Cheap Android phones are quickly becoming commonplace—for as low as $99, you can get a reliable, initially-impressive handset that you’re free to take to a bunch of different carriers. While these bargain-bin devices are definitely appealing, you have to ask yourself: is it really worth it?
What Makes a Cheap Phone a Cheap Phone?
Let’s start with the obvious: cheap phones are cheaper for a reason. There has to be something that separates a $99 phone from a $700 one, and–in most cases–it’s probably a few things. Here are a few areas the manufacturers tend to cut costs.
Most of the time, affordable phones have either current low-end hardware, or higher-end hardware from two or three years ago. This is one of the most effective ways to keep costs down, but that always means performance takes a hit. In addition, the cameras are usually of lower (but generally passable) quality, and the screens don’t commonly have the high pixel density, super-sharp displays of current-generation handsets.
Right out of the gate, you have to keep in mind that you’ll be dealing with either a lower-end processor—like something from Mediatek, for example—or possibly an older Snapdragon chip, probably from somewhere around the 400 range. This is noteworthy for those who think “I can just get something cheap and put a ROM on it,” because certain chip manufacturers are known for not releasing source code, thus making it impossible for developers to build ROMs for those devices. Essentially, count on sticking with the stock software throughout the lifetime of the device, thought a bit of research ahead of time wouldn’t be a bad idea either. That way you already know what you’re dealing with before it’s too late.
But there’s also another side to this story. Every year, processor manufacturers improve the technology they use to increase performance and battery life. This tech, naturally, trickles down, so just because a processor is “budget-friendly” doesn’t automatically make it bad. In recent years, some of Mediatek’s Octa-core processors (like the 6753, for example) have gotten quite powerful, making them excellent choices for budget devices. The price to performance ratio in these kinds of devices is generally fantastic—dramatically more than most modern flagship units. The performance isn’t comparable, but at least you’re really getting your $99 worth.
Display tech is also a point of concern with lower-end handsets. Generally speaking, the displays of most budget phones, while not quite as high resolution of modern flagships (1080p vs. 1440p), are pretty decent—Motorola puts nice-looking panels in its Moto G line, Blu devices typically have very nice displays despite their generally-low price points, and the Huawei Honor 5X sports a 1080p display that readily competes with the flagships of yesteryear.
If I had to pick one piece of the hardware puzzle that will almost certainly be sub-par in a budget phone, it’s the camera. The display may be decent and the performance acceptable, but cameras are almost always a disappointment. It makes sense, really—that’s one of the most important features to most users, so getting something simply outstanding is a big part of what jacks up the price on high-end modern devices. Most of the cameras on budget devices these days aren’t as bad as they once were, but I can tell you right now: if a good camera is a must-have for your next device, a budget phone simply won’t be for you.
Long-Term Reliability and Updates
Reliability is a bit harder to pinpoint, as it’s going to be different for every device. But the long and short of it is this: if a current-gen high-end handset gets you an easy two years of use, a more affordable one may only survive half of that. There’s a chance it could live a long, fruitful life, but there’s probably an equal chance it’ll kick the bucket in the first year one way or another—these phones aren’t designed to be nearly as robust as more expensive phone will be so they’re more fragile. You also have to keep in mind that they have to cut costs somewhere, so hardware failure isn’t something that’s totally uncommon. In my experience, the lifespan of a budget phone is a coin toss.
Updates are a bit of a coin flip, too. It’s questionable whether or not the $150 handset you’re thinking about buying will see the next version of Android—and if it does, it’ll likely be the last one it ever sees. Not to mention it will probably come much later than that of a flagship phone—sometimes even a full update cycle later. So when everyone else is getting Android 7.0 (or whatever the next major release is), the budget handset may just be getting 6.0. You never know, but the companies that build affordable Android phones just don’t have the manpower to continuously support these devices long-term, though many of them are at least making an effort to provide updates and continued support to their low-end catalog.
In short: if you go into this expecting to get a Galaxy S7 (or even S6)-equivalent phone, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if you keep your expectations in check, you can come away with about 80 percent of the premium Android experience for a fraction of the cost.
