Xiaomi bolsters its high-end lineup with two new flagship phones

Xiaomi, a Chinese company and the third largest smartphone maker in the world, held one of its big events in Beijing on Thursday. Among the now-standard Xiaomi launch fanfare, the company introduced two new smartphones, a pair of premium headphones, and a TV streaming stick that looks similar to a smartphone charger.

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The two smartphones Xiaomi launched on Thursday, the Mi Note and the Mi Note Pro, use Xiaomi’s high-end Mi moniker, and shouldn’t be confused with its lower-end Redmi Note, or Samsung’s more expensive Galaxy Note, which it resembles. The Mi Note is a dual-SIM smartphone, with a 5.7-inch 1080p display, powered by a Snapdragon 801 chip and 3GB of RAM. It comes in both 16GB and 64GB versions starting at RMB 2299 ($370). It’s running on Xiaomi’s tweaked version of Android and the MIUI ineterface.

[company]Xiaomi[/company] also launched the Mi Note Pro, a souped-up version which will be Xiaomi’s most expensive smartphone.  It’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 — which we haven’t seen on many flagship devices so far — and it’s got a 5.7-inch, 2560×1440 display, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage space. It’s launching later this month for RMB 3,299 ($530).

Both Mi Notes have a Sony 13-megapixel camera module with optical image stabilization as their rear shooter, and a 4MP front camera with larger 2-micron pixels.

Xiaomi doesn’t just make smartphones, though, and it also introduced two new intriguing electronic products at its event. Taking a page from Apple and Samsung, which both have premium headphone lines, Xiaomi is selling its own cans, and going even farther, Xiaomi is advertising they work with the high-definition playback supported on the new Mi devices.

Xiaomi Mi Headphones

The Mi Headphones are semi-open (so sound will leak) headphones for the affordable price of RMB 499, or $80 — which is a lot less than a pair of Beats, but still expensive for many of Xiaomi’s customers in Asia.

Xiaomi also introduced another TV streaming box, and this one looks a lot like an iPhone wall charger. The Mi Box Mini is packing a quad-core CPU based on Cortex A7 ARM cores, 4GB of internal storage, and HDMI 1.4. The box isn’t running Android TV, but it is running Android 4.4. KitKat. If you can get the content you want on it, it seems like a good deal for RMB 199 ($30).

xiaomi mi box mini

Xiaomi is now selling its wares in China, India, Indonesia, and soon Brazil, but it’s unlikely to set up shop in the United States in the near future.

In the west, Xiaomi is often compared to Apple (because of its similar hardware designs) or Amazon (because of its approach to profit margins.) But the Chinese giant, recently valued at $45 billion, seems to be marching to its own beat, expanding its product lineup to include all kinds of home goods, including TVs, air purifiers, and routers. But the smartphone is where Xiaomi got its start, and with the new Mi Notes, it hasn’t forgotten its core fanbase: Chinese consumers who want dynamite smartphone hardware at a good price.

 

Five questions about HTC’s role in the Beats lawsuit

On Tuesday, Monster, the first manufacturer of Beats headphones, filed a civil complaint in California court alleging that Beats essentially swindled Monster when the two companies split in 2011.

It’s no surprise that [company]Monster[/company] and its CEO Noel Lee are suing Beats. It’s been clear that the separation wasn’t amicable since at least 2013. And Beats Electronics ended up being worth a lot — Apple paid around $2.5 billion for the company in May, plus another $500 million for the Beats Music streaming service.

Monster’s case may turn on the actions of another smartphone maker — [company]HTC[/company], which is mentioned 162 times in the complaint. Monster claims that the mechanism that allowed Beats to allegedly steal its intellectual property, suppliers and clients was based on a “change of control” provision in the original Monster-Beats deal which was triggered by HTC buying a majority stake in Beats in September 2011.

Monster says HTC purchased its $309 million stake in Beats for the sole reason of releasing Beats from its contract with Monster, a claim that on the surface appears to be backed up the odd saga of HTC divesting from Beats in 2012 (when Beats bought back a 25 percent share) and 2013 (when the Carlyle Group effectively bought the remaining HTC stake for $265 million).

HTC is named as a defendant along with Beats Electronics, its founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, and Beats board member Paul Wachter.

If HTC helped Beats wrest a $3 billion business from its initial hardware partner, it raises a lot of questions.

Did HTC know it was helping Beats ditch Monster?

Monster alleges it did know, saying that HTC entered into its “sham” partnership with Beats “driven by greed” and with “full knowledge of the fraud.” Monster’s main evidence is remarks made by HTC board member David Yoffee this past summer.

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But a large part of Monster’s case is based on Beats having a pattern of ripping its partners off by taking their ideas and poaching their employees. From the complaint:

This is not the first time Iovine, Dre, and others have engaged in this course of
conduct. These misdeeds are not isolated transgressions; rather, they exemplify a pattern and
practice… (a) lure entrepreneurs, musicians, and electronic product developers with promises of growing a business as partners; (b) then extract the intellectual property, production, and supply mechanisms that underlie the venture and that create value

The complaint says that Beats did the same thing to its first design partner, Pentagram, and first manufacturing partner, Jibe Audio. Could Beats have treated HTC in the same way?

Still, the actual recorded financial transactions are odd. Why would HTC sell back half of its Beats stake only a year after the original partnership was announced — and only a month after the official close of the deal — while Beats was still growing so quickly?

