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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

For $100 to $300, these cellphones are a smart buy

The iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS offer an array of features, but carry pricetags of $1,000 and up.
The iPhone XS Max and the iPhone XS offer an array of features, but carry pricetags of $1,000 and up.(Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

I just bought my teenage son a $100 Android phone, and why not? It’s certainly good enough for him. Funny thing is, it’s almost good enough for me too.

And that explains the current travails of smartphone giants Apple and Samsung. Both placed big bets on big sales of phones costing $1,000 or more, only to discover the market for such costly super phones is far smaller than they’d hoped.

On Tuesday, for instance, Apple announced that iPhone revenue fell 15 percent in the December quarter, compared to the same period in 2017. That’s a massive drop, especially during the Christmas shopping rush, and it proves there’s a limit to how much we’ll pay for a new phone.

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Especially when you can find a multitude of phones that cost far less and range in quality from decent to excellent. With help from T-Mobile and AT&T, I tried several and came away certain of one thing: My next phone won’t cost anywhere near $1,000, and yours doesn’t have to either.

There are three basic approaches to saving money on cellphones: buy the newest low-end phone, buy a new old phone, that is, a model from several years back, or get a refurbished version of a newer phone.

Option One will save you the most money. The Moto e5 Cruise that my son has cost $100 at Cricket Wireless. Its from Lenovo, the Chinese company that acquired the phone business of Chicago-based Motorola, inventor of the cellphone. It has a reasonably fast processor, and a slot for upgrading the skimpy 16 gigabytes of memory by as much as 128 gigs. It has a fingerprint scanner to unlock the phone, and with Wi-Fi and 4G LTE, it’s fine for streaming music, like the gospel and Afropop tunes my son favors.

Poor video performance is a common failing of the cheapest phones. I got similar results while testing a different Motorola phone, the G6 Play, as well as handsets from South Korean phone maker LG — the K30 and the Stylo 4 Plus. All three are priced between $200 and $300.

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All four of these Android phones come with fast battery charging that can power them up fully in under two hours. Apple makes you purchase a special power adapter for this feature, but it’s standard equipment on these cheap phones.

But the more expensive phones offer a few extras. The G6 Play has big-time battery life, holding up for two-and-a-half days between charges. And the LG Stylo 4 Plus, which AT&T sells for $300, has a stylus for scrawling notes or sketching images on the screen. It’s a cut-rate version of Samsung’s far more costly Galaxy Note phablets.

But if you’re looking to watch videos or shoot photos, prepare for a disappointment. The camera in Cruise takes pixelated, grainy photos and videos look as if the screen had been coated with a thin layer of dust.

If you’re mostly into making phone calls, checking e-mails and exchanging insults on Twitter, each of these cheap phones will get it done for you. But for avid photographers and YouTube addicts, none will measure up. Prepare to spend more.

T-Mobile, for instance, carries the 6T. This phone comes from OnePlus, a Chinese company that’s become a best selling brand in India. The United States may be next, because the 6T approaches the quality of top-tier phones, but costs just $580.

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You get a big step up in photo and video quality. The dual-lens camera enables sharp close-ups and portrait photos with a pleasantly blurred background, though colors seemed bland and cold.

Its 6.4-inch video screen uses an organic light emitting diode display, just like the top iPhones, with lovely results. I watched some of the new Netflix miniseries about Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, and the rich, sharp images almost made communism look good.

The OnePlus 6T has a facial recognition feature, like iPhones. It also has fingerprint detection, but not the button device that earlier iPhones pioneered. Instead, you scan your finger right through the screen. It’s a little slow on the uptake, but works more often than not.

In all, it’s a second-tier phone at a second-tier price, from a company you’ve probably never heard of. If you’re going to spend that kind of money, why not buy from the best?

Consider an older-model phone that’s still in production. Apple makes the still-excellent iPhone 7, and will sell you one for as little as $450 with 32 gigabytes of memory or $549 with 128 gigs. This phone was state-of-the-art in 2016, and the art hasn’t advanced much since then. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8, a superb Android phone that cost nearly $1,000 in 2017 today sells for $600 at Best Buy.

And right now the world’s awash in refurbished phones whose previous owners traded them in. Both Apple and Samsung clean up these old phones and resell them with a one-year warranty. You don’t get much of a discount: A refurbished 128-gig iPhone 7 from Apple is $469, just $80 less than buying new. You’ll find steeper discounts at retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart, but usually with shorter warranties — often just 90 days.

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I’m eager to see how Apple and Samsung will rebound from sluggish sales of their priciest phones. But they’d better not expect any help from me, or my son.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.