By Kara Reinhardt
AT&T made news recently with its plan to offer the Impulse 4G smartphone from Chinese handset maker Huawei for $29.99 with a two-year contract starting Sept. 18. If you’re looking to upgrade to a smartphone — and are prepared to spend more per month for the required data plan — there are already quite a few quality options in the budget price range.
Many smartphones are exclusive to certain carriers. If you’re thinking of switching service providers to get the phone you want, here are some things to consider. First, be sure your contract is up with your current carrier to avoid a hefty termination fee. Factor in a $35 to $40 activation fee on top of the price of the phone. Note that a cheaper phone upfront may not be cheaper in the long run because of differences in service providers’ data plans. Finally, carriers tend to deliver better service in some areas than in others, so look up your ZIP code on the provider’s website to get a sense of the voice and data coverage in your corner of the country. Some low-cost smartphones feature the latest 4G technology, but the available wireless networks in many places are 3G; service providers are still rolling out their faster 4G networks.
The essential thing that makes a smartphone “smart” is its operating system. The most popular OS is Google’s Android, found on 40 percent of smartphones, according to the latest Nielsen data. Apple iPhones and BlackBerries have their own operating systems. All offer an array of mobile apps, although BlackBerry trails the other two when it comes to selection.
If you text often or plan to use a smartphone for e-mail and other messaging, take the keyboard for a test drive to make sure it’s easy to use. Some smartphones still have full keypads on the front or slide-out keyboards on the side, but many feature touch screens with virtual keyboards.
A large, high-resolution display helps make the most of capabilities ranging from video to web browsing. Smartphone cameras offer between 5 and 8 megapixels, as well as features such as autofocus, flash, and digital zoom. Some can also shoot high-definition video.
Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable smartphones.
- The Sprint HTC Evo 4G (starting at $10 with a new contract) boasts a 4.3-inch touch-screen display with 800 x 480 resolution and an 8 mp camera. This Android phone wins raves from experts for its web-browsing and multimedia prowess. (Where to buy)
- The Sprint Samsung Epic 4G (starting at $50 with a new contract) with Android appeals to novices by combining a responsive, 4-inch, 800 x 480 touch screen with a slide-out keyboard. Reviews note that calls are loud and clear. (Where to buy)
- The Verizon HTC Droid Incredible 2 (free with a new contract) is a 3G phone, but experts and users praise its speedy performance. Reviews also tout this Android model’s 8 mp camera and 4-inch, 800 x 480 touch screen. (Where to buy)
- The BlackBerry Curve 3G (starting at $30 with a new contract) is available from multiple service providers. With a 2.4-inch, 320 x 240 display and a 2 mp camera, it wasn’t designed for multimedia. But reviews cite its call quality, above-average battery life, physical keyboard, and superior e-mail and messaging capabilities. (Where to buy)
One smartphone that didn’t make our list is Apple’s iPhone 3GS 8GB, now available for $49 from AT&T. On the surface it sounds hard to resist — an iPhone for less than $50? And Apple once again tops J.D. Power and Associates’ most recent survey of smartphone customer satisfaction. However, with the iPhone 5 on the way, the 3GS is showing its age. Its features and performance simply don’t measure up to others in the category.
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