Xiaomi Mi A1 XDA Review: Android One and Xiaomi Hardware Result in a Delightful & Affordable Stock Experience
The Xiaomi Mi A1 is one of Xiaomi’s biggest releases of the year 2017. Despite its overall humbling package, the phone marks a few important milestones for the Chinese company as well as for the Android ecosystem.
The Mi A1 is important because it is the first Xiaomi smartphone to ship without Xiaomi’s own custom UX, MIUI on top of the Android OS. It is also the first device that is the result of a reboot of Google’s Android One program — an initiative that saw little success in its first phase in India. The Mi A1 is also the first Xiaomi device in recent times that does not see an equivalent launch in China, becoming the first Xiaomi device to be India-exclusive at launch.
But does the Mi A1 with its Android One branding provide the value experience we are used to from Xiaomi?
In this review, we’ll take an in-depth dive into the Xiaomi Mi A1. Rather than listing specs and talking about how the experience felt, this feature attempts to provide a thorough look with contents relevant to our reader base. At XDA, our reviews are not meant to just tell a user whether a phone is worth buying or not — instead, we try to lend you the phone through our words and help you come to the decision by yourself. Before getting started, let’s get the specification sheet out of the way:
|Device Name:||Xiaomi Mi A1||Release Date/Price||Available Now, ₹14,999 ($230)|
|Android Version||7.1.2 Nougat (Android One)||Display||5.5 inch 1080p IPS LCD (401p ppi)|
|Chipset||Snapdragon 625, Octa Core Cortex-A53, 8x 2GHz, Adreno 506 GPU||Battery||3,080mAh non-removable|
|RAM||4GB LPDDR3||Sensors||Fingerprint, Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Proximity, Ambient Light, Electronic Compass|
|Storage||64GB eMMC||Connectivity||USB 2.0 Type-C, Hybrid SIM tray (Micro SIM + Nano SIM or Micro SIM + Micro SD card), 3.5mm audio jack, IR Blaster|
|Dimensions||155.4 x 75.8 x 7.3 cm (~70.1% screen-to-body)||Rear Camera||Dual 12MP, PDAF, [email protected] / [email protected] video|
Wide Angle: f/2.2
Telephoto: f/2.6, 2x optical zoom
|Weight||165g||Front Camera||5MP, Fixed Focus, [email protected] video|
- Battery Life
- Development & Future Proofing
- Miscellaneous Observations
- Final Thoughts & Conclusion
The Xiaomi Mi A1, like several other Xiaomi phones and phones from other Chinese OEMs, borrows several elements from Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus when it comes to design. But instead of being a straight-up lifting of the iPhone 7 Plus, the Mi A1 blends in the antennae design and the camera layout from the iPhone with a carcass that feels similar to the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 due to its boxy outlines. The side frame of the device is fairly flat, and the transition curve from the sides to the flat back is fairly steep. But unlike the Redmi Note 4 and other previous phones which had plastic caps on the back, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is an actual metallic unibody device, giving it a rich feel in the hand.
The antennae bands run close to the edges on the back of the device, similar to what we now see on a lot of other phones. The dual rear camera setup sits on the right of the dual-tone LED flash, which gives it a differentiating feature from the iPhone look (as the iPhone has the camera setup on the left of the LED). The fingerprint sensor sits on the central axis of the back and is placed towards the top. The bottom of the back bears the Mi branding, the Android One branding and other regulatory branding — there’s a substantial amount of text and symbols here. The camera bump is tall and it’s sometimes difficult to ignore as most of Xiaomi’s previous devices usually had a flush camera setup and used the thickness to squeeze in battery — in this device, it’s the opposite, and we are not very excited about that.
The bottom of the device is quite busy as it houses several openings like the 3.5mm headphone jack, the primary microphone, the screws that hold the phone shut, the USB Type C port and a set of drilled holes for the speaker. The top of the device houses only the IR Blaster and the secondary microphone for noise cancellation. The left of the device houses the hybrid SIM tray.
The volume rocker and the power button find their place on the right of the device. Much like the Redmi Note 4, the buttons have no sideways wiggle to them but they still have a muted response. The weak tactile feedback was not as much of an issue with the Redmi Note 4, but with the Mi A1, the unsatisfying click on the power button often prompted me to inadvertently half-click it again, which led to situations where the camera app opened up when I expected the phone to have its screen off. The power button gesture can be disabled, and one does eventually get used to the weak response, so this is unlikely to be a deal breaker.
Xiaomi is no longer aiming for symmetry in its port placement as it was trying on the Redmi Note 4, so the Mi A1 and the Mi 5X, by extension, have their own sense of identity. The front of the device has the notification LED, the ambient light sensor, the front camera and the earpiece from left to right.
The notification LED only displays white (and not multicolored), as per my experience and testing. On the Gold color variant which has a white front, this white notification LED was hard to spot in a few instances like under bright sunlight, with its saving grace being that it was very bright nonetheless. Using a different color LED would have been a smarter choice for the white front phone. While a multicolor LED is not guaranteed in this price range, it was unexpected to not find it on this phone considering Xiaomi’s lower priced devices had multicolor LEDs.
