Oppo R11sOppo released the R11s, a low-cost Android phone about three months after Apple’s iPhone X emerged. On the surface, the R11s resembles the iPhone X., so that’s quite an achievement.

There’s no question what inspired Oppo’s engineers. The R11s has a similar physical design and a software overlay that makes Android look like Apple’s iOS. It’s not a knock-off, it’s more a homage to Apple.

There are many differences between the R11s and the iPhone X, but the one that matters most is the price. The R11s sells in New Zealand for NZ$800. That’s less than half the $1800 starting price for Apple’s phone. It also half the price of Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ which, once you get past the surface, is more like Oppo’s phone.

While the R11s is great value, its performance and user experience do not match what you’ll find on the more expensive phones from Apple, Samsung or Huawei. Oppo made a number of compromises to keep costs down.

What you make of the price-performance trade-offs are a matter of personal taste and needs. If brand matters to you, don’t buy an Oppo. If you’ve invested in Apple products and services, don’t buy it. If you think Samsung’s Bixby button is cool, don’t buy an Oppo.

Everyone else should at least consider the R11s.

R11s hardware

The R11s looks good, but so does almost every other modern handset. In fact, it looks a lot like almost every other modern handset. At more than a metre or two’s distance, an untrained eye would struggle to tell them apart.

Oppo opted for a wafer-thin design. Like today’s top phones the front is almost all-screen. There are no buttons on the front. Although the back is metal, the phone feels lighter than rival high-end models. It feels cheaper when you first hold it in the hand.

This impression is strengthened when you feel the point where the screen meets the case. On the best high-end phones the two surfaces merge smoothly into each other. On the R11s there’s a noticeable, distracting and slightly unnerving ridge. This is important if you spend a lot of time with your phone in one hand.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 has a similar ridge, but it’s not as pronounced. You wouldn’t cut yourself on either, but there more sharpness about the Oppo R11s.

Display

Oppo uses a 6-inch ultra-wide 18:9 OLED display. The ratio means the screen is longer and thinner than we are generally used to. It’s not to my taste, but this isn’t about me.

The 18:9 screen ratio means the phone can show higher resolution video. This works remarkably well.

Although the display is remarkable for an $800 phone, it doesn’t look as good as the display on the Samsung S9 or iPhone X. It manages to deliver on brightness, but colours are not as vibrant.

In practice this is only really clear when you compare two phones. You’d probably notice the difference if you moved from one of these phones to the Oppo, but that not going to happen often. For most people moving from an older Android handset, the Oppo will be a step up.

There’s a micro-USB port. That was the standard, but other phone makers are now moving towards using the Type-C port. This might bother some people, but again it’s only likely to grate if you come to the R11s from a more expensive modern phone. For just about everyone upgrading from an older handset, this would be business as usual and unremarkable.

Inside

We could talk about the phone’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB of Ram. But in the real world these specifications border on meaningless. What you need to know is the R11s has enough power to do most things normal people ask of phones. The R11s boots fast and is snappy most of the time. Standard apps don’t slow it down.

It also has enough working memory. If you’re the kind of person who pushes phones harder, then it may not be enough, but, them, you probably won’t be considering the R11s anyway. The phone comes with 64Gb of storage. If that’s not enough you can more with a MicroSD card.

Oppo includes a 3200mAh battery. In practice you should get a couple of days light use from the phone between recharges. Even if you hammer it, there is enough to get you from an early morning start until mid-evening.

There is no NFC. While this could be a deal breaker for some people, in reality it is rarely used even when it is built-in. You’ll have to make your own decision about the importance of this.

Camera

Like every other phone maker, much of Oppo’s marketing effort has gone into telling potential buyers about the camera. It’s a solid camera,better than you’d expect in an NZ$800 phone. In technical terms there are cameras. One is 20MP, the other is 16MP.

There’s also a large dual f/1.7 aperture to let more light hit the sensors. You get crisp images and bright colours. Of course you do. It’s hard to find a high-profile phone that doesn’t manage that. That said, the camera is a long way behind what you’ll find in a Samsung Galaxy S9 or an iPhone 9 or X.

