Portrait mode on the Mi A1 camera

Xiaomi Mi A1 review: the best Android smartphone on a budget!

VERDICT – 9/10

The Android One Mi A1 from Google and Xiaomi is a lot of smartphone for its price. If you’re on a budget, look no further – the Mi A1 is hands down the best smartphone that your money can buy.

PROS

  • Stock Android experience – just wow!
  • Promised and faster Android updates for minimum 2 years
  • Simple, sleek and handy design
  • Great music with Dirac HD Sound
  • Dual Camera – great for portraits!
  • Google Photos – unlimited high-quality storage
  • All day battery
  • Headphone jack – yay! especially to enjoy the Dirac HD sound.
  • Price! It’s a steal!!

CONS

  • Low light photography
  • No OIS
  • No NFC

OVERVIEW

I am an ardent Apple fanboy.

Although I originally started out as a staunch supporter of Android and the reasonably priced smartphones that manufacturers churned out regularly. I was even suitably pissed when Apple took Samsung to court for the now-famous billion dollar court verdict for patent infringements. My first smartphone was the Samsung Galaxy S2 (well, actually a cheaper Samsung alternative at the time which I essentially threw away after a couple days’ use before switching to the S2). And my experience with the Galaxy S2 was bad, to put it mildly. I’d leave home with the S2 at 100% charge for the 5-minute drive to work, only to arrive with the phone overheated in my pants pocket, drained to 0% and switched off. Yes, that happened.

After about 18 months with the Galaxy S2 (and trying everything I could to salvage some use out of the phone – including adopting all of those custom ROMs you found online and almost bricking the phone a few times), I switched to the iPhone 5 and have never looked back since (complemented by iPad Mini, 2 different generations of the Macbook Pro, iPod Touch, Apple TV, iPhone 6 Plus and now the iPhone SE).

So, my primary communication device has been an iPhone for the past five years. I have experimented with Android phones intermittently (One Plus X was a particular disappointment, while the original Moto G was a pleasant surprise). And I wasn’t ever going to spend money on a Samsung smartphone ever again, although time and again they tempt me with the coolest looking but ultimately flawed devices they continue to push every year (the Samsung Galaxy S8 isn’t an exception either – camera is great, the screen is awesome, and yet the facial recognition is crap, evidenced by the hastily placed fingerprint sensor at the back).

You see, with the 18 months I spent with the Galaxy S2 and the 6 months spent with the One Plus X, one thing was clear – I really hated the modified Android OS, manufacturer bloatware, the unreliable and unstable software, and the consistently delayed OS updates. Especially with the One Plus X, updates were a joke.

I have never seriously considered switching back to Android.

Until now, with the Mi A1, that is. Finally, here’s a mid-range Android smartphone that I can truly recommend and not have reservations about making it my primary device. And I’m trying really hard to switch from my trusty iPhone SE to the Mi A1.

The Mi A1 is making me reconsider completely switching away from iOS and on to Android, and it might actually happen!

DESIGN AND HARDWARE (8/10)

If you are familiar with the iPhone 6 Plus, 7 Plus or the recent iPhone 8 Plus, you know exactly how the Mi A1 looks. Well, except for one obvious difference – the finger print scanner moves to the back, and the Mi A1 gets three hardware buttons for Home, Back and switching between apps. In fact, I went ahead and sneaked a photo of the Mi A1 next to the iPhone 8 Plus (see below). A friend at work opened her eyes in wonder and asked ‘is that the iPhone 8 Plus?’ when I pulled the Mi A1 from my pocket.

IMG_6289
Tell me quick – which is the iPhone 8 Plus and which is the Mi A1?

You get the gist. The design is almost identical to the iPhone Plus series.

And that is not a bad thing to say about the design. It’s familiar, simple, sleek and effective. Apple has tried and improved this design over four years, with other Android manufacturers copying partially. Google and Xiaomi just took an outgoing classic design and used it for their Android One partnership. And I congratulate them on not trying to complicate things unnecessarily in the name of looking cool or unique.

The Mi A1 has an all-metal construction with a matte finish that is touted to be fingerprint resistant. It feels nice, cool and grippy to hold. I’ve got a case anyway, also sold by Xiaomi, in order to protect that dual camera at the back.

The fingerprint sensor is placed nice and center on the back of the Mi A1, making it easy to reach it to unlock the Mi A1 (I’m looking at you, Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8).

I like it that I can swipe down or up on the fingerprint sensor to pull down or release the notifications drawer. Additional nice touch – swipe down on the fingerprint sensor two times and you’ll see the shortcuts on the drawer expand to show more options. It’s an intuitive interaction that you get used to pretty quick, and miss when switching to other phones. On a phone this big, this gesture is my most used when I’m holding the device one-handed – it is easy to reach the fingerprint sensor and swipe down with my index finger without having to switch to two-handed mode.

Lack of NFC is a clear miss. At this point in time, I expect NFC to be a hygiene factor (like being able to make a phone call from my smartphone) and not a premium feature, so bewildering that it isn’t there on the Mi A1. If Google wants to promote the use of Android Pay, then all Google phones should really come with NFC built-in. This is a no-brainer.

