Xiaomi, the 'Apple of the East,' debuts iPhone 6 Plus competitor

Xiaomi isn't well-known outside of Asia, but the company is currently the third-largest smart phone maker in the world – and it's rumored to be considering an entry into the US and Europe.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun takes a selfie at the announcement of the Mi Note, the company's new flagship phone. The Mi Note is half the cost of a comparable iPhone 6 Plus or Galaxy Note 4.

If you’ve heard of Xiaomi, one of the fastest-growing tech companies in China, it’s probably because the company has made headlines for allegedly copying the design of Apple products, from the iPad Mini (Xiaomi’s Mi Pad has the same resolution and screen size) to the iPhone (Xiaomi’s Mi 4 has a similar construction).

But the company says it’s not taking ideas from Apple, and its new Mi Note flagship phone, announced on Thursday, supports that assertion.

The Android-powered Mi Note is a 5.7-inch phone, which puts it squarely in the “phablet” category alongside the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus.

The handset has a sleek, understated design with a consistent thickness of 0.27 inches. The Mi Note’s 13-megapixel camera fits entirely inside the phone’s body, unlike the “camera bump” found on the iPhone 6. Both the front and back of the Mi Note use slightly curved glass panels.

The biggest mark in the Mi Note’s favor isn’t the specs, though. It’s the price. The base model costs $370 while a “Pro” model with more RAM, a faster processor, and a better screen costs $520. That means the entry-level Mi Note costs just about half of what a comparably-specced iPhone 6 Plus or Galaxy Note 4 costs.

The Mi Note is exclusive to China for right now. Xiaomi hasn’t really been able to make inroads in Europe or North America yet, though it has a market in India, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Xiaomi, which was founded in 2010 by software veteran Lei Jun, has quickly risen to become the world’s third-biggest smart phone maker – even though it doesn’t have a toehold in major Western markets. The company became known as the “Apple of the East” after it started marketing its products in an Apple-like way (Xiaomi’s website, for example, strongly resembles Apple’s site). Mr. Lei often dresses in jeans and black shirts for presentations, in conscious imitation of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (though he donned a light blue button-down for the Mi Note announcement). More than once, Lei has borrowed Mr. Jobs’s well-known “One more thing …” line to introduce a new product.

Does Xiaomi’s rise spell trouble for Apple? Probably not – the company Mr. Jobs led has enough cachet to set it apart in China, where the market is crowded with me-too Android devices. But Xiaomi’s success has come at the expense of Samsung, which was unseated last year as the No. 1 smart phone maker in China (though it is still the biggest phone maker worldwide). Xiaomi is rumored to be eying a launch in Europe and the US sometime in 2015, and if that happens, consumers may suddenly have the option of buying high-end smart phones for a fraction of the usual price.

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