The Budget King
What do you actually use your smartphone for?
That’s one of the main questions for picking a smartphone. It used to be that cheap smartphones were crappy devices that suffered from poor user experience, but now we’re in a different era. Cheap, that’s under $200, phones can actually pose a real value with a fluent* user experience and an OK camera.
Quick note: The phone’s full name is actually the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 AI Dual camera, if you’re confused.
It’s always alluring to purchase the device you see on TV, like the Galaxy S9/Note 9 that Zlatan seems to love in commercials. But what do you need? Do you play games on your phone? If the answer is no, then you probably don’t need a flagship GPU/SoC combo. Do you watch all your movies on your phone? If the answer is no, then you probably don’t need the latest OLED-panel from Samsung or Sony. Do you absolutely require every animation to be buttery smooth, or are you fine with a few micro-lags as long as it doesn’t affect the content? If the answer is yes on the latter statement, then you probably don’t need the flagship combo either.
Truth is, if you want the best battery life on a phone - You probably want a mid-tier processor with a larger battery. That’s because those processors generally require less power to run.
The Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 features a, without question, “good enough” full HD IPS LCD screen. It has a good touch-response and it has a lot of features that you’d associate with flagship phones. It also, as I said in my unboxing, comes with a flagship grade battery capacity at 4000 mAh (the same as the Huawei P20 Pro/Mate 20) and an IR blaster that’s only otherwise found on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro this year.
Here’s the run-down:
For all the spec-hungry out there, here’s a spec sheet!
|Display||5.99" 1080p IPS LCD|
|Glass Protection||Corning® Gorilla® Glass|
|Rear Camera||Dual: 12MP primary camera + 5MP secondary camera|
|Front Camera||13MP single camera|
|Ports||USB: 2.0 Micro-USB. Audio: 3.5 mm.|
|Extra||A single bottom-firing speaker
Rear-mounted Fingerprint Sensor
The Redmi Note 5 is built from aluminium all around the back. This soft and cold feeling exterior is the premium that a lot of users still think to be superior to glass. It’s also quite slippery, but that’s to be expected. The front glass kind of floats above the metal frames, giving it a, to my eyes, distinct look. Where the back meets the side frames the phone is also thoroughly well-built leaving only a soft edge that never cuts into my hand. The antenna bands glow with a polished look, which I like a lot compared to previous designs with a matt plastic look.
Not I personally prefer glass to aluminium backs due to the fact that they feel like they’re going to scratch.
For what you pay, you get a build quality that matches flagships from one to two years ago. All in all a great package for the price and the Glacier Blue that I’m reviewing is a breath of fresh air when it comes to colors, although I might would’ve wanted a matching front-panel.
The lack of USB Type-C for Micro-USB is a bummer though, but most people probably have a pair, or two, laying around. The included charger doesn’t feature Qualcomm’s quick charge, but the phone has support for Quick Charge 2.0 if you have, or get, a compatible charger. Charging speeds won’t blow anyone’s mind however, which is a bummer in 2018 with a 400 mAh battery.
The 5.99” LCD display on the Note 5 delivers pretty natural colors and at the higher brightness viewing-angles that leave nothing to complain about. On lower brightness levels the display does look dimmer when tilted, but from where I’m standing this is a strange thing to even care about.
The colors are natural, but coming from the AMOLED panels on the iPhone XS or OnePlus 6T (which are both priced significantly higher) the blacks are faded and a bit dull, with a gray tint to them. Colors also appear to be a bit muted, or faded, like pastel colors. All in all though, considering the price-point, it’s hard to complain and if this is your only phone it’ll be hard to even notice after a while.
The oleophobic coating is however lacking, leaving my screen with a visible layer of grease after usage. This is pretty much to be expected for budget phones like this though, and if you can’t stand it a high quality screen protector could do the trick. I have seen reports of the display scratching easily, although I haven’t experienced this myself.
