Shopping for a cheap smartphone is no easy task. With so many manufacturers competing for a place in consumers' pockets and purses, you'll find even premium smartphones for next to nothing if -- and this is a big if -- you're willing to swallow a two-year service contract. Some of the smartphones we recommend used to command a couple hundred dollars, even with a service plan, but have been around just long enough to trickle down to the budget realm.

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Our Top Pick

Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung Galaxy S4 Review

Buy on  $137.99

With the Samsung Galaxy S5 coming on the scene, its predecessor dropped in price to become the reigning budget smartphone champion -- for the moment. The Galaxy S4 is an incredibly fast device with a gorgeous display and loads of features. There's almost nothing this smartphone doesn't do well.

Our Picks
Samsung Galaxy S4

Not too long ago, Samsung Galaxy S4 reviews anointed this the hottest Android phone on the planet. Now, with the introduction of the S5, you don't have to look very far to find the S4 available for very little (starting at $50 and briefly spotted for 1 cent, Amazon) when you sign a new two-year contract. In a rave review at CNET, an expert rated the phone 4.5 out of 5 and named it an editors' choice. This is an incredibly fast phone, thanks to a high-end, quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, and the display is dazzling, with excellent color and contrast. The CNET expert tested the phone's camera and reports that photos and video look outstanding. Her Samsung Galaxy S4 review does pan the plastic construction in an age when premium handsets are usually made of metal. One other knock: The screen is pretty reflective in bright daylight.

A reviewer from Tech Radar unequivocally endorses the so-called Super AMOLED screen, a type of display known for vibrant color; he also commends its sharpness. The camera performed very well in the site's testing, although images don't turn out quite as crisp as photos taken with the HTC One in low light. The battery life also proved very good, but of course your mileage will vary depending upon how you use the phone. An hour-long media binge designed to simulate a commute drained the 2,600 mAh battery by only 10 percent.

Samsung has upgraded the Galaxy S4 to the latest Android 4.4 (KitKat) operating system, but the cheapest S4 models on the market still have Android 4.2.2. In addition to the 13-megapixel rear camera, which shoots video in full HD, there's a 2 MP camera that faces back toward the user. The display is quite large, measuring 5 inches, and boasts full HD, 1920 x 1080 resolution. The Galaxy S4 comes with 16 GB of memory and features a microSD card slot to accommodate even more. As for connections, the phone supports 4G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and even MHL.

The negatives cited in Samsung Galaxy S4 reviews are no more than nitpicks: The handset is made of plastic rather than premium materials and too large for some hands to hold comfortably. The screen is somewhat reflective and some users may be overwhelmed by the very, very long list of features, especially on the camera. All this considered, there are precious few phones available right now that can compete with the S4. It's big, it's beautiful, and it's blazing fast. The display and camera have few peers, and this is one of the only phones we reviewed that includes a microSD card slot so you can expand the memory.

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HTC One Review

HTC One reviews tend to compare the 2013 incarnation of this phone to its Android arch nemesis, the Samsung Galaxy S4. The HTC One (starting at 1 cent, Amazon) holds its own against the S4 in nearly every respect and even bests the Samsung in some ways. For example, an expert from Engadget points to the aluminum body relative to the plastic construction of the S4. The site's reviewer also lauds the HTC One's display, which renders natural colors and sharp text and is actually easy to read in bright daylight. Another strength, according to this expert: The camera can take very good photos in low light, something most smartphones struggle with. Overall the HTC One performed excellently in Engadget's testing, and that includes the phone's function as (lest we forget) a phone. It effectively cancels out background noise, which significantly improves the quality of phone calls.

CNET reviewer appears particularly impressed with the power and speed of this phone, which was the fastest the editor had ever used at the time of writing, in mid-2013. He praises the display for its vibrant, bright colors and considers the call quality pretty good, although voices occasionally sound flat. One surprising spec on the HTC One: a 4 MP rear camera. The camera on the Galaxy S4, for comparison, boasts 13 MP. Still, the HTC One camera has optical image stabilization, a feature that prevents blurring and until recently was confined to dedicated digital cameras. It's also designed to capture more light, which leads to more colorful pictures and better image quality in low light. According to CNET's HTC One review, this technique works well and yields photos with accurate colors. The battery tested better than a 2,300 mAh capacity might suggest: 9 hours and 37 minutes.