Screen is bright and renders crisp. Fantastic for everything you need in a smartphone.

The Mi A1 thankfully comes with 4 GB RAM, USB-C, 3-choose-2 dual nano sim or micro sd card slots (the Pixel phones should really be supporting dual sims, as should iPhones), Bluetooth 4.2, and that useful but oft-underappreciated Infrared sensor for using your Mi A1 like a universal remote.

The Mi A1 shares almost the same measurements as an iPhone 8 Plus, and weighs in at a light 165 grams – a full 43 grams lighter than the iPhone 8 Plus. Wireless charging is missing, but then again, I didn’t expect it at this price point.

Overall, the Mi A1 looks good and feels nice to hold, with curved edges all around. Not to mention that 2.5D glass. It may not be as bright or as sharp as an iPhone 8 Plus, but then again, you’re only paying about 25% of the cost of an iPhone 8 Plus (64 GB) for a Mi A1.

The antenna lines blend with the rest of the device nicely, especially on the black edition. It’s just beautiful to behold!

PERFORMANCE (9/10)

The fingerprint sensor unlocks snappily, and there is no lag. The Mi A1 unlocks so quick with the fingerprint sensor you’re going to hardly notice it. I notice, only because I keep switching back to the iPhone SE which has the oldest Touch ID sensor Apple has to offer. The Mi A1 sensor is generations ahead.

Overall, the 4 GB RAM and the Octa-core Snapdragon 625 processor clocked at 2.0 GHz combine well with the Adreno 506 graphics unit to the smoothest Android experience I’ve ever had. You won’t find better performance in a mid-range phone.

We’ll get to battery life later (in short, it’s awesome!).

The Mi A1 handles almost everything I can throw at it very well. I haven’t had any noticeable overheating issues. Switching between apps is a cinch. And the Mi A1 can handle tons of apps running in the background. Google does provide you the means to control how much background activity you want to allow and for which apps, and I actively use this feature to optimise the Mi A1’s resources.

I haven’t been able to find something that I can make the Mi A1 struggle with, yet. Although, be mindful that I test the Mi A1 as the average user would, and not as a gaming or tech buff. Why wouldn’t I put the phone through extreme testing? Well, if you want an extreme-spec phone, you have to shell out at least 3 times the price of the Mi A1 – the Razer Phone for gamers, iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone X (5 times, mind you), the Samsung Galaxy 8 series or the Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL, or the One Plus 5 for performance hungry users.

There’s this infrequent but annoying black overlay that hides half the screen when I use the camera on the Mi A1. The overlay pops up when I go back to review a pic I just captured (see below). This is a bug that I expect to see quashed soon, but it is a minor inconvenience. And it is infrequent.

Screenshot_20171008-202601.png
That annoying black overlay bug!!

The Mi A1 is a fantastic smarphone for everyday use. And it’s great for video streaming, music, gaming. Call quality is very good.

MUSIC (9/10 – almost!)

The audio output on this thing is way better than on any other device I’ve used. I may not be an audiophile, but I can certainly notice the difference when I listen to music on my iPhone SE vis-a-vis the Mi A1. Even the Apple Music app on Android even provides a ‘surround sound’ option (you can see this on Spotify too – so it’s a device specific thing apparently) and controls to take advantage of the better music hardware on the Mi A1. What’s more, you can really feel the difference even when using wireless headsets. For the first time, I noticed beats and instruments that I had never heard before – on audio tracks that I have heard over and over a thousand times.

The Mi A1’s DiracHD sound makes all this high quality listening experience possible. While the Jabra Elite Sport is an excellent pair of truly wireless headsets for any smartphone, paired with the Mi A1 the sound really pops in your ears.

And the Mi A1 and its DiracHD sound promise an even better listening experience if you plug in a high impedance headset or in ear monitors using its 3.5 mm jack to take advantage of the dedicated music hardware. I’ve ordered the Audio Technica ATH-IM50 dual-drive in ear monitors and eagerly await their delivery to try out the music promise with the 3.5 mm jack. Will keep you guys posted on how it goes!

The Wireless Let Down:

With all that excellent hardware crammed into the Mi A1, both wired and wireless listening experience is extremely good – as long as you’re indoors, or in a physical space that’s not too crowded with people or their bluetooth enabled devices.

I live in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. And I am surrounded by technology in all forms whenever I step out of my home or office. After all, this is a city famed for its technology craze. With all the people and technology comes a lot of bluetooth interference if you’re using wireless headsets to listen to music on your smartphone.

This is where the Mi A1 struggles a bit. I tested the Jabra Elite Sport truly wireless earbuds and the Xiaomi Mi Sports Bluetooth Mini headset with my iPhone SE and the Mi A1. And the iPhone SE won hands down in cutting out the interference in public places like the MTR (Hong Kong’s metro) or on the streets.

