Stock Android on a Xiaomi phone
Xiaomi Mi A1 detailed review
A tie-up with Google is usually seen as a step for emerging smartphone makers. However, the Chinese Xiaomi is not an emerging smartphone maker, nor is Google unfamiliar with tie-ups. I have personally asked the company on multiple occasions if the Mi Box will ever reach India, but at the moment this device has no relevance with India. Although relevant to the country is Google’s Android One program. And joining this program puts Xiaomi in a unique position to lead the pack.
The Android One program seems to have been discontinued since its announcement a few years ago. However, many argue that Google chose the wrong partners to get the project started. If so, Xiaomi’s entry with the Mi A1 will probably be enough to revive Android One. The company has brought with it a viral quality, enthusiastic support, growing reach and brand confidence that Lava, Micromax and Carbon probably never had.
On the other hand, the Mi A1 is also a big deal for Xiaomi. This is the first time the company has released its trusted MiUI platform, and its first dual-camera phone in India. Mi branding tells you that Xiaomi considers it among its premium devices and the company says that Android Oreo will be rolled out on this phone before 2017. This is by far the most powerful Android One phone, which is easy enough to make, but the Mi A1 review presents us with a phone that is really hard to argue against. Xiaomi will sell this phone with its retail channel and Mi Homes, e-commerce website.
Note: At the time of writing this review, we had this device for about a week before launch, but pricing details have not been released yet. Considering the history of Xiaomi, the inclusion of the Android One program and the dual-camera, we are working under the assumption that the phone will be priced at Rs. 13,999. The Mi A1 is priced at Rs 14,999 and is available on Flipkart.
Stock Android on a Mi phone
Although Xiaomi no longer actively promotes MiUI, the interface is a major part of the company’s ecosystem. Xiaomi fans often swear by it, though Xiaomi prefers the MiUI update over the Android update, and the UI is definitely heavier than a vanilla Android experience.
On the Mi A1, Xiaomi has only three apps from the MiUI: the uber useful Mi Remote app, the Mi Store and the Feedback app. Otherwise, with Android 7.1.2 out-of-the-box, it’s still Xiaomi’s most advanced (in terms of Android version) phone. The only other change is in the camera app and algorithm, which was necessary since Android still does not support dual-camera. Xiaomi says it will not interfere with the Oreo timeline mentioned above.
Running on stock Android eliminates some of the processor overhead and the phone offers a smooth and lag-free experience in everyday everyday things. Apps load as expected and without much hiccups. However, over the past week or so, I’ve often noticed that the MiUI on a Redmi Note 4 is smoother and better tuned. The Mi A1 is no different from the Note 4 in terms of specifications, so we’ll try to gain a deeper insight into it later with a comparison.
As a standalone device though, the Mi A1 is just as smooth as you’d expect from a stock Android device and would be faster than anything. It’s not exactly lag-free, but neither is any budget device. The Mi A1 lags behind the minimum and its UI performance is definitely higher than average.
Stock Android is not the only USP for this device. This is the only Android One phone for dual-camera play. The device has two 12MP sensors on the back and Xiaomi declined to reveal the details of the sensor as it would collect sensors from multiple sources. This means that the final camera quality of the device you are buying may differ from the sample we reviewed.
Still, the two cameras follow the iPhone’s telephoto and wide angle formulas, offering 2x zoom and bokeh modes. The camera app has a “stereo mode” for taking bokeh shots, where you’ll find the Family 1x / 2x button for smooth zooming. The camera app is custom designed by Xiaomi and works smoothly enough.
That said, we’ve done a little detailing in auto-focus, which increases with the deterioration of the lighting conditions. As a result, low-light photos can sometimes be blurry and take a long time to process. In fact, with dual-cameras, the Mi A1 doesn’t really set a benchmark in terms of camera performance. It’s a good camera to work with, and a good enough shot to share on social media, but don’t expect more.
Xiaomi’s stereo mode is based on Apple’s “portrait mode”, and its job is to turn the background blue. Although this is done through a combination of hardware and software, the final effects are often admirable. The problem is that stereo mode only works when there is enough light, which means most night shots need to be taken using auto mode only. Although the detail layers and colors are quite good in this mode, it severely limits its usability.
