Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 XDA Review: The King of The Low End

Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 XDA Review: The King of The Low End

Fingerprint Sensor

The Redmi Note 3 bears a fingerprint sensor on the rear of the device in a circular form factor, and as we have come to expect from sensors even in this price range, it works very well. Once you get used to the positioning and depth of the sensor relative to the phone’s body, unlocking the phone with your index finger would become second nature. The phone is particularly quick in recognizing fingerprints in any orientation, and does so with the screen unlocked. The fingerprint sensor implementation is on Android 5.1.1, so MIUI has leveraged other ways to make use of the fingerprint sensor like using it to lock access to external apps.

To be honest, the Redmi Note 3’s fingerprint sensor and functionality are very good, but most Chinese phones have nailed this aspect of the phone, so this is not the feature that sets it apart from other phones with fingerprint sensors. Is it 100% accurate? No, there are some instances (difficult to reproduce due to inexplicable variables) where the sensor just spazzes out and would keep declining the fingerprint in succession. During these outbursts, even if you tried n number of times, the scanner will not recognize until you either let the screen timeout and relock the device, or you manually enter the PIN/Pattern/Password. Such outbreaks are thankfully very rare and far in between, so this is an anomalous behavior instead of the norm.

Battery & Charging

If you purchased the Redmi Note 3 and expected average battery life, then you couldn’t be more wrong. In a good sense! The Redmi Note 3 is an absolute beast when it comes to battery life. The Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon 650 variant packs in a non-removable 4,000 mAh battery, which is above the market average for phones of this size. And the Redmi Note 3 just shines!

Let’s look at all the ingredients involved in the Redmi Note 3: you have the Snapdragon 650 with its 4x Cortex-A53 cores for power efficient working cases, you get a standard 5.5″ FHD LCD display which is a tried and test combination for displays but with very wide range of screen brightness, there’s a substantially large capacity battery in terms of physical size, and then there’s MIUI 7 on Android 5.1.1. which follows a heavy hand with regards background applications. This cocktail combination makes for impressive battery life!

We asked users on our Twitter to guess the phone when we posted the above screenshot with the almost 16 hour battery life. Most guesses that came in were for phones that were advertised as heavy battery phones, mainly devices that go above the 5,ooo mAh capacity mark. But this was achieved on the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon 650 variant. The insane 15 hour 52 mins benchmark score represents the time estimated by PCMark on minimum brightness with WiFi and cellular data switched off, but cell network operating as normal. PCMark had to run for approximately 14 hours to loop a bunch of tasks designed to test the efficiency of the device’s performance, as well as see the impact on battery. We see some impressive results on maximum brightness and WiFi and Sync turned on as well, as PCMark estimates the Redmi Note 3 to last 8 hours of repetitive cycle of work.

[One thing to note, the gradual rise in temperature that PCMark displays is because of change in room temperature during the course of the day and is not caused by the device or any of its internal factors.]

Benchmarks aside, the Redmi Note 3 is as good in battery in real world usage as you would expect. I easily ended my work days with 50%+ battery left without compromising my workflow. The backup in the battery gives a level of confidence, knowing that 10 mins of some game won’t kill your device. I never needed the charger anywhere in the middle of the day, and I realized that I may be able to squeeze by another day of usage if I ever forgot to juice up in the night. Night standby drain is never more than 1-2%. These figures are what I used to achieve on other devices after employing Xposed modules and apps to minimize battery drain. But on the Redmi Note 3, MIUI 7 on Android 5.1.1 did all of that without needing to dabble into the mod side of things, just as any normal user would use the phone.

When it comes to charging though, the Redmi Note 3 is not so fantastic. The device ships with a 5V/2A charger for charging equivalent to first generation Quick Charge. You also do not get wireless charging, so you are stuck with conventional forms of powering up this humongous battery. The battery goes up by 11-12% charge every 15 mins from a dead state, taking more than an hour to reach 50%. After that, it starts tapering off again, with a complete 100% charge taking more than two and half hours. It is a good thing that the battery lasts as it does once charged up, otherwise this would have been a very harrowing process to undertake everyday. We wish there was some form of quicker charging, but considering the budget range of the phone, we will not hold this against it.

Rootability & Future Proofing

When it comes to future proofing, Xiaomi has a very different way of doing things. Even in 2016, the Redmi Note 3 is launched with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. When you look at it as a pure number game, the Redmi Note 3 severely languishes behind, since a lot of Chinese competitors are releasing phones with Android 6.0 Marshmallow. But, the Redmi Note 3 is still updated very frequently.