Let’s be clear – I’m talking about interference, not drops. The Mi A1 maintains the connection but struggles to keep it consistent. So, I’m not really a fan of the constant interference that the Mi A1 doesn’t seem to be able to keep out, whereas the iPhone SE seems to be able to do an admirable job 95% of the time.

TBH, you can’t really expect perfect wireless experience on any headset in Hong Kong. My iPhone SE occasionally (read very infrequently) struggles with my Air Pods, so I can understand how a wireless headset that isn’t proprietarily tuned to work with a specific device or OS would struggle more. Yet, you come to expect a minimum standard at least 95% of the time.

Note: This is what I’ve been able to glean so far with a dirt-cheap bluetooth headset (the Mi sports bluetooth mini) and a pair of high-end truly wireless earbuds (the Jabra Elite Sport – 2017 edition). I’m going to test the bluetooth function further before I update this review. So wait for it!

BATTERY LIFE (9/10)

I won’t say a lot on this one. I don’t even consider phones with poor battery life any more – not even for reviews. My dependable iPhone SE gives me a solid 24 hours’ moderate use, and the Mi A1 is able to match this admirably. 24 hours’ moderate use is a lot for a phone that costs less than half the price of even the iPhone SE.

I’ve provided some screenshots below to illustrate my point. I routinely get 5 hours’ screen on time and that is fantastic! Google has a ton of features built in to optimise battery life, and I hear it’s only going to get better with Android Oreo, which I eagerly await.

 

 

 

 

Android One advantage – stock Android goodness! (10/10)

This is why I purchased the Mi A1. I wanted Android unencumbered by manufacturer bloatware and other BS.

And boy does it make a difference! I believe it’s literally chalk and cheese between stock Android and other modified versions. This is my first ‘near-stock’ Android device (the camera app is from Xiaomi as Google doesn’t yet support dual cameras – duh!), and I’m blown away.

Everything feels so much better with Android as Google imagined it (I have a sea of Android devices at home – Samsung and Xiaomi mainly – for reference).

I just love the Google feed I can access by swiping left on my home screen. It gives me useful tidbits about everything I need to know. On a recent trip to Bangkok, Google told me my flight was 5 hours delayed on my return journey, and saved me the heartburn of wasting that precious time at the airport instead of experiencing more of delightful Bangkok!

Granted, almost everything I hold dear about stock Android is available in all other modified versions, and even iOS with the Google app. But it’s not as well built-in as it is on a device running pure Android. You obviously don’t get manufacturer-specific features – such as the notification counts you see on Samsung devices or the dual app functionality that Xiaomi allows on its MIUI devices.

Performance of stock Android in comparison with other versions goes without saying – it’s just better, less power hungry and silky smooth. Two years’ OS updates have been promised by Google – look forward to Android O (coming in December) and P upgrades at a minimum.

Android One gives me the best experience I like in a smartphone – one that is pushing me to consider switching to Android seriously. At this point, only work email keeps me on iOS – and that better bluetooth connectivity. Oh, and low light photo capability. With that, it’s over to the Camera.

CAMERA (8/10 – only just!)

Yes, the Mi A1 comes with a dual camera. And yes, the portrait function works great. And yes, the photos come out really nice. Yes, 4K video and 2x Optical zoom are a gift! But Yes, low light photography sucks.

The main culprit – lack of OIS. This is a serious oversight on both Xiaomi and Google’s part. I’d have gladly paid 10 to 20% more to have OIS built-in. It matters when you want to get the best out of your photographs and not some grainy, shaky s*** that harkens back to the Nokia cameras from 10 years ago.

I’ve added some pics here as illustration – to show you both the good and the bad.

 

 

Camera is a bit of a disappointment, and I feel Google compromised here with a view to hitting a certain price point. OIS is a must for the next iteration – no excuses.

GOOGLE PHOTOS – THE SILVER LINING:

If you work just a bit harder, you can capture good looking images. And Google makes up for the lack of OIS with unlimited High Quality storage on the cloud. I’m so happy. Makes the 64 gb storage on the Mi A1 suddenly seem a lot more.

I like the ‘stylised photo’ enhancement that Google Photos does to some of the images selectively. It’s kind of like AI-driven Photoshopping to make the photo look better. And I’m starting to like this feature a lot. Makes me believe more in the notion that we are moving towards a point where dedicated cameras or editing tools are no more necessary.

The 8/10 score is driven largely by the Google Photos unlimited storage and Snapseed’s image editing capabilities as well as Google AI’s stylised enhancements of stock images. Could have been higher with OIS and Google camera support for the dual cameras.

RECOMMENDATION

Just buy it! Sure, there are trade-offs – especially low light photography, but nothing you cannot work around with a bit of effort. Stock Android goodness through the Android One initiative from Google makes the Mi A1 the best mid-range smartphone out there.

When I purchased it, I was going to dump or hand down the Mi A1 after my review. But it now looks like I’m going to keep using the Mi A1 for a long time, and even make it my primary smartphone. That’s saying a lot!

If you’re on a budget, look no further – the Mi A1 is hands down the best smartphone that your money can buy.

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