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Friday, September 24, 2021

Xiaomi Mi Band 6: The same, but better in every way [Review]

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It blows my mind that seven years after Xiaomi introduced the first Mi Band it is still the king of affordable fitness trackers. Think about it. Year after year, it faces stiff competition, yet when all is said and done it blows it out of the water. And it is not like there is any magic involved. The recipe has always been the same.

It has basic fitness tracking functionality, some smart features for extra usability, a classic form factor, and, most important of all, a price tag that makes your jaw stay right where it’s supposed to. Unsurprisingly, the new Mi Band 6 follows that recipe to a T, hitting it out of the park for Xiaomi once again. If this were a chess game, it would be checkmate for the 2021 season.

The big updates

The big news this year — at least for me — is that the screen is much bigger than before. It follows the edges of the band, with only a small bezel around it. It feels peak Mi Band, and that’s probably because it is.

There is no way for Xiaomi to improve it on the Mi Band 7 without going to a new form factor — or making the band bigger, which would make it harder to pull off for people with smaller wrists.

What other changes are there? Well, second to the bigger display is the addition of a blood oxygen sensor. In Covid times it is nice to know you can have your level measured in a few seconds, wherever you are.

The Sp02 measurements are available only on-demand though, so you cannot see how they changed throughout the day or set an alert in case the bloody oxygen level reaches a certain point — unlike the heart rate monitoring, which lets you do both.

The software has also received a subtle update to make the most out of the larger display. Looking at the lockscreen, you can find your steps, burned calories, current temperature, date and time, latest hard rate measurement, the physical activity index and the remaining charge.

There are new menus as well, and more options available to customize it, though the user experience remains similar to past generations. There is no longer a button below the screen though, so now you have to tap anywhere on the display to wake the Mi Band 6.

Form factor with benefits

The externals are visually unchanged from the previous generation. Xiaomi has decided to use the same strap style and charger, giving Mi Band 6 users lots of replacement options to choose from — both official and aftermarket — from day one.

User experience

What’s it actually like to use though? Well, if you’re coming from a previous model, it will all feel very familiar. There are changes here and there to let you know this is newer (and better), but for the most part I’ve just put it on my wrist and it felt no different to the Mi Band 5.

New users should feel right at home after going through the options a couple of times. The main menu is easy to follow, though it may take a few swipes to find what you’re looking for at first. If you want more control over what is available on the Mi Band 6 — or wish to personalize it some more — the Mi Fit app lets you manage the device.

The Mi Band 6 does a really good job at keeping you up to date with what’s happening on your smartphone, thanks to a nice integration that lets you see notifications on the band. It also allows you to reject phone calls, which I find quite handy when I don’t have the phone on me. The range is excellent.

It is mostly a passive affair, as the screen does not lend itself well to replying — though some canned replies could probably be implemented down the road — but that’s perfectly fine for my usage. Many notifications do not require an (immediate) action on my end, so I can simply dismiss them and get on with my day.

What about fitness tracking though? Well, as the review is written from the perspective of a couch potato — and, just because I can, I shall also blame Covid for limiting testing options (cough, cough) — there is not a whole lot I can say about the fancy exercise modes it has.

I mostly keep an eye on the heart rate and the steps I make during the day, and from that perspective the Mi Band 6 provides a good-enough at-a-glance overview. There are lots of activities supported though, so if you cycle or swim you can select that to get a more accurate representation of the effort put into it.

Based on testing with a blood pressure monitor that’s clinically accurate, I can say that the Mi Band 6 does match the beats per minute when checked side by side, so from that perspective it has proven to be satisfactory.

What can be improved?

Xiaomi has designed the Mi Band 6 — just like previous models — to rely a bit too much on the Mi Fit app. If you’re looking for heart rate measurements, you can only see the latest one. The band does keep track of previous ones, but you can only view them after syncing it with your smartphone.

For at-a-glance use, the new lockscreen great, though it all feels a bit more cramped than before. Obviously, there is only so much information you can fit on such a tiny display, and you do have the option of using more lightweight themes.

In my experience, the original strap tends to fail well within the first year. That’s been the case for the three previous models I’ve had. Since cost and availability are quite good, you can buy a spare in advance and not sweat over it too much. You can find packs of five under $10 on Amazon.

Is it that good?

I have been a faithful user of the Mi Band lineup ever since I got a taste of the Mi Band 3, and, so, this year I bought the new one without thinking twice. It simply had to be great. And it is. It just lacks a bit of excitement.

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