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Chinese Android phones pros and cons part 1: price, 4G LTE and clones

Posted: , by Victor H., Chris. P

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Chinese Android phones pros and cons part 1: price, 4G LTE and clones

Note: This editorial is part one of two. See part two.

Little else in the smartphone industry gets people and analyzers going as do smartphones ‘made in China’. The caveats, along with the many unknowns, have left many a smartphone hobbyist scratching their heads in an often futile attempt to decipher what these devices are, and what they’re capable of. And while these are a strictly contested territory, few would argue that Chinese smartphones have, by and large, won the race to the bottom. Smartphones costing no more than $130 now come with very capable hardware, as the rate of progress in the industry has allowed for costs to be shrunken down to what is now the new budget tier.

Chinese Android phones pros and cons part 1: price, 4G LTE and clones
But it’s not all about price. Quality is to be found in China, as products from Xiaomi, Oppo, ZTE, Vivo and Meizu consistently showcased these past two years. And yet, navigating the jungle of vendors is often a tricky business for the uninitiated, and it’s still early to talk about wide adoption. As with just about everything, there are downsides to these phones. A seemingly compelling price tag in China doesn’t necessarily translate as well when you’re at the checkout half a world away, and there are often things like build quality and aftersales service to consider. Depending on how you view the world, these wildly affordable devices can be both a massive deal or not at all. This is because China’s smartphone industry still remains largely closed off to foreigners -- the opportunities in just that one country alone are of proportions big enough to salivate even companies like Apple. And while there’s an unmistakable push from local companies to get their products beyond the borders of the country, it’ll be a few more years until we can talk about their products as if a seamless part of the mainstream. 

Nonetheless, from the very dawn of humankind, the ‘right now’ has consistently one-upped the future, so we’ll be taking a look at what’s going on in China today, and providing some insight as to what may come later. We’ll go through the main areas of interest to anyone who’s looking to escape from the mainstream, by giving you a quick access to opposing views on products churned out in the Middle Kingdom, so as to best chalk out their relative merits. Welcome to China -- by far the world’s biggest smart devices market.

Looking for the best price: no big corporate expenses, no ludicrous advertising budgets


PROS (Chris P.): Let's face facts. Unless you're in that 1% of the world's population, it's very likely that you're living life on a budget. In fact, even if you can afford any smartphone currently out there, it makes good sense to still seek the best possible bang for your buck. This is precisely where Chinese manufacturers truly shine, to the point where just looking at the ridiculous margins that mainstream manufacturers are working with starts triggering a gag reflex. A bill of materials for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 found that it costs about $232 to manufacture. Depending on where you live, it can cost upwards of three times that. Of course, there's more to the Note 3 than just hardware parts, so surely these prices are justified, one would think. That's correct, the entirety of a Samsung experience is, indeed, worth more than the cumulative cost of all parts. But two times more? Three? And what if you’re not on one of those sweet Verizon Edge-like plans that allow you to update your device every other year? Will you be content being locked into a smartphone for 2 years, when its average lifespan is nowadays less than a year?

It all boils down to a real simple question: what are you looking to buy? A status symbol or a tool? And how much does each matter to you? If you want to have an iPhone or a Note 3 because of the perceived brand value attached, then that's perfectly fine. But if you're looking for the most sensible way to spend your monthly allowance, then you should probably consider the alternatives. And let's not forget that the very high-end is no longer the exclusive domain of the incumbent top dogs. But perhaps most importantly -- gazing East provides you with a breath of fresh air and a sense of a thorough context. There aren’t nearly enough Galaxies out there to fit every taste.

Chinese Android phones pros and cons part 1: price, 4G LTE and clones

CONS (Victor H.): We all love a good deal, and in some parts of the world Chinese phones indeed offer the best bang for the buck. Not in the United States, though. The reason for this is simple, and it’s all in the contract. Chances are that you will be using your phone on that same Verizon or AT&T plan you had before. Interestingly enough, those plans’ prices are made to cover up a subsidy. Deciding to buy a ‘cheap’ Chinese phone and not getting one from your carrier is actually losing money - the money from that subsidy that is included in the price of the plan.

