Until recently, you needed to spend hundreds of dollars — often $649 or “$199 with a two year contract” — to get a smartphone with good performance that could run the latest apps. Solid smartphones are now much cheaper.
If you have the money to spend — or if you’re going to be locked into a long contract anyway — expensive smartphones still have value. They’ll have the sharpest screens, fastest hardware, and newest features. But they aren’t mandatory to get a good smartphone experience anymore.
Cheap Smartphones Up Until Recently
If you walked into a cell phone carrier’s smartphone store just a few years ago, you probably saw cheap smartphones for prepaid customers. Samsung made phones like this — for example, the Samsung Galaxy Ace released in 2011. Phones like this one just weren’t very good. If you ever used them — even just in the store — you noticed that the phone’s CPU couldn’t keep up with its interface. Simple actions like moving between home screens or scrolling in a web browser dragged. Their displays were often very poor, and they had very little room for your apps and other data. Their cameras were often near-unusable. Such phones often had very old, outdated versions of Android and would never get an update to a newer version, like the more expensive flagship phones often did.
These phones technically worked, giving you an Android smartphone experience — just a slow, very limited one. The gap between such a cheap phone and a more expensive Android phone or iPhone was huge.
Even these cheap, bad smartphones were an improvement — before them, you would have gotten a feature phone at the same price. Any smartphone at all would have been out of that price range.
Smartphones for Everybody
Both Google’s Android and even Microsoft’s Windows Phone are experiencing a lot of growth in the low-end part of the market worldwide. People who don’t have $700 to drop on an iPhone are buying smartphones. This increasing focus on cheap smartphones has benefited everyone. With Android 4.4, Google focused on making Android run better on lower-end hardware, dramatically cutting the amount of memory Android needs to function. Windows Phone has always run well on lower-end hardware, too.
Google’s “Android One” program is currently attempting to push very capable $100 Android phones. Microsoft is also focusing on the low-end with their Nokia Lumia smartphone business — most people are buying these Windows Phone devices because they’re very cheap.
Of course, software is just a small part of the story. Hardware has improved dramatically and has become much cheaper, and this allows for much cheaper — but still capable — smartphones.
Nexus Phones Are No Longer Budget Smartphones
Google’s Nexus phones were once seen as budget smartphones. You could get a Nexus 4 for $299 or a Nexus 5 for $349 — both with no contract! That may sound like a lot, but the iPhone 6 will be $649 off contract. When Google dropped the price of the original Nexus 4 to $199 to clear their inventory, they were a great budget option. Now you can get capable options for much cheaper at normal prices.
Google’s Nexus phones are looking more like mid-range phones — that’s all thanks to the even-cheaper budget options appearing on the market.
Cheap Smartphones Don’t Offer a Bad Experience
The sub-par experience of phones with slow, laggy interfaces has been banished by some of the cheaper phones available today.
In the Android arena, Motorola’s new Moto G costs just $179 with no contract. It doesn’t have a tiny, cheap screen — it has a roomy 5-inch display. It won’t be the sharpest display panel if you place it next to a $649 phone, but it’s not bad. The phone runs the latest version of Android — Android 4.4.4. Ars Technica found its camera was about as good as the camera on the iPhone 4S — an older iPhone, but one that still costs $450 today. Thanks to the march of technology, this $179 phone’s CPU seems about as powerful as the CPU found in the Samsung Galaxy S3. You won’t be putting up with an extra-slow, laggy interface — you’ll have a nice large screen, a decent camera, the latest version of Android, and the ability to run practically every Android app with good performance — all for $179.
If $179 is too much for you, you can also get a Moto E. It doesn’t have the same specs, but is available for just $129.
Microsoft’s Windows Phone has done a good job at the low end, too. The Nokia Lumia 520 can often be purchased for less than $100 unlocked and without a contract — with some deals, it’s even been down to $40. This phone has a smaller screen and not-as-fast hardware, and Windows Phone limits its app selection, but it’s impossible to deny how good a deal it is. A few years ago, $50 or so would have gotten you a cheap feature phone — now it can get you a smartphone with a full browser and app store, even if it is a Windows Phone.
We’re not here to recommend you purchase either a Moto G or cheap Lumia phone — feel free to shop around for a different phone. These are just two of the standout options from the last year that have proven you don’t need to spend over $600 or get locked into an expensive contact to have a good smartphone experience. Even if you rely on prepaid service without a contract, you can get a nice phone for less than the $199 you’d pay for a new Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S on contract.