That’s right, folks, to make up for the lack of posts over the past month or so I’m kicking this one off with a bang and giving you a pic of a ferret in a stocking right off the bat. But seriously this one was a bit overdue and I hadn’t done one of these in a few years and after seeing that horrible post Giz put out yesterday about “best cheap smartphone for every off contract need” I just couldn’t help myself, I had to do this one.
Why did I have to make this one? Because Giz’s list factored in mostly price in my opinion into their list and didn’t bother factoring anything relevant like how readily and quickly the OEMs provided updates, how good the OEMs customer support is, etc, etc, etc.
So my list is basically gonna be the opposite of theirs, who you should buy based not just on price but all the other important stuff that should go into any decision making when it comes to purchasing a smartphone.
Just as importantly though is the fact that I’m going to keep this list to devices that cost under $350. I know some might think “but that’s not cheap” but I’d argue otherwise. If you aren’t paying flagship prices then you’re getting a cheap phone period. Of course there will be some much more wallet friendly options in here, so let’s just get to it and keep in mind I’m gonna try and keep this in proper order of most recommended to least but I’ll give plenty of explanations for every choice on here along the way.
EDIT One additional item worth mentioning, every single phone on this list is for an unlocked U.S. GSM compatible version. If you’re with Sprint and Verizon and want a phone on this list you’re basically limited to the Nexus 6. Everyone else who is with any carrier that uses a SIM card is more than welcome to choose from anything they see below.
I know what you’re thinking. “Of course he went with the Nexus 6 right off the bat, he’s a Nexus fanboy!” And I am, I am not at all ashamed to admit that or have ever hidden the fact that I am. I’m a tinkerer first and foremost and that means I’m always partial to Nexus devices. In this case though it’s for a few important reasons.
First off, the Nexus 6 was last year’s flagship Nexus device. This is a phone that had the best specs possible near the end of last year and a price tag to match to the dismay of an incredibly vocal amount of people online who were spoiled by the pricing of the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5, both of which were outliers in regards to pricing for Nexus devices throughout the years.
Why is any of this important? Because quite simply you won’t find a better device for long term overall support or that matches it in specs.
This is a Google device and that means any and all updates come straight from Google, no carriers mucking about and delaying updates the way you’d normally experience with almost any other phone. On top of that is the fact that Google guarantees support for Nexus devices for two years and that means this one has another year of official Google support, that pretty much guarantees it’s gonna get the next big Android update come next year. On top of that this is a Nexus and that means the XDA community has it covered for at least another year on top of that. Don’t believe me? Marshmallow has been ported to the following device: Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, and Nexus 4. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. Those are all devices that have long been written off and they’re running a version of Android that most newer devices aren’t currently running and likely won’t for at least another month or so.
In regards to specs this thing was a beast upon release and then some, especially in regards to its monstrous to some display. That display though! I loved it when I had some hands on time with the phone. More screen real estate is never a negative in my book.
Price wise though this phone is all over the place. I’ve seen it as low as $280 recently for the 32 GB model. I’ve also seen the 64 GB one for as little as $380. So this is definitely a phone that you can get at a serious discount lately if you just keep your eyes scanning for sales here and there. And of course let’s not overlook the fact that you can get this phone used via Swappa for around roughly the same price and usually that means you also get various accessories for it too. FYI, buying off of Swappa is far smarter than buying off of Craigslist. [glares in the direction of his sister]
But that’s really more than enough to make it known why this is the phone at the top of my “damn, you should totally buy this” list.
Moto X (2nd Gen.) Pure Edition
I know, Motorola sucks now but bear with me for a moment and I’ll explain my reasoning behind this choice for second pick.
First off, this phone is phenomenal despite being a little over a year old and everything I said about it when I first reviewed it remains true now. Hell, I still own this phone and considering how regularly I upgrade that should tell you something about it, it’s still my daily driver and I don’t see a need to replace it just yet.
