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Xiaomi Mi A3 review: What a missed opportunity

I’ve always liked smartphones that run on stock Android. They’re clean, fast, and you generally get OS updates on your smartphone from Google for at least 2 years, which is great. Barring Google officially releasing a Pixel in Malaysia—which isn’t likely to happen anytime soon—some of the best pure Android options are Android One smartphones.

And that’s what makes the Xiaomi Mi A3 such an interesting smartphone to me. Xiaomi has always made great value-for-money smartphones, although they’re arguably inhibited by the MIUI skin that’s layered on their Android phones. And if you couple that with Android One, the Mi A3 is theoretically one of the strongest mid-range propositions around.

So what’s new? For a start, they’ve packed a large battery in the Mi A3, added an in-display fingerprint scanner, and you now have a decent triple-camera rear setup on the phone—offering a good degree of versatility for your mobile photography needs.

The display, meanwhile, is a Super AMOLED screen—but with a caveat, which I’m pretty sure you’re already aware of. And for pricing, at least in Malaysia, the Mi A3 is also significantly cheaper than the price of its predecessor at launch.

As a fan of stock Android smartphones, I’ll be honest: I had some pretty high expectations for the Xiaomi Mi A3. But the thing about expectation is that it often leads to disappointment. And if we’re talking about the Mi A3, I think that rings very true.

Design and Build

My first impression of the Mi A3 is this: it looks, and feels, like a premium device. I know that “feel” is a pretty subjective term, but it certainly feels good in the hand—in contrast with some other sub-RM1,000 devices. A glass back doesn’t hurt, although there isn’t wireless charging capability.

Xiaomi says that it’s Gorilla Glass 5 on the back as well as the screen, so the display should be reasonably durable. That said, glass is still prone to scratches, as well as fingerprints, so you’d be best advised to keep the Mi A3 in a case if you’re the type to keep your smartphone in pristine condition (like me).

With many other smartphone makers altogether ditching expandable storage on their mid-range devices (like the much-lauded Mi 9T), it’s nice to see that you can still use a microSD card to expand your storage via a hybrid SIM tray on the Mi A3. And Xiaomi has kept things simple with a water-drop notch instead of messing about with something like a motorised pop-up camera, which I really don’t have a problem with.

However, the camera bump on the back of the phone protrudes quite a bit, which is a concern when chucking the phone down on hard surfaces. There’s also an IR blaster, and Xiaomi has thankfully retained a headphone jack on the Mi A3.

On the front of the device, the bezels aren’t that thick, although there is a slightly large chin at the bottom. To me, the curved corners of the display appear to eat into screen real estate—reminiscent of the Pocophone F1. 6.088 inches don’t make for a small display, but little details like that did affect my viewing experience with the Mi A3.

The display: A compromise I’m not sure I like

As a fan of AMOLED displays on smartphones, I’ll say that I was hugely excited that the Mi A3 utilises a Super AMOLED display—something that used to be reserved for more expensive devices. Deeper blacks, better contrasts, and personally, I just find them way nicer to look at. But here’s the catch: it only has a HD+ resolution.

1560×720 pixels, to be exact, with about 282 ppi on the display. That’s pretty low by today’s standards, and it definitely shows if you look at the screen really closely, or if you have the Mi A3 side-by-side with a Full HD device. However, it has a decent contrast ratio, and I had no issues with sunlight visibility, even with auto brightness turned on.

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But the drawbacks of a low resolution screen are still readily apparent in certain scenarios. Browsing the web and reading text makes this rather obvious thanks to the scaling of the text on the 720p screen. It’s also fairly noticeable when watching videos—Netflix, YouTube, or whatever your medium of choice is. The Mi A3 is Widevine L1 certified, however, which basically means that it doesn’t have any issues with HD (and above) playback on DRM-encrypted videos like Netflix.

But that’s not to say it’s a bad display. Some may argue that 720p versus 1080p on such a small display hardly matters, and it’s just a matter of getting used to. And that’s true, to an extent. Some users won’t be too bothered by the 720p display—but personally, I found it a sub-par. Comparing it to a smartphone with a Full HD+ display, the difference was night and day.