Oppo has included photo software that helps users get better quality shots. There’s also a ‘beauty’ mode, which looks weird to some western eyes but may go down well in Asian markets.

Niggles and verdict

As with any non-Google Android phone, the Oppo R11s is let down by the included software. For the most part, ColorOS skin does not add value. Although, to be fair, nor does it detract much. It’s no worse than other Android skins. ColorOS has a superficial resemblance to iOS, but anyone coming from Apple will be mystified by the way it works at times.

If the comments above read like less than fulsome praise, that’s because here we have compared the Oppo R11s with phones that cost twice as much. Take price into account and the story is quite different.

The R11s beats any rival at the same price by a country mile. It gives you most of what you’d get from an expensive phone. Nothing important is missing. Yet it leaves you with a sizeable amount of money in your pocket. Oppo has been here before. Most non-iphone people reading this should put it on their shortlist.

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Oppo R11Earlier today Oppo showed New Zealand media the R11 phone. We could talk about the 20 megapixel camera and features. Instead, let’s save time and get straight to the point: this is a NZ$770 premium Android phone.

That’s right. It costs a whisker over half the NZ$1500 price of a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus. Or, less than two-thirds the price of Huawei’s $1200 P10 Plus.

What does $750 buy (or not buy)?

The Samsung Galaxy S8 looks a little nicer than the R11. It feels better; although not NZ$750 better. While Samsung has more desirable software, the software on Nexus Android phones is far better than either.

NFC missing in action

Oppo didn’t include a NFC chip in the R11. This means it won’t work with the NFC payment services. This is not a technology New Zealand has been quick to embrace, so a lack of NFC may not bother you.

Also, Oppo uses a microUSB jack instead of USB-C. MicroUSB is starting to look dated, although this is unlikely to worry most users.

While Oppo makes a big deal out of the 20 megapixel camera on the R11, experience says the number of pixels is often less important than other camera features. It would be surprising if the R11 takes consistently better pictures than the Galaxy S8 . And anyway, it takes skill to the most from a camera, even on a phone.

Even so, on paper, the cheaper phone has more camera.

No doubt Samsung fans will be able to list more feature differences.

Does another $750 buy anything useful?

Some of these features will matter to some people. Yet, in practice, most phone buyers won’t get more everyday value from buying a more expensive alternative. Sure there will be geeks who think $750 is a small price for some esoteric extra feature.

We can’t ignore snob value, the Samsung brand carries a little more weight in certain circles. If you judge phones that way, you’re reading the wrong website.

Oppo is a Chinese brand. Most of its sales are in its home country. According to IDC it now has a 7.5 percent share of worldwide phone sales. That’s up from a year earlier. It still ranks number four in international sales behind Samsung, Apple and Huawei.

Another analyst company, Strategy Analytics, says the earlier Oppo R9s model was the world’s best-selling Android phone in the first quarter of 2017.

Oppo only started selling phones in New Zealand at the start of this year. It sells through the big electronics retailers and 2degrees. It’s hard to say how much of a dent it has made so far, but the company certainly seems bullish. It has relocated a number of senior managers to New Zealand and regards this market as a huge opportunity.

In any discussion of the phone market, we can leave Apple to one side. Whatever you think about the iPhone, it obeys a different set of market dynamics to Android phones.

Which leaves Samsung and Huawei. Maybe, at a pinch, Sony.

Oppo, credible alternative

By offering something which is arguably functionally equivalent to the better known brands at a fraction of the price, Oppo does two things. First, it offers buyers an affordable, credible alternative.

Second, it imposes price pressure on the established brands. A Galaxy may not look expensive alongside the iPhone. Next to the Oppo it borders on opulence or indulgence. These are two words that marketing people love to tinker with. They work in the because you are worth it school of branding.

Oppo’s big opportunity is with younger people, students and those at the start of their careers who can’t afford to splash out on pricy phone hardware. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Phone buyers tend to stick with their choices for the long-haul.
More than nine-out-of-ten iPhone owners pick another Apple phone.

