Hands on with Xiaomi's Mi 4, a high-end handset, with an iPhone look

Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi jokes that its newest handset, built out of stainless steel, is like a “kitchen knife,” but iPhone-esque might be the better comparison.

The company Tuesday announced its latest flagship phone, the Mi 4, which is a cutting-edge device that comes at the attractive price of 1999 yuan (US$324), when bought without carrier subsidies.

Although Xiaomi phones are mostly sold in China, the company is expanding internationally in the hope of becoming a global brand. We took a look at the Mi 4, to gauge whether Xiaomi’s newest phone is worthy of the buzz.

China’s Xiaomi has been selling only Android phones for the last three years, but already has become the country’s third-biggest smartphone vendor, ahead of Apple. It’s done this by selling high-end devices at prices far less than the competition. For example, Xiaomi’s flagship phone sells for less than half the price of the iPhone 5S, which starts at 5288 yuan in China.

The Mi 4, doesn’t disappoint in the specs department either. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 2.5 GHz -core processor, 3GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p screen. There’s a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera, a 8-megapixel front-facing camera and a 3080 mAH battery that Xiaomi claims will give 36 hours of battery life in normal use.

But during Tuesday’s product announcement, Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun focused less on the specs and more on two areas consumers wanted the company to improve on: craftsmanship and the phone’s feel.

Trying the Mi 4, we found that Xiaomi had succeeded in those goals. The phone is a polished device, in a sturdy metal block that still feels light at 149 grams. Even with a 5-inch screen, the handset didn’t feel oversized. The space between the screen and the phone’s edge reaches only 0.3 mm. Xiaomi claims this makes the Mi 4 the smallest 5-inch phone by width, for a body that measures 67.55 mm.

That’s a big design upgrade from the company’s last flagship phone, which was encased in a cheaper-feeling aluminum-magnesium chassis. Xiaomi also added an anti-fingerprint coating on the Mi 4’s back cover that we found works well, eliminating nearly all the smudges after several minutes of use.

The phone’s performance is on par with other high-end handsets. Apps run fast and the screen displays some of richest colors we have seen on a mobile device. The Mi 4 can also quickly take pictures, without much pause from its camera, although the photos we took came out brighter, and sometimes blurrier, than what we wanted.

For a product at this price, you’re getting all the bells and whistles of a high-end phone. But while we were impressed by the Mi 4, we also think that it looks like a bigger version of Apple’s iPhone.

Like the iPhone 5S, the Mi 4 features rounded corners on its metallic frame. Furthermore, the edges are brushed and smoothed in a similar way, giving the two phones a bit of a resemblance.

Not that this is bad. But in the past, Xiaomi has in the past tried to play down comparisons with Apple. While the Mi 4 probably won’t help with that, the phone is definitely the most expensive-feeling handset the company has ever made. It should give rivals, including Apple, a run for their money.

The phone will start rolling out in China in limited quantities later this month.

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