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The top 8 Chinese phones

It’s time to stop dismissing Chinese phones as knockoffs. We’ve all seen the endless parade of iPhone clones, yes, but over the past couple of years manufacturers from China have stepped up their game in a big way, turning out devices that are innovative, attractive, and straight-up desirable in their own right. If you don’t think there’s any reason to pay attention to Chinese phones, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.

The problem is, most of the best ones aren’t available in the US, meaning you’d have to deal with third-party importers and a lack of official support if you did want to buy one.

Some of these phones aren’t available with Google services, meaning you’ll need workarounds to access the Play store even though the software is based on Android. And while the US government is yet to show its receipts for claims that companies like Huawei could be a national security threat, the notion is unlikely to encourage many people to decipher their import options.

If you’re in the US, then, we can’t exactly recommend buying any of these phones. But it’s worth knowing what’s out there, even if only to inform yourself about just how those new premium LG or Samsung Android devices hold up by comparison.

And hey, if you do feel like checking out something different, you can probably get it to work if you really try.

  • 6.6-inch 1080p OLED display, no notch
  • 12-megapixel and 5-megapixel primary cameras
  • Pop-up 8-megapixel selfie camera
  • In-display fingerprint sensor
  • Snapdragon 845 processor
  • 256GB storage, 8GB RAM
  • Headphone jack

Vivo just announced the Nex series, the commercial realization of the super-cool Apex concept phone we saw at Mobile World Congress this year. While the Nex S flagship doesn’t have Apex’s “half-screen” fingerprint sensor, it does carry over the most eye-catching feature: a pop-up selfie camera that eliminates the need for a notch.

That means the Nex S has a huge, uninterrupted 6.6-inch screen with the slightest of bezels at the bottom. There’s also an in-display fingerprint sensor — albeit one that’s only thumbprint-sized — and a kaleidoscopic glass back panel.

It’s a futuristic-feeling device, for sure, and the tradeoffs seem fairly sensible.

Stay tuned for more coverage to find out if that’s the case.

  • 6.4-inch 1080p OLED display, no notch
  • 16-megapixel and 20-megapixel primary cameras
  • Elevating 25-megapixel selfie camera
  • 3D face scanning
  • Snapdragon 845 processor
  • 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM

Oppo’s newest flagship is similar to the Nex S in that it attempts to solve The Notch Problem by attaching cameras to motors. The Find X‘s approach, however, is far more complex and ambitious: the entire top section of the phone’s rear panel rises above the screen to reveal a selfie camera and a 3D face-scanning array.

With no fingerprint authentication in the screen or anywhere else, this means you’ll see this rising mechanism activate every time you unlock the phone. It’s certainly a sight to behold, but the stakes are much higher — the Nex S’ motorized camera only comes into play for selfies and video calls, whereas the Find X’s is essential for basic operation.

Phones tend to be solid-state devices for a reason: the fewer moving parts, the fewer ways there are for something to break.

Still, the Find X makes a heck of a statement. There’s surely no more ostentatious way to display your notch opposition. And Oppo says it’ll actually bring the Find X to the US one way or another, though there aren’t any details on the release just yet.

If it happens, it’ll cost you — the Find X will cost EUR999 in Europe, or about £1,160.

  • 6-inch 1080p LCD, no notch
  • 12-megapixel dual cameras
  • 5-megapixel selfie camera below screen
  • Snapdragon 845 processor
  • 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor

Xiaomi’s highest-end phone is the latest iteration of the line that kicked off the whole bezel-shaving trend we’ve been living through for the past year. The Mi Mix 2 was a more refined and usable version of the original, and this year’s 2S is the best Mi Mix yet: it adds wireless charging, a dual-camera system, and Qualcomm’s fastest processor, the Snapdragon 845.

It also doesn’t have a notch at the top of the display, but that’s not necessarily a good thing — the tradeoff is that the selfie camera has been relegated to the “chin” bezel below the screen, meaning you have to hold the phone upside down to use it for video calls and so on. Whether this is a deal-breaker to you will depend on your usage patterns, or whether you’re willing to gamble on either of Oppo and Vivo’s more creative solutions.

