Pretty much all smartphones now resemble iPhones. But in the future, all phones might look likeXiaomi’s newly announced Mi Mix concept phone, which will be available in China starting next month.
The Mi Mix is garnering attention not because it’s designed by renowned French designer Philippe Starck or the fact that it’ll only cost about $520, but because it’s a glimpse of the future of phone design.
The Mi Mix is also Xiaomi’s first real attempt at bucking the trend of simply copying Apple’s and Samsung’s phones and selling them for less, and innovating with hardware that challenges the status quo.
If Xiaomi plays its cards right, the Mi Mix could be the company’s tour de force that’ll help it break into the U.S. market and become a household brand. Much like how Samsung supplanted Sony as the world’s largest electronics company, Xiaomi could unseat Samsung (assuming it has such grand ambitions).
From just looking at the Mi Mix, it’s apparent Xiaomi went out of its way to design something completely brand new and refreshing for consumers who are now used to expecting minor physical tweaks to pre-existing phone designs.
What Xiaomi has done with the Mi Mix is essentially the same approach Samsung took when it started curving the glass edges on its phones. With annual iterations, Samsung was able to turn what was once considered a gimmick into an iconic signature design.
Custom edge-to-edge screen
The Mi Mix is the first phone from a big phone maker to sport a screen that’s truly edge-to-edge on three sides. A few years ago I reviewed the Sharp Aquos Crystal, which had the same bezel-free design on three sides.
But even though it wasn’t a very good phone, it was obvious to me (and everyone who had seen it) that it was sleek — really, really sleek. “The future of smartphones looks like the [Aquos Crystal]” is what I declared.
Fast-forward two years and Xiaomi’s now running with the futuristic form factor and making new iPhones and Galaxy phones look like clunky old Palm Pilots in the process.
Xiaomi’s now running with a futuristic form factor and making new iPhones and Galaxy phones look like clunky old Palm Pilots.
Every tech company invests in research and development to experiment with new materials, new technologies and new manufacturing processes.
Xiaomi’s been content using OEM bits and pieces to cobble together its inexpensive (but very well-built phones), but it would appear the company’s now investing more heavily in more original and custom parts that could transform it from a copycat to a trendsetter.
Take a look at the the huge 6.4-inch screen. The company says it’s a custom-built 17:9 aspect ratio display with a 2,048 x 1,080 resolution. The only other company that’s been using custom resolutions like this is Apple; every other phone uses a typical HD (1,280 x 720), full HD (1,920 x 1,080) or Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) screen.
And while it shares similarities to the Aquos Crystal, look at the screen corners on the Mi Max — they’re round. There’s never been any phone with rounded screen corners.
Then there’s the Mi Mix’s design. It’s made of polished ceramic and there will even be a special model with 18-karat gold trims. If that’s not ambitious, what is?
Ceramic is notoriously difficult to work with. Creating high yield rates that don’t crack during the manufacturing process is a real challenge. Xiaomi’s worked with ceramic in the past (the Mi 5 ceramic edition), but not in large quantities. So, too, has OnePlus with the OnePlus X ceramic edition.
But the benefits of ceramic can be worth it. It’s highly resistant to scratching and pressure. Earlier this year, a YouTuber took a drill to a ceramic Mi 5 and failed; the ceramic just buffed it off like it was NBD.
It’s true we don’t know how many Mi Mix’s Xiaomi plans to produce. The fact it’s still a “concept” device even though it’ll be commercially available could suggest it’s a proof-of-concept that’s not fully thought-out yet, kind of like the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge was before it morphed into theS7 Edge we know today.
Custom ultrasound speaker tech
It’s not just the surface-level tech that’s wonderfully different — Xiaomi also went out of its way to figure out how to hide things like the earpiece and proximity sensor that usually litter the top bezel.
To completely hide the sensors underneath the screen, Xiaomi turned to the experts at Elliptic Labs to utilize their ultrasound technology.
“Xiaomi came to us about a year ago,” Laila Danielsen, CEO of Elliptic Labs, told Mashable. “If they kept the infrared sensor, they couldn’t extend the screen size all the way to the top. They wouldn’t have been able to do this design without us.”
The Mi Mix uses Elliptic Labs’ “Inner Beauty,” patented ultrasound proximity software in place of an optical sensor.
“Xiaomi wouldn’t have been able to do this design without us.”
“Elliptic Labs’ technology eliminates common issues with hardware proximity sensors, such as their unreliability in certain weather conditions or in response to various skin colors as well as dark hair,” the company wrote in press release. “The value INNER BEAUTY brings to mobile OEMs includes not only more screen real estate but also reduced cost with the removal of the hardware sensor.”
“Without our technology, [Xiaomi] would not have room for the speaker they put in,” Danielsen said. “They didn’t have a choice — for design purposes but also for space.”
Laila went as far as to say the Mi Mix is a major turning point for the Xiaomi.
“Up till now they’ve been copying features like fingerprint sensors,” Laila said. “For the first time in the history of Xiaomi, they’re coming out with a new design. When I look at a Samsung phone or Apple phone, they feel old-fashioned. They’re like an old TV screen with a big frame around it. Xiaomi has disrupted the [current] technology.”
And lastly, the Mi Mix doesn’t scrimp on specs. It has all the latest and greatest horsepower including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor (the same one in the new Google Pixels), 4GB and 6GB RAM models, 128GB and 256GB of storage and a whopping 4,440 mAh battery that’s larger than even the ill-fated Galaxy Note7’s. And, of course, there’s a fingerprint sensor on the back.
For cameras you get a 16-megapixel camera on the back and a 5-megapixel selfie camera on the front.
Honestly, there’s nothing to complain about on the Mi Mix as far as power is concerned — on paper, at least.
Planting the seed today for world domination tomorrow
All that I’ve heard about the Mi Max sounds mighty impressive. But as we’ve learned time and again, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Samsung Galaxy Note7 had seemingly everything you could want in a smartphone. But overexuberance from Samsung’s executives to beat the iPhone 7 along with theshortsightedness of possibly including components that just weren’t ready (like a battery that was reportedly too big to fit in the frame) may have played into its ultimate demise.
As the New York Times put it:
“The Note 7 had more features and was more complex than any other phone manufactured. In a race to surpass iPhone, Samsung seems to have packed it with so much innovation it became uncontrollable.”
It’s unfair to dismiss any phone maker just because Samsung screwed up big time with the Note7, but its disaster has taught us to be more skeptical when something seems too good to be true.
The Mi Mix may very well be a new chapter for Xiaomi. It’s very possible the innovations that the company is throwing into the Mi Mix will be emulated by other phone makers. But since I’m not psychic, it’s hard to predict the future.
For all I know, the Mi Mix could end up to be a very good experiment that never becomes anything more.
But since I’m optimistic and want phones to be exciting again, I’m going to say the tea leaves suggest new endeavors for Xiaomi’s expansion and transformation into becoming a global electronics powerhouse.
Apple and Samsung probably have nothing to worry about in the short-term, but long-term, if Xiaomi keeps pushing the envelope, they won’t be able to ignore the Chinese company.