7 Chinese smartphones you’ve never heard of – but will definitely want


“Made in China”. Finding that phrase on the back of the box used to be the kiss of death when it came to tech.

The bad rap Chinese products get for being imitations, fakes or just sub-par isn’t always warranted, though – and certainly doesn’t apply to the smartphone arena. China has been rapidly taking the phone world by storm, seriously undermining their Western, Korean and Japanese rivals with powerful but affordable flagships.

OnePlus, ZTE and Xiaomi have been pumping out hero handsets at ridiculously low prices for years, but there’s a new wave of smaller brands that are also worth taking a look at. ZUK, Elefone and Coolpad might not be household names yet, but they’re all beginning to make their mark on the industry.

Almost everything on this list has the CPU and RAM to compete with big-brand phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7. A lot of them have loads more storage, too. Camera performance is a bit more variable, but they’ve all got something else in common: a rock bottom price. And that makes them all seriously desirable.

Thought that a OnePlus 3T was the only Chinese smartphone worth your cash? Think again.


The powerful yet affordable ZUKi phone range isn’t something cooked up specifically for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – they’re actually backed by Lenovo. The Z2 Pro is the line-up highlight, armed with a stellar procesor and powerful camera.

Just keep in mind that it isn’t constructed with a metallic chassis like most flagship smartphones; it has a glossy exterior instead. If you had your heart set on the cold feel of metal against skin every time you fish your phone out of a pocket, it might not be the phone for you.

CPU/Memory: Snapdragon 820, 6GB RAM

Screen: 5.2in, 1080p AMOLED

Storage: 128GB internal

Camera: 13 MP, f/1.8 with optical image stabilisation, phase-detect autofocus and dual-LED flash

Get it if… You’d rather buy your cheap, small-brand Chinese smartphone from the same company that owns Motorola

Get it from: RuggedSA, R11,500


Why do the current crop of Chinese hero phones give our gadget nerves that tingling feeling? It all boils down to four things, really:

A powerful processor
A top-of-the-line CPU should guarantee you get a lag-free experience, and a GPU capable of handling heavy 3D games is a must, too. Everything on our list holds at least a Snapdragon 820 CPU (or something of equal power) and a GPU on par with the Adreno 530.

A fantastic camera
One of the reasons why we love our iPhones and our Samsung Galaxy S7s is because of their amazing rear cameras that don’t only shoot crystal clear photos in the day, but also do well in low-light conditions. Happily, you can get similar results if you buy from China, too.

A gorgeous design
We’re all suckers for good looks here at Stuff. Sleek edges and luxurious finishes guaranteed to grab attention when you whip your phone out in public? Yes please! A fingerprint sensor should be a given, too – on the front or back, we’re not fussy.

A bargain price
Samsung and Apple will charge big bucks for their flagship phones, but you can get similar specs for much less cash with any of the handsets listed here.


LeEco has fingers in many pies – it’s working on electric cars, makes TVs in its native China, and has some bargain-tastic phones, too. The LeMax 2 is a powerful 5.7in phablet that will make you forget about the now-deceased Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Its processors are just as good as the rest of the Western competition, and it has a camera that places huge priority on resolution and detail. It’s made entirely from metal, in keeping with this year’s trend for aluminium and glass over plastic, and follows Apple in ditching the old 3.5mm audio jack. Instead, it’s one of the first phones to support CDLA for lossless, high-quality music streaming.

CPU/Memory: Snapdragon 820, 6GB RAM

Screen: 5.7in 1440×2560 IPS LCD

Storage: 128GB internal

Camera: 21 MP, f/2.0 with optical image stabilisation, phase-detect autofocus and dual-LED flash

Get it if… the 3.5mm headphone jack is already dead to you

Get it from: ChinaBuy, R7,200 (excl. tax) (32GB version only)


Does that design ring any bells? Vivo has paid homage to Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge and Galaxy Note 7 with the Xplay 5 Elite, which has a dual-edge display running along its clean metal unibody.

When it first launched, we wondered whether Vivo had basically just created a cheaper version of the Galaxy S7 Edge — and the answer is probably yes. With similar hardware, the only major difference is the logo on the back, and the price you’ll end up paying for one.

