Samsung is the world’s – and Asia’s – top smartphone maker. But there are a lot of rival phone-makers out there aiming to dethrone the likes of Samsung and Apple. That competition is especially strong across Asia, where a number of relatively new phone-makers are playing to their strengths in home markets, aiming to get consumers hooked on their own keenly-priced but strongly-specced devices.
Let’s look at 15 of the strongest new contenders across Asia. They’re all – individually and collectively – keen to steal sales from more established phone-makers. To quote a Bob Marley song: If you are a big tree, we are a small axe, sharp and ready, ready to cut you down.
This is perhaps the best known of any Asian startup, thanks to the fact that it’s already outselling Apple in China. Xiaomi plans to sell 60 million smartphones this year. Hiring ex-Google Android VP Hugo Barra last year stunned the world and signaled that it’s ready to explore new markets.
What’s Xiaomi’s secret? Its smartphones sell for about half the price of Samsung’s and HTC’s flagship phones, yet the strength and versatility of its Android skin (called MIUI) makes them feel like top-quality products. Xiaomi keeps costs low by selling 70 percent of its phones online, and the rest via telco partners. It has no retail business to drain money. It also sells to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. It aims to roll out in more countries in Southeast Asia – the next stop will be Malaysia. And then it’ll tackle big markets like India. Xiaomi’s next continent will likely be South America.
Lower down in the price range is the Xiaomi Redmi, which we reckon is the best phone you can get for a mere $130.
Xiaomi models itself on Amazon, according to its founder. But the company’s minimal product line-up often leads to the media comparing it with Apple. Like Apple, Xiaomi has a streaming media box, and it has adapted that software to put into its own smart TV, the MiTV.
- Flagship phone: Xiaomi Mi4 has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor; 3GB RAM; 13MP back camera and a 8MP front one; Android 4.4; costs US$325 (16GB) or $405 (64GB) unlocked. Check out our Mi4 review.
Here’s another newcomer now outselling Apple in China. Coolpad is China’s third biggest smartphone brand in terms of sales, according to Gartner, thanks to a broad line-up of mostly cheap Android-based smartphones, with lots of special versions made for China’s three telcos. They won’t win any design awards and won’t blow your mind, but only 13 percent of Chinese people will buy smartphones that cost over $330 (that’s the psychologically important RMB 2,000 barrier) so the low-end market is vast.
Coolpad has been an OEM for several telcos around the world (producing stuff like the MetroPCS Quatrro 4G phone for T-Mobile in the US), and that’s still part of its business. But Coolpad wants to stand on its own brand overseas, and it’s targeting Southeast Asia as a first step.
- Flagship phone: Coolpad Halo has a 7-inch 1080p HD screen; 1.7GHz octa-core MediaTek MT6592 processor; 2GB RAM; 13MP back camera and a 5MP front one; Android 4.2; costs US$320 for 8GB model.
Oppo is another Chinese phone-maker that’s looking to be big overseas as well as at home. But, despite spending big on advertising with Hollywood faces, Oppo is struggling to get brand recognition in its native China.
The company is aiming globally with its newest flagships, the OPPO N1 (pictured above) and Find 7. The brand offers Oppo’s own Android skin (dubbed Color OS), but for some markets there’s the option of CyanogenMod’s new OS, potentially making it a big draw for Android geeks. A spin-off company from Oppo called OnePlus launched this year (see below) and which challenges Oppo with a similarly strongly-specced phone with an even smaller price-tag.
Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines – all young and fast-developing mobile markets – are target new markets for OPPO.
- Flagship phone: Oppo Find 7 has a 5.5-inch quad-HD screen (yes, that’s 2560 by 1440 pixels), 2.5GHz Snapdragon quad-core processor; 3GB RAM; 13MP rear camera (with software trickery it takes 50MP images) and a 5MP front one; Android 4.4; costs US$499 unlocked.
