Monday, 11 November 2019
Xiaomi Mi A3
The first clear advantage of the latest model is the Samsung AMOLED screen over the previous models, which housed LCD panels. This makes a huge difference in many ways, as we know. They went back and forward with microSD Card support, now putting it back and the SD600-series chipset has improved by steps, now settling on 665 from 625 and 660. RAM has stayed at 4GB on this unit but there is a 6GB and 128GB storage model out there for the A3, but this one is 64GB. The (becoming standard) 48MP-to-12MP camera setup is added over previous units with simple 12MP - and the 2x optical zoom of the A1 has been replaced with a wide-angle in the A3, both skipping the A2! Again, they've fiddled about with 3.5mm audio-out sockets, first yes, then no, now yes again - all these changes seem to have been a reaction to current trends with the A2 really missing out on most. Anyway, here we are with the latest, so let's see what it's about.
It's a very attractive phone firstly, though in the mould of a thousand-and-one others, being a GG5 sandwich with plastic frame. The More Than White version I have here is glossy and looking like Pearl White with a hint of shimmering rainbow colours as its moved, reflecting various light sources. The back curves round the edges to meet the frame, unlike the front panel, which is flat. Feels great in the hand, just the right size (for me) in hand and pocket, whilst giving a big enough screen to be useful for ageing eyes! Feels solid and well made.
The Box and Tour
In the box there's a clear TPU case which, bizarrely, when in place does not protect the camera island on the back. When placed directly onto a surface it touches, asking for dents and scratches. I got a cheap one from Amazon for a fiver and it's much better. Good for them to include one, bad for them not making it properly! The back is set up 'camera' style with an emphasis on landscape with logo and writing that way, alongside the three-lens camera lump and LED flash. It looks classy and reflects a quality way above the price-point. There's a SIM Card Tray on the left side, which is very stiff in use, good and bad, and when opened reveals cavities for either 2 NanoSIM Cards or one and a microSD Card. Strangely, used in the latter formation, the phone considers the primary SIM to be No.2 slot! On the other side, there's a power button and volume rocker which are very clicky, but the plastic doesn't feel particularly premium, unlike the rest of the phone. Up the top we have a 3.5mm audio-out socket and the bottom, a USB-C port and single mono speaker. The bottom is arranged iPhone style from a couple of years ago - and now many others - with a fake grille the other side of the USB-C. On the front, there's a teardrop notch for the Selfie Cam and speaker for calls in a sliver at the top. There's a little bit of chin at the bottom, but really not much.
Many thanks go to Mike Warner for sending this unit over for review, he having imported it from Europe, though it is the Global version. The only evidence of being non-UK is a euro-plug and UK adapter supplied in the outer box. He was able to source this for an amazing £115 from Europe, though for those who want a formal UK route, AmazonUK are selling at £185 as I write. There's nothing much else in the box - a pokey-hole tool and a USB-A to USB-C cable, 10W charging plug and that TPU. The phone supports 18W QC3, but for that you'll need your own plug.
AndroidOne, No Bloat
The Mi A-series are part of the AndroidOne programme and having played with some Xiaomi phones recently which are not, this really makes a huge difference. In many ways it's like any other AndroidOne phone - that's a good thing! Clean and neat version of Android which ensures that the owner knows exactly where they are, guaranteed two versions of Android going forward, so this, being supplied on Pie will be expecting Android 10 and 11 - and three years of Security Updates from Google, ensuring life expectancy to at least summer 2022. As I switched on, in the first week of November, October 2019 Security was offered and so downloaded and installed. It also ensures a pretty much bloat-free experience, unlike non-AndroidOne. As for Motorola models under the same banner, there are some manufacturer's so-called useful additions. Here, we have preinstalled Mi Community and Mi Store apps (which can both be fully uninstalled) and in Settings there's a menu item called Mi Services, within which there are toggles to be a part of the User Experience Programme and to send Xiaomi Diagnostics. These can both be switched off, but the menu item can't be removed. This phone had been bought via AliExpress and there was also an app of theirs installed, but can easily be uninstalled, leaving no apparent trace.
Performance, Storage, Connectivity
The clean vanilla feel of Android continues as we observe the bog-standard Pie Navigation two-button approach with nothing in Settings to change that to anything else. Google Feed cards are available to the left of the Homescreen, though can be turned off. The Notification area is pure vanilla Android and Dark Mode is rolling out to various Google Apps in the same way as it is over the current weeks for other AndroidOne devices. Under the bonnet there's a Snapdragon 665 chipset with 4GB RAM. There is a 6GB RAM version out there somewhere but in terms of task-switching this feels perfectly good with a clean version of AndoidOne. To be honest, this is not the fastest chipset out there and now and then I notice a task taking a little longer than I'm used to on flagships, but this is getting picky. It's perfectly good and the vast majority of people wouldn't notice. I won't bang on again about 128GB minimum but instead, firstly remind myself of the price of this phone - and second that there's a microSD Card slot. I've tested that with my 512GB microSD Card and it plays perfectly well. I've also tested my 2TB Extreme SSD (FAT32) in the USB-C port and again, that works perfectly well, reading and writing quickly enough to use for data. I tested it for HDMI-Out, but sadly, no go. The aerials are all very good, WiFi, GPS, BT and Cellular. On test calls in various locations which have challenged in the past, it does well, holds a call, sounds good and loud, no breakup or drops.
