Why Buying a Cheap Smartphone Isn’t So Dumb Anymore

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A couple years ago, it seemed like most tech writers offered the same smartphone buying advice: Spend what you must and buy the best.

At the time, the advice made sense. Free and cheap smartphones were generally awful, so you were better off splurging for the latest technology. But that’s not the case any more. If you’re in the market for a smartphone, and don’t want to pay a lot–or anything–up front, you can still do pretty well without cutting edge specs. Here’s why:

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Last Year’s Raves Are This Year’s Cheapies

If you bought a sub-$100 smartphone a couple years ago, you probably ended up with something scuzzy. Remember the Dell Aero? It had terrible specs resulting in sluggish performance, and it came with a version of Android so old that users were out of luck on cool new features like Google Maps Navigation and voice commands. It pains me to think that anyone is still stuck using that phone, which launched in mid-2010, on a two-year contract.

The situation’s a lot better now, with last year’s high-end handsets becoming today’s free and cheap smartphones. A year ago, techies raved about the Nexus S, which Sprint is now selling for free. Samsung’s Captivate, part of the popular Galaxy S line of Android phones, now costs a penny on AT&T. And don’t forget Windows Phones. They’re silky smooth even on last year’s hardware, and can be had for $50 or less. (See: AT&T’s $50 Samsung Focus, Verizon’s $30 HTC Trophy and the upcoming $50 Nokia Lumia 710 on T-Mobile.)

The point is that phone makers are no longer relying on junky hardware for the low-end market. Instead, they’re handing down last year’s models, and that’s not a bad thing.

It’s All About the Apps

A smartphone won’t do you much good if you can’t put some quality apps on it. That was a problem for bargain hunters a few years ago, when the only way to get a thriving app store was through Apple’s expensive iPhone. Since then, the Android Market has exploded, and even Windows Phone, with its smaller selection, hits a lot of the essentials, such as Netflix, Yelp, Shazam and Angry Birds. A pricier smartphone might get you slightly better performance, but your access to apps doesn’t change.

As for the iPhone, it’s now cheaper than ever, with the iPhone 3GS selling for a penny on AT&T. Its specs aren’t great–the lack of a camera flash and a front-facing camera are major omissions–but it has the best app store of any platform. And you can get access to it for practically nothing except a two-year commitment to AT&T.

Data’s a Given

The classic rebuttal to buying a cheap smartphone is that no matter what phone you get, the data plan is ultimately your biggest expense. When you’re paying upwards of $700 for data over the life of the phone, the argument is that you might as well pay a little more to get better hardware. But I’m not so keen on that logic for a few reasons:

First, to assume everyone can slap down $200 up front for a cutting-edge smartphone is just ignorant. Not everyone can afford that kind of one-time expense, and not everyone needs a phone that costs so much money. Besides, if you’ve bought a smartphone before, the cost of data has already become part of your monthly budget, so the upgrade is effectively your only expense.

Also, wireless data can be less expensive if you know where to look. AT&T and T-Mobile both offer 200 MB plans that are $10 per month cheaper than the next-highest data tier. And if you can afford a bigger payment up front, T-Mobile (in partnership with Walmart) and Virgin Mobile sell full-price phones in exchange for cheaper monthly coverage than the big carriers.

What to Look For

I’m not suggesting that people stop buying expensive smartphones. I certainly won’t. I merely offer this advice because the holidays are a popular time to buy a smartphone, but not everyone wants to spend top dollar to get one. Fortunately, now’s a good time to jump in.

But do your homework and make sure the phone you’re looking at has been well-received–even reviews dating back a year–and make sure it’s running relatively recent software and decent hardware. With Android, you’ll want a phone that runs Android 2.3 or higher, and with Windows Phone, you’ll want a phone running “Mango,” also known as Windows Phone 7.5. All iPhones run iOS 5, so you’re fine there. Try to get a smartphone with at least a 1 GHz processor and a rear-facing camera with flash so you can snap photos in low light. And of course, make sure you like the phone’s look and feel enough not to be repulsed every time you take it out of your pocket. If you can find a smartphone that meets those criteria for less than $50–and it shouldn’t be that hard anymore–more power to you.

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