Xiaomi, the fifth largest smartphone maker worldwide, in particular is ready to lead, not by repeatedly copying the iPhone, but with industrial design that dazzles. The company started down this path last year with the gorgeous bezel-less Mi Mix, and now it’s following it up with the Mi Mix 2, a ceramic sliver from the future that I can’t stop fawning over.
Xiaomi didn’t just launch another nice-looking premium phone with the Mi Mix. It put a stake in the ground and stepped out of Apple and Samsung’s shadows.
The Mi Mix was a concept phone that pushed the boundaries of smartphone design and innovation. It used ceramic, came with a huge bezel-less screen, and eschewed a traditional earpiece and unsightly proximity sensors for ultrasound technology to hide these things underneath the screen.
Its designers even convinced Google to change Android’s Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) to allow for screens with aspect ratios larger than 16:9 (Mi Mix had a 17:9 ratio) and with rounded corners — two features that are present on many 2017 flagships and wouldn’t have been possible if not for the Mi Mix’s pioneering.
The Mix Mix collected critical acclaim, but there were just two problems: It wasn’t sold in the U.S. and it didn’t support U.S. 4G LTE networks. You could only drool over it from afar, and even if you managed to import the phone, you’d be constrained to Wi-Fi.
Xiaomi’s new Mi Mix 2 still won’t be sold in the U.S., but at the very least it now comes works with U.S. 4G LTE networks like AT&T and T-Mobile, making an import actually worth it. The phone’s available in select markets immediately and should cost similar to the original, which sold for 4,000 RMB (high $500s in 2016).
Forces of attraction
I’m fortunate enough to have held almost every premium phone ever made, but nothing prepared me for the Mi Mix 2. It’s in a luxury class of its own.
The glass display and ceramic back spills flush into the aluminum frame with zero gaps. The Mi Mix 2’s materials are as luxurious as a Swiss-made watch, and there really is nothing about it that feels cheap.
Xiaomi’s paid careful attention to all the details — all of the lines and ports and speaker holes are perfectly symmetrical — and I appreciated it every moment I held it in my hand. It’s truly one of the most elegant phones ever made.
Ceramic, as you may already know, is virtually scratch-proof, but it’s not an easy material to work with. Even though ceramic is so difficult to mass produce (yield rates are notoriously low for ceramic-based products), Xiaomi decided it needed to master it to stand out.
I can’t stress enough how nice the standard Mi Mix 2 looks and feels.
Donovan Sung, Xiaomi’s Director of Product Management and Marketing, explained to me during a briefing how over 200,400 tons of pressure is applied to ceramic in its raw, mushy, pounded down state. Then, the material is baked in an oven at nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 days. After that, you wait up to 12 hours for it all to cool down and shrink to the right volume, see if it meets quality assurance, and then apply CNC techniques to further shape it.
It’s an excessive amount of work for a phone, but it’s worth it Sung says. “After every 3-4 samples, the blades [used to cut ceramic] get so dulled you have to replace them because it’s just a really, really hard material to work with.”
I’ve handed the Mi Mix 2 to several colleagues and they all were awestruck by how dense, and solid it felt. There’s just something about the slightly cold-to-the-touch ceramic back that just feels better than glass or metal.
Xiaomi also says it applies an anti-fingerprint coating to the ceramic, but honestly they’re still quite visible on the mirrored finish. Another downside to ceramic: It’s incredibly slippery. I dropped the phone and dented a corner while photographing it. But putting a case over the Mi Mix 2 defeats the point of its design.
Still, I can’t stress enough how nice the standard Mi Mix 2 looks and feels. Better yet, there’s going to be an even better model, the Mi Mix 2 Special Edition with a unibody ceramic case in place of the aluminum. I only had a few minutes to hold the SE model and it’s even more luxurious. The all-ceramic version will cost more than the aluminum/ceramic version, but Xiaomi didn’t say by how much.
Death to the “notch”
Stunning design aside, the Mi Mix 2 has a bezel-less edge-to-edge screen that sucks you in the second you power it on.
Like the original Mi Mix, the phone’s display stretches to the edges on three sides, with a single narrow bezel below the screen. It’s a design I’ve seen before on Sharp’s Aquos Crystal, but is all the more magnetic because the corners are rounded and there’s no notch that cuts into the display.
Not that the notch is a problem — I quickly stopped noticing it on the Essential phone — but it’s just aesthetically more pleasing without one.
The Mi Mix 2’s 5.99-inch screen is not OLED, and its resolution is only 2,160 x 1,080 (FHD+), but it never bothered me at all during my first week of testing. It’s still plenty bright and colors are vibrant thanks to DCI-P3 wide color gamut. While it’s no Note 8 display, it’s still better than the Essential Phone, which looks rather dim in comparison.
The display specs might disappoint the hardest-to-please of geeks, but it also means one perk: excellent battery life. I easily got up to 1.5 days of usage on a single charge from its 3,400 mAh battery. And besides, it comes with Quick Charge 3.0 so you can always top it off quickly if you need to.
Flagship features and specs
The phone still uses ultrasonic proximity sensors in lieu of those ugly black dots found on all other phones, but the earpiece is now a regular one. Sung says Mi Mix users didn’t like how the piezoelectric speaker that vibrated sound off the glass display and into your ears dispersed sound in all directions instead of directly forward.
On the bottom “chin” bezel, you’ll find a selfie camera (more on that below) tucked in the bottom right corner. And around the back, there’s a fingerprint sensor that’s one of the fastest I’ve ever used (it seriously unlocks almost too fast) below the camera.
