The rise of China smartphones

Singapore consumers love their low-priced China smartphones.

In less than eight minutes, the first shipment of the China-made Redmi phone from handset maker Xiaomi were snapped up at its online launch here last Friday.

Instead of selling the $169 phones in stores, Xiaomi Singapore sold them online. The company declined to say how many sets were sold but, late last year, the company launched in Hong Kong and Taiwan with sales of 10,000 Hongmi units in each location.

All three telcos in Singapore will start selling the phones tomorrow.

Even before Xiaomi launched the Redmi, the first English-language version of its Hongmi device, China phones have earned a cult following here, due mainly to their low prices.

Popular China brands include ZTE, Huawei and Lenovo, who ship Android devices to parts of Europe, North America and Japan.

The popularity of smartphones from China are not tracked, as local distributors are known to bring in small shipments and sell them without an operator contract.

Factors such as a smaller local market and an oversaturation of handset brands available here have been given as reasons why some China brands, such as Lenovo, have not launched smartphones here.

"We are focused first on developing our brand, ecosystem and channel in new markets. Once the conditions are suitable, we will be ready to bring Lenovo's world-leading smartphones to Singapore and all other markets that apply," explained a spokesman for Lenovo Singapore.

Unfortunately, it is also not a simple case of buying China brand smartphones in bulk from China and reselling them here.

The Chinese authorities allow only free apps to be made available on Google's Play Store, so there is a proliferation of third-party app stores in Android devices sold in China.

In other words, those who buy a cheap Android device in China will not get the full suite of Google Play Store services when they try to use the phone anywhere else in the world.

China companies who export their phones will install in their devices software which enables the Google Play Store, but these phones are not sold in China.

Cheaper than the rest

Based on similar hardware specifications, Android phones from China are cheaper than their counterparts from Taiwan and South Korea.

For example, the Lenovo Vibe X, a 5-inch smartphone with a 13-megapixel camera, powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core processor, is retailing at RM$1,299 (S$497) in Malaysia.

Huawei's upcoming Honor 3X, a 5.5-inch device with a 13-megapixel camera, running a 1.7GHz octa-core processor, is retailing at 1,698 yuan (S$352).

A spokesman for Huawei Singapore said the device is slated for launch here in April at a comparable price point.

The upcoming Xiaomi Mi3 5-inch phone, which runs on a 2.3GHz quad-core processor and has a 13-megapixel camera, will retail here at $419 from next week.

Phones with similar specifications from Samsung, HTC and LG are more expensive. The 5.2-inch LG G2, which has a 2.26GHz quad-core processor and a 13-megapixel camera, is priced at $898.

While the LG G2 has slightly better hardware, including high speed LTE, the price difference is substantial. However, the lack of 4G in most of these phones from China may be a dealbreaker for consumers here who demand faster network speeds.

More China brands are expected to launch devices here.

China electronics brand Oppo launched its Oppo N1 Android smartphone in Malaysia last week and the phone will go on sale here next month.

The 1.7GHz quad-core device with a 1,080p full high-definition 5.9-inch screen with a rotating camera is retailing at RM$1,798.

This influx of cheap smartphones from China offers more choices for consumers and telcos.

"While some consumers are fans of the premium mobile devices, there are others who gravitate towards affordable handset models.

The increasing competition among device makers benefits consumers, as they have a much wider range of attractive and competitively priced smartphones to choose from," said Mr Tian Ung Ping, StarHub's assistant vice-president of mobility.

Digital Life checks out three phones from China.

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Xiaomi Redmi (DL Editor's Choice)

Striking a balance between price and hardware offerings is a delicate process. Apple fumbled with its iPhone 5c, while other brands peg cheaper models to their flagship devices, with the assumption that consumers will accept a lower price alongside cheaper components.

Then, you have companies such as Xiaomi, a relatively newcomer to the handset market with no expensive flagship device to speak of, but with plenty of good ideas to add to the mix.

The China company's Redmi phone is an example of putting form, function and features ahead of pricing, as everything about the phone screams out a conscientious effort to use decent parts and include high-end features. The end product is something that can easily sell for more than $300.

Instead, the company has opted to go with an unprecedented pricing of $169 for a smartphone running on a quad-core processor, with an 8-megapixel camera and 1,080p high-definition video recording, backed by a 1,280 x 720 4.7-inch IPS screen.

Any assumptions of shoddy workmanship and sluggish software get tossed out the window the moment you turn on the device.