The HTC One's specifications are pretty impressive. It uses a 4.7-inch, 1920 x 1080 HD display. The phone is available with 32 or 64 GB of memory (although no microSD card slot) and runs on a speedy 1.7 GHz, quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chip. The HTC One uses Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) with HTC's Sense customizations. It can record 1080p HD video and has a front-facing camera with a resolution of 2.1 MP. Buyers can also check the boxes for 4G LTE, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth support.

The HTC One certainly has some attractive features. Its metal build makes it feel more durable than the Samsung Galaxy S4, and the smaller display is easier to manage. The performance is super-fast and largely flawless. Although many consumers head straight for Samsung, a good look at the HTC One makes it hard to pass by.

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LG G2 Review

The focal point of LG G2 reviews is the massive 5.2-inch display. It's only large enough to show off HD video, games, and other apps, it's also vibrant and crisp, according to a CNET editor. Similarly gorgeous colors appear in photos snapped with the phone's camera, which appear sharp with excellent detail, although the reviewer observes that colors tend to look just a little cool. Phone calls made with the LG G2 (starting at 1 cent, Amazon) sounded quite good in the site's testing, with clear, loud voices.

Count a reviewer from Phone Arena as another fan of the large display. LG located the physical buttons on the back, though, which makes the handset feel cheap in the tester's opinion and takes a bit of time to get used to. This reviewer found that the G2 excels at taking indoor photos, which is a challenge for most phones. The 3,000 mAh battery, big enough to power a top-of-the-line processor and that sizable display, proved better than the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4 batteries in Phone Arena's testing. The reviewer declares the LG G2 an outstanding smartphone overall.

This phone's 2.26 GHz, quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor is even faster than the Snapdragon 600 in premium phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. The LG G2 has a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 2.1 MP front camera. The rear camera features built-in optical image stabilization, which helps prevent motion blur from shaky hands and only recently made the leap from digital cameras to smartphones. Both cameras shoot in full HD. This phone uses the Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) operating system. It comes with 32 GB of memory and supports 4G LTE, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi connections.

Consumers who can't palm a basketball may find this device cumbersome, but if you like a large screen, the LG G2 is for you. The 5.2-inch display looks excellent, as do photos taken with this smartphone. The performance is top-notch, thanks to a top-end CPU, and LG doesn't sacrifice call quality. Unless you object to the size, this phone has no serious, or even moderate, shortcomings.

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Motorola Moto X Review

The Moto Maker, a tool for designing your phone with custom colors and software, makes a splash in Motorola Moto X reviews. This unique and appealing offering (starting at $50) started out exclusive to AT&T but has expanded to all four major carriers. Reviewers declare the Moto X a good phone even in its original black or white (starting at 1 cent, Amazon) aside from one unfortunate weakness: The sub-par camera consistently disappoints. Moto X reviews say it's respectable but simply doesn't compete with the current crop of cameras on other premium phones. Despite that shortcoming, a Motorola Moto X review at PC Mag rates the phone 4 out of 5 stars. On the plus side, the phone is a comfortable size, with a bright and very colorful 4.7-inch screen and a shape that fits well in the hand. The display owes its vibrant color to the AMOLED technology behind the screen. That likely also contributes to the phone's superior battery life, which bested the HTC One in PC Mag's testing. Motorola's zippy CPU didn't produce any lag and the reviewer found the phone quite responsive.

A reviewer from Tech Radar admires the solid build and vivid, bright display of the Moto X. The reviewer agrees that this phone runs fast and the battery life is excellent. Call quality on the Moto X is also reliably good; voices sound loud and clear with no distortion. Again, though, the camera proved frustrating in the site's testing. Some photos turned out beautifully, but others inexplicably did not.

The Moto X runs on a 1.7 GHz dual-core processor that reviewers say performs well enough to measure up to more powerful competitors. The phone uses Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) with some useful Motorola-specific features built in. A Gizmag comparison of the Moto X and Samsung Galaxy S4 highlights conveniences such as Motorola Assist, with tailored settings for when you're driving, sleeping, or in a meeting, and Active Display, which the reviewer considers the best way any phone handles notifications while on sleep mode. The screen resolution is 1280 x 720, so it displays 720p HD rather than 1080p. Gizmag assures readers the screen is still sharp, if not quite at the level of the Galaxy S4. The 10-megapixel rear camera and 2 MP front camera both shoot 1080p HD video. Like most smartphones, the Moto X supports 4G LTE, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. You'll find this phone with 16 GB or 32 GB of memory (and no microSD card slot).

