Sorry, Apple and Samsung — the best smartphone innovation is happening in China right now

Three smartphone makers have just put up teasers for new, exciting smartphones. Another three recently launched flagships that are so good, it’s hard to decide which one to recommend.

None of these companies are called Samsung or Apple.

All six companies — Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus, Huawei, Lenovo, and Xiaomi — are based in China, and if you’re looking for a new phone, you should check them out before you dish premium money for a Samsung or Apple device.

If you want a cheap phone with top-notch specs, Xiaomi, Oppo and OnePlus have got you covered. If you want a phone with an under-the-display fingerprint scanner, Vivo already has one on the market. If you want the phone with the best camera — and the only phone with a triplerear camera — get a Huawei P20 Pro.

The list goes on. Though we’ve yet to see it on a phone you can actually buy, Oppo has had the best lossless zoom on a smartphone camera since Feb. 2017. If you want to see what a “notchless” phone of tomorrow might look like, check out Vivo’s Apex concept or Lenovo’s upcoming Z5. And if you want to literally see through the back of your phone, Xiaomi has done it (though whether you’re really seeing the phone’s innards is up to debate).

The future is here, and it first arrived in China

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VIVO

Things get even more impressive when you look at what’s coming in the near future. On June 12, Vivo will launch a device with a “What is NEX” tagline. We don’t know much about it, except that it will be a continuation of the company’s impressive Apex concept, meaning it will likely have an under-the-display fingerprint scanner and — possibly — other innovative ways of getting rid of the iPhone X-style notch which is currently present on most new flagships.

Just a day earlier, Lenovo promised to do something similar with its Z5.

Almost at the same time, Oppo posted a teaser for Find X, another phone in its “Find” line of products. We don’t know anything about it, but the Oppo Find 7, which came out in March 2014, was impressive for its time, with a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel display and 50-megapixel photos (upscaled via software from a 13-megapixel sensor).

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OPPO

This wave of innovation coming out of China isn’t entirely new. In an effort to outdo their Korean and U.S. role models, China’s smartphone makers have been daring for quite some time now. For example, Vivo has had a phone with a 20-megapixel selfie camera back in 2016. And Xiaomi’s Mi Mix, which also launched in 2016, showed us what a near-bezelless screen looked like long before the iPhone X did.

But right now, the Chinese phone makers seem to be further ahead then ever. Apple probably won’t have a new flagship before fall. And when it does happen, the company will likely be making its entire lineup more iPhone X-like, complete with notches, instead of making radical upgrades to the design.

Samsung, on the other hand, has reportedly just delayed its upcoming Note 9 flagship from July to August — presumably because the company wants it to be more like competitors from Xiaomi and Oppo. And even if the phone does launch an under-the-display fingerprint sensor — the reports on that are mixed — by then, Vivo will likely have beaten it to the punch twice.

Innovating and copying at the same time? Who cares.

Innovation in China is a weird beast. Yes, companies like Xiaomi and Vivo keep on launching phones that feel like they’re from the future, but at the same time they shamelessly copy the iPhone X’s design elements. Can these phones truly be called innovative?

I, for one, have stopped caring about semantics. As smartphones approach the ideal of being basically just a screen, the design minutiae like camera bump sizes and screen curvature angles become less and less exciting. What does excite me is a new feature I’ve never seen on a phone before. And yes, as seen in the case of Vivo X21’s fingerprint scanner, often this feature isn’t quite ready. But at least that phone is different from every other phone.

Samsung and Apple are both too big — or think they’re too big — to take big risks. But innovation will happen, one way or another. It’s quite possible that the best and most exciting phones this summer come out of China. If you’re looking for the most cutting-edge devices, you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t check them out.


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