This is probably due to a desire on Xiaomi’s part to include an in-display fingerprint scanner, which they’ve only included on AMOLED screens in the past. And perhaps having Full HD+ resolution on top of that would have increased the cost of the device a fair bit. But is having an in-display fingerprint scanner worth compromising a Full HD+ display? Not for me.

The day-to-day: Generally good, with a few hiccups

I can’t complain about the performance from the Snapdragon 665 powering the Mi A3 (mated to 4GB of RAM). It’s snappy for a mid-range device, although smartphones with more powerful chipsets like the Mi 9T Pro still feel significantly faster. I didn’t experience any noticeable lagging or crashes in the month or so that I spent with the device either.

I also loved the stock Android experience, to be honest. I have just one complaint. I’m used to using fullscreen gesture navigation on my smartphones, and it’s a tad disappointing that stock Android doesn’t offer that.

Still, stock Android may or may not be to your taste. It’s an experience that I would describe as raw, which may come off as a little naked to some of you that prefer more added features within the user interface. But generally speaking, you’re looking at a smoother, cleaner experience.

I didn’t have any issues with regular phone calls, or 4G connectivity around the Klang Valley with the Mi A3. But I ran into a curious issue mid-way through my review process—Wi-Fi. On my Wi-Fi network at home, the connection repeatedly dropped throughout the day, to the extent that it was unusable. Strangely enough, this problem couldn’t be replicated at the office, or on other networks.

A quick Google search, however, showed me that other Mi A3 users have experienced similar issues. It seems that wireless networks that are set on the WPA2-PSK [AES] protocol cause issues for the Mi A3, and there doesn’t seem to be a real fix for this—other than to switch your Wi-Fi protocol to OPEN, or to WPA-PSK [TKIP]. Perhaps this only affects a small number of units, so if you’re using a Mi A3, do share your experience in the comments below.

Audio-wise, the Mi A3 has really, really loud volume for a single speaker device. I wasn’t expecting stereo speakers—not at this price point—but I was pleasantly surprised by how loud the sound was. The impressive volume, however, comes with a caveat. If you use headphones, or a pair of Bluetooth speakers, you’ll notice that there’s a fair bit of distortion when the volume is turned all the way up.

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Mostly, this affected me when I had the phone hooked up to my car’s Bluetooth system, so a quick fix is to set the Mi A3’s volume at around 75%, and to increase the volume of the sound system I was using instead. It appears that Xiaomi has pushed the max output of the speakers past its limit, which is fine if you’re using the smartphone’s built-in speakers, but sounds pretty garbled on a pair of headphones or speakers.

The in-display fingerprint scanner is pretty reliable—but that’s probably the only good thing I can say about it. I didn’t get too many errors, but the phone took ages to unlock once my fingerprint had been scanned. It’s worth noting that we’ve experienced similarly-slow unlock times for fingerprint scanners on stock Android phones in the past, so perhaps it’s a software issue here.

Battery life: Solid enough for a full day

The Mi A3 has pretty solid battery life, as I expected—this is probably due to a combination of the 4,030mAh battery, 720p AMOLED display, and Snapdragon 665. In general, I experienced around 5-6 hours of screen-on time, and for most days, the fully-charged Mi A3 lasted me until the beginning of the next day.

That’s including using the phone to take pictures, navigate with Waze/Grab, watch Netflix, as well as regular messaging on WhatsApp.

Using the charger in the box for a charging test, the Mi A3 took 30 minutes to get to 31%, while fully charging the phone took around 2 hours and 14 minutes, which is pretty slow by today’s standards.

That’s because the Mi A3 only comes with a 10W charger in the box, but it’s worth noting that fast-charging is supported—up to 18W. If you decide to buy an 18W charger separately, you can trickle-charge the already impressive battery on the Mi A3 to get the device to last till the end of a second day.

Camera performance: Versatile, but nothing amazing

For a mid-range smartphone, the photography capabilities of the Mi A3 aren’t too bad. It’s a triple-camera setup at the rear: a 48MP main shooter, an 8MP ultra wide-angle lens, and a 2MP depth sensor. For the main camera, the Sony IMX586 delivers pretty decent photos, and the wide-angle shooter offers a level of versatility that I certainly appreciate.