Android owners move between brands. Even so, they are more likely to buy another Android than switch to Apple.

Staying put makes sense. We have a lot of money, time and energy tied-up in our apps, music, other media and services. Moving from one phone to another can be a wrench.

It can also mean more expense than the cost of buying new phone hardware.

Apple users tend to spend more on everything phone-related than Android owners. They buy more apps, services and music. That is a form of lock-in.

apple iphone 7 plus

Learning

Even if you didn’t spend much money on extras, you spent time learning to use your phone. Switch brands and the learning starts all over again. Some people enjoy that. Many do not. Yet this learning amounts to another investment. It is also a different kind of lock-in.

Don’t discount lock-in. It can be significant. Lock-in is a form of inertia which adds friction to moving between phones.

It means you need to be unhappy or desperate to consider a switch. Moving phones is not something you should do lightly.

One reason Apple owners move to Android is money. On the surface it looks like you can save money by switching.

Take care with that line of thinking. The money you save buying a cheaper Android phone may be less than your investment in everything iOS. Don’t discount the time cost it takes to adjust to a new phone, or the cost of lower productivity.

In the real world, we should talk about perceived savings when switching phones.

Let’s assume you’ve decided you can’t live with Apple any longer. You’ve thought through the financial and productivity implications.

You’ve decided to move to Android. What should you look for? Which brands will give you the best Android experience and what traps can you avoid?

Bewildering choice

The first big difference between Apple and Android is choice. Most Android phone models come in a bewildering array of variations. Phones often have cheaper lite version. Some are small versions of large screen premium models. Others have less processing power or built-in storage.

Another difference is that the main Android phone brands have more than one range. Vodafone New Zealand lists 10 distinct Samsung phone models from the Galaxy S8 to the Galaxy J1. 2degrees has 12 Samsung choices. There are five Huawei models and three Sony phones at Vodafone. 2degrees has five Huawei and one Sony phone.

In New Zealand, iPhone 7 prices run from NZ$1200 to $1829 for the 7 Plus. That top iPhone costs 20 percent more than the most expensive Android phone on sale here at the moment. That’s Samsung’s $1500 Galaxy S8 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Midnight Black

As a rule iPhone users will be more interested in the premium Android phones. Prices are not that far behind Apple. If you need to save money, head further downmarket.

That doesn’t mean rock bottom. You can save a lot more than 20 percent on the price and still get a decent Android phone. At $700 the Oppo R9s is less than 40 percent of the price of an iPhone 7 Plus.

Direct comparisons with Apple’s phone are not fair. They don’t compared on features or functionality. Yet, if you choose an R9s you’ll get a lot of change from the price of a basic iPhone 7. That’s a lot of money to spend on apps, music or elsewhere.

Oppo is an Android phone brand where Apple users will feel more at home than, say, Samsung.

While the R9s is not an iPhone knock-off, its design borrows much from Apple. In low light you might mistake it for an iPhone. Make that in low light and after a few drinks.

Skin deep

Many Android phone brands load a software skin on top of the Android operating system. Oppo’s software skin has a distinct iOS look. It seems familiar. That’s about where the comparisons end. You won’t mistake the R9s for an iPhone in use.

There are compromises moving to a low-cost Android. Cheaper phones don’t do as much. For many people the most noticeable difference is in the camera. Although the Oppo R9s has a great camera for a $700 phone, it doesn’t hold a candle to iPhone. Nor is Oppo’s camera software as easy to use as Apple’s.

If you don’t care for photography, this won’t matter. If you do, then you could save a decent amount of money towards paying for your next digital SLR.

You will find the R9s doesn’t feel as nice in the hand and it takes longer to perform some tasks than the iPhone. The screen isn’t as good either. While this is often harder to notice on a conscious level, it will register with your brain at some level.

If you use phones for social media more than anything else, these deficiencies may not matter. If your phone is where you get most of your work done, you may want to invest in a more powerful alternative to Apple.

