[Review] Xiaomi Mi A1: This is the Android you are looking for!

Oct 15, 2017


Meet the MI A1: The MIUI-less MI 5X!
I would have been a Xiaomi owner for a long time if it wasn't for the MIUI interface.
Finally, Xiaomi offers a pure Stock Android experience out of the box.





Nobody was fooled by Xiaomi's efforts to explain that A1 is not a rebranded 5X, and it is obviously the same device (with possibly a better thermal dissipation plate for countries with hot climate, like India).



The A1 is all about the Android One experience out of the box.
An Android One device basically complies with Google standards, which include some (unclear) minimum hardware requirements, and the provision of security and system updates by Google. The device should also receive the Oreo update around Christmas, if you've been good!
Possibly also -but I'll believe it when I see it- we can expect to get the next Android P (Pancake?) when it comes out.

Features:
5.5-inch FHD display,
Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 @2.0gHz,
4GB of RAM, and 64GB storage + microSD slot
SIM/SD tray for 2 SIM's or 1 SIM+1 microSD
Dual rear cameras:
     Main: Omnivision OV12A10, 12MP, f2.2.
     Second OmniVision OV13880 12MP f2.6
Front camera: Samsung S5K5E8, 5MP, f2.2
Wi-Fi ac, Bluetooth 4.2, LTE with VoLTE,
3080 mAh battery.
2G: GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz
3G: Band B1/B2/B5/B8
4G: FDD-LTE B1/B3/B5/B7/B8/B20 TDD-LTE B38/B40
IR blaster
Back lit soft keys
Notification LED (white)

Unpacking

The Global version comes with a standard 5V2A charger, a USB type C cable, a tray pin and the usual leaflet that nobody bothers reading.


As usual with Xiaomi, no accessories are provided. Since the Mi A1 and 5X are identical, there's already a large choice of covers and tempered glass filters to choose from.

It's curious to see a product targeted at the Indian market without any water proofing, (and that factor is equally important for Irish users). So, while the Corning Gorilla 3 should not need further protection, a phone case it always a good idea to protect at least the back side. It won't make it waterproof, but that should help a bit.

While waiting to try a smart flip case, I found the inexpensive ASLING Protective Back Cover to be a nice fit for the black version.



Setting up

The hybrid SIM tray allows either 
2 SIM's together 
or 
1 SIM + 1 MicroSD
So if the 64GB of storage don't suffice, an additional  128GB extension is possible.

Android One experience: so simple it's boring!

The recently reviewed Xiaomi Redmi Note 5A Prime could have been my everyday phone if it wasn't for the MIUI ecosystem, but I must admit that I did  enjoy taking time to fine-tune all the customization options.

The Android One experience is the opposite: You're all set just a few minutes!

The initial setup is straightforward, particularly if you had a previous Android device from which apps and settings can be restored.


After that, you're pretty much ready and there's very little fiddling around the system options, even with the System UI Tuner enabled (activated by holding the gear icon in drop down menu for a few seconds).
Suddenly I regret the absence of the wallpaper carousel, the integrated call recorder, some smart gesture options like turn the phone over when busy, or swipe down 3 fingers for screenshot, ...
I wanted a pure vanilla Android experience... I have it!


There's virtually no bloatware (only 2 Xiaomi Feedback and Mi Remote apps which can be uninstalled, at least in the Global edition). The collection of pre-installed apps is kept to the bare minimum, to the point it feels incomplete: for instance, there no FM radio app despite the presence of the hardware (which can be verified in the Hardware Test Menu *#*#64663#*#*)
That's not an acceptable solution and none of the FM radio apk's I tried worked, so it's down to Xiaomi to resolve this in a future update.



Cameras: 



The A1 is really a snapper I could live with! The Omnivision sensors may not be prestigious like Sony and Samsung are, but they deliver some nice pictures, with fast focus for sharp pictures, even with HDR.
I normally avoid using the flash at all cost with a smartphone, but the dual tone LED's have proven to be usable, as seen with the shot of the white orchids below, taken in almost complete darkness.

Flash test

(with Vivid filter)
2X optical zoom


The manual mode offer a good range of controls and the manual focus is particularly well thought with the assistance of a focus peaking function.


While low cost brands like Bluboo, Doogee, Oukitel, will probably never be able to use their dual camera unless Google releases a camera API supporting them, Xiaomi (and other big players like Huawei, and HTC, ...) can afford to develop their own camera software!

As a result, the A1 dual camera phones can achieve an authentic Bokeh / depth effect (enabled via the Portrait Mode icon) rather than just layer of blurred circles.


The 5 megapixel camera on the selfie side does a decent job despite the absence of a flash and offers a large collection of creative filters. The results lack the level of details offered by the selfie-centric Redmi Note 5A, but are still quite good.