The front of the device also has the typical Xiaomi cluster of navigation keys as capacitive buttons. The Overview key is on the left, with Home in the center and Back on the right; all are thankfully backlit. However, since this phone does not come with MIUI, you cannot mess around with the button backlighting on the stock software. Curiously, you also cannot opt for navigation keys, and there is no option to disable or rearrange the capacitive keys either. So you are kind of stuck with what stock Android on the Mi A1 gives you. The buttons are comfortable to reach and are spaced adequately on all sides — however, you may find yourself hitting the overview button frequently when gaming and gripping the phone with both hands; something that I struggled with a fair bit.
There is also a very thin black border all around the display on the white front variants. But it is thin and easy to ignore after a while. The Black color variant has a black front, where the black border is unnoticeable. What is noticeable on the Black color variant though, is Xiaomi’s new fingerprint resistant coating as it does a better job at preventing fingerprint smudges than the backs of the black color variants of other devices. Through my limited hands-on time with the Black color Mi A1 at the launch event, it was safe to conclude that while new coating does not entirely do away with fingerprints, it did its job in making them difficult to appear and spot on the Mi A1.
As someone used to handling 5.5” (and sometimes even larger) phones with one hand, the Mi A1 posed no difficulty. The top and bottom bezels of the device are larger than the ones on the Redmi Note 4, so the phone is bigger in size despite bearing the same screen diagonal and aspect ratio. The Mi A1 is thinner but has the same weight, giving it a denser feeling in the hand. The weight, the build quality and the materials used all combine to give us a premium device that does not feel fragile at all, one that you can hold with confidence. However, the iPhone-inspired design is what most people will pick up at a first glance, which goes to show that the Mi A1/5X are not devices that take any particular risks and play it very safe. For the price tag of the devices, that is not a bad thing either, for the end product is certainly something you will be happy about.
There is one point that is worth mentioning for a phone that is targeted towards the Indian audience: IP certification. Xiaomi continues to shy away from including any sort of significant water and dust resistance. A lack of IP rating was easier to ignore on lower end devices, but with the Mi A1 moving upwards in price (even if it is by a small margin), we’d certainly like Xiaomi to include some form of certified water resistance. During my usage, I was under two instances of heavy thundershowers and moderate waterlogging/flooding — and scenarios like this are common across several Indian cities. Worrying about even the smallest drop of water on an otherwise well-built device is something that takes the fun out of the smartphone experience in those instances. We’d like to see more devices with IP67 and better ratings, and maybe Xiaomi can look into this while deciding the differentiating features for its future lineup.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 comes with the tried-and-tested Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 SoC, a mid-range SoC that boasts of a good mix between power efficiency and performance. Built on a 14nm fabrication process, the Snapdragon 625 packs 8 Cortex-A53 cores with a peak clock speed of 2GHz. This lays the foundation for the Mi A1 to come up as an efficient mid-range device on paper, much like the Redmi Note 4. But how does swapping MIUI with stock Android affect synthetic and real world performance? Let’s find out!
CPU & System
GeekBench, a benchmark that helps assess CPU performance, gives the Xiaomi Mi A1 a score of 877/4204. This surprisingly beats not only the Redmi Note 4, but the Redmi Note 3 as well on its multi core performance. BaseMark OS II, which measures performance through various calculations and transformations, gives the Mi A1 a total score of 1241, with the Mi A1 scoring higher on system performance than the Redmi Note 4. Individual benchmark numbers mean very little by themselves, but the overall trend with the benchmark scores places the Mi A1 firmly in the mid end segment, behind the flagships like the 835 and 821 and upper mid end SoCs like the 660. PCMark, which takes a holistic approach to benchmarking by putting the device through common real-world scenarios in a less-discrete testing environment, scored the Mi A1 at 4753, which is similar to what the Redmi Note 4 managed to score.
Much like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is a phone that does not make you feel that you are not holding a premium dollar device in your hand as far as performance is concerned. While one can find a few performance quibbles, mainly with how lethargic the stock animation speed even on this stock Android device is (seriously, why are all animations not sped up on stock Android? Most SoCs can work well with the faster speeds), and how apps still have a small but noticeable delay in opening up, most consumers will very likely never notice any of these in their daily usage.
What they will notice is a device that feels smooth and responsive on every action. There are no glaring hiccups, no force closes, no unusual or anomalous behavior. The things that you expect to work, simply work. They work as well on day 10 as they do on day 1 with no signs of any deterioration in performance.
Thermal performance on the Mi A1 is excellent, and we expected nothing less from a Snapdragon 625 SoC phone. Prolonged real-world usage barely causes the phone to warm up, and the A1 remains a pleasure to use at all times, both in performance and in temperatures. The metallic body does tend to warm up when used under direct sunlight for too long, but this does not affect the performance of the device in any way either. Xiaomi claims to have used a dual graphite layer under the chassis of the A1 (but never mentioned the same for the Mi 5X, so that may be a point of hardware difference between the two) that absorbs the heat from the processor and distributes it evenly across the body — and we’d like to believe it is indeed working as the phone has no particular hot spots on the rarest of occasions that it does heat up without external sources.
GPU & Gaming
Unsurprisingly, the Mi A1 performs very close to the Redmi Note 4 when it comes to GPU benchmarking and gaming performance. So while the gaming performance per se will not compete against flagships, the Adreno 506 does well for most intensive games. Although they may start off at the lowest graphics settings, you can crank up the graphics quality to medium and high (on a case by case basis) and suffer no loss in FPS as several popular titles cap out at 30 FPS anyways. We thank the folks at GameBench helping with our gaming tests.