What about those who are using pre-paid plans, though? Should you be getting the ‘better’ deal in buying a Chinese smartphone? Avoid the risk! If you are living in the United States or in other Western markets chances are you still have access to very low-cost devices like the Google Nexus 5 or the Motorola Moto G. These offer the same (if not better) bang for the buck than Chinese phones, plus come from a phone maker you’ve actually heard of. Summing it all up, Chinese phones are considered a good deal, but chances are there already are even better deals on well-recognized devices. Use them!

Connectivity: Solving the 4G LTE puzzle


PROS (Chris P.): Being heavily based on MediaTek chips, Chinese smartphones have long suffered incompatibility with the network standards of the west. Or so people think. In reality, China Unicom, the nation’s second largest telecom, has been running an WCDMA network since 2009, and China Telecom -- a CDMA network since 2008. The former is the standard used in most of the world, including Europe, whereas the latter is used in the US.

Chinese phones don't support US and European 4G LTE yet.

Chinese phones don't support US and European 4G LTE yet.

Of course, there’s the undeniable problem of China’s reliance on a 4G TDD-LTE network, instead of the FDD-LTE standard that the rest of the world uses. Modern chips like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 support both, though a Chinese phone may need a software update in order to take advantage of it. In any case, there’s two things you should care about. Firstly, standard 3G HSPA networks can go as fast as 42.2Mbit/s, which is already stupid fast. And secondly, Chinese manufacturers like ZTE, Lenovo and Meizu have already announced plans to enter the US market, and, that’s right, all their flagships will be 4G LTE enabled.

CONS (Victor H.): Living in a market with 4G LTE? Forget about Chinese phones. None of them support 4G LTE that you could use in the United States or Europe. Enabling 4G LTE support is not as simple as pushing a software update, it also requires clearing certification by the Federal Communications Commission and a lot of effort that no Chinese phone maker has undertaken. Why would you pay the extra money for 4G LTE on your data plan when your phone does not support it? Actually, be extra careful - some Chinese phones don’t even support 3G WCDMA bands for countries outside of China! We’d recommend carefully checking the band support on multiple sites to make sure at least 3G will work on your operator.

The takeout from all this is that Chinese smartphones are made for the Chinese market (duh!). They are not well suited to the much better developed 4G LTE landscape in the United States.

Design and Quality: Has China overcome the clones' identity crisis?


PROS (Chris P.): Only the uninitiated would say that Chinese smartphones lack diversity in design. In fact, if anything, Chinese smartphones are increasingly setting the standard in this particular regard. Phones like the Oppo N1, the new Vivo Xplay 3S, the Gionee Elife E7, the Meizu MX3 and even the now older Oppo Find 5 are a testament that great design is not an exclusive of HTC or Apple, or anybody for that matter. What's more, since production runs are much smaller with the lesser known Chinese smartphone brands, their designs are usually evolutionary, instead of repetitive. Great as they may be, can you say the same for the Galaxy or Xperia lines?

Of course, once the more practical lobe of your brain gets some air time, design concerns are likely to give way to quality concerns. It's true, Chinese manufacturers can't quite afford as extensive a quality control procedure as the bigger players, yet their products are somehow becoming more and more reliable. That's because there are only so many places you can look for parts, and these are increasingly sourced from brands like Sony, Samsung, Sharp, LG and so on. Better yet, since pretty much all phones are now manufactured in China, there's no shortage of know-how and proper equipment so these are now definitely up to standard.

It's simple - don't buy clones. Plenty of beautifully-crafted devices out there.

It's simple - don't buy clones. Plenty of beautifully-crafted devices out there.


CONS (Victor H.): What Chinese phones lack sorely is not diversity - it’s quality. Having a hundred different phones that are all plastic and screaky copycats is no virtue in itself, but having one solidly built device is. Sadly, a myriad of cheap phones from white box makers with dubious quality is exactly what you’d encounter once you start digging for a cheaper phone from Asia. Even some of China’s most popular phones like devices from Meizu are merely an evolution of blatant iPhone copies. The fact that there are well-made clones out there should not justify stealing the design, don’t you think?