Samsung, the obvious choice

For years pundits have written about Samsung’s iPhone killers. That’s a ridiculous cliche. And a crass, clickbait-driven line of thinking. Samsung is the one Android phone maker you could describe as Apple’s rival1.

Like Apple, Samsung makes beautiful hardware. Like Apple, the company innovates. While Samsung fans argue the brand innovates more than Apple, comparisons are meaningless. The two brands exist in parallel universes.

Still, the Galaxy S8 has to be at the top of any iPhone alternative list.

Huawei, Sony

Huawei is number three in market share. The company plays leap-frog with Samsung when it comes to who has the best premium Android phone. For a while earlier this year, the Huawei Mate 9 Pro was top dog.

Sony also makes great Android phones. The company doesn’t have the market share or the presence it deserves in New Zealand. That makes it a less obvious choice.

Departing from iPhone expectations

Once a year Apple announces new iPhone models and updates the iOS operating system. As a rule of thumb you can upgrade every Apple phone from the last couple of years to the new software without a hitch. It gets trickier with older iPhones. One more than four years old might not make the transition.

In practice, almost every iPhone owner will make the update soon the software release. The only exceptions are where key apps don’t work with the new iOS. Users may decide they’d rather have that app than new operating system features.

Google updates Android software on a similar schedule. Android phone users often don’t get to upgrade their software. Some phone makers are slack about Android updates. Huawei is notorious for this, but others can be as guilty. Even the ones who make update can be slow and they may not update all models at the same time.

The upshot is that many Android phone owners are on older versions of the phone operating system. This can be confusing.

Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version
Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version

Take a look at this graph from Statista. It shows the distribution of operating system versions in use in May 2017. Only seven percent are on the latest, Nougat, version of Android.

Around a third are on the previous version. About a third are on the last-but-one version. That’s a more than two-year old operating system. The remaining users are on even earlier versions.

Fragmented Android

Apart from anything else, this fragmentation spills over in to the app world. It can be a source of friction with long-time Android users although some swear it doesn’t bother them. It’s something that will confuse many people moving from Apple.

If this bothers you, but you’re committed to Android, consider buying a Google Pixel phone. Google manages the Pixel brand itself. It means you’re guaranteed to get the purest Android experience. You’ll also get timely software updates soon after Google releases the new code.

Pixel phones can be hard to find in New Zealand, although some stores stock them. They’re not cheap, expect to pay around NZ$1300.

Like it says at the top of this post, you need a good reason to move from one phone operating system to another. The transition can be painless, it may even be trouble free. Only you can decide if the cost and effort makes the move worthwhile.

Similar issues confront an Android user switching to Apple. Some people make the move without a single glance back. Others pine for a feature that Apple doesn’t offer or doesn’t do as well as on the Android phone. It’s something of a lottery.


  1. Samsung may sell more phones that Apple. But Apple makes the real money. This is not a volume game. ↩︎
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Huawei p10Phone designers are running out of options. This year’s phones show less innovation than in years past.  

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 goes on sale this week. The early 2017 phone picture is now complete. We now know what the mainstream phone market will look like until Apple reveals its iPhone plans.

Here are ten things we’ve learnt about the state of the phone market:

1. Samsung fans are forgiving, maybe too forgiving

You couldn’t step on a plane at the end of last year with cabin crew reminding you of problems with the Samsung Note 7. Every safety announcement told passengers it was dangerous.

The Note 7’s exploding battery was news for weeks. The tech business has rarely seen such damaging publicity. It seems Samsung raced the product out before completing testing.

According to Ben Bajarin at techpinions that bad publicity is not enough to stop today’s Samsung owners from considering the Galaxy S8.

2. S8 ain’t done until Bixby runs

Bixby is Samsung’s voice-controlled virtual assistant. If it works it will rival Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

Samsung says Bixby is different because it strings tasks together. It then manages complex tasks the others can’t. Among other things, Bixby can wrap-up and send your most recently taken photo to, say, your partner. It promises to hunt down, then stream a specific video to a Samsung TV set.

