My favorite phone of the year is the Xiaomi 13 Ultra — it has the best cameras of any phone today, the hardware is exquisite, and it has all the extras I need. It edges out the Galaxy S23 Ultra in several key areas, but convincing somebody to pick up the phone in lieu of Samsung's offering is a different matter altogether.
The decision has nothing to do with hardware, but Xiaomi's cachet in the high-end segment. Although the brand has been making premium phones for nearly a decade now, it's still thought of as a budget-focused brand, and while it tried to shake off that image with a rebranding effort — pushing the Redmi series into its own label, while launching mid-range and high-end devices under Xiaomi branding — it's safe to say that hasn't paid off.
This isn't just an issue with Xiaomi either — OPPO, Vivo, and Honor face the same drawbacks in the premium segment. This was made evident in recent exchanges I had with relatives; I was at a wedding last week, and the conversation ostensibly turned to tech (as it does when I'm around).
I was talking about foldables being the next big thing, and one of the attendees mentioned he'd been using the Galaxy Z Flip 3 for over a year. He was generally letdown by the foldable experience; the screen on his unit broke twice, and the plastic layer covering the inner screen started to peel off just two months after getting the panel switched out a second time.
I suggested he take a look at the OPPO Find N3 Flip instead; I used the foldable alongside the Z Flip 5, and OPPO's version is significantly better than Samsung across the board. It has a smoother hinge, less visible crease, better cameras, and a battery that lasts longer. I said as much, but he wouldn't consider it as he didn't think of OPPO as a high-end brand. This person had been buying Samsung phones bi-yearly going back to the original Galaxy Note, and to him, Samsung was the only premium Android manufacturer.
This is a sentiment that's echoed constantly; in the higher echelons of the smartphone category, it's just Samsung and Apple that are seen as legitimate contenders. Obviously, this isn't the case with enthusiasts, but when it comes to a majority of mainstream buyers, Samsung is the de facto choice when thinking of a phone purchase.
So even though OPPO made a phone that's better in every regard, it's Samsung that ultimately gets the sale, and that's all down to brand cachet. Samsung managed to cultivate its image over the course of the last decade, and even when its products are inferior, it comes out ahead because it excels in the one area that matters the most: customer perception.
Xiaomi made its way up the ranks by undercutting its rivals in the budget segment, and that's the image of the brand now — regardless of how many innovative phones and foldables it releases. In a similar vein, OPPO and Vivo are seen as mid-range brands that have middling software, even though ColorOS has made a remarkable turnaround over the last three years.
The one manufacturer that avoided being pigeonholed into the budget category is OnePlus; its focus on value-focused flagships allowed it to carve out a better image, and the subsequent launch of the Nord series hasn't tarnished its cachet. This is why OPPO chose to launch the OnePlus Open in most global markets — the OnePlus label has a much better chance against Samsung.
In fact, OPPO missed out by not introducing a OnePlus version of the Find N3 Flip; that device would have given Samsung a reason to worry. For now though, Chinese manufacturers need to do just as much to polish their image as they did to clean up their software in recent years.
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Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.