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Phones

Lovely phones, IFA 2018. Too bad the US won't see most of them

The batch of new phones from Huawei, ZTE and others show it’s not just about Apple and Samsung.

Angela Lang/CNET

High-end smartphones at a fraction of the cost of Apple's $999 iPhone X or Samsung's $1,000 Note 9. A phone aimed at mobile gamers. A colorful device with a physical keyboard.

These are the phones that emerged at consumer electronics show IFA, typically known for appliances, televisions and other gadgets. This year, though, a handful of handset makers used the massive tech conference in Berlin to unveil their latest devices and get a jump on Apple, which will launch its next iPhone on Sept. 12.

This week, Sony introduced its flagship Xperia XZ3. ZTE, back from (near) death after the lifting of a US ban, brought out the Axon 9 Pro. Huawei released new colors for its P20 Pro and unveiled the Lite version of its Mate 20 handset (before it's even introduced the higher-end device). The Chinese company's Honor business teased its new Magic 2 phone and talked up European availability of its Honor Play gaming phone. LG and HTC showed off new midrange devices, the LG G7 One and G7 Fit, and the HTC U12 Life, respectively, and BlackBerry unveiled the Key2 LE, a more colorful and cheaper version of its flagship Key2.

Phew!

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The sheer breadth of devices launched at IFA is a reminder that the smartphone world isn't just about Apple and Samsung. There are a plethora of options -- often at a lower cost -- even if doesn't always seem like that in the US. But there's a reason these phones are making their debut in Berlin. If you live in the US, chances are you won't run into many of them.  

That's because despite the intensifying competition between different smartphone makers, the top dogs still stand above the pack.

"The US market skews very heavily toward Apple and Samsung," GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart said. "While it's true there aren't as many options in the US as elsewhere, Apple and Samsung's products are really good."

That dynamic means you'll be missing out on some unique alternatives. So even if you don't care about getting these phones in the US, maybe you should.

US ambitions

Unless you're Apple or Samsung, the US market has been a slog. In the second quarter, 40 percent of smartphone shipments came from Apple, while 25 percent came from Samsung, according to Counterpoint Research. LG trailed behind at 16 percent, Motorola at 6 percent and "others" at 13 percent.

That doesn't mean Huawei and other companies don't want to sell their phones in the US. Huawei tried to strike a deal with AT&T earlier this year, only to have it fall apart at the last minute because of political pressure from the US government. A similar deal with Verizon also fell apart, and Best Buy stopped selling Huawei devices earlier this year.

It's the complete opposite outside of the US. In the second quarter, Huawei surpassed Apple to become the world's second-biggest smartphone vendor, according to Canalys and various other research firms. It was largely helped by strong sales in China, where it's No. 1.

"The [US] is difficult because of political things," Richard Yu, the CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, said Friday during a roundtable with journalists. "If [you're] not [partnered] with a carrier, you cannot sell. Over 95 [percent], 98 percent of the flagship phones are sold out from the carrier channel."

Fellow Chinese phone maker ZTE made strides in the US before the government banned American businesses from selling products or services to ZTE for the next seven years as punishment for selling equipment to Iran and North Korea. ZTE in May shut down "the major operating activities of the company" and didn't resume operations until President Donald Trump intervened and helped broker a billion-dollar settlement.

Now that the ban has been lifted, ZTE has resumed its R&D and marketing efforts. The company's new flagship phone, the Axon 9 Pro, won't launch in the US, but ZTE plans to introduce a phone in the country "shortly," said Jeff Yee, vice president of product marketing and strategy at ZTE Mobile Devices. That device won't be as high-end as the Axon 9 Pro, he said, falling in line with the company's largely budget reputation in the US.

"We never left the US, but we do have to re-evaluate our plans," Yee said Thursday in an interview at IFA. "We do have to build back the trust of the consumer. But certainly the US is a priority."

Both Huawei's and ZTE's situations represent the most extreme example of how difficult it is for a handset maker to break into the US market. But the US isn't the only market in the world, which is why so many companies showed up to IFA to impress.

