Guide to buying cheap Android phones: specs and tips

12 August 2014

It’s very easy to get caught up in low price-tags and end up with a bad phone. This can lead to you making inaccurate judgements about the quality of certain manufacturers, or of the Android ecosystem as a whole.

There are three main things you should check when looking for at a super-affordable Android:

  1. Its default OS version
  2. Its hardware specs
  3. Its total price

This helps cut through the incredible number of cheap Android smartphones out there, some of which you definitely want to avoid.

NOTE: We’ve given a lot of general information in this guide as a way to future-proof it. Check the dates of the last time the article was updated before absorbing the more specific information.

Android version

When grabbing a cheap smartphone, you want to make sure that it was released recently. The easiest way to do this is check its default OS version. Try to go no further than two updates back. If you do you’ll find yourself not only with weak hardware, but an OS that’s inefficient and inelegant compared to modern standards.

Whatever OS version you get will probably be what you have for as long as your device lives. Cheaper Androids rarely see OS updates.

Android versions each have two names: one is its number, the other is an alphabetically-dictated sugary food. Try looking up a timeline of Android versions if you’re uncertain.

Currently the most recent version is Android 4.4 KitKat, but 4.3 is still a decent option.

Absolutely avoid any phone whose Android version starts with “2”. It’s surprising and terrifying how many Android 2.3 Gingerbread devices are still kicking around on cheap-deals websites.

The Specs

It’s usually a good option when looking for a cheap device to go for something that would have been pricey two years ago in terms of its hardware.

This rule doesn’t apply to on-board storage; most cheap phones really cut corners here. If you want decent storage make sure the phone has a microSD slot for expansion.

With today’s specs that roughly outlines an absolute minimum of:

  • A dual-core 1GHz processor
  • 5MP camera
  • Display resolution of 480x800 (WVGA)
  • 1GB of RAM
  • microSD slot (max often only 32GB for these models, but the more the merrier)

If you like you can sacrifice on the camera, but the processor and especially RAM are important for satisfactory handling of a modern OS.

A better goal is to aim for something like:

  • Quad-core processor of any power
  • 8MP camera
  • 720p (720x1280) resolution
  • 1GB of RAM
  • microSD slot (at least 64GB capacity)

Remember to check on-board storage. If it's anything below 8GB you'll probably end up needing to buy your own microSD card pretty quickly.

Be wary of pricing tricks

Always compare prices of a phone or any gadget from multiple sources. Just because a phone may look cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good deal, you could find it for anything up to 30% cheaper somewhere else.

Make sure you check for hidden charges. Some of the more questionable sites around the web will add on extra fees for warranty, a wall charger, and especially for delivery. Double-check the final cost of the product once you get to the online checkout screen.

Usually you can find an Android smartphone that fits the descriptions above for between $129 and $249 somewhere online, but prices are prone to vary. And don't forget: reading reviews always helps.

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