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Sun, Jan. 15th, 2017, 03:36 pm
How I chose & bought a cheap Chinese smartphone [tech blog post, by me]

So... when the lack of apps for my beloved Blackberry Passport, and the issues with running sideloaded Android apps, became problematic, I decided to check out a cheap Chinese Android Phablet.

(P.S. The Passport is for sale! Let me know if you're interested.)

The Passport superseded a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which subsequently got stolen, unfortunately. It was decent, occasionally sluggish, ran an elderly version of Android with no updates in ages, and had a totally useless stylus I never used. It replaced an iPhone 4 which replaced an HTC Desire HD, which replaced a Nokia Communicator E90 -- the best form-factor for a smartphone I've ever had, but nothing like it exists any more.

I wanted a dual-core or quad-core phablet, bigger than 5.5", with dual SIM and a memory card. That was my starting point.  I don't have or use a tablet and never have -- I'm a keyboard junkie. I spend a lot of time surfing the web, on social networks, reading books and things on my phone. I wanted one as big as I could get, but still pocketable. My nicked Samsing was 5.5" and I wanted a little larger. I tried a 6" phablet in a shop and wanted still bigger if possible. I also tried a 6.8" Lenovo Phab Pro in a shop and that was a bit too big (but I might be persuaded -- with a tiny bezel, such a device might be usable).

I looked at several sites -- the main 2 are:
* Coolicool -- http://coolicool.com/
* GearBest -- http://www.gearbest.com/
I've also been told DX.com is good ( http://www.dx.com/ ) but not tried it myself.

... and Googled in general. I found tons of them. I even started to built a spreadsheet to compare them, there were so many.

So I started looking for things to eliminate certain offerings.

Old models are easy to eliminate. 512MB RAM or something? Too little, strike that line out. I wanted at least 2GB. Tiny amount of Flash? 2, 4, 8GB Flash -- strike that line out.

Then it got a bit harder and needed to pay closer attention to the specs.

  • Dual SIM but one of them is the card slot -- strike that line out.

  • Not an ARM chip (e.g. Intel) -- strike that line out.

  • No removable battery -- strike that line out. (I didn't think to check that spares are available for mine. They aren't. :-( )

  • Low-res screen. At least 720P is normal now. 1280*600 is grainy and low-res these days. Anything less than 720P across (i.e. the narrow axis) got struck out.

I still had more than half a dozen and much confusion.

So then I started looking at Android versions.

Android 4.2 was the oldest I'd consider. It's the last version to play Flash, which is handy, but it's really old now. That had mostly already gone with the models with very low memory or storage.

Android 4.4 is OK, but still old.

So I looked for devices with Android 5.1 (as 5.0 and 5.0.x were buggy and leaked memory).

Bing, everything went away. The iRulu Victory v3 was the only one left, so I bought one.

Basically, now, there are 3 layers in the market.

There's high-end, low-end, and a poorly-defined layer in between.

There are premium big-name devices: Samsung, LG, Sony, HTC, Google Nexus. These are typically poor at what I consider useful extras like dual-SIM, memory card slots, removable batteries. But on the other hand, they abound in very hi-res screens (even with pointless gimmickry like curved screens or bevelled edges), extras like fingerprint readers and NFC and so on that I don't want. Even external expansion connectors like headphone sockets are now disappearing. They are 3x -- 4x the price of low-end devices.

There's the low-end: mostly Chinese, you've never heard of them. Basic but workable. Beware of ancient versions of Android, tiny amounts of memory and Flash, very slow processors or very low-res screens. As of last year, if it's less than £100, it's junk.

But they extend upwards slightly into decent, usable, cheap phones (and tablets, I guess -- I've not looked.)

The high end of the Chinese no-brand generics blurs into the mid-range of smaller brands.

Lenovo sits here, perhaps unexpectedly. Internationally it's a PC company but in its home market it makes hundreds of phones and tablets that non-Chinese markets rarely see. On international sale are about 1% of its models. It has some tempting devices and next time I might go for one, but as ever, they're always compromised -- the memory card is in SIM slot 2, the batteries aren't removable, etc.

Some of the semi-premium brands sit here too -- Huawei, Asus, Xiaomi.

A bit more expensive, but better build quality and support. Software-wise, you might get updates, which is good, but then again, you'll get some horrible customised skin on Android, and preloaded crapware, which is bad.

There are also smaller European companies, making deals with unheard-of Chinese vendors, rebranding them and offering European-customised Android and a bit of after-sales support. If you want to buy in the UK and are scared of dealing directly with China or whatever, this is a good choice.

