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Chinese smartphone makers don't want to make just cheap phones anymore

After Vivo and Xiaomi, Oppo also hopes to make pricier handsets

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

In China, domestic smartphones were once regarded as cheap alternatives to iPhones and Samsung models. But Chinese brands are trying to roll back this perception these days -- and their weapon is sub-brands.

Oppo is the latest among Chinese phone brands to launch a new line, this time named Reno, set to launch on April 10th. And according to local media, it’s likely to be more expensive than Oppo's usual offering.

Company vice president Brian Shen seemed to confirm that, speaking during the unveiling of the new brand this week:

“I believe that you only get what you pay for, ” Shen wrote on Weibo.

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This is the third major Chinese smartphone brand that has announced higher priced phones this year. After the launch of its newest flagship Mi 9 last month, Xiaomi's founder and CEO Lei Jun said that their phones were about to get more expensive.
“Actually, we want to get rid of this reputation that our phones cost less than RMB 2,000. We want to invest more and make better products,” said Lei.
On the left: Mi 9 Transparent Edition. On the right: Mi 8 Explorer Edition (Picture: Abacus)
There have been previous signs that Xiaomi is trying to boost its premium offerings in China. Its most recent financial report showed the average selling price of Xiaomi smartphones in China increased 16% from a year ago. Earlier this year, Xiaomi also spun off its budget series Redmi as a sub-brand, much the same as Huawei did with Honor.

Xiaomi spin-off Redmi wants to own the budget phone market

Soon after, Vivo -- a sister brand of Oppo also known for mid-range phones -- launched a new gaming-focused sub-brand called iQOO. Unlike Redmi though, iQOO handsets are more expensive than most of Vivo’s products.
Vivo launched the iQOO sub-brand at the beginning of March 2019. (Picture: iQOO)
Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi's leap into more expensive handsets is part of a wider trend. A  report from GfK showed that during the last two quarters of 2018 in China, prices of smartphones rose even though fewer phones were sold.

But Oppo and other brands might have a long battle ahead.

Shen's comments apparently didn't go down that well -- he eventually deleted his post. This may be because Oppo was long considered as a phone popular with low-income “factory girls“ -- cheap and equipped with strong selfie editing capabilities.

What’s more, despite the announcements, local brands have been shy about raising their price tags too significantly. In China, the highest price for Vivo's iQOO is US$640 (12GB RAM with 256GB storage), and the Xiaomi Mi 9 costs US$596 (8GB RAM with 256GB storage). That’s still far lower than the newest Apple and Samsung flagships, as well as Huawei’s Mate series.

Oppo's Reno is likely to be priced around that range as well. The brand made a splash last year with the Find X, one of the first phones on the market with a pop-up camera module. It had a significantly higher price-tag than Oppo’s regular offerings, but despite the innovative design, our review of the Find X described it as “a hassle to use for casual smartphone users.”

This might be a reason why Oppo seems to be dialing back on futuristic designs: It has dismissed both 5G and bendable phones as not yet ready for the general market.

But it looks like consumers are still looking forward to seeing something different coming from Oppo.

“The Find has risen and fallen. This time, [you] should do something different to make it worth buying,“ said one Weibo comment on Reno's announcement.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.