The screen is indeed Super AMOLED and 6.1" with a ratio of 19.5:9 but is 'only' 720p. This produces 286ppi which for those ticking boxes will stick in the throat. For me, given that it's AMOLED particularly, I think it doesn't matter. It's amazing enough to even get an AMOLED panel at this price, we shouldn't be quibbling about the resolution when with my 50+ year-old eyes, it looks just fine. I have looked at photos, closed in on text on the screen and it looks perfectly sharp and clean to me. As usual, younger eyes may think differently - so that will save us old fogies cash! As I said, there is a teardrop notch for the camera but it doesn't intrude far, remaining very subtle. The screen goes right up the top apart from that and there's a small chin. I think that aids use of navigation controls with thumb-space. The screen is not particularly bright at 363nits and auto-brightness does tend to end up at 80%+ when checked to see what it's up to, even indoors. The biggest hit is when you manually drop it to, say 50%, which I've done here against my Nokia 8 Sirocco and at 50% the Xiaomi is much more dull than the Nokia. The colours are bright enough though, which is a good thing as there is no way in Settings to control how they look. The default values have clearly been worked out for generic use and they're fine. Heading outside into bright sunshine, which we happen to have here today, it remains usable at 100% but you wouldn't want it any less than that to continue using the phone.
Always On Display
What we don't get here is an Always on Display. It just isn't part of the AndroidOne setup and those which have it (various Nokia phones, for example) have been added by the manufacturer. Xiaomi has not done this - and like Motorola, rely on the phone being woken up to see anything. However! This is an AMOLED, so enter the Always On AMOLED app! This works perfectly and is very highly recommended. There's all sorts of toggles, options and switches inside it to personalise and make it work just how wanted - it even emulates Samsung's Edge Lighting superbly. This completely plugs the gap and transforms the phone in this useful respect. If you choose not to do that, then you're routinely looking at a black screen. If you nudge it or lift it, the under-glass optical fingerprint scanner target pops up but double-tapping the screen doesn't get you further. Press the power button at that stage and you get the (sleeping) AndroidOne lock-screen with a quick flash of Notifications across the screen in cards, which can be viewed in-situ but some sort of unlocking is needed to drill down further to the content.
This brings us to that Fingerprint Scanner and Face Unlock. If you lift the phone with just the fingerprint scanner target on the screen (as described above) the Face Unlock doesn't work. In order to execute the Face Unlock you have to press the power button. However, there are settings inside Always On AMOLED to bypass this and enable Face Unlock as soon as you lift the phone and face it. Why wouldn't you install this app?! The Face Unlock registration is frighteningly fast, even for me with full beard - bit of a worry about security there, some might say. In use, it works as quickly as Moto's, so no complaints. The Fingerprint Scanner registration is simple, quick and straightforward. Once in use, it's amazingly fast and accurate. I might even say that this is the best implementation of an under-glass optical scanner that I have used as yet. Very encouraging and reassuring.
The bottom-firing mono speaker is clear and loud. Far from the best in terms lows or highs but very happy in the middle. It is better than many out there but doesn't challenge the Big Boys in this respect for quality. Certainly bedroom/kitchen-filling volume, if not quite lounge. Most users will be perfectly happy for basic use for music, video and spoken word. There's no system-wide sound equaliser function, so users will have to rely on their apps for that. I have been able to do so and adjust up for some more bass without hitting the volume too badly. There's no stereo of course so best use headphones for watching visual media.
Talking of which, there's none in the box, but there is a 3.5mm audio-out socket. Plugging in my usual reference headphones I can report that the basic output is actually not bad. Much louder than many I have tried and a more active bass response. I was surprised. No sound is possible out of the USB-C port so any enhanced dongles need to be 3.5mm. Most users will be more than happy with the headphone output as-is though.
Bluetooth 5 is here supporting aptX HD, pairing is very quick, easy and reliable and the output sound is quite stunning, depending on receiving equipment of course. Again, very impressive at this price-point. There's even a basic FM Radio app bundled which works very well indeed, either with headphones or plugging something into the 3.5mm audio-out as aerial, then speakers. Seems to lock onto stations well in my neck of the woods and produces an excellent sound. There's no recording function in the app, which I know some folk need. Whether or not the FM Radio is bundled in the UK version of this phone, I don't know. I'm also not quite sure why there's a headphones icon in the Notification area until a reboot even after I've shut off all media apps and disconnected headphones! Probably a bug.
