Advice and experiences - looking for relatively cheap smartphone+service

To be honest, i probably don’t really NEED a smartphone.

For the last six years, i’ve had a $10 flip phone on a PAYG Virgin Mobile account, and it’s been all i really needed. I rarely talk on the phone, and rarely text, and i spend much of my day in front of a computer at work or at home.

About the only time i really think it would be nice to have a smartphone is when we’re driving and would like to check traffic or directions, or when we’re visiting another city and want restaurant or entertainment recommendations while we’re out and about.

Anyway, the other day my reliable old flip phone kicked the bucket, so i thought i might spring for a smartphone. I’m not interested in the top-of-the-line phones like iPhone 6 or the latest Samsung Galaxy. Ideally, i don’t want to pay for than 200 bucks (250 max) for a phone, and i want a cheap-ass plan that gives me talk and text, as well as 1 (or maybe 2) gigs of data.

I know that some of the cheaper carriers like Cricket give up some features compared to the big companies like AT&T or Verizon, but from my reading they seem to provide just about everything i’m likely to need. I’ve looked at some reviews of phones, and there seem to be some pretty decent sets in the $200 range, as long as you’re willing to accept that you won’t get every one of the latest features.

Anyway, any advice or recommendations would be most welcome.

Google’s Project Fi is $20/month for unlimited talk and text plus $10/month per gigabyte of data. Even better they give you a credit for unused data, so if one month you only use half a gig you’ll get a $5 credit on your next bill. ETA: My brother-in-law is very happy with the service, though I haven’t used it myself.

However it only works with a handful of phones, and they’ll all stretch your budget. New, the cheapest option is the Nexus 5x for around $300. For what it’s worth it’s an outstanding phone for the price. You can also pay for it with monthly payments through Project Fi ($16/month for 24 months).

The only other cheap option for a phone is a used or refurbished Nexus 6 for around $250. It’s a humongous phone though…

If you’re looking at other plans, the best cheap smartphone is probably the Moto G for $100. It’s unlocked so you can use it with any of the budget and pay-as-you-go carriers (except those using Verizon and Sprint’s networks I think).

We recently switched to Consumer Cellular after many years with AT&T, couldn’t be happier. They offer smartphones starting at around $80 IIRC, and plans at $10 a month. Easiest company I’ve ever dealt with and if you need help their customer service is all US based.

Your current carrier might have some Android offerings and then you’d be able to keep your number. I use TracFone and it has plenty of Android models available and you should be able to get the latest and greatest with that budget. Their pay-as-you-go plans are a little different for the Android phones in that the “minutes” cards give you triple phone time, text messages, and data. On the non-smart phones you could get double texts and phone time. I’ve had one for two years and it’s slow and nothing fancy, but suits my needs. It connects to WIFI at home and work so I just have data shut off unless I specifically need it for something. I use my tablet more than the phone for the kind of stuff you mention, except on the go mapping, which I rarely need.

I use a Windows phone–the Lumia 640–with AT&T’s no-contract Go Phone service. The phone was $40 on sale on Amazon, but can regularly be bought for around $60 or less. The Go Phone service runs me $40 a month and includes unlimited text and talk, with 2 GB of high-speed data each month. If I go over the 2 GB on data (which I haven’t yet) it drops to unlimited lower speed data for no extra cost.

I mostly like the Windows phone interface–especially for the cost–however there are far fewer apps available for it than for iOS or Android. Doesn’t bother me much, but occasionally I’ll see an app on another platform that I like and am disappointed that they don’t have a Windows Phone version.

Project fi, not a bad idea IF you can afford the phone that it requires, very small subset there.

I use Ting, you buy your own phone (Swappa and Glyde are two ways to go) (and they will port), and pay only for data/msg/minutes you use. My wife and I have S3 each and average Just under $40/month total. Which includes a couple hundred minutes, several hundred txts, and about a gig of data.

Just checked swappa, and used S4 about 150 clams.

I use Ting on a Moto E, a very decent beginner smart phone. My bills typically run a bit over $15 a month; that includes the line fee, up to 100 minutes of talk, up to 100 texts, and all the taxes. Occasionally I use a bit of data for live traffic updates on a road trip; that adds $3 to the bill.

For light users, I think Ting is the nuts. Theoretically, the bill can be even less because you only get billed for the services you actually use – if you use no minutes you don’t get charged the $3 for the first 100 minutes or no texts you don’t get charged the $3 for the first 100 texts – however, that one spam telemarketing call triggers the $3 charge as does a once a month text – so it’s great for light users but not perfect for those who often don’t make (or receive) any calls or texts for a whole month.

