5 of China’s hottest hardware startups

We’ve all heard of Nest, Oculus Rift, Pebble, Dropcam, and SmartThings – but what are the hottest hardware startups coming out of China? Here’s Tech in Asia’s pick of 5 of China’s best making waves with their gadgets. They’re cool, they’re smart – and they’re mostly cheaper than their Western counterparts.

By Steven Millward

1. Xiaomi – smartphones, tablets, wearable tech, smart TVs

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Can Xiaomi still be called a startup now that it’s on course to sell 60 million phones this year and is probably valued at tens of billions of dollars? Since Xiaomi just passed its third-year anniversary as a gadget maker, let’s say it can. Xiaomi is clearly China’s hottest new hardware company. Its rise also holds a valuable lesson for smaller startups in this space – the software side of things is extremely important. Before Xiaomi outed its first smartphone, the company spent more than a year honing its MIUI OS, which is build on top of Android. MIUI can be ‘flashed’ onto numerous other Android phones, meaning you don’t need to have a Xiaomi phone to use its Android skin – and that allowed the startup to get a lot of testing done with millions of Android geeks before the first phone was even revealed. The good looks and polish of MIUI undoubtedly helped boost Xiaomi sales by making the budget phones feel more premium than their plasticky hardware would suggest.

Xiaomi has gradually branched out over the past few years to make a set-top box, a smart TV, the MiPad tablet (pictured top), a router, the Mi Band fitness tracker (pictured above), and a bunch of accessories. The Mi Band packs in most of the features of the Nike Fuel Band or a FitBit wristband, yet it costs a mere RMB 79, which is US$13. It’s not all been easy sailing for Xiaomi. Now the firm is on the global stage it’s finding itself under attack in the media for hardware design that lacks originality – such as the iPhone 5c-esque aesthetic of the MiPad. Then again, Samsung is facing the same critique with the new Galaxy Alpha, which looks like an iPhone 5s photocopied at 117 percent zoom. The Beijing-based startup now has four phone models, ranging in price from just RMB 699 (US$113) to RMB 1,999 (US$325): the Redmi, Redmi Note, Mi 3, and the upcoming Mi 4. It has so far launched outside of mainland China in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and India. The next stop is Indonesia.

2. OnePlus – smartphones

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When OnePlus launched earlier this summer, it was clear that this new startup had learned the key lessons from Xiaomi: it takes software seriously, it uses flash sales to minimize inventory and risk of over-production; it mostly only sells online; and it goes for a low price-tag that’s half of what you’d pay for a flagship from HTC or Samsung. One thing that OnePlus is doing differently is that it has created two separate versions of its OnePlus One phone – one for international markets, and one just for mainland China. The non-China iteration comes packed with the CyanogenMod OS version of Android, which is highly regarded by Android geeks. It’s also more ambitious than Xiaomi in its global ambitions, selling from day one in 15 tough markets outside its homeland – in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and the United States.

3. Codoon – fitness trackers

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Codoon is China’s biggest and oldest homegrown fitness tracker startup, dating back to 2009. It now makes five app-connected gadgets that revolve around health and the quantified self. Codoon has seen a global backlash against its carbon cloner instincts. In May last year, the startup very closely copied the Jawbone Up, and a few months later it came out with the Smartband 2 (pictured below), which rips off the Nike Fuel Band.

Aside from unoriginal design, the startup seems to be struggling to keep pace with its rivals, and its preference for copying leaves it perpetually almost a year behind the curve. Nonetheless, it secured nearly $10 million in series A funding earlier this year.

4. Picooc – smart scales

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Treading on the toes of Codoon is rival fitness-oriented gadget maker Picooc. Its sole product right now is a smart body scales unit called Latin. It not only shows your weight but also indicates important metrics like body fat, body mass index, body water, and muscle mass. It ties to an app for a fitness-tracking experience that complements wearable tech gadgets. Picooc got $21 million in funding a few months ago. The Picooc Latin is priced keenly up against the Fitbit Area scales, at just RMB 349 (US$57). The Fitbit Area costs RMB 1,198 (US$198) in China – that’s nearly quadruple the price of the Latin. The Latin was originally priced at RMB 699 (US$113) upon launch, but it has since fallen. The tumbling price of this gadget – as well as harsh price cuts implemented by Codoon – show that this is a tough sector in China. Larger newcomers to this market – such as Xiaomi’s Mi Band – will push the price down even more aggressively.

5. InWatch – smartwatches

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InWatch is China’s biggest smartwatch maker, managing to gain a bit of traction overseas. The InWatch Z (pictured) came out a year ago, and is now due for a refresh as it looks rather aging and bulky – even by the low standards of most smartwatches. There’s also the newer One C model. Smartwatches are still more hassle than help for most people, and their disappointing screens and poor battery life make them a hard sell. InWatch has a struggle on its hands to keep pace with technology changes as larger brands like LG and Samsung start pushing their own smartwatches onto smartphone buyers – sometimes offloading them on phone buyers for free.

Editing by Terence Lee 

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