You may have heard of the names Huawei, Xiaomi, and Oppo over the last few years, but have yet to try one of their phones for yourself. You're not alone. In Australia, Apple and Samsung dominate the market in what appears to be a two-horse race. But 2016 could be the year that changes that, as Chinese manufacturers set their sights on global expansion.
For Australian audiences, Xiaomi remains the most enigmatic of Chinese brands. Xiaomi grabs all the headlines, the tech press love it, but there is still no official way of buying its products in this country.
Xiaomi's willingness to, ahem, take inspiration from Apple can leave you breathless. The company's industrial design, marketing, websites, and packaging all feel as though they could have been made in Cupertino. Consensus among the tech press is that Xiaomi would have a difficult time launching in Western markets, as any move outside China would open it up to intellectual property and copyright complaints from Apple. But it seems determined, and appears to be building up a patent war chest ahead of an international expansion.
I've imported a few Xiaomi accessories, and I'm always impressed by the quality of the products. Its external battery packs are probably the best value on the market, and, unlike some cheaper units, you can trust you're not buying a lithium-ion time bomb. At $26, the Mi Band fitness tracker outperforms most from Fitbit and Jawbone. Be careful when you buy, though. Such is the irony of Xiaomi's success that there are many counterfeit versions of its products online. I'd recommend buying via Deal Extreme to ensure you're buying an official product.
Oppo shares a lot in common with Xiaomi. Its design language is fun, bright, and aimed directly at an iPhone-loving younger market. Unlike Xiaomi, the company has stayed on the right side of copyright law, and is expanding into Western markets.
Oppo has chosen Australia as the first Western market to focus on outside China, and it has seen remarkable growth in this country on the back of the Oppo R7 launch. The Oppo R7 is a wafer-thin smartphone that looks and feels as good to use as any high-end model , but comes in at about $449, half the price of Apple and Samsung flagship devices.
Relatively speaking, Huawei is the older, established brand in comparison to upstarts Oppo and Xiaomi. It is also the market leader in China, beating Xiaomi in second place, and that little Californian company Apple, into third.
Worldwide, Huawei is now the third-largest smartphone manufacturer on the planet, thanks to its home-team advantage in China, and the success of its Honor brand in Europe.
Huawei phones have a unique aesthetic, that unlike Oppo or Xiaomi does not take inspiration from iOS. The handsets are aimed at the growing Chinese middle class, with premium materials and high-quality designs.
Huawei has long been an innovator in the mobile handset space. It led the way with larger handset designs, its phones shipped with the first really great fingerprint scanners long before Apple and Samsung, and its Mate S model beat the iPhone to "force touch" pressure-sensitive screens.
In Australia, Huawei remains a largely unknown brand. This may change following its partnership with Google on the Nexus 6P. Released in October last year, it will no doubt open the brand to a larger audience in Western markets.
With all the major players choosing to manufacture their smartphones in China, it's not surprising to see Chinese companies using this expertise to compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung. Remember the names Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei. You may not have heard of them before today, but you'll be reading a lot about them in the years to come.