Sadly, you won’t find a headphone jack or a memory card slot for expanding the internal storage. The Mi Mix 2 comes with 6GB of RAM and either 64, 128, or 256GB of storage, and the Mix 2 Special Edition with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. But why no headphone jack or card slot?
Sung says they dropped the headphone jack because most of its users have already gone wireless. As for why there’s no storage expansion, he blames it on poor compatibility, the same reason why OnePlus’s phones don’t have them. “We feel memory cards are very prone to error and they’re one of the largest source of customer service complaints. So we don’t put memory card slots in our flagship phones.”
On the plus side, the Mi Mix does come with dual SIM card slots, if you really need to juggle two numbers and networks.
All of these features mean nothing if the phone’s slow and performance stinks. Fortunately, that’s not the case on the Mi Mix 2. It’s just as fast and smooth as any flagship Android phone. Underneath the hood, it’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip and 6GB of RAM.
Xiaomi’s still crazy about its MIUI (version 9.0 now) interface that sits on top of Android 7.1.1 Nougat. I didn’t like it as much years ago when I reviewed the Mi Note and Mi 5, mainly because it looks like an iOS knockoff, but I can tolerate it now.
MIUI 9 has a minimalist design with nice flat icons, and some of the Xiaomi customizations like Quick Ball, a little floating onscreen button that resembles iOS’s onscreen accessibility button gives you shortcuts for things like opening the Recent Apps window and taking screenshots. There are a bunch more very small, tiny things you can turn on within the Settings app, but overall, I like how MIUI doesn’t slow anything down.
LTE speed is also solid so you’re definitely not getting gimped cellular antennas. I popped in my T-Mobile SIM card and ran the Speedtest app and got 27.92 Mbps download and 28.77 Mbps upload speeds. It’s about as fast as my iPhone 7, which 28.23 Mbps downloads and 29.64 Mbps uploads. An Essential Phone managed 27.76 Mbps downloads and 30.91 Mbps uploads. And the Galaxy Note 8 managed 31.19 Mbps download and 23.02 Mbps upload.
Some sharp, pretty photos
The Mi Mix 2’s cameras are good, but not what I’d call great. The 12-megapixel sensor is fast to shoot and autofocus is pretty quick, but I noticed details are a little soft and not as crisp as on an iPhone 7 or Samsung Galaxy S8 or Note 8. Colors are also on the muted side and not as vibrant. HDR processing is also slow and low-light photos have some noticeable image noise.
These things aren’t really as noticeable if you’re posting to Instagram, but on a computer screen, you can see the difference. If anything, perhaps a software update can fix these things.
I’m a little disappointed there aren’t dual cameras — this is a flagship phone, after all — but Sung says they would rather have a really great single camera than a dual camera that is half-baked. There are many kinds of dual camera systems, and he thinks anything less than a wide-angle + telephoto, like on the iPhone 7 Plus or Note 8, is inferior.
That said, if you really want dual cameras, then maybe get its Mi 6 phone instead.
Now, about those selfies. As I mentioned earlier, the selfie camera is located in the lower right corner. You can totally take a photo from that angle, but you probably won’t. I found my inner palm always blocked the lens (you won’t have this problem if you’re a leftie) and the angle (looking up into your nose) was always unflattering.
Instead, the phone actually recommends flipping the phone upside down before taking selfies. It’s a minor annoyance, but once you get used to it, the camera’s up top and the angle’s correct again. (This is one reason why the Essential Phone has a notch for the selfie camera and the company wasn’t willing to move it to the bottom bezel.)
Xiaomi’s finally making moves
In Asia, Xiaomi products are hugely popular and getting more so as the company expands into more countries (it now sells phones in 40 countries compared to seven just two years ago).
While the company still hasn’t officially started selling its phones in the U.S. — it’s dipped its toes in with fitness trackers, accessories, and the Mi Box, to name a few non-phone devices — it still plans to in the future. Xiaomi’s already selling phones in Mexico and some South American countries.
So what’s taking so long when its so popular worldwide? Sung says it comes down to resources. He says the U.S. phone market is extremely saturated compared to India, Indonesia, and Russia, three countries it’s expanded to and is quickly rising to the top in.
Supporting U.S. 4G LTE bands is a baby step, but an important one if ever wants to play in the U.S.
“When we look at a new market to enter, we look at a couple of things. The first thing we look at is the population of the country so it helps us understand the total addressable market. Obviously the U.S. is a very large market. We also look at the number of internet users and how fast that’s growing. Then, we look at how many of those users already know about Xiaomi and the Xiaomi brand.”
At seven, Xiaomi’s still pretty young. It doesn’t need to enter the U.S. to become a global tech superpower. There are plenty of big lakes to fish at, and that’s where it’s concentrating its efforts on.
But the U.S. is a market it can’t ignore forever. “We will enter the U.S. at some point in the future. Just not right now. We really want to make a big splash,” Sung says.
Xiaomi’s been towing this line for years, but it’s finally making the right moves. The Mi Mix 2 may not be sold through the company’s online store in the U.S., but if you really want it, it won’t be hard to find find it online some other way. Supporting U.S. 4G LTE bands is a baby step, but an important one if ever wants to play in the U.S.
I’ve reviewed several of Xiaomi’s previous phones, but I could never whole-heartedly recommend them because you couldn’t use them in the U.S., but now I can with the Mi Mix 2. It’s just so beautiful and unlike any other phone.
Xiaomi Mi Mix 2
Ceramic back feels incredible • Flagship specs and performance • Finally supports U.S. 4G LTE networks • Sharp bezel-less display • Great battery life
No water resistance • No headphone jack • No dual cameras • Camera takes soft photos
The Bottom Line
Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2 is a ceramic sliver from the future, and best of all, finally works in the U.S. even if it’s not sold here.