Best no-contract smartphones for $250 or less

No contracts? No problem. CNET takes a look at some of the best handsets you can get on any platform without a carrier commitment.

As the no-contract model is picking up steam here in the US, and the true cost of smartphones is becoming clearer, the meaning of "budget" has changed. $200 is at the high end of the scale for premium phones on-contract, but a bargain for a no-contract device.

Luckily, the surging popularity of buying a phone up front paired with quite a few strong midrange contenders means there are a few pretty great value Android and Windows phones to choose from for $250 or less. Here are our current favorites.

The affordable Moto G comes with or without LTE. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Moto G and Moto G 4G LTE

Motorola's two best budget phones don't sound too glamorous , but the 4.5-inch display, quad-core processor, and 5-megapixel camera perform reliably, especially for the price. The Moto G sells for $100 with Verizon Cricket, and Boost Mobile, and $150 with Republic Wireless. Meanwhile, the 4G LTE version goes for $100 with US Cellular (it's ordinarily $200). You can also purchase either phone directly from Motorola for $220. Read CNET's Moto G and Moto G 4G LTE reviews.

Nokia's Lumia 635 is sturdy, colorful, and a solid performer. Josh Miller/CNET

Nokia Lumia 635

A bright body, sturdy build, and the Cortana voice assistant are three good reasons to consider the Nokia Lumia 635. The 4.5-inch smartphone works well with Windows Phone 8.1, and the 1.2GHz quad-core processor adds a burst of speed not seen in previous budget Windows phones. The 5-megapixel camera also takes decent-enough shots. The Lumia 635 can be yours for $100 as an AT&T GoPhone and $168 from T-Mobile. The 3G-only variant, the Lumia 630, sells for $100 on Cricket (or $50 on sale). Reach CNET's Nokia Lumia 635 review here.

Nokia Lumia 521
Though a slightly older phone now, the 520 and 521 are still good low-cost options. Josh Miller/CNET

Nokia Lumia 520/521

If you're on a tight budget, shopping for a backup phone, or looking for a teen's first handset, consider the Nokia Lumia 520/521 with HSPA+ speeds. The 4-inch phone is about as basic as smartphones come, with a 5-megapixel camera, a 1 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 CPU, and 8GB of internal storage. It's an older phone, and not anywhere near as powerful as the Lumia 635, but its $80 refurb price with T-Mobile is dirt cheap, and the phone is free at MetroPCS. AT&T will sell you a refurbished model as a $50 GoPhone, and it goes for the same price at Cricket (where it retails for $80). Read CNET's full Nokia Lumia 521 review.

One tough cookie: The L90 has a "self-healing" battery cover that fends off scratches and scuffs. James Martin/CNET

LG Optimus L90 (T-Mobile)

LG is no stranger to making reliable midrange handsets, and the Optimus L90 is a great example of that. This device features a sizeable 2,460mAh battery that lasted more than 16 hours for continuous video playback, a bright 4.7-inch display, and a "self-healing" coat that protects its backside against everyday scratches. Read the full LG Optimus L90 review.

Take the Hydro Vibe the next time you're at the beach and want a good dunking. Josh Miller/CNET

Kyocera Hydro Vibe (Virgin Mobile)

Virgin's $99 Hydro Vibe 4G LTE isn't one to shy away from water. Certified to satisfy IPX5 and IPX7 standards for water resistance, the handset can be submerged in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes. It also has an Easy Mode UI setting for first-time smartphone users, and an 8-megapixel camera. Read the full Kyocera Hydro Vibe review.

Note: This story updates frequently.

About the author

Lynn La is CNET's associate editor for cell phone and smartphone news and reviews. Prior to coming to CNET, she wrote for the Sacramento Bee and was a staff editor at Macworld. In addition to covering technology, she has reported on health, science, and politics.

Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices. See full bio


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