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Xiaomi Mi Watch (China version) & A brief history of recent smartwatches

Taking a look at the 2019 Xiaomi Mi Watch released in China only and running Wear OS.

Xiaomi is a Chinese company best known in the western world due to their fantastic smartphones and low prices. 
(They also sell a lot of different stuff in China)
Up to 2015, almost all low-end smartphones were plan awful. 

I am talking about the performance, the materials quality and overall user experience.

During 2016 an old friend of mine showed me his newly bought 250€ Redmi Note 3 Pro.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it. 

Photo from Techtablets.com

This is a short spec-sheet of the Redmi Note 3 Pro. You can see the full one over at gsmarena.com

  • An aluminum body
  • 1080P 5.5 inches IPS LCD display
  • Snapdragon 650
  • Dual sim, MicroSD slot
  • 16MP rear camera, 5MP front camera
  • 16GB 2GB/32GB 3GB RAM
  • 4050 mAh battery
  • Fingerprint scanner on the back

Rather than the solid spec sheet, what really surprised me the most was the battery length, the system optimization and the tons of updates that this phone received.
On the contrary, my LG G Flex received just one major update and that was it.
Yes, I was very pissed.
The LG G Flex was a premium phone with a launch price of circa 700€ (Since it was the  last one in stock I paid it 250€ in a local store), and as usual LG did not disappoint: it was abandoned shortly after.
I remember that in high school everyone had their eyes on it due to its unusual form factor, which looked like a banana.
Also, no one had any idea how to unlock it, since the button and volume keys were placed on the back cover and not on the sides.
The notification light was integrated into the power button, and could display several colors.
What is even more funny is that I previously bought the LG Optimus 3D Max, which shared exactly the same fate!
Luckily some divine-figure was kind enough to port Cyanogenmod to the 3D Max.
I was so impressed at how better it ran, and even the performance in games was night and day.
The stock rom (Android 2.3.6) ran titles such as Modern Combat 4 and Asphalt 7 at 30FPS, while CyanogenMod 10 (Android 4.1.2) ran both titles at a smooth 60FPS.
It brought justice to the phone’s hardware, and I was happy of that.
I sadly did loose the ability of recording 3D camera footage (I still have one 3D video uploaded over my channel), but it was not that much of a loss. 

Going back to my friend… the price of his newly bought phone dropped a hundred euros down in just 6 months.
Sorry, bud.
After discovering Xiaomi, it was just a matter of time before the rest of the avalanche finally hit: OnePlus, Huawei, Honor, Oppo, Meizu, ZTE, Vivo to name a few.
These companies released interesting phones and, I guess it is safe to say, stole a market percentage from the Big Ones (Apple and Samsung first).

Android’s strong point is being open source.
Because of that reason, a lot of interesting devices have been produced.
Here are a few ones:

On June 25 2014, the first Android Wear smartwatch was now available on the market:
The LG G Watch.

(Source: slashgear.com)

During Christmas 2016 I have bought one for me and another one as a gift to the same loser-owner of the Redmi Note 3 Pro .
5 years later I still believe that the LG G Watch is one of the best smart watches ever created.
The design is simple, elegant and proportionally pleasant to look at.

The watch is water-resistant, includes GPS and a microphone.
I remember using it all the time (Thanks Ma for gifting it to me!), mostly to reply to text messages and enabling timers.
And then I wore it all the time because of how stylish it was. 

Sadly Google/LG decided to kill it. The companion phone app does NOT push any app to the smartwatch anymore, notifications included.
Just… why? Why kill a product that always worked perfectly and that was reliable?
The answer is pretty simple: planned obsolescence… and the lack of a physical button.

Android Wear 2.0 (Then rebranded Wear OS) required a physical button or wheel to interact with the UI.
I understand that they want to add more features to the OS, but killing off prematurely the LG G Watch was a very bad idea.
It does not give a sense of confidence to new customers, especially in a market that was just born. 
Finally, the release price of the LG G Watch was around 200€, which is a fine amount.

If you are going to abandon something, at least make your code fully open source.
The companion app is closed source and only Google has control over it.
They purposely killed the LG G Watch and never looked back. 

Many other smartwatches were then released, but due to them using only half a GB of RAM the performance was not that great while using Android Wear. 

More customers were lost. And potential new ones just felt discouraged, so they never gave it a chance.

The only things keeping Wear OS alive are: 

  • Third party app support (APKs can be manually installed too through sideloading)
  • Google Assistant
  • Multi-Language Voice transcription working on the go, a feature I wished that BlackBerry smartphones had.

