Xiaomi's Redmi phones have pretty much established themselves as the de-facto choices at nearly every price point in the budget space. The Chinese brand, once considered a tiny upstart, has consistently launched smartphones that deliver tremendous value for money and make their competitors look overpriced. We've repeatedly wondered how far Xiaomi can push this formula, and whether any other company will be able to come in and steal its thunder.
That has happened to some extent at the upper end of the low-cost market this year, with players including Asus, Oppo (and now its spin-off Realme), and Infinix launching disruptive models that have earned praise from us. The bottom end, though, is still where Xiaomi dominates. The brand new Redmi 6 models have been launched specifically to reinforce that position, and the Redmi 6A is the very lowest priced model of them all.
Starting at just Rs. 5,999 — though this is an "introductory price" — the Redmi 6A neatly replaces the Redmi 5A (Review) and brings just enough updates and new features to fend off newer competitors. Let's see what's new, and whether this phone is still the best choice for people on a shoe-string budget.
The first thing you'll notice about this phone is that Xiaomi has brought a fashionable 18:9 screen to the very bottom of its price ladder. The front of this phone is simple and plain, and when it's off, the front camera and earpiece are the only things that will indicate which way is up. The screen has very slightly rounded corners, which is a nice touch. You don't get a bezel-free look at this price and there's quite a bit of space to the top, bottom and sides of the screen, but the overall look is still fairly slick.
The body of the Redmi 6A is all plastic, which shouldn't come as any surprise. This phone is available in four colours — black, blue, gold, and rose gold. Our black review unit looked good, though some smudges did become apparent on the rear over the course of multiple days. There's a camera bump, but thankfully it isn't too noticeable. The body's curves and contours somewhat mask its 8.3mm thickness and make it very easy to live with. This phone weighs just 145g, which helps as well.
The power and volume buttons are on the right, and both are well within reach. On the left, there are two individual trays - one for a single Nano-SIM, and the other for another Nano-SIM and also a separate microSD card. You'll find a 3.5mm audio socket on the top and a Micro-USB port on the bottom, plus microphone pinholes next to both. The speaker is on the lower rear which means that your ringtone and alerts could be muffled when this phone is lying on a bed or other soft surface. There's no fingerprint reader — while we have seen phones with fingerprint readers at around this price level, Xiaomi has chosen other priorities.
There usually isn't much to get excited about in the budget market, but Xiaomi has found at least one little advantage to give its latest entry-level phone. Rather than the predictable Qualcomm 400-series, Xiaomi has switched to MediaTek's brand new Helio A22 (MT6762) processor. This marks the debut of a new Helio A-series branding scheme for MediaTek's entry-level offerings. The Helio A22 has four ARM Cortex-A53 cores running at up to 2GHz and is manufactured using a power-efficient 12nm process. This could give battery life a significant boost.
The Redmi 6A is available with either 16GB or 32GB of storage, and both variants have 2GB of RAM. Our review unit was the 16GB version, and we found that we had just under 10GB of usable space when setting it up. If you aren't planning to carry a lot of music and videos around with you, this much should be fine, but you'll need a microSD card otherwise, with cards of up to 256GB capacity supported.
The 18:9 screen measures 5.45 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 720x1440 pixels. Xiaomi has packed in a 3000mAh battery. The rear camera has a 13-megapixel sensor, f/2.2 aperture, and PDAF, while the front one has a 5-megapixel sensor. The Redmi 6A can use 4G data on either SIM. VoLTE HD is supported on only one SIM at a time, regardless of which slot it's in. There's also Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.2, and GPS. Interestingly, you get the standard ambient light and proximity sensors as well as a digital compass.
One of Xiaomi's defining smartphone features is its custom MIUI software, which has a vocal legion of fans. The Redmi 6A runs MIUI 9.6 which is based on Android 8.1. Our unit had already received the August 2018 Android security patch. There's no official word on any release timeframe for an update to Android 9.0 Pie. MIUI hasn't changed much over the years, and with stock Android One gaining popularity, it's beginning to show. We missed common features like the ability to long-press an app icon for quick shortcuts and notifications.
There's a lot of preloaded bloat and redundant apps, for example you have UC Browser, Chrome, and Xiaomi's own default browser. Facebook, Amazon, PhonePe, Netflix, Opera, and a few other third-party apps are preloaded, and several more are "promoted" right within the MIUI interface. The default Facemoji keyboard has a lot going on with emojis, stickers, GIFs, themes, and more. Then there are also Microsoft apps and assorted Mi utilities. The one big thing that immediately jumped out at us was the amount of advertising that's now baked into MIUI.
We saw a few spammy alerts from the Mi Apps store using peer-pressure tactics to try to make us download specific apps. Moreover, there were full-screen interstitial ads whenever we launched the Themes app or used the Storage Cleaner function within the Settings app, and there were ads in the Security app as well. Very few of these apps can be removed. Mi Music and Mi Video are also full of promotional content. There’s even spam in the Gallery app — sporadically, after playing a video clip we had recorded, we saw a screen of suggestions for Hungama videos.
