(Disclaimer: I am not particularly experienced in the world of mobile phones or technology in general, but I just want to share my experience to save you some trouble searching for an affordable but wonderful phone.)
If you are looking for a good phone and aren’t sure what to get that will still do all of the things you want it to, I’m pretty sure you will be pleasantly surprised to find that you can spend seven or eight hundred RMB to get a phone that is just as good as international brands that sell for three or four thousand. Xiaomi (and Hongmi – same company) are Chinese-made Android phones with excellent screen resolution, a more than adequate camera, and the ability to run the Google Play Store (with a few tweaks listed below). Many of the international brands, like Samsung and HTC, who sell phones in China have to do something to their phones that make it difficult or impossible to access the Google Play store, even with hacks. I myself use the Hongmi 1S, which I purchased from Amazon 1 month ago for 800 RMB. I honestly don’t know the difference between Hongmi and Xiaomi, but they are made by the same company, and the Hongmi (or Redmi) seems to be cheaper. I’ve got the cheapest one I could get, and I have been so pleased with its performance.
You can purchase the Xiaomi or Hongmi on Amazon China by searching “小米” or “红米,” and it will either arrive either same day (if you order in the morning) or next day (if you order in the afternoon). Best of all, you can pay cash for it, or use your US Visa or Mastercard online. For instructions on using Amazon China, see the link below. One thing to pay close attention to, make sure you are purchasing the phone that was made to work with your service provider (Unicom, Telecom, Mobile…), or you will be in trouble.
[button url=’https://www.tianjinbang.com/blog/2014/04/18/amazon-china/#comment-11267′ size=’small’ style=’blue’] Amazon China [/button]
Some of my favorite features are the “Do Not Disturb” (which I set for 11PM to 7:30AM), which is helpful if you have people on the other side of the world who might be messaging while you’re sleeping. I also like that I can set limits on my monthly data usage, which is constantly scrolling across the bottom of the swipe-down Notifications screen. If I touch that, I can limit each app’s access to the Internet, whether by Data or Wi-Fi. It let’s me know what I’ve used every day so far, plus what I’ve got left for the month (you set that manually based on what your plan offers). I also like the speakers, which are plenty loud enough, and the picture quality. It’s also nice that the phone reminds me when I ought to empty my trash (rather than just refusing to install an app because I’ve used up my memory, like my last phone did). The Mail program is really nice, too. I can have multiple accounts and it receives emails simultaneously with my browser Gmail and notifies me instantly. It stores the emails as conversations and if I touch a conversation, I can see each email that was a part of it separated out. Last but not least, long-touching on an app will give you the option to delete it permanently, rather than going about it through any more complicated ways.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about my phone. A screen shot is accomplished either by swiping down the notification bar and switching to the Toggles screen and touching “Screenshot,”and then it will take a screenshot of whatever was on the phone before you down-swiped. The other way is to press the Volume Down and Power buttons simultaneously.
The only thing I didn’t like about my phone at first was that it would not learn words that I typed regularly that were not already in my dictionary (on my old phone I could just touch a word the phone thought was misspelled, rather than the auto-corrected word it was about to enter in its place, and the phone would add that to the dictionary). However, I found that if I go to Settings and go all the way to the bottom under System/Language and Input/Personal Dictionary, I can add words manually. But this last may not be necessary if you do the following things to install Google Play on your phone. I think in that instance your Google account takes over, and the keyboard runs on your personal Google dictionary.
In addition to the Mi Market that comes with your phone, you should download the 1Mobile Lite app store from the Mi Store, and on that you will find most of the apps that you’d need, like your VPN app (I use Astrill and I found that there), and even ones you can’t actually use in China, like Instagram and Facebook Messenger.
Installing Google Play
Thanks to some help from a fellow Mi user, I was able to install the Google Play store on my phone, which will enable you to use apps like Google Maps and Google Voice (a subject for another post for US expats who want to call home (and be called) for free using a personal phone number given by Google). The following is the how-to, but you must know that, though you will be able to download and install these things, you will not be able to set them up, and they will not work, unless your VPN is on. So download the VPN first.
First of all, in the Mi Market, download the “Google Downloader,” icon pictured below. The maker’s name is “Eric Xiang” I think (just so you’re sure you’re getting the right one).
Once you have installed that and opened it, at some point, maybe after you select and download the Google Play store, it will tell you that you need to download 4 or 5 additional programs, including Google Services Framework or something. Just say yes to all of them. I think this is what tricks the Play store into seeing your phone as eligible for access. Just do everything it suggests you do and log in with your Google account where required. It will then extend Google services all throughout your phone, including your keyboard dictionary. The only thing I noticed was that some Google apps I had downloaded before I had the Play store started acting weird (namely my Chrome browser), so I just deleted it and reinstalled it using the Google Installer program. You will use that app to download any explicitly Google products. Just remember none of them will work unless your VPN is on.
Here’s a list of my own personal must-have apps.
Google Chrome Browser App – It will sync with your bookmarks and search history on your laptop, and does page translation (but only with your VPN on).
Google Translate – (also generally VPN-only) because it’s best for translating entire sentences and not just individual words.
QQMusic – (will NOT work with the VPN on) You can search for any song and find it and either download it for free or stream it (which is obviously why it won’t work if the phone thinks it’s in the USA).
Kuai Di Da Che – This one might not be so useful unless you’re confident in a bit of Chinese, but it’s great if you find yourself in a bit of a fix and can’t get a taxi. The app knows your location and you type in or say where you want to go and it sends a message out to all nearby taxis and one will accept the call and come pick you up, but they will call you first to confirm and verify where you will be waiting, which requires a bit of Chinese. But it’s great. There’s a great article about it on this blog: China Hope Live. Just type that into 1Mobile Lite to download it – kuaididache. Oh, it’s 5 extra kuai on top of your taxi fare if you use the app.
Facebook Messenger – For some reason I can receive messages without my VPN on, though I can’t always send them unless it is.
AQICN.org Widget – Download the app and then long touch on an empty space on your screen and it will give you the option to add a Widget, and you just choose that app.
Let me know what YOUR must-have apps are!