Today at Mobile Geeks we’re going to do something a bit different. Instead of reviewing the next flagship device from Samsung, HTC or Sony, we’re going to look at white-box smartphone from an unknown manufacturer in China, one that in this case is designed to look like Apple’s iPhone 5s. The phone runs Android 4.0.4 with a modified iOS 7 theme, and costs around $200 at one of China’s electronics markets where these devices are often sold. Allow Mobile Geeks to take you on a tour of a cloned iPhone 5s.
China’s white-box industry draws many analogies: a primordial soup giving birth to both niche successes and dreadful abominations, and frantic gold rush where engineers move from one design to another trying to hit the jackpot, a dependable workhorse where things get done, or a lawless wild west where concepts such as patents, trademark, and copyright simply don’t apply.
However you look it, the sheer force of numbers that at the tens-of-thousands of independent design houses and contract manufactures that make up this industry can’t be ignored. In fact, Intel has started tapping certain parts of the industry into its supply chain to try to accelerate its tablet strategy.
If you have a specific device or component you want manufactured, but don’t have the time, the resources, or the order volumes to get it done by one of the more well-known contract manufacturers such as Foxconn, Pegatron or Quanta, never fear, China’s Special Economic Zones (in particular Shenzhen or Guangzhou) where these companies are highly concentrated, are packed with companies ready to do it for you, in half the time, and at a fraction of the cost.
What all the above means is that with a reasonable amount of cash and a boxed iPhone 5s or other leading brand smartphone as a sample, there are companies in Shenzhen who will (or will at least try to) make you a functioning replica.
In today’s review we’ll look at one of these phones to see how close these copies are to the real thing. Are we talking cheaply made knock-offs? Or is it possible that, assuming the buyer enters the transaction fully aware they are buying a clone and not a real iPhone, they could end up getting a real bargain?
Here’s a video overview of the iPhone 5s:
Before we get deep down in to the differences between the clone and the Apple iPhone 5s, let us take a peek at the specifications of our clone, just to get a feel for the device in general.
iPhone 5s Clone Specifications:
• 4.0 Inch IPS Display
• 960 x 540 Resolution (ppi 240)
• MediaTek MT6577 Dual- Core 1.0GHz
• 1GB RAM
• 8GB Internal Storage
• 8MP Rear Camera
• 5MP Front Camera
• Bluetooth/ GPS/ WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
• 123.8mm x 58.6mm x 8.1mm
• 108 grams
• Android 4.0.2 (Ice Cream)
It’s obvious from the specifications above that we are looking at a fairly entry-level Android smartphone in most respects, despite the look and feel of the device being pure Apple.
One distinction that we should make at the start is the difference between a clone and a counterfeit. It’s quite common for white-box makers to take their inspiration and design cues from a popular or successful device, but make slight changes and use unique branding to create a clone version that is similar to the original, but wouldn’t confuse anybody into thinking it’s a genuine model. On the other end of this are the devices that completely replicate the original design, use well-known brands, and even falsify certification logos etc. in an attempt to look like a real product.
The phone we have today falls into the latter category. Every attempt has been made to try and pass this phone off as a genuine iPhone 5s, from the indiscriminate use of Apple’s logos and trademarks, the design of the phone including the unauthorized Lightning port connector, and the packaging. So how successful has the imitation been? Could you be conned into buying one of these phones without realizing?
First impressions looking at the box and things are not off to a good start. The color saturation on the box image is dark, and the phone is slightly misaligned. It looks like someone scanned an original iPhone 5s box to reproduce the packaging, and this is probably what happened. It’s a close enough approximation to pass off as the real deal in say a photograph taken for an eBay auction, or to dupe an unsuspecting parent or grandparent buying the phone as a birthday present, but is unlikely to catch out anyone else. One key difference from the genuine article is that there is no description, regulatory information or bar code on the bottom of the box.
Opening the box we get our first surprise, the phone actually looks good. There are no obvious defects or cheap looking parts. In fact our preliminary inspection couldn’t find anything to distinguish the phone from a real iPhone.
Digging deeper in the box we find Apple-like ear buds with a single-button control and mic, a power adapter (more on that later), and not one, not two, but three Lightning cables. Score!