A flakey camera is going to be a deal-killer for many, but if you're more interested in the phone than the camera, the Motorola Moto X is a good, user-friendly choice with compelling customization options and features. The phone runs smoothly and performs very well in all other respects.

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini Review

If you expect this phone to be simply a shrunken version of the Samsung Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 Mini reviews warn you'll be sorely disappointed. The processor isn't as fast, the camera isn't as well-equipped, and the smaller display brings non-HD resolution. That's not to say the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (starting at 1 cent, Amazon) isn't a solid handset. A reviewer from PC Mag found the call quality excellent, with no distortion and crystal-clear voices. The 1,900 mAh battery can power the phone through nearly 12 hours of talk time and PC Mag's Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini review lists battery life as a pro. The camera can take some pretty good photos in daylight, according to the reviewer, but the photo quality suffers in low light.

An expert writing for Digital Trends likes that the S4 Mini takes a more compact, manageable form than the S4. This reviewer, like the one from PC Mag, managed to take very good, colorful photos in bright light, but low-light photos looked fuzzy. In testing the phone showed some occasional lag when launching apps or performing other tasks.

The display on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini measures 960 x 540 pixels and 4.27 inches, quite a bit smaller than the 5-inch monster on the S4. The phone relies on the Android 4.2.2 operating system and a 1.7 GHz dual-core CPU, compared with the 1.9 Ghz quad-core processor on the S4. The rear camera resolution is 8 megapixels and the phone has a 1.9 MP front camera. The S4 Mini incorporates 16 GB of internal memory and offers a microSD card slot to expand the memory by up to 64 GB. As you'd expect, the phone supports 4G LTE, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini lacks the panache and power of its full-size counterpart, but it is quite a bit more compact, which will certainly appeal to some users. In terms of performance and features, the S4 Mini feels like a middle-of-the-road model. It's not bad, but there are plenty of fancier and more powerful phones available for little or no cost with a two-year contract.

Buying Guide

A Buying Guide to the Best Cheap Smartphones

It's clear that expert reviewers consider the Samsung Galaxy S4 (starting at 1 cent) and HTC One (2013) (starting at 1 cent) two of the best phones on the market, and they head our class as well. Both phones offer blazing performance, good cameras, and laundry lists of features. The LG G2 (starting at 1 cent) boasts the largest display and fastest processor among the phones we researched. It also has an excellent camera that takes good photos indoors as well as outdoors. The Motorola Moto X (starting at 1 cent) seems to have an X factor that leads many experts to favor it over smartphones with better specs. For an added cost of about $50, you can design your phone when you order it -- a novel touch. This model's weakness is its camera, which sometimes takes poor photos. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (starting at 1 cent) is a decent phone and may appeal to consumers who consider the S4 too large, but in terms of specs and features, it lags current premium phones. You can get a top-notch smartphone for just a penny upfront, if not free, which makes the S4 Mini less of a deal.

We based the starting prices for these cheap smartphones on the assumption that a bargain hunter would be willing to sign a new contract (typically two years). That's the surest and often only route to the lowest price or a free phone. The top nationwide cellular service providers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon -- offer smartphones for free or very little money up front, along with corresponding plans. (Note that T-Mobile no longer subsidizes phones, instead charging customers the full cost of the phone or a monthly fee until the phone is paid off. A DailyFinance video explains how this model can save money in the long run.) Other places where you can find good smartphone deals online include Amazon, LetsTalk.com, Radio Shack, and Walmart. Phones sell for different prices with different service providers, and you may be required to purchase a specific plan or choose particular options depending on the phone you buy.

Android Phones vs. Other Platforms

More than anything else, the thing that makes a smartphone "smart" is its operating system. The OS creates the digital interface for using the phone and provides a platform for apps. Most of the models we researched are cheap Android phones that use Google's mobile operating system. The very latest version, Android 4.4 (a.k.a. KitKat), made its debut on the Google Nexus 5 (starting at $30) and is rolling out to other smartphones such as the Galaxy S4. In the meantime, our other top picks come with Android 4.2.2.

