it could be a little better. There’s a ho-hum tilt-shift mode, a neat handheld twilight mode that stacks shots for better low-light results, manual mode (complete with shutter speed), a panorama option, a square camera mode, slow-mo 120fps (ugh) and time lapse option. We already mentioned the lack of 60fps but what about 240fps slow-mo too? And where’s the auto HDR toggle? A Huawei-style light painting mode would be cool as well.

Nevertheless, for R5000 or so, you’re getting a camera experience that doesn’t quite match flagships, but hits the upper end of the mid-range. It certainly shoots above the likes of the Redmi Note 4 (review) and Xiaomi Mi A1.

Battery life

Xiaomi Mi Note 3

The Mi Note 3 has a notably larger 3500mAh battery, compared to the 3080mAh pack seen in the Mi A1. Of course, the Snapdragon 660 isn’t as lightweight as the Snapdragon 625, but the Mi Note 3 isn’t a bad performer anyway.

I was able to easily use it for a working day, listening to a few videos on YouTube, occasionally chatting on WhatsApp and checking Slack. Not the most strenuous day, but you can expect a full day of usage out of it — unless you decide to game and stream video for hours on end.

We also ran a looping video test on the Mi Note 3, looping a 20 second 1080p/60fps clip via MX Player. We turned up the system and app brightness to maximum, while leaving WiFi and mobile data enabled. The phone conked out after roughly six hours, pipping the Mi A1 and its sub-six hour mark while soundly beating the Nokia 3’s five and a half hours. The difference isn’t huge, so if you want a phone for long-haul flights, you should look at the Redmi Note 4 (review) or Oukitel K10 000 Pro (review).

Verdict

There’s a lot to like about the Mi Note 3 if you’re in the market for a mid-range smartphone. The Snapdragon 660 and 6GB of RAM pairing means technically demanding games and multitasking are a treat, the dual-camera setup comes close to flagship territory at times, and you can afford to wait until you get to work to charge it.

It could do with a less offensive take on Android, the dual-cameras should do more than just portraits, while the lack of a headphone jack might be a dealbreaker for some (although there is an adapter in the box). The design, while sleek for the most part, is also a little ungainly in the new era of thin bezels and tall screens.

Overall:The garish software and lack of a headphone jack sully an otherwise fantastic package. But there’s no denying that the Mi Note 3 packs an appealing design, serves up great photos and delivers a speedy experience.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

The Xiaomi Mi Note 3 was provided courtesy of Gearbest. Buy the device over here or visit the online retailer here.

Author Bio

Hadlee Simons
Terrible puns make Hadlee Simons difficult to work with, but he brings over seven years of tech journalism experience to the table. When he's not at work or watching motorsport, he's in the foetal position on a jiu jitsu mat. More