Honestly, the display technology we have now makes it hard to argue against the value you get in the Note 5. It’s crisp at 1080p with the modern 18:9 aspect ratio. What’s amusing however is that the bottom bezel measures in at 2-3 mm deeper than the top-bezel. It’s not something I’ve thought about a lot, but once it’s seen it’s hard to unsee. This is really the main question I have about the Note 5’s design, as the rest seems very thought out.
On the top bezel you get a centered speaker-grill for phone calls. On the right side there are two “holes” for sensors and on the left side we get the front-facing camera. What’s funny is that it’s hard to tell them apart at first, making me look twice before taking the picture. This would probably be less of an issue on the black model, as the holes would be less visible.
There are always trade-offs to cheap hardware. The speaker on the Redmi Note 5 is mediocre at best, but would you expect more? It fires sound downwards, making it one of those speakers that people love to say that they muffle all the time. I don’t know about you, but that’s the main area where I tend to disagree. I quickly get used to where the speaker is positioned and manage to keep my fingers off it without much thought. Actually, the one time I did react to the speaker placement in general was on the OnePlus 6, as it was on the opposite side on the bottom from what I was expecting. The 6T is the same, but I’ve gotten used to it.
This speaker on the Redmi Note 5 gets loud, although you might not want to max it, and it gets the job done for basic tasks. If you want to watch content or liten to music for real you’re better off going back to using a pair of headphones. Comparing it side by side to the OnePlus 6T I notice that the quality is noticeably lesser, but as I said you shouldn’t listen to music on it.
The Redmi Note 5 also comes with a headphone jack of old, which will make regular users happy as you can plug in any pair of old headphones in and consume your content. Like it used to be.
Xiaomi have been offering great Fingerprint Sensors for years now, and the Note 5 is no exception. Actually, it’s way faster than I would have expected and next to my brothers LG G7 ThinQ it wins in speed tests. That’s something one would expect from a flagship, but maybe not a phone priced like this.
The phone also comes with AI Face Unlock, similar to the version on OnePlus’ latest devices, but unfortunately this is still “region locked”. Anyone can access it by changing the phones preset region in the settings menu, but I didn’t do this on the Mix 2s and I won’t on the Note 5. Personally, I have a hard time to figure out why there’s a restriction to this setting at all.
I keep repeating it, but MIUI is my favorite of heavily customized Android skins. I mean, it does feature a bunch of pre-installed apps that’s reminiscent of the Samsung level. But at the same time, it’s the smoothest of the bunch, beating Samsung, Huawei and LG when it comes to optimization.
On the Snapdragon 636 (SoC) that powers the Redmi Note 5 the smoothness is of course somewhat limited, and animations like going to the home screen does stutter a bit at times. But not much, and way less that I’d think it would bother most people. I used to be against budget smartphones because they couldn’t deliver a satisfying stability, however this doesn’t seem to be the case any more.
MIUI does have it’s quirks, so let’s pick those first:
Swiping away notifications requires a swipe from left to right, if you swipe in from the right side it gives you the option to snooze the notification or turn off future notifications (like the weather info from Google). This is however an issue with habits, and I can’t remember that I was equally bothered by it on the Mi Mix 2s.
There’s a one handed mode in MIUI much like on Samsung devices that will shrink the display size (see image 15 bellow), but it’s only accessible if you do not use the full screen gestures. This is simply because it requires a swipe across the navigation bar.
The App Vault, image 4 (much like the Shelf on OnePlus devices), act more like Apples version (Widget Center) were it only allows for certain Widgets. This limits the amount of content you can add to the vault and requires all third party widgets to remain on the homescreen.
Swiping on from the left on the lockscreen only gives me a flashlight shortcut as well ass access to the Mi Remote app that controls the IR-blaster, making the entire screen seem redundant. The Mi Remote app doesn’t have a real lockscreen widget either, so if you press it it still requires you to unlock the device.
The included weather widget doesn’t seem to allow location based weather information.
