There are cheap phones that cost $50 or less, and then there are phones you want to own. Luckily, the two vectors intersect from time to time.
Contract phones for $50 or less
Kicking the contract is so on trend right now, but there's a certain simple beauty that comes with committing to your carrier -- namely, some really great smartphones that you can get for $50 bucks or less, so long as you pay for the monthly data plan you were going to sign on for anyway. Even better: the large portion of great smartphones that come "free" with a new service agreement.
Many of these ticket prices have been slashed to make room for the next flagship iteration, which means that savvy shoppers can pick up last year's still-good model for a tiny pile of coin -- especially if they shop online, where Web prices are often lower. Here are my current favorites for Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint.
If reliable 4G LTE connectivity and the latest Android release is what you're after, Verizon's free LG Lucid 3 fits the bill. The 4.7-inch phone is attractive and has a good-size battery. Its major weakness? A 5-megapixel camera that captures middling shots.
An oldie-but-goody, the 8GB version of Apple's iPhone 4S can be yours on AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. At this point, the 8-megapixel camera quality isn't as good as the current iPhone 5S's, but it's still high-performing, and better than a lot of other free phones. Its 4-inch screen also makes it compact, and easy to operate one-handed.
We liked Motorola's comfortable Moto X at its full price, which makes this Goldilocks phone even more enticing now that Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T are all offering it for free. The 4.7-inch Android smartphone doesn't boast all the top-notch specs, and storage space is a minor weakness, but you'd better believe that the X is a handset we're happy to handle all day long.
An Android standout when we first reviewed it in late 2013, the LG G2 is a bargain on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. Free with a new two-year contract, the 5.2-incher impressed us with its blazing quad-core processor and excellent 13-megapixel camera. The rear-control buttons take some getting used to, but aren't a major design flaw.
Verizon's Lumia 928 is another freebie. It may not be quite as powerful as its Lumia Icon replacement, but its 4.5-inch screen still reads bright outdoors, its 8.7-megapixel camera still takes crisp, clear shots in low light and in the great wide open, and its dual-core processor keeps things moving within.
Screen quality and internal specs on the Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 aren't the best in the biz, but at no cost with AT&T (it's $99 at Sprint), this midrange "phablet" lays out the large-screen viewing experience many crave at a price that really can't be beat.
Currently free at AT&T, the LG Optimus G Pro was once swinging near the top. A massive 5.5-inch display, competent 13-megapixel camera, and meaty processor gives it big league cred, and the traditional front-side controls are a better bet for those who shy away from the rear buttons adorning the LG G2.
With a 13-megapixel camera and 5-inch screen, the Sprint Vital gives you quite a lot of phone for the free-with-contract price. It is a little plain to behold, I'll give you that, and the camera mount on the back keeps it from resting flat when you lay it on its backside, but it gives Sprint customers a genuine choice for a high performing phone they can pocket for free.
Ordinarily $50, Sprint will now hand over the LG Viper in exchange for your two-year commitment. The 4G LTE-ready Android device records 1080p HD video with its 5-megapixel camera. Its 4-inch screen makes it an uberportable mobile aimed at first-time buyers.