So what is this update that happens frequently but the device still remains on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop? That is MIUI for you.Screenshot_2016-04-27-02-26-01_com.android.settings

Even within my two weeks of usage of the device, I have already received a huge 1GB OTA for MIUI for build LOHMIDA from build LOHMICL. This update still did not upgrade my base OS, and is significantly large for a simple bug fix collection. The update notification did not offer a changelog which was frustrating, and my usage on LOHMICL was a matter of hours before the notification arrived, so I had not much of a chance to play around pre-update.

Now, if you analyze, the common reasons on why users want to upgrade from Lollipop to Marshmallow is to get the refined design language in Android 6.0. There’s the Fingerprint API that allows OEMs to easily support a fingerprint scanner without having to build their own framework. Then there’s Doze, which promises great standby battery life. And there’s also the wish to be on the latest of Android Security Patches, just so that you are not exposed to vulnerabilities from versions ago.

And with MIUI, you get a lot of these already on MIUI 7, or simply don’t need them to begin with. The UX of MIUI is completely different, MIUI already has a fingerprint framework in place (though Android 6.0’s API would be superior since it opens up the fingerprint sensor to external app usage). Battery life is already top notch with MIUI and the Redmi Note 3. And for security updates, the LOHMIDA build puts the Redmi Note 3 at February’s security patch level, which is better when compared to any other Chinese device on Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

But this still does not excuse the device not being on Android 6.0. The Xiaomi Mi 5, which is Xiaomi’s flagship for 2016 and released a few months later, comes with MIUI 7 on Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box. Xiaomi has had a few months to update the MediaTek and Snapdragon variants of the Redmi Note 3, but there seems to be no word on the update. With MIUI 8 around the corner, there might be a jump directly onto MIUI 8 (which will very likely be built atop Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow). But since no official update or statement is available for the update, there does not look like there will be much activity on this end. After all, it is natural for the company to concentrate more on their flagship and recent releases rather than on a starter phone so to speak. We do hope that the phone will receive two years of update support within MIUI as well as within Android versions.

With the status of the official updates being a question mark as of now, we move on to unofficial updates. How is the development scene of the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3?

Not bad, actually. However, a few issues in the past continue to plague the device, and as such, the overall development scene elicits a mixed bag of feelings.

Starting off, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 does have a its own forum place on XDA-Developers. This sub forum serves as a common resting area for both the MediaTek variant (Hennessy) and the Snapdragon variant (Kenzo). Development areas for the versions are segregated in an attempt to avoid confusion, while thread OPs are advised to follow a naming scheme when the device variant matters. The software (ROMs, Kernels, Recoveries) are not interchangeable, so a distinction was strongly needed.

So, with the forums existing, how does one start modding the device? This is where the roadblock and the development choke point exists: the unlocking procedure. We highlighted the issue in a previous article, where we mentioned what the problem was, and why it was flawed. The same scenes exist now: you need to apply for a bootloader unlock code from Xiaomi, and getting one can take a few weeks.

Yes, the bootloader can be unlocked relatively easily if you read the official forum guide on unlocking the bootloader. The problem is with requesting for the unlock code. I made a mistake of not applying for the unlock code as soon as I got the device, but I did end up applying for a code almost a week ago (April 20, 2016 at 1.30 am IST). As of writing this, (April 28, 2016 at 12.30 am IST), I have yet to receive permission from Xiaomi to unlock my bootloader. This certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth for someone so used to root and Xposed, and definitely is an area where the Redmi Note 3 lacks from the POV of an XDA’er.

Once you do have the unlock code, all you have to do is download and install the Mi Flash Unlocking tool and press unlock. And that’s it. This point is straightforward and quite easy frankly, but its reliance on the step before it makes it unlikely that one would have the forethought to apply for a bootloader unlock 10 days before planning to unlock.

Of course, this is XDA. So an unofficial bootloader unlock method also exists. There are several of these guides in the XDA forums, and they are a tad bit difficult to follow. I had to read it a few times to correctly understand the procedure, so I reckon that first time Android beginners would find that it makes no sense and might be intimidated by the complicated nature of it. The procedure involves flashing a Fastboot ROM through Mi Tool with your phone in edl mode, which then lets you unlock the bootloader with a fastboot oem unlock-go command. After that, it is easier as you have to flash TWRP through fastboot and you are on your way.

