Thursday, 5 January 2017

Redmi 3S: Affordable, Great Battery Life but Full of Compromises

The Redmi series of Xiaomi Phones have seen a rapid update cycle in 2016, with three generations of the low end budget offering being launched in just one year. The model I'll be reviewing is the Redmi 3S, which shares the same hardware as the newly launched Redmi 4 in an enclosure of older design, but is it worth it? Let's find out!

Unboxing & First Impressions
Gone are the brown cardboard boxes of yesteryear, and in with the fresh-looking white packaging complete with a coloured depiction of the device itself on the front, device name on the top and sides, plus a general list of specs on the back. I personally prefer a cleaner look, but I don't mind having a refreshing change since this might just be the last time I'll see this box.

Opening the box reveals the device itself sitting on top of another box containing all the paper work, a 5V/2A Chinese adaptor and a fast-charge capable micro USB cable. There are no included earphones, as per Xiaomi tradition, though I have lots of IEMs lying around so I don't mind the exclusion. The style of packaging is very similar to what other manufacturers have adopted, but I feel it provides less protection for the device while in-transport.

Taking the phone out of the box, you'll be greeted with a simplistic looking front with no logos. The speaker, the 5 megapixel front facing camera and the set of sensors are above the screen while three silver, non-backlit capacitive navigation buttons and a notification LED sit on the bottom chin of the phone. The phone has a aluminium shell, though it should be noted the top and bottom of the device is made of plastic for the antennae. My unit has manufacturing defects with the plastic parts as they do not sit flush with the aluminium parts. The sand-blasted aluminium also makes it slippery and prone to fingerprints.

The device packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 430, 2GBs of RAM and 16GBs of on-board storage. The CPU is an octa-core clocked at 1.4GHz and supports CAT 4 LTE as well as Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0. The CPU and the bundled Adreno 505 GPU perform decent at best, so don't expect complicated tasks or heavy gaming. While it might seem decent, many of the phone's hardware are relying on rather old technology. It's still rocking 802.11n, which means no support for 5GHz WiFi bands, and it's still using eMMC 5.0 for its storage. The phone would lag at times with 5-6 apps running, so don't expect much multitastking out of it. 

On the back is where the 13.1 megapixel rear facing camera with a single LED reside at one corner. There is slight camera hump at the rounded edges of the phone, much like the Mi 4i, thus a metal ring is installed around the lens to protect it. Much as I would've prefered no camera humps, especially in the corners, this doesn't affect my user experience nonetheless. The fingerprint scanner is placed in the midline in a comfortable position where most people usually place their index finger.

At the bottom is where the rear-facing speakers are located. Having used a Mi 4i before, I wasn't expecting much from the speakers since they're back-firing and are easily muffled. It was plenty loud when lifted off the table, but what surprised me most is that it sounded well enough when placed on the table without being too muffled. It still couldn't replace your audio peripherals, but it's a good improvement over the previous bottom-firing speakers from older device. The volume gets plenty loud without being too distorted, good highs and decent mids but lacking bass. 

The top of the phone is where the 3.5mm headphone jack is located plus an IR blaster and a microphone. It's neat that they've included both the headphone jack and IR blaster because not everyone loves carrying dongles or own Bluetooth headphones, and you'll never know when an IR blaster comes in handy. The bottom of the device is where another microphone is located, along with the micro USB port. I wish they have used USB C for this so it's more futureproof, but I suppose for a device of this price compromises are expected.

Booting up the device and you'll be greeted by a 5 inch, 720p display with approximately 294 pixels per inch. While it's not a low resolution screen by all means, resting it beside a 5 inch Full HD display of the Xiaomi Mi 3 and you'll immediately notice the ever so slightly better screen on the Mi 3. However, it has it's upsides too, with a lower resolution screen comes less power consumption and thus less battery use. It also packs a Sunlight display which essentially increases the contrast to improve visibility under sunlight, a Night Display for ultra-low backlighting for less strenous night viewing, and a Read Mode for reduced blue light emissions. The screen does get plenty bright, thus visibility under strong light is rather good.

Having a fingerprint scanner in a device that costs only 699 RMB (approximately USD 100) is definitely a welcome addition. While it might not be the speediest fingerprint scanner in the market, it's a surprisingly reliable one. 8 out 10 scans are on spot and the device unlocks within a second. The set-up process is also straightforward and fast. I like the recessed design for the fingerprint scanner as I don't need to hunt around for it. The device also packs a 4100mAH battery which does impress. In the past 24 hours of use, I have managed to squeeze a near 5 hour screen on time with 50% screen brightness and connected to WiFi, and with just a 40% decrease in battery.

The major selling points of Redmi phones have always been its extremely affordable price and the support for Dual SIMs. The Redmi 3S continues with that, and offers the support for micro SD card expansion via the second SIM slot on the tray, which takes a Nano SIM and a Micro SIM should the user place two SIMs in it. I have personally opted for a memory expansion as the 16GBs of on-board storage isn't going to be enough. The SIM card tray sits on the left of the device, and can be opened using the included SIM eject pin.

That sums up my unboxing and first impressions of the Redmi 3S, and I'll be doing a full review of it soon. The Redmi 3S comes with okay hardware fitted within a rather well-built aluminium chassis mixed with not-so-great plastic. I have yet to try out the camera fully, but initial tests show not-so-promising photos, but I never expected much since it didn't perform well in other tasks. The only things that really impressed me are the reliable fingerprint scanner, and the great battery life. If you're looking for a first smartphone and you're on a tight budget, I'd say the Redmi 3S could be a good choice if you're willing to live with the compromises,  and that you value battery life and the convenience of a fingerprint scanner a lot.