Jul 27, 2014 | Xiaomi, MIUI and the Android ecosystem within China

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Introduction

One of the highlights of traveling to China was having the opportunity to understand the unique technology silo it lives in, and how it manages to remain innovating and cutting edge, relevant to its users, and rapidly gaining traction on the international tech scene. Much of how it accomplishes it today seems to be to throw more people at a problem, and there are countless intelligent people who are — for now — happily employed to solve problems they would be paid more for abroad.

This kind of ecosystem manifests itself very well in Xiaomi and its phone and gadget offerings. Shortly before we left Beijing, I had the opportunity to get my hands on one, the Redmi (Hongmi) 1S, and I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks using it as I would my other phone — a Nexus 5. It’s been an exciting trip through a different world.

Sections

Introduction
Setup
Themes
Maps
Online video
Security
Baidu, Baidu Store, Didi Taxi, Kingsoft
SIM management and miscellaneous
Conclusion

Before we get started, let’s take a look at the specifications of the phone.

Redmi 1S Nexus 5
Manufacturer Xiaomi LG
Weight 158g 130g
Display 4.7″, IPS, 1280 x 720 4.95″, IPS, 1920 x 1080
Processor Qualcomm 8228 Snapdragon 400 Quad Core 1.6 GHz Qualcomm 8974 Snapdragon 800 Quad-core 2.3 GHz
RAM 1GB 2GB
Storage 8GB 16GB
Android version MIUI based on 4.3 4.4 (KitKat)
Battery 2000 mAH, removable 2300 mAH, fixed
SIM setup Dual SIM; WCDMA/GSM Micro SIM; WCDMA/GSM/LTE
Cameras 8MP rear, 2MP front 8MP rear, 1.3MP front
Price 800 RMB within China, $169.99 outside $399 MSRP

The numbers, clearly, favor the Nexus 5. But I believe there’s always a situation where one phone beats the other, only to be beaten again. For example, the Xiaomi Mi4 has 3GB of RAM, 13MP rear and 6MP front camera and a 3000 mAH battery for just slightly above the price of the Nexus 5. Next year’s models will make the Mi4 and the iPhone 5S look like old toys. For the price point, the Redmi is a pretty good deal, more in line with the Galaxy S3 or a underperforming Nexus 4.

The other half of the attraction, of course, is its MIUI, built on top of various versions of Android. As of this writing the latest MIUI v5 is built on top of Android 4.3 build JL36C, the same version on most Nexus 7s. In China, the build available to consumers does away entirely with Google Mobile Services (GMS), notably Gmail, the Google Play Store and Google Maps. Instead, it loads the phone with the WoStore and Baidu Maps.

Setup

When plugging in the Xiaomi phone, the files visible to the system include both Windows and Mac versions of the Android File Manager. This is particularly useful since cloud storage and retrieval is not particularly unified (except for Kuaipan — which, unfortunately, I can’t get access to) and data retrieval can be expensive. It ends up being easier and more cost effective to transfer music and images by plugging in the USB.

The setup process of a brand new phone consists of 5 main steps:

  1. Language: English or simplified/traditional Chinese
  2. The default input method
  3. An optional wireless setup screen
  4. An optional Mi Account setup
  5. Location and user experience opt-in or out

The key differentiator here between it and stock Android on the Nexus 5 is that a wireless or data connection is required to complete the setup for Nexus 5, rather than optional for MIUI. Crucially, the setup process on the Nexus 5 will attempt to download updates and will give you information on Google Now during the setup process, adding quite a bit of overhead.


Granted, it’s a bit schizophrenic to call it “Welcome MIUI” at the beginning, “Start using MIUI” at the end, but a message that says “Congratulations! Enjoy Xiaomi!”

This is the first screen you see after setup is complete. Note that MIUI completely does away with the two-layered app tray available in stock Android. This means it’s also a one-step process to uninstall apps – just drag the app up and beyond the screen.

