Tales From The Silk Road

Duct tape and cheap electronics: the trials and tribulations of an expat.

Recently I wrote a two-part article on the impact low-cost quad-core and octo-core mobile processors are having on the mobile handset market here in Asia. In it I briefly mentioned that many travelers and expats in this part of the world—this part being Southeast Asia, generally speaking—come here, among myriad other reasons, for the cheap electronics available.

Semi EngineeringWhat prompted me to investigate and write the story is that I’m one of those expats. With the exception of seven months total spent on trips back at home in the States, I’ve lived for the past four years in either Viet Nam or Thailand. Before that I had traveled in both China and Japan. I could give you a lot of reasons why I chose to live here, but we’re talking about semiconductors and the products they go into, so we’ll stick to the topic of cheap electronics.

As I quickly discovered here, if I wanted name-brand, leading-edge devices or PC components, they aren’t so cheap after all. In fact sometimes, as in the case of Viet Nam, they are more expensive than what they would cost at home, thanks to import taxes. And that’s when I could even find that leading-edge stuff. I remember meeting an expat and hardcore PC gamer when I first came to Southeast Asia four years ago. (What are the odds of meeting a fellow Yankee nerd in a rural Thai town?) He used to make regular trips back to the States or to Hong Kong—not to visit friends or loved ones, but to buy leading-edge desktop components. At the the time, he lamented that you couldn’t even get the latest Intel quad-core processor in cosmopolitan Bangkok, and his gaming rig was a good six months behind those of his compatriots in other parts of the world.

Take my tablet…please

What does all this have to do with handsets in 2014, you ask? What about the cheap electronics? Don’t worry, I’m getting there. What I also quickly discovered about the cheap electronics that are available was that they were cheap for a reason. Take my first (of several) tablets that I bought here, here being Thailand (again, because they were cheaper than in Viet Nam, where I was living at the time).

No really, take it. You can have it.

I came to live abroad with my second-generation Kindle, which I absolutely loved, being a voracious reader (it’s a lot easier to travel with your library when your library consists of a few thousand files on a six-inch tablet with a battery that lasts for a week or two).

After years of use, however a couple of years ago my Kindle was really showing its age — duct tape was literally holding the housing together — and I thought I would try an Android tablet as a replacement. Plus, I thought that maybe an Android tablet would cut down on trips to the coffee shop with my laptop in tow.

Off to the electronics mall I went, while on holiday in Bangkok, and I came home to Sai Gon with a “Samsung” 9.7-inch Android tablet for the equivalent of about $100 — at the time, very cheap. Why was it cheap? Why is “Samsung” in quotation marks? Because it was a Chinese white-label device masquerading as a Samsung. It wasn’t even one of the better knockoffs; the firmware didn’t bother with a Samsung logo splash upon boot up, and the letters along the bottom of the screen proclaiming it a “Samsung” were cheap craft-store stick-on letters.

Yes, I knew before I bought it what it was. In fact, most vendors here are quite honest about the so-called “copies” they sell.

Anyway, fortunately for me it was fine for reading or surfing the Internet. Unfortunately, not both. It was equipped with a standard, 1 Gbyte ARM processor and a few gigs of RAM, but ask the device to do any sort of multitasking and it would choke, and choke badly (of course Android is probably a bit more bloated than it needs to be, but that’s a bit off topic). Open a dictionary while reading? Be prepared to wait a minute. Even after flashing it with a known third-party ROM version of Android, the multitasking performance, not to mention the battery life, was dismal. Watch a movie on it? Fine, as long as you didn’t have anything else running in the background and had the charger hooked up to it, too. Did I mention the battery life was nothing to brag about?

About this time, the slide-out keyboard on my beloved old Nokia had bit the dust, or rather the cable that connects the physical keyboard to the motherboard. The cost of replacing it more than covered the cost of a cheap handset here. So once more into the consumer breach, this time with a Chinese white-label Android phone; this time it had a dual-core ARM processor and 4 gigs of ram (for about $150 bucks).

The performance wasn’t brilliant (nor was the screen), but then it wasn’t bad, either; at least it could handle some light multitasking without bogging down; the screen remained responsive with more than one app running. A step in the right direction, but still it wasn’t really an alternative to a brand-name, leading edge device.

Let’s flash forward to several months ago. If traveling for a bit, or even just for an afternoon of work at a local cafe, I was tired of lugging around a laptop, a tablet and a phone. Whatever I could do on my tablet I could do on my phone, it’s true, but reading on that wee dim screen was not pleasant (and I tend to read for a couple of hours at a time, sometimes, on a slow afternoon or evening). Not to mention, I could kiss the battery goodbye after several chapters of Somerset Maugham.

I decided it was time to try a phablet, and once again I reasoned that I should buy one of the cheap knockoffs available here. It wasn’t because three times is a charm. It was to try out the phablet form factor. I figured then I would invest in the real-deal, if I liked it — namely a Samsung Note II. Long story short(er), I found a used Note I for cheap, and within a few weeks I was sold on the phablet, at least as far as Samsung was concerned — a screen large enough and with good enough resolution to make reading enjoyable, and a machine capable of multitasking without nary a lag. I also can get away with charging it once a day, even with several hours of reading thrown in, and it still fits in my pocket.

It’s probably only a matter of time until I trade it in for a new Note III (I’ve almost convinced myself that the improved battery life and the better image sensor are worth it).

But the knockoffs aren’t so knockoff anymore

While I began looking at phablets and phones with larger, four-plus-inch screens, I started noting the latest specs on the local brands and white-label devices with quad-core processors in them. Playing with these in the stores, and canvassing my Thai and expat friends who owned them, it became obvious that these second-tier handset and tablet makers had upped the game. This was thanks in large part to the availability of inexpensive quad-core mobile processors, namely from MediaTek.

The devices are responsive and more than capable of running several apps at once — say messaging, a browser, Facebook (and in lands where being social is a cultural staple, one can’t overlook the importance of social networking), not to mention making/receiving calls. Based on anecdotal evidence the image sensors in these devices are more than capable, as well.

It helps that these devices are literally hundreds of dollars cheaper than those of Apple, Samsung, HTC and Sony. Apple and Samsung still rule the roost here and elsewhere, in important markets like China — but as detailed in those two stories, that might not be the case for much longer.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site this is a news story written by me for another publication. This originally appeared on Semiconductor Engineering; it holds the copyright, of course.