We were extremely disappointed to see how much advertising there was. Much of it only became apparent after a few days of use, so it's possible that there's even more, deeper beneath the surface, waiting to jump out at users. If this is the tradeoff for low-cost phones, we wouldn't be surprised to see even hardcore Xiaomi fans gravitating towards stock Android.
That isn't to say that MIUI is all bad. It still has loads of features including Ui customisation options, the ability to clone apps, fine-grained display colour tone adjustment, useful gestures, and the ability to lock apps. There's face recognition, but Xiaomi warns that it might be defeated by a photo of you.
This is an entry-level phone, and we know that it isn't meant to be pushed too hard, but basic usage still needs to be smooth. Thankfully, we can say that the Redmi 6A — for the most part — was not frustrating to use. There was some lag when flipping through the task switcher or exiting from apps back to the home screen, but we could live with that. We also quickly learnt to avoid Xiaomi's Mi apps because the extra steps needed to dismiss ads all the time became too annoying.
On rare occasions, it took a second or two for many apps, including the basic Messaging app, to be usable after loading. You can hide the on-screen Android navigation buttons and use gestures instead, but we found that to be extremely slow. The keyboard was also a bit of a problem, but Google's Gboard is preloaded and ready to go as an alternative. MIUI is strained with with only 2GB of RAM, and we noted anywhere between 650MB and 1.2GB free during use.
The screen is good enough for watching videos and playing games on, and we had no major complaints in terms of vibrancy, colour reproduction, or viewing angles considering the price of this phone. The speaker on the back isn't very clear and music doesn't sound great, but voices in videos come through well enough.
Benchmark tests gave us pretty decent results. We got 61,053 in AnTuTu, and 765 and 2,306 respectively in Geekbench's single-core and multi-core tests. The 20fps score in GFXBench's T-Rex test shows that 3D games won't run all that well, but you should be able to play casual puzzle titles without any trouble. 3DMark's Ice Storm Extreme test gave us a score of 5,451 and the Slingshot test score was 453.
Xiaomi's phones have always surprised us with great performance in our HD video loop battery life test. The Redmi 6A ran for 13 hours, 22 minutes, thanks to its 3000mAh battery, the efficient SoC, and MIUI's optimisations. Our everyday usage consisted of a bit of light gaming and video streaming, and we comfortably made it through a 10-hour working day and the rest of the evening. If you don't use your phone for much more than calls, messages and social media, you should be able to stretch to a day and a half between charges. On the downside, a full charge from zero took us nearly three hours.
Camera quality is typically where low-cost phones struggle the most. The Redmi 6A is obviously not going to be ideal if you need great photos, but it should be enough for people who just want to share their lives through social media and messaging apps. Our sample shots came out looking relatively good with acceptable levels of detail and sharp focus. There are a few shots in which we could see that focus had not locked on the ideal spot, and small bright objects or parts of the frame did get blown out quite badly. Colours were generally bright and vibrant too.
At night, we definitely had to be careful about standing still and not shaking the phone, but shots were still fairly decent as long as there was a light source nearby. Areas in the shadows just came out looking completely black. One problem we found was that no matter what conditions we were shooting in, the Redmi 6A often took a full second or more to save a shot, leaving us waiting before we could take the next one.
Video recording goes up to 1080p but it is shaky and a little jerky with constant minor focus shifts. Video taken in bright sunlight looked a bit artificial and oversharpened. The front camera does a serviceable job but again, this is entry-level quality and nothing beyond that. The camera app has time-lapse and panorama modes. Nice touches include an auto HDR setting, an on-screen level overlay to help you frame shots, a tilt-shift filter, and multiple scene modes. There is a manual mode as well, and buried within the settings panel are a few options for exposure and metering control.
The Redmi 6A is a fairly good update to the Redmi 5A, which itself was barely any different compared to the Redmi 4A (Review). You now get a tall screen, better processor, and improved polish overall. However, the price has gone up — Rs. 5,999 is still very good, especially considering the recent slide in the Indian Rupee's exchange rate, but it isn't quite as tempting as the Redmi 5A was at Rs. 4,999. This is also just an "introductory" price, and we don't yet know how long it will last or what it will increase to after that.
With this generation, you get 2GB of RAM across the board, rather than 3GB with the 32GB storage variant. If you can spend a little more money and want to step up the ladder, chances are you'll find the 3GB/ 32GB Redmi 6, with its fingerprint sensor and better processor, the better choice. As for the competition, the Redmi 6A delivers a superior experience compared to the equally priced Coolpad Mega 5A (Review) and the more expensive Honor 7S (Review), and even if its price rises by Rs. 1,000, we think it will remain the better option.
MIUI has so far been very well received, and it is one of the most polished non-stock Android UIs we've seen. However, that goodwill can and will evaporate if Xiaomi continues pushing ads and spam like this. The company isn't competing with the likes of Intex and Micromax anymore, but with Android One and Android Go models. We hope that Xiaomi takes note before it's too late.
Are Redmi 6A and Redmi 6 the best budget smartphones in India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.