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 Hongmi, 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 Mi3 has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen, 1.8GHz NVIDIA Tegra 4 (WDCDMA version) or 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 (TD-SCDMA version) processors; 13-megapixel back camera and a 2-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $325 (16GB) or $405 (64GB) unlocked.
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 Magview 4 has a 5.9-inch 1080p HD screen; 1.8GHz Tegra 4 processor; 13-megapixel rear camera; Android 4.2; costs a whopping $650 unlocked.
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 launches soon which will challenge Oppo with similarly strongly-specced phones with above-average size price-tags.
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; 13-megapixel rear camera (with software trickery it takes 50-megapixel images) and 5-megapixel front one; Android 4.3; costs $599 unlocked.
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 Knight has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 2 GHz MediaTek octa-core processor; 16-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front one; Android 4.2.2; costs $330 unlocked.
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; 13-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel 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 Q3000 has a 5.7-inch 1080p HD screen; 1.5 GHz MediaTek quad-core processor; 13-megapixel rear camera and 5-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $350 unlocked.
7. 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; 1.5Ghz processor (CPU brand not disclosed); 13-megapixel rear camera and 5-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $313 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: Smartren Andromax Z has a 5.5-inch 720p screen; 1.5 GHz Snapdragon processor; 8-megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $245 unlocked.
Cyrus phones are pretty badly specced – but then they are half the price of the flagships from Xiaomi, Micromax, et al. This is the ultra low-end of the smartphone market.
In a nation that’s crazy about BlackBerry phones and BBM, Cyrus is wisely pre-installing the new BBM Android app on its phones, and marketing them heavily as replacements for the nation’s beloved BlackBerry handsets.
- Flagship phone: Cyrus Cerry has a 5.3-inch but low-res screen (960 x 540 pixels); 1.2 GHZ quad-core processor; 8-megapixel rear camera and 0.3-megapixel front one; Android 4.1; costs $160 unlocked.
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 Power A68 has a 5-inch 720p HD screen; 1.3 GHZ Mediatek quad-core processor; 8-megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $130 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 Z1+ has a 5-inch 720p HD screen; 1.2 GHZ quad-core Mediatek processor; 13-megapixel rear camera and 5-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $410 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 Octa 1068 has a 5-inch 1080p HD screen; 1.7 GHZ Mediatek octa-core processor; 18-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front one; Android 4.2.2; costs $390 unlocked.
Part of the massive FPT (FPT:VN) conglomerate that also encompasses a telecoms business.
FPT has set the goal of manufacturing and selling 600,000 smartphones in Vietnam in 2013. This will be a shift from what FPT was shipping last year, which was centered on feature phones. It will mean that smartphones make up 70 percent of its mobile output.
- Flagship phone: FPT VI has a 5-inch 720p screen; 1.2 GHZ Snapdragon quad-core processor; 13-megapixel rear camera and 1.6-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $235 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 Omega Infinity has a 5.5-inch 1080p screen; 1.5Ghz MediaTek processor; 18-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $340 unlocked.
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 Diamond X1 has a 6-inch 720p screen, 1.7GHz MediaTek octa-core processor; 18-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front one; Android 4.2; costs $316 unlocked.
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.
(Note: This was published originally in October 2013 with 13 on the list. It’s now updated for April 2014 with a total of 15. Evercoss is deleted from the list so that Q Mobile, Cherry Mobile, and Starmobile can be added in.)Editing by Josh Horwitz