Xiaomi Mi A1: The best budget smartphone from 2017?

I rarely get excited about new smartphones as I used to say, 5 or 6 years ago. Some will say I am growing old but I prefer to think of it as the market maturing just as I have as a person as well. Back then, there was always something to look forward to in a new smartphone release. Today, what’s not there? In fact, if anything, in a bid to further differentiate themselves and be seen to be innovative, some brands, like Samsung, have just taken to coming up with terrible imitations of stuff no one is asking for, like ARemoji, which is supposed to be a better version of the animoji feature that Apple debuted on the iPhone X. Only that, according to reviewers, it is not.

Unexciting as the space has been recently, that does not mean that we are bereft of any occasional bursts of happiness. There’s lots of that. The new Nokia 7 Plus (look out for a review soon) and the Honor View 10 have me all excited. But those are 2018 devices. In 2017, one particular device swept the floor with my emotions and I made it my mission to buy it, by all means. That device, as many of you who read my earlier coverage of it on here could see the excitement in my play with words, is the Xiaomi Mi A1.

The Xiaomi Mi A1, when it was unveiled last year, marked the return of the Android One programme with a bang. With the launch of the Android Go initiative last year by Google, many of us wrongly assumed that the Android One programme was done for. Finished. The Mi A1, and other Android One devices released immediately before or after it, served to remind us that Google’s focus on partnering with device makers for budget devices that pack stock Android and would almost always have the latest updates had not been lost. And so we rejoiced.

For the Mi A1 in particular, what set it apart the first time I read about it was its feature set. A fast mid-range processor, check. A sizeable display, check. Good design, check. More memory and storage space, check. What could go wrong?

My early attempts to get a hold of the phone when it became available locally were futile since the device seemed to be in much higher demand than I had thought or even anticipated. Turns out, I am not the only one who’d been keeping an eye out for it and who’s insanely obsessed with the idea of clean Android, constant updates and a good price, now that the only other saving grace, the high-end Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, are way beyond the range of what I would consider spending on a smartphone any day.

When my turn did eventually come, at the beginning of the year, I did not waste time in parting with the Kshs 27,500 that was needed to get me that small black beauty.

READ:  Xiaomi Mi A1 specifications

Throughout my interaction with the Xiaomi Mi A1, which spanned a little over a month, I was thoroughly impressed with the device.