In regards to the stuff I’ve mentioned about Motorola officially sucking now that they’re officially Lenovorola, that still stands. Their decision to not update the AT&T and Verizon versions of this phone still pisses me and a few Odeckers off. I’m sorry about recommending the phone to those of you who are officially screwed going forward in regards to updates, but there’s no way I could have predicted that at the time of my recommendation.
That said, the Pure Edition is definitely getting Marshmallow and hopefully relatively soon. Now legally I can’t say how I know that but what I can say is that hypothetically if Marshmallow were currently on my device it definitely would be awesome. Take from that what you will. ; )
And much like the Nexus 6 this phone is randomly on sale for as little as $200 in its particular case. So definitely keep an eye out for said random sales online because you’d be hard pressed to find another 2014 flagship phone for that little of your hard earned dollars. Plus it’s on Swappa and you can investigate prices for it for yourselves.
Come next year though official support from Lenovorola will likely end but let’s worry about next year next year and enjoy the device now because it’s still an amazing device in my book. Besides, even if support officially ends for it the XDA community still has your back. This is made all the easier to support because the phone has an easily unlockable bootloader, something it’s AT&T and Verizon counterparts are sorely lacking.
This one is a rather obvious second, if you can find a Nexus 5 in decent condition then it goes without saying that you should consider buying it.
Everything that importantly applies to the Nexus 6 applies here as well. It’s a Nexus and it got Marshmallow and the XDA community will likely bring it whatever rolls out next year if Google officially ends support then.
Hell, this is still an amazing device even two years after its release and much like the Nexus 6 if you pay attention online you can find some killer deals on it. Newegg recently had it for just over $200. That’s for a new device fresh out of the box, not something refurbished. Which is absolutely insane. If I’d known the flash sale was going to happen I’d have picked one up that day and if you want some firsthand info on the device I know that a_blackpanther currently owns it and xeos recently parted ways with his when it officially bit the big one.
UPDATE The Nexus 5 is available via Expansys on serious sale right now, but FYI they’re refurbished models. You can pick up the 16 GB model for $130 in black, red, and white. Meanwhile you can snag the 32 GB model for $150 in black, red, and white as well.
This one is one of the few, aside from the Nexus 5, that I agree with in regards to Gizmodo’s article. Except I’m not as eager to recommend it as Giz and I’ll explain why.
First off, this is a lovely device. I genuinely think that about it, that glass back. Ask anyone who’s ever owned a Nexus 4 and there’s something about that glass back that is absolutely lovely to look at.
Also this is the only “small” phone of the ones I especially recommend, coming in at a “puny” 5 inches.
The one thing I see as a serious “pro” for this phone is twofold. It has an AMOLED display which makes blacks “how much more black can this be and the answer is none, none more black”. I love AMOLED displays and I honestly can’t remember the last phone I used that didn’t have one, maybe just the Nexus 4. On top of that it’s running Oxygen OS, which is basically stock Android with a few tweaks here and there and one of those is an AMOLED friendly UI that can be enabled pretty easily. So instead of blinding stock Android white everywhere, you get that “none more black” easy on the eyes one.
Additionally this phone fixes some of the “never settle” shortcoming that you were forced to settle for with the OnePlus Two. Notably there is a microSD card slot on this device, which is perfect given that it only comes in a 16 GB model. That microSD card slot though will support microSD cards up to 128 GBs. And while this phone is currently Lollipop an update to Marshmallow has been promised and given that it’s the new OnePlus device I don’t doubt they will ensure Marshmallow eventually is put on this device. Then again, it’s a OnePlus device. In the XDA community that basically puts it on par with a Nexus for community support. Although at present given how new the device is there’s not too much there to get excited about just yet. Also, per Marshmallow once the update hits this phone you’d be able to take advantage of Marshmallow’s ability to use external storage as internal. Meaning with a few dives into the Settings and button taps you could turn your 16 GB phone into potentially a 128 GB phone. Yep, you read that correctly. Basically your external storage is formatted and used as internal should you choose it to be.
And that’s really all the good I can say about the phone, the drawbacks for me were what upset me about the Giz article to begin with.