The real concern is clearly quality. We have heard reports about companies like Apple rejecting 7 out of 10 pieces of a component because of failures, a high-standard that we doubt any white box Chinese manufacture can adhere to. The situation might be improving, but try explaining this to someone who waited a month for a ‘cheap’ Chinese smartphone only to find out it is defective.

Can you recognize these Chinese clones?

Can you recognize these Chinese clones?


Overall performance: MediaTek's quick rise to fame


PROS (Chris P.): Ah, the nebulous state of affairs that is the chipset industry. Literally every MediaTek-related piece on the internet has a nay-sayer, hard at work, trying to warn the world of the inferiority of MediaTek chips when compared to Qualcomm's. Yet the essence is being consistently disregarded as if irrelevant. So, let's get this straight. Qualcomm chips are about performance first – price is of a secondary (less so these days) concern. MediaTek chips are about price first – performance is of a secondary (less so these days) concern. So yes, going toe-to-toe, Qualcomm's chips will perform better. Every time. But MediaTek's chips have also gotten past the acceptable threshold with their latest generation, especially considering the price you're paying. Still unconvinced? That's actually more than okay – manufacturers such as Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, ZTE, Lenovo and so on have, at large, started using Qualcomm chips in their high-end smartphones.

MediaTek, the bread and butter of most Chinese phones.

MediaTek, the bread and butter of most Chinese phones.



CONS (Victor H.): When speaking about Chinese smartphones, we ought to mention MediaTek. Most Chinese smartphones (even top-tier ones) are powered by a cheap piece of MediaTek silicon, which is offered at competitive prices. However, whether for lack of optimization or something else, it’s often simply too slow. The problem is painfully apparent on top-notch Chinese devices with a 1080 x 1920-pixel screens using a chip like the MT6589T (a popular chip). Such devices are supposed to deliver the best of Android, but what often happens instead is that the chip is simply not capable to keep up with the high resolution. The result? Painful lag. Are you willing to tolerate that constant slowdown every time you use your phone? We know we aren’t.

Moreover, while Western chip makers like Qualcomm, Apple and Nvidia are doing their best to improve per core performance, MediaTek is looking for quick fame with largely unjustified decisions like going octa-core. Most apps are even barely optimized for two cores, so an octa-core chip looks rushed at best.

Note: This editorial is part one of two. See part two.

28 Comments
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posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:20 7

1. Scott93274 (Posts: 674; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)


I personally would never buy a smart phone from China. Their business practices and ethics are so skewed it's sad. Yes, I do understand that majority of smart phones, and pretty much the majority of electronics on the market today are manufactured in China, but when it's from a brand that is not native to China, I feel much more comfortable knowing that additional rules, regulations, and quality expectations will be placed on the products of non Chinese brands.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:37 6

3. ihavenoname (Posts: 1334; Member since: 18 Aug 2013)


I partly agree and partly disagree. Oppo phones are among best made phones in world, well engineered, great specs. Xiaomi, just look at their Mi3, they have huge potential. And Huawei, Ascend P6 is great value for money, only processor is old fashioned and software needs optimization. Oppo and Xiaomi are awesome already, Huawei and some others still have catching up to do, but they are promising.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:49

6. JerryTime (Posts: 468; Member since: 09 Nov 2013)


I think he was relating to the products from more of a moralistic humane stance. That's how I view anything from China personally.

I still find it as a damn farce that the rest of the world allowed China to host the Olympics and even showed up for it, considering how poorly China treats it's citizens. They violate more human rights than just about any other country on the planet, and it's a damn shame that companies are feeding their economy for the sake of saving a few bucks.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 13:01

9. Scott93274 (Posts: 674; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)


I was more referring to the quality of the goods. Lead based paints found in kid's toys, asbestos in drywall, poison in dog food... there is just so much bad media coverage of the country due to their lack of regulation.

But I can also mention the human rights violations going on there at companies such as Foxconn, but then you have brands like Apple, Microsoft, Nintendo, Samsung still using them for production because it's affordable.

