Chinese Android Phones, how good are they?

I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but I keep trying to find the best deals ever. Sometimes I get burned. Bad for me, good for you – please learn from my mistakes. After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, nor something to good to be true. At least I got my money back, an event which took place in complete silence. No e-mail, nothing. Only after logging into my PayPal account I found out about it.

AliExpress instead of eBay
It was time to shop again, this time on instead of eBay. I have good reasons for that. Prices are generally lower, you can often select the shipping method of choice, and I can use my credit card instead of PayPal. From experience I know that (in case of a scam) I get my money back in just a few days instead of having to wait a month. You have to be careful anyway, but more about that later.

Finding the perfect Chinese Android phone
This proved to be easier said than done. Specifications vary, even when you compare two completely identical phones. This is often a matter of laziness (copy & paste), or plain deception. This time I decided not to look for the cheapest ones, but for the very best. Let’s look at the phone I eventually ordered.

Star S1 01

The Star S1. Note the ‘Google Play’ screen shot I inserted.

Nothing wrong with that, is there? Nice specs and a screen shot promised Google Play support – precisely what I was looking for. As it turns out there were a few loose ends. In spite of the promising screen shot there was no official Google Play support at all, and the 12 Megapixel camera turned out be be 8 Megapixels. The missing (read: fake) pixels are generated by software, a dumb and deceiving way to crank up specs. In the seller’s defense: he immediately deleted the original listing, created a new one and took the Google Play screen shot off-line.

Do I care?
Yes and no. No, because I don’t care about phone cameras. These devices are generally poor quality, no matter the brand or resolution. It’s just a matter of physics – you can’t expect a tiny, almost microscopic sensor to deliver the same details  (let alone dynamic range) as a good digital camera. Yes, because at that price I really expected the phone to support Google Play. Fortunately there are enough ways around this problem.

Installing apps without Google Play
There are a number of ways to install apps on Android devices which lack Google Play, and I just picked the one I liked the most in the end: Android Drawer. Start the browser, surf to this website, search the app you’re looking for and click download. One click on the .APK file will start the install process. Especially nice is the fact that you will always see if there’s a newer version available, but you won’t be prevented from selecting an older one. I did that on a few occasions, traveling back in time to a version that didn’t throw ads at me.

The good things about this phone
The large, hi-res IPS screen is amazing. I love the dual sim support. One spare battery was included in the package I chose. The 2-day battery life is reasonable for a smartphone (they all suck at that, this one is no exception). Nice leather-look flip cover. Sound is ok. While slow to get an initial fix on satellites, GPS works fine. 3G support. Bottom line: although slower, this phone is an affordable and capable replacement for a Samsung Note.

AliExpress shopping tips

  1. Look at a seller’s rating and order history, just like you would on eBay.
  2. Don’t trust screen shots. When in doubt, e-mail the seller before ordering.
  3. If Google Play support isn’t specifically mentioned, it isn’t there. Again, don’t trust pictures or screen shots.
  4. The cheapest phones lack sufficient RAM, and offer low screen resolutions. 512MB RAM is fine, 1GB even better. 256KB RAM is useless if you want to install a lot of apps without having to move them to a micro SD-card.
  5. Avoid resistive touch screens.
  6. Avoid sellers who offer to ship out phones ‘with labels’. A label means that the name Samsung will be present on the phone. In other words: counterfeit. Customs won’t be amused; in the best case scenario you will end up with nothing. In the worst case scenario you will get a hefty fine on top.

With the benefit of hindsight
With the benefit of hindsight I should have ordered this one. A slightly smaller screen, true, but official Google support, a more honest spec sheet and a reasonable price. For now I’m happy though (and out of money).