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Cheapism: Best smartphones under $50

March 19, 2014 at 11:00 AM ET

A fresh crop of smartphones announced at recent industry events has bumped last year’s hottest handsets into penny-phone territory. With a new HTC One launching next week and the Samsung Galaxy S5 coming out in April, the 2013 flagships are ripe for the picking.

Cheapism.com recommends four of the best premium phones available for less than $50 up front. The low prices require a two-year plan, whether it be a service contract that accounts for the subsidized price of the phone or, in the case of nonconformist T-Mobile, a monthly payment plan for the full price of the device. (The AP details T-Mobile’s strategy, which decouples the cost of the phone from the cost of service and offers the latter contract-free.)

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is one of Cheapism's top picks for premium smartphones under $50.
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The Samsung Galaxy S4 is one of Cheapism's top picks for premium smartphones under $50.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the model reviewers hailed as a potential iPhone killer from Apple’s chief rival in the smartphone market. It dazzles with a 5-inch, full HD display and endless features including eye tracking and advanced camera modes. Consumers who sign up for a new line with AT&T, Sprint or Verizon service can snag this phone for $49.99 and existing Verizon customers can upgrade for the same price. T-Mobile asks $24 a month with no money down, based on a reduced total price of $576 with promo code GS4PSPRING. (Where to buy

The HTC One, another heavyweight, costs a single cent for Sprint customers and new Verizon customers; existing Verizon users can upgrade for $19.99. T-Mobile has reduced the full retail price almost 20 percent, to $504, or $21 a month. Although some top smartphones boast 13-megapixel cameras, don’t be fooled by the 4 MP camera on this 4.7-inch model. HTC explains that each pixel absorbs more light, a design that has produced impeccable photos in expert testing. The camera proves capable even in low light, where most others struggle. (Where to buy

The LG G2 approaches “phablet” status with a 5.2-inch screen, and a state-of-the-art processor makes it speedier than most any other phone. A large battery handles this demanding load with aplomb in expert testing, persisting after competitors have conked out. This phone sells for 1 cent to any Sprint customer or new AT&T user, while existing AT&T customers pay $49.99 to upgrade. Verizon charges $49.99 across the board and T-Mobile is offering a $100 instant rebate, for a total of $499.20 and a monthly rate of $20.80. (Where to buy

The Motorola Moto X costs 1 cent for AT&T, Sprint and Verizon customers old and new. This phone doesn’t impress quite so much as the others in terms of raw specs, but it seems to have, well, an X factor that inspires reviewers to favor it over flashier models. The rounded chassis and 4.7-inch screen fit comfortably in one hand and experts appreciate Motorola’s practical features, such as notifications that appear without waking the display. (Where to buy

These are all Android phones with high-definition screens. They’re fully equipped with 4G LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity; cameras that capture HD video; and front-facing cameras for video chats and Oscar-worthy selfies. The LG G2 and HTC One come with 32 GB of memory for photos, music and other goodies. The Moto X and Galaxy S4 start at 16 GB, but the S4 offers a microSD card slot for external storage.

Tempting though the prices may be, don’t contemplate switching carriers without comparing plans, checking the status of your current contract and noting any early termination fees. T-Mobile has promised to pay the fees for new customers who leave their service providers, but otherwise the cost can amount to hundreds.

More from Cheapism:

Full report on cheap smartphones 

Cell phone fees comparison: which carrier offers the lowest fees 

Top 5 Chinese brands for budget smartphones 

Galaxy vs. iPhone: Which phone is cheaper in the long run? 

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