Don’t forget about the little guys! Our favorite smartphone underdogs of early 2013

CES Mobile Underdogs

The first major trade show of the year is over (CES), but judging by the lack of smartphone announcements by industry leaders like Samsung and Apple, it is clear that the divas need a stage of their own. Choosing to ignore the throng of tech reporters waiting for a substantial story, the biggest players will be waiting to unveil products at individual events in the coming months. However, when you’re a smaller fish in a great big pond, the Consumer Electronics Show is a great opportunity to show off your goodies to a huge audience and that’s exactly what companies like Lenovo, Huawei, and ZTE decided to do.

Do these “smartphone underdogs” have what it takes to compete with the reigning champs? Lets find out.

Huawei Ascend Mate

Huawei Ascend Mate 6.1 inch smartphoneWithout being able to pick the brain of Huawei’s design team, it’s safe to assume the Ascend Mate is the company’s attempt to top Samsung’s gargantuan Galaxy Note. You don’t have to be genius to see that Huawei desperately wants a piece of the luxury Android pie currently being hogged by Samsung and this latest gamble just might work, assuming the Ascend Mate is actually usable. We had some face time with the device during CES and though the device is absolutely massive – it makes the Galaxy Note look regular-sized – there just might be a market for it. It may seem crazy, but there are people who think the Note isn’t big enough.

Plus, Huawei absolutely packed the Ascend Mate with features like software changes to improve one-handed use and a quad-core processor. It feels pretty balanced in the hand, not too heavy or bulky and those of you with medium-to-large hands should have no trouble holding it one-handed. That being said, with a 6.1-inch screen, two hands is better than one. The display looks great and features enhanced sensitivity (you can use it with gloves). Huawei has, unfortunately, placed a skin over Android but it doesn’t seem to be too disruptive. Finally, there’s a 4050mAh battery on-board that should last for two to three days.

On paper, the Ascend Mate seems like a worthy adversary to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2, but it is hard to tell whether the public can stomach an even larger smartphone that won’t be fitting in anyone’s pant pocket. There is also Huawei’s budget-oriented reputation to consider, it won’t be easy to shake that in the eyes of the consumer and show the world that it can handle a higher-end device.  

YotaPhone

yotaphoneIf you haven’t heard of the YotaPhone before now, we can’t hold it against you but it certainly wants to be noticed. The attention-grabbing feature this time around is a dual-screen design. Yes, we have seen this rather gimmicky design used in the past to varying degrees of success but Yota has taken it in a fresh and distinct direction that actually makes a lot of sense. The YotaPhone comes with a 4.3-inch HD LCD (1280×720 pixels) on the front and a similarly sized eInk display on the reverse. Other specs include a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 12MP camera.

First impressions from various tech sites seem positive as reviewers are impressed by the device’s build quality, a well-designed implementation of the dual screens, and some not-awful changes to stock Android. Undoubtedly, the most obvious change is the absence of the Back, Home, and Search buttons. In their place, Yota decided to implement touch gestures instead. Swipe to the right for multitasking, left to reach the homescreen, and half-left to go back. The other big change is the way the OS interacts with the rear display. Yota says it will share the API soon, but in the meantime it is developing a handful of apps to take full advantage of the second screen like an RSS Reader, Twitter client, and to-do list. For now, the eInk display is best used as a storage space. Images can be sent to the back of the device by swiping from the bottom to the top of the screen. Yota suggests using this feature to keep your boarding pass close by at the airport.

Since it takes almost no battery to display an image on the rear, Yota has some fun with it by displaying silly messages and adding a bit of whimsy to the smartphone space. Open the camera app and “Smile for the camera!” will appear in clear view of your subjects. Similarly, a message stating “I’m out of battery, please charge me.” when you’re running out of juice. It’s fun, its unique, the YotaPhone just might make a mark.

Lenovo IdeaPhone K900

Lenovo K900Known for stellar laptops and above average tablets, it seems only natural that Lenovo should expand its brand and pursue the smartphone angle. For some reason, however, Lenovo has been unable to break into the Android mainstream in the same way that manufacturers like Motorola and LG have been able to. It doesn’t seem to be for a lack of trying either as this certainly isn’t the first smartphone by Lenovo.

The latest, the K900, has the guts to get the glory. It’s packing a 5.5-inch 1080p IPS display, Gorilla Glass 2, 13MP camera with dual flash, and the latest Intel mobile chip, the Clover Trail+. But we all know that it takes more than great hardware to impact the Android market, notorious for being flooded with handset options.