Know Your Carrier—Compatibility Is Key
For those that don’t already know, not all phones are compatible with all carriers. In the US, there are two main types of cellular service: CDMA and GSM. Sprint and Verizon are the primary CDMA carriers, while T-Mobile and AT&T are the two primary GSM carriers. The tech behind each type of service is very different, but that’s not what we’re really concerned with for the sake of this article—you really only need to know one thing when it comes to buying off-contract phones (not just cheapies, either): GSM is generally open; CDMA is not.
Basically, neither Sprint nor Verizon offer options for customers to bring their own phones. They have what they offer, and that’s that. There are a very few exceptions to this rule, however, like the Google Nexus 5X and 6P, but otherwise, you’ll have to stick with the phones Verizon and Sprint offer.
GSM carriers—like AT&T, T-Mobile, MetroPCS, and US Cellular, for example—are pretty “open.” You can take most modern GSM smartphones, drop a SIM card from one of the aforementioned carriers in it, and it should just work, no matter where you bought it from.
For most flagship phones, this isn’t as much of an issue, because they’re designed to “just work” with GSM carriers in the US. Budget phones, however, aren’t. You’ll need to look a little deeper at stuff like the “bands”–or specific data frequencies–the phone uses. Not every budget phone supports the right bands for every GSM network, and it can make things really confusing when you’re shopping around.
For example, let’s say you currently have an aging Samsung Galaxy SIII on AT&T, and you’re looking to replace it with a Motorola Moto E. There are two versions of the Moto E—one with support for 4G LTE, and one with 3G only. If you buy the wrong one, then you’re going to give up the high-speed LTE data that the Galaxy SIII has, replacing it with comparatively snail’s-paced 3G on the Moto E.
Fortunately, Motorola does a good job of differentiating between the two models, but not all manufacturers make it that clear, and certain carriers rely more heavily on certain mobile bands that not every cheap phone supports. For example, the phone in the above screenshot (Blu Vivo 5) uses LTE Bands 2, 4, and 7. A similar phone from Blu (the Vivo XL—seen below), uses LTE Bands 2, 4, 7, 12, and 17. Band 12 and 17 are particularly important for T-Mobile in certain parts of the country, and their omission on the Vivo 5 means some people may be left without LTE coverage.
Basically, just because a phone says that it’s ”4G LTE Compatible with T-Mobile“ doesn’t necessarily mean it will be compatible in all areas. It really takes some digging to figure out what bands are supported, then compare that to the bands that are used in your area. And if you’re trying to sort through the sea of cheap Android phones on Amazon, that can be a huge undertaking.
Budget Phones vs. Last-Generation Flagship Phones
Of course, budget Android phones aren’t the only way to save some money. You could also buy last year’s flagship phone, or even the year before’s, which would bring down the cost quite a bit. So which is better? Unfortunately, this isn’t such an easy answer, especially considering the rate that budget phones are progressing and bringing high-end features to low-end devices.
For example, two of the newest phones from budget phone maker Blu—the Vivo 5 and Vivo XL—both have USB Type C, a feature that’s otherwise only found on a small handful of top-tier devices. Similarly, the Huawei Honor 5X has a fingerprint reader that’s actually quite good; better than the flagships that introduced the feature, like the Samsung Galaxy S5. Again, usable fingerprint readers are just now becoming mainstream on top-end devices.
And all three of those phones cost less than $200 right now. High-end features in low-end phones…it’s a crazy world we live in.
Furthermore, an older flagship will probably not get any more updates, especially once it’s more than two years old. A cheap phone may not either, but it’s at least a little more likely to.
How do the Processors Compare?
Of course, you still have to consider the rest of the hardware. Is it better to have a two-generation-old processor, like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, or a modern budget model, like the aforementioned MediaTek 6753? In raw benchmark scores, the older processor still generally outscores the modern budget chip, but that doesn’t necessarily always translate into real-world usage—just because the Snapdragon 800 outscores the 6753 by 11,000 points in AnTuTu (38,298 vs. 49,389), does it really mean it offers 30 percent more power in a real-world scenario? Rarely. In most side-by-side comparisons, you’d have a hard time telling the difference between the two.
What About the Displays and Cameras?
