Google launched the Android One initiative back in 2014, partnering with local manufacturers to build $100 phones that received updates directly from the search giant. That premise made a lot of sense considering most budget phones don't even see a single platform update, but the execution was far from faultless. At a time when offline sales outnumbered online retail three to one, Google decided to offer Android One devices exclusively online.
The company didn't do enough to promote Android One, which meant that a majority of customers the program was targeting never even knew it existed. Thankfully, that's all changing with the Xiaomi Mi A1.
Whereas the first batch of Android One phones debuted at the $100 figure, Google is now aiming for the $200-$250 price point. The Mi A1 will retail initially in India for ₹14,999 ($230), and will make its way to other Asian markets before the end of the month. The phone will be available in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Mexico by the end of the year.
Now onto the phone itself — the Mi A1 is a rebranded edition of the Mi 5X, which made its debut in China in July. The phone sports an aluminum unibody chassis, with the antenna bands tucked away at the top and bottom of the device. The back is fairly busy thanks to the Android One logo, the Mi logo, and all the regulatory signage.
The highlight of the phone is the dual cameras at the back — a primary 12MP wide-angle camera augmented by a secondary 12MP telephoto lens. The camera configuration is the same as that of the Mi 6, but Xiaomi is using different sensors this time around, and there's no OIS in the primary camera. And as the Mi A1 is 0.2mm thinner than the Mi 6, there's a camera hump at the back.
The phone is unmistakably premium, and Xiaomi has done a fantastic job refining its design aesthetic over the last 12 months. There are chunky bezels at the front, but the overall in-hand feel is excellent. Xiaomi also got the placement of the fingerprint sensor just right — it's located at the exact spot where your index finger rests at the back of the device. The sensor itself is quick to authenticate and didn't have any issues recognizing my fingerprints.
The power and volume buttons are located on the left, there's a 3.5mm jack at the bottom, along with a USB-C charging port and a single speaker. The speaker gets sufficiently loud, but the sound is distorted at higher frequencies. There's also an IR blaster located up top, and you get Mi Remote bundled with the phone.
The only issue I have on the hardware front is the button layout for the navigation keys — the Mi A1 has the back key to the right of the home key, with the recents pane taking up the leftmost button. Aside from that design faux pas, the Mi A1 is the most feature-rich budget phones available today.
Xiaomi didn't cut any corners when it comes to the internal hardware as well. The Mi A1 features a 5.5-inch Full HD display, Snapdragon 625, 4GB of RAM, 64GB storage, microSD slot, dual 12MP cameras, 5MP front camera, Wi-Fi ac, Bluetooth 4.2, LTE with VoLTE, and a 3080mAh battery.
After three years of using MIUI, it's bizarre to see stock Android running on a Xiaomi phone. It's certainly a welcome change, as the addition of stock Android makes the Mi A1 one of the best devices in this segment. You're not going to notice any lags or slowdowns.
I don't see how budget phones can get any better.
If there's a defining trend in the handset segment in 2017, it's dual cameras. Xiaomi rolled out dual rear cameras last year with the Mi 5s Plus, but changed out the configuration in this year's Mi 6, opting to go with a telephoto lens for the secondary camera instead of a monochrome sensor.
With the Mi 5X, Xiaomi is looking to bring that same experience to the budget segment. With a secondary telephoto lens, Xiaomi is able to offer 2x optical zoom. The primary sensor by itself does a great job when it comes to taking photos in daylight conditions, and the secondary lens lets you zoom into subjects without losing out on quality.
The phone comes with Android 7.1.2 Nougat out of the box, and Xiaomi says it'll deliver the Oreo update before the end of the year. Although the Mi A1 is a part of the Android One initiative, Xiaomi will be handling the updates. The phone features Xiaomi's own camera app and not Google Camera, and as such Xiaomi needs to test the camera's compatibility with new updates.
The Mi A1 has top-notch build quality, decent internal specs, and a dual camera that's head and shoulders above anything available in this segment. Combine a clean software experience with the promise of quick updates and Xiaomi's hardware chops, and it's easy to see that the Mi A1 is the most uncompromising budget phone in the market today.
The phone will be available in black and gold color options at launch, with the rose gold variant making its debut at a later date. The phone will go up for sale at Mi.com and Flipkart next week for ₹14,999 ($230), and will be heading to Mi Home stores along with thousands of "Mi Preferred Partner" retail stores across the country.
Xiaomi will be in charge of after-sales service for the Mi A1, and going by Google's non-existent support for Nexus and Pixel devices in the country, that's a good thing. Xiaomi now has over 500 service centers across India, and is regularly adding more in tier 2 and tier 3 cities.
Xiaomi has a clear winner in the Mi A1, and now it's time to see if the company can meet the demand for the phone. If it can do so successfully, it is well on its way to solidifying its place as the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in India.
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