I swapped my Nexus for a cheap Chinese smartphone – and won

Heard of the Jiayu S3? Probably not. But, as John McIlroy discovered, you don't need a big brand for big performance

Are you ready to go brand agnostic? It’s a big step - but one that's easier than ever to take.

I’m not talking about switching from Apple to a no-name handset - that’s a leap of faith that precious few would even consider. But how about a known brand of Android phone to an Android you’ve never heard of? Can that work?

I reckon it can. I’ve just swapped an 18-month-old Nexus 5 for a handset from a company that I didn’t even know existed until a couple of weeks ago. And I’m deeply, deeply impressed by what it offers for the money. 

It all started when I tried to buy a cheap, almost-disposable tablet PC to keep my two-year-old son occupied on a flight. Turns out you can get 7in Android devices for less than ₹5000. If they can be that cheap, I reasoned, how much would a smartphone cost?

Two weeks and a lot of Googling later, an anonymous plain cardboard box arrived on my desk, containing something called a Jiayu S3 Advanced.

The specs? It’s a 5.5in 1080p handset, with an A53 Cortex eight-core processor, 3GB RAM, 16GB of onboard storage and everything from LTE to NFC. It has a pair of SIM sockets, and an SD card slot to expand the storage if needed.

The battery is a 3100mAh unit; the camera is a 13MP device with a Sony sensor; construction appears to be a mixture of alloy and plastic. It runs 4.4.4 Kitkat out of the box, with a version of Color OS as launcher, although beta ROMs of Lollipop are already floating around the web.

And the damage? £170 delivered (about ₹16,800). Yep, you heard that correctly.

That’s about ₹10,000 less than I spent on the Nexus 5 a year and a half ago, and about a third of the price of a Galaxy S6 Edge

There are three grades of bravery when it comes to buying a cheap Chinese smartphone. If Danger is your middle name, you take a punt on one of the various direct retailers (well, I say various - they actually look like about three stores masquerading under a dozen different site skins). Do that and a Jiayu S3 can be yours, allegedly, for a jaw-dropping £130 (a little less than ₹13,000).

If you’re a little bit more cautious you might choose the direct from ‘China via eBay’ route. You’ve got customer feedback scores to fall back on for comfort - but you may also have to wait three weeks for the phone to be delivered, and there’s always the prospect of customs fees when it turns up.

So I took the easy, safe route out - by using the popular auction site to source an S3. It cost £169 (₹16,700) including free next-day delivery, which seemed a fair premium to pay for peace of mind and instant gratification.

Better still, the reseller installed a slightly different ROM that has the Google Play store; Jiayu’s standard ROM forces you to set it up yourself. 

By now you’re probably wondering what the catch is - but after a couple of weeks with the S3, I’m struggling to find one. 

The documentation was sparse in the extreme but then, there’s only so much you can do with a USB charger and an operating system that you know already. I just charged the thing up, then fed it my Google account details and it did the rest.

It runs all of my apps quickly and it makes and receives calls without any major bugs - and none of my contacts has complained about sound quality from my end.

Sure, there are compromises, but none that cause me any sleepless nights. 

The screen has a little bit of backlight bleed but it’s vibrant and crisp, with excellent viewing angles. And while the camera is happier in daylight than darker surroundings, it’s been churning out plenty of decent images.

Build quality? Well the power and volume switches aren’t particularly pleasing to the touch - but then, the S3 has screen-off gesture control, so I can avoid the physical buttons and just swipe up on the screen to wake. And the rest of the handset doesn’t feel any more creaky than the Nexus 5 did.

Indeed, the display is protected by Gorilla Glass 3 and has already survived being dropped from about 5ft on to a wooden floor. One of the tiny tabs holding the (removable) back popped out - but I just pressed it back into place and carried on with my life.

Color OS isn’t my favourite launcher in the world but it does have some nice touches - such as the ability to hold down the Home button and clear out all running apps in an instant. 

Do I feel cheapened by owning a Jiayu? No way.

My geeky mates are curious; those who’ve had a play with the S3 give it grudging respect, perhaps even a smile when they hear how much it has cost. But equally, nobody has asked for a link to it on eBay; perhaps they’re all giggling behind my back and waiting for it to go wrong.

I can’t say I am. I’m enjoying the fact that for a net upgrade price of ₹8000-odd, I’ve got a bigger and better screen, a quicker processor and a battery that no longer requires daily charges.

Perhaps it has been easier for me to brand agnostic because I was running a vanilla phone - the vanilla Android phone - beforehand. But right now, I’d find it hard to imagine ever spending more than ₹20k on a smartphone again.