Back to the phone and we are again impressed by the build quality. The case feels identical to a real iPhone, the metal is finished correctly with no dents, scratches or defects to suggest rushed or cheap manufacturing. The buttons all sit properly which again indicates precision manufacturing, and whoever put the phone together even went to the trouble of using the same 5-point security screws Apple has started using in recent years.
All the markings on the back of the phone appear to be in order including the traditional “Designed by Apple in California Assembled in China” followed by a model name – A1528 – which matches the model number of the iPhone 5s produced to be sold by China Unicom, followed by FCC ID and IEMI number. We later crosschecked the IEMI with the one reported by the phone and they do not match. This indicates that all the phones in this batch probably have the same markings on the back which could be a way to identify them.
Based on the overall build quality of the phone’s exterior we can only conclude that whoever made it either has access to the same production equipment as Foxconn and Catcher Technology – the two companies understood to be the ones who make the iPhone 5s chassis – or there’s a leak in Apple’s supply chain and a certain number of genuine iPhone chassis have made it into the white-box market.
In the end the only differences between this phone and a genuine iPhone 5s we could find were that the Apple logo on the back was slightly raised, and when looking down the headphone connector there was no indication of a liquid damage detector. If you drop this phone in the sink, you still might be able to get it fixed under warranty!
Anyone who likes the design of the iPhone 5s will like this phone. Everything is the same, from size, button placement, and overall feel. It’s also slightly lighter at 108g. Of course the opposite also applies. If you think the iPhone is too small compared to current Android offerings, dislike the lack of hardware buttons, or just aren’t drawn to the iconic design, then this phone is not for you.
If you want a phone that you can carry around and convince everyone that you own an iPhone 5s, but only have $200, this phone would do the trick. In fact we’d even go so far as to bet that JonyIve himself would be convinced by your deception…
As long as you never turn the phone on.
The phone’s display has physical dimensions of 5.08cm by 9.04cm (10.37cm diagonal) with pixel dimensions of 960 x 540 giving a DPI of 240. This is slightly below that of the iPhone Retina display but not disappointingly so. The phone renders crisp text that is pleasant to read, colors are bright and vibrant, and there’s no indication of lag or other artifacts when watching video. In a side-by-side comparison with an iPhone, the counterfeit phone does have a slightly cooler color temperature which results in bluer whites and slightly washed out blacks.
Touch performance of the display is equally up to standard. The phone responds to taps and swipes rapidly and fluidly, and precision appears accurate. We never had to repeat gestures or correct mis-taps, as has been the case with other low-cost devices.
Finally, the cover glass used on the panel also appears to be at least adequate as we couldn’t scratch it with a key or paperclip. Whether or not it will deliver the same long-term durability as Corning’s Gorilla Glass we can’t say, but at least you can confidently put the phone in a backpack or pocket without fear of it scratching.
Cameras and Sensors
After surprising us with its exterior build quality and display the phone’s 8MP rear and 0.3MP front cameras left us in no doubt that this is a $200 device.
The front camera is next to impossible to use as it needs the subject to be well lit to produce an image with any sort of natural color and highlights. But if a single hint of a light source enters the frame, the white-balance gets blown out plunging the subject into shadow. We were eventually able to get usable images by carefully staging the lighting, but this doesn’t reflect the typical usage of the camera such as for casual video chats where you may want to move about, or spontaneous selfies.
The main camera on the rear had similar issues with blow-out which made certain outdoor shots hard to capture. But then the camera had equally disappointing performance in low-light conditions suffering from significant grain, and poor balance between the highs and low-lights. The camera’s auto-focus was also slow to respond and manual focus often failed to work.
Cameras in smartphones have come a long way in recent years, almost to the point where traditional compact cameras have become extinct. But this phone’s pair of cameras show that there’s still a wide gap between the low- and high-end. There’s a lot that is still down to component quality and implementation, meaning that raw specifications such and megapixel-count cannot be relied on to measure of quality.
Oh, and we really don’t think it needs saying, but no, there is no camera/finger-print recognition sensor under the Home button.
