Around 1 billion smartphones were sold across the world in 2013. 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. That makes buying a smartphone outright, without being locked into a two-year contract, a realistic possibility.
Join us as we scour the 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 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.
($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.
Related: OnePlus One Rumors and news
Motorola Moto E
($130 on AT&T and T-Mobile)
The most remarkable thing about the Moto E is that price tag. The 4.3-inch 960 x 540 pixel resolution screen, 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 200, and 1GB of RAM look a lot more impressive when $130 is all you have to pay. There’s a respectable 5-megapixel camera and 4GB of internal storage is backed up by a MicroSD card slot. The big attraction for a budget phone like this is Android 4.4.2, because you don’t generally find the latest version at the cheap end of the market. It’s also free of a manufacturer UI, so updates should come easy and Motorola is guaranteeing at least one more update. You can customize the back with a wide choice of colored covers. The only thing that’s missing is 4G LTE support. There are also plans for Verizon and Sprint compatible versions. Read our full Moto E review.
Apple iPhone 4S
If it has to be Apple then you can pick up the still respectable iPhone 4S without breaking the bank. The big catch on Ting, Verizon, and Sprint is that it’s pre-owned; the Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile deals are for a brand new iPhone 4S. There’s a 3.5-inch 960 x 640 resolution display, the A5 dual-core processor, an 8-megapixel camera, and 16GB of storage. You’ll be able to enjoy the latest iOS 7 update, and there’s a good chance it will get iOS 8 as well. Buying pre-owned is a bit of a gamble. You should inspect the iPhone carefully when it arrives and if you’re not happy you can always return it. Read our full iPhone 4S 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.
Nokia Lumia 635
($180 at T-Mobile)
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.
($200 on AT&T)
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.
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 he US cellular deal above is for the newer 4G LTE version of the Moto G. Read our full Moto G review.
LG Optimus L90
($140 on T-Mobile)
Sitting pretty at the top end of LG’s budget offerings is the impressive L90. It has a 4.7-inch display, 1.2GHz quad-core processor, and a 5-megapixel camera. Perhaps more importantly there’s the latest Android 4.4 KitKat onboard and it supports 4G LTE. The 1GB of RAM is a weak spot, but the latest version of Android is much smoother than previous incarnations, so it shouldn’t be an issue and there’s little else to complain about. The L90 also boasts a big 2,540mAh battery, so it should go the distance.
HTC Desire 816
($300 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.
That’s our list of budget smartphones for now. If you can squeeze a little more out of your wallet, take a look at the Nexus 5 ($350) because in terms of performance it beats most of this list hands down. You should also check out the $400 Moto X.
What do you think of our best cheap phones list? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments below.
Article originally published 10-3-2012.