New Chinese phones: Cheaper and good enough

Relatively unknown Chinese manufacturers are making affordable, yet slick phones. Here's what we saw at CES.

You don't have to buy an Apple iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy Note 5 to get a decent phone anymore.

ZTE, Alcatel OneTouch and Huawei, a trio of Chinese companies you probably never heard of, have been busy at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas trying to prove that point. And while they may not offer all the bells and whistles of, say, Apple's flagship phone, they get the job done.

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The Alcatel Fierce XL with Windows 10 is one of many budget Chinese phones you should start looking at.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Increasingly, that's good enough. That's because the gap between top-of-the line and mid-tier phones is shrinking. Differences between camera quality and processor speeds, for example, are fairly small these days. Good enough has added benefit of price, since carriers now want you to pay the full cost of that spiffy, new phone right from the get-go. So where a basic iPhone 6S will set you back $650, you can spend half that for many of these Chinese phones.

It's telling that they're making a splash at CES, which isn't typically a big showcase for phones. But these companies realize the importance of getting their name out in the biggest electronics show of the year.

Bargain bin

Alcatel has the most ambitious slate. The company, owned by China-based TV maker TCL, unveiled six products in its Pixi 4 family of Android phones, with screen sizes between 3.5 inches and 6 inches. It also jumped into the Windows world with its Fierce XL for Windows 10, priced at $140. And it plans to launch a Windows 10 superphone that will also undercut other similar high-end devices.

ZTE showed off two budget phones, the Grand X 3, with a suggested price of $130, and the $115 Avid Plus.

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ZTE's Grand X 3 is big phone for not so much money.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Huawei has the smallest US presence, but it may have the most notable phone in the Google-anointed Nexus 6P. The company showed off a gold version of the latest flagship Google phone at CES. CNET editor Jessica Dolcourt said she "loved the look"of the latest Google phone.

It also brought the big-battery-packing Huawei Mate 8 and all-metal Honor 5X to CES, though it's unclear which will sell in the US.

It's possible these phones aren't for you. But they're a good reminder that you can get a lot more for your money these days.

Direct to you

There's a reason these companies fly under the radar. For starters, carriers usually sell in the budget category or through prepaid services, which aren't aggressively marketed. You won't see a splashy TV ad for the Pixi 4, for instance.

But over the past year, these companies have been selling some of their better phones, unlocked, directly to you from their own online stores. ZTE, for instanced, created its flagship Axon phone as a way to build a relationship with you.

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The Axon, ZTE's take on a high-end phone for consumers, was initially only available through the company's site in the US.

CNET

"We went ahead and designed a product based on what we think consumers want," Lixin Cheng, CEO of ZTE USA, said in an interview. "We're happy with Axon."

That direct pitch is also critical to Alcatel's success, Steve Cistulli, head of the North America business, told me. "The unlocked market has exceeded our expectations," he said.

So far, the unlocked market remains small -- appealing to only technically savvy customers.

"It won't be an overwhelming wave where my mother gets herself an unlocked phone," said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen.

Peace of mind

You're probably less keen to buy a phone without first playing with it, which is why these companies have been stepping up their warranty programs. Huawei, for instance, offers two years of coverage from its GetHuawei.com site.

At the show, ZTE introduced Axon Passport 2.0, a warranty program that offers unlimited repairs for two years. That includes free exchanges and a loaner phone if your repairs take too long.

If you lose your phone while overseas, ZTE will give you a $100 credit toward another Axon phone.

The warranty plans represent one way these companies hope to break you out of the norm of going to a wireless store to pick up that latest Apple or Samsung phone. While the budget phones unveiled at CES may not interest you, these companies are looking to step up their game with higher-end phones that won't hurt your wallet.

That at least has to give you pause for a second look.

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