The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 debacle created quite a gaping wound in the Android world. A lot of people loved that phone, some even ridiculously calling it "perfect." The recalls and eventual cancellation left much to be desired, an opportunity that Xiaomi leaped on. The Mi Note 2, the Chinese OEM's attempt to fill the void, is a big, beautiful, and powerful device.
Even with its resemblance to the Note 7, Xiaomi has taken steps to make this phone stand out. The curved screen, glossy body, and outstanding battery life all contribute to a phone that is a pure joy to hold and use. The top-tier specs blended with the best version of MIUI yet make for a refreshing software experience, especially considering the well-earned reputation of most Chinese ROMs.
However, this is one of Xiaomi's most expensive phones so far. Even so, there are still some compromises that make it hard to call this an ideal Note 7 replacement. On its own, though, the Mi Note 2 is something that Xiaomi should be proud of.
|Display||5.7" curved AMOLED FHD 1920 x 1080; 386ppi|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821; 2 x Kryo @ 2.5GHz, 2 x Kryo @ 1.6GHz|
|Software||Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow; MIUI 8|
|Cameras||22.5MP rear with EIS; 8MP front|
|Battery||4,070mAh; Quick Charge 3.0|
|Connectivity||802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band; LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/18/19/20/25/26/28/29/30/38/39/40/41|
|Ports||USB-C, 3.5mm, IR|
|Measurements||156.2 x 77.3 x 7.6 mm; 166 g|
|Colors||Piano Black, Glacier Blue|
|Design||The Mi Note 2 does borrow some design elements from the Note 7; the phone looks and feels like a high-end premium device. People definitely noticed it during my use.|
|Performance||This phone is fast. Really fast. MIUI has been sluggish in years past, but the Mi Note 2 screamed through whatever I could throw at it.|
|Build quality||I alluded to this already, but the Mi Note 2 is very well built. The front curved glass blends easily into the metal frame, which meets the curved glass back to create a seamless device.|
|Battery life||With the massive cell and the FHD screen, the Mi Note 2 can last a very long time. Even disabling the background app killing only causes a slight drop.|
|Global LTE bands||It's nice to get a Chinese phone in for review that can connect to U.S. LTE bands. Seriously, check out the list of each one supported.|
|Software||MIUI has come a long way over the years, but it still has some issues. Also, the Mi Note 2 is still on Marshmallow which is pretty inexcusable at this point.|
|Camera||While photos of still objects that are taken in good light come out nice-looking, low-light and nighttime photos are not so great. I would have liked to see better camera performance.|
|Value||At about $500 - $700 (depending on outlet) for the global version, I expected to at least see a QHD screen and a better camera to keep it competitive as a "business flagship" device.|
|Fingerprint magnet||The glossy coating on the phone easily attracts fingerprints. I found myself constantly wiping off the back. Those with OCD, beware!|
Design and display
My first reaction to the Mi Note 2 was to equate it to the Note 7, which is fair only on a surface level. As I said above, Xiaomi has done a fantastic job designing and building a high quality-feeling phone. The "Piano Black" finish on the unit I received is quite stunning, but also a fingerprint magnet. I have spent more than half of my time with this device wiping off either the screen or the back.
I am not usually a fan of curved screens, but I do have to admit that it makes the phone feel extremely slim. On the other hand, it also makes it either hard to hold or harder to use due to accidental touches (i.e. poor palm rejection implementation in the software). So if you love the ergonomics of the Galaxy S7 edge (or the Note 7), then you'll love this phone. If not, then the Mi Note 2 may take some getting used to.
The finish on my review unit is extremely slippery — the phone slid off of my nightstand or fell right out of my pockets on several occasions. This aspect, combined with the slim profile and size, also makes it very hard to hold onto.
On the front of the phone is the 5.7" curved screen and the fingerprint sensor/home button, which is flanked by capacitive buttons that are denoted as backlit dots (think OnePlus 3). Along the bottom of the metal frame, you will find the USB-C port and the two speaker grilles. Up top is the 3.5mm jack and the IR blaster, while the left side holds the dual-SIM tray. The right has the volume rocker sitting above the power button. The latter provides good tactile feedback with adequate resistance while the rocker feels cheap and hollow. It has a lot of wiggle while the click is soft and hard to gauge.
Overall, the Mi Note 2 feels extremely premium. The slipperiness is a bit disconcerting, but I simply learned to be more cautious with how I held the phone.
