Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 full review
Xiaomi's phones aren't officially sold in the UK, but while the brand may not be well known to us Brits it's bigger than Apple and Samsung in China - and tomorrow (1 June) the Redmi Note 3 will go on open sale in India. Redmi is the company's budget smartphone line-up, and the Note 3 sits at the top of the series as an all-metal Android phablet with a fantastic design and decent performance. We review the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3. Also see: Best phones 2015/2016.
Also see: Best Black Friday Phone Deals
The user experience we received with the Xiaomi Note 3 is what we were hoping for with the Xiaomi Mi 4C. Unlike that phone, the software hadn't been altered before the Note 3 was shipped to us, and so we got exactly the experience Xiaomi intended.
That's not to say it is a great experience out of the box for UK users, which is largely down to the fact that Xiaomi phones don't come preinstalled with Google apps and much of the language in the preinstalled software is Chinese. But these things are easy to tweak, and we had our Xiaomi Note 3 up and running as we would any other UK Android phone within minutes. We'll explain how we did so in the Software section of this review.
As we mentioned, Xiaomi doesn't officially sell its phones in the UK, but you can buy them from third-party suppliers such as GearBest. Indeed, GearBest supplied our review sample of the Xiaomi Note 3, a gold handset with 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. To buy this phone from GearBest today you'll pay £121.11, although it's also worth considering the Note 3 variant with 32GB of internal storage and 3GB of RAM, given that there's no support for microSD and performance should be better. The 32GB Note 3 costs £141.07 from GearBest. (Bear in mind that although shipping to the UK is free, you are liable to paying import duty from China, so you may prefer to pay a little more to buy from the EU warehouse - see our grey-market tech buying advice.)
One of the things to watch out for when buying a phone from China is that it is supported by your network. In the UK, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 operates on only the UK 4G LTE bands 3 and 7, which means band 20 (or the 800MHz) frequency used by O2 and piggyback networks such as giffgaff is not supported. Should your network be supported, however, the Note 3 offers 4G connectivity on both of its dual-SIM slots (this is a dual-standby phone that accepts two Micro-SIM cards). Also see: Best dual-SIM phones and dual-SIM phone buying advice.
Other connectivity options are excellent, too, covering the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, an IR blaster, GPS and GLONASS, although there's no NFC.
Despite being a budget smartphone, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 has some capable hardware inside, with the 2GHz MediaTek Helio X10 chip, a PowerVR Rogue 6200 GPU and a huge 4000mAh battery. Even the 2GB of RAM model was capable of raw processing performance faster than that of every phone we've tested bar the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and S6 Edge, although it fell down somewhat in our graphics tests. Also see: Best budget smartphones 2015/2016.
As Xiaomi's first all-metal Redmi Note, the 3 is a gorgeous in its gold incarnation (also available in silver and dark grey) with a sandblasted smooth outer shell and 5.5in full-HD display. A fingerprint scanner is fitted to the rear, alongside a 13Mp camera with two-tone flash. Around the front you get a 5Mp selfie camera. Also see: Best MiFi 2016.
The MIUI 7 Android 5 Lollipop-based OS is well regarded in China, if not ideally suited to UK users out of the box. As we've said it's quite possible to change this setup, but it's perhaps not something novice Android users would be comfortable in doing. But that's all that would stop us thoroughly recommending the Redmi Note 3 as one of the best budget Android phones money can buy. Let's find out why. Also see: Best cheap 4G phones 2015/2016.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 review: UK price and availability
As we pointed out in the introduction, it's not possible to buy Xiaomi phones directly from the company in the UK, although you can buy them from third-party unofficial channels. Our review sample came from GearBest, and is the gold model with 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM. This Note 3 costs £121.11 with free worldwide shipping, although you should note that on shipping it to the UK you may have to pay import duty (paying more to ship from the EU warehouse may be preferable), and other pitfalls may be involved - read our advice on buying grey-market tech.
Both Redmi Note 3s are available in gold, silver and dark grey.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 review: Design and build
Wow. That's what every single member of the PC Advisor editorial team said when we took the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 out of its box. We've been waiting to get our hands on a Xiaomi phone for ages, and following the disappointment that was the Mi 4C the Note 3 had a lot of making up to do. Fortunately, it didn't let us down. Also see: Best Android phones 2015/2016.
While the Redmi Note 3 has some of the markings of a budget Android phone - it's on the chunky side at 8.65mm (although this is more impressive than it is disappointing given the huge 4000mAh battery inside), plus there's the rear-mounted speaker and now outdated Micro-USB port - it looks good enough to take on the iPhone in the design stakes. It's certainly the best-looking budget Android we've ever seen.
