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In Las Vegas this week, at the International Consumer Electronics Show, a big surprise - there are smartphones everywhere. Samsung's Galaxy series is on display in a dazzling showroom. Lamborghini, the sports car brand, has a new phone out for just $6,000. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Tonino Lamborghini (a company not related to the famous car brand) has a new phone out for $6,000.] But high-end phones are not what's driving global sales. And to find out what is, NPR's Aarti Shahani went to a little corner of the massive expo.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: It took me just a half hour of speed walking to finally get to this place in the Westgate Hotel.
SHAHANI: It's the Asia wing, and it's got a little smart phone alley with cramped, boxy booths rented out by some of the leading manufacturers that you've never heard of.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: WeiHung Digital Company Limited. WeiHung.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Quality Technology.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Our company is Shenzhen GBD Electronics LTT Co.
SHAHANI: All these companies are here at the show for the first time. They've been building customer bases in Asia, in Africa and in Europe. And they say now it's time to hit the U.S. market. I go booth-to-booth, asking vendors to show me the very best phones they've got.
GANDOLF GUAN: For example, we have a very special touch panel we call smart awake.
SHAHANI: Gandolf Guan is showing me the smart awake feature on a phone that's about $110. And when it's in sleep mode, you can swipe a letter with your finger to awaken it. Swipe C to get your call pad, E for e-mail.
GUAN: M for music. You can make the definitions by yourself.
SHAHANI: We take pictures with the camera, it's high-resolution 60 megapixels, just like mine only this phone has another feature. Guan pops open the back to show me.
GUAN: Samsung Galaxy has only one SIM card here. But for our phone, you can see from here we have SIM one, SIM two.
SHAHANI: The SIM card is a memory chip used in most of the world. In the Asia wing, I have several conversations like this one. Seller Irene Chen tells me that her $100 phone is not cheap.
IRENE CHEN: No, no. It's very smart. Let me show you.
SHAHANI: Chen launches AnTuTu Benchmark. It's an Android app that diagnoses the phone's specs, its speed, its memory.
CHEN: This is our phone score.
SHAHANI: And its ranking does compare to leading models. Now, many of us, we see the label Made in India, Made in China and we think it must be bad quality. But Chen points out...
CHEN: As you know, almost all the phones are made in China. Like Apple - it's made in China also.
SHAHANI: The vendors at the Asia wing make a good sales pitch. But they've got money at stake. So I wander through the convention in search of experts who don't. And I meet this guy.
GREG HARPER: My name is Greg Harper. I'm president of Harper Vision Associates. And in terms of smartphones, I have 28 active numbers.
SHAHANI: Harper is the kind of rigorous - or obsessive - expert you would want advising you. And he too swears by his Asian phones.
HARPER: The Mi5 is a very, very good phone, and the OnePlus. Those are the two phones I'm using right now.
SHAHANI: His favorites cost $300 to $400 - about half the price of a top-end Apple or Samsung. And he says they're just of good. They run on Android, so you can use all the same Google apps. One company called Xiaomi has risen so fast it's now the third-largest smartphone maker in the world. Harper says we in the U.S. aren't paying for quality, we're paying for brand. I ask him...
Are American consumers dumb when it comes to how we buy smartphones?
HARPER: We're very dumb. We're very, very dumb in how we buy smartphones because we've been caught up in the whole marketing blitz.
SHAHANI: The Asian phone makers here say that back home, they're fighting over pennies. In the U.S., with prices so high, they can grab dollars. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Las Vegas.
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