Your buying guide for the best Chinese phones in 2018
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 5T
- Reviewed on: 4 January 2018
The OnePlus 5T isn’t a surprise, both in its existence and the fact it’s very similar to the OnePlus 5. It stands as a reminder that 2017 was the year every company quickly produced a phone with an 18:9 display to make sure its bezels didn’t look outdated on the store shelf.
But OnePlus isn’t on many store shelves given its online retail approach, and its many vocal core fans who bought the 5 will be annoyed by the 5T. OnePlus needed to update its design language quickly to keep up with the wider market where it is yet to make a dent, and the 5T is overall a better device than the 5.
And let's not forget that for £449, the OnePlus 5T is an exceptionally well rounded smartphone. It is at least £100 cheaper than similar handsets, and sometimes close to £300 less.
If you buy into the design (without waterproofing and wireless charging) and price but can accept that the camera isn't top draw and it’ll probably be superseded in six months, then it’s a great choice.
Read our OnePlus 5T review.
2. Xiaomi Mi A1
- Reviewed on: 7 November 2017
We're big fans of Xiaomi phones, but have been frustrated by MIUI on many an occasion. The Mi A1 and Mi 5X are to all intents and purposes the same phone, except one runs Android One and the other MIUI 8.5. That's huge news: at last we have a Xiaomi phone we can really get onboard with in the UK and Europe.
The Mi A1 itself is a well-built and decent all-round mid-range Android phone. It's not the fastest phone we've ever seen, and its low-light photography can be faulted. It lacks wireless charging, a futuristic full-screen display, a Quad-HD resolution, waterproofing, even NFC.
But at around £200 it offers amazing value, with good performance, a good camera, a nice design and decent software with timely security updates. If you're on a budget, it's difficult to think of a similarly priced phone that will do a better job.
Read our Xiaomi Mi A1 review.
3. 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.
4. Honor 9
- Reviewed on: 11 December 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
The Mate 9 was once the very best Huawei phone. It has a huge screen, powerful specs and a headphone jack - something the newer Mate 10 Pro lacks.
It's a bit of a large device unlike the slimmer 18:9 phones we have now in 2018 but if you want to save some money buying a Huawei phone outright, it's a steal, and also has an enormous battery capacity.
Read our Huawei Mate 9 review.
9. 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.