- High-quality design and build
- Affordable price
- Easy to install a second SSD
- Excellent speakers
- Discrete GPU
- Good battery life
- Fine backlit keyboard and touchpad
- Plays nice with Linux
- Ships with Chinese Windows 10 Home
- You need to buy it from China
- Fans are somewhat noisy under load
The new 15.6-inch Mi Notebook Pro heads up Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi's Apple-aping range of laptops: the Mi Notebook Air, which comes in 12.5-inch and 13.3-inch models, is pitched against the MacBook and MacBook Pro 13, while the Mi Notebook Pro has the MacBook Pro 15 in its sights.
Of course, these Chinese imports are not really direct competitors to Apple's laptops. To start with, they run Windows rather than macOS. Also, their specs are no match for Apple's machines, which generally have faster chips, larger-capacity SSDs, more memory, and higher-resolution screens.
But Xiaomi's notebooks are a lot cheaper. At the time of writing, GearBest -- which supplied our review unit -- is offering the Core i5, 256GB Notebook Pro for £640 (inc. VAT). An entry-level MacBook Pro 15 will set you back £2,349. Is the Apple a better machine? Yes. Is it four times better? I'd argue not.
For the money Xiaomi offers a very decent system running on an 8th-generation Intel Core i5-8250U processor with 8GB of DDR4 RAM and a discrete Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 video RAM. Storage comes courtesy of a 256GB Samsung PM961 PCIe NVMe SSD. That lineup gives the Notebook Pro some serious speed and power for a thin-and-light.
This is the first time I've benchmarked an 8th generation i5 system. Running Geekbench 4, I got very impressive scores of 4,136 (single-core) and 13,874 (multi-core).
Those results are nearly double what you'd expect to see from a similar specification 7th-generation Core i5 system. That's the benefit of two extra cores and a higher Turbo Boost clock speed. In many tasks, the new i5 chips are barely any slower than 8th-generation Core i7 components, and they beat 7th-generation i7 chips hollow.
There are a Core i7 versions of the Pro available for around £200 more depending on the amount of memory you opt for. Given the impressive performance of the i5 I couldn't justify spending the extra.
The graphics scores were unsurprisingly a little less impressive: the 3DMark Fire Strike test threw up an average of 2,987, but you don't buy a machine like this to replace your PS4. That said, with some tweaking both Doom and Battlefield 1 ran at decent frame rates (around 50fps) at the native screen resolution.
The Notebook Pro's display is a full-HD (1920 x 1080 pixel) Gorilla Glass 3-covered IPS panel without any touchscreen functionality. Why don't Xiaomi's laptops have touchscreens? Because Apple's don't -- that's how seriously, or slavishly, Xiaomi takes the 'China's Apple' epithet.
The screen itself is good, with excellent colour saturation and, at 300 nits maximum, a decent level of brightness. The resolution is some way below the 2,880 by 1,800 pixels that Apple offers (Apple's panel can also manage 500 nits), but it's sufficient for the majority use cases.
All that technology is wrapped up in a very smart gunmetal (or 'deep grey' in Xiaomi-speak) alloy body. That body is attached to a magnesium alloy chassis, making the Notebook Pro as very solid and durable bit of kit.
Make no mistake, the Xiaomi Notebook Pro looks and feels every inch the premium laptop even if the styling looks a bit slab-like next to Apple's more curvaceous design.
The Notebook Pro is a model of discretion, with the only Xiaomi badging located in small print on the underside -- along with a cheeky "Designed by Xiaomi in Beijing. Made in China" strapline.
At 36cm wide by 24.4cm deep by 1.5cm thick the Notebook Pro is so close to the MacBook Pro 15's dimensions that sleeves designed for the latter fit perfectly. The Chinese machine is slightly heavier though, weighing 1.99kg compared to the MacBook Pro's 1.83kg.
Thankfully Xiaomi has punched more holes in the side of its notebook than Apple is willing to do. Rather than four Thunderbolt ports, Xiaomi offers two USB Type-C and two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI connector, and an SD card reader. That's a much more versatile offering, in my opinion.
Technically the Xiaomi's backlit keyboard is hard to fault. The well-spaced keys have a 0.3mm curvature and a short but positive 1.5mm travel, which all makes for a satisfying typing experience. Sadly the layout is international so, for example, the £ # and @ symbols are not where British users expect.
The large (12.5cm x 8.5cm) one-piece trackpad is a Microsoft Precision device (a first for a Xiaomi laptop) and works faultlessly, as does the fingerprint scanner built into the top right corner of the trackpad.
The Notebook Pro is one of the few laptops I've encountered that offers Dolby's Atmos sound technology, here combined with a pair of 2.5W Harman Infinity speakers. The result is an impressively composed and loud soundscape.
The Notebook Pro's 8,000mAh battery proved good for around eight hours of mixed use with the screen brightness at 75 percent. The MacBook Pro 15 can do a bit better, but that's still a very solid result for a 15-inch Windows laptop.
The impressive battery performance is helped by the Nvidia GPU's Optimus technology, which allows applications to switch seamlessly between integrated (Intel HD Graphics 620) and dedicated graphics to save charge.
But it speaks Chinese...
The biggest drawback with the Mi Notebook Pro -- as with all Xiaomi laptops -- is that it ships with Windows 10 Home Chinese. No doubt about it, this is a major pain.
To swap to Windows 10 Home English you need to fire up your new machine, log into your Microsoft account (not an easy operation unless you have an English machine alongside, or can read Chinese), and then use a Windows Media Installation USB stick to reinstall Windows 10 Home English single language.
Then you need to head to the Windows Activation page and hit Troubleshoot. Windows should then recognise the original licence and you are good to go.
Of you could do what I did and buy an ex-OEM Windows 10 Pro key from eBay for a fiver. Or you could jump ship to Linux.
Like all Xiaomi laptops I've tested, the Notebook Pro worked perfectly with Ubuntu, although you'll need to tinker with the drivers to get the Nvidia GPU working properly. Why Nvidia has never bothered to fully support Optimus for Linux is beyond me.
Usefully -- and again like the smaller Xiaomi laptops -- you can unscrew the back panel and install a second M.2 PCIe SSD. This makes for an easy and affordable storage boost; alternatively you can install a Linux distro on the second SSD and create a genuine two-in-one machine.
My only other niggles with the Pro are a keyboard backlight that's either on or off with no adjustment for duration or brightness, a rather mundane one-megapixel webcam, and cooling fans that when working full-tilt can be a little intrusive.
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