That’s it.
Apple is dominating the smartwatch market with the Apple Watch, a fully optimized smartwatch that perfectly (supposedly) integrates with the rest of the Apple ecosystem.
Since the Apple Watch only works with iPhone, many people are jumping off ship because there is no compatibility with Android or any other system.
To be honest, I have considered doing so too. 

The third biggest smartwatch operating system is Tizen OS, primarily developed and used by Samsung for their lineup of smartwatches.

Little personal fun-trivia: After further research, I discovered that Tizen OS is one of the successors of another operating system named MeeGo.
MeeGo was a Linux OS focused on low-computing hardware, and apparently it was used on a few laptops and phones. It did not go that far though, being discontinued only one year later its release.
The Samsung NP-100 was sold with this OS and I think that was a good idea: it was extremely stripped down and had a simple UI to accommodate for the low resolution displays.

Around 2015 I bought a Samsung NP-N150 from a friend of mine because it was small, light and featured one of the best keyboards that I have ever used. 

Sadly though, the hardware was extremely low-performance. 
You can’t really complain, as this laptop was sold Q4 2010 for a price of circa 400€.
These are the specs (Taken by notebookcheck.net):
Intel Atom N450 1.7GHz single-core
1GB RAM PC2
10’ 1024×600 display
250GB 5400RPM HDD
Wi-Fi 4, Bluetooth 2.1, UMTS Modem
0.3MP webcam, 48 Wh Lithium-Ion battery, 1KG weight

What you could do with it was extremely limited due to the low-range hardware. 
Booting up the system could take one minute, opening apps was a painful process and running more than one app than once could clog the limited 1GB of RAM available in the system.

Desperately, I tried putting an SSD inside running Puppy Linux, but the performance just was not good enough.
I could even have dealt with the sluggish speed of this laptop, but what killed the experience was the 1024×600 display. 
It just hurt my eyes. 
The working area of the screen was extremely small and it simply was impossible to work even over document writing.

The laptop does have several positive points though:
Extremely small and easy to carry around, a little bit over 1KG of weight
Elegant design and ergonomic keyboard
Almost inaudible CPU FAN, at only 30.7 dB(A) during heavy usage
Battery lasting 4 hours of web browsing with WLAN active

Somebody put an SSD inside and added an additional GB of RAM, with Windows 10 installed. The results are more surprising than I expected:

The Samsung N150 is a NETBOOK. Not a Notebook. NETBOOKs were laptops that focused over energy-efficiency and portability. Besides, around that era even normal notebooks had slightly better performance.
In 2010 you could have gotten a Sony Vaio with a 10’ screen and 1.9GHz single core Intel Atom N470 for 400€.
So right now Tizen OS is used by Samsung on its smartwatches, TVs, cameras and… a fridge?
Anyways I do not have any experience with Tizen smartwatches, so I will report what I have been reading around. The app support is terrible, but it has a better battery length compared to Wear OS. Bixby does not seem to be at the same quality level as Google Assistant.

Out of this Apple/Google/Samsung trio there actually are other smartwatches that use closed operating systems. 
They are good with the features that they are packed with, but that’s where it ends. They do not have any kind of store or third party support. Depending on your needs, this could be a deal breaker. 
I wish that Wear OS smartwatches looked as beautiful as the Huawei GT2 Pro. Instead almost all of them look clunky. The best (IMO) looking wearOS Smartwatches are the Skagen Falster 3 and the Fossil Gen 5.

Proprietary OS watches have the big advantage of battery length: they can last usually around two weeks of usage.
Almost all Wear OS devices last up to 1-2 days.
Recharging the watch so often is not worth the trade in the long run.

Also, there is no wearOS smartwatch that uses a full TFT panel for their display.
A TFT panel will allow an easy readability under direct sunlight without any form of backlight. 

I owned an Amazfit Bip for one year and I loved it.
Sure, it did not have any smart function at all, but it lasted 2/3 weeks, it counted my steps and most importantly told me the time at all times.

That is an ugly color. That's for sure.

Unfortunately after taking a shower the screen unglued and water went inside the shell, killing it. So… don’t do the same mistake I did!

After my Amazfit Bip’s death and the great experience I once had with my LG G Watch, I wanted to get a real smartwatch once again.

I fired up finn.no (Norwegian marketplace) and looked for used Apple Watches.
Most of them were around 200€, which was fine to me.
The problem is that Apple Watches only work with iOS.
And, unsurprisingly, there was no way to make it work with Android or my Hackintosh. 

