Xiaomi phones always have the same problem. While the company's devices have generally great specifications and design for the price, the software experience is usually not very good. If you've read one of our Xiaomi device reviews, or used one of the company's phones yourself, you probably know what I'm talking about.

All of Xiaomi's phones and tablets ship with MIUI, a heavily modified version of Android that has countless problems. Some of these include Bluetooth connectivity bugs, terrible notification handling, and over-the-top power management that can outright break notifications for many apps. Jordan went in depth about MIUI's issues here, if you're interested in details.

Because Xiaomi's devices are mostly just inhibited by the software, people have been asking the company for years to make a phone with stock (or near-stock) Android. Last month, that finally became a reality, when Xiaomi announced its first Android One device - the Mi A1.

So how is a Xiaomi phone without MIUI? It's pretty fantastic.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
GPU Adreno 506
Display 5.5" 1080p IPS with Corning Gorilla Glass
RAM 4GB RAM
Storage 64GB storage with hybrid SIM/MicroSD slot
Rear Camera 12MP wide-angle + 12MP telephoto lens with 2x Optical zoom and 10x digital zoom, dual-tone LED flash
Front camera 5MP
Battery 3000mAh
Network FDD-LTE / TDD-LTE | WCDMA | GSM | VoLTE, Dual SIM and dual standby
Dimensions 155.4 x 75.8 x 7.3 mm, 165 g
Software Android 7.1.2 (upgrade to Oreo before the end of 2017)
Colors Black, Gold, Rose Gold
Price ₹14,999 in India (approx. $231)

The Good

Design This looks and feels like a phone twice the price.
Software It's stock Android 7.1.2, and Oreo is promised before the end of the year.
Performance The Snapdragon 625 processor is plenty fast.
Battery life You might be able to squeeze two days out of one charge.

The Not So Good

Camera Like many budget phones, the A1 has problems with color balance and low light.
Capacitive navigation buttons The navigation buttons are capacitive instead of on-screen, and they're in the wrong order.
NFC There is no NFC on this phone.
Availability You still can't buy this in the United States.

Design and materials

Xiaomi usually does a great job of designing and building phones, even if the result isn't entirely original. The Mi A1 looks and feels like a phone twice the price. But like many of Xiaomi's previous phones, this device looks very much like an Apple phone - in this case, the iPhone 7 Plus. It has the same antenna bands that run across the top and bottom, the same rounded aluminum back, the same dual cameras, and even some of the same color options. The A1 is just a hair thicker than the 7 Plus, coming in at 7.3mm (the 7 Plus is 7.1mm).

To be honest, the lack of originality doesn't bother me in the slightest. If you don't want an iPhone look-alike, there are plenty of other options out there. But by copying most of the iPhone's design philosophy, Xiaomi has made a very good looking phone for the price.

There are some notable differences though, the first of which is one of my few complaints with this phone - the capacitive navigation keys. Just like ASUS and (until recently) Samsung, capacitive navigation buttons have been a staple of Xiaomi's phones for years. The A1's nav buttons aren't awful by any means (at least they light up), except that the overview/back buttons are in the wrong order compared to Nexus/Pixel/stock Android devices. I always prefer software navigation, but this only took a few hours of getting used to.

Moving onto the bottom edge, we see another departure from the iPhone - the headphone jack. Thankfully, the dumb trend of removing headphone jacks hasn't penetrated the mid/low-range phone market for the most part. I'm not an audiophile by any means, but I played a sampling of music on both the A1 and my first-gen Google Pixel to compare audio quality. On the A1, a very slight hiss was audible, but audio quality was pretty much identical otherwise.

Left: 5-inch Google Pixel; Right: Xiaomi Mi A1

The left side of the phone only has the SIM card tray. Like many international phones, the tray can hold either 1-2 nanoSIM cards, or one nanoSIM and one microSD. I tested dual SIMs with AT&T and Project Fi, and I didn't have any problems switching between one or the other.

On the right side, you'll find the volume rocker and power button. The power button is positioned below the volume rocker, which I found a bit annoying coming from a Google Pixel (where the power button is above the volume). Both buttons have the same coating, so it might be tricky to tell them apart in the dark or in your pocket. These are fairly minor complaints though, and like the capacitive navigation buttons, you'll get used to this after a while.

The top of the phone has an IR blaster, another feature that Xiaomi regularly includes on its phones. It worked just fine in my testing, and I was able to use this app to control my TV and its accompanying soundbar. Why aren't IR blasters on flagship phones?

