We took Xiaomi's debut smart speaker for a spin. Here's what we found.
Mi Smart speaker costs Rs 3,999 - for a limited period, you can get it for Rs 3,499. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)
India’s smart speaker market is in dire need of a rehash, a shot in the arm if you will. Not that there’s a dearth of options or anything, but apparently, not enough people seem to be buying these devices. Xiaomi believes it knows the answer why that is and it wants to have a crack at it with its own solution. Enter, the Mi Smart speaker. Whether or not it sticks is something that only time will tell, but one thing’s certain. With Xiaomi foraying into the category, things are bound to get interesting – and very, very exciting.
Before we dive into the details, allow me to give you a quick recap of the current smart speaker scene. There are broadly three types of smart speakers in the market today, those powered by the Google Assistant, those by Amazon Alexa, and last but not the least, the Apple HomePod. Since Apple operates entirely in the premium segment – for now – and there are no third-party smart speakers using Siri – yet – all comparisons with the Mi Smart speaker stand null and void. Though I’d also like to point out that the Mi Smart speaker is loosely based on the same principle that drives Apple’s Siri-powered smart speaker.
Like Apple, Xiaomi has designed the Mi Smart speaker to be a speaker first. The smart aspect, though it is important, comes later.
Why is Xiaomi doing this? To understand that, you’ll first have to take its pricing strategy into account. The Mi Smart speaker costs Rs 3,999 – for a limited period, you can get it for Rs 3,499. That’s in the same ball park as the Google Nest Mini and the older Echo Dot – while the recently announced fourth-generation Echo Dot costs higher (Rs 4,499). The Mi Smart Speaker is unlike any of these devices (not counting the new Echo Dot here since I am yet to get my hands on it) in terms of feature set. Spoiler alert: it is better!
The Mi Smart speaker has been designed to address the gap that exists in the sub-Rs 5,000 price segment when it comes to the need for good sounding smart speakers – or smart speakers that sound good and are also affordable. That’s a lot to ask and yet, the Mi Smart speaker somehow manages to surprise by getting eerily close to its goal. It’s that good!
This starts with the design. The Mi Smart speaker looks like a conventional Bluetooth speaker with an Echo-y – think, first-generation Echo Plus – twist.
The Mi Smart speaker is a flattened-out cylindrical structure that’s made of metal with 10,531 “precise” sound holes. The mesh is briefly interrupted on the back by way of a vertical strip housing the power socket – there is no audio jack on the Mi Smart Speaker which is a curious omission but one that’s totally fine considering the price. Size, weight and styling are more in line with the Google Home which seems fair because that’s the smart speaker that Xiaomi is positioning this against.
The top is matte and has a row of four touch sensitive buttons for volume up and down, play/pause and one for muting the microphone(s) – the speaker has two of those, also at the top. These are surrounded by a “coloured” light strip/ring that changes based on command – orange for when the microphone is on mute, blue when it is listening, white in configuration mode, and yellow during a factory reset.
The Mi Smart speaker is a 12W speaker with a 63.5mm sound driver. It has a Texas Instruments’ TAS5805M Hi-Fi audio processing chip and DTS tuning for 360-degree surround sound output. Sound quality is nice and full, filling a small room with good-sounding audio that’s as good as more expensive smart speakers while the Echo Dot and Google Nest Mini can’t even hold a candle to its range and loudness – these equivalently priced smart speakers are infamous for their tinny audio akin to one coming out of a smartphone’s speaker. You can also to choose to pair multiple Mi Smart Speakers together in the same room for a cinematic stereo sound.
Now that we’ve established that the Mi Smart speaker punches way above its weight when it comes to sound, let’s jump onto its smart aspect. It is powered by the Google Assistant which means that it answers to “Hey Google” or “Ok Google” voice commands. You need the Google Home app for initial install process (or when you’re pairing it with other compatible smart speakers) after which it is always on and always listening to you (unless you have it on mute) without the need for any additional app or software.
The two far-field microphones on-board the speaker are quick and responsive picking up voice at commands from across a small room though your mileage may vary depending on the dimensions. This will also depend on your ambience by the way, though over the years, the Google Assistant has become fairly efficient at picking your voice from a crowd. This works well on the Mi Smart Speaker as well most of the time.
Once fired up, the Google Assistant here can do everything that other Google Assistant-based smart speakers including the newly launched Nest Audio can. It can control your smart home devices, answer questions, give weather updates, play music, so on and so forth. The Mi Smart Speaker supports English and Hindi.
You can essentially do three kinds of things with the Mi Smart Speaker. You can stream audio directly off the smart speaker from services like Spotify. You can use the built in Chromecast to cast content off of it on supported devices like smart TVs. Or you can simply use Bluetooth pairing to listen to stuff you already have on your phones. All of this is in addition to the usual smarts that I just mentioned.
While it’s true that the Mi Smart Speaker can do everything that other similar devices – including the more expensive ones – can do, it would be interesting to see how Xiaomi goes about updating its smart speaker. As opposed to something like the Google Nest Mini or Google Home where updates are handled directly by Google, it is highly likely that this control lies with Xiaomi in the case of its own smart speaker.
Smart speakers, even big-ticket ones, have become notorious for becoming outdated fast (faster than other smart devices, that is) with brands dropping support soon after launching newer hardware and while one can’t really foresee this happening with Xiaomi just yet, how it handles software updates on an immediate basis will go a long way in setting the tone for the future. So definitely, fingers crossed there.
So, how good is the Xiaomi Mi Smart speaker?
Well, quite good actually. It’s surprising how despite venturing into new product categories, Xiaomi is somehow able to link it all back to its core mission which is innovation for everyone every single time. At Rs 3,499, even at Rs 3,999, the Mi Smart speaker is a no-brainer for anyone with an Android phone looking to get into smart speakers (it works with iPhones also just in case) not just because it has no competition, but because it really nails the fundamentals, even at its low price.
The Mi Smart Speaker is a smart speaker that sound good and is also affordable. If this does not heat up the market for smart speakers in India, I don’t know what will.