Xiaomi Mi A1 Review: Stock Android – Achilles or his heel?
Pixel on a budget, this ain't
In terms of surprises, it was a bit of a bolt from the blue (or should one say Android Green) when Xiaomi announced that its first dual camera device in India would be part of Google’s Android One initiative. For those who came in late, Android One was targeted at making the latest versions of Android available on affordable devices, thus giving the masses access to the OS’ latest features – Google would play a key role in ensuring the updates were rolled out in a timely fashion to these devices. Launched with a lot of hope and hype, the initiative ran out of steam, thanks in part to the emergence of manufacturers who offered much better devices at comparative prices.
One of the most prominent of these was, well, Xiaomi, which makes it ironical or appropriate (depending on which side of the Android One fence you sit on) that the Chinese company is the one behind the revival of the initiative. The Xiaomi Mi A1 is by all accounts, a Mi 5X (released earlier in China), but with stock Android in place of Xiaomi’s own MIUI 9 interface.
Look, it is the 5X
We have not had the chance to use the Mi 5X (it was not released in India), but all accounts seem to indicate that the Mi A1 is a dead ringer for it. In terms of appearance, it definitely cuts a premium figure with its blend of metal and glass, with the front being all about the 5.5-inch 2.5D display protected by Corning Gorilla Glass, which curves slightly over the sides to meet the rest of the metal frame. There are metal volume rocker and power buttons on the right, a dual SIM card tray on the left, a type USB-C port on the base flanked by a speaker grille and a 3.5 mm audio jack, and an infrared port on the top.
The back is smooth metal with a slight matte finish to ensure it will not pick up smudges and fingerprints. The top left has the dual camera set up with a dual LED flash – the cameras jut out slightly and have a shiny metallic border which makes them look similar in appearance to those seen on the OnePlus 5. Below this is the circular fingerprint scanner, which also has a shiny border. The antenna lines are along the top and base of the phone – they stand out in the gold edition but are more difficult to spot in the black one!
The Mi A1 is a bit on the largish side, to be honest, rather tall at 155.4 mm in length and 75.8 mm in width (the Redmi Note 4 was 151 mm long and 76 mm wide, in comparison). At 7.3 mm, it, however, definitely comes in the slim category, though again at 165 grams, it is not exactly lightweight (the Redmi Note 4 is of the same weight, but has a much bigger battery, remember?). Rather interestingly, a number of people compared the appearance of the A1 with the OnePlus 5, and there does seem to be some similarity in terms of look and feel, especially in the gold models. That is not necessarily a bad thing and the fact that the Mi A1 totes a fingerprint scanner on its back, saves it somewhat from the “looks like the iPhone 7 Plus” accusations that were leveled at the OnePlus 5.
All said and done; the Mi A1 has a premium, solid feel to it. And as in most recent Xiaomi devices, we think the black model looks particularly good. It is a tad on the longer side, and bezel shavers will complain about the absence of a zero bezel look, but take our word for it, the phone looks good.
The dual cameras grab attention
Xiaomi has been pushing the dual 12.0-megapixel cameras on the A1 as its biggest highlight – the Internet is filled with “portrait mode” (the app itself calls it “stereo mode” though) snaps taken using them. The two cameras are both of 12.0-megapixels each (one wide angle and one telephoto for zooming in), although the apertures are on the smaller side by modern standards – f/2.2 on the wide angle and f/2.6 on the telephoto. And because stocks Android’s camera app does not support dual cameras, the good folks at Xiaomi have added the Mi Camera app to the mix. The result is many more shooting modes, including a dedicated portrait/stereo mode, where the camera focuses sharply on the subject and blurs out everything else (interestingly the app itself also has a Tilt-Shift mode which allows you to do something similar even in normal mode). There are filters and controls aplenty to play around with.
In terms of performance, we would rank the A1’s dual cameras as among the better ones in its price category. Although to be brutally honest, they had a penchant to be inconsistent and sometimes erred on the side of over saturation when it came to colors. In decent light conditions, however, they more often than not conjured up some terrific shots. The portrait mode needs a fair bit of light to work in (we found it struggling to work even inside a place like Starbucks, which is reasonably well lit), but when it gets things right (and it often does), the results are brilliant. Low light performance, however, remains an issue (although the device handles glare very well) and the absence of OIS means that capturing moving objects can be a little iffy. We also encountered occasions when hitting the shutter button got no response. That said when you consider its price band, the dual cameras of the A1 punch well above their weight.
The same, alas, cannot be said of the 5.0-megapixel selfie camera which is at best decent but more often than not leans towards mediocrity, with details often being the casualty. We are not fans of the selfie megapixel race but considering the competition it is up against, we really think the A1 deserved a more selfie-sh camera, notwithstanding the presence of all those beauty modes.
