How Xiaomi Has Started Making The Best Android Phones In India

As Xiaomi launches its flagship the Xiaomi 12 Pro, I have been bracing myself for another set of “Xiaomi ke liye kaun intne paise dega’’ comments. If this was true in 2017 when the Mi Mix 2 launched, one could see why. One could see it even with the Redmi K20 Pro in 2019. Perhaps I could see it in 2020 with the Mi 10, but every step of the way Xiaomi has made it hard for me to agree with this narrative by building great products.

But Xiaomi was always good at making phones. Yeah, the 12-year-old company always made good hardware. But it all started with the software for Xiaomi. When it started its MiUI skin was the talk of the town in the early 2010s which tweakers used to adapt on their Android phones to get a fresh user interface or get features that weren’t part of Android. By 2012, it had started making its phones and they were impressive — but what made them special was their price.

Xiaomi had good hardware, design, and marketing inspired by Apple and one killer feature — price. These phones were dirt cheap. They were a fraction of the cost of what Apple and Samsung were selling their phones at. And in 2014 when Xiaomi launched in India, its flagship phone at the time — the Mi 3 launched to great fanfare at just Rs 13,999. But these phones were sold on flash sales — there were a limited number of units and Xiaomi at the time had a very limited portfolio. In India, this device came at a time when the Mi 4 was already launched, so Xiaomi harnessed the power of economies of scale and launched the Mi 3 in India at a highly subsidized price. But this was never going to be a money-making strategy that would’ve allowed the R&D to make something cutting edge that would truly compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung in tech and price.

That story unraveled over the next few years. The Mi 4 didn’t do well because it didn’t launch with 4G. The Mi 5 had extremely buggy software and it was a catastrophe for the company as it didn’t even get the SKUs right. The Mi 6 never made it to India, instead, Xiaomi got the Mi Mix 2 to India in 2017 with its all-screen panache but it was hobbled by a very poor camera and pricing that to the average consumer was unbecoming of Xiaomi. So 2018 and 2019, Xiaomi paused its flagship brands in India — it focussed on the Redmi brand which has made it the most popular smartphone brand in India. It focused on all the low-hanging fruit in the Indian market like smart TVs, Air Purifiers, and IoT and generally had done extremely well in all these categories. In the case of smart TVs — it became no.1.

The Rise Of Mi In India

But then in 2020, starkly in the middle of the first lockdown — it launched the Mi 10, its first flagship phone in years. It was also by far, its most expensive phone which now had to contend with even the likes of the OnePlus that had given both Apple and Samsung headaches. While Xiaomi regrouped in India, Huawei had pulled off the rails thanks to Donald Trump’s technology sharing embargoes, Oppo and Vivo had cemented their positioning as offline brands while Samsung and Apple were busy fending off OnePlus. At the low end, Xiaomi had another rival — Realme which had started undercutting it so the going premium had become existential.

But the good news was the Mi 10 was impressive. It used Samsung’s 108-megapixel sensor and completely outperformed the S20 Ultra using the same hardware. This was also a fast phone, with a much clearer user interface which now was largely bereft of advertisements while boasting an attractive design. Xiaomi now was emboldened and there were many products under the Mi umbrella.

Come 2021, it launched the Mi 11 Ultra — again amid the second delta variant wave — but this was truly an outlandish phone which had everything sans the kitchen sink. Stupendous cameras, crazy zooming capabilities, a gorgeous screen, a screen for taking selfies on the back, and general fast performance. This was for the large part of 2021 the best Android phone in India, if not in the world, and by measures, it still has things that Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max can’t measure up to. It was also a wacky phone because of its industrial design. But the challenge was that this was a made-in-China device so there were never going to be many units of the same. But Xiaomi sold out whatever limited stock it had and managed to flex its muscles as a provider of cutting-edge technology which it never managed with the first few attempts with the Mi brand.

But with the rise of Mi as a smartphone brand, back in Beijing, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s team decided to segregate the Redmi, and POCO brands separate and decided to kill Mi and now everything under the Mi umbrella was going to be further simplified to just “Xiaomi”.

Xiaomi 12 Pro — the best of 2022?

Now that the Xiaomi 12 Pro has launched, there are a few things that one can easily say about this product having used it for a couple of days. If the Mi 10 and Mi 11 Ultra were indicators that Xiaomi now possessed the best image processing algorithms in the industry outside of Google and Apple, then the Xiaomi 12 Pro cements that notion. Xiaomi’s aggressive and focused approach also enables it to possibly have the best camera performance in the industry. The Xiaomi 12 Pro is the first phone in the world to come with a trifecta of 50-megapixel cameras on the back.

And these are great cameras. The best in the business right up there with the mighty iPhone 13 Pro Max and better in many regards like detail, ultra-wide, bokeh. This camera system is also no slouch with video with ultra night mode video. It is an astounding camera system that just perhaps doesn’t provide the best zoom capabilities which personally for me is a fringe benefit. That being said, it has enough resolution using interpolation techniques it can even shoot the moon like some of the fancy phones around.

But beyond the camera, it is just a damn nice phone. Its Super AMOLED LTPO screen can dynamically refresh from 1hz to 120hz while having a peak brightness level of 1500 nits. It has sublime black levels, and great viewing angles to boot while having a rather flat screen with Gorilla Glass Victus. It is all nicely packaged in a neat ergonomic design which is quite handy and looks especially good in a stealthy black and a minty blue. I tested the purple gold model, which personally is not my scene but regardless is a looker.

Of course, there is immense firepower under the hood with Qualcomm’s latest and greatest 8 gen 1 system on chip at the heart with 12GB RAM and up to 256GB storage. Mi UI 13 which is now based on Android 12 has been refined to death that it is largely bereft of advertising and doesn’t come with a lot of bloatware, something which even the mighty Samsung isn’t able to rid its phones off.

The charging technology is particularly impressive with the 120-watt hyper charger coming with the package — enabling full juice up in 18 minutes. This phone also supports wireless and reverse wireless charging. The 4,500 mAh battery doesn’t provide earth-shattering battery life like the iPhone 13 Pro Max but measures up favorably to the Galaxy S22 Ultra or OnePlus 10 Pro.

There are some cool speakers thanks to Harmon Kardon which get loud and sound quite pristine. The phone also supports high-resolution audio via the type C port but don’t hold your breath for the headphone jack. The long and the short here is that this is a worthy Android phone which costs Rs 66,000 which is still much lesser than what Samsung demands of its flagship. Heck, it is slightly cheaper than even what OnePlus is asking for the OnePlus 10 Pro while it is fundamentally better for most people. And remember, if you don’t like the Xiaomi name, then at least think about after sales as apart from Samsung, Xiaomi has the biggest after-sales network and if you don’t like the brand then simply get an iPhone, but don’t winge around and say I’m not going to be paying so much for a Xiaomi as bloody hell, this phone has earned it.

Weaknesses around the brand stay but the more Xiaomi creates such products the more people will see them. It sure does need to get bold with its industrial design, something it is still quite conservative with but again, this phone doesn’t look bad and is ergonomically sound. There is no weakness in this phone and that is saying a lot about how far Xiaomi has come in the last 8 years in India alone.

And mind you, this is just the “pro” variant. What will happen when an “Ultra” edition of the same comes, which the rumor mill reports could have a Leica camera system — now that would be truly special. Xiaomi has transitioned from a maker of commoditized products to innovative gadgets, at least as much as one can innovate in a mature space as smartphones.

By Sahil Mohan Gupta

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Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta