Best cheap Android phones

Time was when buying a cheap Android phone meant having to make do with a really sluggish device, running an old version of Google’s operating system that locked you out of the most exciting apps on the platform.

Happily, times have changed as more and more mobile makers have jumped aboard Google’s Android bandwagon. now established as by far the most popular phone platform in the UK, prices have been driven downhill.

For around £100 or less, you can put a pay as you go Android smart phone in your pocket that you won’t be embarrassed to show off in public.

Spend your pennies wisely and for £100 it’s possible to bag a mobile with a 1GHz chip, a 4-inch screen and an upgrade path to Ice Cream Sandwich — the newest-but-one iteration of Google’s OS.

If you can’t afford £100, there are cheaper ‘droids out there — although it obviously follows that the less cash you spend, the less exciting an experience you should expect.

Around the £80 mark, there are some solid options with chips in the 800MHz range. if your budget is really tight and can only stretch to, say, half of that, the Android you end up owning will be a distinctly under-powered creature. Save up a few pennies and you’ll be rewarded with a much more satisfying smart phone.

It’s really worth stressing that there can be a considerable difference in performance at the cheap end of the Android market, so spend your money wisely.

Even the cheapest brand-new ‘droid should be running Android version 2.3 these days, known as Gingerbread. currently, as little as £40 can buy you a new Gingerbread-flavoured Android, so don’t settle for an older iteration of the OS. Anything that comes out of the box running Froyo or earlier isn’t worth your attention.

Having Gingerbread — rather than the newer Ice Cream Sandwich — means you’ll miss out on some ICS-specific features. you also won’t be able to download Google’s Chrome for Android browser. but frankly, with a budget this small, you’re better off owning an adequately powered Gingerbread phone than frustratingly under-powered ICS.

Of course, just because your budget blower runs Android Gingerbread, it’s not guaranteed to be super-slick. Not all cheap ‘droids offer the same experience — many will be very under-powered and will struggle with simple tasks like web browsing (due to a tiddly engine). Such weedy phones will be good for only very lightweight tasks like viewing mobile versions of websites, sending SMSes and using lightweight apps. if your mobile ambitions are larger than that, you’ll need to save up for a more powerful handset.

Pretty much all budget Androids will be skinned with the mobile maker’s own software sitting atop the operating system — but some come swaddled in such a heavy wrapper that it really degrades the experience, slowing it down and/or making the interface much more cumbersome than it needs to be. Expect to encounter the ugliest and most annoying Android skins on operator-branded phones.

On the surface, such phones may offer fairly impressive hardware for the money. but all too often, the trade-off is extensively branded, fiddly and sluggish software — meaning that, overall, the device is really irritating to use. if you’re considering an operator-branded phone, trying before buying is essential to avoid disappointment.

On the hardware front, cheap ‘droids sport a range of chips, starting at a lowly 600MHz (or less) and rising to a respectable 1GHz. Ideally, you should bag the most powerful processor you can afford — unless it’s bogged down by a really awful Android wrapper.

For sub-£100, don’t expect to find multi-core chips — at least not yet. if you can eke a few more quid out of your overdraught, there are some nippy dual-core handsets in the £150+ range. Multi-core devices are typically better at multi-tasking. So if you want a smart phone for rich web browsing or gaming, try to save up for a dual-core pocket rocket.

Like the processor, screen size will also vary considerably depending on how much you spend. the largest pane you should expect to trouser for £100 or less is likely to measure around 4 inches on the diagonal. Most of the phones in this price range won’t be so generous. Three or 3.5-inch displays are pretty common. some super-cheap handsets will have screens under the 3-inch mark. At sub-3 inches, typing gets very cramped. So unless you’re a schoolchild, aim for a minimum of 3 inches.

Screen resolution will range a lot. Simply put, the more pixels, the better, as low-res screens are tiresome to look at for long periods, with on-screen content appearing fuzzy and washed out. really low-res screens (sub-150 pixels per inch) are seriously unpleasant on the eyeballs — and may even give you a headache. Avoid if at all possible.

Regardless of how cheap the phone is, you should still expect a capacitive — rather than the old-fashioned resistive — touchscreen display. you might still encounter the odd resistive screen, at the bottom end of the price range, but they’re best avoided as they’re much more clunky to use. Cheap capacitive screens can feel rubbery to the touch but at least they don’t require a stylus/fingernail to poke and prod them.

It’s also still possible to find a smattering of BlackBerry-style Qwerty-packing budget Androids. However, this form factor is increasingly endangered in these touchscreen-obsessed times. Qwerty-carrying Androids are also typically slightly more expensive than all-touchscreen phones. if you have your heart set on a physical keyboard, you might need to save up more than £100 to bag your phone.

Ultimately though, the Android experience works best on a full touchscreen device. there are lots of great software keyboards to improve typing on a touchscreen — so my advice is, unless you intend to send scores of emails, ditch the keyboard and save up for the best full touchscreen device you can afford.

Another smart phone essential — even for budget shoppers — is a camera. your budget blower should certainly come with a snapper slapped on its rear. At the lowest prices, you might only get a 2-megapixel camera — good for nothing but really basic pics. but spend a few pounds more and you might be rewarded with 5 megapixels. the photo quality of budget Androids won’t be anything to write home about but some 5-megapixel handsets can produce decent, colourful snaps — fine for uploading to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

One handy tip for budget shoppers is to hunt for an Android with a microSD card slot so you can affordably expand internal storage. that way you can buy a handset with a small amount of built-in memory — hopefully meaning your initial outlay is lower — and bulk the storage out on the cheap with your own SD card.

Above all, do your research before splashing your hard-earned cash. Reading reviews is great but there’s also no substitute for getting your own fingers on a phone. take a trip to your local mobile shop to check out your options before parting with the contents of your piggy bank.

Here’s the best of the current crop of bargain Android phones, as reviewed by CNET UK.

Best cheap Android phones

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