  • The design of the phone makes it feel very slippery in the hand and since it doesn’t come with a case in the box, you will need to find one. The problem is that they are hard to come by. I walked the entire length of downtown Nairobi’s notorious Moi and Luthuli roads looking for a snap-on case for the device and I couldn’t find any, at all. Not even those meant for the Mi A1’s identical twin, the Mi 5x which is a Mi A1 but featuring Xiaomi’s trademark MIUI instead of near-stock Android. Not even the people who sold me the device, Avechi Kenya (more about them below), had the cases in stock. Apparently, they had run out of stock. I visited their shop thrice with no luck. I had to order one on Amazon and a friend who I had recommended the Mi A1 to bought his from Alibaba.
  • On paper, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is supposed to pack a 5.5-inch display. In real-life, it still sports that but it doesn’t feel like it. Maybe it is because I have gotten used to gigantic devices. I have had with me the Huawei Mate 9 for almost a year and a half now and it is what I consider to be a big phone. It is 5.9-inches. My first encounter with a 5.5-inch device was in late 2012 when I used the Samsung Galaxy Note II. Maybe, just maybe, size grows on you but the Mi A1 does not feel large or unwieldy at all. It is what makes using it not a big issue despite it being what you’d expect of an eel, slippery.
  • The Xiaomi Mi A1 is also very light. In fact, even though I knew the battery was not removable, I had to look twice inside the packaging to make sure that the battery wasn’t packed separately. It’s that light. The stated 7.3mm thickness and the 165 grams that appear on the spec sheet, just like the 5.5-inch display, don’t feel like it. At all.
  • The big bezels, which your eyes can’t ever hide away from, are ungodly and unsightly in this day and age of near-bezel-less devices with ugly notches. Like I like saying, you can park an Airbus Beluga on either the top or the bottom bezels of the Mi A1 and still be left with enough space for a Fokker jet. Not that I am complaining, though. I find that such bezels make it easy to hold the device when I am in a fast-moving bus and binging on old episodes of Friends. Still, I wish they were thin but if that means having to make do with a notch then I am fine entertaining these airplane parking spaces.
  • One of the other physical features of the device besides the big bezels that one can’t fail to notice are the inclusion of two rarities in 2018: a headphone jack and an infrared blaster. The downside is that even though there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, there are no earphones that arrive in the box with the device. Yeah, Chinese device makers are fond of that. OnePlus does that as well. The only exception to this rule, among the big Chinese smartphone brands, is Huawei. Huawei includes a pair of decent headsets for devices that cost as much as the Xiaomi Mi A1 does. However, I’d rather no earphones at all than having to put up with the mess that OPPO makes buyers of its devices go through. The inclusion of an IR blaster is something that I have now come to expect of all Xiaomi devices. I was pleasantly surprised to find it on the Kshs 10,000 Redmi 5A the other day. And it’s really great that they do this.
  • I like that they included a USB Type-C port instead of the microUSB we find on comparative last year heroes like the OPPO F5 and the Nokia 6.
  • The inclusion of the IR blaster means that Xiaomi has to do something that Google doesn’t do which is build something to allow users to be able to control their TVs and other home entertainment devices using their phones right off the bat. The end result is the Mi Remote application alongside several other Xiaomi apps. These happen to be the only bloat, if I may call them that, on an otherwise stock Android experience. And they’re welcome since they do add a lot of value to the whole overall experience. The best thing is that Xiaomi actually asks you if you want to download and install them when you’re setting up the device for the first time. So it is actually possible to use the Mi A1 without them. However, you will be doing yourself a lot of injustice when you opt for that.
  • The camera is neither a hit nor is it a miss. With proper lighting, good shots are possible. I managed to snap a few and you can view them on the¬†Android Kenya¬†Instagram page in all their compressed glory. At night and in dark-lit areas, the Mi A1 does not just struggle to impress, whatever you can manage to come up with is outrightly bad. I also found that the shutter is so slow. So slow that you will mostly end up with blurry snaps if, like me, you have gotten spoiled by faster snappers on devices like the evergreen Huawei Mate 9. Put the Nokia 6 and the Xiaomi Mi A1 side by side and I’ll pick the latter any day. If you know your way around Android tinkering and can get the Camera2 API working on the Mi A1 (there’s a handy write-up on XDA Developers on how to go about this without messing things up) and enable the HDR+ and EIS features of the Google camera app found on Pixel devices then you’re in for a treat.
  • One of the trade-offs of going for stock Android is that you miss out on all the value-additions that devices priced similarly to the Mi A1 like those from Huawei, and maybe Samsung, have. Things like health apps, integration with proprietary headsets (I am looking at you, Samsung Gear Circle) etc. Don’t expect expensive phone stuff like pedometers and all to be built in or even work properly if you opt for third party apps. While the Mi A1 isn’t lacking in the sensors department, it has a lot of them, that’s not what you expect when the term “budget” is thrown around a device.
  • Thanks to there being little or no alterations to the software, the 4GB memory and the snappy Snapdragon 625 processor, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is fast and makes all the bad memories I have of a mid-range smartphone that I really wanted to love but was let down by its sluggish performance fade away for a moment. It’s a joy to use the Mi A1 for just about anything and everything I indulge in daily. I like that the device does not even heat up while at it, a problem that was very common in past years whenever a device was taken through its paces. It’s a whole new world with the Mi A1 and I love it.
  • Sadly, being able to handle just about everything and making life for its users a breeze means that something somewhere has to give, right? That something is the Mi A1’s battery. The Xiaomi Mi A1’s 3,080mAh sealed unit gives up sooner than I would want it to. The Mi A1’s battery is not the best in class. Sure it will strive to last you the standard working day i.e. 8 hours but that will be if you’re not my type. That is to say, you’re not constantly on the phone, tweeting, checking an email here and trolling in a WhatsApp group there while at the same time blasting music on your swanky new Bluetooth headsets via Spotify. If you’re looking for the lesser evil between the Mi A1 and the Nokia 6 then as far as the battery goes, there’s none. You might need to invest in a good “power bank” or carry your cable everywhere you go since there’s not that many people who will come to your aid when you want to juice up and your device is one of these that have a weird charging port (USB C).
  • The sound that comes out of the solo bottom-firing Mi A1 speaker is good. Very good. Sure, the device does not have the dual-speaker configuration of the Nokia 6 and the Dolby Atmos surround-sound tech that powers it but it does have a way of finding its groove when it comes to matters sound wave.

