Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

by Tech in Asia

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

US$100 phones used to be awful. They were made by companies you’d never heard of, the interface looked like it was designed by a raccoon with a paw full of crayons it just found in a trashcan, and there was always the sneaking worry that the thing would explode in your pocket and blow your family jewels to smithereens. Xiaomi changed that in mid-2013 with the first Redmi phone.

Now, nearly two years and two iterations later, we have the Redmi 2, which replaces the Redmi 1S. It’s a bit more powerful and a lot more colorful than previous versions of Xiaomi’s cheapest model. It’s still the same low price – about US$110 in every nation where it’s sold.

When we reviewed the first Redmi in September 2013, we were impressed by how much punch it packed for so few bucks. But the Redmi 2 will find it harder to impress now because rival phone makers have also figured out how to make a decent budget phone. Google has got in on the act too. Late last year Google came out with Android One, an initiative to work with phone brands in emerging markets to ensure that the version of Android stuck into cheap phones is as uncluttered and up-to-date as possible, giving consumers something that they rarely get with cheap phones – major OS updates.

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So now the Redmi 2 has strong challengers such as India’s Micromax Canvas A1 or Indonesia’s Evercoss One X. Outside of China, these are massive and important areas for any phone company where the shift to smartphones is only just under way. They’re also Xiaomi’s second and third most populous markets.

The Redmi 2 is now available in India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, with inevitable roll-outs coming soon to Xiaomi’s other markets across the continent.

This is a very price-sensitive segment, so here are a couple of rivals at a very similar price point:

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

Hardware

Not much has changed in the Redmi hardware since it first launched in 2013. The addition of 4G comes at the right time for emerging nations across Asia. The screen is still a 4.7-inch 720p HD affair, but it looks better on the Redmi 2 than it did in the 2013 model.

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

The most visible change is that the newest Redmi 2 is more colorful, with a choice of white or one of three pastel colors for the rear – green, yellow, or pink. However, markets outside of mainland China only get white for some bizarre and unfathomable reasons, so you get no choice of hue.

Another big change – which you only appreciate when you get your hands on the phone – is that the Redmi 2 now has a more matte and less slippy plastic rear. It looks and feels more premium than shiny plastic. It’s still removable, allowing you to swap out the battery or SIM. There are dual SIM slots.

Underneath all of that is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 410, 64-bit processor. That’s egged on by a mere 1GB of RAM. That’s normal for US$100 phones, but it feels insufficient to run MIUI.

The camera is 2MP up front and 8MP on the rear. But don’t get too excited about the camera and all those megapixels – I’ll explain why later on.

The Redmi 2 comes with with 8GB of storage, but once you turn it on for the first time you’ll realise that MIUI and all the Google apps preinstalled (as is standard on the non-China versions of the phone) eat up a lot of space. My test unit borrowed from Xiaomi showed just 5.75GB of usable space, of which 4.66GB was available. So that’s half of your storage vanished into thin air before you’ve installed any of your favorite apps or games. But the Redmi 2 comes with a microSD slot, so you can get up to 32GB of extra space by buying your own microSD card and sticking it in.

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

Elsewhere on the Redmi 2 you’ll find three capacitive buttons beneath the screen (which don’t light up, unfortunately), and the usual assortment of power and volume buttons (right side), an earphone jack (up top) and a microUSB port (bottom). The lack of a light under the haptic buttons is a pain and I found myself often missing the back button because I was aiming too far to the right.

The chassis feels solid and doesn’t really twist or creak. The metallic-looking buttons are actually plastic, but they feel OK. While it seems good out of the box, the budget Redmi comes with some long-term quality worries as I’ve heard of numerous people say their Redmi has fallen apart after a year, or had major issues with a specific part, such as the camera failing.

