Did you know that Xiaomi started offering its custom Android skin MIUI back in 2010, before launching its own smartphone in 2011?
But the Apple of China’s latest offering is devoid of MIUI and instead, runs stock Android. Xiaomi has partnered with Google to launch a smartphone under its struggling Android One program. The Xiaomi Mi A1 proudly carries this badge, promising a vanilla interface and faster updates. In my opinion, it marks an important step in Xiaomi’s evolution, as the brand is letting go one of the most important aspects of its identity. But is that enough to make the A1 a bestseller? That’s what I intend to find out in this review.
Specs at a glance
|Resolution||Full HD (1080 x 1920 pixels)|
|CPU||Octa core, 2 GHz, Snapdragon 625|
|Internal memory||64 GB|
|External memory||Up to 128 GB|
|Capacity||3080 mAH, Li-ion, Non removable|
|Primary camera||12 MP|
|Secondary camera||5 MP|
|Network support||Dual SIM 4G|
|Other options||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS|
|Operating system||Android 7.1.2 Nougat|
With dual cameras being the order of the day, how can Xiaomi be left behind? The Mi A1 is the brand’s first dual camera-toting smartphone in the subcontinent. It’s priced in the mid-tier at Rs 14,999. But if you look at the other specs, it isn’t very different from the Redmi Note 4 (review), especially in terms of the SoC, RAM and internal storage. Even competitors like the Lenovo K8 Note (review) and Moto G5s Plus (first impressions) offer similar hardware configurations along with stock Android, which means that the Xiaomi Mi A1 isn’t the only smartphone around Rs 15k that promises a pure interface and better update cycle. Yet, it manages to stand out with its dual-camera performance and smooth usage experience.
Design and display: the metallic marvel
Dimensions: 155.4 x 75.8 x 7.3 mm
Weight: 165 grams
The first time I saw the Xiaomi Mi A1, I mistook it for a smartphone from OPPO or Vivo. Yes, the similarities are uncanny – a minimal fascia, dual rear snappers and antenna lines running along the edges. Adding to this sentiment is the fact that my review unit is in a gold hue. Although, you could also opt for the black variant of the A1, with the brand planning to introduce a rose gold colour in a month.
When you hold the Xiaomi Mi A1 however, its premium metallic feel makes you forget about its looks. While I find it slightly wider that its peers for its 5.5-inch display, the smartphone seems quite lightweight at 165g. With a metal frame of 7.3mm, it’s also fairly slim. The slight curves at the back make it ergonomically comfortable to hold, though due to its width, it requires two hands for most operations.
Along with the display panel up front, you’ll find the LED notification light, sensors, a secondary camera and an earpiece above. Below the screen, there’s an array of capacitive backlit navigation keys.
The placement of buttons and ports on the Xiaomi Mi A1 follow the convention, though it’s interesting to note that both the 3.5mm audio interface and the Type-C port for charging (yes, Xiaomi is also offering the next-gen bi-directional port in the budget segment) are available at the bottom along with the precision-grilled speaker grill. The speakers produce decent output, though they aren’t the loudest we’ve come across. Like its siblings, the phone features an IR blaster, letting you easily control TV and home appliances.
The rear is home to a pair of primary cameras, which jut out slightly from the body. Alongside, you’ll find a dual-tone LED flash, while the fingerprint sensor is placed slightly below. It also prominently mentions Android One and Mi’s branding towards the bottom. Talking about the biometric scanner, it’s quite accurate and works in 360-degree orientation. However, it must be noted that it takes slightly longer if you unlock the Mi A1 from deep sleep versus unlocking from the lock screen.
With a 1080p resolution, the 5.5-inch IPS display on the Xiaomi Mi A1 results in crisp visuals and accurate colours. Thanks to ample brightness levels, the screen can be read comfortably outdoors. I enjoyed watching movies or reading ebooks on the handset, though I’d have loved to see the MIUI Reading mode on the device.
Software: you, Mi and Android Nougat
Operating System: Android
OS Version: 7.1.2, Nougat
Of course, the biggest highlight for the Xiaomi Mi A1 is its software. The smartphone boots Android 7.1.1 Nougat in its unadulterated avatar. What this means is that there are no gimmicky features or any bloatware, except for a few Xiaomi apps – Feedback, Mi Remote and Mi Store.