I suppose I cannot say that all products are of a lesser quality as "ihavenoname" has provided examples, but I feel like buying Chinese branded products can be a game of Russian roulette.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:52 1

8. Scott93274 (Posts: 674; Member since: 06 Aug 2013)


I actually just finished watching a video review for the Oppo Find 5 on youtube thanks to post 2 below. I will admit that I know nothing of the brand, but all the videos I've seen seem to praise the features.

posted on 29 Jan 2014, 17:24

27. KRONeage (Posts: 54; Member since: 17 Apr 2011)


They have excellent customer service too. As does Xiaomi. You can order them online on their own web site and they get here almost overnight. Same with ordering phones from South Korea or near anything from there. I order clothes from there a lot and I'm still shocked how fast they get here!

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 13:59

11. Ashoaib (Posts: 1486; Member since: 15 Nov 2013)


Its true that mediatek chipset is legendary slow

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 23:58

19. ardent1 (Posts: 1991; Member since: 16 Apr 2011)


In the US, ZTE and Huawei smart phones dominates the prepaid market.

Unfortunately, a lot of these products are junk that go on sale for $50, especially true at Virgin Mobile USA.

With the Moto G being sold at $100, it helps set the benchmark for what to expect from a decent smartphone in terms of specs, build quality, aesthetics, etc.

I will conclude that the mindset Anericans had toward these mainland Chinese handsets has changed almost 180 degrees since I joined PA. I recall some if my first posts warning readers that companies like ZTE and Huawei will take market share in the US after spending 2 to 3 years learning the US market. My biggest critic at the time was Sniggly who couldn't see how much improvement ZTE and Huawei could make.

The bottom line is that an android handset is just a kit the manufacturers assemble from available suppliers, and some OEMs make tweaks to their high end devices, but it's clear these tweaks will be matched or copied.

posted on 19 Jun 2014, 04:26

30. GSG_Kai (Posts: 1; Member since: 19 Jun 2014)


I have to agree with you there are a lot of really bad "CLONE" knockoffs on the market but there are companys like KingZone and Cubot that are just as powerful as the high end name brand like samsung, LG, Sony. Another reason some people dont buy chines phones is because they are not a name brand. I am proud to own the KingZone K1 Turbo it is a crazy fast phone with a 14.0MP camera and a 1080p screen and 440ppi all for under a $300 that is un heard of .I was just looking at the specs of the Samsung Galaxy S5 the specs are almost identical 16MP camera 1080p screen with 432ppi and for the S5 you are paying around $590. I wonder where that $290 went some of it went into the higer specs and the rest went?
I am not hateing on Samsung I love all there devices but i just think that they are over priced when i can buy a phone for with the same specs for half the price!

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:28 3

2. Takeharu (Posts: 50; Member since: 28 Oct 2013)


I'm loving my Oppo Find 5!
Build quality, design, performance, camera, that gorgeous display, everything about it!
Never buying a western phone again! This is too damn good!

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:37

4. Joshing4fun (Posts: 1047; Member since: 13 Aug 2010)


If youre in America, just buy the Nexus 5 or Moto G.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 18:01

16. kaikuheadhunterz (Posts: 693; Member since: 18 Jul 2013)


If not?

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:43 5

5. PapaSmurf (Posts: 7726; Member since: 14 May 2012)


The only phone I'd ever buy from China would be Oppo.

Glad to see PA authors appearing in videos more and engaging with their followers.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 12:49 2

7. PorkyBurger (Posts: 212; Member since: 18 May 2013)


Not all phones are available everywhere. I can't have Oppo, Xiaomi, Lenovo phones.
Huawei? Maybe P6, but nothing more. Just as the phones aren't available here, their spare parts (buttons, display, glass...) aren't too. So customer service will have a punch in the knee about this one.
Chinese Android phones (Huawei, Lenovo,...) needs to go worldwide! WAH.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 13:03

10. indiebandit (Posts: 7; Member since: 28 Dec 2013)


windows phone 8 is your best bet here.these type of phones arent worth it honestly.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 15:53 1

13. imMature (Posts: 80; Member since: 04 Sep 2013)