Main examples:

* WileyFox -- https://www.wileyfox.com/
* OnePlus -- https://oneplus.net/uk/

So, the iRulu Victory v3 I'm currently using...

https://www.irulu.com/phone/p-irulu-victory-v3-smartphone-6.5-inch-4g-lte-unlock-cell-phone-android-5.1-gsm-wcdma-ips-touch-screen-qualcomm-quad-core-gms-certified_1123492.html

I bought it off eBay, new, from Singapore.

I found the best site for checking specs is GSMArena but there are others, e.g.

http://www.devicespecifications.com/en/model/502a3723

It's cheap and plasticky, but it works and it cost £125 new. I spent an extra fiver on a flip case, from a different vendor on eBay. It's one of those where you replace the back cover and the case attaches to that. Another fiver bought a pack of screen protectors. I'll only ever need one, but it was cheaper to buy 5 than 3. I made a balls up of fitting the first one, so I got a shop to do the next, and they did a lovely job.

It's a huge, fairly high-spec phablet for the money -- 2GB RAM, 16GB Flash, both Dual SIM and a µSD slot. (Often makers/vendors claim this but a memory card goes in the 2nd socket. I needed dual SIM plus a memory card.)

The only downside is that there's no compass. Not no compass app -- that's trivial -- no compass chip. Makes navigation on foot trickier. Not a problem in a car but I very rarely need that .

It's huge but it's light as the case and frame aren't metal. As it's not Gorilla Glass or other super-tough screen covering, I regard a screen protector and a hard case as essential. I've dropped it once or twice and it's not cracked or anything yet.

It fits in most trouser pockets fine, even jeans, and it's a talking point and conversation starter because it's so big. But then I have huge hands and can just, barely, use this one-handed.

The battery life is poor, despite an alleged 3000 mAh battery. I carry a power bank. I need to reboot daily, and carefully move all apps that can be moved from internal storage to my memory card.

The iRulu isn't lasting well. I have occasionally errors with the SIM not registering, the backlight sometimes flickers, and the volume-down key no longer works. I have to press volume up and then use a fingertip to move the onscreen slider. However, it remains usable. If it lasts a year, I'll be happy. If it only lasts 9 months, for the money, I won't be gutted. In my experience, premium-brand Android phones are on their last legs after 2 years. If my ChiPhone lasts half as long but costs a quarter of the money, I'm quids in. If it lasts a third as long and costs a quarter, I'm still good. If it lasts a third and costs a third, it's still not bad -- I'm better off if it gets lost or stolen.

A tip of the hat to my mate Louis Dobson ( http://thegentlemansnapper.blogspot.cz/ ) who told me that this was an option right after I bought my Samsung Galaxy Note 2, about 3 years ago. Go adopt one of his dogs.

Sun, Jan. 15th, 2017 04:34 pm (UTC)
bexelbie: Rebooting your way to the bank

I like it :)

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:07 pm (UTC)
liam_on_linux: Re: Rebooting your way to the bank

Thank you!

Linux: now middle-aged and a bit boring. Today, it makes smartphones resemble Windows PCs of 20y ago: slow to boot, prone to random freezes, crashes and reboots, required constant maintenance -- but cheap and they did the job.

Unless you bought a premium one (or a Mac), in which case, it cost five times as much, was every bit as unreliable, but looked prettier.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:11 pm (UTC)
bexelbie: Re: Rebooting your way to the bank

I mostly agree with you and find your comments to be true about most product lines in general. However, I think a lot of the recent Apple backlash is because their products have started to become (or feel) more unreliable without a corresponding reduction in price. I fall into the camp that the move to forced annual software releases by Apple has really hurt them. As I understand it, their hardware lines still ship "as needed." And while we can debate the wisdom of their latest ports and keyboard moves, those were design driven decisions, not calendar driven decisions.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:47 pm (UTC)
liam_on_linux: Re: Rebooting your way to the bank

Agreed on all those points, yes.

There are companies who ship annual refreshes because they've nothing really important to do, but have a backlog of small incremental changes -- usually improvements, although as is the way, one person's improvement is another's degradation. The motorcycle industry is one. The sportbike market sees annual refreshes, with little tweaks here and there -- typically, weight reduction, stiffness improvement, stuff like that. Mostly, these tweaks have no major cost. They don't break anything on the machine, they don't need regression testing. Sometimes they break backwards compatibility with options or 3rd party aftermarket accessories, but that's seen as a good thing -- it drives more new sales of those options.

The companies /could/ push all these tweaks in one model if they wished. They'd get a bigger edge over their rivals, but then, it probably wouldn't drive a lot of extra sales, as there's a lot of brand loyalty. People buy on colour, on looks, on some single indicator (often of something they'll never use) such as top speed. They don't tend to buy by stacking up aggregate specs.

People who make such sensible measured decisions buy boring commuter bikes, and don't care about model year etc.

But the software companies have made a mistake. They /think/ that since their market is quite mature, they can switch to this model. They're wrong. Like the sad gradual decline of MS, this is driven by marketing people having more control than technical people.

