Xiaomi is not a name or brand that is familiar with most Kenyans outside our space (in mobile tech coverage). Yet soon it will, hopefully, be on everyone’s lips. That assumption that Xiaomi will be able to become a household name in Kenya is pegged on how well it manages to play its cards in a market as competitive as this one.
Last week, Xiaomi, a top 5 global smartphone vendor, started selling its smartphones in Kenya. We have had in our possession one of the two devices it is starting its Kenyan operations with, the budget Redmi Note 2, for the last two weeks.
Xiaomi’s rise to the top of the global smartphone sales charts was as a result of managing to release devices that were pocket-friendly while still not compromising on quality and features. We set out to find if the Redmi Note 2 fit the bill and if at all it had any chance of upsetting the status quo locally.
Let’s just say we were impressed. As you will see throughout this review, the Chinese device maker may as well end up capturing the imagination of the African market just as it has managed to make inroads in Asia and Latin America. Well, at least if the lawsuits by Mi-Fone don’t push it off the tracks.
Redmi Note 2 Specifications
- Size and weight: 152 x 76 x 8.25 mm, 160g
- Display: 5.5-inch full HD (401 ppi) IPS LCD
- Camera: 13-megapixel main camera that can shoot full HD video at 30 fps + LED flash; 5-megapixel selfie camera
- Memory: 16 GB onboard storage (expandable); 2 GB RAM
- Processor: Octa-core MediaTek Helio X10 MT6795 clocked at 2.2 GHz + PowerVR G6200 GPU
- Operating System: MIUI 7 layered on top of Android 5.0.2 Lollipop
- Battery: 3,060mAh
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a, b, g, n, dual-band, ac, Infrared, Bluetooth 4.0, USB 2.0
- Network: 3G, LTE
- Other: Dual-SIM
The Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 comes with one of the simplest packages you are likely to find these days. A brown box with user guides, a USB cable, a wall adaptor, the battery and the device itself are all there is in the box. The package reveals the true nature of the device. Unnecessary expenses were shelved in order to provide the best possible smartphone one can come up with for a little over $150. This can also be seen in other global budget smartphones like the Motorola Moto G and Moto E.
Where Xiaomi manages to score extra points and probably one-up its competitor’s offerings at the same price range is in getting its act together as far as the hardware goes.
Don’t get us wrong, there is nothing exciting about the general outlook of the Xiaomi Redmi Note 2. It has this curvy plastic design that for a black model like the one we have been using, is more reminiscent of a cold black slab than a smartphone. Competitors like the Infinix Zero 3 and the Alcatel Idol 3 are more visually appealing. Then again, we still loved the Galaxy J5 and its very ordinary looks. What the Redmi Note 2 lacks in the looks it makes up for in the feel and handling. Despite packing a huge frame, it is actually comfortable to handle and use. The rounded corners and smooth back go a long way in making this possible.
On the left side of the device are two shiny plastic buttons that act as the volume rocker and the power buttons respectively. They are not the most tactile or ergonomic of the bunch but they get the job done. A 3.5 mm headphone jack at the top, two microphones at the top and bottom (one for noise cancellation) and a USB 2.0 port break the monotony of the plastic frame separating the glass front and the plastic removable back cover.
At the top frame of the device, there’s a unique addition: an infrared (IR) blaster. Yeah. That.
IR blasters have been popular features on high-end smartphones for the last 3 years. At one time, they were considered deal breakers when choosing between the various premium smartphones in the market. While they have pretty much fallen in the pecking order of value add-ons in today’s top-of-the-range devices (Samsung’s highly rated Galaxy S7 lacks one. Only LG still has it on the G5), IR blasters have not yet become a familiar sight on upper mid-range devices leave alone lowly ones like the Redmi Note 2. Yet it’s included on Xiaomi’s device. Xiaomi has even preloaded an application, Mi Remote, to make it easier to use the feature to flip through channels when you can’t trace your television set’s remote control in that messy living room of yours.
In that black slab, Xiaomi successfully manages to cram all that matters.
Display and Performance
There’s a 5.5-inch full HD IPS LCD panel that does a great job vividly displaying its contents when you need it to. It’s not the brightest of the bunch though and outdoor visibility may not be all that.