If I had to complain, I do wish that Xiaomi included a telephoto lens with the Mi A3; I go for a lot of media events, and I regularly found myself wishing I had some level of optical zoom for those photo opportunities where I was just a little too far to snap a decent photo. A depth sensor should offer a better bokeh effect, I suppose, but I’d trade that for a telephoto lens any day of the week.

In well-lit environments, the Mi A3’s camera more than holds its own. Pictures are generally crisp, and details are well captured. As mentioned earlier, the depth sensor ensures that the bokeh effect is pretty pronounced, and shots taken in Portrait mode look good.

The AI enhancement is more of a personal preference option, to be honest. The photos tend to be a little over-saturated, and I’d much rather edit the images separately. On one occasion, having AI turned on seemed to distort the face of a person I was taking a photo of in a poorly-lit room, but that could be just a bug as it only happened once.

Once you start taking photos in low-light conditions, however, things start to go south. The camera’s Night mode tries to brighten things up, and yes, visibility is certainly improved—but the photos tend to get a whole lot noisier.

This isn’t new, but the MIUI camera app really isn’t the best out there—far from it, to be honest. It takes ages to snap a photo, and as mentioned, the AI mode doesn’t always have the best results. When trying to take consecutive photos, it’s a pretty frustrating experience due to the lag-time in between photos.

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The 32MP selfie camera, meanwhile, does a decent enough job. That said, I’m not really the most avid taker of selfies, but edge detection is pretty accurate, and in good lighting conditions, it’s certainly up to par.

Overall, I’d say that the camera performance of the Mi A3 is adequate, if not amazing, and in good, forgiving environments, the photos are fairly good. No (optical) zoom capabilities, and relatively poor software hold it back, unfortunately.

Verdict: Held back by a critical flaw

The entire time that I had the Mi A3 with me, one thing kept springing to mind—what a missed opportunity this was. The fundamentals are there. It has some really great specs: a solid enough SoC under the hood, a versatile camera setup paired with a decent front-facer for selfies, and of course, the Android One experience. Throw in a Super AMOLED display, and it seems like the Mi A3 is ready to go head-to-head with some of the better mid-rangers in the market.

But as the title of this section suggests, the Mi A3 is held back by one critical flaw. The HD+ display, while certainly not a bad display, simply isn’t up to par—resolution-wise—to many of its main competitors in the market. And using the phone as a daily driver, it certainly hampered my overall experience.

Personal preferences aside, however, I do think that there are users who won’t find the low resolution display to be a deal-breaker. It has great contrasts, superb colour, decent viewability under the sun, and you also get an in-display fingerprint scanner, although that’s a little slow for my liking.

I’ll also say that the Mi A3 is one of the more premium-feeling devices within the mid-range market. Plus you get fast-charging support, USB-C, and expandable storage, all at a reasonable price—RM899 for the variant with 64GB of storage and RM999 for 128GB of storage.

However, given the highly competitive mid-range segment that it sits in, I feel that the Mi A3 only really appeals to more avid fans of the stock Android experience. If you don’t care for stock Android, you could also be looking at phones like the Redmi Note 8. Or, for a little more cash, you could even consider the Redmi Note 8 Pro and the Realme 5 Pro. All three of these phones, of course, have Full HD+ displays.

Even though I’m someone who likes the stock Android experience, I just can’t look past the fact that the Mi A3 only has a HD+ display. Frankly speaking, it’s simply not a compromise I’m willing to make.

And that’s a great shame, to be honest. Everything else aside, I think that if the Mi A3 had a Full HD+ Super AMOLED display, we’d be talking about a seriously good mid-range smartphone. I can’t deny that I’m really disappointed that something with so much potential has fallen short. I mean it’s not too much to expect a mid-range smartphone in 2019 to have a Full HD+ display, right?

Heck, bump the price up by one or two hundred Ringgit, include a 1080p display, and the Mi A3 would be an absolute winner in my book. But until then, it will remain a missed opportunity.

Photography by Zachary Yoong with the Sony A7 III.