Performance

My favorite game these days is Real Racing 3. It’s highly realistic and each car feels different. It’s like having a great console game like Project Cars or Forza on your phone. I’m obsessed with it. The highlight of my week – here comes an incredibly sad statement – is mastering the tricky Melbourne circuit, buzzing by concrete walls with millimeters to spare (but not an ion of paint scratched) as I hustle my throaty Camaro to victory. So the first game I installed on the Redmi 2 was Real Racing 3, but I wasn’t expecting it to work because it won’t work on my (goddamn) Nexus 7. To my surprise, the game works well on the Redmi 2. Notifications that come in while you’re in a race cause a bit of a jitter (before the game auto-pauses) that might cause you to screw up a corner, but apart from that it works great.

With just 1GB of RAM on board, I was expecting an intense game like that to be a no-go, so it’s to the little Redmi’s credit that it’s possible.

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

However, the constraints of 1GB of RAM was more noticeable in day-to-day usage of the phone with occasional instances of sluggishness or total bog-downs in MIUI. Once you have a bunch of apps open, you’ll notice in the multitasking view that you have about 100MB of 1GB RAM available, meaning that the phone is close to maxing out its RAM. Even with nothing open, the thing is using about 70 percent of its RAM, so that can’t be good news.

The Redmi 2’s 2,200mAh battery is just enough to get you through a fairly busy day, which is a bit above average in this sector where most rivals have smaller batteries.

Screen and sound

The Redmi’s 720p HD screen is crisp and produces vibrant colors. 720p is sufficient that you can’t really detect any pixels with the naked eye during normal usage, and it gives Xiaomi’s little phone a spec advantage over the slightly cheaper Android One phones, which come with non-HD screens.

As is usual with Xiaomi’s phones, the sound is loud – a bit too loud. The stentorian racket results in music becoming a bit distorted, but it works well for games.

Software and features

Redmi’s new Android One rivals have learnt Xiaomi’s secret recipe – a strong but affordable phone allied with a clean and crisp UI – and are now ready for the battle. Some would say the Android One phones have the advantage of a stronger emphasis on Google apps as well as faster big-point updates. Indeed, several Android One phones that shipped with Android 4.4 have already been updated to 5.0 or 5.1. Not so with the Redmi 2, which comes with Android 4.4 overlaid with Xiaomi’s MIUI V6.

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

As we saw in our recent review of Xiaomi’s top-end Mi Note, MIUI V6 brings a welcome breath of fresh air and funky flatness to the firm’s Android skin. It looks pretty much the same on the Redmi 2 as it does on the Mi Note, which is good news because it’s an attractive interface. I’m not a huge fan of Android skins, but Xiaomi’s is the best.

MIUI adds in a bunch of useful features absent from stock Android, such as granular control over notifications. That’s especially useful because most app developers are prone to exploiting users with incessant and spammy notifications to get them back into an app. But Xiaomi is slapping them down, and that’s a very good thing. The app-by-app controls – very similar to what’s now in iOS, though Xiaomi had it first in earlier versions of MIUI – let you choose which apps can show you notifications and whether they pop up on the home screen or also show up on the lockscreen. In our tests, this also seemed to prevent apps from starting up and running in the background – something that plagues stock Android – which will have the knock-on effect of lengthening battery life.

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

In addition to that, MIUI has welcome additions such as scheduled “do not disturb” times, a highly configurable LED alert with lots of colors, and an array of full-on Android themes that you can apply (or remove) with just a couple of clicks. The company’s own Mi Cloud works well for backing up photos; it gets the job done quietly and without nagging you, in contrast to the torturous Google+. Xiaomi’s cloud offerings also include a way to find your device from any web browser (pictured above) should the phone be lost or stolen.

The downside, as we’ve said before of MIUI, is that some good stuff from Android is missing. There are no interactive notifications on the pull-down shade for things like “reply” or “delete”; and notifications only show on the lockscreen if you press the (hard to see) number that appears lower down the screen. You also won’t get the new features in Android 5.0 on your Redmi 2, such as multiple users, or a guest mode for your friends to use your phone. Having said that, MIUI already has a bunch of useful features that Google later brought into Android in v5.0, such as pinning apps in the multitasking view and quick access to your mobile data usage. So it’s a case of swings or roundabouts when it comes to the features you’ll get in MIUI versus Android.

