Stock Android on a Xiaomi phone

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Xiaomi Mi A1 detailed review

A partnership with Google is usually seen as a stepping stone for budding smartphone makers. But Chinese Xiaomi is not a fledgling smartphone maker, nor is it a stranger to Google links. I personally asked the company several times if the Mi Box would ever make it to India, but that device has little relevance to India at the moment. What is relevant for the country is Google’s Android One program. And by joining this program, Xiaomi is in a unique position to lead the pack.

The Android One program seemed to have died down since its announcement a few years ago. However, many would argue that Google chose the wrong partners to start the project. If that was indeed the case, Xiaomi’s entry into the fray, with the Mi A1, should probably be enough to revive Android One. The company brings with it viral quality, enthusiastic support, growing reach and brand trust that Lava, Micromax and Karbonn probably never had.

On the other hand, the Mi A1 is also a big deal for Xiaomi. It is the company’s first time to abandon its trusted MiUI platform, as well as its first dual-camera phone in India. The Mi branding tells you that Xiaomi considers this one of its premium devices, and the company says that Android Oreo will be rolled out on this phone before 2017. It’s also the most powerful Android One phone ever, which is easy enough to do, but the Mi A1 review presents us with a phone that is indeed tough to combat. Xiaomi will be selling this phone on its retail channels and Mi Homes, along with e-commerce websites.

Note: At the time of writing this review, we had this device about a week before launch, but pricing details have not yet been released. Given the history of Xiaomi, the inclusion of the Android One program and the dual camera, we assume that the phone will cost Rs. 13,999. The Mi A1 costs Rs 14,999 and is available on Flipkart.

Stock Android on a Mi Phone

Although Xiaomi no longer actively promotes MiUI, the interface is an important part of the company’s ecosystem. Xiaomi’s fans often swear by it, despite the fact that Xiaomi prefers MiUI updates over Android updates, and that the UI is definitely heavier than a vanilla Android experience.

On the Mi A1, Xiaomi has kept only three apps from MiUI: the very useful Mi remote app, the Mi Store and the Feedback app. Otherwise with Android 7.1.2 out of the box this is Xiaomi’s most advanced (in terms of Android version) phone yet. The only other change is in the camera app and algorithm, which was necessary because Android doesn’t natively support dual cameras yet. Xiaomi says this will not hinder the Oreo timeline mentioned above.

Stock Android eliminates some of the processor overhead and the phone provides a smooth and lag-free experience with common day-to-day stuff. Apps load as expected and without many hiccups. However, in the past week I have often felt that MiUI on a Redmi Note 4 felt smoother and better tuned. The Mi A1 doesn’t differ that much from the Note 4 in terms of specs, so we’ll try to get a deeper understanding of this later through a comparison.

As a standalone device, however, the Mi A1 is as smooth as you’d expect from a stock Android device and even faster than some. It’s not completely lag-free, but that’s not a budget device either. The Mi A1 does it with minimal lags and the UI performance is definitely above average.

Camera

Stock Android is not the only USP for this device. It is also the only Android One phone with a dual camera. There are two 12MP sensors on the back of this device and Xiaomi declined to reveal the sensor details as it will be getting them from multiple sources. This means that the final camera quality on the device you buy may differ from our test sample.

Nevertheless, two cameras follow the iPhone’s telephoto and wide-angle formula, with 2x zoom and bokeh mode. There’s a “Stereo Mode” in the camera app for shooting bokeh while you’ll find the family 1x/2x button to zoom in seamlessly. The camera app is custom designed by Xiaomi and works seamlessly enough.

That said, we’ve done small details in autofocus, which increase with deteriorating lighting conditions. As a result, photos in low light can sometimes be blurry and take a long time to process. In fact, even with dual cameras, the Mi A1 doesn’t really set a benchmark in terms of camera power. It’s a good camera to work with, and will take good enough photos to share on social media, but don’t expect much more.

Stereo mode

Xiaomi’s stereo mode is Apple’s version of “portrait mode”, and its job is to make the background blue. Although this is done through a combination of hardware and software, the final effects are usually commendable. The problem is that the stereo mode only works when there is enough light, meaning most night shots should only be taken in automatic mode. While the level of detail and colors are quite good in this mode, it severely limits usability.