The phone’s built-in speaker is serviceable with a good range of volume for the various rings and alerts, but as with most phone speakers you aren’t going to want to use it for listing to music due to its poor bass performance and noticeable distortion once you start pushing the volume passed the mid-point. You could certainly use if for listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and of course as a speaker phone.
The pack-in headphones are modeled after Apple’s EarPods but support only a single push button and mic as opposed to the 3-button control on the originals. They also don’t come packed in a hardshell case like the EarPods.
They say looks can be deceiving, and although the pack-in earphones look like Apple EarPods they certainly don’t perform like them with limited volume range and abysmal low-end performance resulting in noticeable clipping. To add further insult, if you did want to use Apple EarPods or another set of headphones with Apple’s 3-button controller, the pin arrangement on the jack appears to be different so the built-in speaker isn’t deactivated and you end up with sound from both outputs.
The single-button control works to play/pause the music player, but doesn’t support the double-click to skip forward and triple-click to skip back features of the iPhone. Also long pressing the button turns off the screen instead of activating the phone’s voice-control functions.
Perhaps the only positive thing we have to say about this phone’s audio features is the FM Radio. In the days of Spotify we can’t say it’s something we would ever use, but the app has some nice features including auto-scan, RDS support, saved channels, and recording. With our lives built around ubiquitous internet access, it’s easy to forget that there are still parts of the world where old technologies such as TV and radio remain a primary means of mass communication. The FM Radio works as intended, adds value to some people, and is a feature that the iPhone does not have. Therefore we approve.
The applications processor inside the phone is a MediaTek MT6577, which offers a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor, PowerVR Series5 SGX GPU, quad-band 3G/HSPA, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and FM receiver, and 8MP rear camera. System RAM as 1GB.
Storage on the device is reported as 503MB phone, 2.04GB internal, and 16GB SD, but there is no way to access the SD slot without unscrewing the case. Furthermore, although the built-in camera app is configured to save to the SD card, we couldn’t find a way to get other apps, in particular the Google Play Store, to do so. In the process of re-skinning the Android UI to resemble iOS (which we discuss in more detail below) certain features and settings such as the ability to set the default storage location have been moved or lost. As a result we had to jump through various hoops (deleting apps to free up space and side loading) just to get our larger benchmark apps onto the phone.
iPhone 5s Clone: Benchmark Comparison
iPhone 5s Clone
|Sunspider (lower is better)||2433||1004|
In terms of benchmark performance the phone does not present itself very well with low numbers pretty much across the board. But in real-world usage these low stats don’t actually translate into a poor user experience. The phone feels responsive when swiping around the Home screen, apps launch quickly, and when browsing the web or scrolling through long list of emails, Tweets or messages you don’t feel like the hardware is slowing things down. However, the low 3D scores and the fact the phone failed to even run our Anomaly 2 benchmark test means that gaming beyond the level of Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds is out of the question.
MediaTek is one of the main driving forces fueling China’s white-box smartphone and tablet industries right now. The company follows the road maps of the market leaders in terms of technology and features, and then pares down its designs to achieve the bare minimum cost. SoCs like the MT6577 which are essentially a make your own smartphone starter kit – all you need to add is a touch panel, RAM, NAND flash, and camera module – significantly lower the barriers of entry into the market, allowing new ideas to be tested with minimum risk.
Of course in their perpetual quest to “cost-down”, companies like MediaTek are constantly running the risk of hacking off just a little too much, leaving behind an underpowered design. Additionally, just because you give me all the ingredients to make a cake, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to burn down the house. But in the case of this phone, a well-balanced recipe and competent execution have really hit the target in terms of a low-cost phone that doesn’t punish your for being cheap every time you use it.
As mentioned earlier we got three Lightning cables in the package. As with the phone itself these cables at first glance are able to pass off as the genuine article, but reveal their true, cheaper nature when given a closer examination. In a side by side comparison, the strain relief on the third-party connectors is slightly thinner, and the lower build quality becomes apparent once your start to manipulate the connector ends as it’s possible to flex the Lightning connector end of the cables well over 90-degrees. This is due to the outer sheath on the cable having been stripped too short when attaching the connector so that the joint is only made by the thin inner wires and the strain relief. Because of this weaker joint, any stress applied to the connector is applied directly to the inner wires, and so we expect these cables to have a shortened lifespan.
