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Ultra low cost from China - a guide to Mediatek


Mediatek has been making processors in phones for a while. Before Android they used the very lightweight Nucleus OS. This was functional, but not ideal - often the English language implementation wasn't exactly up to par. Since the MT6516 chip was released in 2010, low end China devices have switched to offering Android almost exclusively. For many years I have been following and buying all kinds of devices like this from China, right from my first 'SCiPhone' in 2007. I find it fascinating discovering how functional such super low cost devices can be.

These devices are enormously popular in China and India, with brands like Lenovo, Zopo and THL being more widespread than many western focused brands and even Apple's juggernaut. These devices used to be shunned. The first generation of the Mediatek-based Android phones were severely underpowered. That has changed in the last 18 months with the newer processors having high clock speeds and multiple cores, so much so that OEMs like Acer and ZTE are starting to use them. These devices are moving out of the shadows in the lower tier and becoming very competitively priced mid tier options.

Clones

A big distinction when buying these types of phones is Clones versus Branded. Clones mimic the design of other mainstream phones with varying levels of success. They are rarely exact copies, often being thicker and heavier than the genuine counterpart. The build quality also can be sketchy, with bodies made out of brittle plastic that can easily crack and parts glued together rather than screwed or clipped.

It's not uncommon for reported benchmarks and specifications to be falsified. Cloned, unbranded phones can come with benchmark apps that are modified to give false results with highly exaggerated reports of clock speeds and memory amounts being common. Even Android itself can be hacked to show different build numbers, last time I checked Google didn't release Android 4.0.9 but I've seen many devices claiming to run it. These things can make it very difficult to know what's under the hood of a brandless clone when buying from a seller on a site such as Aliexpress.

Brands

Branded phones offer a better experience. Not only do they have better build quality but it's also far easier to get support and its more likely that updates and bug fixes will be available. There still can be issues. The most common I have encountered is an intermittent WiFi signal - a pain if you want to remain connected for long periods. Nearly every phone will come with some added Chinese apps. These are normally rather simple to remove or disable, but you can get the odd stubborn one. Finding and flashing a clean firmware is normally the best option.

Issues

The Android implementation is fairly standard across all devices powered by Mediatek. Some phones do have customized launchers and lock screens, but it's not common. Based on my experience, these phones come loaded with Google apps. Some don't; some devices come loaded with Chinese alternatives for the Play Store, but it's relatively simple to get Google services up and running. It is common for these phones to have "Incompatible Device" problems with certain apps. This can normally be fixed by rooting the phone and modifying the build.prop file to mimic that of another phone. The dual sim card functionality is the same in all devices and operates just like the Acer Liquid Gallant Duo. Just remember, it's dual standby - you can't have two active phone calls going at once. These phones can also have annoying partition layouts. Generally the internal ROM size is normally 2 to 4 GB. It's common for these devices to be designed for full functionality without an SD card. This is done by allocating some of the internal flash to a virtual SD card. It can be useful, but it does cut down on the space available in Internal Storage for applications.

Updating

Newer devices include a 'System Update' app that lets you load ROM's from a zip file without going into recovery or flashing over USB. Failing this there is the 'Smart Phone Flash Tool' made by Mediatek that lets you write a new firmware directly over USB.

Posted Image


Recommendations

My current phone a Zopo ZP900s/9300+, the current CIDotW here at MoDaCo. The big feature here is the glorious 5.3", qHD screen. Shopping around you should be able to pick up the model with 1GB of RAM for under £150. If you want something smaller I'd look out for the JiaYu G2, it's a 4" phone with a very nice 8MB camera and a stunning screen - this screen is one of the best I've seen on any phone. There is the G2+ model running the dual core MT6577, but I have yet to have a hands on with it.

But it might be worthwhile to wait. Mediatek has announced the next generation of phone processors with the flagship being the quad-core, 28nm, 1gHz MT6589. While there is no official release date for devices, fabrication for these chips is said to be starting in late October. Beyond this there are plans for a eight-core behemoth in early 2013. Just like every other piece of technology, the ultimate things are always just around the corner.

Beyond these choices the best thing I can recommend is to do research. Look around on forums (use Google Translate - Chinese and Russian boards can be a fountain of information) to see what people say about each device. Most brands host very active bulletin boards on their official websites. Hopefully in the future the boards here at MoDaCo will host a thriving community based on these devices.

About the author

aaroNiGHTS's Photo
Aaron Davies is a freelance technology writer based out of Wellington, New Zealand.

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9 Comments

where did you buy it from?
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Need_A_Username
Oct 09 2012 07:29 PM
This, is very very interesting! :D I'm on a pretty tight budget atm so...
I would also like to know where you bought it from.
I see JiaYu also has their g3 which seems to be like the Galaxy S2, looks sweet! ^^
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RaoulTeeuwen
Oct 09 2012 08:09 PM
Great info! The whole CIDotW idea is great! Thanks to everybody contributing. I have been eyeing the many Chinese phones and tablets on dx.com and ADVERTISING SPAM.com , but don't dare to buy, as i don't have money to throw away, quality/claims is unsure, as is the availability of future updates... So some more info like in this article and future CIDotW can help find the real diamonds in the overwhelming number of suppliers and models.
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everett_psycho
Oct 10 2012 03:55 PM
An interesting read this, its nice to have some experts we trust opinions on Chinese stuff with it potentially being very hit and miss.

One concern I've got is finding a reliable importer, which companies do you favour buying/have brought from?
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" [...] with highly exaggerated reports of clock speeds and memory amounts [...] with a very nice 8MB camera and a stunning screen" :D
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" [...] with highly exaggerated reports of clock speeds and memory amounts [...] with a very nice 8MB camera and a stunning screen"


Does it look bad if I go back and edit it now? :)

The most difficult part about buying these types of devices is finding somewhere reliable to purchase them. There are a few big online stores, but good service isn't too common. Aliexpress does get you added security with their escrow service, but it can be difficult to sort orders out if things go wrong. I'm sorry that I don't have a definitive answer, I'll try and do some investigating. Be really great if a UK based store started stocking these - I'm sure people wouldn't mind paying a little mark up.
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Yep its a mine field out there, but there are a few decent stores about. Another issue is not paying over the odds as even reputable exporters bump prices a fair bit. Personally I'm waiting for the next generation of MTK devices as i'm not sure a chipset with the old PowerVR SGX531 is really worth investing in at this stage unless the price is very low.

Once the quad core drops, i'll be looking to pick up a phablet with 4.1. Although the Jiayu G3 has been having issues a similar spec with the upgraded chipest and slightly larger display would be perfect really. MTK Android builds are actually pretty good so the next few monthes in China should hopefully bring some really interesting stuff. Plus the crazy price war going on with the domestic manufacturers should help keep prices low too.
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Does it look bad if I go back and edit it now?


I guess it's ok, we had our laughs ;)
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I did not notice it.

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