There’s the 11 gigabytes of onboard storage that you can access as a user after the system has had the remainder of the 16 GB the device ships with. There’s the 2 GB RAM and MediaTek’s Helio X10 processor to make sure device performance is not compromised. In fact, for the entirety of the two weeks we’ve used the Redmi Note 2 proactively, performance issues were the least of our concerns, something commendable for a low mid-range smartphone.
There isn’t much to write home about the cameras on the Xiaomi Redmi Note 2. The 13-megapixel shooter at the back and the 5-megapixel sensor on the front do an “ok” job. Ok, more than an “ok” job to be fair. You should be able to get some good shots in well-lit outdoor settings. Low light shots for this device are kind of a myth.
The selfie camera goes a step further to cheekily try to estimate one’s age based on their facial outlines and expressions at any given time. From tests with random people, it is almost never correct. It is worse than Microsoft’s tool that does the same. Either we are doing a really bad job of maintaining our bodies that we end up with faces that are likely to belong to people who are 15-20 years our seniors or the software in question is just not up to standard or was made with the ageless Asian faces in mind not us (no offence).
The battery is a 3,060 mAh removable unit that manages to push through any given day, delivering nearly 5 hours of screen on time in the process while on mobile data all along! Under heavy use, the results can be a bit disappointing. Also, the battery drain is faster than we expected.
Two battery profiles, Marathon and Sleep, can be called into action when there’s need to conserve the battery after it drops below 15% to turn off mobile data and Wi-Fi or turn off just about any network function leaving you with only the alarm clock working.
The speaker, located at the lower back side of the device, while pretty much average when compared to other devices in the Redmi Note 2’s price range like the pleasant Alcatel Idol 3’s JBL-tuned front-firing speakers, still manages to belt out tunes without you getting the feeling that sound is muffled. It is clear and crisp. Just nothing more than you can ask for a device of the Redmi Note 2’s standing.
Since the speaker is located at the back, cupping the mono speaker grille when doing things like watching video or playing games results in it being loud enough thanks to the concentration effect that results in.
The device’s broad range of sensors is something of a surprise for a device of its price when you factor in the kind of devices we’ve gotten used to seeing from competing brands. Other than the traditional three that we are used to getting (proximity, accelerometer and light), there are six more sensors that users who know what they are doing can exploit to full potential using relevant apps. For a start, the compass app is already bundled with the software.
Like everyone in the Android smartphone space, Xiaomi uses its own customized software on its devices: MIUI. The Redmi Note 2 arrives with version 7 of the same which is built atop Android 5.0.2 Lollipop. Custom overlays like MIUI are every Android device maker’s attempt at differentiating their products from the competition.
With the Redmi Note 2 and just about any other Xiaomi device you will lay your hands on, you can clearly tell they are different. First things first, you are greeted by a home screen that lacks an application drawer. As a result, all apps that users install spill over into the second, third, fourth (and so on) home screens. This may seem like a turn off for some (it is) but the company does so for familiarity’s sake. While we agree that things should be as simple as possible to make everyone at home, MIUI’s core mission, there can always be a middle ground as to how this is implemented.
Unlike Huawei’s approach which has us switching to a third party custom launcher as soon as we unbox a device, we managed to go a whole week using Xiaomi’s launcher. This was not just inspired by the need to experience the device as everyone else who is not into Android customizations will be but by the fact that MIUI is soft on the eyes. The iOS-style icons are so much fun to look at. We also found that the software is quite clever at auto-naming folders users create to place common apps. Putting more than one app in a folder results in the system automatically detecting what the apps do and giving that folder the right name e.g. Social for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram apps or Music & Video for Poweramp, Spotify and Apple Music. Clever.
Just like Facebook is enticing users to use its Messenger application for making calls to friends and family around the world, Xiaomi is keen on having users of its devices use its own baked in international calling and messaging services. It makes the whole process easy and seamless. You only activate your SIM card (yes, that), sign up for a Mi account and you’re good to go.
