Android used to have a budget phone problem.
Customers would try out a cheap, under-powered device that never received updates and conclude from that experience that the entire platform was no good.
But these days you really can get a decent piece of hardware without spending much money. In some ways, owning a cheap Android phone (as long as you pick the right one) has become better than throwing your money at a flagship. Here’s why.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Budget phones aren’t going to put nearly as big a dent in your wallet as their far more expensive and luxurious counterparts. You could get a brand new Moto E at launch for around $120. These days you can snag one for half as much. You can pick up several for the cost of a single LG G4.
When an updated model comes along, you can place an order without going in debt. These savings are only magnified if you’re a parent with a teenage child or two who each want their own phone. And you may still end up with cool hardware, like last year’s bezel-less Sharp Aquos Crystal.
2) Better Battery Life
These days, smartphone companies boast about their phone’s ability to make it through a full day of use. That’s fine, but we seem to have forgotten that our mobile phones used to make it through half a week. Apparently once our phones became smarter, they stopped exercising and eating right. They have these powerful brains, but they don’t have the energy to use them.
But here’s the thing — budget phones still tend to get decent battery life. Lower resolution displays don’t have anywhere near the high power requirements of today’s quad-HD screens. Weaker processors can’t offer the power that we find in the top-of-the-line ones, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of people choose to drive a Prius over a muscle car. Some of us prefer having a Chromebook that can last most of the day rather than a desktop replacement that can only last unplugged long enough to make it from one outlet to another.
Power isn’t everything, and if you prioritize having a phone that isn’t close to dying when you’re out at night over being able to frag zombies in full HD, seeing a Snapdragon 410 on a spec sheet instead of the Snapdragon 810 can actually be a plus. You can also pair a weak processor with a ridiculous 5,000mAh battery for only $150.
3) Smaller Size
In case you haven’t been paying attention, smartphones are larger than they used to be. Each year we watch as manufactures stretch out their displays by a half an inch or so. In 2009, Motorola and Verizon released the first Droid, a qwerty-device with a 3.7-inch display. In 2013, the Moto X’s display had grown to 4.7 inches, and at the time it was considered a relatively small device. Two years later, the Moto X Pure Edition now sports a 5.7-inch screen, comparable to the Galaxy Note 5.
Not only that, manufacturers increasingly give their larger phones a more premium feel. If you want the best Nexus phone you can get this holiday season, you will have to spring for the larger Nexus 6P, with its aluminum build and better camera, even if you would prefer the size of the smaller Nexus 5X. Only Sony strives to release a compact device each year that’s roughly on par with its larger alternative.
Apparently bigger is better. I missed the memo, because even though I have longer-than-average fingers, I still prefer smaller phones. They’re easier to use in one hand, I’m less worried about dropping them, and they don’t bulge out of my pockets. These are key aspects I expect from a phone. To me, making smartphones larger makes them worse at being mobile devices.
Fortunately, smaller form factors haven’t gone away, they’re just now the realm of affordable handsets. The Moto X Pure Edition may be a phablet, but the Moto G is nearly an inch smaller, and the cheaper Moto E is relatively tiny these days thanks to its 4.5-inch display.
4) Expandable Memory
Some people don’t particularly care for microSD cards. Others refuse to buy a device that ships without one. Among flagship phones, it’s really a coin toss if any given model will have a microSD slot or not. All of the Galaxy S phones had the option of expandable memory up until this year’s Galaxy S6. The HTC One M7 didn’t have a slot, but the M8 and M9 both launched with one. Nexus devices don’t do slots at all, but Sony devices consistently ship with them.
But when it comes it budget phones, you can almost be certain the device will let you stick in your own microSD card. Granted, this is usually because manufacturers cut costs by sticking only a little bit of memory in cheaper handsets, which limits how many apps you can have installed.
But if you don’t play that many games and mostly just want storage space for music and photos, the microSD slot found in budget handsets won’t let you down. And with microSD cards now reaching up to 200GB, the option of expandable memory will always leave you with the capacity to carry more files than if you were limited to internal storage only.
5) Peace of Mind
You won’t see this on a spec sheet, but there’s a certain degree of comfort that comes from knowing that if you drop your phone in the river while kayaking with friends, it isn’t the end of the world. You’re not going to have to spend a month’s paycheck replacing the device, and you won’t have to start shopping for used handsets either.
You can also pull out your phone in any part of town without attracting attention to your wealth. A thief knows he or she can get decent money selling off your Galaxy S6 Edge, but no one is really going to hand over that much money for an obscure Blu phone that no one knows about (speaking of which, the Blu Vivo Air and Pure XL don’t look half bad).
This peace of mind gives you the freedom to go where you want and do what you want to do without worrying if your phone will hold you back. This is good. Your phone should adapt to your life, not the other way around.
So you’re ready to give a low-end to mid-range phone a try? Slow down. Picking up just any Android handset remains risky business. Many budget phones will never see a major software update. Walking into the carrier store and picking the cheapest phone is still likely to leave you with a piece of junk.
The easiest recommendation right now is the 3rd generation Moto G. At a starting price of $180, you get a smartphone with the size and build-quality to leave people thinking you spent more on it than you did. Though if you want to spend less money or grab something with a smaller size, the cheaper Moto E is the best device you can buy in its price range. Either way, you’re getting a competent product from a well-known mobile brand.
If you want something big and powerful, go for the Asus ZenFone 2. You’re getting a good deal of power too for $200. Making the leap to $300 even gets you 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage!
Want a phone with a bit more personality? The HTC Desire line will give you the look of the HTC One, minus the premium metal build. You still get customization like Sense 6 and BlinkFeed, the manufacturer’s news-centric home screen. The Desire 626 goes for a little more than $200.
And at $180 for the 4.7-inch model or $250 for the 5.5-inch one, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 isn’t a bad buy either.
Is It Worth It?
Good Android phones continue to get cheaper and cheaper, and even some flagships are coming down in price. Still, phones that are marketed as low-end or mid-range will always come with some tradeoffs. The screen resolution won’t be as high. The speakers may not be as loud. The camera certainly won’t take comparable pictures.
But let’s be honest — many of today’s phones are simply excessive. It’s okay if your pocket computer doesn’t have a leather back, aluminum siding, and a screen that’s made of sapphire. It’s perfectly fine if your phone is small and cheap. Does it do what you need it to do? Perfect.
What are your thoughts on budget Android phones? Have you been pleasantly surprised by one? Do they still leave you feeling disappointed? What about the flagships? Express yourself in the comments below.