Xiaomi Mi A1
When one talks about budget or mid range Android smartphones invariably one tends to gravitate towards a Chinese phenomenon called Xiaomi. Over the last few years, it has made a mockery of what one should expect in a smartphone that costs a third of an iPhone. Ironically, this comes from a company which has been dubbed the Apple of China.
Its phones have offered 90 percent of what makes an iPhone experience — design, simplicity of use and a wholistic mobile computer — in a package that costs a third or fourth. It has mastered the game, however, some Android purists always yearned for more. Perhaps more refined software they wanted, faster updates, and conspiracy theorists even believed their phones weren't fully secure, so perhaps Xiaomi could've made its phone harder to crack. They could've done it and well, now they have done it with the Mi A1 which is a union between strange bedfellows — Xiaomi and Google. We say this because Xiaomi’s software story has always been underpinned by putting Google’s Android behind a shade, and putting its MiUI interface at the centre of the galaxy of its products.
With A1, Xiaomi has embraced Google beleaguered Android One programme which strived to offer great hardware and software for a sliver of what entry level consumers were getting. This programme failed partially because of the entry of Xiaomi in India which made a mockery of the phones that launched with Android One. Now that Xiaomi has rebranded its Mi 5X smartphone and put Google’s pure Android experience at the centre of the computing interface that will be used by the end user. What we have here is a potential hydrogen bomb for the budget smartphone market because on paper this phone marries stupendous hardware, a refined design aesthetic and liquid and secure software experience in a package that costs 1/4th of the current generation iPhone.
The Rs 15,000 price band is a crowded one. Around about this price there are some great phones, from Xiaomi included (Redmi Note 4 which is possibly the best one and certainly is the best selling). There’s the new Nokia 6 which is making a big deal about stock Android and security updates, there’s the recently launched Moto G5S Plus and well, there are bunch of devices from Lenovo, CoolPad, Smartron and even the beleaguered Micromax which recently released the smart looking Canvas Infinity. In the space, then there’s the South Korean giant Samsung which sells its Galaxy J line of phones like hotcakes.
With a combination of some of the best specs — Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage, dual cameras, and vanilla Android and updates coming from the big folks at Mountain View, this is possibly the best value proposition anyone could've imagined for this price point.
Xiaomi has been killing it on the hardware front, but with Google in cahoots, it has fixed the final piece in the puzzle; great software with timely updates and a promised upgrade to Oreo sometime later in the year. On paper only, this one is a winner.
Looks and design
In a nutshell, the Mi A1’s design can be called a lovechild between the OnePlus 5 and the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4. The facade of the phone will remind you of the Redmi Note 4 which shouldn't surprise anyone as they are the same family of device, however its corners are more rounded which is kind of amazing as it looks nicer than the Redmi. On the back, it looks a lot like the OnePlus 5. It has a similarly style of a camera visor/hump, and the antenna lines are also similarly designed. Essentially this is repackaged Xiaomi Mi 5X which was announced a month or so ago and any similarities to some of the phones named here isn't a bad thing at all. Criticise it for being derivative but it is a very well built phone and for its price, it is amazing that these days the consumer can get such a high quality product.
Looks aside, this is a very functional device in terms of ergonomics. Its svelte at 7.3mm which ranks this phone amongst the slimmest around. At the same time it is also pretty light at 165 grams. By no means it is the lightest phone on the planet, but it’s a very well balanced one as it doesn't feel like something that’s feather light nor is it too heavy. The weight is also distributed nicely so it feels great even if you're using it one handed.
Obviously, one handed usage on this phone isn't peaches and cream because it has a big 5.5-inch display, but that’s no biggie as that’s a pretty standard size these days. What’s not so great is that it has a big chin below the screen and quite a large top bezel. This also means, the new Moto G5S Plus is shorter than it. It is a minor quibble in the scheme of things, but a quibble nonetheless.
One of the nicer things about the design of the phone that makes it so ergonomic is the way the chassis tapers and curves ever so gently from the sides towards the back. It is a seamless line that typifies the spine of the phone offering a smooth grip and great in hand feel for the device.