While the recent apps menu in MIUI 10 is refreshing and gives you a good overlay of the previously used apps, I do not find it superior to the vertical view that Xiaomi had been using for years past.
There’s a folder on the Home Screen called “More Apps” which is simply advertisement that shows recommended apps. To me, it wasn’t obvious that this was disabled by removing the Facebook icon which was housed inside of it (either by uninstalling it, or by dragging it out). Simply put I would’ve liked to be able to just remove the folder or if there was a toggle in settings for the folder.
With the quirks out of the way we can focus on what I like.
Firstly, I want to come back to the fact that the Recent Apps menu, while different, isn’t bad. Actually, this is the best design if you want to be able to see more apps at once. With Apple and Google both utilizing a horisontal view these days, both also have found ways to hide the next app. Apple stacks the windows above each other while Google Centers one window at the time, only showing the edge of the next one. In MIUI, you can actually view four(4) windows at the same time for an easier overview.
The lack of an app-drawer doesn’t bother me as it used to. Xiaomi also found a use-case for swiping up on the home screen by creating a shortcut to Google search. I would’ve liked the ability to customize this though. I would’ve liked a double-tap to lock feature as well, but on the other hand the power-button is very accessible.
The settings-menu is somewhat confusing. The best example I can come up with is that I spent some (embarrassing) time looking for the battery settings, only to suddenly find it logically placed under System & Device. Once you tap it you get two headlines, POWER and BATTERY SAVER. Battery Saver simply lets you pick what apps to restrict or not restrict in the same way you can do by entering the specified app’s system settings. If you want to look at Battery usage however, you are transported to another app which monitor usage and shows you the statistics. This app also throws you back into settings if you press battery saver. My questioning here is as to why Xiaomi didn’t just implement this into the settings app like most others do. The only benefit that I can identify is that it’s accessible from the Home screen, but that’s never been an issue before.
Overall though, as I said, MIUI allows for both stability and customization and it’s hard to imagine a feature missing from the pack. Here’s a few example features included:
Second Space - Allows for a separate “partition” of the device. Essentially letting you set up two different users, which allows you to privatize your phone. This might be useful if you have one phone for both work and private life?
Dual Apps - Gives you two versions of the same app. For example if you have two Instagram accounts, you never need to log out of one of them.
App Lock - Locks selected apps which will require a password or fingerprint to access.
Full screen display - Essentially the full screen gestures that Xioami introduced earlier this year. Swipe up for home, up and hold for recents, and in from each side to go back.
Themes - Xiaomi’s theme store offers a variety of user made themes. This feature is however region locked, requiring the user to switch out of an EU country. From my understanding there are fewer themes compatible with MIUI 10 than there were for version 9.
One-handed mode - Shrinks the display-area to 4.5, 4.0, or 3.5 inches. Only available if navigation keys are used.
Button and gesture shortcuts - Let’s you select certain shortcuts for selected actions such as launching the flashlight by double-pressing the power button or the Google Assistant by pressing power+home (also not working with the full screen gestures) at the same time.
Mi Remote - Use the built in IR-blaster to turn on devices suc as your TV or speakers.
Screen Recorder - Just like it sounds, let you record the screen in real-time.
Scanner - Special app used to scan bar-codes or QR-codes.
Dual SIM - lets you utilize two SIM-cards.
Mi Cloud - Can store data such as photos, call-records, messages, settings, and contacts. 5GB of data is free, when used you’ll need to upgrade with a payment-plan or remove the current data. Can sync to a Windows program to access the content on your computer automatically. The web-interface is strikingly similar to iCloud.
Xiaomi makes their profit from software such as the MI Cloud and advertisement. There was a scandal earlier this year when users detected ads in their phone settings. This is long gone however. In some of Xioami’s own apps there are a few advertisements laying around, but nothing that bothers the end-user. For example I opened the MI Video player app and was greeted by a full screen ad, but after clicking it away I haven’t seen it.