That 4G face blew me away. lol

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 16:12

14. ianbbaa (Posts: 196; Member since: 20 Mar 2013)


Uselles article that i stopped to read right after i saw the material costs of N3 and that sentence that N3 you ll buy 3 times higher price...sorry guys in PA, better example to give would be the raw price of iphone which is less than N3 but costs 6 times higher. ..is produced in China, doesnt have digitizer, that big battery, that big display...etc. So please take a better sample to talk about chinese phones. ..your beloved iconic iphone that is dumb as hell is made in china as well. So do not make these articles to hurt some good quality chinese brands as some of those better makers have actually good quality selling for just those raw costs of stupid iphone

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 17:41 2

15. bigstrudel (Posts: 518; Member since: 20 Aug 2012)


Rockchip's RK3188 Quad-core is slightly more powerful than the 1.6ghz Exynos Quad in the Galaxy Note 2. And packs the same GPU. It's been out for more than a year already. Home brewed in China. It's a decent SoC and is capable of running a FHD device decently, and a 720p device flawlessly.

Seen all the time in sub $200 phones and tablets.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 18:04

17. kaikuheadhunterz (Posts: 693; Member since: 18 Jul 2013)


I've also seen a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 knockoff with a 1080p screen and Mediatek chip. Its AnTuTu score is about 13000, so should be smooth enough for everyday usage

posted on 22 Jan 2014, 01:00 1

22. Sharky (Posts: 109; Member since: 24 Jun 2008)


Haven't seen the RK3188 in phones.

posted on 21 Jan 2014, 19:08 1

18. kevkyle (Posts: 62; Member since: 21 Oct 2012)


used to scoff at chinese OEM's.....but when i held their hardware (Huawei - silly name, lol and Lenovo) and played withtheir UI's - instant convert

... i got them primarily for their insane batteries - the lenovo p780 and huawei ascend mate

...huawei's emotion ui is the first stock Ui i didn't change with Atom launcher - i like it

...and btw - i was surprised that the P780's 5"screen at 295ppi is more vibrant than LG2's screen (423ppi)....whites on the LG2 are a tad more yellow

....and the p780 has more usable screen real estate - it doesn't have on screen buttons

....but all phones are NASTY", )

posted on 22 Jan 2014, 00:13

20. Avenger827 (Posts: 46; Member since: 19 Jan 2014)


"Most apps are even barely optimized for two cores"!!! I didn't know that before! So will quad core or octa core chips provide no perfomance boost? (in terms of apps)

posted on 22 Jan 2014, 00:56 1

21. Sharky (Posts: 109; Member since: 24 Jun 2008)


I've been following the Chinese smartphone market for a while now. It really is amazing how far the industry has come. Although when it came time to buy a smartphone I ended up going with a Nexus 4.

posted on 22 Jan 2014, 02:41 1

23. NIK01 (Posts: 20; Member since: 29 Apr 2013)


I own a Xiaomi MI-2s and really love it. Quality on par level with iPhone 5s, including display.

posted on 18 Apr 2014, 09:41

28. michaelD (Posts: 1; Member since: 07 Apr 2014)


Hey scott93274
Well,I would like to say that,I do not fully agree with you about the topic that,Chinese products are not reliable,because branded products even apple parts are manufactured in China.There are a lot of articles available online,you could read about it.So,Chinese products are always best!!!

indeedparts.com

posted on 02 May 2014, 06:13

29. sumer89 (Posts: 1; Member since: 02 May 2014)


Nice review, although in my experience with the latest Chinese phones is that their quality is much better than before. The most unique feature you can't get in the "branded" phones like Samsung and others is Chinese phones have two SIM slots for dual phone lines - you can't find this feature. I bought two phones and was very impressed by it's quality and the speed and best of all they offered free shipping. I bought it at lightboxdeals.com. Here is the actual link of the product:

lightboxdeals.com/default/cell-phones-and-accessor​ies/mobile-phone/android-phones.html

I don't know why people think Chinese goods are of lesser quality, I personally didn't want to have to pay the price for a new Samsung nor do I want to have to pay +$100 to replace the screen, with the Chinese phones, the replacement screen is less than $10..

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