Xiaomi Mi Band 4 review: Improved, and unbeatable at this price

Fitness trackers are everywhere these days. After Fitbit dominated the market in the early years, they’ve progressively been priced out of the market by affordable bands from Chinese tech companies—even Samsung has joined the fray with a tracker of their own. But to me, you can’t think of a fitness tracker without thinking of Xiaomi’s rightfully celebrated Mi Band series, can you?

Of course, guys like Honor and Samsung have released (relatively) affordable fitness trackers of their own, and I’ve been patiently waiting for Xiaomi to release the Mi Band 4. I’ve yet to use a Xiaomi product that hasn’t brought a great deal of value to the table, and from early impressions, it seems that the Mi Band 4 might just follow suit.

The Mi Band 3 has been around for just over a year, and Xiaomi has now refreshed the popular fitness tracker. If you’ve used one, you’ll know that the Mi Band 3 was arguably the fitness tracker of 2018, with affordability paired with great battery life and functionality.

I recently received a review unit for the brand new Mi Band 4, and the biggest question I had in my mind, obviously, was if Xiaomi’s latest fitness band would live up to the Mi Band’s strong reputation. During the review period, I wore the Mi Band 4 for approximately 2 weeks, with different features and functions enabled.

Right off the bat, it looks pretty similar to previous iterations of the Mi Band, but the biggest difference is that Xiaomi has equipped their latest fitness tracker with a colour AMOLED screen—finally.

I’ll confess, I’m not the most avid user of fitness functions on smartwatches or wearables, with device functionality and display sometimes taking a greater degree of importance to me. But given that the Mi Band 4—for all its fancy coloured watch faces and notification icons—is primarily a fitness tracker, I’ve tried my very best to put myself though the paces in order to gauge if the Mi Band 4 is indeed a good buy for a fitness tracker in 2019.

Improvements over the Mi Band 3

Before we proceed, let’s examine the differences between the Mi Band 4 and its predecessor, the Mi Band 3. Physically, both trackers aren’t all that different, other than the colour AMOLED display. In fact, you can still use the same straps from the Mi Band 3, although the charging points at the bottom of the device are slightly different. Xiaomi has also bumped up the price of the Mi Band 4 to RM149, with the Mi Band 3 originally sold for RM129.

The Mi Band 4 weighs 2g more than the Mi Band 3, which is perhaps due to its larger display. While the jump from a 0.78″ screen to a 0.95″ panel is a 40% increase in screen real estate, the difference in size isn’t really perceivable to me. Perhaps the reason why this isn’t obvious is that the Mi Band 3 has a darker tint over its screen, which hides where the screen ends and the bezel begins, helping the screen look bigger than it actually is.

But the new colour display now lets me choose from a variety of different watch faces on the Mi Fit app, and you can access a vast library of watch faces using this workaround. Unfortunately, this method is rather cumbersome to employ, but it’s still a better option than having to be limited to the Mi Fit app’s range of watch faces.

Although there isn’t much of a difference in functionality, but the larger colour display does improve visibility of the Mi Band 4’s display tremendously, especially under sunlight—where you’d expect to be using your fitness band. I can’t deny that the colour screen contributes to a more aesthetic watch face as well, which is certainly something I appreciate.

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The 5 ATM water rating is nice, meaning that the Mi Band 4 can be submerged in water down to a depth of 50m. This worked out great for me, with the lightweight nature of the band meaning that I practically left it on 24/7 (including during showers) during the review period. What’s improved, in terms of underwater usage, is a new six-axis sensor (3-axis accelerometer + 3-axis gyroscope) which helps to track swimming patterns, with multiple swimming strokes now able to be detected.

Battery life: Much of the same

There’s also a new NFC variant, although the set I used was the non-NFC version—the other difference is that the NFC variant comes with a smaller 125mAh battery, as opposed to the 135mAh battery on the review set I have with me. This is a significant jump from the Mi Band 3’s 110mAh-sized battery, but both expected battery lives are estimated to be around 20 days (we’ll get to real-world figures in a minute)—perhaps this is due to the new, larger, colour display.

