Take a look around you on any street or subway car in China and you won’t be surprised to find yourself surrounded by people with their noses pressed up against a smartphone. With a 26.5% share of the global smartphone market in 2012, China is now far and away the world’s largest consumer of smartphones. What you might be surprised by however, is the sheer range of different brands and models that they are using to check their Weibo or WeChat with their friends. Read on for our Chinese smartphone buyer’s guide for Q1 2013.
International vs. domestic brands
International brands like Apple and Samsung have made strong, high profile inroads into the Chinese market. According to a December 2012 report from IDC, Samsung ranks number one in the Chinese smartphone market, by virtue of its comprehensive range of handsets at different price points. Apple, on the other hand, doesn't even make it into the top five, languishing in sixth place. Local brands remain a top choice among China’s cost conscious, yet tech savvy smartphone users.
What are the local brands and why should we be paying attention to them? You will doubtlessly have heard of Lenovo, if not for their smartphones then certainly for their PCs. In addition, Huawei and ZTE have recently been pursuing an aggressive international strategy, showing off high-spec phones at international forums such as Mobile World Congress. However, it is lesser-known brands like CoolPad, Amoi, Xiaomi and Meizu who are starting to pull ahead in China, especially in the mid- low-end market. The advantage these brands have over global brands is that they truly understand how to modify their offering to suit the needs of Chinese consumers. Chinese buyers are looking for big screen “phablet” phones that integrate apps from local brands like Sina and Baidu. A recent Tech in Asia article describes how Chinese smartphone users dislike the “walled garden” ecosystems created by the likes of Apple and Google. They prefer customizability. There are a hundred and one apps for any given service on the Chinese market place and users like the freedom to choose their favorite.
Why buy a Chinese smartphone?
So, the question remains: why would you want to buy a Chinese smartphone over heavyweight offerings such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 of iPhone 5? The short answer is, they’re cheap. Phones such as the Xiaomi MI-2 (listed below) are fast, good looking and offer a competitive range of specs for a vastly reduced price. Most of these phones retail for around 2,000-3,000 RMB (compared to the iPhone 5, which starts at 5,288 RMB) and there is a growing market for so-called “1000 RMB” low-end smartphones. Added to that, China’s three mobile network operators all offer various Chinese smartphones free on contract, depending on how much your monthly contract is.
Recent developments to keep in mind
All of the phones listed below, possibly up to 98% of Chinese smartphones, operate a heavily modified version of Android. In fact, such is the dominance of Android in the Chinese smartphone development market that it has become an object of government concern. A recent Chinese government report (from which the above percentage is taken) claims that Google has discriminated against some Chinese companies by delaying the sharing of code and overall maintains too tight a grip on the technology behind Android. But wherever you stand on that argument, the predominance of Android in the Chinese market makes these phones a good choice if you want to break out of (or continue to avoid) the lure of Apple’s rigid iOS ecosystem.
Of course, this level of government interest in smartphone operating systems raises security questions. Huawei came under fire from the U.S. government last year for allegedly attempting to extract sensitive information from U.S. government departments. Indeed, Huawei is often linked with the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army, since founder Ren Zhengfei served as an army engineer in the 1980s. However, a later review found no evidence to support the allegations against Huawei, although some still suggest that their products may be vulnerable to hackers. Also in 2012, the ZTE Score was found to have a backdoor in the operating system allowing root access without user permission. The best conclusion that can be taken away from this is: use your best judgment. Don’t use your phone for illicit activities and if you notice anything unusual happening with your phone stop using it until you discover the source of the problem.
Top Chinese smartphones for Q1 2013
Read on as we select our three favorites of the Chinese smartphones currently on the market.
