Refinement over revolution
After a release of a revolutionary or pioneering new smartphone, the smartphone manufacturers have made it a tradition to launch a refinement version. As in, an evolutionary upgrade from a revolutionary device.
Take HTC with the One M7 and the refinement versions One M8 and now the One M9. Or Samsung with the Galaxy S3 and its successors, the Galaxy S4 and the S5. Or Motorola with the Moto G and its successor the 2nd generation Moto G.
All of these phone families have similarities. The manufacturer makes a full-blown new smartphone with a brand new design, innovative ideas, pulls out all the stops. Then, for its successor, incrementally updates the specifications, fixes its flaws, and either reuses the same design or mildly improves it.
Another example of this incremental update approach? The Xiaomi Redmi 2, released in India on March 24, one month ago. Successor of the Redmi 1s, the second Xiaomi phone launched in India in September 2014. Successor of the phone that sold in the hundreds of thousands in India. Successor of the phone that made it possible for you to get a good enough smartphone experience at INR 6000.
Wow. These are some big footprints to follow, and the expectations for the phone in India rose incredibly high. In fact, calling them a fever pitch would be to make an understatement. In the first flash sale held, Xiaomi sold 50,000 units in 87 seconds. And much of the same continued for the second flash sale on March 31.
But now, things are different. The fever pitch is over. At least for the Redmi 2, that is. The Mi4i will be a different matter (predictably).
One month has gone and so we have no more flash sales. Anyone can buy the phone now, no hurdles. Artificial demand doesn’t exist.
There’s been plenty of time for owners to use the phone, get to know it, post their reviews online.
Plenty of time for us too, to post our mega-detailed analysis of these findings, both from reviewers and normal users, and to come to an unbiased overall conclusion…
The Redmi 2: macro analysis
Holistically, the Redmi 1s was a great phone, packing a 4.7-inch HD IPS display, Snapdragon 400, 1GB RAM and 8GB storage with microSD, great 8MP camera with 1080p video, dual SIM and a good enough software experience (Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with MIUI 5, later updated to KitKat with MIUI 6).
It did have its share of flaws such as a thick and heavy design, large bezels, 3G working in only one SIM card slot, lack of enough RAM for effective multitasking, lack of enough internal storage for installing big games, and lack of KitKat (at launch). On top of that, there were reported issues that the phone had a tendency to overheat and had poor RAM management – the former of which was supposedly fixed by Xiaomi in an OTA update.
So does the Redmi 2 do enough to fix these flaws? It’s a mixed scenario: some of them are handled with ease, others are left without fixes.
The design has been incrementally updated in all the right spots: it’s thinner, much lighter, and it has smaller bezels. The only thing we wish it had was a matte black battery cover for better grip.
Then there’s the dual-SIM issue. A reminder: this feature may not be even heard of in the West, but it’s necessary for a budget phone in India these days (flagships are a different matter). The Redmi 2 does great here, with up to 4G LTE support in both SIM card slots. Of course, the issue of no 4G networks are a different matter entirely, but at least you can get true 3G dual SIM now.
The Redmi 2, supporting LTE, is essentially future-proof from a data perspective, although the state of 4G in India is non-existent at this point. It supports band 3 (1800MHz) FDD-LTE and band 40 (2300MHz) TDD-LTE, making it possible to connect to most Indian future networks.
Unfortunately, support for band 20 (800MHz) FDD-LTE is absent, since after the March 2015 auction, this band will be used in future by multiple telecom companies.
The RAM and storage issue was ignored by Xiaomi. It’s still the same at 1GB/8GB. As we explain below, this has a detrimental effect on the user experience of the Redmi 2. Android doesn’t function nicely with 1GB of RAM, an issue known all the way back to 2011-2012, and MIUI isn’t one of the most lightweight UIs. Also, at 8GB NAND, installing 1GB+ games like Asphalt 8, Modern Combat 5, etc will be difficult.
Some will make a point about microSD, and yes, the Redmi 2 does support this feature (again, essential in this price bracket). But it’s hardly a substitute for more internal NAND. After Google’s moves over the years, microSD storage is treated by Android as second-class storage, making it difficult to use the phone to its full capabilities.
Then we come to things like the display, SoC, camera, software and battery life. In all these areas, the Redmi 2 either posts at best incrementally improved performance, sometimes the same performance (and at worst, regressed UX). Let’s see for ourselves, taking a microscope.
The Redmi 2: micro analysis
- Design: We say that the Redmi 2 fixed the issues present with the Redmi 1s, but in reality that’s not true. The back cover has a glossy plastic finish and is only available in a single colour like the Redmi Note. The capacitive buttons on the front still aren’t backlit.
The smaller bezels though are great, even though the phone is not quite as compact as something like the Moto X 2013, but then again, it has capacitive and not on-screen buttons. If Xiaomi doesn’t want to have the tiny addition to their BOM for a backlight for these buttons (shame on them), then they should make them white instead of red for a better chance of visibility.