Phones galore

To do that impressing, some went with high-end, flashy specs while others sought to include decent components still keeping pricing low:

  • The Sony Xperia XZ3 is a "supersize, superpowered, superpricy handset," as CNET's Jessica Dolcourt puts it. It sports a 6-inch screen, a 19-megapixel camera setup (single lens, like the Galaxy S9), waterproofing, wireless charging and Qualcomm's brawny Snapdragon 845 chipset. The Xperia XZ3 will sell for $900 in the US with Amazon and Best Buy when it goes on sale Oct. 17. That price tag converts to about £690 and AU$1,230.
  • The BlackBerry Key2 LE, meanwhile, "is a lighter, brighter -- and cheaper -- version of BlackBerry's flagship device that sees the phone maker shake off its rather staid and sensible reputation and embrace color," as CNET's Katie Collins noted. The Key2 LE comes in blue-gray slate, a golden champagne hue and a bold shade of red. It'll be available in the US, UK, Canada and other countries toward the end of September and will start at $399, 399 euros or £349 for the 32GB variant. BlackBerry declined to say whether the phone will be sold in carrier stores in the US or just direct retailers like Best Buy.
  • LG's G7 One, a variant of its high-end G7 ThinQ flagship from earlier this year, is a mainstream Android One phone that gives non-Google Pixel users a more pure, stock Android experience. The software was originally designed to work on cheaper phones with entry-level specs but is moving into midrange phones like the G7 One.
  • LG also unveiled its G7 Fit, a variation of the G7 One with lower-end specs and lower pricing. The company hasn't yet detailed pricing or availability beyond saying the pricing will be "exceptional." It intends to launch both phones in the US, but its plans could change.
  • ZTE's Axon 9 Pro is waterproof, wireless charging, sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and has a 6.21-inch, 1080p AMOLED display. The display has its own dedicated chip to process video, a feature ZTE calls "Axon Vision." "The technology not only boosts a video's color contrast, but it bumps up its frame rate to render smoother images," as CNET's Lynn La noted. The phone will cost 649 euros, which converts to about $760, £590 or AU$1,040. It won't be available in the US.
  • The HTC U12 Life has a large, 6-inch display, two rear cameras for portrait mode, expandable storage and a rare headphone jack. It'll sell in Europe for 349 euros or £299 (which converts to about $390), but not in the US or Australia. "Apart from the Pixel-like backing, the U12 Life has some pretty compelling features for a phone of its quite reasonable price," CNET's Dolcourt said.
  • Huawei launched its pared-back Lite version of its Mate 20 phone, before actually releasing the higher-end sibling. The Mate 20 Lite goes on sale in early October in the UK for £379 (which converts to $493). US and Australian availability aren't yet known. The device packs a 2,340x1,080-pixel 6.3-inch display; 20-megapixel rear camera paired with a secondary 2-megapixel camera to capture depth information for portrait shots, and a 24-megapixel front camera that also has a second 2-megapixel depth camera.
  • Huawei's Honor Play gaming phone, which was launched in China in June and went on sale in more Asian countries in early August, now will arrive in Europe for 329 euros or £279. The phone, targeted at mobile gamers, includes a feature called GPU Turbo that aims to make the device faster and more power efficient. Its 4D "smart shock" haptic feature will make realistic vibrations when firing a virtual gun.

Many of the features of those devices are ones you can find in phones from Apple and Samsung. But some offer things you can't get anywhere else, like a focus on mobile gaming or physical keyboards. With the exception of the Sony phone, the biggest advantage is the relatively high-end set of specs for a lower price. 

"As the smartphone ecosystem matures, it's not enough to just offer premium and midrange phones," Ha Jeung-uk, senior vice president and business unit leader for LG's mobile business, said in a press release. "There is a growing demand for models in between."

While some of these phones are coming to the US, they'll likely be sold directly to consumers online or at retail stores like Best Buy. But with a vast majority of consumers still buying their handsets straight from a wireless carrier, that means they'll likely fall under the radar.

"Consider what the [US] consumers are missing out on," IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said. In part, it's "more choices at the medium- and low-end of the pricing spectrum [and] high-end smartphones masquerading with a midrange price."

The phonemakers of IFA are worth keeping an eye on, unless you want to fork over a small fortune for the latest from Apple or Samsung.

CNET's Katie Collins contributed to this report. 

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