A hundred greenbacks is a respectable chunk of change, but when you consider what a piece of machinery a smartphone can be, $100 on contract (before taxes and fees) is a darn good deal. Since the smartphone operating system remains the same across handsets from the most entry-level to the most premium, what a price hike usually gives you is a step up in hardware features -- like a faster processor, more-premium camera components, and a higher-resolution screen.
Sometimes you'll get a break on last season's high-end devices; other times, you'll find excellent phones that are made for this middle cost.
Here are some of today's top picks for carriers with two-year contracts (off-contract pricing is its own kettle of fish). Smartphone prices fluctuate all the time because of slow sales or short-term promotions, so keep your eyes peeled for seasonal deals.
Editors' note: This article was originally published on October 2, 2012, and updates periodically.
A slightly smaller, scaled-back version of the HTC One, the Mini purposely pulls back on the high-end features. Don't you fret, though: HTC puts a pleasing version of the One's elegantly edgy design and a round of satisfying features into the $100 smartphone. It makes some trade-offs for sure, especially in the NFC and storage departments, but keeps the essentials that make the One a hard Android specimen to pass up. Read the full HTC One Mini review.
Motorola Moto X (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon); released August 2013
Now $50-to-$100 (and free for a limited time if you switch to Sprint), the Moto X isn't the most premium smartphone in the land, but it does hit that sweet spot of specs, design, comfort, and performance. We especially like the 4.7-inch Android phone's touchfree voice commands and ergonomic hold. Read CNET's full Moto X review.
iPhone 5C (major carriers); released September 20, 2013
The iPhone 5C is $100 less than the iPhone 5S, and is a more colorful, ever-so-slightly bumped-up version of the original iPhone 5. Right now, the extremely solid iOS device is getting what amounts to a $50 break from some big-box retailers, like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and RadioShack. That's no guarantee that a $50 iPhone 5C is here to stay (I wouldn't count on it, in fact), but it is a sign that the patient can grab Apple's high-performing "midtier" smartphone at an even smaller up-front cost. Read the full iPhone 5C review.
Samsung Galaxy S3 (numerous carriers); released June 21, 2012
Sale-savvy shoppers know that there's nothing like a newer, shinier model to drive down the price of a perfectly good product. That's exactly what happened with the Samsung Galaxy S3 when Samsung revealed its brand-new Galaxy S4 model. The GS3 may be a year old now, but with a fast processor, an excellent 8-megapixel camera, and the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean update, it's nothing to sneeze at. Read the full Samsung Galaxy S3 review.
LG Optimus G (Sprint)
A year ago, we called the best smartphone LG had ever made. Ever. The company's wares have grown with two more iterations beyond this Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich treat, but we still dig the now-free device's 13-megapixel camera, quad-core processor, and big, bright screen. Read the full LG Optimus G review.
Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini (AT&T)
A midrange alternative to the Galaxy S3 above, this phone has even less to offer users in search of an all-around experience for less. Still, the $1 on-contract phone is ideal for first-timers; Android 4.2.2 keeps the OS current, and a solid 5-megapixel camera makes sharing moments on this dual-core handset fun. Read the full Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini review.
This first 920-series model to hit the US may be bulky, but it doesn't skimp on Nokia's priority features, including a sensitive touch screen with improved outdoor legibility, an 8.7-megapixel camera, a host of Nokia-only apps for music and more, and low-light photography prowess. It's currently $1 on contract with AT&T. Read the full Nokia Lumia 920 review.
Apple iPhone 4S
Now the runt of the iPhone litter, the iPhone 4S is now free with a two-year contract. Its 3.5-inch screen may look shrunken next to the 5's new 4-inch face, but this phone still has the power that made it the blockbuster it was just 18 months ago: a pixel-dense screen, a relibale camera, and a robust operating system that mostly supports iOS 7 (minus some camera app features and Air Drop). Its smaller screen size and absent 4G LTE speeds are the more pertinent drawbacks.
Of course, if you're willing to spend a little more money, you'll also get more. Here's our list of the best phones overall.