GPU throttling is also negligible, giving us barely any difference in scores (389 frames) when the device was looped through 30 consecutive tests of GFXBench’s Manhattan 3.1. The consistency resembles that on the Redmi Note 4 and has a slight increase in average framerate, and we certainly aren’t complaining.
Overall, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 is a thermally-tamed and efficient mid ranger that will satisfy the needs for the majority of its users. It is a tried and tested SoC that Xiaomi has used many, many times, so its presence on the Xiaomi Mi A1 makes for a product that delivers at all the right places at the right time.
RAM, Memory Management and Storage
The worst part of Xiaomi devices is their RAM and memory management due to the aggressive policies set in by MIUI. The combination of MIUI bloat applications and services, coupled with opaque “optimizations”, as well as the system’s insistence on closing down background apps beyond a certain unknown point in the interests of “battery life” — these factors mingle together to give some of the worst memory management seen in popular Android devices (but not all that uncommon among custom UX as we see similar behaviors by other OEM skins). MIUI devices greatly benefited from the increase in physical RAM, and every bit of more RAM was helpful in setting off the effects of MIUI.
With MIUI no longer in the picture, the Xiaomi Mi A1 gets its opportunity to shine. And shine it does.
The Mi A1 comes in only one variant of RAM and storage: 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM, and 64GB of eMMC internal storage (formatted to EXT4, 58.24GB available with 51.3GB in /data) coupled with an option of microsd expansion. Xiaomi has indeed blessed this mid-range device with a set of specifications that is considered plentiful even across several flagships.
RAM and memory management on the Mi A1 are exactly what you would expect from a stock Android device with 4GB RAM. Applications stay in memory for a very long time, long enough that it becomes difficult to pinpoint when an app was cleared from memory. There were no moments in my phone usage where I could notice that I had downgraded from OnePlus 3’s 6GB RAM down to 4GB RAM. The phone had no issues keeping more than 12 apps in memory, and could also handle a heavy game thrown in the mix. Multitasking and quick switching between apps was a breeze and we had no reason to complain.
There were no moments in my phone usage where I could notice that I had downgraded from OnePlus 3’s 6GB RAM down to 4GB RAM.
The biggest improvement in storage vis-à-vis the Redmi Note 4 comes in Sequential Write speeds, which have now inched closer to Sequential Read speeds on the Mi A1. This should theoretically help with video recording onto the internal storage, but you will unlikely be able to spot the difference or the improvement practically in day to day usage.
To conclude the performance section of the review, it is safe to say that the Xiaomi Mi A1 does not disappoint in any of the key areas of performance. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 continues to remain relevant across the mid-range and is an excellent choice for a device that retails under $230. While newer Snapdragon SoCs would have been better, and something with dedicated performance clusters would have made us even happier, we are confident that the average user would be satisfied with the existing performance of the device. When it comes to flaws in performance, the Mi A1 maintains an impressive clean sheet — the first Xiaomi device that we have reviewed that does so. But as a counterpoint, what the Mi A1 delivers can be expected and received from other Snapdragon 625 devices around similar price points. While that does not take away from Mi A1’s package in any way, it does disallow the 625 from being claimed as a unique selling point.
The software is one of the strongest aspects of the Xiaomi Mi A1 as a differentiated product, and depending on how you look at it, it can also be called its weakest point (and we’ll come to this in a moment).
The Xiaomi Mi A1 is the first device coming out of the reboot of the Android One program. Unlike every other Xiaomi phone, the Mi A1 runs stock Android 7.1.2, one that is virtually left untouched by Xiaomi. As a result, the software experience on the Mi A1 resembles that on the Google Pixels on Nougat than it does on pretty much any other Xiaomi device.
And the difference in UX is striking. No longer are you greeted with Xiaomi’s heavy and often complicated UX. There are fewer bloatware applications pre-installed, there are no mysterious services running in the background, and there are fewer animations going around. You are no longer prompted to sign in with a Mi account, and you no longer need a Mi account to unlock the bootloader on this device. The entire smartphone experience feels much more familiar to people who have been following the progress of Android over the years.
This familiarity of experience is what separates the Mi A1 from the Mi 5X, as you can have certain pre-defined expectations for every action that you undertake on the device. You can dismiss lockscreen notifications, you can enlarge notifications with a gesture, you can jump from the homescreen to the rest of the launcher with a swipe up from the homescreen dock…and all other such minute details. The MIUI experience often felt alien to an Android purist when it reacted differently, but the stock Android experience on this Xiaomi feels right at home.
The launcher on the Mi A1 is Launcher3 from AOSP with Google Now integration. You get an ordinary homescreen with 5×4 icon grid per page and a 1×5 persistent dock. You can have multiple pages of homescreen, but there is no wallpaper scrolling support. The launcher does come with circular icon support, but that adds onto the icon inconsistencies and confusion with the icon shapes. You can also drop icons on top of one another to create folders on the homescreen.
Scrolling towards the left of the default homescreen pane brings up the Google Now feed. The Launcher does give you an option to disable it, accessed by long pressing on the homescreen and choosing Settings. On the main homescreen, you also get a persistent Google search widget (instead of the smaller pill box that is found on the Pixels) that cannot be removed or moved around.
