Linuxslate.com Full Review:
The Xiaomi Qin 2 “AI Assistant”
Review and Use with US carriers.
Is it Smart Phone? A Feature Phone? An “AI Assistant”? A Smart Remote with a built-in Phone?
I don’t know -- I can’t even spell Xaiomi Xiaomi.
(Screenshot of animation from Xiaomi Youpin website.)
Linuxslate.com started in the late 1990’s by installing Linux on the clunky tablet PC’s of the time. 2 decades later, the ubiquitous Google Android system runs thousands of Smartphones, Tablets, Chromebooks, and Home Assistants - all of which, down deep inside, are Linuxslates.
Somewhere in those 2 decades, something else caught my attention -- The evolution of ultra widescreen devices. I really miss my Acer Iconia Smart. A very usable Android phone from the Android 2.3 days that sported an attention-getting 21:9 screen. I’m typing this article on my 21:9 ultra widescreen Toshiba “Ultrabook”.
So when a pre-order for a tiny and inexpensive Android “Go” device with a 21:9 screen popped up in a search on a popular Chinese vendor’s site. I knew I had to check it out.
Getting it Here:
Before we get into the review, I want to tell the story of actually buying it. A popular Chinese retailer listed the device as a pre-order, with an expected delivery (to them) of late August 2019. Later listings showed it as ships in 7-10 days (not a pre-order), so I placed my order on 09 Sept. When it had not shipped by 01 October, I began a lengthy exchange of emails with their “customer service” (customer irritation) department. This finally ended with a refund on 19 November. I then placed an order with a different Chinese retailer, Gearbest, again with an indication that they would ship them in about 7-10 days. 2 weeks later, their website indicated that it had shipped, and another 2 weeks later, on 14 December, the mail carrier handed it to me in my front yard -- only 96 days after originally ordered it!
Device Layout and What’s in the Box:
What’s in the Box?
The Xiaomi Qin 2 comes nicely packaged with a red USB - C cable, a “SIM Poker”, and a basic protective casing. While the included protective case is “minimalist” to say the least, any protection will absorb some of the energy imparted to the phone if it is dropped. There is also a screen protector attached to the phone, but it started to come off when I removed the shipping layer (not shown.)
Starting at the top of the screen, there is a very small notification LED -- Apparently white only -- to the left of the handset earpiece -- and -- other than the touch screen -- that’s it. No debate here over bezel vs. notch vs. punch hole -- There’s no front camera at all.
Along the top is the noise canceling (second) mic, just right of center, followed by the IR transmitter for the remote control feature. The right edge consists of the volume control, a red power button, and a wake up button below it. In the “student” version, one of these two buttons switches modes, but with the firmware I got, the 2 buttons are mostly redundant. Only the larger black button acts as the camera shutter, and only the small red button will power it on from the fully off state. Either will wake it or put it to sleep. Long-pressing the longer black button will invoke the Xiaomi “AI Assistant”.
Continuing around the bottom edge is the handset microphone, a USB-C connector, and the speakerphone speaker. More on that later. There are also what appear to be 2 small contacts -- possibly for a drop-in charger.
Near the top of the left side is a fairly standard SIM tray. It’s standard except that it only holds one SIM. There is no space for a second SIM card despite the fact that the hardware and software both support a second SIM.
There's also no slot or tray for a Micro SD card. Storage is not expandable even with a USB OTG cable and a card reader or a flash drive.
General Use and Compatibility with US Carriers:
My unit shipped in Chinese language mode. It took the help of Google Translate in camera mode on another phone to help me find where to set it to English. Once I did that, most -- but not all -- of the device works in English. A number of the built-in Apps are Chinese only, and some things, such as the release notes for an OTA firmware update, remain in Chinese.
While a “International” version of this phone is now available with Google services, mine is the Chinese version. It’s very interesting to see how the Chinese, or at least Xiaomi, have replaced almost all of the Google services -- albeit with disparate apps from several different companies. Xiaomi’s “MI AI” is essentially a replacement for Siri, or the Google Assistant, but the app is in Chinese, and you have to register with Xiaomi MI. Apparently, there is an English version available. Similarly, the translation app seems at least as powerful as Google Translate -- including conversation mode and camera translation. It’s also (mostly) in English, but it requires you to register, and receive a confirmation code via text message. The problem is that it won’t send the confirmation code to a US number.
The story isn’t much better for voice input elsewhere. There is a voice typing engine, but again the text of the app is in Chinese, and to get full functionality, you have to register with a company that has some past privacy issues. Even without registering, it does seem to work in some places, such as the browser search bar, but expect only a literal speech-to-text, no AI functionality.
In addition to Chinese apps, and Chinese companies, there is a more significant problem using this phone in the US. The SC9832E System-on-chip (SOC) used in this phone has only limited overlap with the frequency bands used by the 2 major US GSM providers as shown in the following chart:
Xiaomi Qin 2
2, 4, 5, 12, 14, 17, 29, 30, 66
2,4,5, 12, 66, 71
A few important notes on the table above:
1: This is a quick band reference, not comprehensive research. It surely contains errors.
2: Even where the frequencies (bands) line up, there may be protocol differences that prevent service.
3: Carriers do not support all bands in all locations.
4: A court ruling that forced AT&T to allow T-Mobile use of some of their bands has expired. Those bands are no longer available to T-Mobile users.
Also note that even the “International Version” uses the same SOC, and thus supports the same bands. While it supports Google Services, it will not support US providers any better than the Chinese version. The same goes for the “Pro” version.
My phone has only connected to T-Mobile via EDGE (2G). I’m sure that in some more populated areas, I would get 3G or 4G service, but in the time I have been testing the phone, it has never shown better than an EDGE connection -- Weren’t the 90’s great?!