Video recording: not the A1 strong point!

Videos can be recorded in SD, HD, FHD and 4K.
Slo-mo initially didn't work at all but the bug has been fixed with the September Security update.

There's no "focus hunting" problem as such, just a quick but noticeable back-and-forth move each time the focus adjusts to a different subject.

In any case, the videos fail to impress, due principally to the lack of stabilization. A post-recording stabilization can be applied afterward via the embedded editor but the result is terrible!

Adding to it, the deteriorated sound recording quality contributes further in making the A1 a pathetic camcorder.

Sound quality: very good and very bad!

(I know how it sounds but please read on!)

The very good:
Since USB Type C can also output audio, it is often a good excuse to ditch the old 3.5mm earphone jack but Xiaomi kept both! Great!

The music playback through the internal speakers or via the headphones is clear and loud enough, and Xiaomi products are usually good at this.

The very bad:
The troubles start when recording your own sound with either the camera or an audio recording app.

Although it should only be active during phone calls, the dedicated noise cancelling microphone keeps fulfilling its duty during video and audio recordings, adding a weird flanger effect while trying to cancel the "noise" surrounding the voice!


I discovered this popular Xiaomi noise cancellation bug first with the Redmi Note 5A, but only after a while because my first videos where made in a quiet environment. Then I came to record a public ceremony with loud rounds of applause, and discovered that the sound track had been almost completely muted!
If you like to record your own music or gigs in local pubs, that bug is disastrous!

ANR (Active Noise Reduction) should only be active during phone calls.

The bug is so widespread that it's becoming a Xiaomi trademark
Search for "noise cancellation" on en.miui.com to see for yourself.

Xiaomi has yet to acknowledge this as a bug rather than a feature and fix it.

Battery life, Encryption and Performance 

Embarking a 3050mAh battery would have been probably presumptuous with a Mediatek processor, but with a Snapdragon 625 it's a different story.

I could stretch it up to 48 hours of mixed use on a single charge, taking pictures (a lot), playing video games (a little) and watching videos. Of course this varies with each other lifestyle but most users should comfortably achieve a full day without having to keep an eye on the battery indicator.

In this Global Edition, the accompanying charger is a standard 5V2A and the phone definitely does not support Quick Charging.
In any case, it takes 2 hours to fully charge the battery.

The phone storage is encrypted by default, but this had no visible impact on performance when launching apps.
I can't think of an app that would give hard time to an 8-core 2016MHz processor with 4GB RAM.

Some benchmark scores:
Antutu: ~63000,
Geekbench 857/4167

Generous set of sensors, but no NFC

The list of sensors is quite complete with magnetometer, accelerometer, gyroscope, step detector, and Hall (for smart covers).
The fingerprint sensor is lighting fast just as expected after trying the lower range Redmi 5A. It also conveniently double as a way to scroll down the notification bar.

The picture below should tell enough about the GPS, no surprise.

Screen

The bright and vibrant 1080x1920@400ppi is protected by a Gorilla Glass 3.
It feels very smooth and does not keep the fingerprints too much.

The viewing quality and contrasts are very good but maybe I'm not the best judge as I felt the same with the HD-only screen of the cheaper Redmi Note 5A.

There's still a good 1.5cm at the bottom of the screen just dedicated to the soft keys, which is a bit old-fashionish in this bezel-less era, but at least they're back lit.




IR Blaster: (and yes, this is a copy/paste from my previous review) 
The A1 can be used as an IR remote controller. The native Mi Remote application mostly supports the smart home devices from Xiaomi but also some popular brands of TV and set top boxes. However I could not get it work with any device, even my LG TV.

As an alternative, I've installed "Universal TV Remote" from Twinone which works great, even with my old X10 IR relay.


Conclusion

According to a poll on miui forum, the preference between the 2 models is evenly balanced:

Xiaomi and Google may have achieved a mutually beneficial deal with this phone by combining the quality of Xiaomi hardware and the authentic Android experience in the first convincing implementation of the Android One project.

You're it, until you're dead or I find someone better! [J. Rasczak, Starship Troopers]
None of the recently reviewed Android phones could decide me to finally put my good old Xperia Z1 to rest.
With its solid performance, large storage, latest Android and excellent camera, the A1 did this!

It is not faultless however and I'm not done with Xiaomi about the noise-cancellation bug!


The Mi A1 (like the Mi 5X) is priced around 200€ at Gearbest.
If, like me, you want an unspoiled Android experience but are not willing to sell a kidney but still get a stable, well built phone with a great camera, this may be the Android you're looking for!



Good:
Fast and straightforward setup
Great dual camera
Notification LED
Back lit soft keys

Not good:
Noise cancelling bug
FM Radio present but app missing
Limited customization options
No stabilization for video recording
No NFC


Also published on xda-developers.com and miui forum


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