Since the phone came through a China Unicom reseller, the app on the top left is to the WoStore, its own variant on the App Store and Play Store. The international build variant comes with Google Maps and the Play Store installed, but I’m more interested in the ways they come as defaults within China.

Themes

One of the major selling points of the MIUI is the ability to thoroughly customize the “skin” of the user interface through a Theme store. Many of the themes are free – others require MiCredits to buy. 1 MiCredit is 1 RMB ($0.16 USD as of this writing), and most themes sell for 6 MiCredits, or just about $1 each.

This particular free theme made it possible for me to skin it to look like iOS7. The clock is separately skinnable too, though I was too lazy to go through the process.

Maps

The main mapping tool available within China is Baidu Maps. AutoNavi is a separate provider that provides mapping services to Apple, but given the lack of Google services within China, Baidu Maps sits comfortably within the pseudo-Android ecosystem. It offers no map services outside of China and its special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau.

In addition to the usual offering of street level maps and traffic, Baidu Maps launched in August of 2013 a street view clone named “Total View”, complete with little pin character. There’s also a heat map layer, supposedly of the amount of people in each location.

These are the various layers available. The top selections are, from left to right: satellite view, 2D view, 3D view. The rows are: points of interest, indoor maps, and heat map.

This is the heat map view layered on top of the indoor maps view. Each location that has an indoor map is explicitly called out. Tapping on one…

… will show a rudimentary floor plan of the building, with each store name and location. If you’re on site, a pin will also show you where you are.

Online video

As YouTube is also not available within China, the main contenders are Youku, Sohu TV, and Baidu’s iQiyi. Both Sohu TV and Youku have purchased licenses to stream popular US and BBC TV shows, in part to stay ahead of the illegal pirates who might end up driving traffic away from legitimate viewing sources. Still, the online video arena is not safe from Chinese censorship, as some shows like Big Bang Theory were viciously pulled by the state in April, without so much as a reason.

The mobile UI for Sohu TV — which has a remarkably YouTube-like logo — organizes TV shows by number, and subtitles are often available as well. Sohu TV has also selected to automatically start playing videos that are present in a stream.

Some videos are not available outside mainland China – for example, 2 Broke Girls is available on Sohu TV, but cannot be accessed outside of China on Youku. You’ll also notice that videos are downloadable, too.

Youku appears to be running 10, 15 or 30 second forced interstitial video ads before some of its videos, with the option to pay 169 RMB for a year, or 20 RMB for one month to remove ads (and get other fringe benefits, such as higher resolution payback).

A nice touch visible in the screenshot to the left: red dot appears next to TV shows you’ve seen.

Security

Security is a fairly big deal when it comes to a ecosystem where no single operator manages the entire available app inventory, and therefore no single operator vets and manages the security associated with each available app. Without the Play store, there are literally hundreds of app stores that have filled the void, and user preference seems to vary between “what’s available on the phone when I purchase it” to “what is recommended to my by others”. With that amount of uncertainty, MIUI has built in a couple of security layers that are worth understanding.

First, there is a Security centre, a one stop shop that checks every app for viruses, permissions, auto-updates, memory usage and spare cache space.

Ironically, there is a thin layer of “unknown source” brought in straight from stock Android, despite the fact that pretty much every app installed on the device has to come through a raw APK file loaded in the background (and is, in Google’s eyes, mostly “unknown sources”).

Installing an app prompts a segmentation of permissions by relative security. Some of the “low risk” ones include Phone ID, photo and video, system settings, while the high risk ones include sending SMS as well as enabling data. Positioning seems to jump between low and high risk, which is a bit confusing.

A view of the expanded permissions lists.

The last step to the installation process involves a toggle that allows you to mark an app as trusted. If it is, MIUI won’t ask for additional confirmationabout additional security or privacy permissions (like accessing your contact lists or location).

MIUI will also display modal dialogs when additional security or permissions are required, and automatically deny them if the user doesn’t respond to them within a certain amount of time. These warnings have ranged from reading contact lists to tracking position using the cell network.

