Mi A3 Review: Android One Step Forward, Mi One Step Back
A good phone that could have been great
Xiaomi’s relationship with stock Android has been an odd one, to put it mildly. The brand started off by promoting its own MIUI as being superior in many ways to stock Android, and was so successful that many attributed the initial failure of the Android One initiative (all the way back in 2014, remember) to devices from Xiaomi and a number of other brands that simply out specced what the first Android One devices offered.
And then, just when everyone had thought that Android One was history, Xiaomi played a key role in reviving its fortunes with the Mi A1 in 2017. The phone was a huge success, as was its successor the Mi A2 a year later. Now, it is the turn of the Mi A3 to don the Android One mantle. How well does it fit?
The Mi A3 looks…well, very different
The Mi A1 and the Mi A2 were smart-looking devices but on the plainer side. They were not meant to make heads turn. The Mi A3 now is a very different kettle of fish. With its glass (Gorilla Glass 5) front and back, and especially the back reflecting light in different colors and patterns, it will definitely turn heads. What the heads do after turning to look at it, however, is a different matter altogether. We have shown the Mi A3 – we got the Not Just Blue variant (there’s also More Than White and Kind of Grey – someone give the person who came up the names a prize please) and while many were struck by just how dazzling the play of colors on its back was, many others felt it was just a little too blingy for comfort (they might prefer the white and grey variants). It is splash resistant incidentally – a feature that we are glad seems to be finally coming to most of Xiaomi’s phones.
Another point to note about the phone is how compact it is compared to many others. At 153.48 mm and its rounded edges, it can fit most palms easily, although, like most phones in this day and age, it will need two hands to use it quite often. Yes, it is a little on the heavy side at 174 grams, but we think the weight gives it some welcome heft. This perhaps can be attributed to its 6.08-inch display, which of course, brings us to perhaps the most debated aspect of the device…
That brilliant yet disputed display
The Mi A3’s display ticks off a couple of important boxes – it is an AMOLED one (Xiaomi’s first below Rs 15,000) and comes with an in-display fingerprint scanner and thanks to a drop notch, has relatively small bezels around it (the chin has a prominent one, though). It is a vivid display and in best AMOLED tradition, renders colors brightly. The problem is that it does so at a resolution that is definitely low by Xiaomi’s own standards- the Mi A3 is the first device in the Mi A series to not sport a full HD display. The Mi A3’s display is an HD+ one.
The big question, of course, is if this is a deal-breaker. In terms of performance, well, it isn’t. It is bright and handles colors beautifully, as we already pointed out, making games and videos an absolute joy to behold. The display being a little on the smaller side by current standards also means that the pixel density on it is greater than on something like the 6.5-inch display sporting Realme 5 (yes, a comparison is coming up). However, that cannot hide the fact that it is not as sharp as a full HD display, and sometimes one sees lesser content on a page than one would on a full HD display. It is also telling that Xiaomi itself has full HD display phones at lower prices than the Mi A3 – the Note 7S being the most noteworthy (pun totally unintended).
No, we do not think the display on the Mi A3 is a dealbreaker, unless you are a spec hunter. No, it is not its strongest suit, to be brutally blunt. But there is plenty on board to compensate.
No disputes on hardware, though
The display might be a bit of a disappointment to some, but the rest of the specs of the Mi A3 are unlikely to be. The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 665, which is below the 675 found on the (slightly more expensive) Note 7 Pro, but is capable of some reasonably heavy lifting, combined with 4 GB or 6 GB of RAM, depending on the variant you choose (you have options of 4 GB/ 64 GB and 6 GB/ 128 GB). You will spot the odd lag and stutter if you push it in PUBG and Asphalt, but in casual gaming and multitasking, it passes with flying colors.
Xiaomi also deserves credit for bringing back two features that were missing in the Mi A2 – the expandable memory card slot (you will have to forsake one of the two SIM slots for it, though) and the 3.5mm audio jack. Other connectivity options include 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Sound too has been improved, and while not being the best we have heard at this price point, it is decent enough for those who want to watch videos and play games minus headphones. The in-display fingerprint sensor is a little on the sluggish side, though.
