Xiaomi Mi Notebook Air 13.3 (2017)

Remember the sublime Xiaomi Air laptop we reviewed last year? Well, the Chinese manufacturer, better known for its smartphone range, has refreshed its entire 12.5 and 13.3-inch range (and introduced a gorgeous 15.6-inch Pro range) with a clear eye on the lucrative prosumer/business audience.

Available in gold or silver color schemes, the Xiaomi Mi Notebook Air 13.3-inch model comes as a Fingerprint Edition – which we are reviewing today – and a Classic Edition. The latter is simply the renamed older 2016 model which uses older components and lacks the fingerprint reader, but at the same time has a much lower price tag (as little as £540 – that’s around $730).

Design

The first thing you notice is the lack of any logo on the top side of the laptop – there’s simply an inconspicuous stylized MI logo underneath the chassis with stickers bearing useful printed details. You can peel them off to leave the device totally devoid of any distractions.

Xiaomi stuck to the minimalist design embraced since the beginning of the Air era. The machine has a brushed metal finish on an all-metal enclosure, sharper-than-average edges and an evident disregard for super-thin designs.

There’s no visual trickery here (no tapered profile/wedge as seen on the likes of the Jumper EZBook 3 Pro); this laptop looks like an almost perfect metal slab.

As with Apple laptops, there’s a chamfered cut and a long, centrally located metal hinge that links the base to the display. Flip it upside down and you’ll see five rubber feet, six screws that keep the base together, and two speaker grilles.

The Xiaomi Mi Notebook Air 13.3 is slightly bigger than an A4 sheet (309 x 211 x 14.8mm) and weighs a chunky 1.31kg with the power supply adding another 223g.

When open, this model shares the same look as the Xiaomi Air 12 we reviewed last year. Of course, it has a slightly bigger IPS display with a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, a glossy glass overlay – which seems to have an oleophobic coating – and thin bezels. We’d prefer a matte finish especially as the Xiaomi Air 13.3 doesn’t offer any touchscreen capabilities.

The keyboard subjectively rates on par with the likes of the Dell XPS 13. There’s ample spacing between the keys, and they are big – a full 2mm bigger, at 16mm, than the ones on the aforementioned Dell laptop. They offer a good amount of travel with little flex.

A few observations: the function keys are about half the size of the normal alphabetical keys. The power button is located on the top right-hand side of the laptop. The keyboard is backlit but doesn’t offer an intermediary ‘medium’ light setting.

The touchpad is generously sized at 110 x 67mm; it has no physical buttons and comes with an integrated fingerprint scanner.

There are three ports on each side: an HDMI port, USB 3.0 and earphone jack can be found on one side, and a USB 3.0 along with a USB Type-C port on the other. The latter also doubles as the power port (so you can’t use it when plugged into the mains).

Specifications

Xiaomi went for the very best components (well, at least they were a few months ago, anyway) for this laptop. The 256GB model we received runs the Samsung PM961 M.2 NVMe SSD, one of the fastest laptop drives currently available.

The 7th-generation Intel Core i5-7200U is not as powerful as the just-released i5-8250U but it still delivers a powerful punch: it has two cores, four threads, a maximum turbo frequency of 3.1GHz and 3MB cache.

The on-board comms chip has also been upgraded to the Intel Wireless AC 8265.

The big improvement, however, comes from the on-board Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU, which is based on the Pascal architecture and is said to deliver up to 37% extra gaming performance compared to the 940MX.

The MX150 also supports Optimus technology which allows applications to switch seamlessly between integrated and dedicated graphics to save battery life when the latter isn’t needed.

Usage and performance

It's worth noting that this laptop currently comes with the Chinese version of Windows 10 Home. Gearbest does not offer a trial (non-activated) English version of Windows 10 which allows you to buy a license as it did previously. This isn't ideal as it adds to the cost of the machine – you can track the cheapest Windows 10 deals here.

