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When is a smartphone good value for money, and when is it simply cheap?

As much as we gush over quad-core processors and gorgeous industrial design, the fact of the matter is some people simply don’t need such things. They want more than can be found on a featurephone, but without breaking the bank. The Orange San Francisco delivered that in spades: you may have had to deal with a customized version of Android 2.2, but where else were you going to find a WVGA AMOLED screen and easy hackability for £99? Needless to say, it was a runaway success, representing one of the best value for money smartphones ever.

The budget smartphone market continues to heat up, with Huawei and ZTE taking front and centre positions as well as providing their phones to the UK networks for rebranding. But what separates a smartphone from being good value for money and simply being cheap?

What kind of performance can you live with?

If you’re willing to live with an Android offering that dives below the £100 threshold, then you’re going to have to make some sacrifices on performance. Take the Huawei Blaze, for example. If you play your cards right you can pick one up for £50 from Phones4u, unlocked. That sounds like a mighty tempting price at first, this gets you a 600Mhz processor, 480×320 resolution on a 3.2” screen, and only 512MB of storage unless you shell out separately for a microSD card.

600Mhz does not give you a lot of horsepower to play with. It’s sufficient for phone calls, texting, and the odd bit of browsing, but you’re never going to see the fluidity or overall experience you’d get from even a mid-range smartphone. You’re also going to run into frustration quickly if you’re browsing sites with heavier content, and newer games aren’t going to run so hot either.

PPI, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Live with Low Resolutions

Typically you’re going to be confronted by low resolutions on budget smartphones. Display quality is usually the first sacrifice when it comes to cutting costs, and most people probably won’t mind in the quest to save a few pounds.

There are some gems out there that hold the high resolutions you seek. Sure, you’re never going to see qHD or 720p displays at low price points, but WVGA (800×480) is within your grasp. The ZTE line have proved this time and time again: the San Francisco delivered a WVGA (AMOLED or TFT) screen, as does the sequel. Display quality isn’t what you’d get from an IPS display, but the bump in resolution is a boon when it comes to web browsing and watching videos. The Motorola Defy (which was very briefly offered up for £99) is also equipped with a 854×480 display.

Mirror, Mirror

The Orange San Francisco II and the T-Mobile Vivacity are pretty much the same phone. Both are made by ZTE, both packing the same 800Mhz processor, RAM, and camera, just with tweaks depending on what the network wanted. At first this detail may seem inconsequential. If it’s the same phone, you’re getting the same experience, right?

Not so much. The Orange San Francisco II is loaded with Orange’s customizations to Android, while the T-Mobile Vivacity is mostly a stock Gingerbread affair. The hardware has also been tweaked on the Vivacity, with capacitive Android buttons and an arguably nicer hardware design. So even though the two phones are identical in terms of hardware specs and price (£99), the T-Mobile Vivacity is worth the look over the San Francisco II in terms of value.

Hack the Gibson

If you didn’t like the bloatware found on the Orange San Francisco, then there was a vibrant ROM and modding community waiting for you. Users quickly flocked to the device thanks to the easy SIM unlock and ability to load custom ROMs, and it wasn’t long before the popular CyanogenMod graced the handset. The Monte Carlo (aka the ZTE Skate) has also seen some nice success in this department. If you want some Ice Cream Sandwich on your Monte Carlo, that’s entirely possible thanks to CyanogenMod 9 ports.

The San Francisco II unfortunately hasn’t quite reach the same heights, and the same can be said of other budget handsets. Perhaps the phone isn’t popular enough, or the OEM makes it extremely difficult to flash ROMs (like Motorola). If being able to load custom ROMs on your phone is important to you, then it’s best to do the research on XDA Developers or MoDaCo first to see if your future phone is supported on a regular basis, or at all.

Again, this caters to the type of user you are – most people would be perfectly happy with a stock ROM or software customizations, but if you’re looking to squeeze the most potential out of your phone and don’t mind putting the effort in, it’s an important category to consider.

Hand me downs

Consider the following: for around £120, you can buy a second hand HTC HD2 and run almost any operating system you want on it. You want a taste of Ice Cream Sandwich? You got it. More of a Metro man? Load Windows Phone 7.5 on there, good sir.

The HTC HD2 is always my go-to device for superb value for money: you get great hardware compared to budget offerings: a 1Ghz processor and 4.3” WVGA screen combined with HTC’s excellent build quality. If you’re willing to tinker with flashing ROMs, then the fact of the matter is it’s the best budget smartphone money can buy.

    

The Samsung Galaxy S doesn’t cost much more on a second hand basis either and there are many deals to be had depending on your price range.

That’s not to say there aren’t caveats to going the second hand route: you’re probably going to be stuck without warranty, the condition of the phones can vary greatly, and you’re going to be spending more time keeping an eye on forums or eBay to secure a good deal. But if you’re willing to expand your horizons beyond new and boxed phones, then you can attain some serious amazing phones for not much money at all.

End of Line

At the end of the day, just because a smartphone can hit a magical price point doesn’t mean you should instantly swoop in and pick one up. It all depends on the type of user you are: if you simply want to play around with Android, or just want the most basic smartphone for calls and texts and the occasional app, then the cheap handsets are for you. If you’re looking for legitimate value for money, you need to weigh up all of the above and try and find the best fit for you.

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