But it is REALLY about the software, silly
Well, the Mi A1 deserves credit for being perhaps the first phone in a while whose software has been discussed as much as its hardware. That’s also because, rather unusually (at this price point), in terms of hardware, it does not really break any spectacular new ground. Yes, it is Xiaomi’s first dual camera device in the country, but then we have been seeing dual camera devices in this price segment for a while now. The combination of 5.5-inch full HD display, 4 GB RAM and 64 GB storage is also not a stranger here, and well, Xiaomi itself has a device with the Snapdragon 625 chip (which powers the A1) at a much lower price – the bestselling Redmi Note 4. And the connectivity options: dual SIM (one hybrid, so no dedicated microSD card slot), 4G, Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi are also pretty standard, although Xiaomi deserves credit for sticking an infrared port along with USB Type-C into the mix. As for the 3080 mAh battery, there will be those who will be shaking their heads at its being too small because (oh the irony again) Xiaomi had made 4000 mAh pretty much the rule here (courtesy the Redmi Note 3 more than a year ago)
No, the real unique selling proposition of the A1 is the fact that it is the first Xiaomi device that runs on stock Android rather than its own rather popular MIUI. As it is part of Google’s Android One initiative, it should get Android updates rapidly. Mind the “should”, though. For Google’s record of updating previous Android One devices has not been too great. We also found it rather odd that you could not register for the beta testing program of Android O from the device – after all, this is supposed to be part of the Google ecosystem. The A1, for the record, runs Android 7.1.2 out of the box and is expected to get updated to Android Oreo by the end of the year and also be amongst the first to get Android P when that particular version is actually released. Our unit got three quick updates shortly after we received it, but all three installed without any glitches.
These stock Android shoes pinch!
The glitches, however, seemed to come in the performance of the device. With those specs and stock Android, we expected the Mi A1 to fly along at a rate of knots. Strangely enough, it did not. We faced some rather odd lags and crashes, with the screen going plain white from time to time – even launching the camera from the lock screen would see the display go white for a brief while before the camera actually launched. There was also the case of some pictures taken in portrait mode being displayed only in halves in the gallery until you tapped on them. We also found Facebook acting very odd on the device, crashing several times.
No, none of these are deal breakers (and we are more than reasonably sure that most of them will be fixed via updates, given Xiaomi’s excellent track record) but they are honestly surprising on a stock Android device with these specs, and from ANY device from Xiaomi, which prides itself on its hardware-software integration. The hardware itself, while not being spectacular is decent enough – it is not meant to bust benchmarks (Antutu scores are modest), but we have seen it perform very commendable on other devices. And it is this that stops the Mi A1 from being the “Pixel on a shoestring budget” that many Android fanboys were dreaming of. MIUI loyalists will, on the other hand, find it way too bland for their own preferences.
For the most part, the Mi A1 proceeds at a decent clip. The display is commendably bright (one of the best in the segment) and Xiaomi has also improved sound quality significantly, especially over headphones, making this a very good device for gaming and multimedia – we found games like Asphalt and FIFA 17 run with very few lags and casual titles just flew along on it. Multitasking was a snap too. And while there is no bloatware on the device, Xiaomi has included its camera app (the stock Android app has no support for dual cameras at the moment) and its Mi Remote app for using the infra red port. A big point of contention, however, is likely to be the battery life. Yes, the 3080 mAh battery will see off a day of normal use, which is not too bad, but oh the irony, it was Xiaomi itself that had got us used to almost two days of battery life with the likes of the Redmi Note 4 and Mi Max at this price point. In comparison, the A1 seems a tad underwhelming.
Android One but not the only one really
The big question, of course, is whether the Xiaomi Mi A1 is worth its price tag of Rs 14,999. And it is here that irony starts staring us in the face. For it was Xiaomi who had pretty much redefined sub-Rs 15,000 phone benchmarks with its superb Redmi Note 4 in early 2017. The Mi A1 replicates most of its specs (Snapdragon 625, 4 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, 5.5-inch full HD display), and although the A1 has a very different design, we know those who would swear by the black edition of the Redmi Note 4. Yes, the A1 has a brighter display and that dual camera set up, but the Note had a much bigger battery and a better selfie camera. And that is only the Redmi Note 4. Unlike past Xiaomi products, the Mi A1 will find itself facing competition – there is the stock Android toting duo of the Lenovo K8 Note and Moto G5s Plus, and the likes of the Coolpad Play 6, the Honor 6x, all of which offer dual cameras. Lurking also in the wings is that old favorites, Nokia, which has the Nokia 6 with stock Android at Rs 15,999, and claims to deliver swift updates. Yes, its spec sheet is modest but there are those who will be attracted to it.
By opting for stock Android, Xiaomi has actually taken away a point that distinguished it from the competition – MIUI. The lines that divide the Mi A1 from other stock Android devices is a thin one indeed. We think the A1 is one of the better options in the sub-Rs 15,000 category but it is by no means an overwhelming favorite like some of its predecessors were. Go for it if you want some serious camera magic without busting your bank account.