Surprisingly the cables work with a real iPhone and didn’t throw the “Uncertified accessory” warning that some cables do. Overall, the cables aren’t too bad, they would be ideal kept in your bag or at work as an emergency cable, but we wouldn’t use them every day if given a choice due to the expected short life.
The power adapter is easy to identify as an unofficial reproduction by the poorly edited “Designed by WHP in California” text at the top of the label. The specifications match those of a genuine Apple adapter at 5V – 1A, but the adapter carries a counterfeit UL certification mark (http://www.ul.com/global/eng/pages/newsroom/publicnotices/detail/index.jsp?cpath=/global/eng/pages/newsroom/publicnotices/detail/data/ul-warns-of-counterfeit-ul-mark-on-usb_20121031080000.xml) which has been copied from a genuine adapter. This means that whatever electronics are inside the plastic case have most likely not been safety tested.
Using scales to compare, the clone adapter weighted in at 15g versus the 25g of a genuine Apple adapter, suggesting that there’s less going on inside the cheap clone. With all that considered, we decided to just ignore the adapter and didn’t even plug it into a mains socket. There have been multiple reports or people being injured or killed by cheap third-party power adapters. If you are currently using an off-brand adapter, or considering buying one we strongly suggest you read some of the great tear down and safety reviews online such as this one, it’s really not worth saving a couple of dollars on such a potentially dangerous item.
The battery in the phone is reported as having 1000mAh, compared to the 1560mAh you’d get with a genuine iPhone 5s. But once again, the initial impression of “close enough given the price” is quickly diminished by the real-world experience. Out of the box and connected to a Mac Mini (Mid 2011) the phone was unable to draw enough power to boot up even after 1 hour. Switching to a Retina MacBook Pro (Mid 2012) with USB 3.0 ports yielded the same result. Eventually we managed to get the phone to turn on and start charging using a genuine Apple iPhone power adapter.
Then we waited. It eventually took over four hours for the battery to reach 100% without any use except the occasional screen power on to check progress. Considering we are used to the same power adapter charging a genuine Apple battery, with 50% more capacity, in half the time, the glacial pace of this phone’s charging circuitry was a disappointment even with our already lowered expectations. Due to the slow rate of charging, coupled with fact that we may not be able to rely on any available USB port for power if we were caught with a low battery out in the field, we were hoping to least get a full day of usage out of a fully charged device. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.
You can expect the phone to last through a day of light to moderate usage of a few calls, frequent emails/web browsing and 1 or 2 hours of music, but for anything more you would need to carry around an external battery pack to be sure of making it through the day.
Short battery life is common in low-cost smartphones. It’s usually immediately obvious if a maker has cut costs by, for example, reducing the amount of RAM or using a lower end display, but it takes a couple of days of living with a phone to realize that the battery is severely under-spec. As a result, whenever designers need to shave off a few more dollars to reach a particular bill-of-materials (BOM) or just to increase their profit margins a little, the battery is the first component to see cuts.
The phone is running Android 4.0.4 with a heavily modified theme designed to mimic the behavior of Springboard on iOS. While booting up the device presents an Apple logo and the lock screen closely resembles that of iOS 7 with Apple’s patented “slide to unlock” prompt and the Control Center slider (including an AirDrop button although this doesn’t function).
On unlocking the phone you are greeted with a screen of app icons that would be familiar to any iPhone user – all the icons appear to be exactly the same as those in iOS, in fact we strongly suspect the image files used have simply been ripped from an iOS ipsw firmware package.
However, there are a few telltale signs that all is not what it seems. The Safari icon has been renamed Browser, Game Center has become Recommended, the clock icon is static (a sad regression after we finally got a working clock icon in iOS 7), and the Calendar icon uses the short day name rather than the long one. Swiping to the right and the differences are a bit more apparent. The phone has been preloaded with Facebook, SkyDrive, Skype, and YouTube apps, there are Task Manager and MyFiles apps, and there’s an FM Radio. Needless to say, if this were a real iPhone, the inclusion of any of these in the base OS would be major news.
