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The Mi A2 is a balancing act Xiaomi almost perfected

I feel like a broken record when I say that the Xiaomi Mi A1 was just one of those devices where the stars aligned. Great hardware, great software, great price tag, great smartphone. It was a winning combination, but a combination built on a delicate balance.

And phones like that can be hard to follow up because it’s easy to over-correct and upset the balance that made the first phone so good. Still, Xiaomi forged ahead and what we have today is a brand new smartphone called the Mi A2. The only question now is: Has Xiaomi balanced this phone correctly?

My short answer to that question is: Almost. You see, one way to not muck up a smartphone upgrade cycle — even one that’s all about trade-offs and balance — is to upgrade everything about the smartphone. And you can tell that’s kind of what Xiaomi went for here.

When we first saw the Mi 6X, which we knew based on past experiences would become the Mi A2 when it left China, we were impressed. That much hasn’t changed with the Mi A2’s official launch.

This affordable mid-range device features an upper-mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor at its heart, mated to up to 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage (not-expandable). Compared to the A1, the A2 is almost in another class.

Unsurprisingly, in the brief time that I’ve got to spend with the device, performance is stellar. Swiping around the stock Android 8.1 Oreo UI is delightfully smooth and snappy. Granted, I haven’t loaded my test unit with my applications yet, but I am happy to report that the phone comes with practically zero bloatware. No un-uninstallable Facebook, Messenger and Instagram here!

Xiaomi also upped the ante in the photography department, packing the Mi A2 with a new set of dual cameras. This time, they’ve ditched the Zoom and Wide setup for two sensors with identical focal lengths and f/1.75 apertures. The main sensor is a 12MP one with relatively large 1.25-micron pixels, while the secondary is a 20MP sensor with smaller 1-micron pixels.

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However, this secondary sensor is capable of 4-in-1 pixel binning, so it can combine four pixels into one big 2-micron pixel (you can toggle this in Manual mode) that will theoretically give you better low-light performance.

Of course, if you don’t understand any of that tech jargon, that won’t matter to you. The only thing that matters is if the phone can take good photos. And during my brisk walk around Madrid, I have to say that the Mi A2 performed admirably.

Photos I snagged looked great, with what I would classify as “good” dynamic range (Auto HDR), colour and sharpness. I even tried out Portrait Mode on a couple of inanimate objects and the results were pretty decent too.

That said, when you’re shooting the gorgeous city of Madrid close to the golden hour with clear blue skies, it’s hard to end up with awful photos. The real test will be how this phone handles low-light, with its absence of optical image stabilisation, so I’ll definitely put the handset through its paces for my full review.

I also took a selfie with the 20MP f/2.2 selfie shooter that now supports portrait mode too.

For now at least, I think the Mi A2’s camera is definitely an upgrade over the A1. It’s also really snappy, focuses and snaps quickly enough for a smartphone camera.

Next on Xiaomi’s list of upgrades comes the smartphone’s display. Gone are the really fat bezels and in its place you’ll find a 5.99-inch Full HD+ LCD display, pushing a resolution of 2160×1080 pixels. For the most part, it’s a serviceable screen, but I was disappointed to find that you can’t see anything on the screen when you’re holding the phone in portrait if you’re wearing polarised sunglasses.

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This is the same problem I had with the Redmi Note 5 and I am sad that this continues to the Mi A2 too. Luckily, this phone now uses on-screen buttons so the layout has the back button on the left, which I always believed was the correct side.

But that’s not all because the last and final significant upgrade Xiaomi gave the Mi A2 is the first thing you’ll notice when you pick the phone up — its new aluminium unibody. I always thought the Mi A1’s body felt a little on the cheap side (the back panel flexes if you press on it), and I was happy to find that the Mi A2’s new shell feels much more premium.

This is a phone that will probably retail for just over RM1,000 (when it launches in Malaysia) but I would say that its body is comparable to something like the OnePlus 5T, which is a RM2,000+ smartphone at launch.

However, this new upgraded body and design is also what I believe to be the cause of my biggest problem with the Xiaomi Mi A2. You see, when they went for this new body, Xiaomi also obsessed with making the phone slim. And they succeeded, because the device is just 7.3mm thick. However, with thin body comes small battery and that was something even Xiaomi couldn’t overcome.

As a result, the Mi A2 only features a 3,000 mAh cell which is pretty small by today’s standards. Of course, they claim that the phone will still give you a full-day battery life, but only a full review can give that statement any real credence.

And honestly, I would still want a bigger battery even if the Mi A2 could give me a “full-day” battery life. Because if they can do that with a 3,000 mAh cell, imagine what they could do with a 4,000 mAh cell. I would gladly trade some thinness for a 4,000 mAh cell.

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I guess the silver lining here is that the Mi A2 supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 fast-charging technology and it charges via USB Type C. Unfortunately, Xiaomi also couldn’t find space — or didn’t want to — for a 3.5mm headphone jack. Bummer.

If you want the headphone jack and a 4,000 mAh cell, the only Mi A2 that has that is the more affordable Mi A2 Lite. However, if you opt for that phone, you’ll have to make do with a less powerful Snapdragon 625 processor, a cheaper-feeling metal body with plastic caps on both ends, and charging your phone via microUSB with no fast-charging support.

Also, its cameras aren’t as good and it has a smaller 5.84-inch notched display. But it is a cheaper phone.

All things considered, while I don’t like some of Xiaomi’s design choices on the Mi A2 — small battery, no headphone jack — I will admit that Xiaomi has done a good job with this upgrade, at least as far as first impressions go. Xiaomi’s managed to find a pretty good balance between keeping what we liked about the Mi A1, while also upgrading a lot of the key features on the Mi A2 without sacrificing anything too significant.

However, don’t take this as our final judgement because that will be reserved for the full review with proper battery tests, daily usage and all that good stuff. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Mi A2. Is it what you hoped it would be?

Let me know in the comments below.

UPDATE: Mi A2 is officially priced from RM999. It will be available from 3 August 2018.