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Do you have a smartphone?  Chances are you do.  Whether it is an iPhone, an Android phone or any one of the many other smartphones out there it is clear that the age of the feature phone (dumbphone) is past.  This year, for the first time, smartphone sales have exceeded dumbphone sales worldwide.

The explosion of smartphones is due to the steady march of technology getting better and lowering costs.  Smartphones have dropped in cost from $600+ in the early 2000’s to $400+ a few years ago to an average in the $300 range today.  They are no longer unaffordable to the average consumer.  The two fastest growing markets for smartphones is China and India where millions of people are replacing their old dumbphone with new smartphone models and cheap smartphones make up a good portion of that market.

In the U.S., unlike much of the rest of the world, it is common for consumers to buy a phone on contract.  This lets us purchase the latest high end smartphones at a deep discount in exchange for being locked into a carrier contract for usually 2 years at high rate plans designed to cover the cost of the subsidy and more.  You probably pay more during those 2 years on contract than if you had purchased your phone off contract and went with a cheaper month to month plan.  

People in other countries often don’t even have the choice to lock themselves to a carrier.  They have to pay for phones off contract and that puts newer phones like the iPhone5s and Galaxy S4 that cost $600 or more out of reach.  Even mid range phones in the $300 range may be too pricey.  In response manufacturers have started selling cheap smartphones and consumers are responding.

Here are some notable options as of November 2013 that are available in the U.S.  

  1. ZTE Open:  This is the first cheap unlocked off contract phone that caught my attention.  It runs Firefox OS so it’s not for everyone.  It’s also obviously made with cheaper materials and has lower performance.  The good news is that it is only $79.  A good temporary replacement phone.

  2. Nokia Lumia 520:  This phone is locked to AT&T, but it’s off contract and only $99.  It is possible to unlock it, but you would have to go through AT&T or another unlocking service.  It runs Windows Phone 8. A common comment about this phone is that while it’s cheap it still runs smoothly unlike other cheap phones.  A good phone for basic use if you aren’t partial to Android or iOS.

  3. Motorola Moto G: At $179 this phone is not as cheap as the previous two, but it is off contract and unlocked.  It has fairly good specs for the price and runs Android, the most popular mobile OS. It also reportedly runs smoothly unlike other low end Android phones.

As someone interested in technology and as a developer these low cost phones interest me because I can more easily pick up a phone to tinker and test with.  In the past it would have cost hundreds of dollars to purchase a phone for development work and having multiple phones wasn’t an option.  These new cheap phones give me the ability to test apps and sites on different devices instead of in simulators or emulators.  Also because the phones have lower specs it allows me to make sure my apps work on slower phones with less RAM and storage space.  Hopefully this translates into more stable apps that are available to a wider range of devices.  

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Comment by Mika Leuck on November 28, 2013 at 1:13am

Good post! These sound like great options for a backup phone or an affordable way to try a different mobile OS.


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