We’ve been singing Xiaomi’s praises for like forever*. The Chinese company makes really good-quality smartphones at crazy low prices, with hardware as good as those we find on the UK High Street. The catch: MIUI.
The custom operating system Xiaomi phones run is excellent, but a real departure from the standard Android we know and love. As is usually the case with things we don’t know or understand, we don’t appreciate MIUI’s finer points. Also see: Best mid-range phones
Typically, depending on which model you buy and from where you buy it, MIUI comes without Google services; all the things you take for granted – seamless integration of contacts, calendar appointments, Gmail, Google Photos, Google Drive (which is also necessary for backing up WhatsApp by the way) and so on – are absent, and fiddly to install.
Then there are the Chinese-language apps, notifications and keyboard – great if you can understand Chinese, not so much if you don’t – plus the fact Xiaomi phones don’t usually support 4G LTE 800MHz, which prevents O2, Giffgaff, Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile customers from obtaining the fastest mobile-data speeds.
*A blatant lie, since the company is just seven years old. But never mind that, because we’re about to break even more rules.
At Tech Advisor we write standalone product reviews of a single product, which may then feed into our group tests if they sufficiently impress us, or we write comparison reviews that help you form a buying decision between two very similar products. This is neither. This is a review of the Xiaomi Mi A1, which is also a review of the Xiaomi Mi 5X.
You read that right. These two smartphones are identical in every way save for the software they run. The Mi A1 runs Android One, which is for all intents and purposes vanilla Android with timely software updates (handled by Google itself) and minimal bloatware, while the Mi 5X runs MIUI 8.5 with an update to MIUI 9 coming soon. Given the above, you can hazard a guess as to which of the two we’re more excited about.
The Mi A1 is the first Xiaomi phone to run pure Android, which means it is the first Xiaomi phone to be properly user-friendly to a European audience. All our complaints about the lack of Google services, 800MHz 4G and so on are null and void with this mid-range smartphone. A pure Android-powered Xiaomi phone has the potential to reach positions in our phone charts no Xiaomi phone has ever reached before. Also see: Best Chinese phones
That’s not to say the Xiaomi Mi A1 is perfect for UK users. It’s still a circa-£200 phone that has drawbacks like any other. But it’s a sign of good things to come. And, in the meantime, yeah it’s a pretty decent mid-range Android.
Where to buy the Xiaomi Mi A1 and Xiaomi Mi 5X
We have both Mi A1 and Mi 5X sitting on the desk in front of us as we type, with the former in rose gold and the latter in black. Both also come in gold.
The pair were supplied by GearBest, a Chinese supplier that ships to the UK with a free delivery option (though you should keep in mind that Customs can request import duty – 20 percent of the value on the shipping paperwork).
GearBest supplies all our Xiaomi phones for review, and we’ve never had any issues with the company. However, should something go wrong, do remember that your rights are different when buying outside Europe. You can read more in our guide to buying Chinese tech.
Usually the Mi A1 and Mi 5X would command around the same price in Sterling, but GearBest prices can fluctuate and there is currently an offer on the Mi 5X that makes it cheaper than the Mi A1. For the software alone, though, we’d recommend you spend the extra cash on the Mi A1.
The 64GB Xiaomi Mi 5X (MIUI 8.5) currently costs £175.07 ($229.11/196.79€) from GearBest.
The 64GB Xiaomi Mi A1 (Android One) currently costs £207.84 ($271.99/233.62€) from GearBest.
Xiaomi Mi A1 design and build
If you’ve never taken the Chinese phone market seriously before, it’s time to open your eyes. When we talk about ‘cheap Chinese phones’ we don’t mean budget phones with plasticky builds and dodgy screens; nor ‘fake’ copycat phones that aren’t a patch on the originals (though Xiaomi has indeed been likened to Apple on many an occasion, and is often referred to as ‘China’s Apple’).
Xiaomi phones are incredibly well-built handsets that stand the test of time. They lack some of the breakthroughs we see in the UK market – waterproofing, wireless charging and Quad-HD Infinity displays, to name a few – but on the essentials they deliver. They even throw in a few extras, such as an IR blaster, and it’s nice to see the 3.5mm headphone jack has survived the chop too.
