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Why Chinese smartphone clones may not be a good deal after all

CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains in this edition of Ask Maggie why those too-good-to-be-true deals on cheap smartphones from China should be avoided.

Nobody loves a bargain like I do. So when a reader asked me what I thought about buying "knock-off" smartphones in China, I was intrigued.

After all, I've bought my share of counterfeit handbags in New York's Chinatown. But when you're talking about electronics and cell phones, to be specific, you need to be careful about what you are buying. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer my advice on whether to buy counterfeit smartphones and how you can find an affordable smartphone made for the US market.

I also explain to another reader why his unlocked smartphone from Canada won't work on Virgin Mobile USA.

Looking for a smartphone bargain in China

Dear Maggie,
It is time for me to replace my aging HTC Evo from Sprint. My contract is up with Sprint and I'm also considering moving to another carrier, specifically I am looking at some prepaid plans from T-Mobile or MetroPCS. I know that with these new plans I am going to need to buy my own phone at full price. But I don't want to pay $400 to $700 for a phone. That's insane! I have considered buying a used phone on Craigslist or eBay, but I'm too scared that I'll get scammed or it won't work. I've seen some advertisements for phones from China. I have no problem buying a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag --they look so much like the real thing! But is OK to buy a fake smartphone from China?


Dear Agnes,
The same instinct that makes you wary of buying a used smartphone on Craigslist or eBay should make you skeptical about buying a "knock-off" from China.

Sure, the prices sound terrific. On the site I found a Galaxy S4 for $124, a Galaxy Note 2 for $150, and an iPhone 5S "clone" for $124. This compares to the cost of an unlocked Galaxy S4 that you can get on Amazon for $559, an unlocked Galaxy Note 2 which sells for $489, and an unlocked Apple iPhone 5S with 16GB of storage, which sells for about $800.

Looking at these prices, it is very tempting to go for the cheaper price tag. But remember the saying: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

I'm not saying that all devices that come from China are bad or won't work in the US. That's not the case at all. In fact, most of the name-brand devices are actually manufactured in China. And in some cases the Chinese "knock-offs" may even be assembled or produced in the same factories. It's also true that the $500 to $800 price tags of Samsung, Apple, or other name-brand smartphones are inflated and don't represent the true value of the components and labor needed to build the devices. There are a lot of marketing costs built into these hefty price tags as well.

So some people may argue that you could get a great deal buying an inexpensive device from China. In fact, there are a lot of name-brand Chinese manufacturers, such as Huawei and ZTE, that are giving Samsung and Apple a run for their money in selling inexpensive phones to compete with these devices in developing markets. Even in some developed markets, high-end devices from these Chinese manufacturers are starting to compete.

But choosing to take a risk on buying a cheap smartphone knock-off from a Chinese device Web site is not for the faint of heart. In order to get a really good deal and not just waste your money on an overpriced paperweight of a device that you won't be able to use in the US, you have to know what you're doing.

Here's a brief list of some of the most common pitfalls associated with buying a device sight unseen from one of these Chinese Web sites.

Devices likely to use lesser-quality components.

The reason any manufacturer can sell a knock-off of any kind for less than the original brand is almost always because the counterfeiter is using cheaper materials. It's true with your Louis Vuitton bag as well as with the iPhone 5S "clone." The touch screen may not be of the same quality, the processor is likely older and slower, and the battery is often not up to snuff. What this means for you is that the device may not perform well. A lot of people who have bought these devices complain of touch screens that are unresponsive and batteries that drain within hours. Some even overheat and can be dangerous.

Devices might not operate on faster US data networks.

The radio frequency and wireless technology used in China differs from what's used in the US. Devices made for specific carriers in the US include radios that allow these devices to operate on the fastest carrier networks.

Even devices that are unlocked and support GSM technology -- which is a cellular technology used by most carriers and allows people to drop in a SIM card to get service on another GSM carrier network -- don't always work the same on every network around the world. And unfortunately, even so-called world phones or quad band phones from China may still not work optimally in the US.

Specifically, these Chinese phones likely won't operate on a 3G or 4G LTE wireless network. Most US phones built for GSM carriers here in the US (AT&T and T-Mobile) support GSM radios for 850/1900 MHz. This is the technology that provides basic 2G voice service. US GSM operators also use 850/1900 MHz for 3G WCDMA service.

In China, 3G WCDMA service uses 850/2100 MHz, which is different from US networks. If the device you are buying doesn't support all the US bands used for 2G GSM voice service as well as 3G WCDMA service for voice, the phone won't get 3G data here in the US.

This means you have to be extra careful in checking the specifications of the device you are buying. Even if it claims to be "quad band" and says it will work in the US, you have to check that it supports the appropriate wireless bands for both 2G and 3G services. For example, a quad band phone that supports 850/900/1800/1900 MHz for GSM and only supports 850/2100 MHz for WCDMA will probably work fine on the basic 2G voice network but won't work on US 3G data networks. The device would also have to support 1900MHz for WCDMA in addition to GSM in order to get full 3G access in the US.

