Well over 1 billion smartphones were sold across the world in 2014. One of the great things about the rush to upsell the last few remaining feature phone holdouts and break into emerging markets is that prices are going down. According to IDC the average selling price declined by more than 12 percent in 2013 to settle at $337 and it fell even further to $314 last year. That makes buying a smartphone outright, without being locked into a two-year contract, a realistic possibility.
Join us as we scour the unlocked and pre-paid deals and check out what the big carriers have to offer for $300 or less. These are the best budget smartphones right now.
Updated on 1-16-2015 by Simon Hill: Updated intro, all the prices and links, added new carrier deals, removed Moto E, iPhone 4S, LG Optimus L90, and added the Huawei Ascend Mate 2, the ZTE Grand X Max+, and the Sharp Aquos Crystal.
($300 on AT&T and T-Mobile)
At this price, the specs in the OnePlus One are simply unbelievable. It has a 5.5-inch 1080p screen, a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage (there’s a 64GB version, too). The main camera is capable of shooting 4K video and rated at 13 megapixels, and there’s a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, as well. Instead of stock Android it runs CyanogenMod 11S, which is based on Android 4.4 and makes the device very customizable. Your only problem is trying to get your hands on one because right now you need an invite from someone who has one, or you need to win a competition before you can order. Read our full OnePlus One review.
Huawei Ascend Mate 2
($300 from Huawei)
If you’re after a big screen then the 6.1-inch Mate 2 from Huawei should suffice. The resolution is only 1280 x 720 pixels and the design isn’t very sexy, but the price is right. It has a 1.6GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. You also get a decent 13-megapixel camera and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. The huge 3,900mAh battery will keep you going all day long and beyond. This is also a 4G LTE phone and it will work on T-Mobile and AT&T in the States. Read our full Huawei Ascend Mate 2 review.
ZTE Grand X Max+
($200 at Cricket Wireless)
In case the long name wasn’t a big enough clue this is a phablet from ZTE with a 6-inch, 720p display. Inside there’s the mid-range 1.2GHz Snapdargon 400 with 2GB of RAM. It also has 16GB of storage with a microSD card slot for expansions. The main camera is 13-megapixels there’s a 5-megapixel selfie cam. It also has a decent-sized 3,200mAh battery and it’s a 4G LTE phone.
Sharp Aquos Crystal
($150 at Boost Mobile)
The bezel-free 5-inch, 720p screen really catches the eye and this is an attractive Android smartphone. It has a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor and 1.5GB of RAM. There’s 8GB of storage with a microSD card slot for expansion. The main camera is rated at 8-megapixels and there’s a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, but both are pretty poor. Read our full Sharp Aquos Crystal review.
HTC Desire 816
($250 on Virgin Mobile)
This is a lot of phone for the money. Just because you opt for a mid-ranger doesn’t mean you can’t have a huge screen and the Desire 816 gives you 5.5 inches to play with. The 720p resolution isn’t cutting edge, but it’s enough to enjoy games and movies on. HTC isn’t scrimping at all in the camera department because the main shooter is a 13-megapixel affair and there’s a front-facing 5-megapixel camera for top quality selfies. It’s relatively fast too with a 1.6GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 backed by 1.5GB of RAM. There’s also 8GB of storage and a MicroSD card slot that allows for another 128GB. You won’t find a better option at this price.
Apple iPhone 5
You won’t often find discounts on Apple’s iPhone range, even the older models take a while to come down in price, but if you’re willing to go with a pre-owned unit then you can now snag yourself an iPhone 5 within our budget. It has a 4-inch 1136 x 640 pixel resolution display, Apple’s A6 chipset, a great 8-megapixel camera, and 16GB of storage. It can be updated to run Apple’s latest iOS 8.1.1 software. It lacks the new Touch ID, but the iPhone 5 is still a very good smartphone. Read our full iPhone 5 review.
Nokia Lumia 635
Anyone who likes the look of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8.1 platform could do worse than the Lumia 635. This is a 4G LTE phone with a 4.5-inch 854 x 480 pixel resolution display, a 1.2GHz quad-core processor, and 512MB of RAM. You’ll also find 8GB of internal storage and a decent 5-megapixel camera. The downside is the lack of apps on the platform and the lack of polish in the apps that are on offer, but that won’t be a priority for everyone and it does feature Microsoft’s new personal assistant, Cortana. The AT&T deal is as a GoPhone, part of their pre-paid line.
This is a 4G LTE smartphone with a 4.7-inch display, a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor, and 1GB of RAM. It has an 8-megapixel camera with 8GB of internal storage, and there is a MicroSD card slot. The big attraction is HTC’s design, which includes the front-facing Boomsound speakers. It also features the HTC Sense UI, complete with Blinkfeed for social media and Zoe for short movies, and it sits atop Android 4.4 KitKat. The Desire 612 is the Verizon variant and it features a new paint job and an improved 720p display.
Motorola Moto G
The undisputed bargain of the year for 2013 is still well worth a look. You get a 4.5-inch 720p screen backed by Qualcomm’s 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400, and 1GB of RAM. Throw in 8GB of storage, impressive battery life, and a 5-megapixel camera, and you have a decent smartphone. Stock Android means that the Moto G has already been updated to 4.4.2 and should continue to get updates quickly after they’re released. There’s no 4G LTE on the original model, but the US cellular deal above is for the newer 4G LTE version of the Moto G. Read our full Moto G review.
Samsung Galaxy S3
It was many people’s pick for the smartphone of the year just two years ago and it’s Samsung’s best-selling smartphone to date. The specs are still impressive at this price. You get a 4.8-inch 720p screen, 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (with MicroSD card slot for expansion), and an 8-megapixel camera. It’s also packed with Samsung’s innovations and ships with Android 4.3 (some models will get the 4.4 update). It also supports 4G LTE. Read our full Samsung Galaxy S3 review.
That’s our list of budget smartphones for now, but we’ll continue to update it regularly.
What do you think of our best cheap phones list? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments below.
Updated on 12-3-2014 by Simon Hill: Updated all the prices and links, added new carrier deals, and added the iPhone 5.
Updated on 8-14-2014 by Simon Hill: Updated prices for iPhone 4S, Galaxy S3, Moto G, removed Nokia Lumia 920, HTC Desire 601, and Sony Xperia SP, added One Plus One, HTC Desire 610, Nokia Lumia 635, and HTC Desire 816.
Article originally published 10-3-2012.