Low Cost High End Phones: What’s the Catch?

If you’re in the market for a new smartphone then finances are obviously going to play a part in your buying decision. Most of us aren’t made of money, so we’re looking for a bargain. In the past couple of years, more and more of these smart phone bargains have seemed too good to be true. A high end phone with a budget price? Yes please! But there’s got to be a catch, right? Well, yes, there are a few actually. Here’s why you might want to consider that bargain very carefully…

What Kind of Phones Are We Talking About?

We’re going to make a sweeping generalisation here: the vast majority of these top end low cost phones are coming from Chinese manufacturers. That’s not a bad thing in itself (Huawei, for example are a well-known Chinese phone maker with a good reputation), but it can come with a few issues. Companies that you might not have heard of, like Elephone, Cubot or Doogee, are suddenly appearing on the UK market and advertising phones that look amazing and that have unbelievable price tags.

Let’s look at an example here. The Doogee Mix 4G comes with a 5.5 inch screen and sticks to modern trends by having no bezel (so the whole front panel is screen). It gets massive octo core 2.5 GHz processing power, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of internal storage. There’s a dual rear camera (13 M and 8 MP), and a 5 MP front cam, as well as quick charge tech. All in all, you’re looking at something that from specs alone looks more than capable of competing against the Samsung Galaxy S8 or even the new iPhones. Oh, and that price tag? A mere £175.99. Wow.

Wait, How Come It’s So Cheap?

Let’s be clear and say that this isn’t really a scam. These phones are cheap and they do work (with a few caveats that we’ll get to). And there are good reasons why Chinese companies can afford to make mobiles that are so affordable:

  • Prices for labour and parts are cheaper in China
  • Economies of scale mean manufacturers can save on tech (since these producers sell most of the phones to the huge Chinese market and sell tons of hand sets)
  • The expected price point of phones in China is lower than in the west, so manufacturers aim to make a phone with a lower price than we would expect

All of these reasons are valid, and none of them mean that someone is trying to rip you off. But does that mean you should be buying one of these great bargains? Hold up there a second, there are quite a few catches here that you should be aware of…

1. Hard to Find

The first catch is that these phones are hard to get hold of in the first place. The manufacturers don’t have a real foothold in the worldwide market and therefore don’t tend to sell in mainstream shops. Picking up a phone online is usually the only way you’ll get one and you will then have to pair that with a SIM only deal. Sometimes this involves buying from Chinese websites, sometimes through Amazon. You don’t see what you’re getting before you buy it, you can’t try it out, and there have been more than a few customers that have had problems with getting their packages past customs into their homeland. Add in the cost of (insured!) shipping from China and customs fees and that bargain price becomes more expensive than you might have planned on.

2. Hard to Review

Sensible online shoppers spend their shopping time checking out customer reviews, and reviews from reputable websites before making a phone purchase. You’re going to find it difficult to get much feedback about a lot of these phones simply because not many of them are sold to western markets. Again, you’re not going to have a clear idea of what you’re getting.

3. The Update Issue

It’s not only shopping for a phone that can be tough, there can also be performance issues. One of the most common problems that people have with Chinese handsets is that their phones simply don’t receive updates. Most of these phones are going to be Android, and Google updates Android about once a month with new security patches. Many Chinese manufacturers do NOT keep to this update schedule (and some don’t update their OS at all once it’s installed), leaving your phone potentially unprotected at worst and without new OS features at best.

4. The Tech Problem

Now here’s a thorny issue. China, as you probably know, has strict censorship laws, and these firewall laws restrict certain media. This means that many Chinese phones come without the regular Google apps that you’ve come to expect. The manufacturer installs a special Chinese software package (a ROM) over the top of the normal Android software so that the phone will comply with Chinese law.

Some manufacturers will ship phones with an international ROM (that supports English language as well as things like the Google Play Store), but there have been issues with these ROMs having malware (bad software, spyware, viruses) preinstalled.

If you’re techie enough, this shouldn’t be a problem, simply choose a phone with an unlockable bootloader (and micro SD) then manually flash the ROM to the phone whilst deleting problematic apps. But if that last sentence made no sense to you, then one of these phones might not be the choice for you.

5. The 4G Issue

4G connectivity and faster mobile data speeds has become standard for most of us these days. However, since China’s 4G standard is different from ours in most of Europe, many phones won’t support 4G despite saying that they will. Band 20 (which is the 4G system used by O2 UK) support, for example, is often missing, meaning no super-fast internet for you.

The Bottom Line

Again, to be clear, the above does not apply to all Chinese manufacturers, or even to all phones. Buy a Chinese phone from a reputed dealer, or your operator, and you’re going to be just fine. But those bargains that you find online that seem too good to be true? Chances are that they could well be. If you’re buying a new phone you need to do your research, and that’s doubly true with a bargain phone.