Living with the Xiaomi MI3

10 Sep 2014

Xiaomi may be making the headlines for poaching Hugo Barra from Google and for selling a gazillion phones in 0.5 miiliseconds in every other country in the developing world, but after a couple of months using their MI3, it is clear the Chinese phone manufacturer still has a long way to go.

Since ordering my phone direct from it has been something of a love-hate relationship with the phone. There are MIUI cuteness and enhancements I like and many I positively detest but the security features of the handset mean that despite an infuriating UI and terrible stability, it remains my primary handset for now.

The good

MIUI, Xiaomi’s android fork, allows for fine-grained control of application permissions. In official Google-land, the moment you authorize an app to use your mic or camera, that is it, you never get any notification when it will use your mic or camera. Also note that mic and camera come together in one permission.

MIUI allows fine-grained per-app permissions even after you have granted them permissions when installing the app, and you can set it to allow, deny or ask every time. I have most of my apps set to the latter. So I know exactly when an app is trying to record sound or take pictures.

What is scary is how often apps misbehave and access your camera without an apparent need. For instance, when Skype is fired up for the first time, it will access your camera. Whether it actually takes a picture to send back to Redmond or whether it just checks to see if your phone has working a camera or not I do not know, and admittedly it could be either.

The same goes for Google Plus which accesses the camera every time you share something from another app (as opposed to posting something from within G+ itself). Perhaps every shared post on G+ is tagged alongside a picture of the poster somewhere in Mountain View. Or perhaps it is just sloppy coding. Much safer to just click no when the dialogue box pops up asking if it is OK for G+ to take a picture unless you really want to take a picture.

Or how about the ubiquitous browser Chrome. Did you know that Chrome tries to use network positioning to locate your phone every time it is launched and not just when an app tries to ask Chrome for your location? Well I do now thanks to MIUI.

The telephone side of the phone has a feature where you can not only record calls, but set certain contacts to auto-record all calls from that person. Creepy, but could be useful.

The bad

A lot has been said of the MIUI’s user interface and how pretty it is, but let’s face it. MIUI has basically taken the Google playbook and decided to do everything the opposite way that Google decided.

Take, for example, the quick toggle screen. To turn Wi-Fi on or off, MIUI requires you tap the icon and a long press takes you to the Wi-Fi settings screen. This is the exact opposite of what Google has gone for on pure Android.

Copy and paste has a nice double tap system where the first tap is to select either the selection, the word or all, and the next is to copy, cut or paste. Pure Android has one, rather long box that does it in one step. This would be fine except for when using non-MIUI apps such as Chrome in which case using the phone turns into a test of mental gymnastics. Cutting from within the page uses the standard Google method while the URL bar does it MIUI’s way.

Or how about double-layered lockscreen madness? On every Android device a password lockscreen replaces the swipe to unlock page. On MIUI you still have the fancy MIUI-enhanced swipe to unlock screen first, and upon swiping it you will be taken to the default Android password lockscreen. Seriously guys, in what universe does this make sense except where nobody bothers to secure their phones with a password? Oh, wait… now that makes perfect sense.

Thankfully, this double lock-screen madness can be disabled by diving deep into the settings menus and disabling the MIUI enhancements. Actually, most of the MIUI enhancements can be disabled and the plain-vanilla Google Now launcher works well.

Updates come quite often with MIUI but of the three updates I have had since I got the phone, two have rendered it unusable and required a hard reset to get the phone working again.

Bear with me, I have not even got to the worst of it yet.

Stability is a sick joke. The MI3 often kills tasks haphazardly to save RAM. Think keyboard being killed when halfway through a Google Plus story edit or Twitter being killed when trying to Tweet a photo, which means nothing left for the photo app to return to after taking the picture.

Chromecast stability? They may have heard of it. The only way to keep it working reliably is to keep YouTube on in the foreground all the time and even then, once control goes a bit wonky, the only choice is to reboot the phone.

Luckily the speedy Snapdragon 801 chipset means reboots to restore a semblance of stability do not take long and boy, do you need to reboot often.

But I have saved the worst for last.

While the MI3 works fine on most of the networks I have tried in the region (SingTel, Dtac, AIS and DiGi) it falls flat on its face when on Hutchinson Three in the UK.

Even in areas of good network coverage, data connectivity is often lost sometimes for minutes at a time.

In areas with patchy network coverage, you might as well kiss data connectivity goodbye. UK networks allow roaming for emergency 999 or 112 calls. The problem is that the MI3 is all too happy to roam onto another network but when it switches back a few seconds later, 3G data is not restored and requires a quick toggle of airplane mode to get back online.

Xiaomi has promise, but it is far from the world-dominating juggernaught that western media makes it out to be. The technical issues can be sorted out. The UI issues, well, if they have a do it the opposite of Google mentality, that could be a problem as pure Android improves and improves. But it is their take on security and putting control back into the hands of the user that must be commended.

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