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Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 review: Best smartphone on a budget?

How much smartphone can you get for your money?

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When I sat down to try and come up with a list of things that I liked and disliked about the Redmi Note 3, I got stuck for quite some time trying to come up with stuff I didn’t like about this new Redmi. It gets so many things right that it becomes a very hard device to fault.

That said, it does strike a particular nerve with me because its most lackluster performance comes in an aspect of the smartphone that I prioritise quite heavily.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe that this will be a dealbreaker for most as this little smartphone’s highs are more than good enough to bring the average up.

So, how is Xiaomi’s first all-metal smartphone?

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I like to start with a device’s build because I feel that it’s the first thing people notice when they pick a handset up. First impressions are important, so a smartphone that can make a strong impression can go a long way in someone’s book.

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I’ll be blunt, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 isn’t the best feeling metal smartphone in the market. It’s the type of metal back that takes some tapping and knocking to be sure that it’s indeed metal. That said, Xiaomi have done wonders with the ergonomics of this smartphone.

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It fits really comfortably in my hand with its rounded edges, but it’s not something I’d call “premium-feeling”. That said, when I passed the device to my friend for a feel, his first reaction was “Woah, this feels so good”, so I’d say that this metal body that Xiaomi picked out for its Redmi Note 3 is more than good enough for the price.

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Can it run with the big boys?

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Locally, we’re getting the international variant of the Redmi Note 3. This means, encased in this sub-RM900 smartphone is Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 650 hexa-core processor mated to either 2GB or 3GB of RAM and 16GB or 32GB of expandable (via microSD up to 32GB) storage. That’s a nice amount of power to keep the 5.5-inch full-HD panel running smoothly.

Prior to reviewing the Redmi Note 3, I was on two high-end flagship devices that had top-of-the-line specs and equally top-of-the-line pricetags. I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to change my usage habit at all when I started using the Redmi Note 3 as my daily driver.

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I kept many apps running in the background, streamed a ton of content and played the same intensive games as I did on the previous two phones and the Redmi Note 3 chewed each of those tasks up with almost no problems whatsoever.

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There was a little bit of a hiccup with the auto-rotate and gyroscope/accelerometer when I played racing games with tilt controls, however. No matter how I tilted or rotated the smartphone, my car in the game was unresponsive and after some Googling, I found out that the problem was likely a bug with MIUI, so it might not apply to every device.

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The Redmi Note 3 comes with a large 4,050 mAh battery, so battery life was pretty good. On average, I could hit about four to four and a half hours of screen on time with about 19 hours on battery. Not a bad performance but the large battery is let down by the slow charging time.

From dead, 30 minutes on the plug using the bundled charger gave me a 22% charge while an hour placed the battery percentage at 50%. It wasn’t until two and a half hours later did the phone hit 100%.

At the end of the day, can this smartphone provide a flagship-level performance? My answer would be: Nearly. It’s really close to being worthy of a flagship performance, but it falls just short.

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Still, for a device that’s priced under RM1,000, this is high praise.

What’s it like to live with daily?

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Speaking of MIUI, I think it’s one of the prettiest UIs to come out of China that I’ve used. It’s clean, cute and functional — all points that are important when it comes to something you have to use on the daily. I still miss the app drawer on stock Android, but compared to the likes of EMUI or colorOS 2.0, MIUI 7 built on top of Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, definitely has the more pleasant experience.

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Things are made even better when the UI is paired with the crisp and cool 5.5-inch full-HD IPS panel on the front of the Redmi Note 3. I quite like this display, but would have loved if it was a little brighter as visibility under direct sunlight was rather poor. Still, keep it out of direct sunlight and you should be a-okay.

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I didn’t, however, like the single rear-firing speaker on the Redmi Note 3. It was soft, easily blocked and almost completely muffled when the device is lying on a flat surface.

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The fingerprint sensor on the back is a little hit or miss too. It’s rather slow compared to many of the other rear-mounted fingerprint scanners like those on the honor 5X, honor 7 or Nexus 6P, and it tends to go off in my pocket if I place the phone facing the wrong way.

I’m not sure if this is unique to my device, but it is definitely something worth noting. That said, the fingerprint scanner is pretty sensitive to dirt, grime and water, so keep your fingers clean and dry if you want to get the most out of it.

Are the cameras any good?

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Now, we arrive at the Redmi Note 3’s biggest flaw — its camera. Unlike a lot of the other features on this smartphone, the camera isn’t surprisingly good for its price. Sure, you get a 16-megapixel primary camera with PDAF and an f/2.0 aperture, but it just doesn’t take great pictures.

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It’s not to say the smartphone doesn’t take decent pictures, it just takes a lot more effort and even then the end result is nothing spectacular. Shots in good lighting are pretty great, but once conditions start getting tricky, the camera begins to choke.

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HDR doesn’t really help either as it takes a long time to grab a shot (an eternity, if you’re using in the dark) which makes it bad for quick and good snapshots. The 5MP front camera takes rather soft images too, lending a slightly blurry effect to selfies.

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Perhaps my disappointment with the Redmi Note 3’s camera is amplified by how well this smartphone performs in every other category. For the first time, this phone has a feature that is very much something you’d expect from a smartphone under RM1,000. And while that’s not a bad thing objectively, it’s made much worse by the handset’s extraordinary other features.

If you’d like to see more pictures, check out our gallery at the end of this review.

So, is this the best smartphone under RM1,000?

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Two words: Hell, yeah.

With the Redmi Note 3, Xiaomi is almost uncompromising when it comes to bringing flagship-level performance to a more accessible price point. The latest Redmi is great across the board, balancing good performance and good build with an affordable price. Nevermind that it’s the most expensive Redmi device ever because it is the best Redmi device ever.

If someone asks me to recommend a good value device under RM1,000, my first question would be: What do you want your phone to do? Unless their reply is something particularly specific that the Redmi Note 3 can’t do, I would recommend this device in a heartbeat.

It just ticks too many boxes on the right side of the Pros and Cons list to ignore. Unless you’re an anti-Xiaomi fan for some reason, you’d be pretty silly to not, at least, consider this device when looking for an affordable all-rounder.

With prices starting from RM749 for the lower-spec variant with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, going up to RM849 for the 3GB RAM/32GB storage, it even manages to stay out of the cheaper Redmi Note 2’s way. In fact, if you’re strapped for cash, the Redmi Note 2 (RM649), is still a solid budget smartphone.

But, if you can spare the RM200 extra for the high-spec Redmi Note 3, I would definitely encourage you to make the upgrade because this is the new king of budget smartphones.

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