The display is okay. There is little that is inherently wrong with it per se, but it is definitely not as good as it could be. The 1080p resolution gets the job done, but the lower pixel density is noticeable at this screen size. However, the colors are vibrant and the blacks are very deep, as I would expect from any decent AMOLED panel. The curves make the viewing angles good overall, but definitely weird at certain places — nothing that surprises me with a display like this.
The Mi Note 2's screen is nothing to write home about. It does very well for videos and games, and the lower resolution really helps with battery efficiency (more on that later). The color profile that Xiaomi opted for was a bit too saturated for my taste, but there are some settings that allow you to adjust things more to the your liking.
I'll start off with the short version when it comes to the camera: it's adequate. It takes very sharp photos in daylight, but the lack of OIS makes it struggle in low-light. EIS helps some, but Xiaomi's implementation goes only so far with indoor or nighttime shots. The Mi Note 2 is no slouch by any means and can take some great pictures, especially of subjects that are still (nature, architecture, etc).
As is usually the case, don't let the high pixel count fool you. Sure, 22.5MP is going to give very high resolution photos that will work for most people. But the phone just does not output too many pictures that make you say "Wow!" like the Galaxy S7 and Pixel do. Honestly, I just don't think that Mi Note 2 can stand as a top contender in the high-end smartphone photography game.
This is not me saying that the camera is bad. It does a fine job; you can expect good color balance, fast autofocus, ten shooting modes, and a myriad of filters to play with in order to create a fun picture to share with friends or to social media. On that note, the 8MP front camera takes excellent selfies in good light that are great for Instagram and whatnot. The included beautification feature has two modes: smart and pro — both of which make me look like a tomato (because of my ruddy complexion, I guess).
Performance, battery life, and connectivity
Let's start with the obvious. The Mi Note 2 is an absolute beast of a phone. I received the 128GB/6GB version for review, but both storage/RAM options come with the Snapdragon 821. We all know that that SoC is a winner across the board, so I expected that the phone would perform extremely well. And it does just that.
I have used some pretty top-performing smartphones and the Mi Note 2 stands among them, even with MIUI. Try as I might, this phone did not stutter, lag, or show any noticeable slowdown even during heavy usage. However, similar to when the OnePlus 3 was first released, the 6GB of RAM is very under-utilized. Right around the 3GB usage mark is when I noticed that the phone isn't fully using what it has available — you'd think something with this amount of RAM could hold more apps in memory. Anecdotally, I think that the Mi Note 2 closes apps almost as aggressively as the Nexus 6P with its 3GB of RAM.
"But," I hear you say, "isn't that to make the battery life extra good?" Well, yes, but I don't think the phone needs any extra help with that. With a 4,070mAh cell and an FHD display, the battery life is already incredible. With default settings (i.e. before messing with stuff) and heavy usage, I managed nearly two full days. I was amazed.
Of course, I later went into the settings to find ways of resolving some of the software quirks, such as missed notifications. I disabled the MIUI battery saving option, which made a big difference for reliability, and I returned to what I consider more normal usage for me. Even with that, the Mi Note 2 lasted about a day and a half.
All of that drivel is to say that the Mi Note 2 lasts a ridiculously long time even when trying to kill the battery. You also get support for Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0, which is super handy. Obviously, your usage and results will differ from mine, but I think that most everyone who uses this phone will find the battery life superb.
On a side note, I would be willing to lose some of that awesome life in order to get less aggressive RAM management.
The fingerprint sensor works okay. It requires a click before reading your finger, but a success is usually fairly quick. My problem was that accuracy was not always the best and was instead just downright frustrating. I have used worse fingerprint sensors, but this is nowhere near the likes of Huawei, Google, or OnePlus.
Connectivity and call quality were excellent on my T-Mobile MVNO. LTE maintained the speed I expected. On calls, I could hear the person on the other line very clearly. On the flip side, I came through more than adequately. The global bands in the Mi Note 2 are very helpful, too — be sure to check out the list way back at the top of this review to see if your carrier is supported.
This is always the part of reviewing these Chinese phones that's a real sticking point. You can have the best hardware in the world, but if your software sucks... well, your device is going to suffer. Xiaomi's MIUI is quite well-known; I actually tested it out on one of my old devices many years ago in an attempt to try something different. Long story short, I should have just gotten an iPhone to satisfy that urge. MIUI is a very heavy customization of Android, though it's been quite toned down in recent iterations, and it tries to bring the "iOS experience" to non-Apple hardware.