Resigned, I remember that Xiaomi released an interesting Wear OS clone of the Apple Watch only for the Chinese Market in 2019.
Due to my love for square watches, it was love at first sight.
Curved bezels, AMOLED display and a functioning command wheel were looking great.
In the Youtube videos that I have seen the OS seemed responsive and smooth too.
Besides, this is a Xiaomi device.
Xiaomi to me is a seal of quality.
I own a Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S from two years and the UX is still going strong, I bought for my mother a 177€ Redmi Note 5 (and a Mi Band too), an electric razor for myself, bluetooth headphones, even the M365 Electric scooter.

So yeah, I do have some experience with this brand and I had no negative experience so far. 

I did a little bit of research and I found out that there is a European online store selling the watch for 125€: For such a ridiculous price, I had nothing to lose.
I ordered it and waited two weeks of excitement and anxiety. 

PACKAGE/HARDWARE

Needless to say: not only I was not disappointed, but I was positively surprised.
The box was elegant with a nice “overlay” printing of the watch, and on the back side there was a sheet with all the main functions.

Xiaomi is clearly not messing around.
The box content was pretty bare bone: Watch, Charger, USB charging cable (it is magnetic) and a small manual showing how to install the companion app on the phone.

I grab it up, but I notice that the battery was completely empty.
Time to wait for the longest 30 minutes of my life.
As soon as the Watch showed a sign of life, I instantly put it on my wrist and turned it on.
My first two reactions were “Wow” and “It is bulkier than I expected”.

Nonetheless, I was stunned by the building quality and high quality AMOLED screen.
The build quality is on-par with 300€ smartwatches, but at half the price! 

These are the hardware features of the watch (Taken from techandroids.com, click on link for additional details):

  • 1.78 inches AMOLED display with 368  x448 pixels resolution, 336ppi pixel density.
    Gorilla Glass 3 for the Watch Standard Edition, Sapphire Glass for Premium Edition
  • 1GB RAM, Snapdragon 3100, 8GB memory
  • Aluminum alloy Standard Edition, Stainless steel Premium Edition
  • NFC, WiFi, Bluetooth, eSIM (VoLTE supported), GPS
  • Running on MIUI for Watch (Reskin of WearOS)
  • Heart rate sensor with O2 Max support
  • Speaker and microphone
  • Rotating knob and a button

    (Insert video recording of rotating knub!)

Considering that this device was released on the Chinese market at the beginning of 2019, this spec sheet was (and still is) a very good one.
The smartwatch gives you a small haptic feedback upon rotating.
It feels pretty close to the JoyCon HD Rumble, or the HTC Vive vibration system.
I spent at least 30 minutes of my life enjoying the vibration feedback of my new smartwatch, it felt very satisfying. 

The touch response is good and the screen is visible in most situations.
The battery length lasts around 1 day with always display on, bluetooth connected, sleep tracking and mild chat usage.
The Telegram WearOS app works without any problem and I am able to send voice messages through the mic and even listen to them thanks to the built-in speaker.
Sadly I am unable to try out the eSIM support because my mobile ISP does not support them yet, but from what I heard from other users it kind of is a mixed bag.

Yet, it is perfect for people who might want to go jogging outside and not bring their phone with them.
In China it also is possible to use the watch NFC to pay for public transport tickets and I Suppose similar things.
Sadly NFC pay is not available anywhere else.

The already-applied screen protector was unexpected, but I did appreciate it in the long run: 

A perfect mix between a spider web and a painting from Picasso.
Should have gone to my uncle’s art school.

The watch does look slightly clumsy.

It might not feel like that much of a difference, but the design of a wearable device is fundamental. It has to look good.

The Mi Watch build quality is great.
It does not feel cheap. It once fell to the floor and there is no sign of damage or a single scratch whatsoever. I am still baffled about it.
It also is SUPPOSEDLY 5ATM Water Resistant.
I’ve read of people using it while swimming. I only used it while showering without any problem.

The included wristband is gummy and sturdy.
The grey color is a nice addition to the shell of the smartwatch.
Be careful while unmounting though, since the GPS antenna is located on the wristband attachment part over the shell.

SOFTWARE

The Xiaomi Mi Watch runs on a MIUI-Skinned Wear OS.
Since the watch is officially released in China only, the mounted Wear OS lacks functioning Google Services such as the Play Store, Google Assistant and Google Pay.
China uses the Great Firewall to regulate internet access inside the country, and has created in-house alternatives to the most popular Western apps, so it is nothing surprising.
There is an included App Store that is not localized in English, so are almost all downloadable apps.
The app count is no more than 50.
Almost all the apps that I have tried do not have the English language.
While browsing I even found a remote control app for Microsoft Power Point!