Bokeh recording with the stereo mode on the Mi A1

Zoom

Xiaomi promises you 2x optical zoom with this device, and the 1x/2x button is quite handy. It switches seamlessly from wide angle to telephoto (56mm) and the results are pretty good. You do see some noise when shooting indoors, but not enough to hinder image quality or lead to major loss of detail. Again, social media sharing shouldn’t be an issue here.

Normal (left) and 2x zoom (right) from the Mi A1

Shooting regularly

When shooting in automatic mode, the Mi A1 produces really sharp and well-detailed photos in daylight. However, it suffers from a lot of noise and loss of detail in low light. It’s also best used when shooting close-up shots, with noticeable aberrations in longer-range shots. Overall, the camera is decent, but nothing that would offset the status quo in the budget range.

Daylight photo taken with the Mi A1

100% crop of the photo above

Xiaomi camera samples

Click to see full size image samples for the Mi A1

Performance

With the Snapdragon 625 in it, it’s the fastest Android One phone we’ve seen yet. As explained in the UI section above, the Mi A1 is lag-free and plenty fast. It’s not a powerhouse, but it’s reliable to say the least. Game performance is good, with occasional slight lag. The only real problem is that the phone heats up just enough to make you feel uncomfortable while gaming for long periods of time. It seems that Xiaomi’s thermal control algorithms on MiUI are better than the native versions of Android.

Anyway, if you’re not a heavy gamer, this phone shouldn’t give you any problems. Temperatures reached a maximum of 42 degrees Celsius on the body, which is acceptable and not abnormal. It’s just not ideal.

Like the camera, the Xiaomi Mi A1 produces functional levels of performance and is reliable through and through. It just won’t qualify as “snappy,” which many budget buyers might not mind. Using keyboard shortcuts is fast enough while app loading times and app performance are easily acceptable.

Display

A big difference between this phone and the other phones from Xiaomi is in the display quality. Color tones are balanced, but lack the punch we’ve come to expect from the company’s devices. It is not a colorful screen and feels a bit sticky. That’s not a deal breaker at all, but we’ve come to expect a little more from Xiaomi’s screens. Overall, you get a balanced screen that doesn’t miss any touches, responds quickly to commands, and is just bright enough to be used in direct sunlight.

Battery

Xiaomi wants this device to be as cheap as possible, so it’s not pushing the boundaries with battery capacity here. Alternatively, the usual MiUI overheads aren’t here, so the company probably thought a 3050 mAh battery should suffice. In practice, that works out to just over 11 hours of runtime on PC Mark’s Work 2.0 battery test. That puts the Mi A1 among the better battery performers among budget devices.

With regular use, like many other aspects of this phone, it is a reliable performance in terms of battery life. You have to charge it every night, but it should do without much more unless you spend hours and hours gaming every day.

Build and design

Last but not least, we get to the most Xiaomi-esque elements of this phone. From the back, the Mi A1 looks iPhone-esque. The antenna lines run along the top and bottom edges, while the unit is rounded on the corners. There are also thick plastic strips on all four sides of the screen, with noticeable but not overly large bezels underneath.

The strip below the display houses capacitive backlit buttons, while the overall form factor and weight remain quite ergonomic. It’s not perfectly suited for one-handed use, but it won’t let you down if you absolutely must use it with one hand. The power button sits comfortably under your thumb (if you’re right-handed), while the volume rocker is easy to reach. There is a fingerprint sensor on the back and the entire construction of the phone is metal.

As far as Android One phones go, it’s the most premium we’ve got yet. As for budget phones, this is what we expect from budget phones these days. Again, the Mi A1 gives you exactly what you need without pushing the boundaries, something we’ve come to expect from Xiaomi over time. It’s not a reworked design, but it’s not completely new either.

bottom line

Xiaomi’s Mi A1 is first an Android One phone and later a Xiaomi phone. The promise of updated Android is something Xiaomi phones never give you, while the dual camera keeps it up to date. It is not a weak and compromised device that the Android One program has produced so far. Instead, it is a very reliable smartphone that you should definitely consider. It’s what Android One phones should have been from the start.

How it compares?

The Xiaomi Mi A1 is a jack of all trades, but master of nothing. It has a decent camera, but it is easily surpassed by the Moto G5 Plus or Samsung Galaxy J7 Max. It performs smoothly and offers reliable battery life, but can be surpassed by the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4. The emphasis here seems to be on keeping prices as low as possible, and if Xiaomi can be anything under Rs. 13,999, this phone is a no-brainer.

You’re not buying the best budget phone today, but you’re buying a phone that will stand the test of time and won’t let you down anytime soon.

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