A few days ago, I friend sent me a link to a new good looking phone from China that had top specs and a very attractive price. He was very excited about the deal and intended to buy it. I was unimpressed and I tried to explain him why. After trying a lot of Android phone in the last couple of years my criteria for choosing a phone evolved a lot. When it comes to cheap phones with top specs I'm always skeptical, and my reasons are:
Poor warranty support
I bought my first OnePlus One from OnePlus directly. It was dead on arrival. Few weeks of struggling to get an invitation followed by two weeks of waiting for shipping and all I got was a nice looking brick. Put yourself in the same situation with a phone bought from a seller on AliExpress or eBay and evaluate your chances to get you money back or a new device. What are you going to do in case you get no reply? What is the shipping cost to send it back to sellers country (this is usually required for warranty)?
For me the issue got solved by PayPal. OnePlus stopped replying to my RMA issue and didn't bother to reply to the PayPal dispute I opened. PayPal gave me the money back after sending the proof that I shipped the phone back. To make themselves look more unprofessional, OnePlus sent me a message few days after I got the money from PayPal saying that they sent the money back.
If you can find the phone available at a well known seller in your country you will not have this issue and even if you do - you can sue them. I bet the price will not be the same in this case.
Low software quality
OnePlus One was running CyanogenMod and I had no issues with it. With OnePlus 2 they switched to their custom version of Android called OxygenOS which didn't run smooth at all. I had issues with a lot of apps crashing. I spent a lot of time emailing error logs to app developers trying to help them debug the issues. The explanation I got back: the Android API didn't work as expected. The Bluetooth didn't work well and whenever I tried to connect it to my car audio the head unit will enter in reboot loop. And all that after 2 or 3 OTA updates. I sold the phone afterwards.
Until now I think they kinda fixed a lot of the these and Oxygen OS is quite robust, but the software quality and support are still concerning in my opinion when it comes to a less known brand.
Question to ask yourself:
- Are you OK with the fact that your phone might not get the Android updates? Imagine being stuck with an Android version one or two years old.
- Are you OK with the fact that there are no custom ROMs or boot loaders or "how to root" tutorials available for your phone? This is a big problem if you OS come bloated with useless software, or has bugs and no update is coming.
- Are you OK with the fact that you will not be able to find support on xda developers forum because the phone is not so popular? Debugging issues on you own, having to learn Android internals whenever you have a problem just to realize that you might have a broken EMMC chip or anything else hard to repair so you have to trash the phone (been there, done that).
I know for sure that my answer will be NO for at least two of these questions when it comes to my main phone. I want to find solutions for my problems quick. I don't want to spend days debugging and hacking.
A lot of things don't show up in the specifications
Most of the phones that catch the public's attention have top specs and incredible small prices. But there are things you cannot find while looking at specs that will explain the smaller price. Some of them are hard to measure or others are considered so basic that you expect good/decent quality anyway and left out intentionally. For example:
- There are no specs for how good the speakers are. You might end up with a phone you can use only in quiet areas, because the speaker volume is so low that you cannot use it on the street for example. This extends to your microphones as well. Your friends might complain about how bad they hear you on the phone. You will never be able to find this out by looking at specs.
- The battery capacity might seem big, but bad drivers and software that came with the phone might compensate for that and you can get a worse battery life than phones with smaller batteries but better software.
- Display quality is not measured only in pixels/resolution and it's hard to find information about color reproduction, back light bleeding or maximum brightness. Do you remember the OnePlus One yellow tint problem?
- Camera quality is always hard to guess. Megapixels tell you nothing about how good the camera is. And nowadays the camera software can make a huge difference even between phones using the same camera sensor.
- Lifetime might be shorter than average - and because of the poor warranty service you might end up retiring the phone earlier than expected. For example: I sold my OnePlus One to a friend and a year after I bought it he started having issues with the microphone. He couldn't use his phone normally - only on speaker/hands free mode otherwise the other person could not hear him. The problem was caused by a broken secondary mic used for noise canceling and he was able to fix it himself. Imagine having the same issues if you are not able to debug and fix things like him. What if start having dead pixels (I got my iPhone replaced because of this), or camera issue (purple camera on HTC One M7)?
- Even though they seem to have the same specs, the features might not work as good as on other phones. I had issues connecting my OnePlus 2 to my Bluetooth speakers in the beginning. I managed to fix that by updating the firmware on my speakers, but the audio quality was still worse than all my other phones. That's how I discovered the One Plus doesn't support atpX. Also, as mentioned above the Bluetooth didn't work in my car at all and I wasn't the only one complaining about it.
This less known phones will eventually break. Do you know how hard is to find a screen for you phone or how easy it is to replace it. I don't know a lot of phone fixing companies that are able to replace phones bought on AliExpress. So try to see how easy it is to get you screen replaced for your phone in case you drop it before you buy it. You might find out that nobody want to repair it and you will end up buying a new one when that happens. Do you still think it's cheaper than buying a well known brand that most probably has a service center in your country?
I'm not huge fan of things like cases or screen protectors but before buying it's worth checking you can find a decent case or skin or a screen protector in case you want them.
While cheap phones are a proof that hardware is very cheap at the moment, don't forget why they are cheap. There are a few companies able to make a profit selling smartphones - even if you look at the most popular one. There is a reason for that. A lot of money are spend and areas you don't see directly but you expect to be there: client service, better testing on assembly line, good software integration (drivers, updates, camera), better and long lasting components and repairability. Look at the brands that become popular as being cheap and you will see they are not the cheapest once they officially launch in western countries where regulations are tougher.
I don't think I will buy another cheap phone with top specs from a less known seller as my main phone, but I will recommend them for situations when it doesn't matter so much if they break (like my secondary phone or car players).
Even though I used OnePlus as an example in this article, they are not a unknown company anymore and I will definitely buy their last phones. I had no issues with the OnePlus X and I consider OnePlus 3/3T as my new phone choice. All the issues I had with their first models are now solver, but they are not the cheapest anymore.