Although every attempt has been made to give the impression this phone is a genuine iPhone, it only takes a little bit of poking around before the facade breaks down. The curious Safari/Browser icon naturally launches Google’s Chrome browser, the App Store takes you to the Google Play Store, and Maps is Google Maps not Apple’s divisive maps service. Other apps get even stranger with the Clock, Weather, Reminders and Notes icons launching passable replicas of Apple’s built-in equivalents, but based on the old iOS 6 versions. Likewise, the Settings app translates Android’s system settings to a layout based on iOS 6 with a few ambiguous re-namings (iCloud, Siri) and some omissions, most important of all being an option to revert to the base Android theme.
As an academic exercise, the theme on this phone demonstrates both the possibilities inherent in a more open ecosystem like Android over the closed model of iOS, and the ingenuity of the UI designers/hackers who worked on the project. However, as a functioning OS that you would use day-to-day, the experience is not up to par. The overall finish that Apple prides itself on is just not there: fonts are slightly “off”, the mishmash of iOS 6, iOS 7 Android elements is not visually appealing, and the renamed and moved about functions make it a chore for both experienced iOS and Android users to find what they are looking for.
Also in faithfully recreating the iOS experience, the theme designers incorporated many of its shortcomings too. Although we could get some but not all the custom keyboards we tried to work, we couldn’t get any Widgets from the Play Store to load. Also the lack of hardware buttons is compensated by a built-in widget which often gets in the way when running full-screen apps, and results in frequent actions becoming a 2- or 3-step process.
In the end, the hybrid software package of the phone fails to leverage the strengths of either Android or iOS, while at the same time amplifying their weaknesses. We would suggest scrapping the whole iOS concept and flashing the phone with a stock Android firmware or CyanogenMod, but the lack of hardware buttons would still be an issue.
At the start of this review we asked the question, is this phone a good value $200 iPhone clone? The short answer in no, not even close. If you bought this phone sold as an iPhone 5s off eBay or a guy at the bar claiming “it fell off the back of a lorry” you’d have been ripped off.
But let’s assume you knew it’s a counterfeit but wanted an iPhone look-alike just to show off, just as there’s a thriving market counterfeit premium-brand bags and shoes. Even then you are still not getting what you pay for.
With its low-end processor, poor battery life, and relatively anemic screen, not to mention the potentially deadly power adapter, you’d have to really be in love with the iPhone 5s design to choose this phone over the many options that are about to flood the market in this price range such as the Asus Zenfone series or something from Xiaomi. Alternatively, you could opt for a second-hand or refurbished iPhone for about the same price.
China’s white-box industry is an important part of the mobile ecosystem. While the leading players such as Apple, Google, and Samsung are pushing the industry forward in terms of software and technology, it’s the white-box players who are driving down costs and finding new ways to reproduce technologies more efficiently. Without these makers, smartphones and the internet would be well out or the economic reach of the billions of people living in emerging markets such as China, India, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.
The phone reviewed today is not the white-box industry’s finest hour. The device can’t escape its illegitimate pedigree and as a result becomes much less than the sum of its parts.
If its designers weren’t constrained by the need to mimic the iPhone, the same adequate, if undersized display, and average AP, inside a well-made chassis with hardware buttons and stock Android UI would make a serviceable phone ideal for Facebook, Twitter, and web browsing, especially at under $200. But as it stands the phone simply combines all the limitations of the iPhone form factor and UI, with none of the benefits of the iOS, App Store, iTunes ecosystem.
Context is a powerful thing, so when reviewing this phon we started to ask ourselves, who is the target market for such a device? If you enjoy the styling of Apple’s iPhone smartphones, but you would prefer not to have to pay a premium 7-800 USD price, the clone is going to look every inch the part. In terms of design and feel, it really is unmistakably Apple. Heavier data users may find the battery life to be way substandard, but if you need the phone for texting and calls, it will perform admirably. Just don’t expect the cameras and other more nuanced features to be in the same class as Apple’s flagship smartphone.
A big thanks to CECT who supplied us with the iPhone clone used in this review. You can check out the CECT-Shop website here.
Written by Ricky Morris, edited by Stewart Haston