There is some rudimentary notification dot support. This is mainly seen with the Phone app in the form of a small counter denoting a missed call. Other app icons do not showcase any sort of notification counter, and there is no setting to play around with to customize this behavior.
To get into the app drawer, you need to swipe up from the dock. There is a small arrow icon to guide new users, but when I handed over the phone to others, practically everyone overlooked the arrow and attempted getting into the app drawer through other actions (which is not possible). The drawer itself features an opaque white background and a 5-column vertical scrolling grid, and a persistent search bar to quickly locate an app from your installed apps. You can also jump directly to an alphabet through the quick scroll — when quick scrolled, the first app in that alphabet has its icons enlarged, though there’s a very good chance you will miss this in the hotchpotch confusion of icon shapes and layouts.
The launcher is standard fare with very few bells and whistles. It does fundamentally differ from the MIUI launcher in the fact that there is a clear demarcation between a homescreen and the app launcher, as MIUI has ceased featuring an app drawer. There is no theme support, no fancy wallpaper carousels, and no other real customization — and that is the main draw. It’s simple, and it will work for most people. If it doesn’t, you can still opt for a 3rd party launcher, like you can in pretty much every Android smartphone.
Compared to what we receive on other Xiaomi devices, the Xiaomi Mi A1 and the customizations it offers are as vanilla as it could possibly get.
One of the extras comes in the form of Gestures. There are only two screen off gestures on this: one, you can use the fingerprint sensor on the back to pull down the notification panel and push it back up (like on Pixel devices). This gesture comes in handy given it’s usually easier to reach the fingerprint scanner on the back than the top of the display.
Two, you can double press the power button on any screen to jump into the camera. The usefulness of this gesture, in my experience, was underplayed by the physical responsiveness of the power button that was mentioned in the design part of the review. The muted response on the power button often led to instances where this gesture was triggered by what was just a single but a slight long press. So in several instances, the phone had the camera app open when I presumed the device was sleeping. After these instances, the gesture was simply turned off as it was simply not worth the hassle for me.
Xiaomi’s additions also include the few apps that come pre-installed in the Mi A1. First is the custom camera app which supports dual camera functionality; we will cover this extensively in the camera review. Next up is the Mi Remote app from MIUI, responsible for providing a user interface for the IR Blaster functionality.
You also get the Mi Store app and a Feedback app. While the Feedback can only be disabled and not uninstalled, you can uninstall the Mi Store and the Mi Remote app. The Mi Remote is actually useful and we’d recommend keeping it on your device even if you do not use the IR Blaster, as it won’t be running in the background anyway. But the Mi Store frequently sends ad notifications for upcoming Xiaomi sales and we recommend uninstalling the Mi Store if you do not have a need for it
Android A/B Partition
The Mi A1 is one of those few devices that utilizes Android Nougat’s A/B Partition setup in order to provide seamless updates. You can read more about the A/B partition setup on the Mi A1 over here.
And that’s it for the extras. The software experience on the Mi A1 focuses on Google’s services instead of those from Xiaomi. There are more pre-installed Google Apps than there are Xiaomi apps, and that says something just by itself. The focus on Google services, such as the fixed Google Search bar on the homescreen, points to Google’s push with Search and Google Assistant, a push the company needs in developing markets. But with the different accents, languages and regional variations existing in India; and the fairly limited scope of what can be done with Assistant in India, there is not a whole lot of incentive to adopt Assistant as hard as Google is pushing it.
Which brings us to why the software can also be considered the weakest point of the Mi A1 package.
MIUI’s defining characteristic is certainly its different approach to Android, but that does not take away from several of the feature additions that Xiaomi has made over the years to its UX. Several key features have been received with great enthusiasm by the Indian audience, augmenting the use cases of the average urban Indian even though they may not be entirely unique in their approach.
For example, MIUI’s built-in call recorder is a widely-used feature by all the people around me who use a Xiaomi phone. Similarly, other features such as Dual Apps, Double Tap to Wake Screen, One Handed Mode, Quick Ball, Scrolling Screenshots, Network speed indicator and many such features are widely used by mainstream users around me, even if I personally could not integrate many of them into my use case scenarios. So while an Android purist like me would prefer using a simplistic UX like stock Android, many others have grown accustomed to the functionality brought on about by these complex UX. Stripping down the UX takes some value away from the smartphone for these users, as the phone no longer satisfies the things that THEY demand out of their phones out of the box. The additions that Google makes in the form of Assistant and its other services (which are also available on MIUI devices) — these alone are not worth substituting out MIUI for, for many users.
Stripping down the UX takes some value away from the smartphone for many mainstream users, as the phone no longer satisfies the things that they demand out of their phones out of the box. But MIUI is not perfect, so stripping down the UX does have its own set of benefits.
But MIUI is not perfect, so stripping down the UX does have its own set of benefits. At the end of the day, it’s a case of providing diversity in the product portfolio to cater to the needs of any and all. The Mi A1 excels in bringing the best of stock Android to Xiaomi’s hardware along with a quick software update promise, while the Mi 5X excels in being a Xiaomi smartphone with all of its software bells and whistles. Xiaomi can really gain a lot by retaining both of these audiences in the Indian market, and the end consumer can’t really complain about choice!
