Despite old clichés about low-quality Chinese products, there is at least one sphere that Chinese companies are starting to significantly challenge their international peers in terms of quality and price: the smartphone market.
As of the first quarter of 2017, Samsung and Apple still reign supreme in the global smartphone market, in first and second place respectively.
According to the latest TrendForce report, Samsung holds 26.1% of the global smartphone, while Apple holds 16.9%.
However, Chinese vendors are hot on the heels of these long-established brands, with companies from the mainland taking third, fourth and fifth place in the market.
The most popular of China’s smartphone companies is Huawei, which started its foray into the smartphone market by making lower cost phones but has since moved into the premium market with its flagship range.
Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, Lenovo (which now owns the Motorola brand) and ZTE are a few other prominent companies out of China making a name for themselves.
So are Chinese companies set to dethrone America and South Korea as the smartphone champions?
From imitation to innovation
While the classic trademark of many Chinese brands were smartphones which simply copied the concepts of phonemakers like Samsung and Apple, they have since moved into innovation.
Of course, many Chinese brands still do release lower-cost alternatives to international peers’ products, like the Huawei MateBook and Xiaomi’s Mi Box (an Android TV set-top box).
However, these brands have moved from imitation to the forefront of certain innovations seen in the mobile phone sphere.
While Taiwan’s HTC was the first phone manufacturer to use dual camera lenses, Huawei enhanced the concept with their Honor 6 Plus which was released in China in 2014. It was only in 2016 that brands like LG and Apple decided to implement dual camera technology into their phones.
Huawei’s first high-profile worldwide release of a dual camera phone was the Huawei P9.
For this product, the company partnered with Leica to create a second lens which would shoot monochrome pictures and work with the first lens to create higher quality, sharper photos.
In this particular sphere is was Apple who actually lagged behind, releasing their first dual camera phone – the iPhone 7 Plus – months later.
When it comes to the trend of ultra-thin bezels and larger screen to body ratios on smartphones (which have been epitomised in the new LG G6 and Samsung’s Galaxy S8), it was actually Chinese brand Xiaomi that released the first Full HD phone with a significantly higher screen-to-body ratio (91.3%) and minimal bezels.
While it was referred to as a concept phone, it was very much a complete product which was snapped up by consumers. Xiaomi produced a limited quantity of the phone, which was sold out in a matter of seconds (literally).
Some may argue that Samsung paved the way with the Edge versions of their Galaxy phones, but these models still had a significant bezel and lower screen-to-body ratio. After all, Samsung wouldn’t be touting the Galaxy S8’s Infinity Display if their previous flagships were the same.
While Japan’s Sharp created the first ultra-thin bezel phone, it was Xiaomi who brought it to the consumer market in stunning fashion, proving that this concept could be incorporated into phones with top specs.
Another feature of Chinese smartphones which has surprised many is their domination of performance ranking lists.
Phone benchmarking company AnTuTu releases frequent lists of the best performing phones on the market. While the top ten has the iPhone 7 Plus and the iPhone 7 at the top of the ranking, the rest of the list’s spots belong to Huawei, Lenovo (the Moto Z), ZTE, and Xiaomi – all Chinese brands.
The only exception is ASUS’s ZenFone 3 Deluxe in seventh place.
Meanwhile GSMarena‘s battery benchmark tests show that the highest endurance phones are the Lenovo P2 and the Gionee Marathon M5 – both Chinese brands. The only non-Chinese brands to make the top five are the Asus Zenfone Max ZC550KL (Taiwanese) and the Samsung Galaxy A7.
But what really sets them apart?
Innovation in the smartphone market waxes and wanes, with different phone makers leading the charge each time.
But the thing that continues to set Chinese smartphones apart is the value-for-money consumers receive.
We all know that Chinese products tend to be cheaper, and this has often come at the cost of quality.
But increasingly Chinese smartphone makers have upped the quality while keeping prices significantly lower than their competitors’.
While Huawei has moved into the premium market and isn’t the leader in budget-friendly devices anymore, brands like Xiaomi and Hisense have readily taken up that mantle.
Remember the Xiaomi Mi Mix I mentioned? That phone retailed for around $510, despite its high-end specs like a 4400mAh battery and a Snapdragon 821 processor.
This is in comparison to prices for Samsung and Apple’s 2016 flagships, which range from $649 to $720. While Samsung and Apple’s phonse do remain more premium in certain respects, you can’t deny that brands like Xiaomi are offering quality close to those levels for a significantly reduced price.
While it’s hard to ever definitely predict consumers’ behaviour, it is likely that Chinese smartphone makers are on their way to becoming the dominant force in the market.
Huawei’s first Ascend smartphone launched only in 2010, but the manufacturer has already claimed 11.4% of the global smartphone market (just over 5% less than Apple’s share).
As these brands focus on high quality products for budget-conscious markets in developing countries, and other consumers disillusioned by rising prices, China is on its way to becoming the smartphone champion.