On the back, there’s also a fingerprint scanner which is placed to a nicety as it can be reached very easily with one hand. There are other neat touches to this phone. For instance, unlike the Redmi Note 4 it has a USB Type C connector on the bottom, flanked by a very loud single speaker and a 3.5mm jack. On the other side, there’s even an IR blaster which is very handy and yet strangely missing on most phones launched these days. This phone continues to use capacitive Android keys which is a good or bad thing depending the way you like to setup your phone.
Google’s Android One programme was created to do two things — one to reduce software fragmentation of Android wherein there are many devices running outdated versions of the operating system which could also be potential security hazards and secondly for reaching a baseline benchmark for what an Android smartphone should be like. But this programme fizzled at launch because of the likes of Xiaomi which raised the bar for what there should be in a budget Android smartphone by an order of magnitude. Once that was done, with Xiaomi offering basically flagship hardware features, people really didn't care much about what was the software. It also helped that Xiaomi’s Mi UI layer was one of the most innovative Android skins around which was updated at a frightfully fast cadence.
But here we are today, we are getting the best of both worlds as Google’s liquid fluid Android experience is coming to a Xiaomi phone which is offering flagship features for less than Rs 15,000. While there are other OEMs who offer a stock, unadulterated Android Nougat — HMD Global (Nokia), Lenovo and Motorola, the difference about the Mi A1 being an Android One smartphone is that the updates are handled directly by Google. They are promising an update to Oreo later this year and security updates on a timely basis.
At the time of testing this phone, we noticed that the phone was already on the 1st August security update which is there on phones like the Nokia 8 only to be eclipsed by the Pixel running Oreo.
Software wise, this is clean Android with no software modifications of any kind. This means it also comes baked in with the Google Assistant. The one major modification of sorts is to the camera app which is essentially the Mi camera app which supports the dual cameras on the phone.
Overall, software wise the phone is a joy to use as it is simple and uncluttered.
If one looks at the core hardware of this phone, then it is largely similar to that on the Redmi Note 4. We’re talking about the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 octa-core processor which has been built on a 14nm manufacturing process, 4GB RAM, 64GB of onboard storage, dual SIM support and a 5.5-inch 1080p LCD screen with Corning’s Gorilla Glass. But in the case of the A1, the performance particularly is better in day to day usage which is a great thing because the Redmi Note 4 was no slouch. On the contrary, it remains one of the best performing smartphones in the segment. The A1 goes one step further with the vanilla Android Nougat 7.1.2 Nougat experience running in tow with Android One.
It feels perceptibly faster in day to day usage than the Redmi Note 4. Apps load up faster and switch faster, and multitasking is a breeze for basic things like WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Apple Music, browsing the web, Instagram etc. in fact we could have as many as 25 apps open at the same time and the phone wouldn't get warm or start hanging or misbehaving. While this doesn't even happen with the Redmi Note 4, it just seems like the A1 is impervious to any software freezes.
So much so for day to day tasks one can compare the performance to a phone like the OnePlus 5 even though it uses an inferior processor and packs less amount of RAM. That’s the level of optimisation that’s been done on the phone.
Of course if you use the phones side by side, you may find the OnePlus 5 to be faster because it brute forces everything with its hardware, but for the average consumer that’s not much of a concern, and then there’s the price delta working in favour of the Mi A1 by more than Rs 10,000.
If you talk about heavy duty tasks like gaming then the phone can handle high resolution games with ease. Games like Asphalt 8 HD, Dead Trigger 2 and Nova 3 performed well, delivering very high quality graphics for the gaming experience. The phone didn't heat up and nor did one see any major crippling frame rate drops in the gaming experience that would sour gameplay in anyway.
The display is also great for such gaming experiences. It is big and bright with good viewing angles which makes it a pleasure to game on or even consume text. Its biggest weakness is the level of contrast. It seems washed out compared to the screen on the Moto G5S Plus with more muted colours and blacks seeming like greys.
