Beige boxes: cheap, cheerful and changing the face of smartphones

Beige Box

Beige Box

Beggars can’t be choosers. Sometimes, you have to make do with what you can afford. And if what you can afford is not an iPhone, or the new BlackBerry, or a Galaxy, it may be a Beige Box phone.
“A beige box phone?”, you ask, “I’ve never heard of that brand.” Yep, you haven’t.

Cast your mind back 20 years (if you can). For a very long time in the 90s, only the affluent, the snotty and the pecuniously profligate banks used branded PCs. IBMs and Compaqs were not for the great unwashed. No, for them were the ‘beige box’ PCs.

Of wildly varying quality, most students, consumers and small businesses had these ubiquitous beige metal cases under their monitors; stuffed with no-name motherboards, graphics adapters, drive controllers and storage from whichever distributor of whatever component manufacturer was the cheapest source the day it was built.

Usually running a pirated copy of Windows 95, they were the cheap and cheerful Taiwanese workhorses of a million lo-rent users. They had a variety of badges on them… Compucrappo. Golden Shower Plus. Microsmeg. What they had in common was exceptionally low purchase cost compared to the quality brands — and acceptable performance. They were built from industry standard, off-the-shelf commodity hardware, and assembly by semi-skilled fly-by-nights (at least a third of my engineering class was hacking together these things to flog to other students and skinflint local business owners).

So when I got my hands of a triumvirate of cheap smartphones from a funky but unknown southeast Asian phone manufacturer, I was struck by a strong feeling of déjà vu. Or more accurately, déjà été brûlé.

A R2 000 five-inch smartphone? Sure

Targeted cost to land them in South Africa — less than R2 000 (YS$220) for a dual-core with a giant 5” display. Less than R600 (US$65) for a cheaper model with a 4” display. And that’s in an expensive market, these things in Asian countries retail at US$180 and US$60 respectively. Current “cheapies” like Intel’s 3.5” Yolo launched in Kenya cost upward US$125. Rip-off!

I wasn’t in a position to pull my three phones apart, but a bit of sleuthing makes me think that these come off a production line at Huawei. Could just as well come from ZTE, or a bunch of manufacturing facilities of giant companies you’ve never heard of with unpronounceable names in darkest China.

Feiteng. Guophone. ZOPO. Cloudfone. There are zillions. Just Google “Buy Cheap Android Phones”. Some are brands with no branding. Some are brands made exclusively of slickness and PhotoShop polish. None make their own hardware. Or software.

That’s Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Now Exhibit B. Suddenly China is seeing an explosion of traffic from phones that aren’t “proper Android”, but they’re Android. When activated, they don’t phone home to the Googleplex as expected. These are phones from whatever hardware using whatever chipsets from whatever brand — running hacked versions of Android. And then flogged to the penniless and unpersnickety hordes. Sound familiar?

The future of mass-market mobile computing in townships and villages?

Smartphones were long dominated by Samsung, Apple and Nokia. Then last year Huawei and ZTE bounced into the top five (It’s pronounced “hwow-way”, btw, but make the first h a little silent). The top five took a big chunk of the market, but of 219-million handsets shipped, almost 80-million were “other”.

Consider now the 39% of Chinese smartphone traffic on Baidu not coming from normal OSes. Smell the scent of beige?

So I got my hands on one of the cheapie Android no-names. How are they? Are they a real threat to the main brands, who can leverage massive economies of scale in manufacture, support channels and brand-building? Are they usable? Are they bearable?

I played with a five-inch and two four-inch models. One was basically a HTC One lookalike, the other smaller Xperia knockoffs. All Android — ICS for the big ’un, Gingerbread for the smaller ones. And very, very important — dual SIM. Pick two operators and take advantage of the lowest voice or data rates. Or use a local SIM when travelling. Personal LCR, if you will. More on this later.

Bottom line? Really, really not bad. In fact, surprisingly usable. If you ignore the niggles.

How’s the hardware

The hardware is really not bad — it’s at least on a par with similar phones from LG, Samsung or HTC. A bit plasticky, but fairly well built (accurate mouldings, tight seams, etc). You’re only keeping these guys for two years, anyway.

On the big one, battery life was entirely acceptable for a big-screen smartphone. One to two days, depending on use. The middle one was in the middle. The small one’s battery life was exceptionally poor — suspicion falling on a firmware bug, as both phones used identical batteries (L4 lithium).

The five-inch phone had a very decent capacitive touch screen. Not super hi-res at 480×800/160ppi, so far off iPhone, but responsive and accurate (maybe a little too much… it sometimes picks up a light brush as a tap). The interface swishes back and forth nice and smoothly — although maybe more thanks to Google’s “Project Butter”.

