Xiaomi Mi A1 review: A perfect marksman just like Marvel’s Hawkeye
When it comes to Android phones, for the longest time, the argument in the market centred around who offered the best experience. Chinese phone makers like Xiaomi, Lenovo, Huawei offer interfaces customised to the core while players like Moto offered a no-frills vanilla Android experience. That is because a stock Android experience is impossible in China because of the Great Firewall. Xiaomi has MIUI, Lenovo had its Vibe UI and Huawei has the Emotion UI. As the spec-sheet war came to an end, it was all about the experience one could get out of a phone and the Chinese players continued offering the same customised software with their phones as a differentiator, until now.

By the middle of 2017, the scenario changed. More and more manufacturers started removing all the bloatware and the duplicate apps from their phones. And a general shift towards stock Android started happening. An early indicator was the Nokia Android phones. At MWC, Nokia embraced Android and not just Android, stock Vanilla Android amidst huge public appreciation. Lenovo followed suit and released the K8 Note with stock Android. But the biggest surprise this year is Xiaomi’s Mi A1. The Mi phone to release this year in India doesn’t come with the proprietary MIUI, but stock Android Nougat.

After using the phone for about a week, we consider it flawless almost. It’s a true marksman hitting the bullseye almost all the time, much like Marvel’s Hawkeye. Being still a budget smartphone, the Mi A1 can’t play with the big boys like the Batman (iPhone) or Captain Spock (Pixel), but it can give good competition to superheroes like Thor (Micromax Dual 5) and others.

But Hawkeye is no less a superhero. He fits the bill perfectly. Hawkeye, much like the Mi 5X, on which the Mi A1 is based on, was trained by S.H.I.E.L.D and then was trained by none other than Captain America himself. And if S.H.I.E.L.D is a metaphor for MIUI, Captain America is the no-nonsense vanilla Android.

So how does the Hawkeye, aka the Mi A1 fare against the rest of the superheroes in the smartphone universe? Let’s find out.

The Good

Like all earthly superheroes, their armour is their best protection from attacks. The Batsuit has kept Batman alive in many situations and it also gives him special abilities. Similarly, Hawkeye’s suit is built to protect. Carved out of a single block of aluminium with discrete rounded corners and measuring 7.3mm at its thinnest, the Mi A1 snuggled in nicely in our palms. Unlike most phones that have a curved back, this one doesn’t cut into the palms. The design of the phone does look a lot like the OnePlus 5 which in turn, looks like the iPhone 7 Plus. But like all superhero costumes, this too is built to provide the best functionality. The Mi A1 has a rear mounted fingerprint sensor which is as snappy as the ones on Honor phones while the dual camera setup juts out of the body by only so much. Yet, unlike the newly launched Moto G5s Plus which has made the camera bump a part of its design signature, this won’t come in the way of holding the phone.

And then there’s the hand feel. Xiaomi has perfected phones to be felt like an extension of one’s body. The back of the phone is smoothened to such an extent that it almost feels like you’re holding a muslin wrapped device.

A 2.5D curved glass protects the 5.5-inch full HD display which symmetrically slopes into the metal body. The display is bright and legible and functional for all purposes. Although, as it uses an LCD panel, some may long for the deeper blacks found in the more expensive phones with AMOLED panels. But this is a budget phone and it hardly gets any better than this.

It’s also good that Xiaomi didn’t buy into the bezel-less trend that is the rage in the industry these days. There is significant space both below and above the display that houses the capacitive navigation keys, and the front camera, the BSI sensor and the microphone.

The Mi A1 will feel underpriced precisely for its camera. At the price of Rs 14,999 no other phone offers the 2X zoom with zero clarity loss. The Mi A1 uses a similar setup as the iPhone 7 Plus or the OnePlus 5 for that matter. A 26mm wide-angle with f/2.2 aperture and a 50mm telephoto lens with f/2.6 aperture setup. The 12-megapixel dual sensors also offer the much-desired portrait mode. Considering this is the first dual camera by Xiaomi in India, it hits the bullseye just like the perfect marksman Hawkeye is.

