It’s time to stop dismissing Chinese phones as knockoffs. We’ve all seen the endless parade of iPhone clones, yes, but over the past couple of years, manufacturers from China have stepped up their game in a big way, turning out devices that are innovative, attractive, and straight-up desirable in their own right. If you don’t think there’s any reason to pay attention to Chinese phones, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.
The problem is that most of the best ones aren’t available in the US, meaning you’d have to deal with third-party importers and a lack of official support if you did want to buy one. Some of these phones aren’t available with Google services, meaning you’ll need workarounds to access the Play Store even though the software is based on Android. And while the US government has yet to show its receipts for claims that companies like Huawei could be a national security threat, the notion is unlikely to encourage many people to decipher their import options.
If you’re in the US, then, we can’t exactly recommend buying any of these phones. But it’s worth knowing what’s out there, even if only to inform yourself about just how those new premium LG or Samsung Android devices hold up by comparison. And hey, if you do feel like checking out something different, you can probably get it to work if you really try.
Vivo NEX S
Vivo just announced the Nex series, the commercial realization of the super cool Apex concept phone we saw at Mobile World Congress this year. While the Nex S flagship doesn’t have Apex’s “half-screen” fingerprint sensor, it does carry over the most eye-catching feature: a pop-up selfie camera that eliminates the need for a notch.
That means the Nex S has a huge, uninterrupted 6.6-inch screen with the slightest of bezels at the bottom. There’s also an in-display fingerprint sensor — albeit one that’s only thumbprint-sized — and a kaleidoscopic glass back panel.
It’s a futuristic-feeling device, for sure, and the trade-offs seem fairly sensible. Stay tuned for more coverage to find out if that’s the case.
Oppo Find X
Oppo’s newest flagship is similar to the Nex S in that it attempts to solve The Notch Problem by attaching cameras to motors. The Find X’s approach, however, is far more complex and ambitious: the entire top section of the phone’s rear panel rises above the screen to reveal a selfie camera and a 3D face-scanning array.
With no fingerprint authentication in the screen or anywhere else, this means you’ll see this rising mechanism activate every time you unlock the phone. It’s certainly a sight to behold, but the stakes are much higher. The motorized camera on the Nex S only comes into play for selfies and video calls, whereas the Find X’s is essential for basic operation. Phones tend to be solid-state devices for a reason: the fewer moving parts, the fewer ways there are for something to break.
Still, the Find X makes a heck of a statement. There’s surely no more ostentatious way to display your notch opposition. And Oppo says it’ll actually bring the Find X to the US one way or another, though there aren’t any details on the release just yet. If it happens, it’ll cost you: the Find X will cost €999 in Europe, or about $1,160.
Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S
Xiaomi’s highest-end phone is the latest iteration of the line that kicked off the whole bezel-shaving trend we’ve been living through for the past year. The Mi Mix 2 was a more refined and usable version of the original, and this year’s 2S is the best Mi Mix yet: it adds wireless charging, a dual-camera system, and Qualcomm’s fastest processor, the Snapdragon 845.
It also doesn’t have a notch at the top of the display, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The trade-off is that the selfie camera has been relegated to the “chin” bezel below the screen, meaning you have to hold the phone upside down to use it for video calls and so on. Whether this is a deal-breaker to you will depend on your usage patterns, or whether you’re willing to gamble on either of Oppo and Vivo’s more creative solutions.
Huawei P20 Pro
The P20 Pro is one of the best phones of 2018, period. With a unique shimmering design, a class-leading triple-camera system, and excellent battery life, there’s not much to criticize beyond the fact that its manufacturer has borne the brunt of the US government’s anti-China invective.
That said, I still find Huawei’s EMUI software to be inelegant at best and deleteriously in thrall to iOS at worst. Most of these phones have software that’s taken heavy inspiration from iOS, but while Oppo and Xiaomi’s skins are mostly coherent in their own right, EMUI is all over the place. Huawei is to be commended for going its own way in hardware design and even devising its own processor to great results; hopefully it’ll eventually do the same with its software.
Meizu was one of the first Chinese phone companies to make a name for itself among Western gadget followers, but its market share has dwindled significantly since the rise of giants like Oppo and Xiaomi. That’s a shame, because the new Meizu 15 is actually one of my favorite phone designs of the year.
The 15 doesn’t even attempt to fit in with the trends of 2018. It’s just a big 5.5-inch 16:9 1080p panel and very little else. Imagine an iPhone 8 Plus with midrange specs, without the giant top and bottom bezels, and you’re halfway there. But that doesn’t capture the way the phone’s screen goes right up to the left and right borders, with subtly curved glass spilling over the edges. Nor how Meizu managed to fit a small but functional fingerprint reader below the screen, even matching it with a proper haptics system to simulate a home button press.
It might not look like much in photos, and it doesn’t look like much when you turn it around, either. But I’ve found the Meizu 15 to be more fun to hold and use than maybe any other phone this year, and that’s something.
The Vivo X21 isn’t as flashy as the NEX S, but it’s a groundbreaking phone in one regard: it’s the first mainstream flagship from anyone to feature an in-display fingerprint sensor, the longtime white whale of the phone industry. More impressively, it works really well.
It might be a little slower than a regular fingerprint scanner if you break out your stopwatch, sure, but usually not to the point where you’d notice. Anyone who’s fiddled with the small sensor on the back of the otherwise-similar OnePlus 6 would find it hard to go back after using the Vivo X21.
The X21 is otherwise unremarkable, but you’ll pay a lot less for it than the Nex S, and it’ll be available in vastly higher quantities in various markets — as you may have gathered from the associated marketing at the ongoing soccer World Cup.
Oppo R15 Pro
Oppo’s R15 Pro is like a cross between the Vivo X21 and the OnePlus 6. It loses the X21’s in-display fingerprint sensor but gains the 6’s better main camera and proprietary fast charging system. And out of the three, I think it has the most attractive design, particularly in its gorgeously gradiated ruby red colorway.
Like the X21, however, it uses the less powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor rather than the OnePlus 6’s 845. You’ll also have to make do with a Micro USB port, though it does use Oppo’s VOOC fast-charging technology, which OnePlus uses for its Dash system.
Xiaomi Mi 8
Xiaomi’s other flagship is somewhat more conventional. The Mi 8, unsurprisingly, is the company’s first phone with a display notch, and as such, it doesn’t really stand out in terms of design beyond the slightly dubious transparent “Explorer Edition.”
The main Xiaomi Mi line has never really been about pushing the limits of industrial design, though. It’s been about offering really solid devices at impressive prices, and the Mi 8 continues that tradition. It has high-end specs, including a Snapdragon 845 processor, and starts at around $420, meaning it’s significantly cheaper than even the OnePlus 6.
A smaller Snapdragon 770-powered version called the Mi 8 SE, meanwhile, starts from $280 and could be the real bargain in the lineup. Xiaomi continues to offer solid, legitimately modern devices at prices that are hard for anyone else to match.