There is no shortage of affordable Android phones. ZTE and Motorola are bombarding the low end market with sub-$200 phones, but the trade off is an always-present compromise, whether it's a cheap build or bloated software, you get what you pay for.
Google is trying to change that with its Android One program—a way to get the purest form of Android on low-end smartphones.
One of the first manufacturing partners Google enlisted is Xiaomi, the Chinese manufacturer responsible for the Mi Mix and Mi 6. The first device as part of the partnership is the Mi A1, and it's the one of the best smartphones you can buy at just $250.
The Mi A1 is not like most budget phones. There is no plastic body or cheap display. You won't find sub-par specs or an odd design, and it isn't missing major features.
What you get with Mi A1 is a device with a premium design, impressive specs and agile software. It is a revelation in the low-end market that blows the competition away.
It's an iPhone clone
Speaking in relative terms of design, nothing about the Mi A1 stands out. Don't mistake that with it not having a premium design. The Mi A1 does, but it's a little uninspired. Its design is plainly boring; that's the easiest way to put it. Take a quick glance, and you'd swear it is an iPhone 7 Plus.
Xiaomi used the familiar aluminum unibody that you'll find in Apple's phablet, with similar front and back details. Everything from the vertical camera on the top left corner, to the rounded off antenna bands and even the big white bezels on the front, gives you the impression that this is very much trying to be an iPhone. It's pretty blatant on Xiaomi's part, but it understands people like iPhones, so why not make an Android version.
As much as the design feels boring, it feels every bit as premium. The shiny chamfered edge catches the eye, conjuring memories of the iPhone 5, while the cold body feels really good to hold.
The fingerprint scanner at the center of the back also adds to the premium aesthetic. Other perks you get with the Mi A1 is microSD expandability and dual SIM card support.
Android One works wonders
Before we tackle specs, you need to know more about Android One. Google calls Android One "the purest form of Android." It's an experience without the thrills of features Samsung, LG and even Google (with the Pixel) offer, but there's something to be appreciated about simplicity.
When going through the Android One software, you get the feeling that this is the stripped down version Google always envisioned with lower end phones that don't carry the most powerful specs.
One of the best conveniences of Android One is that it offers a similar experience to what Nexus phones offered in their heyday. Out of the box, the only apps pre-installed are all from Google. You won't fine random third-party keyboard apps or messaging services you uninstall right away.
There is only one maps app (Google Maps), one browser (Chrome) and one photos app (Google Photos). It is all Google, and that is very appreciated.
Quick and constant updates is another benefit of Android One. Google has already promised the Mi A1 will get Android Oreo by the end of the year, and that will be followed by timely updates. Xiaomi also stated the Mi A1 will be one of the first phones to receive Android P next year.
Limited specs don't feel so limited
Inside, Xiaomi didn't equip the Mi A1 with eye-popping specs, but they get the job done. The Snapdragon 625 processor and 4GB of RAM make the most of Android One and deliver a snappy experience. It might not boast the latest processor from Qualcomm, but its performance doesn't suffer from it.
Navigating through apps and the home screen is buttery smooth. There are no stutters or hiccups you may fear with a budget phone.
The 5.5-inch 1080p LCD display looks stunning. It's not something many other budget phones can brag about, but the Mi A1 can and does. Watching YouTube or Netflix on this screen is a great experience. Colors pop and there is plenty of detail to display on the high-res panel.
Powering all of this is a 3,080mAh battery that will last you all day. Google configured Android One to work as fast as possible while taking up as few resources as possible. That means the battery will last you all day, easily. I used it for watching video, scrolling through social media and looking up articles. Not the heaviest of use, but it lasted me through the day with plenty of power to spare.
Where Xiaomi did reach a little too far and fell short was with the 12MP dual camera. The dual wide-angle and telephoto lens system tries hard to mimic the iPhone's camera down to the way its software looks, but Xiaomi's software and hardware doesn't match Apple's implementation. The photos you get from it are washed out and not as crisp as what you'll get from an iPhone.
At $234, it is a steal
To sum it all up, Xiaomi's Mi A1 is a great phone. It doesn't push the boundaries with design and it doesn't have top of the line specs, but all of that is cancelled out with its price. It costs a paltry $234, or 15,000 Rupees. A myriad of sins can be forgiven at that price, and so the Mi A1's shortcomings turn into ignorable bumps on the road. Not that there were many.
The biggest downfall of the Mi A1 is that it isn't arriving in the US. It's primarily going to be sold in India as well as a few other countries, including some in Africa, Asia and Central America. You can still find it online in the US, but given you won't find it on Amazon or carrier stores, that does limit the Mi A1's appeal.
Regardless, the combination of solid specs, premium design and the versatility and benefits of Android One shine through with the Mi A1 impressively. If you are looking for a budget phone that has it all, take a real hard look at Mi A1.