Camera, Sound, Connectivity:
It is very important for both the review writer, and the review reader to objectively portray the performance of a camera on a sub-$100 phone. It’s not an iPhone 11, the latest Pixel, or Huawei flagship. For general pictures in good light, the camera meets or exceeds those objective expectations. Where it falls down a bit is in low light, or close-up situations.
The camera app does have HDR (it was turned off for these pictures). It also has the usual assortment of other settings, including burst, panorama, and a built-in barcode reader function. The single flash is quite anemic, and frankly does little as a camera flash or a flashlight. The pictures below were taken on a cloudy day. (Photos Reduced. Click for larger, but still reduced photos.)
Sound, on the other hand, impressed me by even flagship standards. Despite the doubts expressed in the unboxing video, it does play stereo sound by using the earpiece speaker and the speaker phone speaker -- and it does so with an impressive amount of horsepower and frequency response for such a small device. I don’t think the $1000 Sony Xperia 1 does any better (although Sony is welcome to send me one to prove me wrong.)
But the sound features built into the Qin 2 go beyond making the most of miniscule internal speakers. It also supports High Definition audio (AAC) over Bluetooth. Obviously, this depends on the audio device it’s paired with, but when it works, it’s an unquestionable improvement over older Bluetooth audio protocols.
Screenshot showing HD Audio over Bluetooth support
While the Xiaomi Qin 2 lacks a standard ⅛ inch, 3.5mm headset connection, the sound support doesn’t stop with the internal speakers or Bluetooth. It supported every USB audio device I tried. The small connectors shown below allow use of wired headsets. It also supported a HiFi DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) connected to my vintage Harman Kardon integrated tube amplifier. (A USB-C OTG cable -- not included -- was used in this case) The only time the sound disappointed was when I tried a feature that was supposed to make it better.
USB C Audio Connector Adapters.
The included music amp features a DSP equalizer mode in it’s settings panel. Unfortunately, when enabled, it reduces the volume so much as to discourage its use. That said, it does work as a basic 5 band EQ, and it also has bass boost and surround sound settings, and it works for the ⅛ wired adapters, USB Devices, and Bluetooth.
Other than for External Storage, as mentioned above, In no case did I have any difficulty connecting the Qin 2 to external devices. It connected to WiFi networks -- even ones other devices have had trouble with -- instantly and reliably. The same was true for each type of tethering I tried, but of course there is little reason to tether to a device that only gets an EDGE connection in my area.
Use as a Smart Remote:
With the MI AI app (in a language you can read, and with registration) the device is supposed to act as an AI Remote. For example, you could say “Xiaomi” (or whatever you say for the MI AI assistant) “...Make it warmer”, and your IR enabled room air conditioner would increase the temperature. Without the MI AI (or MI Home) functionality, I was left with the provided IR app.
The basic AI app looks very similar to the one on my Huawei Honor 10 (which also supports IR remote control). You simply pick a device from a basic device type and manufacture menu, and then some test buttons appear that help to select the right set of IR codes for a particular device. Literally thousands of devices are supported.
Pairing it with a Panasonic TV was easy, but when I tested it with my LG portable air conditioner, it never worked at all. To be fair, I am missing the remote that came with my AC, and the Huawei app did not work either, so the problem may be with the LG AC unit, and no fault of the Xiaomi IR app or the device.
Screen, Performance, and Battery:
Given the simple Xiaomi user interface, the few apps I’ve installed, performance for normal use is wholly adequate. Any delays or hesitation are due to the lack of support for high speed data connections as described above, not any noticeable lack of CPU power. The unit feels very nice to hold.
While the screen is only the width of a US business card, it is sharp and clear. The Chinese-only release notes for one of the OTA updates mentioned tuning the automatic screen brightness. I would say they need to keep working on that. Even after the OTA, it often remains dim, even with plenty of ambient light. In either auto-brightness or manual mode, there is a brightness slider conveniently located in the pull-down quick menu, but I end up going there more often than I should have to. Outside, in bright sunlight, the screen is OK -- perhaps good to excellent for a phone that costs one-fifth of what the phones that I would be comparing it to cost.
The small, 21:9 screen also makes the on-screen keyboard very small in portrait mode. In landscape mode, it makes one-handed typing nearly impossible. While I’m probably 3 times the age of the target user, the tiny portrait mode keyboard and lack of AI assistance significantly slows my typing as compared with a full-size, full-functionality smartphone.
The 2100mah battery may sound almost ridiculously small by the standards of full-sized smartphones, but given the screen size and the low-power SOC, it will do a full day of WiFi-connected general use, and still have reserve. Today, we are also used to high current, and even higher-voltage fast charging in, but even at 1 amp from a conventional charger, that 2100mah battery can go from mostly empty to full in less than 2 hours. It’s fast charging by simple math instead of special cables and phone-to-charger communications.
In a single word, I would call the Xiaomi Qin 2 “Compelling”. It’s compelling as a great product and cool technology from Xiaomi. It is well built, and as bug-free as any phone from the leading companies. The Chinese version is also compelling as an experiment in going Google-Free. It’s compelling as a solution parents who may not want their children to be doing “selfie stunts”, or easily installing Instagram or other apps. Here in the US, a phone that only supports EDGE is a very literal way to limit their internet usage. Even for adults, it’s compelling as a way to remain able to communicate without carrying a clunky and invasive smartphone.
I find myself wishing I could go back to my “real phone” with GMail, Google Assistant, and my dozens of “apps”. But I haven’t. At least for right now, I’m addicted to convenience and simplicity.
Unboxing Video on the CarCynic YouTube Channel
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