The Xiaomi Mi A1 and Xiaomi Mi 5X feature full metal bodies with a thin antenna line running the circumference top and bottom. Their matte finish repels fingerprints and feels great in the hand – a feeling that is complemented by the chamfered edges and 2.5D curved glass at the front.
Protective Gorilla Glass sits atop a full-HD panel, with its 1920×1080-pixel resolution offering a 403ppi density. In layman’s terms, that means sharp text and images. Brightness is also very good (450 nits), as are viewing angles, and colours are realistic. It’s difficult to feel short-changed with the Mi A1’s display panel.
These phones have 5.5in displays that might sound off-putting to those who prefer a compact handset, but extremely slim bezels to the sides make each phone feel manageable in the hand. Top and bottom bezels are significantly larger, as you would expect from a mid-range phone, with the usual sensors and selfie camera above and capacitive multi-tasking, home and back buttons below. Since they’re not onscreen you cannot alter their order, so it might take a while getting used to the back button sitting to the right of the home button.
The fingerprint scanner sits centrally mounted on the rear, falling neatly under the forefinger when held in either hand. It’s fast and responsive; it does the job. NFC is missing, though, which is a shame with respect to mobile payments.
Despite its circa-£200 price, nothing here makes the Xiaomi Mi A1 (nor the Mi 5X) look cheap. There’s a reversible USB-C port at the bottom, and on the left edge a hybrid slot-loading SIM tray that can accept either two nano-SIMs (read more about dual-SIM phones) or a single SIM and a microSD card up to 128GB in capacity. With 64GB storage onboard – an excellent offering at this price – you may have no cause to resort to expandable storage.
We’ve got the Global version of the Mi A1, which supports all three UK 4G bands. Our Mi 5X, however, does not support 800MHz, which means O2 customers (and customers of operators that piggyback its network) won’t ever see anything faster than 3G data download speeds. If you intend to use the internet away from Wi-Fi, the Mi A1 is the better bet in the UK.
Xiaomi Mi A1 core hardware and performance
Both Mi A1 and Mi 5X run the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, an octa-core processor running at 2GHz that integrates the Adreno 506 GPU. Our review models each feature 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, plus all-day 3080mAh batteries that charge via reversible USB-C. Lighter users might see closer to two days’ usage.
The only thing that could potentially distinguish the two in terms of performance is the software they run. The Mi A1 has Android One, an operating system with which we are familiar and could almost operate with our eyes closed. The Mi 5X runs MIUI 8.5 and, though as regular Xiaomi phone reviewers we’re becoming increasingly familiar with it, we often find ourselves turning to the search bar to find a particular setting.
So while the actual (measured) difference between the two may be minimal, our perception of this difference is what’s important. To us the Mi A1 feels faster, even if it isn’t actually much different.
Our subjective assessment of the Mi A1’s performance is of a smooth, fluid operating system, capable of multitasking, launching apps quickly, and in general doing whatever we task it with. The Mi 5X has all this too, but with a little more brain power required in order to get there.
We ran all our usual benchmarks on the pair of Xiaomis and found slightly better onscreen gaming framerates from the Mi A1, but all the general performance processing tests ran neck-and-neck.
In Geekbench 4, for example, the Mi 5X turned in a single-core score of 838 points while the Mi A1 managed 873. With multiple cores it achieved 4217 points; the A1 scored 4249. AnTuTu showed similar results, too, with the Mi 5X recording 62897 and the Mi A1 60213.
We use GFXBench for testing graphics (onscreen), and the two phones ran the three higher-intensity tests in parallel, recording 4fps in Car Chase, 6fps in Manhattan 3.1 and 10fps in Manhattan. The Mi A1 stole the lead in T-Rex, the least-intensive of the benchmarks, with 22fps against the Mi 5X’s 18fps. Both are playable framerates.
Putting those figures into perspective, performance is about on par with other phones you might have heard of such as the Asus ZenFone 4, Moto Z2 Play, Xiaomi Mi Max 2, Moto G5 Plus and Honor 6X.