I also recommend HERE Maps for GPS; it is totally free, no nags or paid upgrades, designed for use on phones, and can be used offline without using data but you can turn on the live traffic updates if you want.

I’ve had Virgin Mobile smartphones for about 3 years. I don’t know if they’ve changed their plans, but I get unlimited talk and text for $35/month. Data is theoretically unlimited but if you go over some limit (2GB I think) they slow it way down. I have an LG Tribute running Android 4.4 that I bought for about $40. It’s not the latest and greatest obviously but a decent smartphone and a great bang for the buck.

One thing I’ve found when buying Android phones is to watch out for the internal memory with the cheaper phones. There are a lot of apps that only run on internal memory. I bought a smartwatch but I had to delete the large apps associated with it a few months ago because my phone only has 4GB of memory and I was running out of space. So I’m on the lookout for a new phone with at least 8GB.

Project Fi sounds interesting. The phones are more expensive, but with my smartwatch it may be time to switch to something a bit more up-to-date.

I got a cheap LG TracPhone through Wal-Mart for $30, with a Straight Talk unlimited-everything plan that’s $45 a month. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about it. I’ve used it for directions, for web surfing, to take pictures (not great resolution, but hey, consider the price!), and as an alarm clock, and of course talk and text. No issues with the phone, nor with the service.

I have been happy for the last couple of years on a $30/month plan from T-Mobile. It is limited to 100 minutes of calls but unlimited texts and data (4Gig of LTE).

I use it on an older iPhone I bought from a friend who wanted to upgrade. I offered $100 for the used phone and they jumped at it since it covered half their upgrade cost.

Thanks for all the advice, folks. There’s plenty to mull over here.

The Google service seems pretty good. At those prices, i’m pretty confident i could get away with $30 per month, especially since i spend so much time within range of a wireless connection and so would probably not use much data at all.

The price of the phones is higher than i wanted to spend. As far as i can tell, the Nexus 5x is closer to $400 - the 16GB version is $379 from Google, and that seems to be the price just about everywhere.

It IS rather tempting, though, because the Nexus phones get good reviews, and i’ve also been very happy with my first-gen and second-gen Nexus 7 tablets. I like the fact that, coming from Google, Nexus tends to run the basic, vanilla version of Android, without some of the complicated and annoying (and, in some cases, resource-draining) UI’s that you get on some Android phones.

The plans certainly look like pretty good value, and i could combine it with the Moto G phone recommended by lazybratsche. One thing i like about the Moto G is the 4.5" screen size. I really want a phone, not a tablet that also takes phone calls, although some of the slightly larger (5" and 5.5") look very nice. Definitely don’t want to go any larger than five and a half.

i like the idea in principle, but Virgin Mobile won’t activate unlocked devices; you have to buy their phones. That’s something i’d like to avoid.

Their plans look pretty good, although it took a bit of digging in the website and some reading to get my head around exactly how their different plans work.

I read some good reviews of a few different Lumia phones, and most of them seem to echo yours: if you like the Windows interface, and can live with a much smaller range of apps, they represent good value for money.

Never heard of swappa. Thanks for the heads-up. There’s always a risk with buying used, i guess, but there seem to be some decent deals there.

One issue that worries me a bit with a used device is battery life. It tends to degrade over time in devices like this, and there are quite a lot of phones that don’t come with swappable batteries. If someone’s been using a phone for a year or so, then even if the phone is in immaculate condition, it might still have lost a considerable amount of its battery life (per charge).

That’s the second rec for Ting, which i had never heard of. i’ll have to check them out.

Yeah, this is a commonly-mentioned issue in reviews. On the one hand, i want to say that i won’t need more than a few extra apps; on the other hand, i know from my tablet use that it’s very easy to start installing all sorts of apps once you get going. My main need for storage, apart from apps, would be ebooks and music. for that reason, i’d definitely like to have a phone with microSD, which the Moto G has.

Camera is not a deal-breaker for me at all. I’m a keen amateur photographer, and if i want proper pictures, i’ll have my DSLR with me.

I think you must be grandfathered in on that plan, because the article you linked to is over two years old, and i can find no evidence of the $30 plan on the T-Mobile site. It’s a shame, as it would be absolutely ideal for me, given how little i actually talk.

Thanks again, everyone. I’m going to keep researching, taking all of your advice into account. Will be back with updates and maybe more questions.

At the moment it’s $300 from the Google store and Amazon. I don’t know if that’s a permanent price drop or just a temporary sale.

I’ve had a 5x for a month now and I’m very happy with it. Very clean and fast UI, good display, and the performance and camera are more than good enough for my needs. The fingerprint reader is actually pretty nifty and well-designed, since it’s exactly where you would place your index finger when holding the phone. That means it’s fairly securely locked at all times, and unlocked whenever you pick up the phone.

