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 Such phones often had very old, outdated versions of Android and would never get an update to a newer version, like the more expensive flagship phones often did.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.
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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
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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.
Image Credit: Karlis Dambrans on Flickr, .angels. on Flickr, Karlis Dambrans on Flickr, John Karakatsanis on Flickr, Vernon Chan on Flickr
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