The Xiaomi Mi A1 spices things up in the camera department by opting for a 12MP dual rear camera sensor setup. The primary shooter is a OmniVision OV12A10* sensor with wide angle 27mm lens and f/2.2 aperture. The other camera bears the telephoto 54mm wide f/2.6 lens. The setup appears similar to the flagship Mi 6’s, but there is no OIS at play in this case.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 impresses in this regard when taking into account its selling price, but it does naturally disappoint when you put it against the likes of the OnePlus 5 and the iPhone 7 Plus like Xiaomi did frequently in their launch event. The camera consisted of a big portion of their selling pitch, and while we do agree that they did oversell the camera by a good margin, the results are quite appreciable compared to the Redmi Note 4 and other previous Redmi Note phones.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 impresses in the camera department when taking into account its selling price.
Since the stock camera app does not support dual cameras just yet, Xiaomi had to resort to shipping the MIUI camera application on this Android One device. The interface will be familiar to anyone who has used a MIUI device in the past.
The MIUI camera app is quick to launch, and presents you with a standard camera interface that is easy to use and figure out. The shutter button and the shortcuts to the Gallery App (in this case, Google Photos) and Video Recording mode sit on the right of the viewfinder, while a few other controls and settings are presented on top of the viewfinder. You can toggle HDR mode, Portrait mode, flash, and switch between 2x and 1x zoom with these buttons. You can even dive into options to choose from a few different shooting modes and you can try out filters with live preview as well.
For the most part, the Xiaomi Mi A1 does surprisingly well under good lighting conditions. The camera on the Mi A1 is definitely a strong point, something that we could not say about past Xiaomi devices under this price range. Pictures clicked without HDR are snapped in an instant, but HDR does take about 2 seconds to generate results.
Standard, non-HDR images have accurate color rendition, but the shadows miss out on details. HDR photos do a better job at capturing the scene with increased dynamic range and better detail, but at a slight loss of color accuracy. But overall, HDR is an improved experience on the Mi A1 than it was on the Redmi Note 4. Some HDR shots do have an unnatural halo outline to them, but it was difficult to predict when these would appear.
Low light on the Mi A1 is typical of an early mid-range smartphone. The Mi A1 cannot be considered a champion in low light in any way, even in the mid range segment, but for a Xiaomi device, it does perform well and the improvement is noticeable over the Redmi Note 4 (but that is because the Redmi Note 4, and other Xiaomi devices, have not set the bar too high). There is no OIS on the device, and no EIS so far either.
We also receive Manual mode on the Mi A1. You can play around with various settings like White Balance (including several presets as well as manual white balance ranging from 2000 to 8000 in increments of 100), Focus (Macro to Infinity, with a toggle for Focus Peaking), Exposure Time (1/1000s to 1/15s), ISO (100 to 3200) and Lens (Wide angle or Telephoto). The wide variety of options available enable the Mi A1 to give the user much finer control over the camera than the Redmi Note 4 could. Our only complaint with this mode is that Manual mode does not persist when you exit out of the camera app, so you will always have to consciously enable it before shooting.
All of these observations are with the primary wide angle shooter. The sensor with the telephoto lens is invoked in scenarios when optical zoom is needed, or when you need depth of field information. But as far as zoom is concerned, the Xiaomi Mi A1 does things… interestingly, for lack of a better word. Standard behavior across all smartphones (including devices like the Apple iPhone 7 Plus and the OnePlus 5) is that the device falls back to digital zoom when lighting conditions are poor. When you attempt to optically zoom on the Mi A1, you still end up digitally zooming unless you are shooting in broad daylight. Anything other than a very bright sun would force the device to default to digital zoom. And sadly, there is no obvious indication whether you are digitally zooming or optically zooming before clicking the image. Photos taken with the telephoto lens, when optically zoomed, do a good job and pack in plenty of detail and have a good dynamic range, although they do have a relatively stronger red tint to them.
The images in the above gallery were taken a few minutes apart, so there wasn’t any drastic change in lighting conditions. Yet, for some reason, the second image was optically zoomed, while the fourth image was digitally zoomed. You can open the full images, download them, and verify the same with the EXIF data (which remains untouched from our end).
The secondary telephoto shooter also comes into play when you take portrait shots. Both the cameras are utilized in order to create a bokeh effect with the subject in focus and the background blurred out by a margin. Portrait mode on the Xiaomi Mi A1 can give very good results, but these results require some patience. Quick point and shoot scenarios fail hard with portrait mode, as often the camera is unable to differentiate the subject from the background at all. Tapping and focusing on the subject helps immensely in dealing with this problem, even if the software recognizes the human faces involved in the scene. Further, the software algorithm to add in the bokeh effect is not perfect, and has a wider margin of error than what Xiaomi was alluding to in the launch event. If the subject and background are not clearly defined, the software is unable to closely follow the outlines of the subject. This also becomes a problem under poor light, but Xiaomi has built in a warning informing the user of the same.
Some failed results from Portrait mode:
Notice the difficulty in focusing properly, the inability to clearly separate the foreground from the background, and the artifacts caused by improper blurring on the focus edges. Even if Portrait Mode actively looks for human subjects (which we do not believe is the case here), it still had the same set of difficulties as can be seen on the last two images in the above gallery. [Unfortunately, I do not have permission to post the really poor results from the sbjects involved.]
