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.
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.
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.
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.
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.