We had to install an English version of Windows 10 in order to run our benchmarks correctly. The results produced by the Xiaomi Mi Notebook Air 13.3 were largely in line with our expectations, with a few distinct highlights.

Geekbench compute and Cinebench OpenGL scores were far better than expected because of the dedicated Pascal-based GeForce MX150 GPU with 2GB GDDR5 RAM. Likewise, the NVMe SSD from Samsung delivers stellar numbers – some of the best results we’ve witnessed from a single drive.

The IPS display, which boasts a protective glass made of sapphire, produces bright, crisp pictures with good viewing angles and decent saturation levels. Sadly, the glossy finish makes it near impossible to read in bright sunlight.

Our biggest complaint, though, has to be the noise level especially when under load. The Notebook Air 13.3 is certainly a noisy customer and we blame this on the dedicated GPU. The laptop warms up and although we haven’t stress-tested the machine, we wonder whether the device will throttle – and potentially shut down – when it becomes too warm.

Battery life is not too shabby at just over five hours, which is acceptable for a laptop with a dedicated GPU, but far below the eight hours suggested by Xiaomi.

The fingerprint reader works as promised, offering fast unlocking of the laptop, while the sound quality of the AKG speakers is one of the better audio experiences we’ve heard on an Ultrabook. Note that there’s no SD card slot which may put off some potential buyers.

Competition

As we mentioned at the outset of this review, remember that you are likely to be hit with a sizeable fee when buying (and importing) the Xiaomi Mi Notebook Air 13.3 laptop from Gearbest. So what other compelling options are available?

The HP Pavilion x360 2017 Edition comes with a more powerful quad-core, 8th-generation Core i5 CPU, and a similar feature set minus the dedicated graphics card and fingerprint reader. You do get a touchscreen display with the HP model, though, not to mention Windows 10 in English, and you can optionally insure this convertible laptop for three years for £49 ($65). At just under £750 ($1,010) at the time of writing, it is a better deal in our books.

At just under £680 ($920) – including a £70 cashback – the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 (2016) convertible laptop adopts the same set of components as its main competitors, but is pegged at a lower price point. Note that a newer model, the Dell Inspiron 13 5379, can be had for around £750 ($1,010) direct from Dell at the time of writing, and this has a newer, more powerful CPU.

Another alternative is the sub-£600 ($810) Medion Achieve S3409 which shares the same specifications as its competitors, but like the Xiaomi Mi, it’s pegged as a traditional, bog standard laptop rather than one that morphs into a tablet. Note that Medion is a Lenovo brand and the S3409 is bulkier than its rivals.

Final verdict

The Xiaomi Mi Notebook Air is a superb laptop on many levels, boasting a superb design, impressive performance levels, and slick additions like a fingerprint reader.

It’s not without flaws, though, such as the cooling system and the noise this makes. Indeed, one might question the benefit of adding a dedicated graphics card to a product that’s not gaming oriented. You could also argue that Xiaomi should have shunned the glossy finish of the display; this isn’t a touchscreen after all.

Beyond all these considerations, though, is the question of aftersales and Windows 10. Xiaomi doesn’t sell the laptop in the UK through the usual channels, which means that defective laptops have to be sent all the way to China and back with the customer having to foot the bill (and expect a refund).

While we wouldn’t have balked at this scenario for cheaper devices, the thought of sending away a £700 ($950) notebook – possibly our main computer – and waiting for it to come back after a few weeks is something we cannot really contemplate.

To make things worse, this laptop ships with Windows 10 in Chinese; changing the language as suggested by some will not remedy anything. Instead, you need a new version of Windows altogether, which will add about £90 ($120) to the total price of the Xiaomi Mi Notebook Air 13.3.

The business user is likely to sidestep this laptop because of the hassles involved in installing a new version of Windows 10, and the potential trouble of having to ship the machine to the other side of the world for repairs – and all the implications of having potentially sensitive data in transit.

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