“Chinese Maal”. Remember the widely-held stereotype that Chinese smartphones were no better than knockoffs of big-name brands, known only for inferior, low-quality but highly price-competitive offerings? That tide is turning, with a slew of state-of-the-art smartphones and innovations coming from companies not named Samsung and Apple. At MWC 2023 and in recent months, Chinese smartphone brands have led the charge on introducing new tech into smartphones, getting bleeding edge features into our hands with every passing month.
If there’s one department where the likes of Xiaomi and Realme have stolen a march over the competition (and consumer mindshare), it’s fast charging. Charging phones in under half an hour is getting commonplace and a blistering 100W charging pace is no longer considered extraordinary by today’s standards, even as non-Chinese brands are barely pushing 50W charging speeds.
Fast charging is a habit-changing modern convenience that’s been loved by consumers, “a critical must-have for premium smartphone users”, says Prabhu Ram, head, Industry Intelligence Group at CyberMedia Research. “Seven in every eight smartphone users feel that fast charging is key for their on-the-go lifestyles, yet the average duration of charging in a day is 66 minutes,” Ram adds. This clearly leaves the door open for fast charging adoption.
Brands like realme and Redmi are already setting up the next arms race with 240W and 300W charging speeds, the latter claiming to fully charge a smartphone in under five minutes.
Premium flagship phones are chock-full of the latest display tech – quad-HD resolution with 120Hz refresh rate panels – but the situation down over at the budget price segment isn’t as rosy.
Sample this – you want a phone with quad-HD (1440p) resolution for those sharp visuals and a fluid 120Hz display, but you want an Apple or a Samsung. You’re going to have to pony up the cash for a Galaxy S Ultra or an iPhone ‘Pro’ model.
What brands like realme and iQOO have done is democratize access to high-resolution, high refresh rate displays – today, you can pick up a Realme GT2 Pro (Rs. 49,999) or an iQOO 11 (Rs. 59,999) if you want a phone that ticks off both spec boxes, and phones like the recently launched realme c55 offer a full HD+ 90Hz display for as low as Rs. 10,999.
According to Navkendar Singh, an analyst at IDC: “Fast charging and high refresh rate display are the major criteria across price ranges especially above Rs. 10,000, and Chinese brands have been leading from the front to differentiate themselves by marketing these features aggressively.”
Foldables and rollables
Samsung may well be the established leader in the foldables and new form factor category, but the buzz in recent times has been around brands like Oppo, Motorola and lesser-known brands like Tecno. We saw the Oppo Find N2 Flip recently, which has remarkably improved upon the screen crease that’s inherent to the foldable screen form factor while adding in a useful 3.26-inch cover display on the rear for selfies and quick actions.
At MWC, Motorola showed off the Rizr, a chunky 5-inch display phone that rolls out to a 6.5-inch screen when you need a larger canvas for videos or for reading an e-book. There’s the Honor Magic VS, which opens up like the Z Fold 4 into an 8-inch tablet. But what piqued our attention was the Tecno Phantom V Fold, a made in India foldable with impressive specs - a 7.85-inch inner screen, 6.42-inch outer, 12GB/256 of memory storage – all at an even more impressive price point (Rs. 77,777) when it launches in India next week. Seeing foldables get more affordable is the first step to the form factor becoming more accessible, and with OnePlus slated to launch their foldable later this year, the market is only going to get hotter.
After championing the cause of massive megapixel counts on smartphones – 108-megapixels pushing on 200-megapixels and beyond – the focus has shifted onto larger camera sensors. About time too, since most of the big megapixel counts were still restricted to sensors that were anywhere between 1/2.55 inches and 1/1.31-inches, while typical digital SLRs were anywhere between four to five times the size.
Bridging this gap is the new Sony 50-megapixel IMX989 1-inch-type sensor, which finds its first homes in Xiaomi’s much celebrated 12S Ultra and 13 Pro flagships, as well as the upcoming Oppo Find X6 Pro and Vivo X90 Pro. The larger the sensor gets, the more light it can gather, making for better low-light photography and high dynamic range images, and the results from the Xiaomi 13 Pro have us looking forward to the rest of the 1-inch brigade.
Extreme low-light imaging demands extreme measures, and that’s where gimbal stabilization steps in. Much like the handheld gimbals you would have seen at weddings, a gimbal stabilizer counteracts shaky hands to capture cleaner, steady photos and videos. Vivo has led the charge in gimbal stabilization since the X50 Pro, and successive iterations in the X60, X70 and X80 series have only gotten better.
What about when you want to go further? Many brands rely on using a periscope-style zoom lens mounted horizontally inside a phone instead of a setup that protrudes outside like a typical zoom lens. Here’s a fun fact – despite the periscope zoom lens being largely associated with Samsung and its Space Zoom, it was an Oppo-funded prototype that first showcased the technology and the Huawei P30 Pro’s 5X optical zoom that brought it to market first, back in 2019, followed in 2020 by the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Four years on, with the S23 Ultra sitting atop the zoom pile, the upcoming Oppo Find X6 Pro and the Vivo X90 Pro+ are taking the long reach fight back to Samsung.
If you’re the sort that wants your smartphone to recreate the classic Hasselblad or Leica look, including their distinctive color tuning algorithms and image processing, it’s really only the Chinese brands that are forging meaningful partnerships with these iconic photography brands. Of late, brands like Xiaomi, Hasselblad and Zeiss have moved beyond marketing partnerships to co-engineer camera hardware/software and optics on phones like the Xiaomi 13 Pro, the Find N2 Flip or the upcoming Vivo X90 series, and we’re all for it.
It’s telling though, that Apple or Samsung don’t feel the need to do the same, and it comes down to two factors – these brands are strong enough on their own and have massive R&D teams to create their own signature look and color algorithms.
Gaming phones may seem like an anomaly in an age when most top-shelf smartphones can run practically every game without breaking a sweat, but if you’re in the market for a gaming-focused phone, you’d already know that a regular phone doesn’t cut it in terms of ergonomics, accessories or gaming specific hardware/software tweaks. With the exception of the ROG Series by Taiwanese brand Asus, practically every single gaming focused phone over the past few years has come out of China, be it phones from Black Shark, Nubia or Poco.
Not only do these phones pack in strong performance-oriented processors and graphics, they also add in large vapor/liquid cooling chambers for improved heat dissipation, as well as physical hardware triggers for in-game use. If you’re the really committed sort, there are optional cooling accessories, thumb grips, and gamepad attachments for added comfort in extended duration gaming sessions.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar
Also read: Xiaomi 13 Pro review: will the Leica luck shine?