Soon after announcing the S8 Samsung said Bixby features will not all be available on day one.

Unfinished software is not on a par with unfinished and unsafe battery designs. Yet it seems Samsung hasn’t learned all the important lessons from the Note 7.

If the signature feature of a new phone isn’t ready by launch, you might wonder if Samsung still cuts corners. Will anything else emerge, Note 7-like, after the launch?

3. The case of the disappearing bezel

Bezel is the name given to the rim around a phone’s screen. All phone makers have reduced the size of their bezels in recent models. Huawei and Oppo’s 2017 phones have tiny bezels.

Samsung has taken this almost to the logical extreme. There is almost no bezel on the Galaxy S8. The front is almost all glass.

In practice this means two things. First, you get more screen in a smaller package. The display on the Galaxy S8 is larger than the display on the Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Yet the S8 is roughly the same size as the non-Plus iPhone 7.

4. Much ado about fingerprint scanner placement

Put Note 7 fires and Bixby to one side for a moment. What is the main aspect of the Galaxy S8 that every phone reviewer wants to discuss? Is it the camera technology, the processor speed or large 5.8-inch screen?

It’s none of these. Almost every review mention Samsung’s decision to move the fingerprint scanner. A smaller bezel on the phone’s front means there’s no room for a fingerprint scanner. Samsung moved it to the rear of the phone.

Using the S8 fingerprint scanner is now a little more uncomfortable and a touch more awkward.

Both points are true. It says a lot about phone innovation that reviewers focus on fingerprint scanner placement.

5. Cameras, cameras, cameras

Every phone maker at every launch says their latest model has the best camera on the market. I’ve been to five launches in the six months or so and have heard five different phone makers make that claim. They can’t all be right.

For what it’s worth, all premium phones have great cameras. They can all take excellent pictures in the right circumstances. Exactly what makes up the right circumstances varies a little from brand to brand.

To a degree the camera innovation battle has moved on from hardware to software. At least four of the five big phone brands now offer some form of software-generated bokeh effect. 1

6. Enough with the fashion parades

So far this year Samsung, Huawei and Oppo have all had big splashy phone launches with a fashion theme. Each launch included beautiful people from the fashion world.

Oppo took this furthest with a Sydney Harbour boat cruise. It featured lurid coloured cocktails, a DJ and fashion models cat posing with phones.

A fashion-industry big wig made a speech. She told boat passengers to throw their iPhones overboard and replace it with an Oppo.

It’s worth pointing out that fashion-themed phone launches are not new. LG held a similar event in Auckland 10 years ago.

The message, in case you didn’t get it, is that premium smart phones are fashion items.

7. Hardware innovation slows in 2017 phones

Related to the fashion metaphor is the fetish with phone colours. There are different shades of black, metallic blues, greens and reds and so on. Again, we’ve been here before with premium phones.

In a sense modern phones have reached the point American cars got to in the 1960s. Then Detroit covered cars in chrome and added tail fins. They did this to create the impression of innovation where, in fact, there was little new.

Innovation isn’t quite dead in the phone business, but it has slowed to a crawl. The fact that people fuss over the fingerprint scanner tells you that.

Almost every hardware improvement in the last year has been incremental, cosmetic or unimportant. Screen resolution passed the point where the human eye could notice a different a few years ago. It’s been even longer since a phone processor wasn’t fast enough for all everyday tasks.

8. The price isn’t right

Premium phone price have climbed faster than inflation. This isn’t because of currency effects, phone prices are going up everywhere.

In part this is because phone makers did not make much profit in the past. Although Apple has always enjoyed a good margin. Even Samsung struggled at times to earn a decent amount from selling hardware.

In 2013 the Samsung Galaxy S4 cost NZ$1150 and the 16GB iPhone 5S was $1050. Today the cheapest iPhone 7 is $1430 and the bottom of the range Galaxy S8 is $1300. You can go all the way to $1830 with Apple or $1500 with Samsung.

