Cheapism: 4 top budget smartphones

Feb. 22, 2013 at 2:18 PM ET

Think your only option on a budget is Android? The HTC Windows Phone 8X is a well-reviewed alternative.

By Kara Reinhardt,

Recently smartphone watchers have trained their eyes on BlackBerry, née Research In Motion, which has changed its name and unveiled two new phones with an overhauled mobile operating system. The BlackBerry Z10 made its U.S. debut last week with a price tag of $999. While that’s for an unlocked phone with no contract, Verizon has said it will charge $199.99 with a two-year plan. At those prices, frugal consumers will continue to look to the likes of Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Nokia, and LG for the most affordable smartphones.

Cheapism has zeroed in on four top picks consistently offered for less than $50 with a new contract. Right now you can find them all for no more than a penny.

  • The HTC Windows Phone 8X (starting at 1 cent with Verizon) is also available from AT&T and T-Mobile. Reviewers identify this as one of the best options out there for consumers who want to try the Windows Phone 8 operating system. Most other low-cost smartphones are based on the Android platform. While the Windows Phone app selection is comparatively limited, this handset delivers speedy performance, a 4.3-inch HD display, and 16GB of memory for photos, videos, etc., but no microSD card slot for extra storage. (Where to buy)
  • The Motorola Droid Razr M (starting at 1 cent with Verizon) runs Android 4.1 (a.k.a. Jelly Bean), one of the latest incarnations of the Google OS. The resolution of the 4.3-inch screen doesn’t qualify as HD but looks marvelous nonetheless, experts say. They also admire the phone’s svelte design and declare it an excellent value even at a higher price. Users can supplement the 8GB of internal memory with microSD cards up to 32GB. (Where to buy)
  • The Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G (free with T-Mobile) has impressed reviewers with its speed and battery life, which totaled more than 11 hours in one test where comparable devices have struggled to exceed seven or eight. While the free version comes with an older Android 2.3 OS, users can upgrade to Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich. As handsets generally grow larger and more unwieldy, the 4-inch display may appeal to consumers who prefer a more compact phone. (Where to buy)
  • The HTC Evo 4G LTE (starting at 1 cent with Sprint) unfortunately delivers 4G LTE data speeds only in the smattering of markets where Sprint has rolled out that super-fast service. Still, reviewers laud this phone’s gorgeous 4.7-inch HD screen and excellent 8-megapixel camera. This model offers 16GB of internal storage and supports microSD cards up to 32GB. (Where to buy)

For many consumers, the choice will depend more on the carrier than on the handset. Would you rather stay with your current provider or shop around for a cheaper plan, a faster data network, or better service in your area?

All the phones listed above can connect to their carriers’ respective 4G networks or to a Wi-Fi network, which can prove especially useful if you’re on a plan that caps your data usage. They have 1.5GHz dual-core processors capable of swift, smooth performance while juggling all manner of demanding tasks. The cameras range from 5MP on the Samsung to 8MP on the Motorola and HTC models and can record HD video. These phones also have front cameras for video calling and taking self-portraits.

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