Xiaomi promises up to 20 days of battery life with the Mi Band 4; I got around 14 days with mixed usage of the band, which is still pretty impressive. Keep in mind that this depends on the amount of work you’re putting the band through—this includes the number of workouts, if you keep it connected to your smartphone at all times, and other usage-based patterns.

As I mentioned, I kept the Mi Band 4 on my wrist for a good 2 weeks, while keeping the display brightness at 3 out of 5 blocks (you can increase this to a max 400 nits by swiping down on the main screen>more>settings). In addition to that, I kept my smartphone and band connected via Bluetooth, and set up the notifications to be pushed from my smartphone to the device. I also alternated the heart rate detection method from “Automatic heart rate detection” to “Turn off”, depending on what I was using the band for.

However, even though the battery life is good, I found the charging process of the Mi Band to be quite difficult. This requires removing the band from the strap, and inserting it into the charger, which would wear out the strap over time. Personally, the Mi Band 3 was easier to charge for me—plugging in the Mi Band 4 into the charging dock was difficult due to its new design. This got looser after the first few times, but I still didn’t like having to use that amount of force initially.

Daily usage experience

I found that the Mi Band 4 didn’t have too many connectivity issues, with my review set staying connected to my smartphone without any of the disconnects that you sometimes associate with Bluetooth-connected wearables. Perhaps this is due to the improved Bluetooth 5.0 support, with the Mi Band 3 only supporting Bluetooth 4.2.

Having WhatsApp notifications pushed to my Mi Band ensured that my wrist buzzed throughout the day/no notifications were missed

For a first time Mi Band user, getting notifications to work can be a tad tricky. You won’t be able to set it up from the Mi Band itself, so open the Mi Fit app on your smartphone, click on “Profile”, and select “App alerts”. Once that’s enabled, you can individually add apps from which you’ll want to receive notifications on your Mi Band.

I’d say that my usage of the Mi Band over the course of 2 weeks was roughly that of an average user, with email and WhatsApp notifications being continually pushed to my wrist. That said, once multiple messages were received from the same conversation on WhatsApp, the display stopped showing previews of the message. That’s probably an expected compromise, due to the smaller display of the Mi Band versus a full-fledged smartwatch, but for me, that somewhat defeated the purpose of having a convenient way to read my messages.

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As for daily use, the Mi Band was simple enough to use. You can tap the capacitive button to wake up the display, or set for the display to wake whenever you turn the band towards you. This will drain battery life, but I found the band to be pretty responsive whenever I flipped my wrist up, and it’s certainly a convenient feature to have.

Navigating the menus on the 0.95″ display was simple enough. Swipe left for easy access to the set of controls for music playback, and swipe right to access the AliPay QR code. I’m not too sure if this is different on official Malaysian sets, but the set I received was purchased in China, and AliPay doesn’t work in Malaysia for now. As for music controls, something will have to be already playing for this to work, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the controls work for not only Spotify, but YouTube videos as well. If you swipe up or down, you have access to other menus, including Workout, Heart rate, Weather, and more—the order of these options can be customised on the Mi Fit app.

Fitness tracking

I won’t deny it, I’m not exactly the most active person when it comes to exercise. But for the sake of this review, I put the Mi Band 4 to the test as a (lack-of) fitness tracker. Although the basic fitness functions are covered, there’s a notable lack of GPS-support on the Mi Band itself. This proved to be a slight negative for me, with the option to just head out of the house and run hampered by the need to have my bulky phone in my pocket at all times.

But as the Mi Band 4 doesn’t support standalone music playback, I suppose that avid runners will have their smartphones with them for music, regardless of that. This also seems to be a necessary compromise at this price point, with the Honor Band 4 and the Samsung Galaxy Fit also missing built-in GPS.

Results from a run that my colleague, Hanif, went on.

For a guy whose primary mode is couch-locked, there’s a decent range of workout modes you can choose from, with treadmill, outdoor running, cycling, walking, pool swimming, and a general exercise option available.

