The lure of China phones is not just the price

Cheap phones from China offering great features at a low price are not new to Singapore.

For years, you could get them at Sim Lim Square. But nobody took them seriously because they were unknown brands and often came with dubious reputations. All that is now changing.

Big names, such as Huawei, as well as smaller players, such as Xiaomi and Oppo, are all launching their latest Android phones in Singapore over these few months. Lenovo has already started selling its phones in Malaysia and I wouldn't be surprised that it would target Singapore soon, especially now that it has acquired Motorola's mobile phone business for a whopping US$2.9 billion (S$3.7 billion) - a sign that the China PC maker is serious about its push into mobile devices.

When I got my hands on the $169 Redmi phone from Xiaomi, I thought it was just a value-for-money Android phone.

But after playing around with it and studying the features of other China phones from Huawei and Oppo, I realised that these phones aren't just sizzling hot because of their price tags - they have differentiating features which are hard to find in the branded phones sold in Singapore that we are all used to.

The first thing which caught my attention was the themes feature. Like with Windows PCs, you can change the theme of your China phone. I had time to try out only the Redmi, but I was amazed at the hundreds of attractive free themes at its themes store which I could download and install, although I am not sure if some of them are exactly in compliance with intellectual property laws. There is a Coca-Cola theme which features a Coke can on the home screen. Swiping downwards on the ring tab unlocks the screen, accompanied with the familiar can-opening sound.

For extra effect, shake the phone and watch the virtual soft drink can shake. Slide down to unlock the phone and the theme adds the sound of fizz to the can-opening effect. There are even themes that can make your phone look like an Apple iPhone, down to the individual icons of the iOS 7 operating system.

Another really cool feature is the dual SIM function, which apparently is commonplace in China phones, but a rarity in phones sold in Singapore. I end up paying $15 a day for data roaming when I go overseas as I need to be in contact with my friends and colleagues via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Gmail while making sure with Google Navigation that I won't get lost driving in Kuala Lumpur.

With a dual SIM phone, I can save a lot of money by signing up for a local prepaid SIM for mobile data while remaining reachable on my primary mobile phone number. I definitely need one of these as a second phone, to be whipped out the next time I go abroad (I still like my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 more though).

For geeks, the biggest deal about some of these China phones is that you can control which apps will launch automatically at start-up (like good old Windows PCs) and deny certain installed apps from accessing stuff in your phone such as your call logs and phone book. Having a simple, clean and bloat-free phone is also a major turn-on. Throw in granular control over privacy settings and you know why geeks are all hot and bothered over these phones.

The arrival of these new branded China phones is a disruptive force in the prepaid market where users often do not get phone subsidies because they don't sign a two-year contract. However, the lack of 4G may not go down well with many geeks who have tasted the ambrosia of zippy downloads. But for those, like me, who are still holding on to their 3G plans to enjoy the 12GB data bundle, the lack of 4G is not an issue at all.

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