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Technology Desk: Looking for a cheap smartphone? Find the one that’s right for you from our list of Android and Windows handsets. If money’s no object, then it’s much easier to recommend a smartphone: our best smartphone guide lists all of the top mobile phones that you can still buy, but we’ll admit that some of them are pretty expensive. If you’re on a tight budget, then that’s where things start to get tricky, as saving money means that you’ll have to make some compromises along the way.
Even so, that doesn’t mean the job is impossible, as it’s mostly about knowing which compromises you’re happy to make. The operating system you want your phone to run remains the most important choice in a budget handset, as it is in a high-end phone. It’s the OS that defines how the phone is to use, which apps you can install and the features that come as standard. Apple’s iOS-based smartphones don’t feature on this list, as they’re much more expensive than the competition, which means that you need to choose between Android and Windows. Both are fully-featured and smooth operating systems, but they offer a different user experience and range of handsets.
The best thing about the above lists are that they not only give specifications of the top ranked products, but also highlight what users have to say about specific aspects like performance, battery life, camera, design and display of a mobile phone, and similarly the sound clarity, bass, build quality and comfort of a headphone. This will help you to quickly understand about the areas where a gadget excels, and the features where some compromises have been made.
Android is, as we’re sure you’re aware, the world’s most popular smartphone operating system, with around 80% of handsets running it. With any manufacturer able to use Android, it means that there’s a lot of choice at a lot of different price points. The problem with Android is that there are a lot of different versions and some budget handsets don’t and won’t run the latest version.
For that reason, we recommend a minimum of Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), as older versions are out-of-date and may not support all of the apps that you want to install. Even when you pick a version of Android, things are slightly complicated by the fact that manufacturers customise their own version of Android, which means that the experience differs. For example, our Android 6.0 Marshmallow review explains how the latest version works, but the experience differs a lot between different manufacturers. Many phones are also still running Android 5.0 Lollipop. Our phone reviews explain how Android behaves on that particular phone and which version it has.
Android has tons of apps, all available in the Google Play store, and the number almost matches the number available in Apple’s App Store. Android app quality is also improving, but we’d say that iPhone apps are generally a little bit slicker and the quality of apps is higher on the Apple App Store. You should find that most major apps are available on Android, although there are some exceptions that are only available on iOS: this is one compromise that you can’t do anything about if you’re looking for a budget handset.
Windows is your second OS choice for a budget handset. This is also available on phones from different manufacturers, but Microsoft, unsurprisingly, is the biggest.
New Windows phones should now come with Windows 10 Mobile, but older handsets (such as the Lumia 640) will still ship with Windows Phone 8.1. There’s not a huge difference between them, at least in terms of appearance, but Windows 10 is much neater and tidier overall.
As easy as it is to use, Windows Phone’s biggest issue is that its app store is small and you don’t get every app for it. If you download and install a lot of apps, or have a particular app in mind, Android is going to be the better OS.
What should I look for in a smartphone display?
A budget smartphone is controlled entirely through its display, so it’s important to get one that’s right for you. While flagship phones will have the best screens and the highest resolutions, you can still find budget smartphones with high-quality displays. At the minimum, for a very cheap handset, we recommend a minimum resolution of 960×540, but look for 1,280×720 or 1,920×1,080 if you want a sharper-looking screen. Nearly all of the budget smartphones we recommend use LCD display technology, which is more than good enough for, but we’re now starting to see Super AMOLED displays crop up at the lower end of the scale as well, which produce even better colours and much deeper blacks. Read our full reviews if you want to know full details of how good the screens are.
Battery life and performance
A budget smartphone means that you’ll get a slower processor than with a flagship model, but that doesn’t mean that you should compromise too far. Make sure that you get a relatively quick processor, as this will make the OS feel more responsive and let you enjoy games on your phone. Our recommended handsets are all quick for their price but read the full reviews to get the results from our full benchmark tests.
To test performance we run a web browser benchmark on each phone and also a 3D test to see how well a handset can cope with modern games. We also play a video on repeat to test each phone’s battery life; some phones will cope with a couple of days away from the mains, but most phones need charging every day.
How much smartphone storage do I need?
It’s amazing how much storage you can eat through on a phone, with apps and, in particular, games taking up a lot of space. Throw in videos, music and photos and you’ll probably need more storage than you think. A minimum of 8GB of storage is required if you don’t use a lot of apps and don’t have a lot of photos, but 16GB or 32GB makes more sense. Look out for a phone that has a microSD card slot, as you can cheaply add more storage to your handset whenever you need it. Given that some cheap phones only have 4GB of storage, you’ll definitely need to expand the storage on some models.
Do I need 4G on my smartphone?
While all new flagship handsets support 4G (LTE) data for the fastest mobile data speeds, budget handsets often only have 3G. Whether that’s important or not depends on the type of contract you have and how much data you consume. Most people buying a budget handset will not need 4G, with 3G more than sufficing for every-day tasks, with Wi-Fi at home or in shops, restaurants and hotels supplementing for faster download speeds.
How should I buy a smartphone?
Budget smartphones are, as you’d expect, a lot cheaper to buy outright than other handsets, with prices starting at around £100. As a result, if you’ve got the cash, we recommend that you buy one SIM-free. You can then find the right SIM-only deal from any network and then sell your phone when you want to upgrade. If you don’t have the cash upfront, you’ll need to go for a contract deal, but these don’t tend to be great value for budget phones.