Affordable Chinese smartphones are getting better and better.
The LG G5‘s stab at modularity
hasn’t taken off. The HTC 10 is a great machine that’s
entirely forgettable. The Moto Z is striking, but confused. Sony still can’t get anything going. And for the first time in a while, the buzz around Apple’s next iPhone feels muted — it will still be huge, but iPhone sales have fallen, and there’s concern over whether or not the presumed iPhone 7 will drum up enough excitement.
The common link between most of these premium devices is that they’re priced, well, like premium devices. More and more, though, Samsung and Apple appear to be the only two that can get away with that $650+ price point.
As the others struggle to make a case, an influx of Chinese phones have swooped in, offering seriously capable hardware at much more affordable prices. The likes of Huawei, ZTE, and OnePlus are not new names — Huawei in particular is already a global giant — but this is the year they have come into their own in the US.
ZTE Axon 7, and, most recently, Huawei Honour 8 are $400 phones that have no business being $400 phones. I’ve tested the Honour 8 for most of this week, and, like the OnePlus and Axon before it, Huawei’s newest phone looks great, feels great, and runs with aplomb. There’s a sense of heft and flair to it that cannot come from something you’d call “cheap.”
These kind of affordable flagships aren’t clones, and some software quirks aside, they don’t feel compromised — they’re simply very good smartphones that also cost less. They might not have the
absolute latest specs, but they realise that phones in 2016 make it easier than ever to hit the point of diminishing returns.
Even then, the gap has closed — check the OnePlus 3’s 6GB of RAM, the Axon 7’s 1440p display, or any of these smartphones’ cameras, and you’ll see features normally reserved for the top tier.
The problem for these companies — and others like TCL-owned Alcatel, which has a very solid device in the next step down — is carriers.
A big reason they’re able to sell these devices for so cheap is because they can’t get (and thus don’t have to pay) a Verizon or AT&T to market them directly. Instead, they stick to selling unlocked through ecommerce channels. That works overseas, but it has a lower ceiling in America, where most people are still more likely to buy through their network providers.
Still, if you know enough to go out of your way, this wave of Chinese value plays has made it an excellent time to be a smartphone shopper on a budget. In the process, it’s made any Android OEM not named Samsung feel less vital.