Smartphones are among the most expensive consumer electronic devices, and these days their ubiquity is the result of necessity rather than luxury. But with even midrange price tags upward of $500, you’re looking at some serious coin. The good news is that even if you’re in the market for a budget smartphone — say, something $100 or under — you may be surprised at the decent quality of some of the lower-priced options available.
What to look for
While Google’s Android operating system has evolved over the last decade, it’s kind of all over the place in terms of deployment. Some smartphones will get the newest Android 10 version, while other handsets sit forever with any number of previous versions. Some handsets will run various stripped-down versions of Android — Android One or Android Go, for example — designed for lower-powered, less-expensive phones. Consider what you need from your phone and whether the OS it’s running can accommodate it. Some budget phones run updated versions of the OS, such as Pie (9) or Oreo (8). Nougat (7) and Marshmallow (6) phones are also still fairly prevalent.
Aside from the operating system, the processor, camera, battery, RAM, and storage are critical considerations in how well a cheaper smartphone can serve your needs. Since people tend to leave their cameras at home and use their smartphone still camera or video app, the quality of the shooter is significant. Some cheaper phones offer dual SIM capabilities, which could help to consolidate multiple older phones into a single newer one. Battery life is another factor to consider — and even though many manufacturers boast all-day battery life, it’s often far from reality.
Another thing to watch out for is age. Cheaper smartphones may also be older models, several generations old. Be sure to double-check the initial release year and also which Android operating system it can run. Some older smartphones can run updated operating systems, which contribute to better overall performance.
We surveyed the landscape of $100 or lower smartphones and found a few that are worth a look.
Samsung Galaxy J2 Core
The Galaxy J2 Core is an Android Go phone, featuring the operating system’s lightweight variation of Android 8 Oreo to deliver excellent performance in an otherwise chunky, bezeled design. With the phone’s Smart Manager, you can directly install applications or move excess content to a memory card. The 5-inch display, with a 540 x 960 (qHD) resolution, provides a fairly low-resolution viewing experience, but the 8-megapixel flash rear camera and the 5-megapixel front camera facilitate crisp selfies and more detail in your shots. The Galaxy J2 core comes with a soft home button for seamless operation.
There’s nothing about the Nokia 3.1 that obviously screams cheap. The handset is a compact device that maximizes screen space with its 18:9 radio aspect that lets you get the best out of your 5.2-inch HD display. It has a premium design with diamond-cut aluminum sides and a sculpted 1440 x 720 HD+ Gorilla glass display. It features a 1. 25 GHz Octa-Core chip with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The 13-megapixel rear camera with auto-focus, automatic scene detection, and LED flash allows you to capture photos while the 8-megapixel front camera is perfect for group selfies with an 85.6-degree field of view. The built-in Android One OS ensures secure and up-to-date, nearly stock Android.
Motorola Moto E5
This smartphone may be bare-bones, but for under $100 it gets the job done. It features a Snapdragon 425 chip and 2GB of RAM encased in a 5.7-inch 720 x 1440 pixel display with an 18:9 aspect ratio. It accommodates a MicroSD card up to 128GB, and runs on Android 8 (Oreo). With an 8-megapixel, f/2.0 camera on the back and a 5-megapixel shooter up front, photographic capabilities are serviceable. The phone is unlocked to work with all GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, but not CDMA carriers like Verizon or Sprint.
Blu Vivo X5
The Vivo X5 is a worthy competitor for an unlocked mobile phone in this price range. The device sports a 5.7-inch HD+ curved glass display running Android 9.0 Pie. It promises daylong battery life on a 2,800mAh Lithium-ion battery, supported by an octa-core chipset. It also features 3GB of RAM, 64GB storage, and MicroSD capacity up to 64GB. A 13-megapixel rear camera, coupled with an 8-megapixel front-facing camera and fingerprint sensor, offers a moderate photo experience. It also includes an accelerometer, gravity sensor, proximity sensor, and light sensor. It supports 4G LTE and 3G and is compatible with GSM Networks including AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket, and Metro PCS, but not Verizon, Sprint, and Boost Mobile.
Motorola Moto E5 Play
The Moto E5 Play delivers on all the basics you would expect from a smartphone. It may not be fancy, but it serves most requirements with features like a quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of expandable storage. The E5 Play has a lightweight black plastic construction and a removable back cover, and it feels solid in the hand with a non-immersible water-repellent coating. It has a 5.2-inch, 1280 x 720 IPS panel that works out to 282 pixels per inch (ppi). The phone’s 8-megapixel rear camera is just so-so. The E5 Play runs Android 8 Oreo with few changes to the stock interface. The only extra functionality you get is Moto Display, which can show time, date, and notifications while the screen is off.
Ulefone Note 7
The Ulefone Note 7 is a competitive smartphone at a reasonable price that sports a 6.1-inch display and a 19.2:9 full screen with a teardrop notch, three rear cameras, and a 3,500mAh battery. It runs on Android 9 and supports expandable storage. The 8-megapixel main camera has two sub cameras and a rear flash to enhance the quality and clarity of photos. Its 3,500mAh battery is designed to conserve battery life after 15 minutes when the screen is locked. The Note 7 has three card slots for nano SIM, micro SIM, and TF cards. The phone promises excellent performance with an updated Android 9 Pie OS alongside 1GB RAM and 16GB ROM storage. It’s compatible with GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, but not CDMA carriers like Sprint and Verizon.