We’re still seeing some “why’d they leave that out” issues with the device. Namely NFC support is still lacking, which might not be an issue depending on where you live and the lack of NFC payments potentially being “not a thing here” entirely for you. But Android Pay is here in the U.S. at least and that means if you pay with your phone at present you’d be shit out of luck with the OnePlus X. Then again, yay physical Google Wallet card. So it’s a non-issue issue.
The one serious issue is OnePlus is known for having quality control issues. The OG OnePlus One was plagued by them, from issues with the backs to yellow displays and so on and so forth. OnePlus is also not a company known for great customer service regarding potential issues with their devices. I’m specifically referring to OnePlus basically saying “meh, we got paid already so it’s not our problem” when people reported issues with phones and being rebuffed with “sorry, we’re not seeing an issue here”. This happened to the point that people with said phones were specifically telling others to skip the hassle and only buy via PayPal so you could open a PayPal dispute which is the only way OnePlus would move on any issues with the device.
Also is the fact that with the release of the OnePlus Two and the OnePlus X the original OnePlus One has been seemingly forgotten. There’s no word at present as to whether it’ll get Marshmallow, the same also applies to the latest version of Oxygen OS. That’s not a good sign. Their original year old flagship device has seemingly been abandoned from a software perspective and that really gives me pause about wanting to get the OnePlus X, even if that damn glass back makes me really want it.
The other issue is that the device is notably lacking Band 12 and Band 17 LTE support, which respectively covers T-Mobile and AT&T. Having discussed this with various people on /r/Android I know that Band 12 support isn’t necessarily found everywhere just yet for T-Mobile, but it is found in some big metropolitan areas and at least one state only has LTE support on Band 12. That means if you’re in one of those areas you might not have LTE at all, then again if you’re lucky like I am you’ll be in an area that has other LTE Bands up and running and you’d be covered. The trick is knowing what is where and that’s not an easy thing to figure out. AT&T though is where you reach “wtf” territory, as I learned most of AT&T’s LTE network is already setup to utilize Band 17, so you’d seriously be at a loss if you’re with AT&T.
Additionally is the whole “invite only” thing OnePlus decided to stick to. Basically they are offsetting potential manufacturing cost by only making smaller batches of devices at a time and to deal with the limited quantities phones are purchasable on an invite basis. I’ve bitched about their invites far too many times to want to do so again but suffice it to say I think they suck and that’s a crappy way to get people to want to buy your phones. If I can’t buy it easily I’ll just buy something else and I’m not alone in that.
That said I’d be a real jerk if I didn’t share the following.
So yeah, you can pick up the phone this weekend without an invite, but you’d be doing so against everyone else. Keep that in mind and set fingers to F5.
Overall this phone has a lot to like but there’s also plenty to make me say “buyer beware” that Gizmodo seemingly forgot to mention at all. So if you like this phone and want it do your homework before pulling the trigger on it.
In keeping with the point of this post I’m focusing on the 16 GB model for “I’m not a liar” purposes. Every phone on here is cheap, damnit!
What applies for the pros for the OnePlus X applies here as well. Minus the AMOLED and AMOLED friendly UI stuff. This is the latest flagship for OnePlus and naturally that means it’ll be kept up to date through the year at least, plus there’s plenty of community support.
Plus it’s got a fingerprint sensor that numerous sites have been blown away with, it’s that good.
Then again all the negatives against the OnePlus X basically count here as well with some additions.
Notably this phone does not have a microSD card slot. So you’re stuck with whatever model option you buy.
But again every negative that goes for the previous phone goes here too, so really be careful deciding if you want this or not.
And for plenty of more info on the phone I highly suggest you read Android Police’s review of it entitled “OnePlus 2 Review: The Flagships Are Safe For Now”, it says a lot about the phone given that it was slated by OnePlus as a “flagship killer”.
ASUS ZenFone 2
This is one of those rare devices from an OEM that not even two years ago I’d have been hard pressed to recommend to anyone. ASUS is not known for putting out good phones. But they had a near instant hit with the ZenFone 2 and a lot of that is due to the pricing and specs.
Put simply you won’t find another phone with 4 GB of memory for that $300 price point. I dare you to try, but you’ll faill.