The Mi A1 has bokeh shots using stereo mode
Xiaomi promises you 2x optical zoom with this device and the 1x / 2x button is quite effective. It switches non-stop from wide angle to telephoto lens (56mm) and the results are quite good. You get to see some noise when shooting indoors, but not enough to disrupt the quality of the picture or to the detriment of the details. Again, social media sharing should not be a problem here.
Regular (left) and 2x zoom (right) from Mi A1
When shooting in automatic mode, the Mi A1 produces really sharp and well-detailed photos in daylight conditions. However, it suffers from substantial noise and detailed damage in low light. It is also best used when taking close-up shots, with noticeable distortions in long range photos. Overall, the camera is decent, but there is nothing that will offset the budget range.
Daylight was photographed using the Mi A1
100% crop in the photo above
Click to see full size photo sample for Mi A1
With the Snapdragon 625 inside, it’s the fastest Android One phone we’ve ever seen. As explained in the UI section above, the Mi A1 is lag free and fast enough. It’s not a powerhouse by any length of imagination, but it’s reliable to say the least. Gaming performance is good, with minor lags from time to time. The only real problem is that the phone gets hot enough to make you uncomfortable while gaming for long periods of time. Xiaomi’s thermal control algorithms in MiUI seem to be better than the native versions of Android.
Either way, if you are not a heavy gamer, this phone will not cause you any problems. The body temperature reached a maximum of 42 degrees Celsius, which is not acceptable and unusual. It’s just not ideal.
Much like the camera, the Xiaomi Mi A1 builds performance levels and is reliable through it. It simply wouldn’t qualify as “quick”, which is something many budget shoppers probably wouldn’t mind. Using the shortcut hotkey is fast enough, while the app load time and app functionality are easily acceptable.
One of the major differences between this phone and other Xiaomi phones is the display quality. The color tones are balanced, but the punch we’ve come to expect from the company’s devices is lacking. It is not a color display and feels a bit sticky to the touch. It’s not a deal breaker at all, but we’ve come to expect something more from Xiaomi’s display. Overall, you get a balanced display that doesn’t miss a touch, responds quickly to commands and is bright enough to use in direct sunlight.
Xiaomi wants this device to be as cheap as possible, so it’s not pushing the limits of battery power here. Alternatively, the general overheads of the MiUI aren’t present here, so the company probably thought a 3050 mAh battery should suffice. In practical terms, this translates to just 11 hours of run time in the PC Mark’s Work 2.0 battery test. This makes the Mi A1 one of the best battery performers among budget devices.
With regular use, like many other aspects of this phone, it is a reliable performer in terms of battery life. You have to charge it every night, but you should get it without having to play games for hours every day.
Construction and design
Last but not least, we have reached the most Xiaomi-like components of this phone. From the back, the Mi A1 looks like an iPhone. The antenna lines run along the top and bottom edges, while the device is rounded at an angle. There are also thick plastic strips on all four sides of the display, with a noticeable but not very large bezel underneath.
The bottom strip of the display has backlit capacitive buttons, while the overall form factor and weight are quite ergonomic. It’s not perfect for one-handed use, but it won’t particularly fail you when you need to use it with one hand. The power button rests comfortably under your thumb (if you’re in the right hand), while the volume rocker is easily accessible. The back has a fingerprint sensor and the entire construction of the phone is metallic.
As far as Android One phones are concerned, this is by far the most premium. As far as budget phones are concerned, this is what we expect from budget devices today. Again, the Mi A1 gives you what you need, without pushing the boundaries in any way, something we’ve come to expect from Xiaomi over time. It’s not a rehearsed design, but it’s not completely new
The last row
Xiaomi’s Mi A1 is an Android One phone first and the Xiaomi phone 7 later The promise of an updated Android is something that the Xiaomi phone never gives you, while the dual-camera keeps it up to date. It is not an underpowered and compromised device that the Android One program has created so far. Instead, it is a very reliable smartphone that you must consider. It should have been from the beginning of Android One phone.
How to compare it
Xiaomi Mi A1 is a jack of all trades, but master of none. It has a decent camera, but it is easily more than the Moto G5 Plus or Samsung Galaxy J7 Max. It offers a fluid performer and reliable battery life, but can be surpassed by the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4. The emphasis here is on keeping the price as low as possible, and if Xiaomi can do it under a few rupees. 13,999, this phone is no brainer.
You are not buying the best budget phone today, but you are buying a phone that can stand the test of time and will not easily disappoint you.