Xiaomi MI-2. Source: fonearena.com
1) Xiaomi MI-2
Priced at just below 2,000 RMB, the Xiaomi MI-2 is one of the best value Chinese smartphones on the market. The phone doesn’t skimp on specs. With a reliable 8-megapixel camera and a 4.3-inch screen, it matches up to more expensive rivals like the iPhone 5. The phone runs Xiaomi’s proprietary Android mod, MIUI. Like most Chinese smartphones, major apps like Google Mail and Google Maps don’t come preinstalled, but you can access them through the Google Play store.
Under the hood: 1.5 GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB and 32GB models available
Screen size: 4.3 inches
Camera: 8 MP
Software: MIUI, based on Android 4.1
Battery life: 450 hours of standby (although Engadget managed only 4 hours of use time)
Price: 1,999 RMB
Meizu MX2. Source: engadget.com
2) Meizu MX2
The Meizu MX2 is a good-looking phone that will appeal to fans of Apple-style simple design. One of the phone’s major selling points is its Flyme 2.0 user interface, built on Android Jelly Bean, including an innovative smart navigation bar at the bottom of the screen and section for frequently used icons at the top of the screen. It also includes free Flyme cloud services, which can automatically sync your contacts, messages and phone settings.
Under the hood: 1.6 GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models available
Screen size: 4.4-inch super-retina screen
Software: Flyme 2.0, based on Android 4.2
Price: 2,699 RMB (on China Unicom’s online store)
Huawei W1. Source : blogs.windows.com
3) Huawei W1
The Huawei W1 certainly isn’t going to win any awards for being the best or prettiest Windows Phone 8, but it is a great choice if you want to try out the platform with a minimum of financial risk. Personally, we have found Windows Phone 8 to be a joy to use, both visually and from an operational standpoint.
Under the hood: 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage (can be increased to 32GB with a Micro SD)
Screen size: 4 inch
Software: Windows Phone 8
Battery life: 470 hours of standby on 3G
Price: 1,599 RMB (on 360Buy)
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It is worth sounding a note of warning to any non-Chinese thinking of buying these very good value local brand phones in China: as other's have indicated, unless you root the phone and flash it with an unblocked ROM, you will not be able to run Google Play, nor install apps such as Google Maps from there. While it may be easy to find and download tailor-made ROMs for international Android-based brands and models, I suspect you won't find it so easy for these Chinese brands.
Mar 21, 2013 08:52 Report Abuse
I've got a Huawei phone and have the same problem: no google app works on it. It doesn't even register when I go through the google play website and try to register my phone, though it's a popular enough model. I suspect socio-political tensions with China and Google Inc. are to blame, but I'd love to be able to use Google Translate and Gmail on my expensive smartphone....
Mar 20, 2013 10:23 Report Abuse
Government is upset that Google won't allow Chinese companies have access to the code. Meanwhile are happy to block and hinder google in china and make google play unusable, unless rooted, as mentioned above. Maybe Xi can make it all better.
Mar 19, 2013 15:06 Report Abuse
My phone didn't have the Google play store app preinstalled with it. And no matter how many times I downloaded it, it wouldn't install. I had to root my phone (install other software) and only then could I download and install google play.
Mar 19, 2013 12:00 Report Abuse
No, even i got HTC from China telecom , no preinstaled Googla play shopping app, and tried same as you thousand times get a way to use it. No way. Maybe if go to some HTC store, or some small vendor, to replace the software, could it help ?
Mar 19, 2013 10:14 Report Abuse
about the xiaomi "major apps like Google Mail and Google Maps don’t come preinstalled, but you can access them through the Google Play store" samsung phones do not come with google play, are you saying the xiaomi comes with google play? can anyone verify this? if the phone does not have the google play app you can't use google play on it. even if you surf to the website through the phone. i have tried tirelessly w/ samsung phones.
Mar 19, 2013 06:15 Report Abuse
Its actually quite easy...just search google play apk download and download the file and run/install it...it will work on any phone with android 2.3 or newer. Android 2.2 or lower would need to be android market apk. Do it...its extremely easy.
Oct 11, 2013 04:38 Report Abuse