Your buying guide for the best Chinese phones in 2017
You've probably heard of brands such as Huawei, ZTE and Lenovo, although you might not be aware that the latter makes phones as well as laptops. Xiaomi, too, is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, and is known as China's Apple.
Then there's Meizu, Letv, Oppo, Homtom, Vernee, UMI, Ulefone, Elephone, Doogee, Leagoo, Mazze, Bluboo, Oukitel and others that won't sound familiar to a UK audience but offer fantastic value and are well worth your attention.
The problem with many Chinese phones is that they can be difficult to get hold of in the UK, and should something go wrong it is more difficult to get it sorted. To buy a Chinese phone in the UK you'll either need to look on a site such as eBay or Amazon, or go through a grey-market importer such as Geekbuying, GearBest or Coolicool. Be sure to read up on our grey-market tech buying advice before you do so.
Should you buy a Chinese phone in the UK?
• Excellent value for money
• Competitive specification
• None of your friends will have the same phone
• Faulty devices may be difficult to return
• You may incur import duty (charged at 20 percent of the value on the shipping paperwork plus an admin fee)
• The phone may not work with your network (be sure to check before you buy)
• Google Play may not be preinstalled (as is the case with some Xiaomi and Meizu phones)
Features and specifications
The majority of Chinese phones we've reviewed have been dual-SIM dual-standby. Sometimes, though, this second SIM comes at the expense of the microSD slot - it's often one or the other.
An increasing number of phones will support 4G on both SIM slots, but dual-standby phones will ask you to select one or the other for data.
The fact that a Chinese phone supports 4G doesn't necessarily mean it will work on your UK network, mind. Always check a phone's frequency bands before purchase, because Chinese phones are often missing the 800MHz band (band 20).
Whereas Qualcomm-made processors are popular in UK phones, many Chinese phones come with cheaper MediaTek chips. The fastest among these are the Helio X25, X27 and X30. Typically speaking they're not quite as fast as their Qualcomm cousins, though they are more than capable of your daily tasks. A key difference is their support for HotKnot rather than NFC.
Three or four gigs of RAM is not uncommon, with some even specifying 6GB, while storage is usually 32GB or 64GB as standard.
You will almost certainly find a fingerprint scanner, plus a 13Mp camera at the rear and 5- or 8Mp at the front. The camera functionality is very similar to that of any other Android phone, but you may find the Face Beauty mode whitens your skin tone.
A full-HD screen is common, with Quad-HD very rare but HD screens are still found in the cheapest models. Most have large screens 5.5in in diameter or more.
The screen is usually a good-quality IPS panel, and may often be marketed as having 2.5D Arc glass or 3D glass. This does not mean the screen is curved, but rather that the edges of the screen are slightly curved.
Gorilla Glass is another common feature, which is fortunate because getting hold of a case for a Chinese phone can be as involved as buying the phone itself.
Customisable gestures are not built into Android, but they are very common in Chinese phones. This means you are likely to be able to double-tap to wake the screen, and by drawing a letter onscreen in standby mode you will be able to launch an app of your choice. Many Chinese phones will also allow you to use gestures to trigger the camera shutter.
We won't recommend any Chinese phone we haven't physically tested. Thus we offer this chart not as a definitive guide to buying Chinese phones, but as a guide to what you can expect for your money when you buy from China.
1. OnePlus 5
- Reviewed on: 13 September 2017
The OnePlus 5 is a logical refinement of the young company’s back catalogue. It marries solid design with excellent software in a package under £500. But a year ago, it did this all for a sliver over £300.
The phone feels like the end of OnePlus phase one and a bridge to whatever the company does next. It might not be the obvious bargain price OnePlus is known for but it's still significantly cheaper, is incredibly fast and has improved cameras.
There are downsides with no waterproofing, Quad HD screen or wireless charging. We strongly recommend considering this phone if you’ve been tempted by the Galaxy S8 or LG G6 but can't stretch to them – the fact it’s in that conversation is testament to OnePlus’ continuing impressive achievements.
Read our OnePlus 5 review.
2. Xiaomi Mi6
- Reviewed on: 26 May 2017
This really is an amazing phone, and only the Chinese software puts us off recommending it for a UK audience. It is crazy fast, crazy beautiful and crazy priced. If you know your way around Android go and get one, and you won’t be disappointed.
Read our Xiaomi Mi6 review.
3. Honor 9
- Reviewed on: 28 July 2017
The Honor 9 is an undeniably impressive phone for an unmatched price right now. In performance terms, it's nipping at the heels of the year's top flagships, and only lacking flashy features like waterproofing or a bezel-less screen. It looks great, it runs fast, and it costs less than £400. We're sold.
Read our Honor 9 review.
- Reviewed on: 12 July 2017
The Mi Note 2 was wrongly overshadowed at its launch. This is a gorgeous big-screen Android phone with very decent performance, a great camera and plenty of storage. We'd like to see a Quad-HD screen on Xiaomi's flagship phone, but this one should prove plenty sharp and clear. Google apps are not preinstalled, but there is a workaround if you are happy to do some tweaking.
Read our Xiaomi Mi Note 2 review.
- Reviewed on: 7 November 2017
We remain huge fans of the Mi Mix family, but rather than the revolutionary beast it once was Xiaomi's 'bezel-less' phone has been brought kicking and screaming into line with other Android flagships.
It may have lost some of its wow factor, but in the most part we're pleased with the changes: we love the new design, both smaller and lighter and therefore more manageable than before. We also love the improved connectivity, now with complete UK 4G support.
We don't love the reduction in battery life, though, nor the loss of the headphone jack, and we're not enamoured with the new camera bump.
But the Mi Mix 2 is still a fantastic phone: significantly faster than its predecessor, and much better looking. Better still, it's as affordable as ever, making it a great alternative to other Android flagships - provided you can either live without or cope with having to set up Google services yourself.
In the Mi Mix 3 we would love to see Xiaomi's dual-camera implemented, plus a higher-resolution screen. Waterproofing and wireless charging would also be good shouts.
Read our Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 review.
- Reviewed on: 5 May 2017
Running Flyme OS 5 out of the box, the well-built Meizu Pro 6 Plus is a fantastic Android phone with some seriously good performance, a vibrant and high-resolution screen and a decent camera. Unfortunately, though cheaper than UK flagships, at £399 (before import duty) it’s still too pricey to properly compete with the Galaxy S7 and OnePlus 3T. Neither are we in love with Flyme OS.
Read our Meizu Pro 6 Plus review.
- Reviewed on: 20 October 2017
Huawei’s Mate 9 is, in our opinion, the best in the Huawei line-up, boasting an impressively large battery alongside powerful internals, an improved dual-camera setup and a sleek, gorgeous design. The benchmark results were some of the best we've seen, bringing excellent value for money. EMUI 5 makes a huge difference to the overall experience too, and we can’t wait to see whether Huawei’s new technology will actually improve the performance of the smartphone over time.
Read our Huawei Mate 9 review.
8. UMIDIGI Z1
- Reviewed on: 26 September 2017
It’s not as fast as its predecessors, with which it shares the same but still just as good-looking design, but we do like the extra battery power and storage space, and the improved cameras of the Z1. We’re also pretty keen on the price - at £139 the UMIDIGI Z1 is a very impressive budget phone.
Read our UMIDIGI Z1 review.
9. Elephone S7
- Reviewed on: 12 January 2017
The Elephone S7 is a very good-looking phone at an affordable price, with decent performance and a generous helping of storage. On the down side the cameras are disappointing and the rear panel is plastic. Even at this price you don't need to compromise so heavily.
Read our Elephone S7 review.