MWC 2016: Xiaomi unveils ceramic-backed Mi5 smartphone

Xiaomi Mi5 presentation Image copyright Xiaomi
Image caption Xiaomi's Mi5 uses a customised version of Android, which promotes the company's own Miui store

China's Xiaomi has unveiled the ceramic-cased Mi5 Android smartphone, highlighting the top-end version of the handset is a fraction of the price of its rivals' flagships.

The company held press conferences for the launch in Beijing and at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress.

The European press conference has fuelled speculation Xiaomi is preparing to expand sales beyond Asia and Brazil.

However, the company made no mention of any such plan during the presentations.

In fact, its representatives told MWC attendees the event was a "preview" rather than a launch.

"It suggests that Xiaomi has still not resolved issues over intellectual property and patent rights that it needs to do to put the handsets on sale in Europe and North America," said Ben Wood, from tech consultancy CCS Insight.

"Doing that will come with a price tag.

"But coming to MWC gives Xiaomi access to hundreds of the top analysts, journalists and other industry commentators to help raise awareness of the Mi brand before any such launch."

Another analyst agreed the company needed to expand further.

"Xiaomi missed its 2015 smartphone shipment target by seven million, because it was too exposed to the Chinese market, where fast growing iPhone sales hurt it," said Ian Fogg, from IHS Technology.

"We see increasing numbers of Xiaomi smartphones appearing in use around the world, in many countries where Xiaomi smartphones are not officially on sale.

"[So] other smartphone makers must continue to look over their shoulder, even if Mi5's official availability remains limited to a handful of countries."

Xiaomi describes itself as the world's fifth bestselling smartphone company.

Its handset shipments rose 23% last year, giving it about 5% of the global smartphone market, according to market research company IDC.

Ceramic back

Xiaomi executive Hugo Barra told the MWC audience its ceramic body added to the Mi5's manufacturing costs but made it more durable.

Nokia used to make phones using the material, but most rivals currently use glass, metal or plastic cases.

Image copyright Xiaomi
Image caption Hugo Barra said the device's curved back was made from a "high quality" ceramic

Mr Barra said the 5.1in (13in)-screened Mi5, at 6.95mm (0.27in) and 129g (0.28lb), was thinner and lighter than Apple's iPhone 6S and Samsung's Galaxy S7.

But its Chinese rival Huawei's P8 phone is about 0.5mm thinner.

Display technologies

Mr Barra said the Mi5, on sale in China from 1 March, would be the first phone to feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 processor.

Image copyright Xiaomi
Image caption Mr Barra said the phone was "insanely fast" thanks to its faster processor and other new components

To deliver more realistic colours, it would also use a new Sony camera sensor to stop light leaking from one pixel to another.

And the 16 megapixel camera also had a new "four-axis" optical stabilisation feature to prevent blurry photos in dim-lit surroundings.

Xiaomi had also secured 21 patents of its own for its display technologies, Mr Barra said, mostly in China, although one had been in the US.

And the Mi5's "sunlight display" allowed it to adjust the contrast of each pixel in real time when used outside.

"It makes the darker parts of the content - whether it's a photo or anything that you are looking at - lighter, so you can see it better, without making the light parts lighter too, which would explode [the image] and use too much power," Mr Barra said.

He added the handset would be preinstalled with Xiaomi's new video chat app, Mi Video Calls, which auto-enhanced people's appearance and allowed graphics to be superimposed in real time.

Image copyright Xiaomi
Image caption Xiaomi says its video chat app features a Beautify feature

The app is also being released for other Android and iOS handsets.

Price comparisons

Xiaomi said the top-end edition of Mi5 would cost 2,699 yuan ($413; £297), which was:

  • about 40% cheaper than Huawei's Mate 8
  • about 50% cheaper than Samsung's Galaxy S7
  • about 60% cheaper than Apple's iPhone 6S

However, Mr Cross questioned whether Xiaomi would be able to offer such a wide margin of difference in the West.

"From a specs perspective, it certainly ticks lots of the boxes," he said.

"However, there are the intellectual property costs and if people aren't aware of the brand that means it will also have to pay a 'marketing tax' because people won't know or trust it yet.

"So, although there's an awful lots of excitement about Xiaomi in China, companies like Samsung, LG and Apple will be more concerned about Huawei for now."

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