OnePlus, China’s newest big-bang phone-maker, burst onto the scene in May this year. Inspired by Xiaomi, it sells only online, and has strong hardware at a satisfyingly low price. Unlike Xiaomi, OnePlus is going global from day one.
Indeed, OnePlus may do better outside China than it does at home, thanks to its use of CyanogenMod OS, a highly configurable reworking of Android that stays close to the look of stock Android. The tie-up with the respected modders at CyanogenMod also means that the OnePlus will get very timely Android updates – likely faster than any other brand on this list.
- Flagship phone: OnePlus One has a 5.5-inch 1080p HD screen; 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 processor; 3GB RAM; 13MP back camera and a 5MP front one; Android 4.4; costs US$299 (16GB) or $349 (64GB) unlocked. Check out our OnePlus One review.
Of all the firms on our list, Micromax is the closest to its goal of beating Samsung. 44 million new smartphones were shipped in India in 2013 – 38 percent of those from Samsung, 16 percent from Micromax. Like most of these Asian brands (though not the Chinese ones), Micromax also makes tablets and feature phones.
Micromax started its overseas expansion late last year by venturing into Russia and Romania, two developing markets that it reckons have a strong desire for more affordable smartphones.
- Flagship phone: Micromax Canvas Nitro A310 has a 5-inch 720p HD screen; 1.7 GHz octa-core Mediatek MT6592 processor; 2GB RAM; 13MP rear camera and a 5MP front one; Android 4.4; costs US$215 for the 8GB model.
Karbonn made up 10 percent of smartphone shipments in India at the end of 2013. Karbonn is a bit smaller than Micromax, but both are growing strongly.
- Flagship phone: Karbonn Titanium Octane Plus has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 1.7 GHz MediaTek octa-core processor; 13MP rear camera and 8MP front one; Android 4.4; costs $240 unlocked.
Though smaller than its two compatriot rivals, Xolo is also keen for a slice of India’s low-end to mid-range smartphone market. However, the prices are not as tempting as those of its local rivals.
- Flagship phone: Xolo 8X-1000 has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 2 GHz octa-core MediaTek MT6592T processor; 2GB RAM; 13MP rear camera and a 5MP front one; Android 4.4; costs US$330 for the 16GB iteration.
8. Q Mobile
Q Mobile is the largest homegrown smartphone maker in Pakistan, making a mix of feature phones, smartphones, and tablets. The company started relatively recently – in 2009 – so it’s not struggling with a switch away from making basic phones in the same as as some other brands on this list.
At the moment, Q Mobile has 43 smartphone models listed on its homepage.
- Flagship phone: Q Mobile Noir Quatro Z4 has a 5-inch 1080p screen; 1.5 Ghz processor (CPU brand not disclosed); 2GB RAM; 13MP rear camera and 5MP front one; Android 4.2; costs $290 unlocked.
Smartfren is different from the others in this list in that it’s a mobile telco company. It has 12.5 million subscribers, and it’s pushing forward Indonesia’s shift to Android with its own competitively-priced smartphones.
In our experience, the cheap components can lead to a laggy and sub-par experience on Smarfren’s phones, but then they do cost well under $200 unlocked. Still, Xiaomi’s cheapest phone is only $130 but has much stronger specs and doesn’t feel laggy, so Smartfren (and many others on this list) have some catching up to do on their sub-$200 phones.
- Flagship phone: Smartfren Andromax Z has a 5.5-inch 720p screen; 1.5 GHz Snapdragon processor; 1GB RAM; 8MP rear camera and 2MP front one; Android 4.2; costs $245 unlocked.
Indonesia’s HiMax (not to be confused with the Taiwanese chip-maker of the same name) might have learned something from brands like Oppo and Xiaomi to make stronger phones than compatriot rivals like Smartfren and the increasingly clueless Cyrus. Not only are the specs stronger, but HiMax is offering lower prices than other Indonesian phone brands and coming up with better looking software too.
- Flagship phone: HiMax Polymer S has a 5-inch 720p HD screen; 1.7 GHz MediaTek MT6592 processor; 2GB RAM; 13MP rear camera and 5MP front one; Android 4.4; costs $170 for the 8GB version.
