At my local grocery store, there’s a display of cheap Android smartphones that use the store’s wireless service. You can buy them off-contract for less than $100 — often under $50 — then pick up a refill card and you’re good to go.
Or are you? After several years of using cheap Android smartphones myself, I’ve run into a lot of problems with them. And I ended up replacing them frequently, which helped remove any savings that I would have gotten from using them. Here are the problems that I ran into, and the much better (but still cheap!) alternative that I replaced them with.
The bargain-basement hardware that most of the cheapest phones use has little or no room for games and apps. And if you don’t think that’s a problem right now, wait until you go to try out a game or an app that you heard about online or that a friend recommended and aren’t able to get it to run.
You can usually add storage to them with a microSD card. You often have to, in order to even put music on them or take photos. These might cost an extra $20 or so, and aren’t a bad deal since they have as much storage as an iPhone would have and you can reuse them with phones that you get later on.
Unfortunately, with Android phones you can’t just put the whole game or app on your SD card. All or part of it has to be on the smartphone itself. And Google requires the manufacturer to put all of its Google apps on the phone, even if you don’t use them and even if they take up too much space. You can’t move them to your SD card, even if you figure out how to do it with other apps, and you may well run out of room for anything else before you’ve even put anything else on your phone.
While the iPhone and Windows phones get regular operating system updates, which add new features, cheap Android phones rarely if ever do. Most of them are stuck with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a version which came out in 2010, and the remainder usually run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich from 2011. Not only do these versions lack some modern features, they also can’t run certain apps.
As computer scientist Daniel Pocock explains, many Android apps — including Facebook — can read your incoming text messages. And the worst part is, you give them permission.
When you install a new Android app, it shows you a list of “permissions” that it wants, like access to your camera or to “services which can cost you money.” The trouble is, it’s hard to interpret, partly because of some technical jargon and partly because there’s no one to explain what you should actually be careful of. And except for doing things like an antivirus scan — which still lets some malware through — Google doesn’t screen the apps on the Google Play store, the way Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft do for theirs. So it’s up to you to figure out whether each app is harmful or not.
The cheaper alternative
Pick up a $59 Nokia Lumia 520 (on AT&T) or a $69 Nokia Lumia 521 (on T-Mobile). They will last you longer, with much better specs, more frequent updates, a safer app store, and 8 GB of built-in storage. And with the Windows Phone 8.1 update, you can put your whole game and app collection on your microSD card.