- Display: It’s a great unit, supplied by Sharp/AUO, and is laminated. The Moto E 2015 doesn’t stand a chance here with its qHD screen, as the Redmi 2 not only has a good display on paper – 4.7-inch, HD resolution, IPS – it’s great in the real-world too. Bright, great contrast and viewing angles, and good enough resolution at this price range.
While no review seems to have said anything on the colour calibration of the display, it’s fair to say that it’s good enough (even if not conforming to sRGB). You can also manually adjust the colour temperature via a provided option. It’s also worth noting that the display is similar to the one on the Lenovo A6000, just 0.3-inches smaller.
- RAM and storage: Xiaomi has to launch the Limited Edition (2GB RAM and 16GB storage) version. Go on, do it. And remove that Limited Edition tagline and launch it as a Plus version instead. Lenovo’s already done that with the A6000 and the A6000 Plus. If they don’t, where’s that innovative edge gone?
- SoC: The CPU + GPU combination is average. Here, Xiaomi upgrades the SoC to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 (MSM8916), which consists of stock quad ARM Cortex-A53 cores clocked at 1.2GHz and coupled with the Adreno 306 GPU clocked at 400MHz, pretty much the same as the Adreno 305 (which in its turn was similar to 2012’s Adreno 225) albeit at supposedly lower power consumption.
It’s disappointing to see that this performance slightly betters an early 2012 phone, and still isn’t equivalent to late 2012 flagship performance (think Nexus 4 / Optimus G level which is available for cheap now).
Consumers could spend INR 2000 more and get phones having either Snapdragon 615 or MediaTek’s MT6752m, both of which have significantly improved performance and are better than early 2013 flagship generation performance. But INR 2000 is still a big deal and can blow the budget for many.
What we need is the Snapdragon 615, at a lower price tier. And that’s what we will get with the upcoming Snapdragon 415 and 425, which essentially brings the S615 down one tier.
These SoCs will be available next year, likely in time for a hypothetical Redmi 2s / Redmi 3. They’ll also have the Adreno 405 GPU, finally providing Adreno 320-class gaming performance. No more frame rate drops / having to play at lowest graphics settings. The question is: are you willing to wait?
But then we come to the question that for the vast majority of Redmi 2 buyers, will the performance of the SoC will be enough? The RAM and storage issue is a real problem and causes lag and reloads.
As for the CPU, it’s not as big a problem, but it’s still not good enough. The reason for that is MIUI 6 (more below). A faster CPU can assist in app loading and multitasking as well as web browsing, and the octa-core A53 CPUs in the Snapdragon 615 and MT6752m are definitely worth the price increase – but only if you feel performance is wanting in the first place.
And the GPU is definitely a liability now. The rate of GPU performance increase is higher than the price increase of INR 2000. The Adreno 405 and the Mali T760MP2 are four times more powerful as the Adreno 306 (think performance increase going from 2012 flagship to 2013) which is a big deal for mobile games.
Xiaomi is hampered by choosing from available Qualcomm SoCs here, but the simple fact is that the Redmi 2 doesn’t provide any meaningful upgrade from the Redmi 1s in performance.
Qualcomm is going to have to do better, if the excellent performance aims of budget phones is ever going to be fulfilled.
- Camera: There’s no contest here. The Redmi 2’s 8MP sensor blows away the competition when it comes to detail, mature image processing and noise reduction, and low-light quality. It has 1.4 microns pixel size (so the sensor size is 1/3.2″) and pixel sensitivity is OK out-of-the-box without tinkering just like the good old days even without OIS (when will we see OIS in this price range, by the way?). The sensor is a BSI one from OmniVision, and the aperture is f/2.2, another thing which helps.
It’s a balanced camera, a surprising statement for a budget smartphone camera. Flash, autofocus and all the other basics are present, but the image quality is better than what you’d believe from the price. Again, the Moto E 2015 doesn’t stand a chance, and the Lenovo A6000 also can’t compare.
It’s not just about one part of the equation. For good overall camera performance, a good showing must be made in the camera app (usability and controls), focusing and shutter speed, daylight image quality, indoor (artificial lighting) image quality, macro image quality, flash photography and finally low-light image photos. Phew.
And how does the Redmi 2 handle all this? No particular weak spot for the price, that’s what. Sure, detail levels could be higher, and low-light is never going to be as good as say an upper mid-range phone, but it’s respectable nevertheless.
There’s no competitor right now able to match it. Then there’s video. The quality of the 1080p video may not be that awesome, but it’s unmatched in this price segment. The Moto E and the Lenovo A6000 can only shoot at 720p, and Microsoft’s Lumia 535 shoots at 480p. 1080p should be the standard.
Still, at the end of the day it’s a small update over the already good camera on the Redmi 1s. For the next iteration, Xiaomi should make a major upgrade with sensor choice, f/2.0 lens and better low-light image processing.
- Sound quality: According to a lot of reviews, it’s very good. The speakers get loud, which is good because many times even the flagships don’t get loud enough. Same goes for audio quality through earphones, which is also great.