The company has low cost plans with data, some as low as free! You can bring your own phone or get one of theirs. If you bring your own phone, you’ll need to make sure it will work on their network. You can enter the IMEI number to make sure it will work first.

I’m using a Sprint Moto E prepaid phone I got at Best Buy for about $40 and it works great.


Interestingly, if you go through the Google Fi website, it’s still listed at 379.

So, a question about phones.

The Motorola Moto G looks like a nice phone, and it gets great reviews. Most reviewers basically say that it about the best budget smartphone around. The new Huawei Honor 5X is also getting some very nice reviews.

One thing that’s not quite clear to me, though, is whether you are better off buying a new budget phone like one of these, or a superseded high-end phone like the Samsung Galaxy S4.

The Galaxy S4 is a pretty old phone now, but the benchmarks on its processor are still slightly better than those on the new Moto G. The Samsung runs a much older version of Android. I can still get a new, unlocked one on reputable eBay stores, and a lightly used unlocked one on Swappa, for under $200. A colleague of mine has an S4 and loves it.

One thing that really appeals to me about it is the fact that the battery is removable and replaceable by the user. It also has a microSD card slot (up to 64Gb). Neither the Moto nor the Huawei have a removable battery.

So, for similar prices, i can get a new “budget” phone, or an older high-end phone. Anyone have any opinion on this issue?

I’ve got the same T-Mobile plan, and they do hide it a bit. First, it’s prepaid, and they hide those… and then they hide it even on the prepaid site. The link you want is here, about halfway down on the right. Has to be activated online, you have to buy a SIM card (they do have free SIM deals several times a year - I know I didn’t pay for mine), and it’s subject to sales tax (all other fees are included in the $30, unlike many post-paid plans).

It’s not the perfect plan for everyone, but it’s a really great plan if you don’t talk much and spend most of your time in areas where T-Mobile service is strong. The network is definitely less broad than Verizon if I’m making road trips or something, but frankly it’s even better than Verizon most of the time within 30 miles of Boston.

Two things not discussed here so far -

One thing to bear in mind with most of the discount plans is that they are urban centric. If you plan to be out in the country or in more rural areas, many of the non-Verizon flavors may not have a decent connection ability in the sticks.

Another point is that the thin, glass surface smartphones are much more susceptible to damage if dropped or banged etc. than the older clamshell phones. The selection of protective carrying cases, glass screen protectors etc is much more limited with the less popular phones. The premium Otterbox Commuter case and generic glass screen protector I use has saved my Galaxy 5 phone from damage over and over. If you drop your phone at all make sure whatever phone you use comes with a highly rated protective case option.

Even if the battery is replaceable, you might not be able to find recently manufactured OEM batteries (a quick first search finds lots of OEM counterfits and complaints about 3rd party batteries). Still, given that the S4 batteries are less than $10 even annual replacements and a few spares wouldn’t cost a ton of money.

Some types of screens can fade over time, particularly the AMOLED that the S4 has.

Mechanical buttons and plugs can wear out. I’ve had old phones that with a loose charging port, which is manageable but annoying if you find that the phone is dead because the charger wasn’t connected. I’ve also had phones with a loose headphone jack.

Previous generation phones may not get prompt software updates and aren’t as well supported by Android OS and app developers. If you stick with an older version of the OS you may lose out on features and apps that require a newer OS, and you may be exposed to more security risks. But if you update to a newer OS the phone may perform poorly because the OS developers didn’t optimize performance for older hardware. This can vary greatly between manufacturers so check to see if anyone is complaining about support for the S4 or earlier versions.

Finally if there’s anything wrong with the phone you’re SOL.

Personally I think I’d go with a newer basic phone, but a decent quality used phone could still be a good choice.

Yeah, they do sort of hide that plan. It’s really the best plan for people that need more data than they do talk minutes. It’s only .10 a minute if you go over, and with a good wifi/data connection, you can use the Google Hangouts app to make free voice calls that don’t count against your 100 minutes.

I haven’t really done a recent survey of the best phone options if you go Tmobile, but you’ll really want to try to have something on this list for best performance and future-proofing. Along those lines, if you want/don’t mind a larger phone, from a value perspective you can’t go wrong with this phone. (The box is branded Walmart Family Mobile, but the phone is 100% Tmobile and doesn’t need anything but a Tmobile Prepaid sim card and online activation.)

Oh, I also meant to mention that Tmobile has greatly improved coverage, in part due to the improvements that the phones in my first link (above) take advantage of, which is why you really want to stick to the list, if possible.

Tmobile is now in a virtual tie with AT&T for nationwide coverage, and in another close one, slightly beats Verizon to be #1 in 4g data speeds.