Users never get the sense that the device is powered by the lesser known MediaTek processor, as opposed to the more well-known Qualcomm one. And why should they, as Xiaomi seems to have taken the best of what Android has to offer and left out much of the bloat so commonly present in other brands.

Xiaomi uses its own Mi user interface, also known as Miui. The Xiaomi name is derived from the Chinese characters small (xiao) and rice (mi), although in recent times, the company has indicated that Mi also stands for Mobile Internet.

The Miui is one of the smoothest and well-thought-out Android interface I have seen in recent months, packed with plenty of new features that make the best use of the Android operating system.

One is the level of user control when it comes to managing apps and permissions. When you install apps from the Google Play Store, a list of permissions needs to be approved by the user. This is usually an "all or nothing" feature and, at times, the urge to own the app means users tend to simply accept the permissions required.

Now, users can go into each app and manage the permissions individually. If you suspect that an app might be drawing too much data, you can monitor the app. If you think an app should not be running in the background, you can choose to limit its connectivity. Some apps can start up in the background and users can now choose which apps to run or disable during start-up.

There are paid apps which can record phone callsbut there is the issue of compatibility across phone models. Here, this feature is built-in and you can choose to have the phone record phone calls from specific individuals.

For those who still rely on SMS, there is a protected private messaging wall for sensitive messages which you want to keep away from prying eyes. Whether you use it for sensitive business negotiations or to keep in contact with secret partners is entirely up to you.

Redmi is the first English-language model made by the company (it was launched in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in Chinese as the Hongmi) and there are still some instances where Chinese characters appear on the screen.

This is more noticeable in the Themes app, which allows you to download your own themes from the company. Many are listed in Chinese and even after installing it, some menu options unique to a theme appear in Chinese. Xiaomi said it is working on converting everything to English but, as a whole, the switch to Chinese characters does not affect usability even if you do not understand the language.

Other nifty features include a Lite Mode, which turns icons into larger ones and limits notifications. This is targeted at the elderly, who can now enjoy the benefits of a smartphone without worrying about navigating a complex interface.

There is also a memory-cleaning feature for users to decide which apps to close and which to keep running to manage memory resources.

All for $169. Did I mention this phone supports dual SIM cards?

Pricing is an important factor because some of these features are missing from high-end models. Xiaomi has managed to fit everything nicely into something that strikes a great balance between price and features.

A part of me can quibble over the slightly thicker body, the lack of backlit touchscreen keys and an average AnTuTu benchmark test score of 15,922, which puts it below devices such as the Google Nexus 4 and the Sony Xperia Z.

But those devices cost more than twice the Redmi, which means that overall, the Redmi still beats them in other ways that matter.

TECH SPECS

Price: $169 (without contract) Processor: 1.5GHz quad-core MediaTek MT6589 Display: 4.7-inch IPS Corning Gorilla Glass 2 (1,280 x 720) at 312 ppi (pixels per inch) Operating system: Android 4.2.2 Camera: (Rear) 8 megapixels with 1,080p high-definition video, (Front) 1.3 megapixels Memory: 4GB (microSD expandable up to 32GB) RAM: 1GB Others: Dual SIM Battery: 2,000 mAh

RATING

Features: 5 Design: 3 Ease of use: 4 Value for money: 5 Battery life: 3 Overall: 4

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Huawei Honor 3C

China tech giant Huawei is better known as a telecommunications company which makes hardware for telcos, but it has been been making Android phones and tablets for a long time.

One reason for the lack of recognition here is that not all of the company's devices are sold locally. But with the recent rise in prominence of Xiaomi, and the fact that China firm Lenovo bought over Motorola, China handset brands are starting to gain legitimacy.

Huawei has a competitor device made to fend off the Xiaomi Redmi. The Huawei Honor 3C shares some similar specifications with the Redmi.

A Huawei Singapore spokesman said the Honor 3C, together with the Honor 3X, which is designed to compete with the Xiaomi Mi3, will go on sale here in April at prices which match those in China.

This should put the 798 yuan Honor 3C at around $166, which matches the $169 price of the Redmi.

While the Honor 3C has a slightly slower processor than the Redmi's, it packs a larger screen (5 inches versus 4.7 inches), has a slightly bigger battery (2,300 mAh versus 2,000 mAh) and has a sharper front camera (5 megapixels versus 1.3 megapixels).

On the AnTuTu benchmarking app, the Honor 3C recorded a score of 17,158, which is slightly higher than that of the Redmi.

Interface-wise, users of the Honor 3C can opt to activate the camera shutter by voice and there is a phone manager which allows users to free up memory by shutting off apps.

