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

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

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.

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?

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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