Xiaomi Mi A1 Review: A Worthy Mid-Range Choice?
Given that Xiaomi devices offer a unique software identity, letting go of MIUI for their latest flagship offering must have been particularly tough.
Yet, that’s what Xiaomi has done with the Mi A1. The ‘created by Xiaomi, powered by Google’ smartphone relaunches (and intends to revitalise) the beleaguered Android One program with the goal of delivering the vanilla interface and quicker updates that many Xiaomi fans have been clamouring for in recent years.
Good specs, new dual cameras and stock Android – the Mi A1 has the makings of a winner.
Xiaomi has spoken a lot about the attention to detail they shower on the design of their products across price points, and the Mi A1 is proof of that. Sure, there are design cues from a number of devices we’ve seen in the past 6 months, but it all comes together well in this device.
With 2.5D curved edge glass, rounded edges and corners and an all metal-body, the A1 feels much more premium in the hand than the Mi Max 2 and the Redmi Note 4 that preceded it.
There’s even a bit of an iPhone 7 Plus vibe around the rear courtesy the dual cameras, and unlike Cupertino, there’s a headphone jack, a USB Type C port for charging and the now-Xiaomi-regular infrared emitter up top.
The white fascia, however, is as generic as they come and it’s easy to mistake the device for something from Oppo and Vivo – some design flair wouldn't have hurt.
If you’ve checked out the spec sheet post launch, you’d realise the Mi A1 is a Mi 5X in Nougat-clothing, and it shares a lot of its internals with the Note 4 as well. No surprises then that you get the ever-reliable Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 mated with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, with the latter expandable to 128 if you forego the second SIM slot.
It’s not surprising that Xiaomi went with the 625 but again, a newer SoC would have helped differentiate the A1 from the pack. The 5.5-inch display is crisp and gets really bright, which works well outdoors.
The big news, of course, is that unlike Xiaomi phones of yore, this one ships with Android 7.1.2 out of the box, completely bereft of any gimmicky features or bloatware. The only Xiaomi presence you see is three apps – Feedback, Mi Store and Mi Remote, plus a custom camera app since Google’s stock Android camera app doesn't yet support dual cameras.
The lighter stock UI ensures that the phone speeds through daily tasks and you’re usually running with more than 1.5GB free memory on the device.
Since this is an Android One device, you’re assured of getting software updates directly from Google, with an update to 8.0 Oreo before the end of the year and a committed upgrade to Android P when it’s released.
Where I think Google could have done one better is the unlimited photo and video backups at full resolution that Pixel devices enjoy, but I guess that continues to remain a Pixel-only exclusive.
The other biggie on the Mi A1 is the presence of dual rear cameras, and it’s interesting Xiaomi picked the A1 to debut this feature.
There are two 12MP cameras, one with a standard wide-angle lens and f/2.2 aperture, and the other with a telephoto lens and f/2.6 aperture. Much like the OnePlus 5 and the iPhone 7 Plus, this dual camera approach gives you optical zoom and the portrait mode with blurred backgrounds.
In my time with the device, there are some big pluses and some very obvious minuses about the camera.
Let’s get to the good stuff first – autofocusing on the A1 is quick, and the phase detection autofocus (PDAF) helped lock into subjects snappily.
Portrait shots were very good, and edges were detected pretty well for the most part, with some excessive blurring in slightly tricky situations where the camera failed to discern the subject from the background.
It’s in lesser than ideal lighting that the A1 struggles, and the natural colour reproduction and detail (in landscapes) and edge detection (in portraits) all take a hit in low light. Portrait mode is finicky at best in less than great lighting, and throws up the “It’s too dark now” message ever so often.
Noise levels are evident, and there’s that shutter lag that can’t be ignored. Plus there’s the lack of image stabilisation of any sort, which shows up in videos as well. On pure camera terms, the Moto G5S Plus may be a better option in the same price range with its wider aperture.
And call us spoilt, but we’ve gotten used to bigger batteries on Xiaomi devices, and the 3,000 mAh battery pales in contrast to the much beefier 4,000 mAh unit on the Redmi Note 4.
It lasts well through the whole day though and supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge tech – pity it comes bundled only with a standard 2A charger. There’s also some amount of heating – the back panel did get a tad warm when using the camera or gaming over extended durations, or when the device was put on charge.
Why Buy It?
Even with its low-light shortcomings, there’s nothing really wrong with the Mi A1 – Xiaomi takes care of the hardware end, and stock Android takes the overall experience to a whole new level.
It’s easy to see why Google went with Xiaomi for this first round, and we’re happy to see Android One back in a more compelling avatar. Even beyond Android One, the Mi A1 is a good device in its own right, and a few low-light-focused software updates to the camera would make it even better.
At Rs 14,999, the Mi A1 is a good stab at a well-thought-through mid-range smartphone, and earns an easy recommendation.
(Tushar Kanwar is a technology columnist and commentator and has been contributing for the past 15 years to India’s leading newspapers and magazines. He can be reached on Twitter: @2shar.)