Written by MKL contributor Alex Schofield
As is noted in the MKL Guide’s chapter on technology, the mobile phone business is huge in China. All major brands of device are available such as Apple iPhone, Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson etc. The prices are comparable to, or even slightly more expensive than what we would pay back home. In this article all prices given are correct as of May 2011. My goal is to give some advice on buying a device and then what apps you can download to make living in China a bit easier.
Without question the best place to buy a device is Hong Kong. There is no sales tax and you can be absolutely guaranteed of the quality of the item. For example a 16GB iPhone 4 is currently 4999RMB in any Apple store in China, but is HK$4999 in HK. With a current exchange rate of HK$119-RMB100, you can see an instant 19% saving. However I am aware that travelling to HK just to buy a mobile telephone is simply not practical for the majority of Foreign teachers in China, but if you go there for any reason then it is worth bearing in mind. If you live in Shenzhen or Guangzhou, it is worth making the trip on the train. In China only buy from reputable outlets. For Apple, buy from official Apple resellers. For other brands, the reputable stores are usually located in large shopping malls and the like. Take a translator with you.
Unfortunately there isn’t much competition in China. It makes things simple, but doesn’t offer that much choice for the consumer. If you want your phone to have access to a 3G network so you can access the Internet on the move, than you much sign with China Unicom as China Mobile does not offer this service.
There are rumours that China Telecom, the main internet provider, will soon be entering this market. If you want to buy a device on a contract deal, it does not work the same way as it does in the West. You must pay the whole cost of the contract up front and then they credit your phone on a monthly basis: it is not based on a billing system. The deal I have is quite good, and the choice offered is expansive. I pay 156RMB a month, and receive 420 minutes to call whoever I want and get 500MB of cellular data. Text messages are not included, and cost around 0.2RMB per text. The “Great Firewall of China” and VPN solutions
If surfing the internet on your mobile phone, the great firewall is in effect just as much as it is with a regular computer. If you want to access sites such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. then you will need a VPN solution. As is recommended by the MKL Guide’s authors, I also use Astrill. Installing it on an iPhone or an Android device is absolute child’s play and you enjoy the freedom of access and security that you enjoy on your regular computer at no additional cost.
The range of “apps” that are now available for smartphone devices is absolutely mind-boggling, and are for every conceivable purpose. For purchasing apps, I highly recommend using the app stores based in your home country and use a debit/credit card issued there. It makes purchasing much easier. There are Chinese app stores, but they can be very difficult to navigate. These are the apps I recommend as essential for an expat in China:
Evernote. This Ingenious application is a note-taking app that enables you to synchronise all your notes across your computer and phone very easily. I use it to note down ideas for my classes, note down various addresses written in Chinese Characters (no more scraps of paper!), save photos of things I like (e.g new brands of wine or beer, books that people have recommended etc), and to clip webpages. There are endless things you can use this app for, and it was voted best iPhone app 2010 by quite a few Technology review websites. Cost: Free
Skype. This will need no introduction to many expats, but it’s still the best VOIP out there. The app delivers a quality that is just as good as the desktop version, and in fact I would actually say the call quality is better on my phone. You can buy credit on ”pay as you go” or you can sign up for the excellent value subscriptions. It also has video calling and IM capability. It is absolutely invaluable when you want to call people outside China. An added bonus is that China and HK are two of the cheapest countries to call. Cost: Free
Dropbox. This app allows you to synchronize important files across your computers and your phone. Simply open an account, put the files you want into it (You get 2GB of free storage) and they instantly sync across all your devices. I keep all my important docs in it that I might need on the go e.g scanned copies of passport, degree certificate and passport photos, PDF files and e-books that I want to read on the move. Please note this service is currently banned in China and you will need a VPN to access the website and to sync your files across the devices. Cost: Free
Google Translator. This is the best translator I have found, you can type in English or Pinyin and it translates instantly. It also has a voice translator function which is accurate most of the time. You can also draw a Chinese character with a finger that will translate, and it will speak the word to you to get the right pronunciation. Cost: Free
XE Currency. The best currency converter out there, works with over 80 Currencies and also commodity prices. Simply shake your phone to get an instant update on rates. Cost:Free
Dragon Dictation. This has nothing to do with China, but I love it so much I had to include it. You simply speak into the phone (including punctuation) and it comes up as text, it is phenomenally accurate. You can then send that text by SMS, E-mail or put it on Facebook or Twitter instantly. Cost: Free
Amazon Kindle. Any China expat knows how hard it is to get English language books in China. The kindle app isn’t quite the best one for reading experience according to most reviewers (but I like it),but no-one beats Amazon.com when it comes to the best prices and the best selection of e-books (Currently over 400,000 e-books available). Simply buy the e-book on-line and it syncs to your PC, Phone and e-reader instantly. Cost: Free
Google Earth. For maps, this absolutely incredible. Satellite pictures to literally anywhere in the world. Cost:free
Netflix. This is only available currently to Americans with a USA billing address and who pay with a US debit/ credit card. I am incredibly jealous, for a $7.99 a month subscription you can stream most of the popular shows and loads of movies. A few Americans I know won’t live without this. Oh well, Your comedy shows suck anyway, you will never beat us English in that regard! Cost: Free but requires a subscription.
I have saved the best until last:
Spotify. This is only available to people from UK, Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, Netherlands and Spain. You must have a billing address and pay with a debit/credit card issued in one of those countries. You must also have a premium account which in the UK at least is GBP 9.99 a month (around US$16). That’s all the bad news, as the rest is all good.
If I am jealous that Americans can get Netflix, then they should be even more jealous that I can get Spotify,it is absolutely essential for a music fan living in a country like China where access all our favourite artists is absolutely non-existent. If connected to Wi-fi or 3G, then you can stream any of the 13million songs in its library instantly, or you can create playlists which will sync to your phone that you can play when you are offline. You can do this for up to 3,333 songs. Some artists whose catalogues are very tightly controlled such as The Beatles, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers etc are not available, but the size of the library is incredible. I had the latest releases this year by Radiohead, R.E.M and Eminem in less than a day after they were released. I just can’t recommend this enough, and is an essential for music fans from the countries in which it’s available. Cost: free but requires subscription
For further recommendations of quality smartphone apps, see the article 10 Fantastic iPhone Apps for Your China Life on the excellent blog Lost Laowai.