The A1's back, as mentioned above, looks very much like the back of the iPhone 7. It's covered in an aluminium finish, and my model has a very nice-looking Rose Gold color. A fingerprint scanner sits at the top middle, and in my experience, it seemed about as fast as the one on my Pixel. The pair of 12MP cameras is positioned above the scanner, with the flash at the very top-left corner.

One feature that is missing from the A1 is NFC. This is definitely a shame, but I don't use Android Pay often, so I didn't miss it too much. But that's pretty much the only feature missing from this phone, besides an FM radio.

In summary, this is a very well-built phone. That shouldn't be surprising, considering many of Xiaomi's recent devices have been great as far as hardware/design goes. The A1 isn't bezelless, and it doesn't have a fancy 18:9 screen, but you have to remember that this is a budget phone. Most phones in this price range in the United States are mostly (or entirely) plastic and usually thicker. The Moto G5/G5 Plus looks like an ugly slab compared to the A1.

Display

As you may have noticed in the specs sheet, the A1 has a 5.5" 1080p display. The brightness tops out at 450nit, so you shouldn't have any problems at all reading content outdoors. It's an IPS LCD panel, so you won't get the amazing contrast and colors that AMOLED screens offer, but that should be expected at this price point.

Overall, I don't have any complaints with the screen. It has great viewing angles, and contrast seemed fine. In my opinion, 1080p is still fine for a 5.5" screen, and 1440p is out of the question at this price range.

Battery

One of the most impressive aspects of the A1, in my opinion, was the battery life. This might not be a surprise, considering the Snapdragon 625 processor is great when it comes to power consumption. The 3,000mAh battery isn't particularly large, but when combined with the SD625, you get a phone that can easily last a day or two - even with moderate to heavy use.

I usually hate writing about battery life, because everyone uses their phone differently, so battery life can vary from person to person. My daily phone usage consists of checking various social media apps (Twitter, Instagram, etc), reading and responding to emails with Gmail/Inbox, and watching videos (YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu mostly). With this pattern, I could usually get two full days out of a single charge, with around six hours of screen-on time.

 

Even if you use more performance-heavy apps on your phone, like 3D games, you should still be able to last a day with the A1. It has plenty of battery to spare.

Storage and wireless

The Mi A1 has a whopping 64GB of internal storage, plus one of the SIM card slots can be used for microSD cards. I didn't have any problems with using microSD cards on this phone, and Android's adoptable storage mode worked great. I think most people will be content with the 64GB of included storage, but if you still need more space, the option is there.

  

As far as wireless protocols go, the A1 supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5Ghz) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2. I found that the A1 had slightly worse Wi-Fi reception than my Google Pixel, but it was only noticeable in spots with bad coverage. In one specific room of my home, my Pixel can usually hang on to a weak signal, but the A1 will switch to cellular data pretty quick. But this is a worst-case scenario, so I don't think most people will have issues here.

Bluetooth is one aspect of Xiaomi phones that has usually been terrible. In his Mi 6 review, Jordan noted that Bluetooth devices repeatedly disconnected, and headsets/earbuds will either lose connection during playback or fail to connect in the first place. He has encountered similar issues on other Xiaomi devices. Thankfully, I haven't had any problems with Bluetooth on the A1. My Android Wear smartwatch stays connected, and streaming music to the various BT speakers works just fine. This is likely thanks to the stock Android software, which doesn't have any of MIUI's usual software "optimizations."

Reception

There is always one major downside to using phones in regions they aren't sold - cellular reception. This is because different countries/regions use different cellular frequencies, and phones usually only support the frequencies used in the areas they sold in. The A1 will be sold in more than 30 countries, so it supports more frequencies than the usual China/India-only devices from Xiaomi.

I live in the United States, where the A1 is not sold, so naturally I don't get the full cellular capabilities as someone would in a country where it's sold. I tried both AT&T and Project Fi (which uses T-Mobile's network) SIM cards, and I stayed at 4G most of the time. But I also encountered occasional dead spots, where the dominant frequency covering the area wasn't being picked up by the A1. That's certainly better than my Mi 4c, where I max out at 3G, but it's still not ideal.

