Shifting focus from flagships that I was lucky to procure on the cheap, to the section of the market that this blog was initially set up to cover, kicking things off we have a phone from a manufacturer that has had massive growth in its 8 years of existence: Xiaomi (the pronunciation rhymes with chow-me). To put “massive growth” into context, Xiaomi only released its first phone in 2011 a few months before Apple released the iPhone 4S, and can now claim itself the 4th largest smartphone vendor on the planet.
Most people won’t have heard of Xiaomi, with the overwhelming majority of its sales within China alone (though recently Xiaomi have struck deals in Spain and the UK to begin official sales channels within Europe). They have carved out a reputation of producing high quality, flagship-level design for a fraction of the price, and are considered one of the more prestigious of the Chinese brands, rubbing shoulders with Huawei and OnePlus in my opinion.
The first of the Xiaomi phones that I’m looking at here is the Mi A1. This is the first phone from Xiaomi to use Google’s “Android One” programme. This programme is available on a select number of phones and aims to provide a stock Android experience with monthly security updates straight from Google, thanks to there being no need for the manufacturers to apply the updates to their launchers. I’ve got my hands on the 3GB/32GB version of the phone here, which I managed to procure for around £125.
First impressions of the device are amazing. This all-metal handset feels extremely well built for the price. Design wise, it looks very similar to an iPhone 6S Plus, with almost identical dimensions and the same size screen. For that reason, the phone feels massive in hand considering it’s only a 5.5” screen.
Compared to a OnePlus 6 (as in the pictures above and below), which has a similar sized body but manages to fit a 6.3” screen on the front, the bezels above and below the screens are massive by today’s standards (very unlike Xiaomi’s rather lovely Mi Mix line of handsets, watch this space for a review of one soon…). However, bearing in mind that the Mi A1 is a quarter of the price (and also coming up to a year old) then I’m sure you can appreciate the compromises here.
Round the back we have a dual camera setup and a fingerprint scanner. Considering these features only a year or two ago were reserved only for the flagship models, it’s impressive to see Xiaomi manage to slide them into the spec sheet at the price point that is being struck here. On the bottom of the phone we’ve got a USB C port (another surprising addition with most budget phones still sticking to micro-USB) and a headphone jack.
On the top of the phone we find an IR blaster – more and more of a rarity on phones (I reminisce my HTC One M7 with its cleverly hidden within the power button). This allows controlling of most IR enabled devices using an app on the phone (e.g. allows me to quickly adjust the volume of my TV if the remote is unaccounted for/being too lazy to reach for the remote if my phone is in my hand anyway).
Xiaomi has put quite a nice screen on the phone as well. It’s a 1080p resolution in a standard 16:9 ratio (so no funny app display issues that sometimes arise with the 18/19:9 screen ratios that are becoming popular nowadays). Despite being an LCD the screen is also clear and crisp, I really have no qualms with it. I’ve certainly seen worse screens on more expensive phones in the past.
Performance wise, the phone is very fast for its price point! This bad boy is packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, an octa-core processor which whilst not the top of the line 800 series, performs admirably. Navigation around Android is nice and smooth, switching between apps is fine (not lightning quick, but of course it isn’t), and it’s perfectly capable of running the latest apps and games (I tried out The Room and Asphalt 9 and it handled them admirably). The fingerprint scanner on the rear of the device also works very well, barely ever produces a failed reading, and unlocks the phone very quickly. My only gripe is that it may be placed a little far up the back of the phone, considering the phone’s heft. I definitely have to stretch to reach it.
The Mi A1 comes in two memory sizes, 32GB of ROM with 3GB of RAM, or 64GB of ROM with 4GB of RAM. In either case, the phone allows you to put a microSD card in place of the second SIM slot to boost the storage by up to another 128GB. In my testing of the 3GB RAM version, I didn’t notice any noticable memory capacity issues, though admittedly I wasn’t doing any heavy multitasking whilst reviewing. If you were you might consider the larger variant; when shopping around this seemed to only be £20-30 more.
The camera of the Mi A1 is arguably its weakest feature. It’s not exactly the P20 Pro killer, however don’t expect it to be at this price! The dual camera system setup comprises two 12MP sensors, paired with one f2.2 lens at 25mm focal length and another f2.6 lens at 50mm focal length. This ratio of focal lengths allows for 2x optical zoom on the second lens. With both lenses above f2.0 aperture though, don’t expect killer low-light shots with this phone, you’d need to look for a sub-f2.0 lens to let enough light in to make decent low light shots possible.
The Mi A1 is part of the Android One programme. This programme from Google provides a stripped back version of Android, free of any manufacturer tweaked software skins. This slightly stricter view on how the manufacturer controls how the phone looks, means that Android can more easily control battery saving features (sometimes the manufacturer additions to Android can be the biggest culprits when it comes to battery drain). It also bakes in Google features such as Assistant and Lens without any input from the manufacturer.
Additionally, this hopefully means that the phone can be more easily updated to the latest version of Android. The Mi A1 as at time of writing this is on Oreo 8.1, on the July security patch. With the official launch of Android 9.0 Pie this week (watch this space for a review of this!), the Mi A1 is meant to receive the latest update “this fall”. Time will tell if this is true!
I’m a bit of a fan of the stripped back Android experience, often installing a launcher on previous phones I’ve had in order to make it more like “vanilla” Android (I’m looking at you Samsungs!). I’m not sure how much of the performance can be attributed to the stripped back software, or how much is because of the hardware, but the phone certainly runs Android very well. Animations are smooth and phones and apps open, run and switch nicely.
In conclusion, the Mi A1 is a tremendous piece of kit for the price that you can pick one up for. The pound per pound performance is one of the best I’ve come across on the market. WIth the recent release of the Mi A2, if Xiaomi is able to continue the great start that they have gotten off to with the Mi A1 then they will have a great handset on their hands.