Best no-contract smartphones for $250 or less (roundup)

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


Editors' Note:This piece was originally published on November 6, 2012 and is updated regularly.

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 an off-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 gap between a good phone and an inexpensive one gets closer with the new Moto E. Josh Miller/CNET

Motorola Moto E (4G LTE)

At $150 with 4G LTE (or $120 with 3G-only connectivity), Motorola's newest unlocked handset goes big on value despite its small size. The device sports a cheerful design that can be accessorized with colorful bands, and the latest version of the Android Lollipop OS. It also has a 4.5-inch display and a capable 5-megapixel camera that can record up to 720p HD video. Read the full review here.

If you're looking for an affordable big-screen handset, check out the Grand X Max Plus. Josh Miller/CNET

ZTE Grand X Max+

Admist the premium Samsung Galaxy Notes and the Apple iPhone 6 Pluses, there is the Grand X Max+ from ZTE. Priced at $220 prepaid from Cricket Wireless, the phone has an expansive 6-inch display and a reliable performance, which together should satisfy those in the market for a big-screen phablet on a budget. Read the full review here.

Colorful and customizable, you don't have to pay much for the Moto G. Josh Miller/CNET

Motorola Moto G

Though it doesn't have 4G LTE, the Moto G is one of the best affordable smartphones available. With its comfortable and customizable design, the 5-inch device features a nearly-stock version of Android, an 8-megapixel camera and a quad-core processor, and it starts at $180 unlocked. Read the full review here.

With the Desire 510, there's no need to fork over a ton of cash for a decent HTC device. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

HTC Desire 510

Think you need to spend a lot of dough for a handset with a signature look from HTC? Think again. The Desire 510 costs about $50 to $216 depending on the carrier (Cricket Wireless, Boost, Virgin Mobile and Sprint offer it), and it packs a 4.7-inch display, 4G LTE, and Android 4.4. Read the full review here.

If you're looking for an inexpensive LG phone with a flagship look, consider the Tribute. James Martin/CNET

LG Tribute

For $80 without a contract, we were impressed about how well designed and reliable the Tribute was. Compact, stylish and slim, the phone sports a 5-megapixel camera, a quad-core CPU, and nifty software features from LG like its Knock Code unlocking option. Read the full review here.

The Aquos Crystal has a unique design and a low price tag. James Martin/CNET

Sharp Aquos Crystal

Surely the most novel-looking of the bunch, the Aquos Crystal is an inexpensive Android device that makes do quite well without a bezel. Its 5-inch, 720p display runs edge-to-edge, and it's also equipped with a capable 8-megapixel camera and 4G LTE. Interested buyers can nab it for $150 on Boost Mobile or $240 on Sprint without an agreement. Read the full review here.

For Windows Phone users looking for an affordable solution, the Lumia 635 hits the mark. Josh Miller/CNET

Nokia Lumia 635

A bright body, sturdy build, and the Cortana voice assistant are three good reasons to consider the 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 handset can be yours for $140 on AT&T, $100 from T-Mobile, or $75 on Cricket after you send in a rebate. Read the full review here.

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