It’s also possible that the HTC-Beats deal was initially struck in good faith, and eventually fell apart due to trouble integrating the two corporate cultures as well the timing: HTC took a stake in Beats at the beginning of HTC’s three-year decline.

If HTC was in on the deal, what did it stand to gain?

[company]HTC[/company] profited from holding part of [company]Beats[/company] for a little while. Though HTC reportedly turned a small loss when it sold half of its stake in Beats back to the company in 2012, it made $85 million when it sold its remaining stake in 2013. The company has had a very difficult past few years, and that $85 million helped it dodge quarterly losses.

Few commercially important products came out of the partnership. A few HTC phones — like the HTC Rezound — came with Beats branding, but the Beats contribution to those devices was mostly “audio tuning,” or a fancy equalizer. Some HTC handsets came with Beats-branded earbuds, but even those were quickly dropped.

At the time, Om Malik wrote that the initial deal looked like an attempt for HTC to buy cool:

It is paying $300 million for coolness and a brand, though it is not very clear how it allows the company to overcome problems that are much bigger than a few cool adverts can paper over.

Even if HTC was trying to buy cool, it didn’t do a great job. Beats-endorsing celebrities like Lady Gaga and LeBron James showed up at HTC launch events, but the Beats halo never rubbed off on HTC in a commercially meaningful way.

Another possibility is that HTC was going to be the partner for Iovine’s planned streaming service. Did Iovine mislead HTC about that partnership? Or was it really in the works, but then something prevented it from taking off?

Was HTC CEO Peter Chou involved?

HTC Rezound Launch Event

It’s hard to imagine a company taking a $300 million stake in another company without the CEO signing off. The complaint details emails from Iovine to Monster saying:

a. “I don’t know what to say. I’m meeting with peter the ceo of htc what doI say to him???? (sic)”
b. “I’m in Taiwan (sic) met with peter ceo of htc…this is me talking we have to get this deal done Friday if we don’t it all could unravel” (sic)

If HTC was never really a strategic partner to Beats, as Monster claims, what did Iovine discuss with Chou? At the time, Iovine told the Los Angeles Times that Beats was “going to be in business with HTC and they’re going to help us and we’re going to help them in every way they can.”

Making things more complicated is that one of the driving forces behind the deal, Matthew Costello, at the time was both HTC’s COO and on the Beats board. Costello is now the COO of Beats.

When did Apple enter the picture?

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One of Monster CEO Lee’s main claims is that Beats leadership told him there was no “liquidity event” on the horizon at the same time as [company]Apple[/company] was doing due diligence in order to purchase the company.

Iovine has said that the deal was in the works as early as 2012, and Apple SVP Eddy Cue has also said the purchase was years in the making.

Did anyone at HTC know about the potential Apple sale? If it did know, why would it sell back its stake for a return a fraction the size that it would have received if had held through when Apple purchased Beats Electronics for $2.5 billion? It’s possible that Apple wouldn’t touch Beats as long as HTC held a stake.

What’s next?

Beats launched a streaming service in early 2014, and it’s expected to form the core of a new Apple-backed music streaming service. The majority of Beats’ current headphone lineup owes little to the first-generation Monster versions — and in my opinion, display clearly superior build and sound quality. A Beats executive told me in 2014 that the company has spent a lot of time revamping its lineup and removing leftover design elements from its Monster-era headphones.

A Beats spokesperson declined to comment for this story. Requests for comment from Apple and HTC have not been returned. The lawsuit does not specify a specific dollar amount that Monster is seeking.

These headphones are packing a hidden pair of VR goggles

At first glance, the Glyph headphones from Redwood City-based startup Avegant look chunky, but there’s a good reason: there is a pair of screens inside the headband. When you slide the band over your eyes, you might look like Star Trek’s Geordi, but you’ll be watching video in an immersive environment.

Avegant’s been working this concept as well as screens that go up close to your eyes since a successful Kickstarter in 2013, and according to the company the Glyph uses “micromirror retinal projection” technology, which should help reduce eye strain.

Aside from the two 1280 x 720 panels for your eyes, the Glyph should be great on the ears as well. It will have active noise canceling and can connect to a music player wirelessly through Bluetooth. The headphones manage a three-hour battery life while watching video, so users will need to recharge the cans with a micro USB cable.

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How do you pipe video in to the Avegant Glyph? It’s got an HDMI port, so you can plug a Roku or laptop computer into the headphones like you would a television. Avegant said that with the right cables, it should be able to display content from smartphones as well.

Headphones could be an interesting vehicle for virtual reality headsets in the future. Unfortunately, the Glyph is only a video headset for now. Although it has the requisite sensors to track the user’s movement, like Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, the Glyph isn’t doing head-tracking at the moment. It also doesn’t have a camera, ruling out augmented reality applications.

For now, Avegant thinks its Glyph is a better device for watching video than a standard mobile device. “Where does [the movie] experience suck? Anytime you’re watching on your phone or tablet,”Avegant CTO and founder Allan Evans said to Re/Code. The company plans to target the Glyph at frequent fliers when it launches this fall for $599.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRegJIvh_2g

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The bestselling Beats headphones are going wireless

Here’s a product likely to be on countless Christmas lists: On Wednesday, Beats announced a new pair of headphones, the Solo2 Wireless, an updated version of its bestselling Solo2 on-ear headphones that connect to your music player through Bluetooth.