The smallest phone’s 320×240 was bearable to look at, but sometimes over-sensitive (you have to tap the buttons like a waif terrified of getting an electric shock). Adding to this as that the auto-suggest dictionary resolutely refused to work, making typing a major pain. When the battery gets low the touchscreen went completely haywire — it’s almost impossible to even undo the keylock or answer a call, never mind type. A fail. But probably a software fail.

The cameras are no worse than you’d expect. It’s a damn cellphone, people. Decent enough resolution, although they didn’t like backlight or strong small bright spots — there was no flare, but the images were certainly washed out, probably largely a function of the cheap materials for the lens cover and lens.

Voice quality varied between the devices — the small ones were not bad, the big one was poor. GPS worked fine.

As a media device the big guy is a player. However — while it worked fine for some formats, it was terrible for others (processor speed/RAM limits? Or software again?). It struggled with HD mp4 files (skipping, freezing), although mostly fine with 3gp. But with its big screen and the right kind of content, it’s a good video device for undemanding teens killing time on the bus.

Beware the software

The devices have clearly not had a lot of UX time spent on them. Simple stuff like cute apps and widgets are missing. The big one didn’t come with Maps installed. The others did, but no torch app, and the camera app shortcut wasn’t on the home screen. Little, silly omissions. At the same time, the mid-size phone had a “signal test tool” as an included widget (gives radio strength dBm, cell ID, etc), which is not a consumer need — it’s something the engineering people left in and was not removed before shipping. Not so slick.

Lots of software and UI bugs. Not major, but niggly. And any number of bad UX choices — the smaller phones had this cute little tune that plays EVERY TIME YOU START UP OR SHUT DOWN. LOUDLY, PIERCINGLY, UNSTOPPABLY! DEEDLE DEE DIP …DIP… DIP DEEDLE DEE AARGGHHHHHH!!!! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! It’s the kind of thing that’ll have an entire cinema full of people openly laughing at you.

But then again, a Nokia N9 had numerous silly software and UI niggles. HTC, too. And Samsung. All of them.

Browsing was fine, unless the site had lots of scripting. Online message forums caused the phones to dry heave then puke.

Network work?

The Dual SIM function worked just fine — although one thing to note is that only SIM1 can do 3G, the other SIM is locked to 2G.

They worked just fine for browsing and messaging. Wi-Fi was fast enough, including using certificates for EAP-TLS Wi-Fi authentication, and secure connection to Exchange Server with security policy.

Some niggles — the mid-size phone kept chatting on 3G no matter what you did (yes, auto sync was turned off). On the smaller phone I was unable to get 3G to work… no matter what options or fiddling around, it would only connect on EDGE. No useful response from vendor Facebook page (the only support channel).

Bottom line — would I buy one?

These phones are really quite nice – if it wasn’t for the numerous niggles. Most of these seem to be software – so fixable. However, it seems that once the phones are launched there’s not a lot of updating and patching going on. Certainly the niggles and lack of updates is not dramatically worse than I’ve experienced with LG/Samsung/HTC.

Back to the Beige Box story
So how does my experience with the handsets play out in terms of the “beige box” phone narrative?

The big one would be an aspirational purchase, especially for the teen crown. The slow processor and big screen are not a great combo, however. As far as I can tell the CPU is a dual-core Snapdragon – but it’s a fairly old chip, and replaced two years ago with newer gen processors, which have themselves since been replaced. That, and the limited RAM (400MB) leave you horsepowerless when you need it. Bump up the RAM and this phone could be a decent contender.

The small ones are cheap and cheerful, and fine on the entry level. They’re going to clobber the lower end of the big brands’ ranges.

The no-name phone brands need to do a better job of sorting out bugs and improving the UX, or there seems little reason to not get the (probably identical) hardware directly from Huawei or ZTE. But if the no-names can bring these things to market at rock bottom prices, there will be a clueless or moneyless customer base.

This customer base wants smartphones, needs smartphones. The writing is already on the wall for feature phones as a dinosaur tech, even in poor communities (You only have to look at Safaricom Kenya’s decision to cut sales of feature phones to see that ).

And now we throw in another factor, a big one, that may help them grow some real legs in the market.

Open source, and open community.

A large user base of Android phones, and especially cheapie Android phones, has created a large userbase that does tweaks, fixes, and mods firmware (Cyanogen FTW!)

If this community grows and organises, this stuff could become major – the cheapie phone hardware is fine, it’s the shitty software. And the crowd could solve this… or spawn an industry of phone hackers. Just think how it would drive hard tech skills in poor communities that will be less at the mercy of the Mobile Phone Industrial Complex.

All the up-sides of cheap, commodity hardware and the latest, latest tech that open source (or hacked) software can provide. Beige Box smartphones, anyone?



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