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Don’t Look Now, But Chinese Smartphones Are Finally Getting Interesting

As China’s manufacturers cozy up to U.S. carriers, their higher-end phones are becoming more innovative.

Don’t Look Now, But Chinese Smartphones Are Finally Getting Interesting
Richard Yu, CEO, Huawei Consumer Business Group, with the new Huawei P8 smartphone [Photo: Flickr user Maurizio Pesce]

Without question, China has become a smartphone-hungry country. In its latest astounding financial quarter, Apple reported higher iPhone sales in China than in the U.S. or Europe. Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi came out of nowhere to become one of the leading smartphone vendors in the world without selling (much) outside of its home market. In doing so, it has joined the country’s other leading phone manufacturers, including Lenovo and Huawei.

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But for many reasons, including intense competition, customer preference for known brands, and security concerns, smartphones from Chinese companies have been rare in the United States. One of the few models available is the ZTE Valet, an Android phone that includes such underwhelming specs as a 3.5-inch screen, 3G connectivity, and a 3-megapixel camera. It is offered by lowball prepaid carrier TracFone for an unsubsidized price of $80. Things have been so tough for Chinese vendors in the U.S. that Lenovo, which markets its successful and impressive Vibe phones outside the U.S., acquired Motorola from Google last year as a way to sell in the U.S. market (although it has also brought the Motorola brand to other countries).

However, there are signs that these companies are getting more serious about competing with established brands on their own terms. One recently released device, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 by TCL, is aimed at meeting the demand of midrange smartphone users. At an unlocked price of $249, many of the sleek device’s specs compare favorably with bigger-name models, such as its 13-megapixel camera and bright 5.5-inch display.

The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3

Alcatel OneTouch has supplemented its own brand with those of better-known component makers, calling out the Sony camera module and impressive JBL speakers. And the Idol 3 is capable of a nifty trick. You can hold it against your head with either end facing up or down and still make the call, thanks to dual speakers and microphones at both ends of the phone.

Impressive as the Idol 3 is, its aspirations aren’t as lofty as the Huawei P8. While it does not copy the looks of a Samsung phone, Huawei has aped Samsung’s former practice of marketing a dizzying range of features. Announced a few weeks ago, the P8 boasts a nearly borderless display, an eight-core processor, and a DSLR-class image sensor. At its introduction, Huawei took Apple and Samsung to task for not having cameras that lie flush with the phone’s body, which, in the case of the P8, is only 6.4 mm thick.

Like the Idol 3, the P8 has not forgotten about phone calls, as it includes noise cancellation and a clever dialer feature that will automatically add country codes to domestic numbers when traveling to other countries.

The Huawei P8

However, other features have dubious value, including a special light-painting camera mode and the ability to link to two other P8s in a “director mode” that creates videos with three different camera angles. Then there’s Knuckle Sense. Billed as a revolutionary user interface advance, it allows knuckleheads to take a screenshot by touching the screen with their knuckle instead of a fingertip. There will be plenty of room for that on the P8 Max variant of the phone, which boasts a palm-defying 6.8-inch display.

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The Idol 3 is the first Alcatel OneTouch global flagship smartphone to be sold in the United States. There’s still no word on whether Huawei’s P8 will make it to U.S. shores. And of course there’s no guarantee that American consumers will opt for these new brands, neither of which has a reputation among stateside consumers. But it’s clear that these Chinese companies are climbing the value chain and differentiating their devices in ways they haven’t before. It’s a trend that stands to step up competition for weaker established brands such as HTC, even as those companies try to narrow the distance between themselves and the industry’s biggest names.

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About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

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