Despite housing both a large 5.5in screen and a high-capacity battery (apparently achieved using a 690Wh/L high-density cell), this Xiaomi phablet feels fantastic in the hand. It's reassuringly weighty without being heavy at 164g (only 4g more than the plastic Note 2), and rounded edges on the rear make it feel smaller than it is. On occasion you might want to use it in both hands, but we didn't have trouble reaching to the far corner of the screen with a thumb when required. As with the Mi 4C there's also an easily accessible one-handed mode that lets you shrink down the contents of the screen to 4.5-, 4- or even 3.5in.
The gold metal shell is sandblasted to a smooth-to-the-touch but matte-effect finish. This contrasts nicely with the shiny polished edging seen around the screen, fingerprint scanner, camera and flash, and even the shiny Mi logo on the rear. It really is a premium-looking smartphone. Also see: Best Chinese phones 2015/2016.
The fingerprint scanner mounted on the rear is perfectly positioned in terms of how you hold your phone. Usefully, it can wake and unlock the screen with a single touch, and Xiaomi's claims of it recognising your fingerprint in 0.3 seconds rang true in our tests.
We mentioned that the speaker is also rear-facing, which is usually a no-no, but a small protrusion below raises the phone ever so slightly from a flat surface such as a desk and allows sound to escape. With the exception of this bump all components lie flush with the case, including the 13Mp camera - we're not overly keen on the way many of today's flagship phones have protruding rear cameras, although it is necessary given their ever-smaller dimensions. (While the Xiaomi is no size-zero handset, it's on the small side for a phablet at just 150x76x8.65mm.)
A full-HD screen is still not something you can reasonably expect to find in a smartphone of this price, and at 5.5in the 1920x1080 resolution equates to a crystal clear 403ppi. The screen is bright and with realistic colours and great viewing angles, making the Note 3 an ideal mobile device on which to enjoy video. To get exactly the display you want you can switch between warm, standard and cool screen colours, and choose between standard, automatic and increased contrast. The Note 3 also supports Sunlight display, making it easier to view in direct sunlight, plus a Reading mode.
Although the Xiaomi's bezels are slim, a thin black border is evident around the edge of the screen; we quite like the effect it creates. In the Settings menu you can change the wallpaper and themes, text size and font. Also see: Best phablets 2015/2016.
Also here are options to change the colour of the LED for notifications, calls and texts, and the long-press function of each of the three Android-standard buttons below the screen.
Ports and connectors are where you would expect to find them, with a metal power button and volume rocker on the Note 3's right edge, and a pin-operated slot-loading dual-SIM tray on the left (this accepts two Micro-SIMs, and both can connect to 4G). There's a headphone jack and IR blaster at the top of the Xiaomi, and a Micro-USB charging port on the bottom.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 review: Hardware and performance
For a budget smartphone the Note 3 has some very decent hardware, and even the 2GB of RAM version turned in very good performance in our benchmarks. Everything seems fast on this phone, which will be partly down to the software, and partly the hardware.
Xiaomi has specified a 2GHz MediaTek MT6795 Helio X10 64-bit octa-core processor, PowerVR Rogue G6200 GPU and 2GB of LPDDR3 RAM. There's also 16GB of internal storage (but no support for microSD so you might prefer the 32GB option), and a huge-capacity 4000mAh non-removable battery that is charged over Micro-USB.
The Xiaomi supports Performance and Balanced operation modes; we ran it in Performance mode for the sake of our benchmarks, although Balanced will provide longer runtime. Even so, we got a good two days use out of the Note 3 in Performance mode.
The Xiaomi's most-impressive performance results in our benchmarks came in Geekbench 3.0, which is used to measure overall processing performance. The Note 3's score of 4597 points in the multi-core component has been beaten only by the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.
In AnTuTu, which is also used to measure overall performance, the Note 3's 46,924 points ranked lower in comparison to other high-end Android smartphones, but are nonetheless very impressive for a phone at this price point.
That's also true of the SunSpider measurement of 907ms (tested in Chrome) - not the best we've seen but brilliant for a budget Android.
In GFXBench 3, used to test graphics, the Xiaomi began to show it wasn't quite in the same class as the flagships but, again, scores of 22fps in T-Rex and 8fps in Manhattan are very good for the money.
You can compare the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3's performance to all the phones we've recently tested in our article: What's the fastest phone 2015/2016?
Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 review: Connectivity
The Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 will work on all UK networks, but for 4G it isn't compatible with 800MHz/Band 20. This means customers using O2's network, or those that use its network such as giffgaff, won't be able to use 4G data. Also see: How to tell whether a phone is supported by your network.
If you can benefit from the Note 3's 4G connectivity, you'll be pleased to learn that 4G is operational on both of its two Micro-SIM slots, although this is a dual-standby phone - for an explanation of exactly what that means see our dual-SIM phones buying advice.