Baidu, Baidu Store, Didi Taxi, Kingsoft

The stock browser that comes with MIUI loads a default page that lists a couple of services that are, ironically, not accessible within China. For example, Google, Picasa, twitter and Facebook are all not available. Searches are conducted through Baidu, the Google Search equivalent in China.

This screen is particularly interesting because it showcases the different entry methods available to Chinese mobile device users. They are (from top to bottom, left to right): 9 key Roman, 26 key roman, handwritten, stroke input (Wubihua) and Wubi.

The Baidu store sits alongside the Mi Market as available sources for apps, but the Baidu store offers Google products where as the Mi Market does not. Interestingly, all the apps I could see on both markets were free, even the ones that are usually paid for elsewhere (like Minecraft). While Mi Market installed version 0.9.4, the Baidu store was able to find a newer version (0.9.5).

Result for Google on both markets were interesting testaments to the workarounds performed to load Google services in a censored ecosystem. The Google installer shown here (which you must obviously first install) streamlines the process of getting Google Play services as well as the other Google apps available.

Sometimes old apps are still available, such as Google Reader…

… and some apps are still quite unusable within China.

There are two different apps I want to showcase before closing the section: Didi Taxi and Kingsoft Office. Didi Taxi is a Uber equivalent and proved to be an interesting experience using it in Beijing. A user can obviously see all the taxis available in the area using yellow dots (not visible here). If you need to put in a request, you can press the yellow button to get a push-to-talk interface to record where you want to go. Once that’s done, all the taxis in the area get the same broadcast, and can either choose to ignore that request or take it up. When we tried it, it took about 5 minutes before someone was willing to pick us up.

In the screen to the left, you can see that we were assigned a driver with taxi BR6926. The taxi that pulled up looked like any other normal taxi (nothing fancy like Uber), and once inside, you could hear the cacophony of multiple people making requests for taxis at the time. Our driver happily ignored them as we drove.

The other app is Kingsoft Office, a free suite of apps that mimic almost entirely the Google Docs, Sheets and Slides tools, while mirroring key aspects of Microsoft Office as well. Somewhat interestingly, the founder and CEO of Xiaomi, Jun Lei, was also part of the founding team of Kingsoft. The screen here also highlights another key component to internet access in China – it’s not cheap. Warnings about whether or not to download updates on Wi-Fi are quite common, even in MIUI itself.

SIM management and miscellaneous

There are a couple of last miscellaneous components to MIUI that are worth discussing. The Redmi 1S is one of the few phones in the Xiaomi line that supports dual SIM cards. Both can be enabled at once (see the top bar of the screenshot on the left), and when you make phone calls the call button is split into two so that you can choose which SIM to call from. You can enable or disable data individually, though strictly speaking only one of the SIM slots is for WCDMA and the other only for GSM.

One annoyance with stock Android that I’ve found is the lack of a native voice recorder tool. The ones I’ve downloaded are usually with ads and have additional settings to increase quality over size, and while I realize that not many people might use one, having one is great for me because I get to have a relatively medium-fidelity recording of my travels. MIUI goes a bit overboard with the skeuomorphic design, but it gets the job done well.

The default weather app is pretty fun to look at, especially with the trends for high and low. MIUI will also occasionally insert a notification into my phone if the weather is particularly poor (like today, when it told me that I should bring my umbrella).

A final pleasant surprise was the ability to see lyrics along with any song that I played on the phone. There wasn’t anything I had to install or enable to get the feature, and it makes it fun to look at which lyrics I’ve often missheard.

Conclusion

There are plenty of things I haven’t managed to cover in this review — anything shopping, gaming or payment related has been omitted, simply because most of these services require associating my phone number with an account, and I don’t have a Chinese phone number anymore — but my hope is that this can shed a bit of light into the idiosyncrasies present in the silo-ed Android ecosystem that is currently picking up speed and traction within China. The most interesting aspects are:

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 27th, 2014 at 10:55 am, EST under the category of Photography. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.