The ability to use the device using just one hand is further enhanced by the presence of a one-handed mode in the settings which when toggled on (by sliding one’s finger across the capacitive buttons) results in the screen shrinking in size to either 4.5, 4.0 or 3.5 inches depending on user preference.
MIUI has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. It drops the ball on a number of things. The task switcher screen does not offer previews of ongoing processes in open apps, it just shows the app icons on a small horizontal strip from which users can either switch or exit apps.
The other major shortcoming of MIUI, and it is really a major one, is the way the SIM toolkit (STK) works. The SIM toolkit, for those of you not in the know, is that app where you go to access career-specific services. Locally, this is very important because it is here that one can access crucial services like mobile money transfer services. Safaricom’s M-PESA simply doesn’t work here. Since the Redmi Note 2 is a dual-SIM device, we tried out Airtel Money. Same result. You can’t transfer money to anyone. Neither can you do basics like purchasing airtime for your device. For this, you’ll need to eject the SIM card and find another device that can do so.
From where we sit, such issues with the SIM toolkit are not new. We have for long encountered such devices. Samsung devices from other countries have been the most culprits we have come across. This is because in developed markets, the SIM toolkit is rudimentary at best, something that is hardly used and therefore not deemed important. In our developing economy, that SIM toolkit could be what stands between you and your payday. Hopefully, Xiaomi can deliver a software update fixing this sooner rather than later (42% of Kenya’s GDP is transacted on M-PESA remember?).
In a meeting with representatives of Xiaomi’s distributor, Mobile in Africa, we were assured of quick-fire monthly software updates. The SIM toolkit will be a good place to start.
While network reception is generally good, the Redmi Note 2 as an LTE-capable device, as will all devices Xiaomi is bringing into the country, falls short. LTE reception throughout the period we have actively used it has been an issue. It’s intermittent and not as consistent as on other devices we have used over the last one year. Granted LTE coverage in Nairobi is not the best at the moment but the device was primarily stuck on 3G most of the time in areas where we have no issues getting full bars when using other devices.
- The inclusion of an IR blaster is a pleasant surprise.
- MIUI is really easy to use and navigate. The notification shade and quick settings are well done.
- Device performance is excellent.
- The number of pre-loaded apps is at an all-time low on the Redmi Note 2. Good luck finding any other device selling in the Kenyan market that can boast of such.
- You can insert 4G LTE SIM cards in either of the two micro-SIM card slots, a stark contrast to current devices from the competition that only take one LTE SIM.
- M-PESA is the biggest app/service in use in Kenya. Forget everything else, the SIM toolkit needs to work well with a service relied upon by more than 13 million Kenyans. No two ways about it.
- The selfie camera goes overboard in processing images. They are over sharpened most of the time. The main camera, while better than most devices in this price range that we have come across over the last one year (yes, including the most recently launched ones – they are no match), still leaves a lot to be desired.
- Network connectivity issues, particularly LTE, need to be looked at.
According to Xiaomi, they are in Kenya to stay. That already should send some shivers down the spines of all the players in the Kenyan mobile space. Considering what the company has been able to achieve elsewhere, everyone should be very afraid.
The Redmi Note 2 is one of two devices that Xiaomi is testing the Kenyan waters with. It and the Redmi 2 Pro’s success, could be what stands between us and getting more Xiaomi devices. Even then, as can be seen in the observations we have made in our interactions with the Redmi Note 2, Xiaomi’s first problems as far as its devices are concerned are just related to its newness to the market. We can be sure that any issues with the software will be resolved soon. Xiaomi has a proven track record when it comes to maintaining its MIUI software so that should not worry you.
Other gripes we have with the device like the camera are what we have with just about any other lower midrange device we get to review here. In fact, we can’t recall the last time a lower midrange smartphone’s camera we reviewed really wowed us so there’s that. They will always get the job done, nothing much. Isn’t that what you need them to do anyway?
The Redmi Note 2’s main strength is first and foremost the reputation of Xiaomi in the global market. Xiaomi is not just any other device maker coming into the Kenyan market like the many others we cover every so often. It is known for two things: quality devices and prices that don’t break the bank. At Kshs 21,000, the Redmi Note 2 is exactly that and from what we’ve seen and experienced, you can’t go wrong with it.