It’s odd, but while a Benjamin can buy a pretty well-balanced tablet from a few manufacturers everyone’s heard of, finding a solid ultra-low-cost Android smartphone is still tricky business. Sure, there’s always the prepaid route, not to mention the possibility of signing two-year contracts to slash prices north of $500 to sub-$100.
But it goes without saying both those paths come with bumps on the road, lengthy obligations, or uncomfortable restrictions. And until the fully unlocked policy of America’s big four carriers is settled, many will need to pay an arm and a leg for total freedom.
Or settle for crappy, unreliable, China-made technology. And yes, trustworthy OEMs such as Meizu or Xiaomi dish out bang for buck champions like crazy, but for the most part, they remain exclusive to Asia and, at best, parts of Europe.
When they do ultimately swing by the States, their advanced age and exorbitant import taxes kill any shred of appeal. But don’t despair, as we’ve rounded up nine (half-) decent sub-$100 unlocked handhelds nonetheless, available for your convenience at Amazon. There were supposed to be ten of them, however we simply couldn’t find another to recommend to even our worst enemy.
9. Samsung Galaxy Pocket 2 – $99.95 with GSM HSPA+ support
We’ll be frank, the only reason the Pocket 2 made this list is its tender age. Launched in September 2014 with KitKat onboard, the cringe worthy 3.3 incher may even be in line for a Lollipop update… in a year or two.
Ah, who are we kidding? We’d rather go back to the days of Java-sporting feature phones than check out the stuttering of L’s normal silky smooth nature on a 320 x 240 pix res screen, “driven” by a 1 GHz Cortex-A7 chip and 512 MB RAM. Next!
8. Samsung Galaxy Star Pro Duos – $89.98 with 2G only
And Sammy wonders why, oh why they’re doing so bad in the low-end niche. It’s out-and-out shameful 2G-only “smartphones” are still being sold in this day and age, and although the mobile phone producer probably has nothing to do with Amazon’s third-party Star Pro listing, they should use their influence to nix it. Today!
But hey, at the end of the day, despite the connectivity shortcomings, horribly dated pre-installed software (4.1 Jelly Bean, really?), and dreadfully laggy 1 GHz Cortex-A5 processor, the Star Pro Duos looks better than the Pocket 2, thanks to a far superior 4-inch 800 x 480 pix res panel.
7. LG Optimus L5 II Dual – $98.78 factory unlocked
Still hard to recommend to a friend, this humble 4 incher offers 3G support and, though stuck on 4.1 Jelly Bean, has 4.4 KitKat on the way. It’s also rather stylish… considering, with a slim 9.2 mm profile, and packs a sizable… again, considering 1,700 mAh battery.
Oh, oh, oh, and the 5 MP rear-facing camera boasts LED flash. Downsides? Everything else, from the sluggish 1 GHz Cortex-A9 CPU to 512 MB RAM, no front cam and 4 GB internal storage.
6. BLU Advance 4.0 – $75.71 and up
Compatible with AT&T, T-Mobile, MetroPCS, Cricket Wireless, and any other GSM service provider you can think of, this baby easily achieves HSPA+ speeds and is a powerhouse compared to the snails above, with a dual-core 1.3 GHz MediaTek MT6572 processor under the hood.
Now, granted, we wouldn’t exactly call the 4-inch Advance a looker, as it’s just 56 percent (!!!) screen, and the rest bezels. Also, it’s a chunky monkey, and uselessly so, measuring 12.4 mm thick, and yet packing a 1,600 mAh cell. But all in all, it’s an okay choice for the money. Not the best, not the worst.
5. Huawei Ascend G520 – $99.90
Our first quad-core contender, the G520 was never meant to reach Western shores, so 3G coverage may be a little on the patchy side. We don’t particularly trust the seller either, and there’s no KitKat bump in store, which explains why Huawei’s large 4.5 incher isn’t a podium threat.
Nevertheless, it’s a handsome, beefy, smooth devil, with Jelly Bean onboard, a 5 MP LED Flash snapper slapped on its back, 9.9 mm thin waist, and 1,700 mAh ticker. It’s worth the risks ergo, if our following four budget throne candidates fail to hit the spot.
4. BLU Studio 5.0C – $88.32 and up
For a company with a measly five years of experience in the field, BLU Products sure knows how to make its gadgets attractive. The Studio 5.0C, for instance, is not only uber-cheap, but extremely fashionable, with a wide array of colorful paint jobs available and neatly compact body.
As the name suggests, this a borderline phablet, but the big-ass display is a lemon, with a sub-par 854 x 480 pixel count. Good thing you get pre-loaded KitKat, dual SIM support, a 5 MP rear cam with flash, and GSM compatibility nationwide.
3. BLU Dash 5.0+ – starting at $94 with 4G HSPA+ speeds
Another BLU? These guys are something else, and for 95 clams, offer quad-core speed, KitKat software, dual cameras, and a design worthy of a higher price tag. Once again though, it’s the 5-inch screen’s resolution that makes the Dash fall short of affordable perfection.
Well, that, the 512 MB RAM, and skimpy 4 GB native storage.
Okay, now we’re talking! Once upon a time priced at over $160, the 4.5-inch Fierce is nowadays available for half that dough. Confirming size isn’t everything, the compact handheld delivers 960 x 540 pixels resolution for 245 ppi, and is a multitasking champ, courtesy of its generous gigabyte of random-access memory.
A quad-core 1.2 GHz MediaTek SoC also helps it tower above all its rivals in raw speed. Such a shame it runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, and Alcatel remains mum on a possible KitKat promotion. Lollipop? It feels but a sweet, distant dream.
1. Motorola Moto E – $99 in black global GSM unlocked variant
It may not sound wise to purchase the first-generation E when a sequel is likely right around the corner, but if you think for a second Motorola will ever lower the ask further, you’re, well, delusional.
$99 is already incredibly low, and $30 off list, and charging, say, $90 or $80 would be almost like giving the phone away for free. Smaller than the Fierce, it’s got the same exact screen resolution and thus superior pixel density.
And no, perhaps the dual-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon 200 processor isn’t ideal. But paired with 1 GB RAM, and near-stock Android 5.0 Lollipop on the software side of things, it makes this thing fly. Then you have a 1,980 mAh battery that helps it last like a little Energizer bunny, and microSD support in case 4 gigs of space isn’t enough.
The king of the sub-$200 space (all hail the Moto G) strikes again.