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. (Also see our round-up of the best budget Chinese phones.)
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 phones, but it can be rectified)
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 an often dual-lens 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 6
The OnePlus 6 doesn’t have everything you could possibly want on a smartphone, but it does offer an unrivalled level of bang for your buck.
If you really want things like waterproofing and wireless charging then you’ll need to spend more, which is fine if you have the budget. But for most people, the OnePlus 6 is simply a steal with amazing design, build quality, specs and performance at an affordable price.
Read our OnePlus 6 review.
2. Vivo Nex
It’s not perfect, but the Vivo Nex is certainly an impressive smartphone that offers something a little different for consumers. It boasts a fingerprint scanner embedded in the display, a notch-less design and a front-facing camera that pops out of the frame when required. It’s not just a gimmicky concept phone though; the performance is good enough to compete with flagship smartphones from the likes of Samsung, OnePlus and LG.
Oh, and it’s £100s cheaper than the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9+ too.
Read our Vivo Nex review.
3. Xiaomi Mi8
Astonishing value, insane performance, awesome photography, a larger than ever 18.7:9 AMOLED display and a cool new 3D Face recognition feature are all reasons why you should rush out and buy the Mi 8. Right now it costs just £438.33/US$569.99/€490.20 from GearBest, which is several hundred pounds cheaper than many of the phones with which it competes.
We’re sad to see Xiaomi not keeping up with its rivals in terms of wireless charging, waterproofing and a Quad-HD screen, and that the highly anticipated in-display fingerprint is unique to the Explorer Edition, but at this price we can hardly complain. Amazing phone, highly recommended.
Read our Xiaomi Mi8 review.
In the P20 Pro Huawei has delivered a stunning phone which should be on your shortlist along with the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X. Sure, there are some niggles such as the lack of stabilisation for 4K video, no headphone jack and no wireless charging,but if your priority is photography then the P20 Pro does not disappoint.
Add in the long battery life, dual SIM slots and great screen and you’ve got the complete package: this is one of the best phones of 2018.
It’s a fair amount more than the regular model so save yourself £200 on the regular P20 if you don’t mind ‘only’ dual rear cameras, no waterproofing and an LCD screen vs OLED.
Read our Huawei P20 Pro review.
The original full-display smartphone is evolving into something really special. Now with wireless charging, faster performance and a dual-camera that builds in AI, the Mi Mix 2S is a closer rival to western flagships than ever – and at a fraction of the price.
The Mi Mix 2S majors on performance and design. With its ceramic, mirror-finish case and 18:9 display it looks and feels incredible in the hand.
With full Google services the Xiaomi is easy to recommend, although it’s not ideal for selfie and audio fanatics with a poorly positioned front camera and a mono speaker that doesn’t make up for the lack of a headphone jack.
Battery life could also be better, and we’d like to see the company finally take the plunge with a Quad-HD display and waterproofing.
Read our Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S review.
6. Xiaomi Mi A1
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.
7. Honor 9
The Honor 9 is an undeniably impressive phone and although the Honor 10 is out, you can still buy it even cheaper direct from Honor.
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 £300 now.
Read our Honor 9 review.
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.
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.
The Mate 10 Pro is easily one of the best phone from Huawei yet and although the cameras aren’t as good as the Pixel 2 XL’s, it has a better screen, better battery life and just as much processing power.
In fact, with the AI processor there’s arguably more on board, but there’s no guarantee that apps will appear to make use of it. Even if they don’t, this is still an outstanding phone.
Read our Huawei Mate 10 Pro review.
11. Xiaomi Mi Note 3
The Mi Note 3 is a downgrade on the Mi6 and, arguably, the Mi Note 2, but it appeals with a lower price and an attractive premium design. Though it doesn’t feature a flagship processor, this is is a very capable smartphone with a very decent dual-camera. Provided you can live without 800MHz 4G and are happy to install Google Play Services yourself, it’s difficult not to recommend the Mi Note 3.
Read our Xiaomi Mi Note 3 review.