  • 6.1-inch 1080p OLED display with notch
  • Hisilicon Kirin 970 processor
  • 128GB of storage, 6GB of RAM
  • Triple camera system with 40-megapixel primary sensor, 20-megapixel monochrome sensor, and 8-megapixel 3x telephoto lens
  • 24-megapixel selfie camera
  • Front-mounted fingerprint sensor

The P20 Pro is one of the best phones of 2018, period.

With a unique shimmering design, a class-leading triple-camera system, and excellent battery life, there’s not much to criticize beyond the fact that its manufacturer has borne the brunt of the US government’s anti-China invective.

That said, I still find Huawei’s EMUI software to be inelegant at best and deleteriously in thrall to iOS at worst. Most of these phones have software that’s taken heavy inspiration from iOS, but while Oppo and Xiaomi’s skins are mostly coherent in their own right, EMUI is all over the place. Huawei is to be commended for going its own way in hardware design and even devising its own processor to great results; hopefully it’ll eventually do the same with its software.

  • 5.5-inch 1080p OLED display
  • 12-megapixel and 20-megapixel primary cameras
  • 20-megapixel selfie camera
  • Snapdragon 660 processor
  • 4GB of RAM, 128GB of storage
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor
  • Headphone jack

Meizu was one of the first Chinese phone companies to make a name for itself among Western gadget followers, but its market share has dwindled significantly since the rise of giants like Oppo and Xiaomi.

That’s a shame, because the new Meizu 15 is actually one of my favorite phone designs of the year.

The 15 doesn’t even attempt to fit in with the trends of 2018. It’s just a big 5.5-inch 16:9 1080p panel and very little else — imagine an iPhone 8 Plus with mid-range specs, without the giant top and bottom bezels, and you’re halfway there. But that doesn’t capture the way the phone’s screen goes right up to the left and right borders, with subtly curved glass spilling over the edges.

Nor how Meizu managed to fit a small but functional fingerprint reader below the screen, even matching it with a proper haptics system to simulate a home button press.

It might not look like much in photos, and it doesn’t look like much when you turn it around, either. But I’ve found the Meizu 15 to be more fun to hold and use than maybe any other phone this year, and that’s something.

  • 6.3-inch 1080p OLED display
  • In-display fingerprint sensor
  • Snapdragon 660 processor
  • 128GB of storage, 6GB of RAM
  • 12-megapixel and 5-megapixel dual cameras, 12-megapixel selfie camera
  • Headphone jack
  • Micro USB charging

The Vivo X21 isn’t as flashy as the NEX S, but it’s a groundbreaking phone in one regard: it’s the first mainstream flagship from anyone to feature an in-display fingerprint sensor, the longtime white whale of the phone industry. More impressively, it works really well.

It might be a little slower than a regular fingerprint scanner if you break out your stopwatch, sure, but usually not to the point where you’d notice.

Anyone who’s fiddled with the small sensor on the back of the otherwise-similar OnePlus 6 would find it hard to go back after using the Vivo X21.

The X21 is otherwise unremarkable, but you’ll pay a lot less for it than the Nex S, and it’ll be available in vastly higher quantities in various markets — as you may have gathered from the associated marketing at the ongoing soccer World Cup.

  • 6.3-inch 1080p OLED display
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor
  • Snapdragon 660 processor
  • 128GB of storage, 6GB of RAM
  • 16-megapixel and 20-megapixel dual cameras
  • 20-megapixel selfie camera
  • Headphone jack
  • Micro USB charging

Oppo’s R15 Pro is like a cross between the Vivo X21 and the OnePlus 6 — it loses the X21’s in-display fingerprint sensor but gains the 6’s better main camera and proprietary fast charging system. And out of the three, I think it has the most attractive design, particularly in its gorgeously gradiated Ruby Red colorway.

Like the X21, however, it uses the less powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor rather than the OnePlus 6’s 845. You’ll also have to make do with a Micro USB port, though it does use Oppo’s VOOC fast-charging technology, which OnePlus uses for its Dash system.

  • 6.2-inch 1080p OLED with notch
  • 12-megapixel dual cameras with telephoto
  • 20-megapixel selfie camera
  • 6GB of RAM, up to 256GB of storage
  • Transparent “Explorer Edition” with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor

Xiaomi’s other flagship is somewhat more conventional.

The Mi 8, unsurprisingly, is the company’s first phone with a display notch, and as such it doesn’t really stand out in terms of design beyond the slightly dubious transparent “Explorer Edition.”