Other connectivity options are very well catered for, with the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi, GPS with GLONASS, Bluetooth 4.1 and an IR blaster. The only thing that's missing is NFC - see what is NFC?
Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 review: Cameras
Like just about every other budget Chinese phone we've seen the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 is fitted with a 13Mp, f/2.2 rear camera and 5Mp, f/2.0 front camera. There's a two-tone flash on the back, plus a selection of modes and real-time filters.
As you'd expect at this price point detail is a little soft at full-size, and we found colours to be very warm, but the overall result is quite acceptable and certainly better than what we saw from the Mi 4C - you don't get the same odd banding effect here.
It's worth pointing out that there are options in the camera settings to adjust contrast, saturation and sharpness, and you can use the volume button to trigger the shutter. However, the Note 3 doesn't feature the Edge Tap function found in the Mi 4C.
You can see our test photos of St Pancras on what was a very cold and blustery day in both auto and HDR mode below.
Also see: Best phone camera 2016.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 review: Software
Out of the box the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 as supplied by GearBest isn't the easiest phone to use for UK users. Running MIUI 7, which is based on Android 5.0 Lollipop, there's no Google Play store or any Google apps, and many of the preinstalled apps are in Chinese (we're still not sure what half of them do). The keyboard is also Chinese, and even when you switch its input to English you still see a lot of Chinese language popping up.
In order to solve these issues you need to install Google Play. There are two ways we've found to do this. One is to log into the Mi App Store and search for Google Play. Ignore the fact everything is in Chinese - just click on the top result to install it. It will prompt you to install Google Account Manager and Framework Services and so on, then bring up the usual Google login screen you would normally see when first turning on an Android phone. It took around half an hour for our Google account to activate, but we were then able to install apps from Google Play as usual.
The other is to sideload the Google Installer app (available from http://en.miui.com/thread-3998-1-1.html), and used this to install the Google Play Store, Gmail and other Google apps. We then installed the Google Keyboard, which we downloaded from Google Play, and uninstalled the preinstalled Chinese apps (simply tap and hold their icons, drag them to the bin icon and tap Uninstall).
At this point the Redmi Note 3 resembled any other UK Android phone, but we did find the occasional app that Google Play reported as being incompatible, for example AnTuTu 3DBench. These apps can be sideloaded - all you need is the APK file. You can do a Google search and download these from other sites hosting them, or install the APK Downloader Chrome extension and download them from Google Play yourself.
Of course it is possible to use the apps preinstalled on the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 and use the phone with a Mi- rather than Google account, but we did find language to be a barrier here. The preinstalled apps also gobble up a fair amount of storage, and we had just under 10GB of the phone's 16GB free once we had installed our Google and benchmarking apps.
Having set it up as we saw fit, we found MIUI 7 has several highlights - many of which we've mentioned above, such as the customisable themes, text, LED notifications and one-handed mode. There are also some nice tweaks such as real-time filters in the Camera app, and you can switch between Balanced and Performance modes depending on how you wish to use the Note 3.
In common with iOS there's no app tray, so everything is placed on the home screen. You can group apps into folders by dragging and dropping them on top of each other.
The pull-down notification bar has also been tweaked. When you drag down from the top of the screen you'll first see notifications, and must swipe in from the right to access quick settings (making them marginally less 'quick') and a shortcut to the Settings menu.
A pinch on the home screen brings up options to move apps, add widgets and alter the wallpaper and effects (the transitions as you move between home screens).
We also like the Child mode, which lets you allow access only to certain apps installed on your phone before handing it over to the kids.
Read next: Best new phones coming in 2016.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 3: Specs
- Android 5.0 Lollipop with MIUI 7
- 2GHz MediaTek MT6795 Helio X10 64-bit octa-core processor
- PowerVR Rogue G6200 GPU
- 2GB LPDDR3 RAM
- 16GB storage (32GB option available)
- 5.5in full-HD (1920x1080, 403ppi) display with Sunlight Display, Night display and Reading mode
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- IR Blaster
- GPS, A-GPS
- Bluetooth 4.1
- Dual-SIM dual-standby (2x Micro-SIM)
- 4G LTE support for bands 3 and 7, not 20 (800MHz, used by O2) on both SIMs
- fingerprint scanner (0.3s)
- 13Mp, f/2.2 rear camera with two-tone LED flash
- 5Mp, f/2.0 front camera with smart beauty profiles
- 4000mAh non-removable battery, charges over Micro-USB
- performance results: Geekbench 3.0: 4597 (multi-core)
- AnTuTu 3DBench: 46,924
- SunSpider (tested in Chrome): 907ms
- GFXBench 3: 22fps T-Rex, 8fps Manhattan
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