Apple has, at long last, released an iPhone with a less-than-premium price at the outset. The iPhone 5C runs the company's newest mobile operating system, iOS 7, and starts at $99 with a contract -- still considerably more than many leading Android phones. There are also a handful of cheap Windows phones on the market, such as the Nokia Lumia 928 (starting at 1 cent). This Verizon exclusive uses Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 operating system, a platform that has proved just as viable as Android or iOS. RIM launched BlackBerry 10 to a largely positive reception in 2013, but the brand has lost its grip on the marketplace.

Before you settle on a smartphone, it's worth fiddling with the interface and stopping by the app store to check out the inventory. The vast number of apps available for Apple products and cheap Android phones reflects the popularity of those platforms. Neither the BlackBerry nor the Windows Phone app pool is nearly so large, although there are still plenty of good choices.

What We Looked For in the Specs

HD Display.

Video, photos, and games call for an excellent display, and smartphone screens have improved so much in recent years that many now support full HD. The best cheap Android phones have large, vivid displays with resolutions up to 1920 x 1080. The Moto X displays 720p HD instead of full 1080p, like others on our list, but reviewers say only close, side-by-side scrutiny reveals the difference. Along with the Galaxy S4, the Moto X represents a good example of an AMOLED screen. The acronym stands for active-matrix organic light-emitting diode, a technology that renders bright colors and deep blacks, for a look that appeals to many users and can help conserve battery life. A review by the web publication Ars Technica explains the pros and cons of the AMOLED screen.

Smartphone displays vary quite a bit in size, from 4 inches to 5.2 inches. Smartphones with larger displays seem to be the trend among users who spend more time watching video, playing games, and surfing the web than talking on the phone. However, a larger screen can prove unwieldy on a handheld device, as CNET points out in a review of the LG G2, which has a 5.2-inch display. Some users prefer a smaller phone such as the 4.7-inch Moto X or the 4-inch iPhone 5C, both of which are easier to hold and use with one hand and fit more easily in a pocket. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini has a 4-inch display with a resolution of only 960 x 540, which does not qualify as HD.

At Least 16 GB of Storage.

Today's consumers need ample room for photos, videos, and music. Even cheap smartphones now start at 16 GB of memory. Some give buyers the option to upgrade to 32 GB or even 64 GB for a higher price. Keep in mind that most smartphones don't have microSD card slots, so you're stuck with the storage built into the phone. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is the only phone on our list that includes that option to expand the memory.

4G LTE.

Any smartphone worth buying today should support 4G LTE, the latest and fastest cellular data network technology and a welcome advance for multimedia purposes, such as streaming or downloading video. Most service providers have rolled out 4G networks across much of the country, although there are still areas with poor or no 4G LTE coverage. Verizon and AT&T were the first to build out their networks and T-Mobile and Sprint have spent the past year catching up.

What We Ignored in the Specs

Megapixels.

With smartphones doubling as cameras for many users, manufacturers are engaging in a megapixel arms race right now. Some of our recommended phones boast stout 13MP cameras. However, models such as the HTC One demonstrate that a lower-megapixel camera can take very good pictures. That phone's 4MP camera uses larger pixels to capture more light and performs much better than other models in low light. Thus, we looked to smartphone reviews as a better indication of a camera's quality than the megapixel count. We also looked for features that used to be found only in dedicated digital cameras. A handful of smartphones, such as the HTC One and Google Nexus, now include optical image stabilization, which reduces blurriness from camera shake, in addition to basic controls such as autofocus, flash, and digital zoom.

Cheap smartphones now come with front-facing cameras, as well, so users can video chat and take those infamous selfies. These cameras typically have unimpressive resolutions ranging from 1.2 MP to 2.1 MP. For their purposes, though, front-facing cameras can do just fine with far fewer megapixels than a phone's primary camera.

Smartphone Reviews

To make our recommendations, we consulted smartphone reviews from various experts who have done hands-on testing with a variety of models. Reviewers look for speedy smartphones -- any lag or stuttering is a clear shortcoming in the phone's performance. Displays should be bright and colorful, with good detail and sharpness. Smartphones increasingly pull double-duty as cameras, so photo quality is another big factor in reviewer ratings. When it comes to battery life, the expectation is that a phone should get through the day on a single charge.

Nimble Performance.

Smartphones are sophisticated devices that essentially function as mini computers. The best cheap smartphones have powerful quad-core processors, although some phones with dual-core processors can also zip through apps and games with no lag. The latest mobile games may push a phone's processor, but the best models still run smoothly. You should notice very little stuttering or sluggishness when opening applications, switching apps, or performing other tasks with one of the models we recommend. For the most part, smartphone reviews conclude that our top picks deliver broad functionality without sacrificing speed.