As for 4G LTE, that's an entirely different ball of wax, since most devices in China do not yet support LTE. That means that the iPhone 5S clone you want to buy will not work on AT&T's or T-Mobile's fastest 4G LTE networks.

You might get scammed.

This goes without saying anytime you are buying an expensive item from an unknown supplier: Beware of scammers. There are plenty of people who get hoodwinked when buying items in the US on sites like Craigslist and eBay. You already mentioned this as a fear. So it's no different when dealing with similar sites in China. And the mere fact that your device has to travel halfway around the world to get to you is another risk that simply can't be avoided. Anything can happen to it on its journey, even with the best of intentions on the part of the seller.

Gary Sims from offered some good advice in a post he wrote in the spring about how to buy a device from China. So if you really want to take a chance, check out his piece for some tips and tricks.

Less risky alternatives

Personally, I am not enough of a risk taker to throw down even $150 on a device that may or may not be delivered to my door and may or may not work properly even if I receive it. Even though Sims' advice sounds great, you will still need to know enough about smartphones and the device spec sheet you are reviewing to know whether you're getting a device that will work for you.

For the super tech-savvy individual who likes futzing around with gadgets, I'd say go for it. Take a risk. But for the average Joe who just wants her smartphone to work, there are alternatives. You may not find an iPhone 5S for $150, but you can find a device that will meet your needs for a lot less than $800.

Used devices

Even though you are nervous about buying a used phone from Craigslist or eBay, it may still be worth checking out. And if you can find a friend or relative who wants to sell you a used device, that may be even better. Also check with whatever carrier you plan to use to see if they sell refurbished devices. This can also be a good way to get a new phone with a little assurance that the device you are buying works.

Last year's model

The latest and greatest smartphones on the market are the most expensive, whether you get it subsidized by a carrier or you are buying it at full price. If you buy last year's model it will be considerably less money. The Samsung Galaxy S3 is priced at $396 on Amazon.

Unlocked Phones: Google Nexus 5, Motorola MotoG, and so on.

There are several phones hitting the market that are built and priced specifically for the unlocked wireless market where consumers are paying full price for devices. The two most cost-effective include the Google Nexus 5, which starts at $350 for the 16GB version and the new Motorola Moto G, which starts at $179 for an 8GB version. These phones pack a lot of functionality without a hefty price tag. And they come unlocked, which means you should be able to use them on any pre-paid GSM carrier in the US, including prepaid services on T-Mobile, AT&T, even MetroPCS where its network is integrated with parent T-Mobile. The only downside of the Moto G is that it does not support 4G LTE. But at $179, it might be worth the sacrifice if you what you're looking for is an inexpensive phone to go with an inexpensive service plan.

The bottom line is that sometimes you get what you pay for. And if you try to get the cheapest deal you see on a Chinese Web site, you may regret it since the device may not work in the US and it may not work properly period. My recommendation is that you try to find a less-expensive alternative unlocked phone in the US. If a new device is what you desire, it's hard to beat the price of the new Moto G, which goes on sale starting this week.

Good luck!

Using an unlocked phone from Canada in the US

Dear Maggie,
I recently purchased a Galaxy Ace 2 cell phone from "The Source" here in Canada on the "Silver Plan" from Virgin Mobile Canada. At the time I purchased my phone, I informed the sales rep that I spend the winter in Florida, and I wanted to be able to use the new phone in the US. They told me that since the phone I was buying had a SIM card, I just needed to pay for the phone, get it unlocked and then take it to Florida and put another SIM card in it and I would be ready to go. I contacted Virgin Mobile in the US yesterday to prepare for the change-over and was told Virgin US did not provide phone service for phones purchased in Canada. I am confused -- I thought an unlocked phone could be activated on any service. Can you please explain?


Dear John,
Unlocked GSM phones from Canada can be used on GSM networks in the US. The problem you are facing is that Virgin Mobile in the US is not a GSM carrier. It is a prepaid brand owned and operated by Sprint, which is a CDMA carrier.

If you would like to use your unlocked Galaxy Ace 2 in the US, simply choose another GSM prepaid carrier in the US, such as T-Mobile USA. Your device will work in the US with a SIM card from another GSM carrier. The only potential issue you might have is if the radio frequencies for the fastest 3G services in your particular device are not supported by the US GSM carrier you choose. What this means for you is that your device may not operate at the full data download speed that it would in Canada while you are in Florida.

That said, the voice and text-messaging service should work as it does in Canada. And if the data speeds are too slow for you, you may find it less frustrating to use your smartphone to connect to the Net when you're in Wi-Fi hot spots.

I hope this clarified things for you. Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.