The main Xiaomi Mi line has never really been about pushing the limits of industrial design, though. It’s been about offering really solid devices at impressive prices, and the Mi 8 continues that tradition. It has high-end specs, including a Snapdragon 845 processor, and starts at around £420, meaning it’s significantly cheaper than even the OnePlus 6.

A smaller Snapdragon 770-powered version called the Mi 8 SE, meanwhile, starts from £280 and could be the real bargain in the lineup.

Xiaomi continues to offer solid, legitimately modern devices at prices that are hard for anyone else to match.

Microsoft matches Google Lens with AI-powered visual search for Bing

Microsoft has launched a new “visual search” function for Bing which lets users snap a picture of something with their phone to search for it online. The feature looks very similar to Google Lens and offerings we’ve seen from third-parties, leveraging the power of AI to perform quick and accurate object recognition on photos.

The new visual search is available in a range of apps, including the standalone Bing app on iOS and Android; Microsoft Launcher on Android; Microsoft Edge on Android, and coming soon to Edge on iOS. You can use it to search for things like breeds of dogs, famous landmarks, and even items of clothing.

The app will try to identify what it sees and, in the case of consumer goods, find places to buy them online.

“Sometimes, it is almost impossible to describe what you want to search for using words,” said Microsoft’s product lead for Bing Images, Vince Leung, in a blog post.

Visual search is quickly becoming a commodity product for big tech companies like Google and Microsoft, but the feature can sometimes be a let-down in real life usage.

It’s bound to improve, though, as firms catalogue more data and speed up their machine learning algorithms.

Before we know it, the world around us will be as searchable as a URL.

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Smart speakers reviewed: LG ThinQ and Ikea Eneby on test

It’s been a packed month at our Bluetooth speakers lab, with 10 new models reviewed. There’s something for everyone, with a wide range of portable and home speakers, and prices ranging from GBP45 to GBP349 – plus one new Best Buy. It’s been a bumpy ride, though, with a whole range of scores and two that narrowly avoid being Don’t Buys.

And the results further prove that there’s little correlation between good sound and how much you spend, with one of the more expensive speakers from a big brand getting one of the lowest scores, and a surprise or two at the cheaper end as well. We’ve reviewed home speakers from top brands including Ikea, JBL and LG, plus portable speakers from Bang & Olufsen and Denon. One of the headline launches comes from Ikea, which enters the market with two well-priced Bluetooth speakers, both called Eneby, which will look the part in any home.

And the momentum behind smart speakers continues with LG’s WK7 ThinQ, which you can control with your voice using Google Assistant. It enters an increasingly crowded market, with rivals including the Amazon Echo[1], Google Home[2], Sonos One[3] and Apple HomePod[4] jostling for space, although it has beaten its arch-rival Samsung to launch. Aiming at the higher end for those looking for quality audio, could the LG WK7 ThinQ smart speaker be the answer to the Apple HomePod for Android phone users?

We reveal all through the links below. Best Buy speakers[5] – skip straight to our top recommendations.

LG WK7 ThinQ Smart Speaker, GBP199

LG’s new flagship smart speaker uses Google Assistant to allow you to control your music hands-free using only your voice. You can also ask it questions, such as what the weather forecast is, and perform actions such as creating a virtual shopping list.

The sound has been tuned by British audio specialist Meridian Audio, a rival of Dolby, and the speaker has Chromecast built in, allowing you to connect it to other Chromecast-enabled speakers for a multiroom setup. But how does it sound? Our discerning panel of music industry professionals put this speaker through its paces.

Many Google Assistant speakers have performed poorly in our tests. Find out whether this is an exception, and if it’s the ideal speaker for Android and iPhone users alike, in our expert LG WK7 ThinQ Smart Speaker review[6].

IKEA Eneby (large), GBP80

Ikea has released its first smart speakers by the name of Eneby. The large Ikea Eneby[7] has a 30cm square front, and we’ve also reviewed the small Ikea Eneby[8], measuring 20cm.

They look like the ideal companions to suit your room decor and bring sound to your home, with a minimalist fabric frontage and a simple rotary-dial control. We’ve also reviewed another speaker with a similar design, from Urbanears, further down.