You can argue that you get more phone, or at least more memory and more screen. But that’s not the point, it now costs Apple fans over 30 percent more to buy the least expensive iPhone. Samsung customers pay around 20 percent more.

Huawei has pushed its prices up even faster. Four years ago it made bargain basement phones, today the P10 is NZ$1000 and the Mate 9 is $1100.

Bucking the trend Oppo’s $700 R9s has most of the features found in a Samsung phone for almost half the price. There’s a huge opportunity for a brand selling good phone hardware at that price.

9. Everyone has a phone

Almost every person in the rich world who wants a modern mobile phone now has one. This means phone sales have slowed to a crawl compared with the past decade.

It also means phone makers rely on shortening the upgrade cycle to turn over more product. That keeps the money rolling in. There is one big problem with that…

10. There are few compelling reasons to upgrade

Today’s premium phones are good. When it comes to practical functionality they are not much better than the handsets on offer two years ago. Most of the changes in that time have made little difference to an owner’s everyday life.

There are always going to be performance obsessed geeks who argue for some esoteric reason they need an even faster processor. But in reality, it’s been a long time since phones were slow in everyday use. Likewise, any new hardware feature, is often only of interest to a minority.

Few people will hold onto phones for, say, 10 years, as they do with PCs. Apart from anything else, they take a physical beating day-in, day-out and get dropped or otherwise worn out after a few years. Most users who are not on plans have already moved away from annual or bi-annual phone upgrades. In the future more of us are likely to hang-on to devices for even longer.


  1. I can’t remember if Sony or Oppo mentioned anything about blurred image backgrounds. Apple, Samsung and Huawei all did. ↩︎

Oppo R9s phone

Apple edged out Samsung to take the phone sales top spot for the fourth quarter of 2016. The real winners are Chinese: Huawei, Oppo and BBK.

Although Apple and Samsung get the most attention, the rise of the Chinese phone makers is the big story of the last 18 months.

Oppo was started by BBK, but runs as an independent company. The company began operating in New Zealand late last year. Its best-known phones have similar specification to Android handsets costing twice as much.

The two brands have come from almost nowhere to challenge some of the world’s biggest companies. Both companies are secretive about financials and don’t reveal profit margins. They are probably low even by non-Apple phone industry standards.

Phone sales up in 2016

Gartner reports total sales for the quarter were up by a healthy seven percent. Phone makers sold 432 million units in the full 2016 year for a five percent year-on-year rise.

Samsung sales fell for the second quarter in a row. Its share for the year ended 2.9 percent down on 2015. This was due to the company dropping the troubled Galaxy Note 7 which left a hole in Samsung’s range.

Tough times at Samsung meant Apple moved to top place by the slimmest of margins. The company sold a shade over 77 million iPhones in the quarter while Samsung sold a fraction under 77 million units.

The companies were on 17.9 and 17.8 percent market share for the quarter.

Samsung was top for the full year with a 20.5 percent market share, well ahead of Apple on 14.4 percent.

Chinese phone makers growing share

The big news is the next tier where three Chinese phone makers boosted their market share to a collective 21.3 percent. Huawei lead the charge selling almost 41 million phones. It had a 9.5 percent market share. That’s up from eight percent a year earlier

Oppo was next on 6.2 percent a big jump up from the 3.2 percent a year earlier. BBK Communication also doubled its share from 2.8 to 5.6 percent. The others category fell from 47.6 to 43.1 percent.

Worldwide smartphone sales to users by operating system in 4Q16 (thousands of units)

Operating System

4Q16
Units

4Q16 Market Share (%)

4Q15
Units

4Q15 Market Share (%)

Android

352,669.9

81.7

325,394.4

80.7

iOS

77,038.9

17.9

71,525.9

17.7

Windows

1,092.2

0.3

4,395.0

1.1

BlackBerry

207.9

0.0

906.9

0.2

Other OS

530.4

0.1

887.3

0.2

Total

431,539.3

100.0

403,109.4

100.0

Source: Gartner (February 2017)