Mac OS X and iOS were quite mature stable code. That's a /selling point/ to sensible buyers. Real users, pro or amateur, don't like doing big upgrades. I bet you're not on Fedora 25 yet. When I installed F24, Joe B told me he was still on F22 or something.

Apple seems to think it's making its offerings more appealing by keeping them "fresh" with annual updates. Most of us think it's wrong. It did succeed with pushing iOS updates aggressively on the iDevices, until the more rapid refreshes started leaving people behind (around iOS 8 in my personal estimation) or actually had a cost (iOS 7's flatness is visually unappealing, the blur effects slowed the devices down, and app groups now can hold fewer entries and you need to scroll more. All costs, all drawbacks.)

Pushing updates and keeping your users current is good. The iOS updatre mechanism is good and usually works, if the owner hasn't rooted their device. The OS X update mechanism is nearly as good and rarely goes wrong.

Compare to Windows or Linux Mint or Fedora updates, which are a lot more painful.

But no desktop OS is *good* at this yet. Apple's good at installing a whole new OS, safely side-lining the whole old OS install for reversion, while bringing across settings and apps and data. However, it brings obsolete crap too. It took me a lot of manual work to reformat danacea's MacBook and leave all the crap behind, but when I did, it was _transformed_. Like a new machine: from tired and sluggish to fast, snappy, responsive.

Crap pruning needs to get a lot more ruthless, so that is breaks apps that are bad at leaving their junk lying around.

Aside: this is in part why I used to install WinXP with a small C: partition, formatted FAT16, bootable with MS-DOS and holding the swapfile. Max size, 2GB, mostly full. Windows itself was on D:.

It broke apps that assumed that Windows was on C:. Such apps were badly-coded junk. I had one run-in with support for such a company. Small enough that support guy was a dev. It blew his mind when I told him that Windows was on D. "Why?" he asked, bewildered. "Because it catches people who are bad coders," I explained.

He went from bewildered to angry very quickly, but he lost the argument.

I lost too -- I had to enlarge C because his crapware couldn't run from another drive and the client needed it.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:55 pm (UTC)
bexelbie: Re: Rebooting your way to the bank

I think that this is all good, except that the software industry can ship incremental patches that will, for lack of a better way of putting this, make your existing motorcycle stiffer, thicker, or whatever. That is where feature-gating can pay huge dividends.

While I am not on F25, it is more a function of expecting to get a new laptop in a few weeks than anything else. I will say that the Fedora update process for in-place updates has become extraordinarily smooth. You should definitely try it out. I'd suggest you make it an article and install an old Fedora and then in place it up a few times to see how it does.

I firmly believe that we need to do more crap detection and PC enemas for sure. I have long believed you should do an annual reinstall whether you want to or not. I haven't decided with the Fedora process only because if you are loyal to the packaging system, the crap should get cleaned up. The truth value of this remains to be seen. Having begun recently to try my hand at packaging, it isn't that horrible and there are some real values to the potential for not having crap.

As for your Windows story, you're kind of an ass :P. Breaking paradigms to prove points is not attractive. Your point is valid and the code should be able to handle it. However it is a very edge case, even if common amongst certain classes of users or hardware configurations. What annoys me more is when a common set up is unsupported for bad code reasons.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 01:14 pm (UTC)
liam_on_linux: Re: Rebooting your way to the bank

I'd love to believe that containers, Flatpak & all that would help the crap-accumulation problem, but I don't believe it for an instant.

Linux, mind you, is fairly good at managing temp files. I've never seen significant buildup there, whereas well-used Windows boxes accumulate tens of gigs of temp files. So it's an ironic pity that the performance hack I do on Linux (/tmp in tmpfs, a RAMdisk) results in de-facto automatic clean-up on reboot, which isn't needed so much on Linux -- whereas it'd be hugely helpful on Windows, where I don't know of any way of doing it.

Re being an ass... Well, kinda. TBH it's about the only time it ever caused issues, and that package _was_ a piece of crap.

But yeah, you're right, it was an extreme edge case. It caused me work, once, on one machine, while warning me in a useful way -- and it sent a message to the company, which was probably ignored but was gratifying.

It was good for performance, though -- although the delta was so small it was almost unmeasurable.

Ditto a short-lived hack from 1995-1996 or so, when the default PC HD size was 1.2 GiB. That's over 1024 MiB, which made FAT16 use horrendously inefficient 16 kB clusters. If you partitioned the last 200 GiB off, leaving a 1023 MiB C: drive, the clusters shrank to 8 kB -- and you ended up with no less disk space than before. Magic! And you gained 200GB of spare disk space, to make a new partition in and locate the swapfile to dedicated storage.