And that’s ignoring that you can pick up the 2 GB model (with 16 GBs of storage) for a cool $200.
There’s almost nothing to hate about this phone, minus the obvious lack of Band 12 support for T-Mobile but it gets every other Band and has HSPA+ support as well. So the lack of the one is a non-issue issue. It’s not a deal breaker.
What might be a deal breaker is just how much bloatware the phone comes with, which is a lot. The bright side that is surprisingly not as well reported in reviews as it should be is that this phone has one thing about its bloatware that almost no other has, it’s bloatware can be uninstalled. I know some of you just did spit takes, but it’s true. From what I’ve read in a few places it can be uninstalled entirely and root is not required to do so.
Although root is available, as the phone can have its bootloader unlocked and a custom recovery installed. It definitely has plenty of support from the XDA community.
The one thing I’d personally take issue with is the UI cause ASUS had to go and muck about with something they shouldn’t have, but seeing as how I personally use Nova Launcher it’d be another non-issue issue. As long as I don’t have to look at it too often I could live with it and I’m sure most of you could too. Or wouldn’t even notice in the first place.
Some amazing pluses for this phone is that it does have a microSD card slot, Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 compatibility, and ASUS has promised it would get Marshmallow. They just haven’t said when exactly on that last thing.
Perhaps the single most interesting feature though of this phone is that it uses an Intel chip instead of a Qualcomm one to power everything, but its performance is said to be almost on par with the more typically found OEMs chip. Intel is poised to be a serious contendor come next year, mark my words.
You could certainly do worse than this phone.
ASUS ZenFone 2 Laser
According to Android Police this is essentially a refine version of the ZenFone 2. Well, with a few minor changes.
This phone comes in at $199 for the 16 GB model and $249 for the 32 GB model, both phones come with 3 GB of memory and differ with their predecessor in that they make use of Qualcomm Snapdragon 615’s as their processor powerhouse. I jest about the powerhouse bit, but the 615 is no slouch.
Beyond that everything else is mostly the same with one notable difference, the camera on this one is better than it’s predecessor. I’m not big on pictures or photography in general in any capacity, so the best thing I can do is say read Android Police’s review and be sure to pay attention to the camera section if that’s something you care about.
UPDATE Newegg currently has the 32 GB model for $199, which is $50 off its normal price.
Rounding things out are some “sure why not” items
So last but not least if you’re really on a budget for devices I’m gonna do what I swore I wouldn’t do again and say get the Motorola Moto G and Moto E devices. If you’re really wanting to save as much as you can they really can’t be beat price wise but just know that Motorola is no longer the amazing company that it was. Their customer support is hit or miss, their update policy is now “fuck you” and I say that because the Moto E 2015 was on the market for exactly seven months before it reached its end of life support and that is unbelievable and downright appalling.
I mean they’re not bad devices, it’s just the company building them who’s now owned by a company that basically wanted the Motorola name and nothing else.
EDIT I’d like to add that despite Motorola not coming through on their lower end devices or at least one of them in particular the tinkering community has things covered and there are Marshmallow custom ROMs for at least half of them as of this weekend.
UPDATE Courtesy of MyPrettyFloralBonnet, Motorola is going to have some sales for Cyber Monday on devices like the Moto X (2nd Gen) 64 GB model and the Moto G (2nd Gen), among others.
I know, I know. There are other cheap options out there but in my opinion none of them are worth taking even remotely seriously. In my book you get what you pay for and when you buy cheaper offerings from lesser OEMs you’re basically playing a crapshoot in regards to whether you’ll get something decent or that you’ll have to be replacing within a year anyway.
Seriously, folks, if you want to get a worthwhile device without putting too big a dent in your pocket get anything that I listed above and just avoid anything Gizmodo recommended for the most part because their choices suck.
And now because I can more ferrets!
And I know there are some Canadians likely reading this, so I present to you a ferret wearing a toque!
And an action shot of a ferret running around while wearing said toque!
Anyway, if anyone has any questions, comments, etc just chime in below and I’ll get to you when I get to you. : )