[Column] Chinese Fake iPhone Torn Down, Found Lucrative

Nov 21, 2008
Shinya Saeki, Nikkei Electronics

The Teardown Squad series has earned a great deal of popularity among readers of Nikkei Electronics and Tech-On! I suppose many people have seen or read the series, as we recently published articles on the teardown of the "Nintendo DSi" and the "T-Mobile G1" Android-based mobile phone, for example.

Probably because someone appreciated our efforts at breaking down the latest digital devices made both in Japan and in other countries, "nikkei Trendynet" offered us the opportunity to break down the fake "iPhone 3G" that is circulating in China. They said they would provide us with a "ciphone," which freelance writer Takeshi Yamaya acquired, for our teardown project.

This fake iPhone, which is sold at about ¥16,000 (approx US$170) in China, is "a luxury model for a Chinese non-brand mobile phone," Yamaya said. Despite some issues, such as the slow response of its touch panel, I felt that the fake was quite similar to the original iPhone when I actually used it.

Well, let's get on with the teardown. When disassembling a digital device, Nikkei Electronics usually asks an engineer who is an expert in that area for cooperation. This stance didn't change even if our target was a fake iPhone. This time, we had help from an engineer of a component manufacturer who is well versed in the mobile phones of Chinese manufacturers.

Frankly speaking, it was "quite easy" to break down the fake iPhone. Compared with the struggle we went through when tearing down Apple Inc's genuine iPhone 3G, it was a piece of cake. No wonder. The manufacturer copied only the iPhone's external appearance, not its mechanical design inside the chassis.

Also, the components housed in the chassis were all different from those seen in the iPhone 3G. There were "surprisingly few" connectors on the main substrate, probably to lower the cost, the engineer said. Other components such as an LCD panel, microphone and speaker were directly soldered to the substrate. The chipset in the handset was a product of MediaTek Inc of Taiwan.

"(The chipset) is widely used for general no-name mobile phones in China" and it costs about US$6 per set, the engineer said.

The handset's production cost is "roughly ¥3,000 to 5,000" including the chipset, the engineer said. "Sales agents must enjoy quite a large margin if the handset sells for ¥16,000," he said.

Though it was just a fake, I felt the power of China, which can easily copy a product of this level.