So if you’re ever worried that it’s like Amazon’s cheap ad-phones, it is not.
As I said, mid-tier processors require less power to run. With the addition of an impressive battery capacity does allow for a great longevity in this regard. 4000 mAh is a flagship level capacity to say the least, and except for Huawei only crazy niche products go above this.
I came into this test having seen reports of 6+ hours of screen on time (sot) and 2 hours of call time with some GPS-based navigation. Needless to say, my expectations were already high.
My expectations were also met when I brought the phone with me for Christmas eve after having an 8 hour workday the day before. I was planning not to charge it and the phone delivered. Spread over two full days and three nights, I was able to cram almost 8 hours of sot (7:43) out of the phone. And this was without purposely reserving my usage, using apps like Youtube like I always do.
The phone haven’t been giving me any real cause to worry concerning neither battery life nor stability throughout my usage.
Communication and Reception
This is the point where I have a hard time specifically reviewing the Redmi Note 5. In 2018 you expect mobile reception to just work, it's seldom a problem and a point I haven't had to adress so far. On the Note 5 however I brought the phone to Ystad with my main Sim-card (Telia) next to the OnePlus 6T on a temporary card from Tele2. While the 6T carried an LTE connectivity, the Note 5 reported an E network connectivity. I don't even know what That is, but it's not fast.
What sets the flagships apart from the lesser phones unless performance? The camera’s ability to deliver satisfying pictures. This is a subjective subject all around as a lot of people just want a picture to look good, not focusing on the details as much as a wannabe professional photographer (or just a pro) might.
The Redmi Note 5’s dual camera setup consists of a primary 12 MP, f/1.9 lens and a secondary 5 MP, f/2.0 lens. The second lens is there to assist the main camera with depth information for portrait shots, applying the sweet Bokeh we’ve come to expect. Xiaomi seems especially proud of the 1.4µm sized pixels in their specifications and also claim that the primary camera is able to capture bright, clear photos and high quality images even in low light conditions. Let’s put that to the test!
What surprises me the most with the camera on the Note 5 is the fact that the AI Dual Camera in the name only apples to the beauty mode. I would’ve thought that the phone came with the popular AI-mode that Xiaomi’s flagships do, delivering some kind of scene-detection and processing. But no, the camera does however feature an auto HDR functionality which is always nice.
The camera app opens pretty quickly, actually about just as fast as on the OnePlus 6T. Capturing a picture does however give you a small delay, and at times the viewfinder struggles to update with smoothness.
To tell you the truth, I was impressed by the day-time images that the Redmi Note 5 can capture. Dynamic range isn’t the best, but most of the time it does an alright job. On bleaker days the camera also struggles to capture pleasing colors, and as soon as the lighting gets worse so does the shutter speed making it hard to hold the phone steady. As a result, some images also turn out blurrier than they otherwise had to. Details, however, exceed my expectations, and in the right light the camera does capture pleasing images. On the 6:th picture (the leaves) I did however notice that the auto mode seems to have a hard time focusing on the subject in the lower edge. This might just be bad luck though, as I didn’t notice it until I got home and didn’t take several shots. Points to Xiaomi though, as the camera doesn’t suffer from lens flare as other, more expensive, phones like the iPhone XS did throughout my usage.
Whatever Xiaomi says, low light photography takes a toll on the cheaper phones. In certain conditions the images feature a lot of noise. On others, they’re pretty much a blurry consequence of noise reduction.
I get that the first picture is hard, seeing as it’s in low lighting, with contrast and movement. The fact remains though that the details are mushy. The second image is to portrait the noisiness I mentioned, while the third to once again show you the blurry details. Colors are good on the third image though, although the light sources are over-exposed, it’s an overall representation of the image quality you get in low light with the Note 5.
The camera app does allow for a so-called manual mode but the settings are limited to ISO levels and White balance, leaving out shutter speed and aperture.