One of the big differences between the A1 and the Redmi Note 4 is the battery on the phone. The Redmi Note 4 made a name for itself with its hulking 4,000mAh battery which would never run out of juice, however, on the Mi A1, there’s a smaller 3,080mAh battery which a pretty standard affair these days. That being said, even here Xiaomi has worked with Google to optimise things and the end result is very good battery life which is more than the average phone with a 3,080mAh battery life.
In days to day usage, admittedly we just tested the phone for 3 days, we got around about 15-18 hours of charge time, which basically means that the phone easily lasts an entire work day. Thankfully, the phone also comes with USB Type C charging and it charges quickly thanks to fast charging tech being embedded in the phone.
Interestingly, this phone also has a 10v amplifier which makes sure the audio experience on the device is above average. The single mono loudspeaker is loud and clear and even when the headphones are plugged in, the sound quality is quite good.
The call quality on the phone is above average. We tested it on an Vodafone network in Delhi NCR.
The tentpole feature of this phone, however, isn't the Android One experience. It’s the dual camera system that Xiaomi has been talking up. Xiaomi India MD and global VP Manu Kumar Jain has even been teasing the camera on Facebook and Twitter with photos of himself with a defocused background. So yes, there’s a portrait mode on the phone.
Essentially, Xiaomi has taken the dual 12-megapixel camera stack from the Mi 6 and outfitted it on the Mi A1. This, however, is inferior as it has a shallower aperture of f/2.2. That said, it does a 2x optical zoom via the 12-megapixel telephoto lens like the iPhone 7 Plus and the OnePlus 5. The main wide angle camera is also great and when used in tandem there’s a creamy and effective portrait mode which is better than the one on the OnePlus 5.
In daylight, the Mi A1 takes rich images with good levels of detail and colour saturation. In low light, the performance stumbles and it falls behind even a phone like the new Moto G5S. But overall, it is one of the best camera phones in the sub 15,000 rupee price band. The best phone imaging wise is the LG Q6, but that’s pure image quality we’re talking about because the Mi A1 offers additional bells and whistles like the portrait mode and 2x lossless zoom which isn't there in any phone for less than Rs 15,000 in India.
The portrait mode implementation is also a very good one. It has great edge detection and you get this natural creamy bokeh effect on the background. Sure, it isn't on the same level as the iPhone 7 Plus, but it is better than the OnePlus 5 which praise worthy as this is a phone that costs half as much.
More so there is a very effective pro mode which even allows the user to individually choose between the wide angle camera and the telephoto lens. One must say it has a compelling camera package.
As always, when one talks about video recording, it isn't as good as stills. Of course, it can shoot even in 4k besides having time lapse and slow motion modes, however, the lack of an optically stabilised lens becomes apparent. Then again that’s true for most smartphones in the price segment. The one area it does well is in capturing audio as it can capture decent audio even in loud environments.
The front 8-megapixel camera for selfies is a pretty standard affair. It’s nothing special, but its not unusable. It is good for basic selfies when provided decent lighting and also good for Skype video calls.
Verdict and competition
The Mi A1 raises the bar for what one expects in a mid range Android smartphone. Previously, the game was restricted to good hardware but Xiaomi in collaboration with Google has ratchet up the ante by adding the missing piece of great software. Despite there being phones with stock Android in the market, the Mi A1’s clutter free Android One certified experience gives the peace of mind of timely software updates and simplicity of use.
More than that, on hardware alone, it is a formidable beast, with one of the best dual camera implementations around besting even the OnePlus 5 which is almost twice its price and great hardware all around, it is easily now the benchmark for what one should expect in a sub Rs 15,000 phone.
In the case, this phone isn't to your liking – mainstream users will appreciate the new Moto G5S Plus, people looking for a bigger battery will probably want a Redmi Note 4 and people solely looking for design and imaging finesse would be pleased by the new LG Q6.
Sahil Mohan Gupta
About: Review Junkies
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