Reviews: Phones

An A1 budget smartphone from Xiaomi

The $349 Xiaomi Mi A1 operates on the Snapdragon 625 processor and has a dual-lens camera. Most other smartphones which run on the same chip, like the Oppo R9s or the dual-lens Asus ZenFone Zoom S, cost well over $600.
The $349 Xiaomi Mi A1 operates on the Snapdragon 625 processor and has a dual-lens camera. Most other smartphones which run on the same chip, like the Oppo R9s or the dual-lens Asus ZenFone Zoom S, cost well over $600.PHOTO: XIAOMI

Its bargain price is enough reason to overlook the features that are absent or found wanting

The Xiaomi Mi A1 is a definite milestone for budget smartphones.

For starters, you get fantastic value for money: A Snapdragon 625 processor and a dual-lens camera, packed into a handsome matte metal body with the barest trace of an antenna line running across the top edge.

All this for the rock-bottom price of $349. In comparison, most other smartphones which run on the same chip, like the Oppo R9s or the dual-lens Asus ZenFone Zoom S, cost well over $600.

The Mi A1 is parked under the Android One scheme, where Google designs and develops low-cost devices for emerging markets, while original equipment manufacturers - in this case, Xiaomi - manufacture the handsets. What this means is that the phone is running stock Android, the closest you can get to the uncluttered, fluid experience of what Android is "meant to be".

So, on paper, it sounds like a slam dunk for this Mi A1. But what about in practice?

During the week I used it as my primary phone, the Mi A1 far exceeded my expectations. It was smooth and responsive, and the dual-lens camera was user-friendly and sharp. Whatever small issues I had with the phone, like the lack of Near Field Communication (NFC) and a coloured notification light, were excused by its $349 price tag.

My favourite part about the Mi A1 is that it's running stock Android or, to be precise, close to stock Android. It still comes with a few Xiaomi apps such as Mi Remote and its own camera app to handle the dual-lens set-up. But, aside from that, it's pretty much kosher.

  • TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $349

    PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 625

    DISPLAY: 5.5-inch LTPS full HD display

    CAMERA: 5MP front camera; two 12MP back cameras with 2x optical zoom

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 7.1.2 Nougat

    MEMORY: 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage (expandable up to 128GB)

    BATTERY: 3,080mAh

    RATING

    FEATURES: 3/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 5/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

While this means that it's beautifully clean and bloatware-free, customisability does take a small hit. In order to display battery percentage on the status bar, you have to activate Advanced mode. There's also no easy way to get rid of the Google search bar that clings to the top of your Home screen.

The dual-lens camera, featuring one 12MP wide-angle lens and one 12MP telephoto lens, definitely outperforms any other handset in the under-$500 price range. The two lenses allow the Mi A1 to achieve the bokeh effect found in DSLR cameras and which has been replicated by modes such as Live Focus on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Portrait mode on the iPhone 8 Plus.

The Mi A1's version of it is called Stereo mode, and it performs remarkably well under standard conditions. Portraits shot under bright sunlight had great depth and detail, although you do have to give it a bit of time to focus. Stereo mode stumbles a little when conditions aren't perfect - when an object is moving or when light is insufficient - but that's only to be expected.

That's not to say that the Mi A1 is perfect; to keep the price low, it is missing some features which would have pushed the handset to the next level. I do think that the lack of NFC will be a stumbling block for the Mi A1 in countries where cashless payments are more popular, and the 5.5-inch screen is more cool than vibrant. Still, these are small issues in the big scheme of things.

•Verdict: If you're looking for a solid phone for under $500, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is definitely the one you should get.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'An A1 budget smartphone from Xiaomi'. Print Edition | Subscribe