  

Testing the Mi A1's dual-SIM functionality

Again, I encountered these problems because I live in the US, and the Mi A1 doesn't have the required bands to operate at full capacity here. If you live in a region where Xiaomi is officially selling the A1, you shouldn't have any problems with cellular reception. But if you're in the US looking for a cheap budget phone to import, you'll need to cross-check your carrier's bands with those supported by the A1, and you can forget about LTE.

Camera

The Mi A1 has a dual-camera setup on the back, as is becoming common with smartphones these days. One of them is a 12MP wide-angle lens, and the other is a 12MP telephoto lens. While I wouldn't call the A1's photos flagship-quality, the A1 does take decent pictures. I've included a few below for you to take a look at (note: all of them were taken with HDR off).

The A1's camera has two main problems - color balance and low-light. As long as you have a decent amount of light, picture quality is good. In some of the above pictures, like the one of my shoes and the one pointed at the sky, there is plenty of detail with sharp contrast. But once you try to take pictures in dimly-lit areas, noise starts to become visible.

In all the pictures above, there is a noticeable lack of color balance. Dimly-lit areas are often completely washed out, like in the last photo in the above gallery. The camera app does provide an HDR mode, which helps a bit. You can see two examples below (click for full resolution).

 

 

Left: Without HDR; Right: With HDR

In summary, I think most people will be happy with the A1's photos. In the right conditions, you can capture great pictures, even with HDR off. Just make sure you turn off the 'Beautify' feature first.

Performance

If you're not familiar with mobile chipsets, the A1's Snapdragon 625 chipset is very good. Other phones with the same processor include the Moto G5 Plus, Moto Z Play, and Redmi Note 4. On Geekbench 4, the A1 scored 871 on single-core and 4239 on multi-core (detailed results here). The phone received a score of 63,132 in AnTuTu 3DBench, and 464 in 3DMark's Sling Shot Extreme test.

  

Like most other phones with the SD625 chip, the Mi A1 delivers great performance for average tasks while keeping battery usage low. The performance difference between the A1 and my Google Pixel in real-world usage is marginal at best. Apps are quick to open, and multi-tasking works great thanks to the 4GB of RAM. Only in power-intensive tasks like 3D gaming is there a noticeable performance drop.

In summary, the Mi A1 is a very fast phone, and you won't encounter any slowdowns in normal (non-gaming) use.

Software

Finally, we come to what most people would consider the Mi A1's main attraction. This is the reason the A1 has been hyped up by Android enthusiasts. Instead of Xiaomi's usual buggy MIUI skin, the Mi A1 has completely stock Android. This phone is part of Google's Android One program (hence the 'A1' name), where the company works with manufacturers to create phones with stock Android and speedy updates. Google doesn't directly update these phones, but it does work directly with the makers (Xiaomi, in this case) to make sure they go out quickly.

   

My review unit is running Android 7.1.2 with the September 1 security patch. There are a few very minor tweaks to Android, like a persistent notification when you have headphones connected (not sure why) and a 'Mi Services' section of the Settings app that contains switches for sending anonymous usage data to Xiaomi. The camera app is also from Xiaomi, but Android One phones almost always have custom camera applications. The only included app is 'Mi Remote,' which you can choose to install or not when you setup the phone.

   

The included launcher is a hybrid between the AOSP and Google Now/Pixel launchers. There's a rounded search bar at the top of the first home screen, and swiping left reveals the Google Feed. Swiping up on the dock reveals all your installed apps, with a search available at the top.

Honestly, there's not much else to say about the software. It's nearly identical to what you would find on a Nexus or Pixel phone, minus Google's exclusive software features. Google promises the phone will get Android Oreo before the end of the year and Android P shortly after its released.

Conclusion

The Xiaomi Mi A1 is a very good phone, if you take it for what it is. This is not a spiritual successor to the Nexus lineup, as I've seen some people describe it as. It's just a very good mid-range phone, with an excellent software experience, a good camera, fantastic build quality, and a promise of quick updates.

In the grand scheme of things, my complaints with this phone are very minor. The capacitive navigation buttons are annoying at first, but you get used to them after a few hours. The camera has issues with color balance and low light, but so does almost every budget phone. My biggest complaint with this phone isn't with the hardware or software - it's the availability.

While the A1 will be sold in dozens of countries worldwide, the United States is not among them. That's a massive shame, considering most of the good Android budget phones in the US are made by Motorola, and that company has been pretty awful at software updates lately.

If you are in a country where the Mi A1 is sold, I would definitely recommend it. Xiaomi has made an excellent device with Google's help, and I hope it's the first of many Android One phones from the company.