Cheap Smartphones: Which Ones Are Worth It?

by G.E. Miller on 21 April 2011 3 comments
Photo: LGEPR

The words "cheap" and "smartphone" seldom go hand-in-hand.

That is, of course, unless you can get a sweet contractual offer (usually with a two-year agreement).

Often, it's not the smartphone itself that is expensive, but the data plan required to make all of its bells and whistles work as promised. When you search around, there are not many cheap data plans out there aside from the reputably slower 3G Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk plan. (See also: 6 Reasons I Still Don't Have a Cell Phone Plan)

Whether you're looking to switch to a new carrier or cut your overall costs through a prepaid plan, there are some inexpensive smartphone options out there. I'll cover the best at the moment, but this is a rapidly changing marketplace, so stay tuned!

LG Optimus S

The LG Optimus S can be had for free at the moment (online only) with a new two-year contract or eligible upgrade. It doesn't work on 4G speeds, but it does feature Android 2.2, a 3.2 MP camera, and did I mention it's free? That is, until you realize you have to pay $69.99 a month for unlimited web.

  • Network: Sprint
  • Lowest Cost: $0
  • Contract for Lowest Price: 2-year
  • Lowest Price Plan Cost: $69.99/mo. (unlimited data)
  • Operating System: Android 2.2
  • Touchscreen or Keyboard: Touchscreen
  • Camera Resolution: 3.2 MP
  • Network Speed: 3G

Motorola Citrus

With Earth Day right around the corner, it was appropriate to highlight this certified CarbonFree® phone, made from 25% post-consumer recycle plastic. The Motorola Citrus is not a bad little phone either — Android, Wi-Fi, and a 3.0 MP camera, all in a tight little package.

  • Network: Verizon Wireless
  • Lowest Cost: $0
  • Contract for Lowest Price: 2-year
  • Lowest Price Plan Cost: $69.99/mo. (unlimited data)
  • Operating System: Android 2.1
  • Touchscreen or Keyboard: Touchscreen
  • Camera Resolution: 3.0 MP
  • Network Speed: 3G

T-Mobile Comet

If you don't mind refurbished and are a fan of prepaid phones, the full-featured, Android-powered T-Mobile Comet can be had for just $99.99. This includes a 2 GB memory card and a ton of advanced features. Plus, the prepaid plan includes 500 minutes and 30 MB of data for just $30/month. If you're a data hog, this might not be the best plan for you, though.

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Note that T-Mobile and AT&T recently announced a merger. It's still too early to tell whether the deal will pass regulatory hurdles or what kind of impact it will have on prices, but in past mergers, subscription prices were often grandfathered in. If you see a deal you like from either carrier, now is the time to get in.

  • Network: T-Mobile
  • Lowest Cost: $99.99
  • Contract for Lowest Price: No contract
  • Lowest Price Plan Cost: $30/mo. (30 MB data)
  • Operating System: Android 2.1
  • Touchscreen or Keyboard: Touchscreen
  • Camera Resolution: 3.2 MP
  • Network Speed: 3G

Motorola Flipside

You can score a refurbished Motorola Flipside right now for free with a two-year contract at AT&T. It retails for $419.99. It features Android, push (automatically delivered) email, and both touch and sliding keyboards.

  • Network: AT&T
  • Lowest Cost: $0
  • Contract for Lowest Price: 2-year
  • Lowest Price Plan Cost: $54.99/mo. (200 MB data)
  • Operating System: Android 2.1
  • Touchscreen or Keyboard: Touchscreen & Keyboard
  • Camera Resolution: 3.0 MP
  • Network Speed: 3G

LG Optimus V

The LG Optimus V is the best solution out there for those who want the full function of the Android operating system plus a cheap data plan to boot. When you look at the initial cost of $199.99, you're probably thinking you're going to lose money. But with Virgin Mobile, it's the long-term costs that you end up saving on. Beyond Talk ends up costing only $25/month for unlimited web, email, data, text, and 300 minutes. And there are no pesky contracts to worry about. The aforementioned LG Optimus S is very similar, but you'll end up paying $45 more per month in service. The cheaper service pays for the phone in five months.

This touchscreen, Wi-Fi-enabled phone has an average review of 4.7 out of 5 stars with almost 700 reviewers!

  • Network: Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk
  • Lowest Cost: $199
  • Contract for Lowest Price: No contract
  • Lowest Price Plan Cost: $25/mo.
  • Operating System: Android 2.2
  • Touchscreen or Keyboard: Touchscreen
  • Camera Resolution: 3.2 MP
  • Network Speed: 3G

LG 900G

Want the majority of smartphone functionality at a fraction of the price? Check out Net10's LG 900G. Although it's debatable whether it is truly a smartphone, it does offer up a camera, a full QWERTY keyboard, web functionality, an MP3 player, and most of the common luxuries that smartphones have. And it can be had for $29.99 at the moment, with no contract and plan prices for as low as $15/month! I personally own and reviewed the Net10 LG 900G on my blog.

  • Network: Net10
  • Lowest Cost: $29.99
  • Contract for Lowest Price: No contract
  • Lowest Price Plan Cost: $15/mo.
  • Operating System: Does not have a true operating system
  • Touchscreen or Keyboard: Keyboard
  • Camera Resolution: 2.0 MP
  • Network Speed: ?

If you're looking for a true smartphone and want to keep your costs low, your best option is the Virgin Mobile Optimus V. Otherwise, your monthly subscription costs will far outweigh the low price of the phone. What phones would you add to this list?

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Guest's picture
Ian D. P.

I had the LG 900G with Net10, and it's a nice phone, but Net10 doesn't offer unlimited data. When you pay $15/month, you get 150 mins but texts are five cents.
I recently moved to Virgin and picked up the Optimus. With the Optimus I'm getting Android 2.2 and the Android Market. The unlimited data/300mins plan is a steal at $25/month. The Optimus is selling for closer to $150 everywhere making it that much of a better deal.

Guest's picture
Daniel

I've had the Optimus V for 2 months and I'm a very happy user. I rooted the phone to create a lot more space for apps that I like instead of the pre-loaded ones and for the price, its almost untouchable. The Optimus V was $149 when introduced, but recently Virgin Mobile raised the price to $199. The 3G and phone are both a little slow at times, but the usefulness of it far outweighs any perceived negatives. I call myself a power app user willing to put up with a slower speed. Virgin Mobile (and I guess Sprint) should be applauded for providing great value to people at a price they can afford and also not putting them in a bad financial position.

Guest's picture

For folks wanting the iOS experience, AT&T is selling the iPhone 3GS for $49.99 with a 2 yr contract (new or renewal). Not a bad option for many.

I've also found that Amazon Wireless (wireless.amazon.com) offers much better deals on phones than most all carriers.

I purchased a brand new BlackBerry Curve two years ago for $50, when the best AT&T would give me was $150.