All of it may sound disheartening for a dual camera shooter, but when the Xiaomi Mi A1 does perform well, it performs pretty well. If you are patient enough for some trial and error, you can get some Instagram-worthy shots. Portrait mode is a fun mode to try out, but it does require patience and deliberate attempts, so it may not suit situations where the subject is not stationary (like kids, pets).
Here are some good Portrait Mode results:
The front selfie camera is a 5MP shooter. The Mi A1 performs on par with the Redmi Note 4 here, and I did not see any improvements. You can get a good selfie in under natural and plentiful lighting, and that is about it. Beauty mode can be toggled to Auto, Pro (which gives you more control over the changes) and Off. Unlike the Redmi Note 4, the Mi A1 does not have any gestures enabled on the fingerprint sensor yet.
In the video department, the Xiaomi Mi A1 one ups the Redmi Note 4 by offering 4K video recording at 30fps. The phone does still lack OIS and EIS, so videos do come out shaky as one would expect. But the captured video was good for an early mid-ranger in 2017 with accurate colors and a wide dynamic range. You can also opt for slow motion [email protected] video recording, but the videos recorded are not slowed down properly even with the minimum available speed setting in post-editing — it just appears shoddy and ruins all the “wow factor” of slow motion.
Wrapping up, the overall experience with the camera has been pleasant. Xiaomi claimed to compete against the likes of the iPhone 7 Plus in this department, and it really doesn’t by a good margin. But when we consider its price, the Mi A1 may easily be Xiaomi’s best camera smartphone in that price range. Other competitors like the Moto G5S Plus could have an advantage (as we cannot make a definitive statement without using the device ourselves), but the Mi A1 puts in an effort to let itself be known as a good camera smartphone in the mid-end segment. If you are limited on budget and want a smartphone that can take photographs, the Mi A1 does check that box.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 comes with a standard 5.5” IPS LCD display with FHD 1080×1920 resolution. This is nothing new for Xiaomi or other OEMs in this price range, and you will have nothing to complain about considering the device’s price point.
Just like every other Xiaomi smartphone, the display on the Mi A1 can get very bright on its maximum setting, and very dim on its minimum. This gives you the flexibility to use the device outdoors on a sunny day as well as in pitch black conditions. Color reproduction does suffer in the minimum setting, but that is expected as it caters to a very specific use case of pitch black use — you will not see anything on the display if you try to use this under lit environments.
Since the phone utilizes stock Android, you can find the option to enable sRGB mode in Developer Options. The default display calibration settings should suit most users, and if it doesn’t, sRGB is as accurate as you can get on this device.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 claims to be an upgrade over a lot of other smartphones in this range when it comes to audio performance. Xiaomi claims that the Mi A1 comes with a dedicated 10V output power to the headphone jack; whereas smartphones in this price range usually come with variable output levels hovering around ~2V.
The higher output helps the Mi A1 drive equipment with higher impedance to louder levels without distorting the sound or receiving feeble output. The existence of the 10V output power is not noticeable when used with earphones with 32Ω of impedance — the audio gets very loud and the sound output is great. But the same was possible with the Redmi Note 4 as well, so you are unlikely to experience any changes with earphones. Xiaomi claims that the Mi A1 can drive speakers and headphones with impedance as high as 600Ω, so this is where you will experience most of the changes. Unfortunately, we do not have access to high impedance audio equipment, so this part remains untested as far as Xiaomi’s claims go.
Just like the headphone jack, the audio through the speakers gets sufficiently loud and does not lose clarity to distortion on the highest settings. The earpiece also performs satisfactorily for calls.
Battery Life and Charging
Battery life is one area where the Xiaomi Mi A1 is a significant downgrade from the Redmi Note 4. And that is understandable, because the Mi A1 opts for a smaller 3080mAh battery in order to shave off a few millimeters of thickness. But the Redmi Note 4 was an exception to the battery wars, so the Mi A1’s dwarfed performance still ends up being comparable across other smartphones in this price range.
PCMark’s Work 2.0 battery benchmark gave the Mi A1 a good 6h of battery life at maximum brightness, indicating a theoretical maximum of 6hrs of looped benchmark performance at peak brightness. The device gets a score of 12h 31m under minimum brightness. While these benchmark scores do not redefine our expectations of smartphone battery life, they do indicate that the Mi A1 can last a day on most typical use cases.
Most days ended at 4.30-5 hours of screen on time spread over 18+ hours with regular syncing and a couple of IM and social media apps (some of whom love to abuse location data) like Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, mixed with a few 10min sessions of Vainglory; and with some battery left to spare. The numbers may not seem as impressive as the Redmi Note 4’s, but they are inline with my expectations out of a 5.5” device with a 3,000mAh battery. The average user would be satisfied with the day’s worth of battery life on the Mi A1, but very heavy users may need to find a charging spot before the end of their day.
Charging on the Mi A1 takes about 2 hours to go from a dead device to 100% with the included 5V/2A charging brick. There is no mention of any Quick Charge support on the Mi A1, even though the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 supports Quick Charge 3.0. As a silver lining, the Mi A1 does come with a USB Type-C port, so at least you can insert the cable the correct way in the first time.
