Smartphones with foldable phones were part of science fiction until recently. But as 2020 begins, you can actually walk into a shop and buy one right now. There is Samsung’s utterly exciting Galaxy Fold that opens up into a tablet when you want a big screen – yes, it becomes a tablet when you want it to. Motorola has used the folding display to make the mobile phone cool again — thanks to the new Razr. Now, these are not the only two companies trying to create “foldable phones”. There are other companies as well, such as Xiaomi, which has Mi Mix Alpha. But unlike the Galaxy Fold or the new Razr, the Alpha is little old-fashioned. It gives the impression that it is a futuristic, foldable phone. But it’s not. Instead, it is a gorgeous phone made with a screen that is curved, and that wraps around the device.
Instead of being more-futuristic — and difficult to make — folding phone, the Mi Mix Alpha is a concept device that uses the same flexible OLED display to reach closer to the dream of an all-screen smartphone.
Xiaomi unveiled this phone last year and India Today Tech recently got a chance to experience the Mi Mix Alpha. This phone isn’t going to sell in India but Xiaomi says that the Alpha previews some of the technologies you can expect from Xiaomi phones in 2020. Is that interesting? If it is, dive down for a preview of the Mix Alpha.
Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha: What is it?
The Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha is Xiaomi’s idea of an alternate future for smartphones a future that may — or rather will not given what we found with the Alpha — shape into reality. But it is a preview of the future that smartphone geeks have always dreamt of — a phone that has a display on all the sides. The Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha does that with the help of the same flexible OLED panel that other folding phones are using. However, instead of manual-folding, the display is permanently folded around the sides. Hence, you get a phone that has it’s display wrapped around the edges and the back.
Is it exciting?
Hell yes! But not as much as something like Razr.
If you love technology even in the tiniest of ways, the Mi Mix Alpha will get your blood rushing through your veins. After all, it’s a phone that has screens on all the sides — ALL THE SIDES! Technically, the top and bottom don’t have screens but rest of the surfaces are covered by the display. There’s a slim strip at the back that holds the cameras as well as the antennas but that’s it. All screen everywhere.
The specifications are exciting too. A Snapdragon 855 chip bundled with a 5G modem runs the show while a 4000mAh battery keeps the entire thing alive, with a 40W fast-charging system to fill it up quickly. You also get 12GB RAM and 512GB UFS 3.0 storage.
Does it work like a phone?
Yes, it does. The Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha is a functional smartphone that you can use every day to make calls, browse the web, listen to music and take photos. Though, you cannot buy it.
Pick up the phone and you see the display light up all the way around the edges. The front display shows the usual app icons and widgets (there’s MIUI running here). Both the edges are displays too, showing the time, app notifications and custom widgets. They also show virtual pressure-sensitive buttons that you can use to lock the phone or adjust the volume. That said, there’s a small power button on the top to boot up the phone.
It’s at the back where things get interesting. The display continues from both the edges but it is interrupted by a thick piece of ceramic strip. This strip holds the three cameras as well as hides the antennas. It also flaunts the Mi Mix branding (you can’t expect Xiaomi not put its name on this thing). The top and bottom are only places where there’s no screen- the bottom holds a USB-C port, a microphone port and the SIM card tray housing. There’s no headphone jack (in case you dreamt in a parallel universe).
You unlock the phone and the experience is familiar to regular Android smartphone. You can use the front display to watch videos, photos, play games, text messages and everything that you do with a regular phone. The edge display acts as an extension for apps, although Xiaomi didn’t allow us to open any app. In fact, Xiaomi is not letting tech journalists touch the phone at all. Weird, right?
What Xiaomi did show us was what the rear display does- act as a viewfinder while taking selfies and show customised widgets. That’s it- you cannot use this to open any app or multitask with multiple apps at the same time.
Since there’s no space to put conventional speakers, Xiaomi resorts to a Piezoelectric speaker system that transmits audio through the display. Once again, Xiaomi did not give us a demo or let us test it.
The cameras were shown briefly and from the viewfinder, it seemed rather average for a premium phone. However, this is a concept device and it earns my benefit of doubt of being under development. Note that Xiaomi did not let us even click a photo.
Is it truly phone for the future?
No, definitely not. Even by the standards of 2020, we can see that Mi Mix Alpha is not a viable future. It doesn’t have a foldable or flexible screen, it is not on sale, or not going to be on sale any time soon, and the design, with its wrap-around screen, looks good but has functional issues.
In fact, it is as if Xiaomi too is doing some rethinking about the Mi Mix Alpha. Maybe that is the reason why the company is not letting tech journalists in India try the phone. It is as if Xiaomi is itself not confident of the Mi Mix Alpha and its future.
The Mi Mix Alpha, for now, is essentially a fancy testbed for some of the technologies that you may see in upcoming Mi branded phones from Xiaomi.
As a phone, the Mi Mix Alpha looks like a somewhat unviable phone. The wraparound OLED display looks gorgeous and with all of MIUI’s special lighting effects and animations, it surely is set to bring out the 6-year-old in you. However, it’s the same plastic OLED display that you see on a Samsung Galaxy Fold and a Motorola Razr. The flexible plastic OLED panels are vulnerable to scratches and wear & tear. Now, in the case of foldable phones, for example in Galaxy Fold, this damage can be minimised because the screen folds inwardly. Same in the case of Moto Razr. But in a phone like Mi Mix Alpha, the screen, on all sides, even on edges where you are going to hold the phone, is always exposed. In fact, a phone like Mi Mix Alpha cannot be even put in a case, unless the case the transparent case. It will scratch easily and might get dents even if you place it slightly hard on a desk.
Even otherwise, because the outer shell of the phone is essentially a screen, it is going to susceptible to damage. One fall, it hits the floor, and it will likely be the end of it.
Finally, there is the need part. What is this problem that Xiaomi is solving with a phone like Mi MIx Alpha? Phones like Galaxy Fold and Moto Razr solve some problems, such as the problem of putting a large screen in a very small device.
In a phone with a folding screen, you can unfold the display and use it entirely to watch a movie or play games or do whatever you want. With a Mi Mix Alpha, that’s not possible. The edges are only good for showing notifications while the rear display is just big enough to be a viewfinder while taking selfies or to show app widgets. But then how will you see these app widgets, when you are holding the phone. You cannot use all that screen space in the Mi Mix Alpha for multitasking with multiple apps at once. You cannot even use it as a touchpad to play games.
Beautiful and pointless
The Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha is an exciting phone and for me as a smartphone geek, it makes me happy to finally see the dream of an all-screen smartphone turn into reality. But that doesn’t mean I will want to use a device like the Mi Alpha. Mi Mix Alpha is a completely pointless device and I can only look at it as a culmination of all the upcoming technologies from future Xiaomi phones.
The biggest negating factor to the Mi Mix Alpha is the folding smartphone that’s already a reality nowadays. These phones are selling in the market, and they are better conceptually and practically than a phone like Mi Mix Alpha. As a smartphone user, I want to make use of a massive display in a way that I want and a folding smartphone helps me with that. The Mi Mix Alpha forces you to adapt to the way it wants.
In the coming days, we will see more unique smartphones coming from companies in the market. We know more phones with foldable phones are on their way — Galaxy Z Fold, for example — so here is hoping that Xiaomi has something different in-store and not just Mi Mix Alpha to prove a point or two. It also badly needs that or else, unlike some of its competitors that are in dealing in cutting edge technologies, it’s only going to be seen as a tech company serving mainstream market with Redmi phones.