Attack of the Chinese superphones: the brands Apple and Samsung should fear

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The unknown brands Apple HTC and Samsung should be afraid of

You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's iteration not innovation ruling the world of smartphones, with the usual suspects of Apple and Samsung resting on laurels and making sure that they do just enough to keep us clamouring for the next minor upgrade.

There are exceptions, such as the HTC One M8, but generally most follow the same formula year on year - so where will the big changes come from?

The answer could well be China: a country that has stealthily moved from being a hotbed of cheap copies of popular handsets to genuinely innovative and alternative handsets.

With a wealth of smartphone manufacturing experience grown on home turf, Chinese brands are producing phones of higher specification and build quality that provide a genuine counter to western competition, at a much cheaper price.

According to Gartner, sales of Chinese smartphones grew 86.3% percent in 2013, and they're on an onward march that must be unsettling for phones' traditional big guns.

The likes of Huawei and ZTE are already making moves into the developed smartphone nations, and they're set to be followed by a legion of Chinese smartphone makers in the next year or so.

The incumbent Chinese brands may not be making particularly big waves just yet, but with ferocious marketing campaigns and strong budgets from domestic success, it may not be long until the likes of Apple, Samsung and Sony are looking nervously over their shoulders.

So we have taken a look at some brands you may not even have heard of, alongside a few more familiar manufacturers to pick out those that could be shaking things up in the next decade.


Lenovo Vibez

"I'll be very clear: Our aspiration is someday to be No. 1 in the mobile space," said Lenovo's Vice President J.D. Howard, in charge of developing the brand's smartphone business outside of China, following the dive-bombing of the PC market.

The brand has form in the Android and Windows game, having been an active supplier of tablets for a number of years now, but in phones it's still a relative unknown outside of its own territory.

Global sales figures show that Lenovo actually had the 5th highest worldwide smartphone sales in 2013 right after LG, and managed to outsell the Korean outfit in the 4th quarter last year. However, 97% of those sales were in China.

It's not for a lack of trying though: since its first Android smartphone 'LePhone' arrived in 2010, Lenovo has expanded its range with a plethora of different devices, and even took on NBA star Kobe Bryant to market its phones.

Lenovo's latest range of smartphones launched at Barcelona's MWC 2014 have spread as far as India and could provide some serious competition, with the latest Vibe X and Z handsets packing 1080p screens, quad-core Snapdragon processors and 13 megapixel cameras that rivals flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G2.

And that move beyond its own shores looks set to take a huge leap forward following its recent surprise acquisition of Motorola Mobility from Google.

Lenovo Moto deal
Lenovo snapping up Motorola

Despite an unrecognisable 0.2% share of China's mobile market, taking on Motorola will give Lenovo some much-needed recognition in the western markets and align it much more closely with smartphones in the minds of consumers.


Oppo Find 5
The Oppo Find 5

Oppo is a little different from its peers in that it's been selling in western markets for a few years, and it's one of the forerunners in pushing new technology into smartphones.

For instance, it's one of only two brands with a Quad HD (1440x2560 pixels) display, something that the rest of the smartphone players are set to introduce in the next 12-18 months.

In May 2013 it launched a European web store called Oppo Style, that featured the Oppo Find 5 as the centrepiece for a very reasonable €399 - massively undercutting the similarly specified rivals around at the time.

The Oppo N1
The Oppo N1

Since then, Oppo has launched disruptive handsets such as the Oppo N1. On the surface it's a standard smartphone: relatively rectangular in shape with a full HD screen and the basic suite of competitive specs.

But Oppo has done its homework and come up with a truly unique swivelling top-mounted camera for super-selfies and a rear touch panel - both features you won't find on the HTC One M8, Samsung Galaxy S5, or any other 2014 flagship.

With Oppo currently only selling direct to the public through its own site and a number of smaller third party partners, it makes it more difficult for it to get its products into the hands of potential customers, with network penetration worldwide still a distant dream.

However, its ambitions are ramping up, and with a market of consumers desperate for the latest top-end tech no matter the cost or design, Oppo has an interesting niche to tap.


One Plus
OnePlus is striking an aggressive tone to match its pricing

Oppo's former vice president Peter Lau quit the company late last year to set up OnePlus with the goal of bringing out a new, low-cost handset packed with a custom version of Android using the popular CyanogenMod.

That handset arrived in late April under a flurry of internet marketing; the OnePlus One was revealed along with the "NeverSettle' hashtag and a crazy campaign that involves smashing your phone to be in with a chance to buy the 'One' for just $1.

OnePlus is aiming to compete with the Nexus line of smartphones from Google, by selling the phone directly to consumers at the extremely competitive price of just £229 (about $299 / AU$319).

Despite this the One has higher spec than either the Nexus 5 or HTC's One M8, with a higher processor speed and an extra gigabyte of memory.

How can it possibly sell the OnePlus One at such a keen price? Firstly, it isn't paying the millions of dollars to support other products or global advertising campaigns.

OnePlus One
The supercheap One has raised some eyebrows

It's got one product to focus on and is doing all of its current advertising and buzz-generating through social media. It also still retains strong ties with Oppo, the much larger brand (that also still owns a prominent stake in the business) which is providing it with access to a manufacturing plant too.

OnePlus look like a Chinese brand perfectly poised to break out of Asia and in to the western world, having so far managed to generate buzz around the handset; get them into people's hands for early previews; and by understanding the way people purchase smartphones is shifting from expensive monthly contracts, to one that sees some consumers buying a handset, then equipping it with a separately purchased SIM.

Landing in June for 'general availability' the OnePlus One is definitely a handset to watch.