The Mi Note 2 is running MIUI 8 (even though it's v7.2.x), which is based on Marshmallow. My device is running the "Weekly" builds, so I get updates fairly frequently. These include bug fixes, various optimizations, and monthly security patches. From a security standpoint, it's a pretty up-to-date phone. However, I would like to see Nougat sooner rather than later. Xiaomi is quite good, in my experience, at updating many of its devices across a wide spectrum of release dates and prices.
While all of that is important, it's the user experience that makes or breaks things. I can safely say that Xiaomi has done a good job in this regard. From smooth animations to a slew of customization options, MIUI 8 is the best iteration of the software yet. It complements what makes Android great without truly getting in the way (*ahem* EMUI 4.1). Things like the notification shade displaying the weather to fine tuning the settings all lend to an excellent UX. Remember, I generally prefer "stock" Android, but MIUI 8 offers something that's just the right amount of different and useful.
The stock launcher comes sans an app drawer; however, with a downward two-finger swipe, you get one. I like that Xiaomi has included that option, especially considering that this is a global phone. Of course, I threw on Action Launcher and didn't look back, but I figured that I would mention that.
Like I said above, the notification shade comes complete with a weather forecast. The background color will change depending on the weather and time of day (blueish for cold, green for sunny, purple for night, etc.), which is a neat touch. All of the Quick Settings toggles are there and movable, so you can arrange things however you prefer.
Xiaomi has included something called "Second space," which creates a separate area for apps, settings, and the like. Obviously, this is aimed at some IT departments' BYOD programs where work stuff would be separate from the personal things — Xiaomi is marketing this as its "best business flagship yet." Basically, think of Android for Work or Samsung KNOX here.
Seeing as MIUI started off as a custom ROM, customization is the name of the game here. It's not as deep as what you might see on [insert favorite ROM here], but it closely matches what OnePlus is doing in OxygenOS. That is to say, you'll find more things to tweak here than you would see on a Samsung or LG device. Buttons, battery, themes... there is a lot to play with when first setting this phone up.
The bane of most Chinese ROMs is RAM management. This is done for the sake of extensive battery life, which is nice until it's taken too far. So for those of you for whom 18+ hours of battery life is more than acceptable, Xiaomi includes some tuning of power and apps management. I do strongly recommend disabling the power saving mode in the battery area. This led to missing notifications from "battery threats" that the system perceived — because Gmail, Telegram, Slack, and my SMS app are threats (on a serious note, I am aware that the use of the word "threat" could simply be a translation thing).
Also nefarious is the power saver, which is different than the one I mentioned above. I think that the former functions more like an altered, more aggressive Doze while this one is the typical method we see to conserve battery. So here are two settings that I recommend turning off: "Turn off mobile data when device is locked" and "Clear cache when device is locked." It will save you a lot of headache, trust me.
For those who are interested in wearables, I am happy to report that the Mi Note 2 paired and worked well with my Android Wear, Martian hybrid, and Pebble smartwatches. Notifications mirrored to the devices just fine and none of the timepieces caused any significant battery drain.
Overall, MIUI 8 is not a downer on the Mi Note 2. I find that it can be just as invasive and annoying as some other, better-known software "skins," but I don't think it detracts too much from the total experience. There are some oddities like I mentioned, but I was not displeased or as annoyed as I can get with some of these ROMs. Everything here is buttery smooth and I think that most "average consumers" will be just fine with it.
Xiaomi usually makes great devices; my old Mi 4 is still kicking strong. But the Chinese OEM really stepped up its game with the Mi Note 2 this time. Arguably, it was not a direct attempt to copy or replace Samsung's ill-fated Note 7 (just look at the release dates for both phones). However, Xiaomi did not let such a perfect marketing opportunity pass. I can't blame them for that.
The point here is that Mi Note 2 is a great, fingerprinty device. Design and build quality are both superb, performance is outstanding, and even the software experience is pretty good. But the screen and camera are just alright and nothing special. However, in the light of the rest of the phone's excellence, they really stick out and it's hard to look past them. Xiaomi is taking a real gamble here — the global 128GB/6GB edition of the phone goes for about $500 - $700 USD (depending on where you find it), which makes it one of Xiaomi's most expensive phones to date, right next to the Mi Mix.
The Note 7 left a huge void that I don't think anyone could fill. LG was not overly successful with the V20, and I don't think that the Mi Note 2 is a perfect substitute, either. You won't find anything groundbreaking here, but I don't think that you can go wrong with purchasing this device. The lack of Nougat is very disappointing, but I hear rumblings of it coming soon. At least the phone is kept well updated security-wise.
Xiaomi has definitely set the bar high for itself and I look forward to seeing what it has in store for 2017.