Once you install TWRP, any future OTAs will fail to install on the device. You will have to edit the zip to make it flashable on your device. This, along with the possibility of a Marshmallow-based stock ROM OTAs in the future, have made me stay away from trying out the unofficial methods. Other forum members have had varying degrees of success depending on how well they followed instructions, with a good majority having unlocked successfully.

The 3rd party ROM and kernel scene for the Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon variant looks good. There is official TWRP 3.0 for the device, and I could see WIP builds for unofficial CM 13 and CM 12.1 as well as a few other popular AOSP based ROMs. Seeing that the Snapdragon 650 variant is about two months old, the development progress looks good for a low-end device. There are bugs in the builds, but the fact that you can remove MIUI completely from the device gives me hope on running the latest version of Android without needing Xiaomi’s help.

Kernel source code for the Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon 650 variant has also been released by Xiaomi. Developers have successfully compiled (bootable) kernels from it as well.

Final Thoughts

The Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon 650 variant is one of the most powerful low end devices in the market right now, if not THE most powerful sub-$150 device. Even if you ignore the price for a while, the Redmi Note 3 is an all-round package for the average consumer. It packs in just about everything that an average consumer could care for.

You get a well built metal phone, a good 5.5″ display, a fingerprint scanner that works for the most part. These are things that you can easily find in other Chinese devices and are not what sets this phone apart. What does set it apart is the powerful Snapdragon 650 processor inside, the humongous battery and the insane battery life, the MIUI UX which is far more polished than what it started out as. Then there are a few smaller extras, such as the IR Blaster which is something that even flagships skimp out on, the thermal efficiency of the device, and an overall smartphone package that will suit and work for the average consumer.

But, as is with every phone, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 is not perfect. It has its limitations: a mediocre-at-best camera experience, poor multitasking capabilities, lack of NFC and quick charging. And then there’s MIUI, which you can subjectively detest as well, just as you can grow to like it. The 3rd party developer scene for the device is also a mixed bag, so there’s no clear consensus on the hackability of this phone.

The strongest point of the phone is not that it is a complete package. The strongest part of the phone is its price. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon 650 variant retails in the Indian market for Rs. 9,999 ($150, €133) for the 16GB Storage | 2GB RAM variant, and Rs. 11,999 ($180, €160) for the 32GB Storage | 3GB RAM variant. For this price, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 absolutely slaughters the competition. There is no device in the Indian market right now that I could recommend which one-ups the Redmi Note 3. Sure, some devices are better in some respect than the Redmi Note 3, but they then lose out unfavorably in several other areas.

Some of the Redmi Note 3’s competition include low end devices like the LeEco Le 1S (comparatively inferior Helio X10 SoC, smaller battery, but USB Type C and costs Rs. 10,999 ($165)), and some of the previous low/mid end devices like the Motorola Moto G3 2015 (outdated Snapdragon 410 SoC, several other limitations but upgradeable to Android 6.0 Marshmallow and costs Rs. 10,999 ($165)). Even if you start moving upwards in the budget, towards devices like the Motorola Moto G3 Turbo (Rs. 12,499; $190), the OnePlus X (Rs. 14,999; $225) and start going beyond these as well, you would be hard pressed to find a package as convincing as the Redmi Note 3.

There is one last catch to the device: flash sales. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon 650 is sold in India through the flash sales model via Xiaomi’s website. As expected for such a strong value smartphone, the phone has been selling out in mere seconds in the last few flash sales, making it naturally very difficult to get your hands onto this smartphone. We hope that Xiaomi is able to scale up its supply to account for the demand of the device and get away from the flash sales model which is a very harrowing process for a potential consumer.

The Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Snapdragon 650 variant bears all the right ingredients to please all the needs and expectations of a consumer opting for sub-$200 phone. In fact, the Redmi Note 3 stands shoulder-to-shoulder to even the mid end of the market. This phone is truly Xiaomi’s trump card in capturing the Indian low end market, and if they can expand their supply while the demand is still raging hot, they might just be able to.

From my end as a reviewer, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 gets a thumbs up as a device to be recommended to the average Joe in early 2016. This also makes for a good choice for an international XDA-Developers Member if they can work past the probable lack of 4G LTE bands for their country and at the roadblocks in the developer scene; and can actually purchase the Snapdragon 650 variant. However, I would not recommend going for the base 2GB RAM model if you can avoid it. The 3GB RAM variant with the Snapdragon 650 SoC is the phone you shouldn’t mind loosening up another $30 for.

I’ll continue to enjoy the Redmi Note 3, but I wish my bootloader unlock code was here already.

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