There is also an option to change the permissions of apps, which users tend to authorise as a whole.

While the Redmi's Miui interface manages permissions by apps, in that users go app by app to manage permissions, Huawei manages its by permissions.

This means that all apps which access contacts are grouped together and separate from apps which access location information or those which modify contacts. This way, if you want to block all apps which delete contacts, this interface makes it a little easier.

You can also restrict apps from sending notices to the notification panel from an option menu and choose which apps to turn on during start-up.

At this point, it is difficult to ascertain who started out giving users this level of access or if both companies are merely following a trend that started in China. But it is great to know that, instead of installing useless apps which overpower the phone, China handset makers are giving an unprecedented level of freedom to mobile phone owners.

Like the Redmi, there is a feature to make the interface more accessible for older folks, which means having larger icons.

The Honor 3C trails the Redmi in terms of layout, as there are pieces of the interface spread out across the device, and it is not as thoughtfully laid out as the Redmi.

The Honor 3C also lacks a call-recording function and does not have a private SMS messaging wall.

Given that the Honor 3C will be launched several weeks after the Redmi, a lot depends on Huawei being able to push this as a competitor of Xiaomi's much lauded device.

TECH SPECS

Price: Unknown, available from April Processor: 1.3GHz quad-core MediaTek MT6582 Display: 5-inch (1,280 x 720) at 294 ppi (pixels per inch) Operating System: Android 4.2.2 Camera: (Rear) 8 megapixels with 1,080p high-definition video, (front) 5 megapixels Memory: 4GB (microSD expandable up to 32GB) RAM: 1GB Others: Dual SIM Battery: 2,300 mAh

RATING

Features: 4 Design: 3 Ease of use: 4 Value for money: 5 Battery life: 3 Overall: 4

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Oppo N1

Like Xiaomi, Oppo is more well-known in China, although it is trying to expand globally. The Oppo N1 is not the brand's first Android smartphone so, in an effort to stand out, the company has added a unique feature - a camera that can be swivelled back and forth at the top.

By allowing the 13-megapixel camera to rotate up to 206 degrees, users can now snap selfies with the same high-resolution camera they would use to take regular photos.

The phone has a rear touch panel. Once activated, placing your finger on the panel will cue the shutter release. When the phone vibrates, lift your finger off the panel and the shot will be taken.

Gesture controls also make up a huge part of this phone. Users can use the menu to create gestures that activate certain phone features. For instance, drawing a circle on the screen while on standby will turn the camera on. I set the gesture control to turn on the Facebook app with an "f" gesture and for Gmail to be opened with an "M".

There is a catch. Only the O and V gestures are hotwired to work when the screen is on standby. Any additional gesture needs to be done on a drop down menu.

When you are watching a video, sliding two fingers up and down the screen will control the volume.

The phone comes with the Swype typing software, for users to "type" messages simply by swiping their finger across the letters.

All these gesture controls sound grand but my experience is that many users will not remember most of them. In the end, many will fall back on traditional operations.

Like the Honor 3C and Redmi, the N1 comes with many permission features which I think are a constant with China-made phones. 

Users can choose which apps to kill from the settings and whichpermissions to tweak after installing an app.

There is also a Theme store to download new skins for the device.

There is a Holiday Mode where users can place important phone numbers on a white list, so only calls from this list can get through.

The local distributor said the N1 will be launched sometime next month. The phone is slightly cheaper in Malaysia, where it was launched at a price of RM$1,789 (S$689).

The N1's price of $769 here might seem steep for a China device, but this phone stands out with a bright and clear screen, and added features such as the rear touch panel. The rotating camera is also a nice touch as users are guaranteed to take better quality photos no matter how they hold the phone.

The quality of the camera is superb, with a quick focus and good low-light shots.

It might not offer LTE or the provision of expandable memory via an SD card slot, but with an AnTuTu benchmark rating of 26,337, which matches that of last year's Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, the N1 offers a good mix of top-end features backed by decent hardware.

TECH SPECS

Price: $769 Processor: 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 Display: 5.9-inch IPS Corning Gorilla Glass 3, 1,080p full high-definition (1,920 x 1,080) at 377 ppi (pixels per inch) Operating System: Android 4.2 Camera: 13 megapixels with 206-degree swivel Memory: 16/32GB RAM: 2GB Others: Rear touch panel Battery: 3,610 mAh

RATING

Features: 4 Design: 4 Ease of use: 3 Value for money: 4 Battery life: 4 Overall: 4

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