Mi A1

The images turn out nice and crisp with realistic colours. The dynamic range leaves something to be desired but it more than makes up for it in terms of clarity. What’s more, the Mi A1’s camera app is better than the rest of the dual camera phones simply because it offers the ability to change lenses in the Manual Mode. While it is Google tailoring the software experience for you, the camera app is all Xiaomi’s and in our opinion, it is one of the most comprehensive camera app out there.

If you are a fan of the Redmi Note 4 ( I don’t know why you wouldn’t be ), the Mi A1 will be just as pleasing to use, if not better. The Mi A1 uses the same hardware configuration as the Redmi Note 4 - Qualcomm’s mid-range processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. This, along with stock Android makes operating the phone to be fast and snappy. There are no lags in daily usage. The phone unlocks in a flash. The notification shade drops down instantly. A flick upwards and the app drawer is there. We played Need For Speed: No Limits with no drops in frame rates. We even paused the game to listen to some music in between from Apple Music and then went back to find the phone pick up the race right where we left it, without a stutter. That is Google working its magic. The Mi A1 comes with a dual graphite sheet under the chassis that keeps the thermals in check, and true to the company's claim, we did not experience any heating issues in the phone.

Xiaomi told us that Google approached them to build an Android One phone and the result is the Mi A1. It is the first Xiaomi phone with stock Android Nougat and it was a long time coming. Many thought it won’t ever be possible, but presto! Xiaomi’s commendable hardware optimisation backed with Google-tailored Android experience can take on the budget and mid-range phones head on. Unlike previous Xiaomi phones, all the apps including the Dialer, Messaging, etc. are stock Android apps. Instead of the Gallery app, the Mi A1 uses Google Photos which automatically backs up all yours shots in high definition. Google even offers unlimited storage for all your photos.

Updates too will now be a regular thing. Xiaomi has already claimed the next Oreo update will arrive before the end of the year. We even received the August 2017 security patch within the time we used the phone. Safe to say, this is one of the most secure Android phones out there, probably only eclipsed by the Pixel and the BlackBerry KeyOne.

The phone also has one of the loudest loudspeakers paired with a 10V power amplifier that augments the volume without losing on clarity. Notifications could be heard from the other end of the newsroom and we had to crank the volume down eventually. And lastly, there’s even an IR blaster, which one doesn’t see often on phones of this price, and boy it helped us to control the tele, our sound system and heck even the AC. What’s not to like?

The Bad

Superheroes aren’t flawless. The Hawkeye isn’t flawless either. Among bigwigs like Ironman and Captain America in the Avengers, Hawkeye sometimes struggles to match up in terms of performance. Similarly, the Mi A1, as much as it looks like the more premium phones, it can’t match up to the performance of them. Of course, you get what you pay for and at Rs 14,999, this is hands down the best phone you can get.

The 5-megapixel front camera doesn’t quite do justice to your portraits. Selfies are somewhat hazy and blurred and there is a significant lag while taking them. Low light performance of the rear camera too isn’t as great as one would expect. But then, who else gives a good low light performance at that price?

Lastly, the 3,080mAh battery may feel a tad too less on a phone as capable as this. Xiaomi is known for putting big batteries in its phones. The Redmi Note 4 has it. The Redmi 4 has it. Even the Redmi 4A has a big battery. Yet, somehow Xiaomi didn’t put a large capacious battery in this one. But no biggie. Thanks to the efficient processor and stock Android, power consumption is cut down by a lot. MIUI is a power guzzler. Since that’s not there, there’s no reason for Xiaomi to install that big a battery. The one on the Mi A1 can easily last you more than a day.

Should you buy it?

With the Mi A1, at Rs 14,999 you get a dual camera setup similar to the one on the iPhone 7 Plus with optical zoom and bokeh mode. An Android experience tailored by Google. Xiaomi’s reliable build quality and after sales service. This phone is going to sell like hot cakes and you will be hard pressed to get your hands on it. The Mi A1 will be available in Black, Gold and Rose Gold variant. We won’t ask whether you want to buy the phone, we’ll ask which colour would you prefer? We say go with the black.