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In the market for a cheap phone?

CNET’s Marguerite Reardon helps a reader on a budget search for a phone that’s light on the wallet.

There's nothing I like better than getting a good deal.


And luckily for wireless customers there are tons of great deals to be had not only on wireless plans but phones, too. While Apple and Samsung still charge top dollar for their flagship handsets, there are several manufacturers making budget phones that cost less than $200.

How do these bargain-basement devices stack up? No doubt there are trade-offs when it comes to these inexpensive phones. But each year manufacturers seem to pack more high-end features into these cheap devices, giving consumers a lot of great options. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer my advice on where to find a budget phone.

Dear Maggie,

I just can't bring myself to spend another $600 or $700 on a new smartphone. But my old phone is dying. So I'm in the market for an inexpensive unlocked smartphone. I'd love to find something for less than $150. Can you even get a decent phone for less than that? Also, I'm looking for something that's unlocked that won't force me to stick with any particular carrier.


Bargain Hunting Barry

Dear Barry,

I hear you. Without device subsidies from the major US wireless carriers, buying a new smartphone is a major investment. And like you, I'm not willing to spend $600 to $700 every couple of years for a new device. It's also smart to buy an unlocked device so you have some flexibility if you want to switch carriers.


Motorola has several budget smartphones it sells unlocked that will operate on any major US wireless carrier.

Josh Miller/CNET

Because you're specifically looking for an unlocked phone. The best place to start is with Amazon's Prime Exclusive Phones. The online retailer now offers nine phones that range in price from $100 to $280. And if you're willing to have ads appear on your lock-screen, the prices fall to between $70 to $200. (NOTE: Amazon had 10 phones in this program, but earlier this week it halted the sale of its cheapest phone the Blu R1 HD due to privacy concerns.)

The obvious catch is that if you want the cheapest price on these phones, you have to subscribe to Amazon Prime, and you must agree to the advertising to get the best deal on the phones. But if you're already a Prime subscriber and you're used to an Amazon Kindle or Fire tablet that display similar ads, then it probably won't bother you.

The line-up of devices includes, four models from Alcatel, four from Motorola and one from Nokia. You can check out the specs for the different models to see which phone you like better. But most of the phones at this price point are similar in capabilities as well as performance.

Phones like the Moto E4, which is Motorola's cheapest option, come with lots of bells and whistles that pricier phones have. It uses the latest Android software Android Nougat 7.1 and has a fingerprint sensor, a removeable battery and a selfie flash all within a body the size of a chubby iPhone 7. But it's super cheap, only $130 without any advertising. (You can get it for $100 if you take the Amazon ads, and $70 if you get it on Verizon's prepaid plan.)

But Patrick Holland noted in his review of the product that there are times when the low cost shows. For instance, the processor is slow, the display is hard to view in sunlight and the camera is sluggish to process shots.

These are issues you'll likely find with any budget phone, particularly at this price. They all tend to use cheaper components, such as slower processors, less sophisticated display technology, and lower quality cameras.

As I noted above, all the devices in Amazon's Prime program are sold unlocked. But only the Motorola phones can be used on all four US carriers. The rest are GSM phones, which can be used on AT&T, T-Mobile or any prepaid brands that use their networks. Keep in mind that these other devices won't work on Sprint and Verizon or the prepaid brands that use their networks.

Other options

These aren't the only low-cost phones on the market. There are plenty of inexpensive smartphones you can buy through a carrier, such as the Samsung J30, which is available on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. But these phones will be locked to that carrier for a period of time, and depending on the specs they may not work on other networks, so do your homework.

Need more suggestions? Check out CNET's photo gallery of 11 Cheap Phones We Love.

Rick Broida, who writes the Cheapskate blog for CNET recently spent a week with the $180 Nokia 6 that is sold by Amazon to see if he could give up his iPhone 6 Plus for a budget phone. The verdict? Broida was impressed with the Nokia 6.

Personally, I really like the low-cost Motorola phones.

If you're willing to pay a little more than your stated $150 limit, I'd suggest the Moto G5. It sells for $230 without the advertising and $185 with the Amazon ads. For just a few bucks more, you will get a much better phone.

Holland notes that Lenovo, which makes the Motorola phones, has packed a lot of premium features and design into this inexpensive phone, making it a clear stand out in terms of value.

But if the Moto G5 is too pricey, last year's Moto G4, which is $170 without Amazon ads or $120 with the ads, is a solid phone. And of course, the low cost Moto E4 is the least expensive.   

The bottom line

All budget phones come with a trade off. And at the sub-$150 price point, you may have to sacrifice a bit more. None of these phones will be as good as an iPhone or high-end Samsung Galaxy phone. But what do you expect when you're paying a fraction of the cost? In other words, you can't buy a Hyundai and expect it to perform like a Mercedes.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

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