You can also enjoy new features in Android Nougat such as accessing all apps by a simple swipe up from the homescreen, double-tapping the overview button to access the last app, or swiping up or down on the fingerprint reader to check the notification drawer. I also liked activating Google Assistant with the voice command. You can also open the camera app from the locked state or while using any app, by simply double-pressing the power switch. However, quite often, the viewfinder displays a noticeable delay while activating the camera and shows a white screen. The most useful of all the features for me is the inclusion of Ambient Display, which wakes up the screen whenever there’s a new notification.
Interestingly, it seems that stock Android is the flavour of the season. While earlier, only Google and Motorola offered it, of late, the likes of Nokia and Lenovo have also boarded the bandwagon. But Xiaomi gets one advantage over other manufacturers that brings it to the same level of the Pixel series, and it’s the fact that software updates are handled directly by the Mountain View giant. In fact, during the course of my review itself, I received a couple of updates, which suggests that you won’t just get upcoming iterations, but also avail regular security patches. The brand has already promised the 8.0 Oreo update before the end of the year and even the Android P as and when it’s released. To be honest, at times, I forget I was using a Xiaomi smartphone since MIUI has always been such an integral part of the company’s offerings.
Camera: double entendre
Primary camera: 12 MP
Flash: Dual-color LED Flash
Secondary camera: 5 MP
The Xiaomi Mi A1 is the brand’s first smartphone with dual rear cameras in India, both rated at 12-megapixels. One is a 26mm f/2.2 lens while the other is a 50mm f/2.6 telephoto lens. What’s worth highlighting however, is the fact that the A1 is the only device under Rs 15k which offers optical zoom, which is only available in phones priced upwards of Rs 30,000, such as the OnePlus 5 (review) and Apple iPhone 7 Plus (review). The device also comes with a depth of field mode, letting you focus on the foreground and blur the background. For shooting in dim environments, the cameras are accompanied by a dual-tone LED flash.
While the Mi A1 runs stock Android, it uses Xiaomi’s camera app which is thankfully quite minimal. There’s a shutter button and gallery shortcut at the bottom, and various filters, the front camera toggle and shooting modes at the top. These include modes like Panorama, Manual, Beautify, Group selfies, Square, and many more. You can also enable the dual camera watermark along with accessing more settings which let you turn on gridlines, change the aspect ratio, etc. There are toggles for the flash and HDR mode, while an icon in the middle activates the Stereo mode to blur the background. Towards the bottom, there’s an option to zoom 2x on the subject, however if you want to have granular control over this, you can use the pinch-to-zoom gesture, although you’ll be zooming digitally after 2x.
As for the image quality, you get detailed shots with good colour reproduction across all situations. The landscape images have great sharpness and natural colours, and close-ups are pleasing to the eyes as well. The dynamic range is also impressive, and while the phone doesn’t have an auto HDR mode, keeping HDR gives you improved contrast levels. While you can get nice bokeh effects without using the dedicated mode, enabling the latter will ensure that the subject stands out from the background. I’ve to admit that not many phones have been able to nail depth-of-field well, since more often than not, the edges of the subject are soft, but that’s not the case with the Mi A1. With the secondary telephoto shooter, you can also get in closer to the subject, and it works as expected. Take a dekko at the images below which showcase the bokeh capabilities of the handset.
But the cameras on the Mi A1 are far from perfect. For starters, while it does have PDAF, the focus jumps quite a bit before locking-in on the subject. The shutter speed is quite fast in most cases, but at times, there’s quite a bit of lag between pressing the shutter button and the actual shot. The low-light images are also quite average as there’s a lot of noise and it’s not able to capture the colours properly, though the dual-tone LED flash does come to the rescue. Here’s a gallery of the camera samples taken from the A1 to give you a peek at its capabilities.
While the 5MP camera at the front can take decent selfies, it can’t be compared to the plethora of selfie-centric smartphones available these days. For videos, the smartphone can record them in up to 4K resolution and even capture slow-mo reels at 720p. While the videos display decent sharpness levels and colours, due to the lack of any stabilisation (even digital), they can be quite jittery.
In sum, the Xiaomi Mi A1 offers good performance for its price and also gets additional marks for its well-thought implementation of the twin shooters at the back. But it’s not the best one out there considering the G5s Plus brings forth a wider aperture with its primary shooter, and thus promises better images in poor lighting.