Mito sells tablets, feature phones, and smartphones. It’s based in Indonesia but it also operates in India. 80 percent of its sales are low-end, feature phone devices. It sold about two to three million devices in 2013, so it’s not going to sell that many smartphones, but it’s still one to watch as its ratio of smartphone sales increases.
- Flagship phone: Mito Fantasy A95 has a 5-inch 720p HD screen; 1.2 GHz Mediatek MT6589 quad-core processor; 1GB RAM; 8MP rear camera and 1.3MP front one; Android 4.2; costs $153 unlocked.
With an emphasis on style and a bit more attention paid to design than is evident in the others on this list, Malaysia’s Ninetology is already, it claims, Malaysia’s second biggest phone-maker – behind, inevitably, Samsung.
The Malaysian firm sells its phones in neigboring Indonesia.
- Flagship phone: Ninetology Z1T has a 5-inch 720p HD screen; 1.2 GHZ quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor; 1GB RAM; 13MP rear camera and 1.6MP front one; Android 4.3; costs $315 unlocked.
Like Cyrus and a couple of other firms on this list, Thailand’s I-Mobile is slowly transitioning from being a cloner of other people’s feature phones to a maker of its own Android devices. Its latest IQ range of phones packs in a commendable amount of camera for less that $300, which is a good idea for a country that’s so crazy about Instagram.
- Flagship phone: I-Mobile IQ X KEN has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 2.2 GHz Snapdragon 800 processor; 2GB RAM; 13MP rear camera and 1.3MP front one; Android 4.2; costs $528 unlocked.
14. Cherry Mobile
The Philippines has faster smartphone market growth than the likes of Indonesia and Vietnam, making it a country to watch right now.
If you thought that Samsung has a dizzying array of options, Cherry Mobile makes the Korean giant look like a master of Zen simplicity. Cherry Mobile recently revealed 84 models – yes, eighty-four – that will be rolled out gradually during the course of a huge marketing blitz that will last for the next two months. It also makes tablets and feature phones.
Cherry Mobile’s devices are all made in China or India. This brand also sells in Thailand.
- Flagship phone: Cherry Mobile Cosmos Z2 has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 1.7 GHz MediaTek MT6592 processor; 2GB RAM; 18MP rear camera and 8MP front one; Android 4.2; costs $300 for the 16GB version.
Starmobile is battling Cherry Mobile with even larger phones that generally have stronger specs at a lower price. As is commonplace among these homegrown Asian brands, Starmobile also makes basic phones and tablets so as to cover the nation’s wide demographic spread.
Cherry Mobile and Starmobile are being stalked closely by two local rivals, MyPhone and Torque. It’s hard to discern which of the four is selling more phones right now, but a recent survey suggests Cherry Mobile is the top homegrown phone-maker.
- Flagship phone: Starmobile Octa has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 1.7 GHz MediaTek MT6592 processor; 2GB RAM; 18MP rear camera and 8MP front one; Android 4.2; costs $320 for the 16GB version.
Samsung has a lot more to worry about besides those. This is far from an exhaustive list, and there are more grass-roots smartphone makers out there across Asia.
Also, let’s not forget that there are some major rivals in the Android space too. Samsung’s closest rival in China is actually Lenovo. And there are plenty more, well-established brands keen to be the top shipper of Android smartphones – like LG, Huawei, HTC, Motorola, to name but four.
Which of our 15 look like the biggest threat? Let us know in the comments.
(Update 1, April 2014: This article was published originally in October 2013 with 13 on the list. It’s now updated with a total of 15. Evercoss was deleted from the list so that Q Mobile, Cherry Mobile, and Starmobile could be added in; Update 2, September 2014: We’ve updated all the flagship phones. In addition, FPT and Cyrus were removed from the list to be replaced with OnePlus and HiMax)Editing by Josh Horwitz, Terence Lee