Regular readers will know that we’ve been tracking low cost Chinese smartphones for a number of years, starting with the tacky and almost hilarious iPhone clones, and their other cheap Android cousins. Well times move on, and the Chinese no longer worry about copying the Apple marque, now they’re just into building better products which work well and have some style.
Breakout domestic brands like Huawei and ZTE are already snapping at the heels of the major Western brands, but judging by the latest products we’re seeing out of China, they’re soon going to be joined by a pack of ultra low cost manufacturers who will rip the smartphone market apart like a bunch of rabid hyenas with…[‘that’s enough…’ – Ed].
On the face of it, the THL W5 Android smartphone is just like every other low cost Chinese handset on the market, but my how things have changed. This brand new model comes with all the trimmings we now expect from high end smartphones, but at a significantly lower price and with some subtle but very cool differences.
The THL (‘technology, happy life’ – geddit?) W5 sports a 1GHz dual core processor, 1GB RAM (which is an important differentiator with other low cost handsets, which usually feature a bare minimum 512MB!), 4 GB of ROM storage memory, GPS, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth, an 8 megapixel camera (plus a 2mp up front) and a 1280×720 4.7 inch capacitive touchscreen which features superb graphical resolution and responsiveness.
The battery life from the 2000mAh battery is excellent, and easily delivers over a day’s worth of work from a full charge, thanks, we suspect, to some clever and aggressive power management. But none of these things are especially extraordinary, and when put alongside the major league players like Samsung, Apple and HTC, the handset still struggles in a few areas, although we have to remember that this THL retails for a fraction of their price.
There is however one genuinely world class feature of this phone, which we hope other manufacturers will pick up on and incorporate in their future products. The standout for us is the seamless, simultaneous dual SIM feature. The stock 4.0.4 Android operating system has been revamped to offer full SIM management, which means that you can slot in two SIMs and the phone will make and receive calls and texts from either SIM on demand, with no clumsy switching or reboots needed.
To make a call you press either of the color coded buttons to choose your network, and when you write a text message you have two Send buttons to choose from. You can set up either SIM to handle your 3G data, and set and customize the contacts – and ringtones – for each SIM as you wish. The phone even manages your roaming to prevent you making a call from the ‘foreign’ card, which could be a great money saver.
It’s all superbly implemented and a feature that makes this twin SIM handset a real bonanza of value. The SIM Management section of the Android system is also a joy to use, and it makes it easy to custom tailor your two SIMs the way you want to work, in terms of data, video and voice. It’s fast, easy and very powerful.
There are other nice touches on the phone as well, starting with obvious things like the build quality, which is excellent. The phone feels solid, has a great ergonomic feel to it, and a superb screen. This is not your typical low resolution WVGA, it’s HD proper and it shows! As a size comparison, we shot it alongside a Samsung SII, and a Samsung Note, and as you can see it sits firmly in the middle in terms of screen real estate. A nice compromise in size actually (although we do love the Note).
Read on for my video hands-on, photo samples and more details.
The Android system runs smoothly, you get full access to the Google Play store and all apps run faultlessly on the screen. Tethering is available, as is integrated VPN functionality for accessing private networks and modern high resolution games run with no glitches at all.
Other nice touches include – a (very) loud speaker, great call quality, auto power off and on (for conserving battery overnight etc), and excellent video and games playback. My hands-on video review goes through the phone’s operation in more detail.
There are, however, a couple of weak areas that we found after using the handset full time for a few weeks which could definitely be improved. The camera for one. It may be billed as 8 megapixel, but we found the quality to be somewhat hit and miss. In good light the results are decent, although not as crisp as more expensive phones.
Similarly in low light the images tend to be a little noisy and sometimes not too accurately exposed. The software offers a conventional set of image tools, such as white balance, various scenes and even an HDR function, but the base image default would definitely benefit from a camera firmware update. Example shots show THL W5 on the top row, and Samsung Note 8mp images on the bottom (unedited, just resized).
Similarly, the GPS function of the phone can be somewhat random. The handset runs Google Maps Navigation perfectly, with smooth scrolling maps and full functionality, but every so often it seems as though the satellite tracking drops out or loses focus or whatever the technical term is, and the orientation will wander off course. It does correct itself in seconds, but the glitches are most noticeable in traffic jams, which is one time when you need accuracy the most. Again this is something which probably could be fixed with a firmware or software upgrade.
Outside the box is where there’s also sign of another shift in direction. One of the things which has long divided the major Western cell phone brands from the Chinese export products is the complete sales and service experience. Apple, Samsung and Nokia have historically spent lavishly on high street stores, as well as consumer support coverage and other features that come under the full marketing banner.
THL is, to our knowledge, the first of the home grown Chinese producers to invest in this type of eco-system in a serious way, and it’s the first sign we’ve seen that the Chinese have learned that mobile phone marketing is not just about pretty brochures and a website. It should be a stark warning to the rest of the world, that the largest consumer market in the world is getting street smart.
THL is not a newcomer to the market, but within the past year or so the company has opened up over 300 branded retail stores, with slick, polished point of sale marketing, support staff, online support and a sophisticated distribution network. Of course this is all about the domestic Chinese market, but already there are signs (e.g. an English language website) that the company has international ambitions.
This is not a back street, pile them high drop-shipper, so this is new territory and it should be causing the major Western brand executives a few sleepless nights. If one Chinese company can work this out, it won’t be long before most of them do, and once that market dynamic is created, the results could be significant…for China and eventually the rest of the world.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Chinese money, coupled with Western marketing tactics spells trouble for any complacent or sloppy competitor. Ask Samsung rivals like HTC and Nokia how they feel right now? And if the Koreans can do it, the Chinese can too, right?
So, is this a turning point in the global mobile industry dynamic? A subtle but crucial shift in future possibilities, or just a random blip on the chart as one local company gets lucky? Only time will tell, but if we were betting types, we’d definitely be watching the odds on the Chinese domestic brands very closely over the next 18 months or so. Anyone who remembers just how far and how fast the dominant Nokia brand has fallen over the past few years will understand what we mean.
The THL W5 is an extremely competent low cost Android smartphone, which can compete with the best mid-range smartphones in the world. The dual SIM functionality is world class, the camera and GPS perhaps less so, but overall this is a phone which is good enough to recommend to your friends as a cheap alternative to the top models around today. Priced at around £150 /$240 for a SIM free, unlocked model, it’s typically half or a third of the price of a major player, and for many people there’s not going to be a lot to choose between the rivals.
OS version: Android 4.0.4
CPU: MT6577 Dual Core
Processor Speed: 1GHz
3G: WCDMA 850/2100 MHz
Adobe Flash support
Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot(3G tethering)
Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n
8 Megapixel Rear Camera + 2 Megapixel Front-Facing Camera
Battery Size + Life: 2000mAH, 3 hours talk time
Battery standby: 90 hours
Languages: English, Chinese (simp), Chinese(trad)
Display size: 4.7
Display resolution: 1280×720
5 point multi touch display
Micro SD Card Slot supports up to 32GB
Video: 3GP, MP4
Audio: MP3, WMA, WAV
Picture: JPEG, BMP, GIF
eBook: PDF, TXT
(plus additional as downloads when needed)
2 GSM SIM Card Slots
Micro SD Card Slot
3.5 mm Audio Out Port
Main product dimensions: 135 x 70 x 11mm (L x W x D)
Main product weight: 156g