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Machine Learning: The Best Cheaper Smartphones: Fewer Features, but Not by Much

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Smartphones on a Budget

The latest and greatest phone isn’t always the most budget-friendly option. Last year’s models or off-contract purchases can be cheaper and just as effective.


Video by Molly Wood, Rebekah Fergusson and Vanessa Perez on
Publish Date February 25, 2015.


YOU are probably buying more phone than you need. And soon you will be tempted to do it all over again.

In the next few weeks, timed around the big Mobile World Congress industry event in Barcelona, a bundle of amazing phones are likely to be announced, with better screen resolution than ever, more powerful processors, cameras that rival professional gear and appealing new designs. And in any AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint store, you’re enticed to choose from a small, high-end selection of phones: the latest iPhone or the latest Samsung Galaxy, primarily, or maybe the latest from HTC or LG.

The implications from the manufacturers are certainly clear: Whatever phone you choose, it ought to be the latest.

But do you really need the latest? For many people, these expensive “flagship” phones, which often start around $600 without a contract, are out of financial reach and unnecessary. Plenty of budget-friendly yet versatile phones are available, and if you’re willing to look at last year’s model, you can even get a top brand for less.

A cheaper phone doesn’t require as many compromises as you might expect, either. With many phone makers chasing emerging markets like India and China, lots of effort is going into building high-quality phones with lower price tags.

Microsoft — whose Lumia-branded phones the company bought from Nokia — and Motorola are making budget phones a significant part of their strategies. The companies are now offering phones at low prices and with many of the same features you’ll find in a flagship device.

“Billions of people are still on feature phones or really bad smartphones,” said Steve Sinclair, who manages product marketing for Motorola’s devices division. “They depend on the mobile Internet every day, it’s definitely something that’s not just a luxury, it’s a necessity. We look at that as an opportunity.”

This week, Motorola introduced the second generation of its Moto E, a budget phone that starts at $120 — without a new contract. The $120 model supports only 3G data speeds, so web browsing or streaming video will be slower than on next-generation 4G networks. (The higher speeds are not always available in the countries where the Moto E and its ilk are big sellers.)

But for $150, you can get a model that supports 4G and has many of the software features of higher-end Motorola phones, like the Moto X, as well as a fast processor, the latest version of Android (Lollipop) and a selection of accessories for personalizing the phone.

Motorola has also had unexpected success with a step-up but still inexpensive option, the Moto G, which is also available with 3G for $180 with no contract (on AT&T and T-Mobile only in the United States). The 4G model is $180 with a contract.

I like the Moto G’s squat design, clean Android interface and impressive display, although the 4G model isn’t the best value out there. For less money — an astonishing $70 with no contract — and fast data, the Nokia Lumia 635 is a top option. It runs Windows Phone, a mobile OS that’s not familiar to many but has plenty of upsides: It is attractive, easily personalized and easy to learn for those new to smartphones.

The Lumia 635 is definitely a budget phone. The screen resolution isn’t outstanding, nor is the camera — the same is true with the Moto E and Moto G. But if your smartphone needs are simple, you are replacing a broken phone or you are buying for a teenager or someone else just making the leap to the smartphone world, any of these options will do the trick.

But some people still want that flagship experience, and there are less expensive options for them, too. If you’re willing to sign a new carrier contract or have an upgrade available to you, I highly recommend skipping this year’s flagship smartphone in favor of last year’s model.

The Samsung Galaxy S4, the Moto X, the HTC One M7 and both the LG G2 and the LG G3 — all excellent, powerful and capable phones — are either free or inexpensive with a new contract from most American carriers. New devices are rumored to be coming out of Mobile World Congress as well, so you may soon find even newer models on the sale rack.

Even the iPhone is not out of reach.

An iPhone 5 is available on contract from many carriers for about $100 and the colorful iPhone 5C, another good choice for teenagers or smartphone newbies, is free. I was also able to find the iPhone 4S for sale on sites like Best Buy for about $100 without a contract. (And I must admit, the iPhone 4S is still my favorite iPhone.)

You can, of course, also buy older phones outright on sites like eBay or Swappa, which reviews and approves all the electronics it sells.

That process includes checking the phone’s electronic serial number, or ESN, against online databases to see whether a phone has been blacklisted — if it has been reported stolen, for example — what carriers it is compatible with and its price range. If you’re considering buying a used phone from a site like Craigslist or eBay, you can use Swappa’s site to check the ESN yourself — a good tip if you’re shopping for used phones.

You can also buy from other trusted sources: AT&T, Verizon and Sprint all offer the equivalent of a certified pre-owned program, with quality checklists and 14-day return periods for previously owned devices.

And, of course, you can bargain-shop by being a little adventurous. Consider, for example, the OnePlus One, a fast, powerful and attractive Android smartphone from China that sells for just $300 outright and, by most accounts, rivals its big-name competitors in almost all areas, other than perhaps the camera.

Similarly, the Kogan Agora 4G, from Australia, is a full-featured, perfectly powerful smartphone running Android that’s available for just over $200. Again, its camera gets the brunt of the negative reviews, but if that’s not your primary concern, the Agora 4G is a real value.

And of course, combining any of these phones with a less expensive prepaid mobile plan can be the icing on the cake. If you don’t need a lot of data — maybe because you do your web surfing, video watching and emailing from your home or work Wi-Fi network — you might be overpaying for your mobile plan, too. Most carriers offer prepaid plans that don’t tie you to a contract and can start as low as $40 a month.

As with all consumer electronics, it’s tempting to want the latest, the greatest and the top of the line. But sometimes it’s better to ignore the advertising and shop a little smarter. You can always use the money you save on the next latest, greatest top-of-the-line device if you want.

Correction: February 25, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Steve Sinclair of Motorola. He manages product marketing at Motorola, not product development.

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