Paying a premium for a brand you recognise is a sensible policy with many consumer electronics; there is a world of difference between a top-end Sony TV and one produced to a price for a supermarket’s shelves by a no-name factory in Eastern Europe.
But mobile phones are an exception. Apple’s handsets are famously expensive and Samsung’s not far behind – both makers working on the assumption that their name badge on the handset is a feature that is in and of itself worth something.
But the mobile market is turned on its head in other parts of the world. In India and China, for instance, the brand leaders are firms like Oppo and Cubot, and their names carry almost as much prestige as the international players. Partly it’s because buyers there are more concerned with price than prestige, but it’s also because their handsets are really pretty good.
Neither brand is widely available here but both can be found with a little online searching, and the specifications are often quite astonishing, even compared with mainstream budget brands like Motorola.
The recently-released Oppo A71, for instance, with its large display, eight-core processor and 3gb of memory, can be had for around £120 yet is almost a match for the £200 Moto G5 Plus, lacking only the fingerprint sensor and full HD screen.
The Cubit Max, also £120, matches the Oppo on processor and memory and boasts a huge six-inch screen, which makes it usable as a small tablet as well as a phone. Both Cubit and Oppo favour dual-SIM arrangements, which mean you can run two phone lines on a single handset; your personal and business accounts, for example.
Neither has quite the premium feel of an iPhone or a Samsung, but for those who prefer function over form, they are compelling propositions.
However, without an established network of UK retailers, either on the high street or online, some caution is called for before making a purchase. Many internet sellers which appear to be based here are actually in the Far East – a dead giveaway is when they add “UK” to the name of their website – and not all their stock is intended for use on British phone networks. Their return policies in the event that a product is faulty may also be a nightmare to navigate.
But availability is improving, and may eventually squeeze the prices of more established brands.
It’s also worth noting that Oppo’s phones use their own version of Google’s Android operating system, known as ColorOS. The differences are cosmetic but will take a day or two to adjust to, if you’re used to more familiar phones.
Sitting somewhere between the Far-Eastern brands and the market leaders is Huawei, a Chinese multinational whose range of phones and smartwatches is now well established in Europe. The latest (2017) version of its P8 Lite phone at £128 is a near match for the Motorola G5 Plus but the P8 has a better front camera – and as you can buy it over the counter at John Lewis, compatibility and exchanges are not an issue. If I were buying a budget phone today, this is probably the one I’d choose.
The irony of traditional brand values on tactile, personal items such as phones is that the maker’s name tends now to be round the back, concealed beneath a case, and the “premium build” apparent only to you. So given the new competition, the policy of demanding cash for cachet is looking increasingly unconvincing.