Marley Get Together Mini, GBP100

Marley is a brand rapidly growing in popularity, and its Get Together Mini certainly stands out from the crowd – not simply for its head-turning looks. This surprisingly compact bench-style Bluetooth speaker is made from bamboo and other materials Marley claims are ‘mindfully sourced’, including fabric weaved from recycled materials.

Its 30cm width makes it a more portable package than its larger Get Together brother, and the company pitches it as the ideal pairing for its Marley Stir It Up[9] turntable. But, most importantly, what’s the sound quality like? With Marley’s high street presence growing, see what our experts thought of this rising player on the speaker scene in our comprehensive Marley Get Together Mini review[10].

Denon Envaya (DSB250BT), GBP170

The flagship speaker in Denon’s portable Envaya Bluetooth speaker range, the namesake Envaya has larger drivers and a longer claimed battery life than the Denon Envaya Mini[11].

Both come with the same highly convenient IP67 rating, which means they’re waterproof and dustproof, and can survive being completely submerged in one metre of water for 30 minutes. So you don’t have to worry if the heavens begin to break – or you drop it in the sink. But is the sound as strong as the durable deisgn?

We put the flagship Denon Envaya to the test in our rigorous Denon Envaya (DSB250BT) review[12].

JBL Link 300, GBP250

The Link 300 Bluetooth speaker from popular brand JBL is aimed at those looking to fill bigger spaces with sound than the JBL Link 10[13] and JBL Link 20[14] can manage. Sporting a more traditional speaker design with curved edges, the high-powered Link 300 has Google Assistant built in for hands-free voice control, and Chromecast so you can link it with other Chromecast-enabled speakers. Music, radio and podcasts are all at your command with built-in Spotify support (with a subscription), and many other radio and music services as well.

See whether the sound is as impressive as the features list in our exclusive JBL Link 300 review[15].

Urbanears Stammen, GBP219

For those looking for a speaker that fits the decor of the room but is more premium than Ikea’s offering, the Stammen offers a wider range of features to control your sound, plus radio as well, with the ability to save seven of your favourite stations or music playlists for quick access. In fact, it’s a very similar size to the smaller Ikea Eneby, with a front that’s roughly 20cm square, although it can also be oriented with its shorter 14cm side facing forwards. It has two rotary dials on the top – and, as Urbanears says, there’s no smartphone app ‘twiddling’ in sight.

It’s the middle-sized speaker in Urbanears’ range, between the Urbanears Lotsen[16] and the Urbanears Baggen[17] – all can be paired together to spread sound throughout your home.

Find out whether the sound lives up to the promise in our extensive Urbanears Stammen review[18].

Even more wireless speakers on test

We’ve also tested portable speakers including the premium B&O Beoplay P6[19], which costs GBP349, and the high-powered Tibo Sphere 4[20], for GBP170.

Check out these reviews by following the links, or browse all our wireless speaker reviews[21].

References

  1. ^ Amazon Echo (www.which.co.uk)
  2. ^ Google Home (www.which.co.uk)
  3. ^ Sonos One (www.which.co.uk)
  4. ^ Apple HomePod (www.which.co.uk)
  5. ^ Best Buy speakers (www.which.co.uk)
  6. ^ LG WK7 ThinQ Smart Speaker review (www.which.co.uk)
  7. ^ large Ikea Eneby (www.which.co.uk)
  8. ^ small Ikea Eneby (www.which.co.uk)
  9. ^ Marley Stir It Up (www.which.co.uk)
  10. ^ Marley Get Together Mini review (www.which.co.uk)
  11. ^ Denon Envaya Mini (www.which.co.uk)
  12. ^ Denon Envaya (DSB250BT) review (www.which.co.uk)
  13. ^ JBL Link 10 (www.which.co.uk)
  14. ^ JBL Link 20 (www.which.co.uk)
  15. ^ JBL Link 300 review (www.which.co.uk)
  16. ^ Urbanears Lotsen (www.which.co.uk)
  17. ^ Urbanears Baggen (www.which.co.uk)
  18. ^ Urbanears Stammen review (www.which.co.uk)
  19. ^ B&O Beoplay P6 (www.which.co.uk)
  20. ^ Tibo Sphere 4 (www.which.co.uk)
  21. ^ wireless speaker reviews (www.which.co.uk)

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