Xiaomi Mi A1 cameras and photography
The Mi A1 and Mi 5X feature a dual-camera at the rear that protrudes slightly from the chassis. We don’t love this design, but it is necessary for the phones to come in at just 7.3mm – insanely slim for a mid-range Android. To the left of this setup is a dual-tone flash, and at the front is a 5Mp selfie camera.
Both rear cameras are rated at 12Mp, combining wide-angle and telephoto lenses to deliver on photography. There’s a 2x optical zoom, phase-detection autofocus, 1.25um pixels and the ability to record 4K video.
Despite the differing software, the camera apps are the same. Portrait mode is easily accessible from the top of the interface, allowing you to take advantage of the second lens to blur the background and make your subject stand out. Also here is an option to turn on or off HDR, and to configure the flash.
Below the preview window you’ll see options to access various filters and shooting modes, and to turn the camera view to face you. At the very bottom are links to the gallery and to switch between stills and video.
We were very impressed with the dual-camera given decent lighting, and on a sunny day in London it was capable of some great results. Colours are very natural, the image is sharp right to the edges, and detail is excellent – to the extent that we can make out individual bricks and the road name at street-level on a building across the road from our seventh-floor roof terrace.
We also tried out the HDR mode, which did a fine job here in lighting up the shadows.
In low light we weren’t wowed in quite the same way. Although text remains mostly sharp and contrast is well handled, colours lack vibrancy and some noise is introduced.
Let’s not forget this is a circa-£200 phone, though. In that respect it’s difficult to find fault with the camera.
Xiaomi Mi A1 software
Software is the most important difference between Xiaomi Mi A1 and Xiaomi Mi 5X, and it’s what makes the Xiaomi Mi A1 an exciting prospect for UK users.
The fact that it’s labeled as an Android One phone rather than an Android phone will likely confuse UK users. In terms of real-world usage they are the same, although technically they are different.
Whereas Android is an operating system that runs on the vast majority of phones you might buy on the UK High Street, Android One is a standard.
Android One was created primarily for customers in the developing world as a way of ensuring a phone’s experience meets Google’s requirements and in the cheapest way possible. A hardware design is available to reduce R&D costs if required, while Google delivers the operating system and security updates.
The key point for the Mi A1 is the software, since Xiaomi does not need to bother itself with the issues of maintaining the Mi A1’s operating system in the same way it does MIUI – you’ll find a huge community of MIUI users communicating in online forums, and Xiaomi does a great job keeping them informed.
Android One smartphones run stock Android with no modifications made by the manufacturer, which enables Google to deliver timely security updates – the manufacturer doesn’t need to design its own interface, and neither does it have to modify updates to work with said interface before they are passed to consumers.
Manufacturers can still add their own apps to Android One, but the software is otherwise left alone. It means you get a much purer Android experience overall. In our book, that’s a good thing – though it does mean some of the more useful add-ons applied by manufacturers will be missing here.
MIUI 8.5, which is the operating system running on the Mi 5X, is also based on Android but unrecognisably so. The Settings menu may as well have been turned upside down because everything’s in different places (there is a search bar to help you find stuff), and the app tray has been removed – everything spills out on to the home screen in a very iOS-esque fashion.
Depending on which model you buy Google Play services may not be preinstalled (it was not on our sample), though they can be added if you know what your way around an Android phone. That means potentially no Gmail, Google Contacts, Google Calendar and so on out of the box.
Instead you get Xiaomi’s own apps for all the same things. These work well, but if you don’t speak Chinese you’re unlikely to understand them or the notifications they pop up. Many – but not all – of these apps can be uninstalled.
Extra features you’ll get with MIUI include the Themes store, which lets you change the appearance of the software; Second space, which lets you create a separate area on your phone and fence it off from other users; Dual apps, which let you run two instances of the same app; and handy features such as a One-handed mode and Quick ball, with the latter placing onscreen a quick-access shortcut to lock the screen, take a screenshot and so on.
While these features are useful, we’d still prefer the cleaner approach offered by the Mi A1 and Android One – and the idea of timely security updates appeals no end.