The battery installed is a tad over 4000mAh, which is great for the size of the phone. That's the same as the whacking great big Razer Phone! Using the supplied slow charger it takes well over 2 hours to fill but with a QC3-compatible, more like an hour and a half. There's no wireless charging here on offer but I can confirm that my Qi Receiver works perfectly well overnight (as long as the user doesn't want to spoil the look of the attractive phone's back)! As for performance, I usually do two tests, my 10% reading/general use test and my average-day-for-me test. Not clinical or technical, but I can at least apply a level playing field for all devices I test.
The 10% reading/general use test is up against the currently leading 1hr 46min of the Google Pixel 2XL and... we have a new champion with 2hrs 6mins! Amazing! Driving the lower resolution screen, AndroidOne and economic chipset I guess has enormous benefits in terms of SoT and general usage in the hand. Next up, the average-day-for-me test and it passes with flying colours on my short 2/3 days in use. We're looking at sneaking through to two full days for those who don't push boundaries, so if you're careful, a charge every second night. Otherwise, the exceptional performance is returning me 40+ hours with 7-9hrs SoT in my usual test. Maybe even more if one doesn't have Always On AMOLED running, though again, in my tests here, that doesn't seem to have much impact. It's another box ticked here with excellent returns.
There are three cameras on offer here, although one of them is really just a 2MP f2.4 depth-sensor supporting for Portrait DoF and there's no sign of OIS anywhere. The main normal-angle camera is what is almost becoming the standard 48MP f1.8 Quad Bayer shooter producing 12MP shots and the second, an 8MP f2.2 wide-angle. There's a 32MP f2 Selfie camera round the front which does indeed shoot (what I consider to be) nice sharp photos of one's mug using the full 32MP on the sensor!
The camera app is clearly Xiaomi's own and it has that feel and design language about it. In some ways it's pretty basic (with more emphasis on AI, letting the camera's software decide for the user) for example the 'Picture quality' settings are either High, Standard or Low, not quoting MP or choice of ratio (though this can be done elsewhere). You can assign the Volume buttons as a Shutter release and even change metering mode between average, centre-weighted and spot and force a 48MP full use of the sensor! So mixed messages there I think between appealing to the novice and expert! There's a Straighten function ensuring shots of buildings and the like are taken 'upright'. The Night Mode seems to work really well in testing here for when there's no alternative, the camera forcing the user to stay still while it does its thing. Yes, of course it's not a perfect picture with no noise, but what do you expect in darkness! It's physics!
Portrait Mode has a manual live-slider, making use of that third lens and even reads out the degree as an aperture value. There's filters on-the-fly to apply and even a Pro Mode in which the two main cameras can be adjusted for various shooting parameters. Close focus in Pro gets pretty close but not as close as using the Zoom Slider on 2x magnification. This is digital, but for (approaching) Macro shots it works really well and will focus at about 5" filling about a quarter of the frame with a microSD Card, for example.
Most people will be encouraged to just turn on AI and be done with it. This performs well and makes intelligent decisions about what a person is shooting. As I always say, the camera in most phones will meet the needs of 98% of people not worried about peeping at pixels for purity.
I have resisted saying "for the price" too often here, but I wanted to more! This phone with AndroidOne onboard is absolutely fine for such a huge percentage of people. You have to look and ask yourself why on earth anyone would pay £1000+ for a flagship phone when one of these can be bought for one-tenth of that price. And ask yourself what's missing. You could argue about IP ratings and Qi Charging and S-Pens and optical zoom and a few other bits - but you can get TEN of these for one Note 10+ and Co. There's nothing wrong with this Xiaomi phone and it performs more like a upper mid-range phone than a £115 budget one. Even if you take the mainstream UK price of £185, you can still buy five of them for the price of a Note 10+ et al with enough left over to buy a slap-up meal for four at Mrs Miggins Pie Shop! Armed with this beauty, you'll want for very little more and save a shed-load of cash! Xiaomi are getting aggressive and taking over The West! Available now in Kind of Gray, Not Just Blue and this, More than White. Do yourself a favour.
I neglected to investigate NFC properly in the above. I assumed that because the Google Pay app loaded and as I was presented with a picture of my Debit Card in the usual way, I assumed also that I could use the phone for payments. Turns out that's not the case and there's no NFC functionality on the phone, which takes payments out of the equation. It's impossible for me to hook my bank up with every phone I review, so had not done that, but should have checked that the phone had the capability. Depending on how important that is to you, and again, considering the price of this phone, this will obviously affect any buying decision.
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