Development and Future Proofing
The Xiaomi Mi A1 exists in an interesting spot as far as development and future proofing goes.
The Mi A1 comes with Android 7.1 Nougat out of the box, but the update to Android Oreo has been promised by Google and Xiaomi before the end of this year. The Mi A1 will also be among the first set of devices that will receive the Android P update when the same becomes publicly available (not through developer previews). This makes the Xiaomi Mi A1 perhaps the first device and only device in the price range that can boast of an imminent Android P update at this stage.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 is the one and only device in this price range that can boast of an imminent Android P update at this stage.
Within my one month of usage, the Mi A1 has received two updates, with the latest update bumping up the security patch level to September 1, 2017. With the very important Android One branding present on the device and Google’s own name closely associated with the device, it would be a fair to assume that the device will get regular, if not monthly, security updates as well, up to the point of Android P at least.
So the Mi A1 comes off very strong on the official update scenario, presenting us with a promised update from the very parents of Android. Unless other OEMs also release Android One devices in this range, or Google itself goes in for a Nexus/Pixel device in this price range (unlikely), the Mi A1 is the best device to purchase if you care about official Android updates in the early mid-range.
Things do get a slight bit complicated with Xiaomi in the picture. It is not perfectly (and officially) clear how the updates are handled and how much control Google maintains over the whole affair — while we are sure that Google will provide its OEM partners with the update, OEMs like Xiaomi do need to cooperate and add in functionality such as the MIUI camera app, the Mi Remote and the other two auxiliary apps, Mi Store and Feedback. So the last entity to pull on the update trigger could be Xiaomi, or it could be Google depending on how tightly they plan to control Android One updates. We are confident on Google’s ability to provide updates, but adding another entity to the mix adds one more step to the update process.
Xiaomi’s presence is also affecting the release of kernel sources of the device. Android One devices typically see their kernel sources released and updated rather quickly. Even though the Mi A1 is about a month old and has been on sale for more than two weeks now, kernel sources for the device are nowhere to be found. We are unable to comment on when these sources will be available as the Mi A1 is a peculiar device with its Xiaomi-Google Android One collaboration.
The situation isn’t as rosy on the development front either. With the replacement of MIUI with AOSP, many would like to believe that the Mi A1 is a close substitute to the Nexus lineup. But when it comes to developer friendliness the Mi A1 has greater resemblance to the Google Pixel than it is to the Google Nexus.
The Mi A1 utilizes Android Nougat’s A/B partition system, which means the device lacks the traditional /recovery partition. The existence of a dual partition layout may present an initial set of challenges to developers interested in bringing a custom recovery onto the device, similar to what we saw on the Google Pixels. As of now, there is no working TWRP recovery for the device, but as more and more users and developers get the device in their hands, this will likely change.
Thankfully, unlocking the bootloader on the Mi A1 is a refined and straightforward process. As there is no Mi Account on the device, you do not need Xiaomi’s permission to unlock the device. You don’t need to apply to wait for days and weeks for the permission to arrive, you don’t need to deal with the Mi Unlock tool on a desktop and all of its frustrating errors. All you need to do is go fastboot oem unlock and you have an unlocked bootloader, just like you would on a Google Pixel or a Google Nexus.
All you need to do is go fastboot oem unlock and you have an unlocked bootloader.
Similarly, root does exist for the device, even without a recovery, ironically thanks to the A/B partition. Once you have received an update on your device, you can use the A/B slot features to switch slots to the old one, root the new one and then boot back into it. Do note, since it is not otherwise noted by Xiaomi for the A1, it is safe to assume that unlocking the bootloader and rooting the device will void your warranty.
Overall, the situation on the Mi A1 is optimistic. Unlike the Redmi Note 3 and Redmi Note 4 which received an overwhelming response in the development community despite Xiaomi’s convoluted unlocking practices, the Mi A1 is off to a softer start. But since you already have AOSP and root, the prime reason to root the Redmi Notes, are you really losing out on more?
This is the most aggravating issue that I faced in my usage of the device, one that hindered how I used my device and stopped me from getting the full use of my money’s worth. However, we had to place this under Miscellaneous Observation because the issue that we faced could not be corroborated with the majority of Mi A1 users. Further, we could not exactly pinpoint the issue on the device without the help of engineering tools as there were far too many variables at every stage for us to narrow it down.
The “bug” that we faced related specifically to the 4G connection in the SIM 1 slot while using a prepaid sim from Airtel India. When on Airtel’s 4G, the phone would frequently close the active network session for a second, causing you to lose progress on your internet based activity. The network icon on the status bar would go blank for a split second and return again without the data indicator, which would take 3-4 seconds more to return.
This issue only occurred on Airtel 4G and on Jio 4G. To complicate matters, the issue was not corroborated by several other users on the same network, and I could receive only a few similar complaints. And because the issue would occur randomly and only be visible for a few seconds, noticing it and taking a logcat were difficult. Most of the time, the only indication of a session expiration was the USSD message that appears after your switch off your data. Waking up from a night’s sleep would present us with a string of these USSD messages. Further, this issue only existed on 4G — the network and the internet connection were working as expected on 3G.