Fortunately for Lenovo, the K900 looks gorgeous and comes in four different colors for its stainless steel and polycarbonate body. The back has four exposed screws that lend an industrial vibe, lending a sense of durability. The game changer here though is the chip inside: Clover Trail +, Intel’s second shot at powering smartphones. Early speed tests have it clocked in at almost double the competition, but this could all change once the next-gen Qualcomm and Tegra chipsets are released.

ZTE Grand S

ZTE Grand S Rear and SideAnother device that’s joining the race to perfect 1080p on a smartphone. On paper, the ZTE is impressive with a 5-inch, 1080p display, 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, Android 4.1, and a 13MP camera. We weren’t impressed when we tried it out on the show floor, however. Our unit was laggy and didn’t keep pace with other 1080p competitors. It doesn’t help that ZTE backed it up with a measly 1,780mAh battery either.

ZTE would like you to believe the “world’s first” (for a 5-inch 1080p device) 6.9mm thinness is enough to make a sale. It is impressive for sure, shrinking a phone with such high-end parts into a really thin package should be applauded. But without an exclusive feature, ZTE will probably continue to be a more niche-oriented manufacturer. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a compelling device, because it is, but there are too many other Android makers playing a similar game. 

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia ZIt was recently discovered that Sony wants to focus on high-end devices to achieve the sort of reputation currently associated with Samsung and Apple. With that in mind, we’d say it is off to a great start. The specs speak for themselves: a 5-inch HD display, 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 2GB of RAM, 13MP rear camera, 2330mAh battery, and Android 4.1. With that kind of power and a stunning display, Sony actually stands a chance at becoming a superior Android manufacturer.

Out of all the smartphones announced at CES 2013, Sony has the best chance of succeeding thanks to its extremely positive image in the tech work at large with stellar camera technology and cutting-edge televisions. Thankfully, Sony has finally learned to draw on its strengths and has deposited some technologies from its other areas of expertise into the Xperia line up. The camera has Sony’s Exmore R sensor (allowing for HDR video) and then there is the inclusion of Mobile Bravia Engine 2 in the display for enhanced brightness and clarity. On top of all that, the device is waterproof.

Like we have said before, Sony has yet to differentiate itself from the pack. Churning out passable phones that, though nice, don’t offer anything definitively better than the competition. This year, however, Sony may have struck the perfect chord between enhanced performance and luxury design. Plus, we really like that power button.

Vizio Phone

Vizio PhoneNow that Vizio has mastered televisions and started a fairly successful PC line, it is really taking the smartphone division to new heights. After failing to find a foothold within American carrier politics, Vizio has turned its sights to China where it is easier for the company to sell phones direct to consumers. However, since the pair of devices Vizio announced are looking mighty fine, it’s a shame we won’t see them stateside – at least not in the near future.

Early hands-on impressions are finding that the 5-inch model has a laminated display that looks too good to be real. Otherwise, it is a fairly standard high-end device featuring 1080p resolution, 1.5GHz Qualcomm process, and 2GB of RAM.

The real excitement comes with the lower end model that supports two different SIM cards, a feature that frequent travelers will surely lust after. Both phones have a design reminiscent of the HTC One X, matching the phone in build quality as well.

Pantech Discover

While the rest of the smartphones populating this list are aiming for a higher price point by focusing on top-of-the-line hardware and trendy features like 1080p, Pantech seems content to rule the entry level. It already has a great reputation as a budget-friendly manufacturer and the Discover is taking the company to a whole new place. The Discover is sporting a 720p, 4.8-inch display, 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 13MP rear camera and 2MP front, NFC, a 2100mAh battery, and Android 4.0.

For the price ($50 on an AT&T contract), it is hard to ignore this absolutely crushing handset when it is packing high-end internals at a really low price. Clearly the Discover plans to ride the road to success by appealing to the pocketbook. Design-wise, Pantech has done a nice job as well, bringing a curvaceous profile to the Discover that gives it a unique look.

There are also a few software enhancements on board like the Easy Experience option (a mode to help first-time smartphone owners navigate the interface) and AT&T’s DriveMode app (auto-replies to texts when you’re driving). If low price and high quality are anywhere on your wish list, the Pantech Discover should be right near the top of your list.

What do you think about the “Smartphone Underdogs” of 2013? Does anything stand out to you as a must-have Android device? Hash it out below.

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