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Thanks to the excellent budget smartphones it has been launching consistently in India, Xiaomi has been dominating the smartphone market in the country. This is despite the marketing blitz from the likes of Oppo and Vivo who have plastered their ads in almost every nook and cranny of the country.
However, not everyone is fond of Xiaomi’s heavy MIUI skin. While I personally recommend their devices to almost everyone, I can’t imagine using MIUI for more than a few days at a stretch. It is not that MIUI is bad or suffers from any performance issues, it is just that I prefer how stock Android behaves and functions.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum is Google. The company tried to revolutionise the budget smartphone market in India a few years ago with its Android One program. The company partnered with many local Indian OEMs, gave them a set of specifications to build a phone around, and then launched those devices running a stock build of Android. These handsets were promised speedy OS updates, with their stock Android experience being hailed as a bonus. Despite Google’s earnest efforts though, the Android One program failed to take off in India.
Now, Google is re-launching the Android One program in India and this time it has a formidable ally in Xiaomi. The two companies have silently worked together since the last one year on the Mi A1, an Android One handset meant not just for India but for other international markets as well. Learning from its past mistakes, Google is not focusing on the lowest end of the smartphone market this time around as well. Instead, the Mi A1 is a more expensive budget smartphone.
The partnership will benefit both companies. Xiaomi’s popularity and reputation mean the Mi A1 might just turn out to be the most popular Android One handset sold till date, while Google’s name will help Xiaomi sell phones in developed smartphone markets like Europe and US.
Enough about the program and the partnership, though. Everything depends on how good the Mi A1 is. Let’s find that out in our review.
Build Quality, Design, and Display
Let’s get the first thing out of the way. The Mi A1 is sold in China as the Mi 5x running MIUI 9. Everywhere else, the Mi 5x will be sold as the Mi A1 under the Android One brand running a stock build of Android Nougat.
Xiaomi knows how to make budget phones — In fact, I think very few companies can make budget phones as well as Xiaomi, and it is evident here as well. The rear design of the Mi A1 might be a blatant copy of the iPhone 7 but then it also has the same impeccable build quality to go along with it. Like Apple, Xiaomi has pushed the antenna lines at the very top and bottom edges to give the rear a clean look.
The rear placed fingerprint scanner on the Mi A1 does help give away its identity, otherwise, from a distance, most users would just end up confusing the Mi A1 for an iPhone 7. The budget price does mean the Mi A1 is not water-resistant like the iPhone 7 whose design it so closely resembles.
From the front, the Mi A1 looks just like any other Xiaomi — or Chinese OEM — phone for that matter. The 5.5-inch Full HD display of the device is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3, with capacitive navigation keys — in reverse order, no less — sitting below it. Despite being an Android One handset, Google let Xiaomi launch the Mi A1 with capacitive keys in the reverse order. There are no options to customise the capacitive keys in the OS as well so there’s not much that you can do here. As a consolation prize, the keys are at least backlit in nature so you can at least see in the dark when you are pressing them.
The 5.5-inch Full HD display at the front is as good as LCD panels can get in this price range. It has great viewing angles, decent brightness levels, contrast, saturation, and sunlight eligibility.
Software, Performance, and Battery Life
The Mi A1 runs on a stock build of Android 7.1.2 Nougat. Xiaomi does not preload any of its app on the device, though it does give users the option to download three of its apps while setting up the device.
Being an Android One device, you get an almost pure Nougat experience on the Mi A1. Almost though. To take full advantage of the dual-camera setup on the device, Xiaomi preloads its own camera app on the device. Similarly, there are a few other minor software tweaks to take full advantage of the hardware.
An important point to note here is that Google is not the one who will be rolling out OS updates for the Mi A1. That onus lies with Xiaomi, though the company is promising speedy Android updates. It has already rolled out the September security patch for the handset, with Oreo slated to be released within the next couple of months.
Inside the Mi A1 is Qualcomm’s excellent octa-core Snapdragon 625 chipset running at 2GHz. The S625 has found its way inside a bunch of smartphones this year thanks to its excellent combination of power and battery life.
Thanks to the combination of the Snapdragon 625 chipset and stock Android, the Mi A1 runs buttery smooth. The performance of the handset can easily rival many other flagship phones in the market which cost more than twice the A1. Even when pushed hard, the Mi A1 does not break into a sweat — something which cannot be said for every other mid-range device out there.
With a 3080mAh battery and a power efficient Snapdragon 625 chip, the Mi A1 easily lasts through a day of heavy use and still ends up with anywhere between 20-30% of battery left.
The Mi A1 comes with a dual-camera setup at its rear. The 12MP sensors at the rear are the same one as Xiaomi has used on the Mi 6, though their performance is not similar due to a weaker ISP and other compromises that Xiaomi has had to inevitably make to keep the price of the device in check. The primary 12MP shooter is paired with an f/2.2 aperture lens while the secondary 12MP 1-micron telephoto lens features an f/2.6 aperture. The dual-camera setup on the Mi A1 allows Xiaomi to offer a Portrait mode on the device.
Xiaomi devices have always had a subpar camera which sadly stands true for the Mi A1 as well. Its dual-camera setup remains one of its weakest points. While it is a step up in terms of performance when compared to the Redmi Note 4, the quality of photos especially the ones taken in low-light leave a lot to be desired.
At least the Portrait mode is usable, though again only when there is sufficient lighting. Otherwise, photos taken at 2x zoom from the secondary telephoto lens mostly turn out to be a blurry mess.
There is heavy competition in the budget mid-range segment in the Indian smartphone market. However, Xiaomi has managed to hit a home run with the Mi A1. This is particularly impressive since the company’s previous mid-range in the same price band, the Redmi Note 4, was also a winner and has been selling like hot cakes in the country.
While the Moto G5s Plus is a formidable competitor to the Mi A1 especially with its camera setup, the Mi A1 wins overall thanks to its promise of speedy Android updates, performance, battery life, and excellent build quality. If you are an average user who does not care about camera much, the Mi A1 should sit right at the top of your wishlist.