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A Buying Guide to the Best Cheap Smartphones

It's clear that expert reviewers consider the Samsung Galaxy S4 (starting at 1 cent) and HTC One (2013) (starting at 1 cent) two of the best phones on the market, and they head our class as well. Both phones offer blazing performance, good cameras, and laundry lists of features.

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The LG G2 (starting at 1 cent) boasts the largest display and fastest processor among the phones we researched. It also has an excellent camera that takes good photos indoors as well as outdoors. The Motorola Moto X (starting at 1 cent) seems to have an X factor that leads many experts to favor it over smartphones with better specs. For an added cost of about $50, you can design your phone when you order it -- a novel touch. This model's weakness is its camera, which sometimes takes poor photos. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (starting at 1 cent) is a decent phone and may appeal to consumers who consider the S4 too large, but in terms of specs and features, it lags current premium phones. You can get a top-notch smartphone for just a penny upfront, if not free, which makes the S4 Mini less of a deal.

We based the starting prices for these cheap smartphones on the assumption that a bargain hunter would be willing to sign a new contract (typically two years). That's the surest and often only route to the lowest price or a free phone. The top nationwide cellular service providers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon -- offer smartphones for free or very little money up front, along with corresponding plans. (Note that T-Mobile no longer subsidizes phones, instead charging customers the full cost of the phone or a monthly fee until the phone is paid off. A DailyFinance video explains how this model can save money in the long run.) Other places where you can find good smartphone deals online include Amazon, LetsTalk.com, Radio Shack, and Walmart. Phones sell for different prices with different service providers, and you may be required to purchase a specific plan or choose particular options depending on the phone you buy.

Android Phones vs. Other Platforms

More than anything else, the thing that makes a smartphone "smart" is its operating system. The OS creates the digital interface for using the phone and provides a platform for apps. Most of the models we researched are cheap Android phones that use Google's mobile operating system. The very latest version, Android 4.4 (a.k.a. KitKat), made its debut on the Google Nexus 5 (starting at $30) and is rolling out to other smartphones such as the Galaxy S4. In the meantime, our other top picks come with Android 4.2.2.

Review continues below

Apple has, at long last, released an iPhone with a less-than-premium price at the outset. The iPhone 5C runs the company's newest mobile operating system, iOS 7, and starts at $99 with a contract -- still considerably more than many leading Android phones. There are also a handful of cheap Windows phones on the market, such as the Nokia Lumia 928 (starting at 1 cent). This Verizon exclusive uses Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 operating system, a platform that has proved just as viable as Android or iOS. RIM launched BlackBerry 10 to a largely positive reception in 2013, but the brand has lost its grip on the marketplace.

Before you settle on a smartphone, it's worth fiddling with the interface and stopping by the app store to check out the inventory. The vast number of apps available for Apple products and cheap Android phones reflects the popularity of those platforms. Neither the BlackBerry nor the Windows Phone app pool is nearly so large, although there are still plenty of good choices.

What We Looked For in the Specs

HD Display.

Video, photos, and games call for an excellent display, and smartphone screens have improved so much in recent years that many now support full HD. The best cheap Android phones have large, vivid displays with resolutions up to 1920 x 1080. The Moto X displays 720p HD instead of full 1080p, like others on our list, but reviewers say only close, side-by-side scrutiny reveals the difference. Along with the Galaxy S4, the Moto X represents a good example of an AMOLED screen. The acronym stands for active-matrix organic light-emitting diode, a technology that renders bright colors and deep blacks, for a look that appeals to many users and can help conserve battery life. A review by the web publication Ars Technica explains the pros and cons of the AMOLED screen.

Smartphone displays vary quite a bit in size, from 4 inches to 5.2 inches. Smartphones with larger displays seem to be the trend among users who spend more time watching video, playing games, and surfing the web than talking on the phone. However, a larger screen can prove unwieldy on a handheld device, as CNET points out in a review of the LG G2, which has a 5.2-inch display. Some users prefer a smaller phone such as the 4.7-inch Moto X or the 4-inch iPhone 5C, both of which are easier to hold and use with one hand and fit more easily in a pocket. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini has a 4-inch display with a resolution of only 960 x 540, which does not qualify as HD.

At Least 16 GB of Storage.

Today's consumers need ample room for photos, videos, and music. Even cheap smartphones now start at 16 GB of memory. Some give buyers the option to upgrade to 32 GB or even 64 GB for a higher price. Keep in mind that most smartphones don't have microSD card slots, so you're stuck with the storage built into the phone. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the only phone on our list that includes that option to expand the memory.

4G LTE.

Any smartphone worth buying today should support 4G LTE, the latest and fastest cellular data network technology and a welcome advance for multimedia purposes, such as streaming or downloading video. Most service providers have rolled out 4G networks across much of the country, although there are still areas with poor or no 4G LTE coverage. Verizon and AT&T were the first to build out their networks and T-Mobile and Sprint have spent the past year catching up.

What We Ignored in the Specs

Megapixels.

With smartphones doubling as cameras for many users, manufacturers are engaging in a megapixel arms race right now. Some of our recommended phones boast stout 13MP cameras. However, models such as the HTC One demonstrate that a lower-megapixel camera can take very good pictures. That phone's 4MP camera uses larger pixels to capture more light and performs much better than other models in low light. Thus, we looked to smartphone reviews as a better indication of a camera's quality than the megapixel count. We also looked for features that used to be found only in dedicated digital cameras. A handful of smartphones, such as the HTC One and Google Nexus, now include optical image stabilization, which reduces blurriness from camera shake, in addition to basic controls such as autofocus, flash, and digital zoom.

Cheap smartphones now come with front-facing cameras, as well, so users can video chat and take those infamous selfies. These cameras typically have unimpressive resolutions ranging from 1.2 MP to 2.1 MP. For their purposes, though, front-facing cameras can do just fine with far fewer megapixels than a phone's primary camera.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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Filed in: Android, Apple, Apps,
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