With MIUI 10, Xiaomi advertised their AI enabled portrait mode that would allow single-camera smartphones to capture the Bokeh effect. With the dual camera setup however, the Note 5 didn’t need to wait for this feature.
Overall, it’s hard to expect a flagship-grade Portrait mode from such a cheap smartphone.
I feel like the phone did a good job at both capturing our dog and the plant/tree with the Bokeh-effect. I do however think that the image of me looks stranger than ever, not really resembling me as if a beauty mode was applied. Overall though, edge detection is good, though the blur might be a bit unrealistic.
The Redmi Note 5’s 13MP selfie camera is advertised as able to capture details even in low light, and also feature the auto HDR capabilities of the primary shooter.
It’s not that the selfie camera is bad, it’s just not as good as I would have expected. at 13MP one would expect the fine details to be a bit better. Even with the supposedly auto HRD the camera also blows out the background, as seen in the last two pictures. Edge detection in portrait mode is however surprisingly good, although the blown-out background mostly just turns more white. Overall though, depending on your level of social media professionalism, the pictures are pretty Instagram-ready.
The beauty mode is advertised as the AI parts of the phone, here are a few example shots:
I turned that off right away. I guess I’m never going to get how blurring out the facial details is going to make one look better.
When it comes to extras the app does allow for capturing Square images, I guess optimal for Instagram. It also features Video recording up to 1080p at 60 fps as well as Short Video, which I can’t figure out what’s for. The video mode also allows you to dig into slow-motion capture as well as a time-lapse mode.
It’s not for nothing that Xiaomi have become a popular brand to follow world wide. If the Redmi Note 5 was priced higher, say like the OnePlus 6/6T, there would have been several points of setbacks for the company. Seeing as it’s a third of the asking price for those phones however, there’s little to actually be disappointed about.
Usability is great on the phone, not the least when it comes to battery life. It says a lot when the best performers in this regard are the cheaper phones. With 5G being hyped as the feature to beat in 2019, rumors have it that battery life will suffer once again on future phones. Stronger processors also require more juice out of the box, while the less powerful ones makes a large cell like this thrive.
What you sacrifice is NFC, as the feature that’s hardly in use in China. I would like to see Xiaomi adapting, adding this to their global builds in the future to enable mobile payments even on budget phones.
While the camera app mostly opens as quick as on pricier phones, the shutter speed is limiting
I would like to see the camera improve as well, although it performs well enough considering the price. HDR, indoor/low-light shots, and portraits do however tend to be less impressive. Low light photography won’t impress anyone. Landscape and architectural photography in good lighting does however turn out alright, and can even impress when you, once again, consider the pricing.
If you’re in the market for a working smartphone, that can do most things without blinking, Xiaomi have some great phones on offer. The Redmi Note 5 can be found for $149 at the time of writing in Flash sales from stores like Gearbest. For that price, you can never go wrong with this phone, on the contrary you’ll be surprised at how much of a phone you can get. It’s usually possible to find it for $199.99 even without the sale, if you don’t mind importing it. In Sweden, which is notorious for having insanely priced smartphones, its regular price is $245.
Worth noting however is that importing any phone from China will most likely leave you with an import-fee and there’s no real way of telling how the support will handle any questions if you happen to experience problems. Gearbest’s warranty policies are a bit spotty and it might be costly to return a faulty product to China. You’re always better off when purchasing from a trusted local retailer.
The Redmi Note 5 might not win any “best phone” awards, but it’s a great alternative for those who don’t need all the bells and whistles in a smartphone. It includes a lot of features, provides you with a usable camera, and a battery life that will get most people through two days. As a flagship user there’s nothing except for the battery and the price-tag that really excites me about the phone. As a wallet-friendly device however it’s a steal when looking at functionality and quality.
This is Andreas @ The Mobile Swede,
I hope the holidays are good to you!
Redmi Note 5 Rating:
Camera could be better
Display could be better
Micro-SD card uses the same slot as SIM-card 2.