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Best cheap smartphones

Some of the best phones can be had for a penny or for free when you sign up for a 2-year plan.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 12, 2013 11:12AM

This post comes from Michael Sweet at Cheapism.


Woman Sitting in a Cafe Texting © Stephen Morris, Vetta, Getty ImagesShopping for a cheap smartphone is no easy task. There are dozens upon dozens from which to choose, and all seem to linger in the shadow of the latest Apple iPhone, which is decidedly not a budget choice.


Still, Samsung, HTC and other phone manufacturers are gaining popularity. Microsoft has released a new, well-received mobile operating system called Windows Phone 8 that has breathed new life into Nokia's line of phones, and other smartphone makers are adopting the platform as well. Well-known producers of cheap smartphones also include Motorola, Kyocera and LG.  (Microsoft owns MSN Money.)


BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has been keeping a low profile as it struggles to recast itself as a serious smartphone competitor. A new line of BlackBerry phones debuts in 2013 with a brand-new BlackBerry 10 operating system.


With so many manufacturers competing for a place in consumers' pockets and purses, you'll find plenty of models for very reasonable prices if -- and this is a big if -- you're willing to swallow a two-year service contract with the provider offering the cheap smartphone you want.


Our top picks among the best cheap smartphones are the HTC Windows Phone 8X (starting at $50 with Verizon; also available from AT&T and T-Mobile) and the Motorola Droid Razr M (starting at 1 cent with Verizon). Both are high-quality, versatile phones with large, gorgeous displays and excellent performance.


We also like the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G (free with T-Mobile) for its excellent battery life and very good overall performance, although reviewers chide it for being a little heavy on the bloatware -- preloaded software or apps that can't easily be deleted.


The HTC Evo 4G LTE (starting at $50 with Sprint) wins us over with a large, 4.7-inch display that looks simply gorgeous. If Sprint's limited but expanding 4G LTE network covers your area, the HTC Evo makes an excellent choice. The Kyocera Rise (free with Sprint) is not nearly so impressive, with modest hardware relative to the best cheap smartphones. Reviewers note that the Rise tends to lag at times and the call quality isn't up to par.

We based our starting prices for cheap smartphones on the assumption that bargain hunters would be willing to sign a new contract (typically two years). That's the surest and often only route to the lowest price or a free phone. The top nationwide cellular service providers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- offer inexpensive smartphones plus the data plans you need to get the most out of these devices. Each service provider sells plans at different prices, although you may be required to purchase a specific plan or choose particular options depending on the phone you buy.


More and more cheap smartphones support 4G LTE, the latest and fastest cellular network technology and a welcome advance for multimedia purposes such as streaming or downloading video. If you're interested in a 4G LTE phone, check with your provider to find out if the service is available in your area.


Verizon offers the broadest 4G LTE coverage now, followed by AT&T, while Sprint is still in the early stages. T-Mobile touts an extensive 4G network that approaches LTE speeds, although it's based on a different underlying technology.


There's certainly no shortage of expensive smartphones to ogle, with their faster hardware and superior multimedia capabilities. But the best cheap smartphones are loaded with appealing features -- so many, in fact, that the average consumer looking for a better-than-average phone might feel overwhelmed when assessing the options. Shopping for a phone is made more challenging by carriers' propensity to customize handsets with their own software and feature sets.


The best cheap smartphones are sophisticated devices that essentially function as mini computers and increasingly pull double duty as media players. Nowadays most cheap smartphones include cameras with resolution as high as 8 megapixels and many also shoot video. One new trend is the inclusion of a smaller, front-facing camera for video chatting in addition to the main camera.


Video, photos, and games call for an excellent display, and our top picks include phones with HD screens. The touchscreens on most cheap smartphones range from about 3.5 inches to 4.3 inches.


If you're a frequent texter, you'll also want an easy-to-use virtual keyboard and possibly a physical keyboard.


A cheap smartphone packed with features can quickly run dry, especially if you spend lots of time using a 4G network, watching video or using apps. If you're a heavy user, prepare to measure a phone's battery life in hours rather than days. Most smartphones, regardless of price, need to be charged at least once a day when used heavily. Frugal users can stretch the battery life of the best cheap smartphones to a few days. But what's the fun in that?


More on Cheapism and MSN Money:

Mar 12, 2013 1:42PM
The more frugal option not mentioned here is to get something from TracFone, Net10 or Straight Talk (which are actually all owned the same company, American Movil). Sure, they're usually just "feature phones", but how smart do you need your phone to be, really? The price is right - a reconditioned Samsung S390G from TracFone is just $19.99, and it comes with a 60 minute card - a $20 value!
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