And the cameras rock (of course, it’s an A series)
The cameras, of course, have been the stars of the Mi A series. And that does not change with the Mi A3. There is a triple camera set up on the rear, comprising a 48 megapixel Sony IMX586 primary sensor with f/1.79 aperture, an 8-megapixel ultra-wide camera, and a 2-megapixel depth-sensing camera. And then there is a 32-megapixel front-facing camera, similar to the one on the selfie centered Redmi Y3. There is some serious camera hardware muscle here. And Xiaomi has fortunately accompanied it with its own camera software than the default, rather limited, Android app.
And for the most part, it delivers. That 48-megapixel camera delivers a truckload of detail, although we found it struggling sometimes to capture moving objects and in close-ups. It is an absolute treat as a simple point and shooter, though and those who love capturing landscapes will love it. While on the subject of landscapes, we would recommend sticking to the main sensor for most of your photography, as the loss of detail and colors in ultra-wide mode is visibly noticeable (we cannot understand why an 8.0-megapixel sensor is being used by so many brands for ultra-wide photography which actually tries to cover more area). Colors were mostly realistic from the main sensor but sometimes seemed to err on the side of saturation. Portrait mode is well, erratic as in most phone cameras – spectacular when it works, blurring bits of the subject when it does not.[Click here for full resolution images]
The selfie camera is a smooth operator literally as it insists on smoothing our skin even with beauty mode turned off, but that apart, it does deliver some very good selfies. Video quality is usable enough, although the sound quality could have been better. All said and done, we would say the camera on the Mi A3 is somewhere between its cousins on the Redmi Note 7 Pro and the Redmi K20, which is not a bad place to be.
Stock Android and a well-stocked battery (on paper)
Of course, this being an Android One device, the Mi A3 comes with stock Android with just the odd touch from Xiaomi (such as the camera app and the Mi community app). This is as plain as Android can be – Xiaomi has not even bundled apps like Mi Drop (which we would not have minded, to be honest) or a gallery app or any of its music or video apps. As it is part of the Android One initiative, the phone is assured updates for at least two years and comes with Android 9 out of the box – we got the July 2019. And well, it runs very smoothly indeed given the hardware onboard – our only complaint was the fingerprint scanner that seemed to lag ever so slightly.
The battery on the Mi A3 is a bit of a surprise. It is a large 4030 mAh battery, the biggest seen on the A series, and comes with support for fast charging (although Xiaomi has again opted to keep just a 10W charger in the box). Given the fact that it is powering an HD+ AMOLED display, we were expecting significantly better battery life than what we had seen on the likes of the Redmi Note 7 Pro. However, to our surprise, the battery did see off a day of use easily but delivered overall battery life lower than the Note 7 Pro – you will need a recharge to see through a day and a half or two days. It is not bad, but definitely a downer.
Android champ? Yes! Mainstream hero? Well…
At Rs 12,999 for the 4 GB/ 64 GB variant and Rs 15,999 for the 6 GB/ 128 GB, the Mi A3 goes up against some very stiff competition. Brawling with it is its own brother, the Redmi Note 7 Pro, starting at Rs 13,999, which has one fewer camera and an LCD display, but has the same main camera sensor, a full HD display, and a better processor. There is also the Galaxy M30 from Samsung, which has a slightly inferior processor on paper, but compensates with a full HD+ AMOLED display and a 5000 mAh battery and has a Rs 13,390 price tag. And then there is the little (BIG) matter of the two recently released Realme devices, the Realme 5 which starts at Rs 9,999 but has the same processor as the Mi A3, a quad-camera set up and 5000 mAh battery; and its Pro brother which has a better processor, a full HD display and a quad-camera set up with a 48 megapixel main sensor.
See from the point of Android One, the Mi A3 is a great proposition. You get a terrific display and overall smooth performance with very good cameras and a compact form factor – very Nexus! But bring it into the mainstream and it suddenly starts looking vulnerable. The Mi A3 is a very good device for Android One fans, but if you do not value stock Android, you will consider alternatives. This is one for Android purists, really.
- Smooth operation
- Good cameras
- Stock Android with assured updates
- Good display
- Design (distinct)
- No full HD display
- Sluggish fingerprint sensor
- Battery life lower than expected
- Design (kinda blingy)
Xiaomi might have revived the Android One initiative with the Mi A series of devices. It has most of the specs and good old stock Android with assured updates in place, but does the latest entry to the series, the Mi A3, have what it takes to replicate the success of its predecessors, the Mi A1 and the Mi A2?