Something else that has been improved is the ability to start exercises directly on the fitness band. This is something that wasn’t available with the Mi Band 3 at launch, although Xiaomi rolled this feature out eventually. Previously, you had to start exercises from the accompanying Mi Fit app on your smartphone, which reduced the effectiveness of the Mi Band as a standalone fitness tracker.

The heart rate sensor is pretty accurate, using a Samsung Galaxy Watch as a reference.

The app also does sleep tracking to a decent level of detail, with percentages for deep sleep, light sleep, and time awake all recorded. Each night of sleep (or lack thereof, I’m not a great sleeper) is given a score of 1–100 which is apparently based on the sleep patterns of other Mi Fit users. I did however notice that there isn’t a reading for REM sleep, which is something that the Fitbit app has, in addition to a more polished looking interface in general.

Do note that you’ll need to turn on the “Sleep assistant” detection method on in your settings, or else you’ll have worn the Mi Band to sleep for nothing (something else that the Fitbit turns on automatically).

The above is an example of an average work night’s worth of sleep for me (I spend the rest of my time working, of course). I like how the tracker actually breaks my night’s sleep into percentages of deep and light sleep, which makes for pretty grim reading for me. Apparently, I sleep better than more than half of the users in the Mi Fit community, which is great news—the sleep quality analysis is reasonably detailed, and the reading of comparative quality of sleep that I get is something that I really enjoyed finding out.

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The Mi Fit app isn’t all that great

For me, the Mi Fit app does the job well enough, although it’s a little troublesome to navigate. The main page is divided into 3 main sections: Workout, Friends, and Profile—all of which are pretty self-explanatory. Tweak your settings and preferences in the Profile section, add friends via QR code, and access all your fitness records and workouts in the Workout tab.

Having said that, I found the process to access my history of workouts and steps to be unnecessarily multi-tiered. For example, to find a detailed report on my steps for today (along with distance covered and calories burned), I had to click on the little orange man, and click on the subsequent orange man in the next page (My workouts). From there, the History button at the bottom of the page finally displayed bar charts detailing my progress for the past few days.

Similarly, to see the results of a certain workout on the day, I had to use the same navigation process, and select the little green man icon from the “My workouts” tab, where I’ll have access to a list of my activities. I’d much prefer having my last workout readily available on the first page, given that that is what I usually want to see first when I open the app after a workout.

Overall, it’s a decent enough all-in-one app, but it lacks the finesse that other apps like the Fitbit tracker app has. There’s also not much in way of the social aspect of fitness tracking, although the app does display how well you’re sleeping or performing compared to a percentage of other users, so Xiaomi is at least moving towards a more community-centric fitness app.

The Mi Band 4’s improvements make it worth the extra $

All in all, the Mi Band 4 isn’t really a huge upgrade from the Mi Band 3 in terms of functionality. You get most of the same functions, with some added exercise modes including swimming, which will come in handy for those that want to utilise the Mi Band’s 5 ATM-rated water resistance. The larger, colour AMOLED display is a big step up from the previous Mi Band, which is great.

It’s not a substitute for a smartwatch by any stretch, but the Mi Band 4 certainly does a decent job at reliably pushing notifications from your smartphone. You won’t get access to apps like smartwatches do, and you’re of course limited by a much smaller screen than what smartwatches typically have. But on the plus side, there is still a variety of options that you can tweak from the Mi Fit app to personalise your experience—including some really interesting watch faces, which is something that geeks like me have a lot of fun with.

Battery life is superb, as expected. Xiaomi’s relatively large battery is larger than both the costlier Samsung Galaxy Fit as well as the Honor Band 4, and the Mi Band 4’s battery life is largely unrivalled. However, there are still some kinks to iron out—the charging mechanism isn’t ideal, with the potential for wear and tear, while the Mi Fit app isn’t the most user-friendly.

But for RM149, the Mi Band 4 is certainly a great purchase. I won’t argue for the Mi Band 4 to be a solution for everybody looking for a Smart wearable, but if you pit Xiaomi’s latest fitness tracker against similarly-priced competition, I’d say that we have a real winner on our hands.

Plus, having everything in colour is just a really, really nice bonus.

Photography by Nic Ker and Zachary Yoong with the Sony A7 III.