Hardware: delivers fine-tuned performance
CPU: Octa core, 2 GHz, Snapdragon …
GPU: Adreno 506
RAM: 4 GB
Memory: 64 GB + Up to 128 GB
SIM Slots: Dual SIM , GSM+GSM
Battery: 3080 mAH
If it’s still unclear from the specifications, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is actually the Mi 5X with the Android One, instead of MIUI. So the internals are also the same, with the ever-reliable Snapdragon 625 doing the grunt work. After reviewing so many devices powered by the SD625, I never had any performance issues with the mid-tier chipset, and that remains unchanged with the A1. It manages to handle everything thrown at it with ease. However, personally, I’d have loved for Xiaomi to opt for newer SoCs like Snapdragon 630 or 660, which bring better performance and power efficiency along with improved camera capabilities.
Taking care of multitasking needs is 4-gigs of RAM, which thanks to uncluttered UI has usually more than a GB free. The hardware combination is powerful enough to handle gaming well, and I enjoyed racing in Asphalt 8: Airborne or fighting in Injustice 2 for long sessions. Sadly though, while the processor is thermally efficient, in the case of the Mi A1 that doesn’t seem to be the case. While it just became slightly warm during gaming, it was considerably hot after using Google Maps for navigation.
The 64GB memory onboard is more than enough for storing multimedia files and installing apps. And you can always slide in a microSD card up to 128GB to expand the storage. However, you’d need to forgo the dual-SIM functionality for the same, since the Xiaomi Mi A1 has a hybrid SIM slot.
While many of the specs of the Mi A1 are similar to the Redmi Note 4, battery capacities are starkly different. The A1 packs in a standard 3,000mAh cell in contrast to the beefy 4,000mAh unit in the Note 4. While it won’t provide a backup of a day and a half, it’ll comfortably give you company for an entire day. Considering my heavy usage consisting of GPS navigation for approximately two hours, listening to music via Wynk, playing games for 30 minutes and using cellular data the whole time along with a few minutes of calls, the phone didn’t require a charge until the next morning. I usually got around four hours of screen-on time. In 91mobiles’ battery test, the device was able to playback an HD video for around 11 hours with both the brightness and volume levels set at 50 percent. While the A1 supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology, it comes bundled with a standard 2A charger which takes around an hour and 40 minutes to juice up the battery.
When Xiaomi entered the Indian market a little more than three years ago with the Mi 3 flagship, I posited it as the “blockbuster in every right” in my review. Fast forward to the present, and the Chinese giant has already become the second-largest smartphone brand in India, dominating the country’s online market in the process. However, what’s interesting is that its budget Redmi series has acted as the money spinner, and while it did release Mi 3 successors, they haven’t been able to repeat the progenitor’s feat. But the brand’s latest, the Mi A1 reminds me a lot of the Mi 3 since both devices had a lot riding on their shoulders… and they pack in enough to deliver.
Having said that, it’s interesting that even with these USPs, the Xiaomi Mi A1 can’t be differentiated from the competition. As mentioned earlier, it’s up against the Lenovo K8 Note and Moto G5s Plus, both of which offer similar specs. It’s very difficult to pick one smartphone between the three, though if you ask me, my choice would be the Mi A1 for the simple fact that Android One makes it a future-proof purchase and it comes across as a dependable performer. However, the phone also faces a challenge from its own family, the Redmi Note 4, which comes with a similar spec sheet minus the dual cameras, but with marathon battery backup – priced affordably at Rs 12,999.
My personal quibble of the brand continuing using the Snapdragon 625 aside, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is a complete package that ticks all the right boxes. With its good build quality, an impressive pair of cameras and stock Android – you’d be hard-pressed to find a complaint with the A1. I also think that this is possibly the best partnership to revive Google’s ambitious Android One project, which was launched with a big bang in 2014, but then faded away. In its second avatar, it seems that the Alphabet-owned brand aims to offer a Pixel-like experience across price segments.
Only time will tell if the A1 changes the fortunes for the Mi series in India. But if you’ve always wanted to own a Xiaomi smartphone with a clean software experience, the Mi A1 is the perfect choice for you.
Editor’s rating: 4 / 5
- Solid, slender build
- Impressive dual cameras
- Android in its naked form
- Reliable performance
- Battery life can’t be compared to phones with 4,000mAh+ batteries
- Heats up occasionally
Photos by Raj Rout