Camera

The camera is the main downside to the Redmi 2. Yes, it’s 8MP, but if you’re reading a tech blog you surely realize that the megapixels are a lie. The Redmi 2 is a great example of this. Although an 8MP rear camera matches the iPhone 6, the images it produces are not comparable.

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

Considering how cheap the Redmi 2 is, I suppose the camera isn’t as awful as I’m making it sound, but there’s no denying that it struggles in a lot of situations – in strong light outdoors, in overcast or polluted outdoor scenes, and it’s color-blind to purple for some reason. The HDR is also excessive, making it look like you’ve opened up Snapseed and gone mental with the HDR effect.

The purple problem that the Redmi 2 camera suffers is one I’ve seen before in the Xiaomi Mi2S and the Mi4 (I’ve never used a Mi3). It’s baffling that it keeps happening. At least the pricey Mi Note has solved the problem. Below, for example, is a pink bucket filled with purple dried flowers, but the flowers always come out blue on the Redmi 2. I’ve made this into a composite image with a photo from my iPhone not to compare the Redmi with the iPhone but to show what the scene actually looks like to my eyes:

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

I had the same issue with a bunch of other purple things, both in daylight and at night under electric light and with the flash. The thing just hates purple.

The camera’s issues with strong sunshine or overcast days can be remedied by twiddling with the white balance, but that’s not a user-friendly task. Focusing on different areas of a scene should force the camera to rethink its white balance, but that doesn’t happen with the Redmi 2. So you’ll only get good pictures in perfect light conditions.

However, even in perfect light conditions the resultant photos never look perfectly sharp. Don’t be fooled by the 8MP – the camera is as weak as the price is low. But you won’t get any better from the cameras on other phones at this price either. On the plus side, the photos it produces tend to look OK when scaled down for use on social media.

Elsewhere in the camera, video mode has the option for fast motion, but there’s no slow motion.

Here’s a bunch of unedited photos straight from the Redmi 2 camera:

//imgur.com/a/YjvtU/embed?background=f2f2f2&text=1a1a1a&link=4e76c9

Conclusion

The Redmi 2 is the Skoda Fabia of phones. That’s not a slight – the Fabia and the latest Redmi are both great for the price, but don’t expect them to be better than products that cost multiple times more, as some misinformed smartphone analysts do. The Redmi 2 won’t steal buyers away from the iPhone 6 any more than a potential buyer of an BMW X5 will say to herself, “You know, I think I’ll get the Skoda Fabia instead because it’s cheaper.”

Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW)

Like with any super-cheap phone, it’s meant for people who really cannot stretch beyond US$100 or US$150 for a phone, so don’t pin your hopes on this being some kind of miracle gizmo that’ll out-perform pricier devices. Once you place it firmly in that context, it’s clear the Redmi 2 is still pushing forward this important segment and is a strong challenger to Android One phones, offering slightly beefier specs and a well thought out OS that improves on Android in a number of meaningful ways. It even embarrasses some phones from big-name brands that cost around US$250, like the way overpriced HTC Desire 610. Overall the Redmi 2 provides a satisfactory performance aside from the camera.

But whereas the Redmi was the budget king of 2013, that’s not so clear-cut in 2015. Before committing to the Redmi 2, go play with whatever Android One phones are available in your country (there’s usually a choice of three in each nation where Android One devices are available) and you might find you prefer the software that Google is offering you.

Redmi 2 pros:

  • Solid build quality
  • Handles intense gaming
  • 720p screen is crisp and good quality
  • Feels like it’s good deal for US$110

Redmi 2 cons:

  • The camera
  • Not Android 5.0+
  • 1GB of RAM not enough for MIUI to be smooth all the time
  • You’ll realistically need a microSD card to expand storage

I’ll hold onto this Redmi 2 test unit for another week to answer your questions. Drop them in the comments section.

This post Xiaomi tweaks new Redmi 2 for intense battle against Android One rivals (REVIEW) appeared first on Tech in Asia.

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