China's mobile phone tech sector is on the rise. Many brands are little known but synonymous with cheap prices. Indeed, several websites sell unlocked Chinese smartphones at prices far below what you'd normally pay for the hot sellers here. Some Chinese mobile phones are similar in appearance to those we know and love while others are completely original, with most, if not all, of the functionalities we crave.
Although there are dirt-cheap Chinese-brand smartphones, our research found that prices on the devices you'd consider buying parallel the budget phones available in the United States -- with few improvements. The models discussed below feature at least 1GB of RAM (which lets the phone perform more functions at a reasonable speed) and run on the 4.2 Android operating system. (We could not find any with a 4.3 or 4.4 OS.) The brands are listed in rank order, starting with the best of the bunch.
A few words of caution: It's nearly impossible to get any support should your phone break or you run into a problem. Moreover, the wireless technology may stumble when interacting with U.S. networks. CNET offers more insight into the potential pitfalls of buying a Chinese smartphone.
1. iNew.iNew, a brand of affordable, beautifully slim mobile phones, really delivers. The iNew V3 boasts nearly all the features of $200-plus smartphones but at $190 (at inewmobile.com) is a tad cheaper. Weighing just 128 grams, this is the lightest Chinese smartphone on the list yet still comes with a 1.3Ghz quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 1280x720HD-resolution screen. The camera features are impressive: 13MP in the back and 5MP in the front. It's hard to find a better phone at this price.
The iNew I6000 Basic is the largest phone discussed here, with a price of $249 and 6.5-inch screen and 1920x1080-pixel display. However, it sports only 1GB of RAM and a 1.5Ghz quad-core processor, which seems somewhat paltry compared with other high-resolution smartphones. As of this writing, the I600 Basic is out of stock but the I6000 Advanced offers up 2GB of RAM and carries a $290 price tag (at inewmobile.com).
2. Lenovo.Lenovo is best known for its computers and the recent acquisition of Motorola. But it also offers mobile phones at various price points that seem solid and relatively inexpensive. Lenovo takes the No. 2 slot on the strength of its proven track record and the likelihood of getting customer support should anything go wrong.
At the low end of the line, the Lenovo S920 seems to be the best bet. Although a tad pricey at about $200 (at antelife.com), this Chinese smartphone has an MTK6589 quad-core processor, display resolution of 1280x720, and 1G of RAM. It's not on par with high-end devices, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a cheaper phone with these specs. (The iNew V3 may be the exception.)
At the other extreme is the Lenovo K900, with 2G of RAM, an Intel Atom dual-core chip, and 1920x1080 display -- specs that compare favorably with models like those in the Samsung Galaxy line. Starting price on this model is $324 (at china24shop.com).
3. Xiaomi.Xiaomi is one of the higher-end smartphone brands in China, known for sleek, functional, and well-designed phones that hold their own against giants like Apple and Samsung. The Xiaomi HongMi (Red Rice) offers a lot for a starting price of $209 (at antelife.com): a 1280x960 display (but relatively small 4.7-inch screen), 1G of RAM, 1.3MP front-facing camera, 8MP back camera, and video recording capabilities.
The Xiaomi 2S sells for $339 (at antelife.com), but for good reason. It boasts 2G of RAM, a 13MP front camera, and a Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor that, combined with 1.6g Ghz, makes it the fastest Chinese smartphone on our list.
4. Huawei.Huawei is one of the largest mobile phone brands in China, with enough models in its stable to suit most budgets but arguably over-priced for what you get. The Huawei G610s, one of the cheaper models at $147 (at china24shop.com), offers a lackluster 960x540 screen resolution, a standard quad-core processor that clocks in at 1.2GHz, and expandable storage.
At the other end of the spectrum sits the Huawei Ascend P6, priced in the $320 range. This model is outfitted with 2GB of RAM, a K3V2E quad-core processor that runs at 1.5Ghz, a 5MP front camera with flashlight and video recording, and a small 4.7-inch screen with 1280x720HD resolution that can only be considered average.
5. ZTE.ZTE is a Chinese brand that hasn't broken into the American mainstream despite low prices. Known for middle-of-the-road smartphones, we found a couple worth noting. The ZTE V967s is relatively weak in its display, with a 540x960 resolution, but sports a quad-core processor and 1GB of RAM. At $160 (at pandawill.com), this Chinese brand smartphone could be a decent buy.
Consumers with a larger budget may prefer the ZTE Geek V975, which offers a 1280x780 display, 8MP back camera, and 1MP front camera with flashlight. With a dual-core 2.0Ghz processor and 2GB of RAM, it should perform as well as most smartphones. Starting prices for this model of $246 compare favorably with similarly-outfitted models that cross the $400 mark in the U.S.