Reviewers particularly praise the powerful LG G2 (starting at 1 cent), with its top-of-the-line 2.26 GHz, quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip. It impresses a reviewer at Phone Arena, among others, with its incredible speed. The Samsung Galaxy S4 (starting at 1 cent) and HTC One (2013) (starting at 1 cent) are also high-powered phones that use quad-core Snapdragon 600 processors. Experts from CNET and Tech Radar review praise the S4 for its fast, 1.9 GHz performance, which was nearly unmatched among the phone's rivals when it was reviewed in mid-2013. On the other end of the spectrum, a reviewer from Digital Trends observes that the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (starting at 1 cent) occasionally lags or stutters when opening apps or fulfilling other duties.

High-Quality Display.

A smartphone screen should be bright, colorful, and easy to read even in bright daylight. Most displays meet reviewers' expectations as far as brightness and color are concerned. Be aware that some smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Motorola Moto X (starting at 1 cent), use AMOLED screens, which produce much more vibrant colors than the typical LCD screen. Some users like the oversaturated colors on these displays, but others don't.

Even a high-quality, bright display can be hard to read in bright daylight. That's one of the few criticisms the CNET reviewer levels at the Galaxy S4. The HTC One, on the other hand, is easy to read in bright daylight, according to an Engadget reviewer. A PC Mag reviewer knocks the screen on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini for showing less-than-crisp text, no doubt a product of its low resolution.

Capable Camera.

Thanks to higher resolutions and advanced features, the quality of images shot with a smartphone camera is inching closer to what you get with a dedicated digital camera. All our top picks can also record HD video. Photos from a good smartphone camera should have accurate colors and good detail. Ideally a camera would snap good-looking photos in low light without the aid of a flash, but that's a tall order even for the better models out there. Smartphone reviews gripe that indoor photos taken with the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini look fuzzy, for example. Most of the smartphones we reviewed have snapped at least respectable, if not excellent, photos in expert testing. A reviewer from Tech Radar expresses frustration with the Moto X camera, however. Oftentimes it shoots very nice-looking photos, but some inexplicably turn out poorly.

Good Call Quality.

At the end of the day, a smartphone is still a phone and should be able to conduct a seamless conversation. Certainly the reception from a service provider has a lot to do with that, but the handset also plays a role. Voices should be loud and clear on both ends, without static or background noise. Generally speaking, the smartphones we looked at satisfy experts' and customers' expectations for call quality. Even the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, which struggled in other respects, draws praise from PC Mag.

Long Battery Life.

Smartphones are power-hungry devices that place a lot of demand on their batteries. The length of time you can go between charges depends greatly on how you use your smartphone. Heavy users put their phones to work throughout the day, streaming music, shooting and posting photos, texting, emailing, and so on. Most of the smartphones we recommend can meet these demands for most of the day -- nine hours or more -- but you should expect to recharge your phone every night. Even moderate users, who can get a bit more mileage out of their phones' batteries, should prepare to measure a phone's battery life in hours rather than days. The LG G2 has the biggest battery of any smartphone on our list, at 3,000 mAh, but also the brawniest, most demanding processor and display. The Motorola Moto X has proved a model of efficiency. It has a smaller battery than most competitors, at 2,200 mAh, yet demonstrates excellent battery life in testing by Laptop, among others, outdoing both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One.

Features Comparison

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Review Score:
Product Title
Operating System
Processor
Display
Cameras
Storage
Product Title
Operating System
Processor
Display
Cameras
Storage

Samsung Galaxy S4

$50
Android
1.9 GHz quad-core
5 inches, 1920 x 1080 (1080p HD)
13 MP rear, 2 MP front
16 GB

HTC One

$0.01
Android
1.7 GHz quad-core
4.7 inches, 1920 x 1080 (1080p HD)
4 MP rear with optical image stabilization, 2.1 MP front
32 GB

Motorola Moto X

$0.01
Android
1.7 GHz quad-core
4.7 inches, 1920 x 1080 (1080p HD)
10 MP rear, 2 MP front
16 GB

LG G2

$0.01
Android
2.26 GHz quad-core
5.2 inches, 1920 x 1080 (1080p HD)
13 MP rear with optical image stabilization, 2.1 MP front
32 GB