The lowdown: get it if you can, just not from Avechi Kenya (they’ll leave you crying)

An average camera, good design, surprise features like an IR blaster, great performance, stock Android and other features combine to give us an excellent mid-range device that I would not hesitate to recommend any day, any time. Well, until its successor arrives and I find it to be worthy of the same praises I have sung here. Until then, this is it.

Wait, there’s a problem. While Xiaomi is back in the country by all intents and purposes after having pitched tent on Jumia Kenya since the end of last year and having a mega sale during the concluded Jumia Mobile Week, there’s still no trace of the Mi A1 on its online store and there are no indications that it will be showing up any time soon. Where does that leave us? Well, with the awful people at Avechi Kenya who sold me my ill-fated Mi A1 (backstory: my Mi A1 started acting up on Saturday, March 3rd after just over a month of use – I’d bought it on another Saturday, January 27th).

After the device malfunctioned, I have since had to make do with the most mundane of excuses, allegations, falsehoods and broken promises. From being falsely accused of having opened up the device prior to taking it to the Avechi service centre in Nairobi’s central business district to having to entertain silly tales of how one is not supposed to just install over-the-air updates availed by the device makers since they could be meant for another device (imagine someone telling me that?) to being lied to that the issue had been fixed only to find out that it hadn’t (after three long weeks of waiting, no less) to an attempted extortion of Kshs 5,000 for something that should be covered by warranty.

Long story short, I think I have seen it all and I wouldn’t want anyone who’s read all the glowing praise I have for the Xiaomi Mi A1 to live in constant fear of the same treatment befalling them should the device act up days or months after purchase. After spending a whole Kshs 27,500.

So, for your peace of mind, salivate at the Mi A1 but find other means of getting it if you value your peace of mind. It’s a good device and that aspect shouldn’t be ruined by poor after-sales services.

Also, don’t bother engaging Avechi Kenya on Twitter if your intention is not to make a purchase. They prefer not to pick up conversations from disgruntled customers or any that don’t portray them in the best light.

UPDATE

This review was penned on March 26th, 2018. Since then, there have been a number of developments. I did not want to alter the text of the review to accommodate those developments as it would interfere with the overall tone. However, I have all the room in the world to highlight them in this section so here they are:

  1. While my Xiaomi Mi A1 was eventually fixed for the problem I took it in for, 2 months later, the person who did the repair simply introduced another problem. The device could no longer charge when the screen was on and the charging process was slow and painful. A trickle. The rate of discharge was also high. You could literally see the battery percentage drop. I collected the device on Monday, April 16th and upon realizing what was going on, took it back on the morning of Tuesday, April 17th. Shock on me. I was accused of having been the cause of the problem. I stood my ground and the device was taken in for repair, again. This time round, the arrangement was as casual as casual gets. There was no job card assigned and since at this point in time my face was all too familiar at the service centre and I had all but written off the device, I did not ****ing care.
  2. Some good news: the Xiaomi Mi A1 is available for sale on Jumia Kenya. That has been the case for a month and a half now. You can buy either the 32GB model or the 64GB variant like the one I have in either black or Rose Gold. The 32GB variant goes for Kshs 23,000 while the 64GB one goes for Kshs 25,000. A little cheaper than what I paid the guys who’ve caused me so much pain over the last 3 months. They have a “service centre” in town (Nairobi) just in case something goes wrong but what are the odds the experience there is much different from what I encountered at Avechi Kenya?
  3. Sure, I prefer the Xiaomi Mi A1 to the first generation Nokia 6 but guess what? That is old news now. Since I penned this review, HMD Global has made available in the local market that device’s able successor, the Nokia 6 2018 or Nokia 6.1. I’ve only played with it for a limited period but it is worth looking at and since it also has unadulterated Android and is part of the Android One program that only a few months ago was limited to a handful of devices like the Mi A1, it gives the Mi A1 a run for its money even though it costs at least Kshs 5,000 more. I’ve also developed a liking for another Xiaomi device in the same price range as the Mi A1, the Redmi 5 Plus. Sure, it doesn’t have the Mi A1’s main appeal, a near-stock Android experience, but it does have 2018 must-haves like an 18:9 display and, to be honest, is every bit a likeable device. Then there’s the Tecno Camon X Pro that I have been toying with since late March. Competition.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com