Shanzhai: where Chinese phones get their tech from!

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“Chinese phones” is a label we Sri Lankans stick onto a generic mishmash of mobile phones, ranging from almost-perfect Nokia clones to little-known brands with no warranty. These phones all have one thing in common: they’re dirt cheap. In China, they’re called “Shanzhai” which refers to pirated or imitation brands and electronic goods.

In recent years, these Shanzhai’s have seen a resurgence as inexpensive, trademarked devices with warranties. You can now buy an Android phone for as little as Rs. 16,000. A Blackberry–esque device with a QWERTY keypad goes for as little as Rs. 4000.

Shanzhai: where Chinese phones get their tech from! 16

How do they make ‘em so cheap? The answer is MediaTek, a company that is the Intel of cheap mobile computing. MediaTek is a multi-billion dollar Taiwanese “fabless” chipmaker – which means they design the chips and outsource the actual manufacturing process. This makes their stuff even cheaper. In 2010 MediaTek jumped into the worldwide top 5: Qualcomm at the top, Marvell (of USA) in fifth place, and MediaTek in 4th place. Since then, that slot has been taken over by Nvidia. Even more interesting is that they mass-produce and supply the system software to Shanzhai manufacturers: a complete basic OS known as MAUI, based on the Nucleus RTOS.  This is why most Shanzhai (cheap Chinese and Indian phones) have the same features and behave the same way, right down to the camera interface.

From a manufacturer point of view it’s almost like a DIY assembly kit.  The MT6225/6223 processor in particular is a very popular choice: a single-chip solution sporting an ARM7-class 52 Mhz processor, EDGE, integrated modem and media playback and CIF camera support: basically a System on a Chip.  Given the amount of clones out there – that’s a massive market.  That’s why almost all chinese and indian phones seem to come with the same features (like ebook readers) and create the same folder structure on your memory card.

It’s not only the imitators who use MediaTek chips: Micromax, Alcatel and other entry-level makers use MT bundles in their Android handsets. Regardless of their brand, quality or warranty, 90% of budget phones are powered by MediaTek processors. The MT6577, for example, is a dual-core 1Ghz Cortex-A9 bundled with a GPU, 3G/HSPA modem and runs Android 4.0 (ICS). While nowhere near the power of the familiar Snapdragons and Exynos chips, these MT solutions give enough horsepower to enable the creation of budget handsets – at dirt cheap prices. And that’s how they make “Shanzhai” – a.k.a. “Chinese phones” – so cheap.

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