Almost all the stock apps are in English, and are the usual: calculator, timer, alarm etc.
The only problem though is that the default keyboard and Voice-To-Text are in only one language… did you guess which one? Yeah.
Luckily you can side load apps from PC, or from Android using Bugjaeger.
I find this name particularly hard to remember,
But it does the job well and is simple enough, so I’m not complaining that much.
I also would like to add that WearOS for some reason has problem recognizing multiple languages for Voice-To-Text.
I’ve seen this reported over the WearOS subreddit on other devices too.
Being a multilingual, this is a serious and frustrating issue for me.  

The included selection of Watch Faces look great and there are a few using the AMOLED energy saving mode.
Basically, each pixel of the display panel can be individually turned off.
So if for example there is a predominantly black background, most pixels will be off, thus saving some battery.
Other display technologies such as LCD are unable to individually turn off pixels, but on the contrary their lifespan is longer.

Some of the watch faces can be customized with different “quick buttons”. 

In order of appearance:
Step counter, heart rate and Telegram.

Telegram has a native app for WearOS and it works without a single hiccup.
You can listen to voice messages thanks to the built-in speaker, you can send voice messages, reply in chats and groups and send stickers.
Perfect for situations where you have your hands busy doing something else.

There are websites where you can download WearOS APKs and push them to the smartwatch afterwards.
One of the most popular ones is apkmirror.com.

A guy named Alberto created “Wear Store”, it is an installable WearOS app that includes a repository of downloadable WearOS apps and a few utility scripts, such as Xiaoai Remover (Xiaoai is the Chinese personal assistant included over the Mi Watch)
Wear Store can be useful for people that want the most simple solution to install applications over their Mi Watch, but the app catalog is too small.

The Mi Watch features an heart rate sensor that can also be used to track your sleep.
You can then see the data directly over the smartwatch or on the companion phone app Xiaomi Wear. 

There is a good variety of training presets that you can use to check/record your workout stats and I found the heart watch decently accurate. 

(Check difference from treadmill with sensors and smartwatch measurement)

Another two useful features are: 

  • Breathing exercises with visual and haptic feedback.
  • Get your ass up reminder – I invented the title but the concept is the same.
    It is important to take breaks while sitting in front of a computer for a long time and to keep your body active. 

WearOS will automatically somewhat recognize if you are doing any kind of exercise, by combining the gyroscope and heartbeat sensor.
It’s a cool feature to check how many calories you burn during the day.

The watch includes a secondary store that contains watch faces specifically designed for the Mi Watch.
There are some good ones, but unfortunately they feature Chinese text, which is not the ideal for non-Chinese speakers.

The Watch will use Bluetooth connection for data transfer by default, so installing apps/watch faces might be kinda slow.
To Switch to Wi-Fi, you can disable Bluetooth either on the phone or the watch itself.
Be warned: it will consume more battery.
In the workout app, the GPS is able to get locked in 1-2 minutes, and can last up to 2-3 hours of continuous use.

BATTERY

The battery lasts a minimum of 20 hours with Always-On Display, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and sleep tracking active.
By disabling the Always-On Display, I’ve been able to get an additional 24 hours of usage (So a total of two days of use).
Once the battery is almost fully depleted, the smartwatch automatically goes in an energy saving mode, showing only the current time.
It also is possible to manually enable it from the quick-menu, and exit by pressing the power button on the watch.
It is in the norm of WearOS smartwatches, if not slightly better.

CHARGER

The charger can be connected to any USB outlet. It is magnetic and holds the watch in place once put in place.
Since the Mi Watch is a cheap smartwatch, I will let two defects slip by: 

  • The cable of the charging stand cannot be removed.
    This means that unless you have soldering skills, you will be forced to throw the charging stand away once the cable is broken
  • No rubbers on the bottom side. It is at a good risk of slipping and falling off the table.

SPEAKER/MICROPHONE

Not gonna lie, the quality of both devices surprised me.

CONCLUSIONS

This smartwatch could be so much more, but is instead limited by a company that wants to keep it leashed.
I understand Xiaomi not shipping the watch with the Google Services since it is a Chinese-market smart watch, but why not unlocking the boot loader?
I believe that when you buy a device you should have complete freedom over it.
Usually Xiaomi lets you unlock its phones, so that comes even more as a surprise.

Is this smartwatch worth the price?
Yes, but not if you want the complete Wear OS experience.
No Google Assistant, no integration with the Play Store, and many Wear OS apps that will not work when side loaded.

If your needs are just checking the time, sleep/exercise tracking and a few other things then I believe this to be the best smartwatch you could get for under 150€.