Teardown: Xiaomi Mi Watch
Image credit: Xiaomi
China’s cool tech company beards Apple again.
It is probably fair to say that Xiaomi’s Mi Watch will not make Sir Jony Ive feel any better disposed towards the Chinese technology company. When quizzed about Xiaomi at a technology summit in 2014, Apple’s then chief design officer famously had this to say - although he was careful not to respond specifically: “I’ll stand a little bit harsh, I don’t see it as flattery. When you’re doing something for the first time, you don’t know it’s gonna work, you spend seven or eight years working on something and then it’s copied. I think it is really straightforward. It is theft and it is lazy. I don’t think it is OK at all.”
Six years later, you look at Xiaomi’s first fully fledged smartwatch next to Apple’s current model and the similarities in industrial design are there to see. The Mi Watch is a bit thicker and boxier, and has a more pronounced mount for its various fashion straps but it does otherwise look awfully familiar. It also has a comparable 1.78in AMOLED screen with the same 368x448ppi resolution.
Launched in mainland China last November, the Mi Watch is officially due to arrive in the UK and elsewhere later this year (given the Covid-19 pandemic, a specific date has understandably not yet been set). Specialist dealers can get you one now, but although it runs a stripped-down and customised version of Google’s Wear OS, MIUI for Watch, only versions with simplified Chinese characters are currently available.
Aesthetic copycat or not, Xiaomi has pitched the product in China at more of a premium price compared with its fitness products, at RMB1,999 (£222) for the basic 4G/GPS version and RMB2,999 (£334) for a special edition. A comparable Apple Watch costs upwards of £299 for Series 3 and £499 for Series 5.
There are key differences between the two products technologically, starting obviously with Xiaomi’s use of a Google-based platform. While Apple uses proprietary silicon, the Mi Watch is driven by the quad-core Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform from Qualcomm. According to an iFixit teardown, the bulk of the other components are also off-the-shelf parts. Xiaomi has made several forays into developing its own chips but reports in the Chinese media earlier this year suggested these have been scaled back after a poor reception to an earlier smartphone chip.
As such, the Mi Watch does give a clear sense of how far you can now go with an essentially modular design for wearables. You still need a lot of design smarts to pack functionality into such a small space, but they are coming down. Xiaomi has found room for a six-axis sensor, next-generation heart sensor (the same Firstbeat technology as is now on Garmin watches), blood-oxygen sensor, and the ability to operate hundreds of connected appliances. Also, alongside GPS, apps, music and calls over a paired or dedicated e-SIM, there is sleep tracking – an option not found on the Apple Watch. The Mi Watch has 8GB of memory.
One other area where Xiaomi has beefed up its device in comparison with Apple is battery capacity, at 2.167Wh against 1.129Wh for the Series 5. This higher capacity comes along with advanced ‘ultra-low-power’ support that Qualcomm has introduced for the Wear 3100.
The iFixit teardown found that the battery issue hints towards another interesting design consideration when it comes to the linear resonant actuator variants that provide vibration feedback in the two watches, given that the Xiaomi one is between a quarter and a fifth of the size of Apple’s Taptic Engine.
“Turning the digital crown on the Mi Watch does prompt small, haptic steps – so Xiaomi certainly seems to be trying to make the most of this relatively small actuator,” the iFixit team notes. “But more than anything else, this comparison shows how much importance Apple places on that relatively enormous Taptic Engine – trading a lot of battery life for more communicative haptic feedback.”
So, one question that awaits reviewers of the international version will be whether Apple is getting better power management or whether the kitchen-sink option Xiaomi has adopted on power will be a big draw for consumers. Xiaomi recently added a body-energy feature to its Mi Watch via an in-the-field software update with the promise of more significant upgrades to come.
For its home market (along with India, still the source of most of its sales), Xiaomi has continued to burnish its credentials as one of the ‘cool’ local technology companies, both through its own products and badged partnerships marketed through an increasingly large retail chain. The company has taken some criticism for a willingness to accept extremely tight margins, though the Mi Watch as well as its latest flagship Mi CC9 phone (with a 108MP camera) suggests that it is moving away from that strategy.
The response to the Mi Watch will be interesting – even if only to see how much more it can tell us about China’s drive for greater technological and economic self-sufficiency, as well as the market’s willingness to buy premium products from Chinese companies.
Finally, the new product is like its main rival in one other sense. Although its insides are largely modular, trying to open up the Mi Watch for repairs has an awkward familiarity. “Opening the watch by removing the screen is possible, but difficult,” iFixit’s team found, “and will most likely result in cosmetic damage.” They score it at a disappointing and Apple-like 4-out-of-10 for repairability.
Key components: Xiaomi Mi Watch
1. Display/watch face
3. Daughterboard (health sensors/LEDs)
4. Control buttons
5. Linear resonant actuator (haptic)
7. Main assembly
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