We’ve already established that two-generation-old flagship processors are “faster” (on paper) than most current-generation budget chips, but what about the display tech and cameras? With the latter, the budget phone will more than likely have a better display than the older flagship model, simply because display tech is improving at a pace that allows much higher-quality panels to be produced at a lower cost. And while budget phones generally top out at around 1080p (for the time being, anyway), this generally translates to slightly better performance since there are fewer pixels for the CPU and GPU to push.
As mentioned earlier, the camera is one place where you might see an advantage of current-generation budget models. That one is very subjective, and it depends on the phone in question—for example, the S5 is going to have a better camera than something like the 2014 Moto X, despite being older. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to put a cut-and-dry rule on camera performance when comparing two phones, despite which price point they fall into. You’ll just have to look up reviews for the phones you’re interested in.
Overall, which is better? It depends a lot on the phone, and what’s important to you. An old flagship may look and feel a little better, and may come with a better camera–but it certainly won’t be getting any updates, where a newer device might.
The One Exception to All of This
With all that said, there is one general exception to most of the “rules” I’ve laid out here: Nexus phones. Google typically sells Nexus phones at more affordable prices in the first place, so they are more cost-effective than other high-end phones from the same generation when buying older models. At the time of writing, you can get the last-generation Nexus phone—the Motorola Nexus 6—for as little as $250 brand new. Aside from being arguably too big, the Nexus 6 is a great phone at that price, and will easily trump any other device at that price point. And best of all, since it’s a Nexus, it’s going to be supported by Google and get updates much longer than phones from other manufacturers.
So When Is a Budget Phone the Right Choice?
While I will admit that there’s never been a better time to buy into the budget scene–whether you’re getting a cheap current-gen phone or a last-gen flagship–there are times when it’s smarter than others.
If you aren’t a power user, or are looking to buy a phone for someone who isn’t, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to worry about updates, processor benchmarks, and the like. Ease of use and price are generally more important to those users, and Android’s newest budget handsets can often fit the bill perfectly. At the end of the day, if all you’re looking to do is text some friends, check Facebook, and play Candy Crush Saga, then there’s no need to waste a lot of money on a phone that has more than you need. Plus, you’ll probably need the cash you saved for in-app purchases to help get past that one level you’ve been stuck on for three weeks in Candy Crush. See? That’s me looking out for you.
But what if you are a power user? Here’s another scenario: you broke your main phone (I’m sorry), but you’re still paying on it. That’s a terrible situation to be in, as your carrier won’t allow you to finance another phone until the current one has been paid off. Instead of crying the sob of a broken man, you could just suck it up and drop a couple hundred on a budget model that will easily last until you’ve paid off your old phone and it’s time to grab the newest hotness. Alternatively, you can just take your kid’s phone and give him or her the cheaper phone—you won’t get any judgement from me.
That actually brings up another great argument for budget devices: kids. If you’ve got a pre-teen just dying for a phone, a more affordable model just makes sense. It’s their first (or second, third?) phone, and there’s a good chance they’ll break it anyway—kids are careless, uncoordinated, and just not as attentive as their adult counterparts, so these things happen. Why waste hundreds on a current flagship phone? There’s no point—at least not until they prove they can be responsible with the cheaper handset.
All that said: as much as I think the current budget market is in the best place it’s ever been, a cheap phone isn’t always the answer. The primary reason that you’d be looking at a budget model is, well, budget, so there’s no reason to even look down this path if your wallet can handle a current generation flagship. To put it clearly, a Galaxy S7 Edge, LG G5, or Nexus 6P is always going to outwork a cheaper handset—there’s just no question about it. Basically, if you can afford to spend more, do it. Looking at it from a long-term perspective, you’ll ultimately end up much better off.
But if you can’t, the budget market is strong, and getting stronger every day–so you’re in luck.
At the beginning of this article, I asked the question “are cheap Android phones worth it?” Two years ago, I would’ve laughed and said “absolutely not.” Today, however, we’re in a much better place technologically, and I feel like there is no place that is more clearly seen than the budget market. While current flagship phones are little more than iterative updates of their predecessors, the budget scene is growing by leaps and bounds. The performance and features that you can get for $200 in the current market is simply astounding on most counts, making this a much better time to buy a budget phone.
Of course, it’s not always the best choice, but that’s not for me to decide. Each situation is different and it’s ultimately up to you to decide what’s best for your usage.