- Battery life: Snapdragon 410 may not be powerful, but it does have one compensating feature. Good battery life because of power efficiency. The Cortex-A53 cores draw more power compared to the previous generation Cortex-A7, but make up for it with better performance, and coupled with a larger 2200mAh battery, the battery life should be average or above the average standard.
Specific screen-on-time and standy usage is of course going to differ for all users, and for battery benchmarks, they’re useful only for comparison, not for estimation of battery life. Like it’s said, your mileage may vary.
- Software: It’s a polarising thing. Right off we see that the Redmi 2 was launched with 4.4 KitKat, and hasn’t gotten an update to Android 5.0 Lollipop yet, never mind 5.1. Xiaomi must definitely improve the speed of software updates, get Lollipop as an OTA out as fast as possible.
Because when you think of it, the Redmi 2 is being marketed as having a 64-bit capable processor out there, while not having the capabilities to use it. That’s disingenuous. That’s something which they have to fix. Right now.
Moving on, we run into MIUI 6, better than MIUI 5 in aesthetics, but still an acquired taste at best and hideously inferior to stock Lollipop at worst. While Xiaomi has removed most of the terrible designs of the previous version in MIUI 6, we still prefer stock.
But there’s always the “just use a different launcher!” argument, so okay, okay. There’s lots of room for improvement, they’re getting there. And the new task switcher does look a thousand times better.
The UI smoothness thing is another thing entirely. According to numerous sources, MIUI 6 is more heavy on transitions and animations for the UI compared to MIUI 5. And we’ve already seen the Adreno 306 is barely enough for gaming in Android in 2015.
So there are frame rate drops, and there is some lag – delay in response time. Something which is highlighted when you’re multitasking, as that brings out the RAM issue too. Not good.
Xiaomi’s answer to this is to say that animations can be disabled. But how do you disable them? By going into the Developer Options, which are hidden by default. Smart move, that. The consumer is supposed to know that to get better smoothness, he first has to head into a hidden settings mode.
That’s not really how things – especially important things like this – should be.
Is it a deal-breaker? That depends on your expectations of smoothness. You can install something like Nova Launcher and most probably the whole experience will improve 10x.
In a future update, we hope that those animations are toned down, and that overall UI performance is improved, since it’s a must at this point.
- Push notifications: It’s a bug. Or is it a case of poor design? Whatever, but it’s something which is hilarious. By default, users are reporting that push notifications from WhatsApp, Gmail, etc don’t arrive. The reason is that the phone aggressively frees RAM, and Xiaomi hasn’t allotted these apps the background service they need. They get shut down too.
The solution is to manually head into an in-built app and add such services to auto-start and lock, so they don’t get shut down. The problem is: the consumer shouldn’t have to do that. It’s an urgent bug, and something which can bring down the reputation of this phone in a WhatsApp crazy market. Fix it faster than ASAP.
- Kernel source: It’s not available yet. GPL violation? Yes. We don’t understand the delays. If only they released it at the proper time and in proper working manner, it would be better for all concerned parties. Right now, no alternative custom ROMs are available due to this issue.
The Redmi 2: not a game-changer, but still a solid purchase
You probably think after all the problems specified, we’re not going to recommend the Redmi 2. It’s our approach that for unbiased smartphone coverage, all the aspects have to be specified, in a format as balanced and optimally detailed you can be. We don’t believe in recommending a product blindly, and nor do we shoot it down just because it happens to lack something.
Our problems are less with the Redmi 2 and more with Qualcomm’s lack of moving on from the 2012 level, although Xiaomi definitely has its share of blame. I mean, push notifications not arriving until you fix them? Is this a joke?
After going over everything, we conclude that the Redmi 2 is not as game-changing as its predecessor was. Not only is it more expensive by INR 1000 – and we say again that even INR 500 makes a difference in this market – but also the upgrade isn’t that big. The performance is improved, but it still isn’t at the level where it should be. If you have the Redmi 1s, you can probably keep it for another year.
As far as the competitors are covered though, there are two lines of thinking. Get a new budget phone, or get a 2012-level flagship whose price has fallen down to almost the same level, like the Nexus 4 / Optimus G.
When it comes to the current budget phones in the INR 7000-8500 price segment, the Redmi 2 is one of the best out there, although it won’t suit everyone. It beats the Moto E in most areas except software, the Lenovo A6000 is pretty close but doesn’t have as good a camera, while phones from Micromax, Lava etc are still getting there.
The comparison with older flagships is not something many would make, but still, they’re more powerful, have more premium designs, much better custom ROM development and 2GB of RAM. On the downside, availability is a huge problem, warranties won’t be there, and camera will likely be inferior (the Redmi 2 beats the Nexus 4 camera by a good margin).
The Redmi 2: an incremental update to a pioneering smartphone, but we’re still hoping for more with its successor. We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating again: there’s still a long way to go before budget phones feel as complete as higher priced phones.