CPU/Memory: Snapdragon 820, 6GB RAM

Screen: 5.43in, 1440×2560 curved AMOLED

Storage: 128GB internal

Camera: 16 MP, f/2.0 with phase-detect autofocus, dual-LED flash

Get it if… You just can’t bear to say goodbye to the Galaxy Note 7

Get it fromMobile57, R9,000


Oh look, another case of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Looking at the specs and design alone, you could easily confuse Coolpad’s S1 with a OnePlus 3T – nearly everything lines up, including the screen resolution, CPU and storage. Coolpad adds its own custom UI on top of Android, of course, and makes do with an IPS screen instead of AMOLED, but the price is lower too.

Sadly, our geographical location hurts us here. Some international bundles get a free pair of Harman Kardon earphones, which are worth about $120 on their own. Not bad at all for a company with a name as decidedly uncool as “coolpad”. It is uncool for us, as the nifty bundle doesn’t deliver to SA.

CPU/Memory: Snapdragon 821, 6GB RAM

Screen: 5.5in 1080p IPS LCD

Storage: 128GB internal

Camera: 16MP, f/2.0 with phase-detect autofocus and dual-LED flash

Get it if… You want OnePlus features, but don’t have OnePlus 3T cash

Get it from: Mobile57, R5,100


The biggest mystery on this list, Ulefone only announced the Gemini Pro earlier this year and despite showing it off at Mobile World Congress, still hasn’t finalised the specs. All you really need to know, though, is that from a few feet away, no-one will know you’re not actually using an iPhone 7 Plus – the two look almost identical, right down to the dual-camera setup on the back.

You can stay smug in the knowledge you paid a lot less for your phone, though: Ulefone should be selling the Gemini Pro for a rock-bottom $189. You’ll have to pay a bit more for the storage and memory listed here, but you’ll still save a fortune compared to Apple’s current flagship.

CPU/Memory: MediaTek Helio X27, 4GB RAM

Screen: 5.5in 1080p IPS LCD

Storage: 128GB internal

Camera: Dual 13MP with dual-LED flash (specs TBC)

Get it if… You want the iPhone look, without having to actually use iOS

Get it from: Pompmall, $190 (yes, really)


Gionee isn’t messing about when it comes to selfies: the A1 Plus is packing a 20MP front-facing camera, complete with f/2.0 aperture, 1/2.8in sensor and LED flash. Good luck finding those face-friendly specs anywhere else. It’s a similar story around back, with a dual 13MP/5MP setup that has oversized sensors and an f/2.0 aperture.

You get Android Nougat out of the box (which can’t be said for a lot of phones on this list) and a hand-stretching 6in screen, as well as expandable storage and a whopping 4000mAh battery to keep you snapping all day.

CPU/Memory: MediaTek Helio P10 CPU, 4GB RAM

Screen: 6in 1080p IPS LCD

Storage: 64GB internal, microSD card expansion

Camera: 20MP, f/2.0 front with optical image stabilisation, phase-detect autofocus and dual-LED flash, 13MP+5MP, f/2.0 rear

Get it if… You’re an unashamed selfie addict, and anything less than 20MP just won’t do

Get it from: TBC


The Meizu Pro 6 is almost a Frankenstein phone made from the best bits of Apple and Samsung’s latest and greatest. It’s built to look almost exactly like an iPhone 7, but has the power of Samsung’s Exynos chipset inside. The newer Pro 6s swaps that for a MediaTek CPU, but it drops the camera resolution too – and you want the best, right?

The metallic unibody design was elegant when Apple did it, and that’s still true here, with an all-in-one home button that doubles up as a fingerprint sensor. Specialising in remarkable audio performance, the Pro 6 is also the proud holder of an uprated digital-to-analog (DAC) converter, which helps in transmitting lossless audio signals — making the Pro 6 an ideal flagship for audiophiles.

CPU/Memory: Exynos 8890, 4GB RAM

Screen: 5.2in, 1080p AMOLED

Storage: 128GB internal

Camera: 21MP, f/2.2 with phase-detect autofocus & laser autofocus, dual-tone LED flash

Get it if… You like the Apple look, but just can’t live with an Apple DAC

Get it fromTakealot, R6,160 (MediaTek version only)


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