So, what can a $100 smartphone do for you? The Xiaomi Redmi 4a is as cheap as they get, but it's a thin line between low-cost and just plain poor. With an LTE-capable Snapdragon chipset and a pretty decent 5" 720p screen, the Redmi 4a is on the right side of that line. Performance-wise however, it crosses it more than once.
Perhaps, in a broader sense, a package like the Xiaomi Redmi 4a allows us to reverse the proverbial point of diminishing returns. And in smartphone terms, it seems to be around the $120 mark.
Consider this: at $120, the regular Redmi 4 comes with an octa-core Snapdragon 430, a fingerprint scanner and fast battery charging - a pretty serviceable setup that gets you a few premium add-ons and doesn't rely on just four Cortex-A53s. Another $20 more can get you the Redmi 4 Prime or the all-popular Redmi Note 4.
And if the feeble chipset is not enough to convince you, the Redmi 4a cuts a few other major corners as well. Gone is phase detection autofocus on the main camera and so is 1080p video on the front. The Readmi 4a lost its fingerprint reader and a whopping 1,000mAh in battery capacity along with fast charging support.
That being said, it is worth looking at the bigger picture. At $120 and $140 or so, the Redmi 4 and Redmi Note 4 seem to hit the sweet spot, but that is not to say there is no more room left for cost optimization. On the contrary, Android Go is part of continued effort to make smartphones available and affordable in emerging markets. If an underequipped and underpowered Moto C is a good enough poster child, there can't be too much wrong with the Redmi 4a.
The fact of the matter is, most of Xiaomi's competitors aren't doing wonders either in the entry-level category. Meizu might be on to something with its "M" line. Priced at around $100, the regular Meizu M5 comes with a Mediatek MT6750 - no chart-topper for sure, but still an octa-core chip. Add a 5.2-inch HD panel, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, a 13MP PDAF-enabled main camera and a 3,070mAh battery to the mix and you have yourself some neck to neck competition. The M5s and M5 Note might be worth a look too against the rest of Xiaomi's Redmi line.
Frankly, beyond these two companies, viable options around the $100 point start to thin out. Lenovo has a few interesting devices in the "K" family, worth checking out. The K6 Power comes at a bit of a premium over the Xiaomi Redmi 4a, but a FullHD panel and octa-core chipset are just a couple of the things your money is going towards. Speaking of, the entry-level Moto C is just about starting to hit the shelves. Even in its 4,000mAh Plus variant though, it can't be recommended against the Redmi 4a - unless you want to stay below $100 and would never cross that under any circumstances.
Samsung's "J" and "On" series sit in pretty much the same boat. Devices, like the Galaxy J3 Pro and J5 (2016) do at least come with the benefit of a Super AMOLED screen. Once again, however, there is more value to be had with the octa-core Galaxy On8 or Galaxy On7 (2016), for a slightly higher price.
The Huawei Honor 5c is a strong budget choice as well. A 5.2-inch, FullHD panel and surprisingly powerful Kirin 650 chipset help it stand out. However, it currently retails at about $150 - a substantial 50% price premium over the Xiaomi Redmi 4a, which we even managed to spot for less than $90 online, while writing this review.
That said, we'll stop going in circles and leave you with this: you probably don't want a sub-$100 Android phone in 2017. Even if you're getting it free-on-contract - which you most likely will - it's always wise to at least check the offers in the next price bracket. If you're short on options or the budget is set in stone, you can do worse than the Xiaomi Redmi 4a. You can do better too - but be warned, the margin of error is pretty slim in the low end.
Editorial note: We're not cutting back on our regular full-size reviews, but this experimental shorter format will hopefully help us cover a broader range of devices. Our goal is to give you our impressions in a more concise manner without sacrificing much of the performance tests we usually run. Any feedback is welcome.
Special thanks to HonorBuy for providing the review unit.