One PC vendor complained at me. It put the swapfile on the inner disk tracks, he said, killing performance. I countered that the delta would be below the error of measurement. He didn't believe me. So I benchmarked it, with him there. It made no difference at all and you effectively got about 20% of extra disk space for free. He was chastened. :-)

Modern Windows (post Vista) always makes the boot drive C: -- MS has replaced the disk-enumeration code, so all the old rules of primary, secondary, etc., went in the bin -- shortly before GUID partitioning consigned them to history anyway. This means that, ironically, it's reverted to more like how CP/M used to work on most systems, 30y ago.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 01:58 pm (UTC)
bexelbie: Re: Rebooting your way to the bank

> I'd love to believe that containers, Flatpak & all that would help the crap-accumulation problem, but I don't believe it for an instant.

Agreed. This should help with binary dredge, but that is also fixed fairly well by modern package management systems. The cruft of user files and se
ttings has no solution in sight, afaik. This is actually somewhere I am surprised a third-party hasn't done on OS X. The file associations and metad
ata would definitely seem to be there.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:14 pm (UTC)
bryangb

I think I've been prodding you on this for longer... :-)

Says the Lenovo phablet owner - both separate SIM/SD slots, removable battery and an e-compass, I'm pleased to say.

The distinction between low-end and mid-range has become an important one - as you say, under £100/€100 is cheap & cheerful, but around the £150-£299 mark you can get nigh-on name-brand quality for half or quarter the price.

Edited at 2017-01-16 12:37 pm (UTC)

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:50 pm (UTC)
liam_on_linux

Nah, you're the pusher of rooting and re-Flashing with custom ROMs, not of ChiPhones. :-)

And I've not rooted a phone yet.

I should do the iRulu, because I want to use Link2SD, but the only instructions are a tedious YouTube video by some semi-literate kid who repeats himself constantly. It's painful to listen to and I've not got to the end yet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2U2Gsdvd-E

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 12:52 pm (UTC)
liam_on_linux

P.S. which model Lenovo?

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 01:03 pm (UTC)
bryangb

K3 Note, aka A7000 - 'only' 5.5" though.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 01:35 pm (UTC)
liam_on_linux

That looks pretty good, although as you say, it wouldn't have got through my selection process due to size. Around 6.5" is a decent size, IMHO, maybe due to my myopia. Close up, without specs, it doesn't feel cramped to use. But due to the Victory's huge bezels, it won't fit in some of my pockets.

Huawei's Ascend Mate 7 has a 6" screen (and a really bad product-naming department) but it's 85% screen with tiny bezels.

(*Inserts swozzle*) That's the way to do it! (*Swallows swozzle* *Chokes*)

There doesn't seem to be a profusion of ChiPhones around the 6-and-a-bit-inch mark with Android 6+ and either dual-SIM+µSD or dual-SIM+64GB yet. I live in hope that there will be.

Mon, Jan. 16th, 2017 04:19 pm (UTC)
bryangb

My criteria are different from yours, of course. Key early ones are whether it's rootable and if anyone is developing modded ROMs for it. It's not a scientific analysis of course, but the K3 has 391 ROMS on needrom.com, vs none for iRulu.

Tue, Jan. 17th, 2017 12:44 pm (UTC)
liam_on_linux

Dammit. Closed the tab, lost my comment. Why no warning, Chrome?

I accept you're into that, but it's not really on my list at all. I'm more interested in features. E.g. a year or so back, Louis bought one of these:

http://ulefone.com/products/power/features.html

A decent looking phone in all ways, but that battery. 6050 mAh. Wow! More than twice the current one. I've not had a phone that could last a whole day in 4-5 years. I no longer listen to music on them -- it kills them even sooner. The current one can't last until sunset, and yes, that includes in winter. I am tired of mucking around with power banks, multiport chargers, fragile cables -- they wear out in months now -- and all this.

Since bootup takes 5 min these days, I also long for dual removable batteries, so I can hot-swap. I'd like physical buttons to navigate & answer calls with gloves on, too. But nobody does practical stuff like that -- instead, we get curved screens and other useless crap.

So if I can't have genuinely useful features, I'll settle for a 15mm thick phone and a honking great battery, please.

Tue, Jan. 17th, 2017 01:46 pm (UTC)
bryangb

FYI, I've had a phone with a 6000mAh and another with 4000mAh (Helma's currently got the latter). In my usage (not heavy) I got 2 days from the latter and potentially 3 from the former. Neither was removable, but for that capacity I didn't care.

Neither had an e-compass though, and the first one also did the "2nd slot is SD *or* SIM" thing. And both were 5.5" screens. It seems 5.5" is where the action is right now - you might want to reconsider your insistence on 6+... (-:

Current one is 3000mAh and sometimes doesn't make it through the evening if I don't recharge during the day, especially since it's now my primary phone at the office.


Edited at 2017-01-17 01:48 pm (UTC)