We tried to narrow down the issue, and we’ve crossed out several possible reasons. Our best guess on the issue is the phone’s inability to maintain a signal connection over Band 40 (2300 MHz) for TDD-LTE. Band 40 is utilized by Airtel and Jio for 4G, and the phone would derp on these settings.
We are still not confident that we know enough about this “bug”, but we were running out of time on the review, so we will have to refrain from a conclusion on this. My review unit definitely had this issue, because of which my usage was restricted to 3G only. We are feel obligated to report it given it’s a significant issue we encountered during our review period, and something of this gravity needed a disclosure on our end. Your mileage may vary, as it did for many others.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 does not come with any FM Radio app, nor can you access it with a third party app, but it does support FM Radio functionality. You can use FM Radio through the service mode menu on the phone. Plug in your earphones and enter *#*#6484#*#* to enter service mode, where you will find FM Radio as one of the last options in the list. Select and scan for stations — you’re good to go.
The problem is that this is not a full fledged app, so your expectations have to be grounded. The functionality clearly exists, and we see FM Radio apps on all other Xiaomi phones with MIUI, so we hope Xiaomi comes to an arrangement with Google to ship one more app to allow users to access FM Radio.
Lack of NFC
The Mi A1 with its initial launch is targeting developing markets like India and other Southeast Asian nations. As such, Xiaomi decided against including NFC on the device, much like how it skips out on several other phones in its lineup.
As an Indian user, I have used NFC a grand total of zero times in the past 4 years. The exclusion of NFC will not affect a vast majority of Indian users as there simply are no use cases in the country. While NFC can be used for file-sharing and other purposes, several better solutions exist for those scenarios. So we wouldn’t fault Xiaomi for choosing to ship without NFC on this particular phone keeping in mind the budget and the target audience.
If you are an avid user of NFC, the Mi A1 will not be a good choice for you.
Xiaomi Mi A1 – Conclusion
The Xiaomi Mi A1 marries Xiaomi’s top notch hardware and value proposition with Google’s fluid and unadulterated Android experience. The phone does away with one of the biggest complaints of Xiaomi devices and replaced it with something that many enthusiasts craved for. The cherry on top is the promise of fast updates, backed by Google themselves, a boast-worthy selling point that is unparalleled in this price range.
Even looking at the hardware in a vacuum, we find that the Mi A1 ticks most of the right boxes right off the bat. You get a standard 5.5” FHD LCD display in a metallic body that is stunning to look at and comfortable to handle. Inside, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 proves its trustworthiness once again, getting the job done efficiently and without many sacrifices. The plentiful 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage (as well as microSD expandability through the 3-choose-2 hybrid SIM tray) should easily suffice the needs of the average consumer. The battery life and charging speed on the device may not be stellar, but it is certainly above average for the price point. The camera works very well under good lighting conditions, but is a hit and miss when the lighting starts to go down — most early mid-range phones suffer from the same fate. The telephoto camera on the Mi A1 is certainly not just a gimmick addition as it lends itself to some beautiful shots, but we do see plenty of room for improvement in this area. There is also an IR Blaster, something you don’t see even in flagships. Did we mention that there is a 3.5mm headphone jack too?
Like a typical Xiaomi smartphone, the hardware gives us little to complain about. Add in Xiaomi’s aggressive pricing strategy and all the smaller compromises become that much more easier to ignore. The Xiaomi Mi A1 retails for ₹14,999 ($230/€195) in the Indian market, presenting itself as yet another value package from Xiaomi’s product portfolio. Competitors can try as hard as they can, but none have been able to convincingly one-up Xiaomi’s pricing in the budget and early mid-ranges.
The closest competitor to the Xiaomi Mi A1 is the Motorola Moto G5S Plus. The recently released Moto G5S Plus is very similar in hardware to the Mi A1, with a small theoretical upgrade in the camera department (dual 13MP f/2.0 rear cameras versus Mi A1’s dual 12MP f/2.2 and f/2.6 rear cameras; 8MP front camera versus Mi A1’s 5MP front camera). There is NFC (market dependent) and fast charging on the G5S Plus, but you have to live with the microUSB port instead of USB Type-C. The Moto G5S Plus does run a close to stock Android experience with Android 7.1 Nougat out of the box, with a promised upgrade to Android Oreo, but Motorola’s update promises are rather hollow and we remain skeptical on the future updates of the device. The Moto G5S Plus also costs more than the Mi A1, retailing for ₹15,999 ($245/EUR 208) for the 4GB RAM/64GB storage variant. As a consumer, you will have to weigh in whether the Mi A1’s Android One branding and lower price point are convincing enough to forego a theoretical upgrade in the camera and quick charging depending on your expectations out of a smartphone.
As an Android purist, the Xiaomi Mi A1 hits a clean home run for me. Outside of the 4G network issue, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Mi A1. The Mi A1 is a phone that I can freely recommend to all those who do not like MIUI but still want a Xiaomi device — and there are plenty of us around who do want that. For $230, you would be hard pressed to find a more convincing package in the countries where the Mi A1 is officially sold. Yes, the device does miss out on crucial LTE bands that render it unusable in several western countries; but that argument is hollow as the phone is not sold officially in those nations.
For the Indian market, Xiaomi has yet another winner in the form of the Mi A1.
*Correction 10/7/2017: The article incorrectly referred to the primary sensor as the Sony IMX 386, we’ve amended the review to reflect the correct specification.