Smartphones have been around for a while now, and we've got to the stage where owning one doesn't make you a technophile or a cash-flushed show-off. In fact the only people who don't use smartphones these days are technophobes, burner-using drug dealers, and a few pockets of hipsters who swear that music has never sound better than when it was on a cassette.
To have a great smartphone experience, you don't need to drop many hundreds of pounds on the latest flagship offerings from the likes of Apple, Samsung, and HTC. You can get something great for a more reasonable price, even for less than £100. But there are more than a few terrible budget phones out there too, so which ones are worth spending your hard-earned cash on? To figure that out, we put seven budget phones to the test in order to crown the best phone for under £100.
There are a lot of different things to consider when you're buying any phone, especially when you're dealing with budget models. The most important factor to consider is battery life, which was tested by streaming the entirety of 22 Jump Street on Netflix over Wi-Fi with brightness at maximum. Design was also a major point of interest, both of the phones themselves and their respective user interfaces. The phones that have visually appealing hardware and software have a significant advantage over those without.
Other points of interest included quality of the display and sound, along as how much un-installable bloatware was present on each device. Google apps were, for the most part, ignored, since they're an unavoidable presence on Android devices these days.
The only things that didn't really factor into the testing were price and the camera. Most of these phones are around the same price point anyway, and, let's be honest, the difference between most of these cameras is going to be minimal at best. I will say this, though: you do get what you pay for.
For a phone that costs as little as it does, the Smart Prime 6 is remarkably nice to look at. When I think of budget phones I tend to think of something hastily thrown together out of cheap plastic, looking more like a child's toy than a miniature computer. The Smart Prime 6 is not one of those phones, and from a looks perspective I can't imagine it's something you would be embarrassed to be seen using in public.
One of the things I really liked was the fact that the Smart Prime 6 doesn't deviate too heavily from the stock version of Android. The only major changes come in the form of some Vodafone branding here and there, and an optional simplified layout.
I really like the simplified layout as a feature, even though I wouldn't use it myself. Budget phones are great for the likes of children or people who don't really get technology, and the simplified UI for the Smart Prime 6 takes away most of the complications that come with Android and cuts the phone down to its basics. That means limited customisability, and you're restricted to changing quick-launch apps on the home screen and a small list of favourite contacts. It also makes it easy to access the core features of the device, and accessing the phone dialler, contacts, and apps lists was as easy as swiping my finger.
Display-wise there's nothing to complain about, and the 720p screen does a very good job of making things look good. The Smart Prime 6 also seems quite bright compared to the other phones, which could prove useful at times. Loss of battery life is a concern there, but since the phone came out of the test with 78 per cent power remaining you probably don't need to worry too much.
The speakers weren't too great, though, and the sound did come out sounding a little bit tinny. It's also only a single speaker on the back of the phone, which did muffle the sound coming out if you placed down the phone screen-up.
A couple of minor points that are worth mentioning include the fact that the haptic feedback is quite strong, which was a little bit strange when I first started using the phone, and it does have physical navigation buttons. You can decide whether that's a good thing or not, but it didn't really affect the bezel space in any way compared to other phones and it does mean that you don't lose a centimetre or so of space on the screen.
All in all the Smart Prime 6 is a great phone, and it's a little bit shocking that it also happens to be the second-cheapest phone on this list. If you're looking for something cheap for yourself, or even a technophobic relative, the Smart Prime 6 is an ideal choice. [Buy here]
Much like the Smart Prime 6, the Harrier Mini is a deceptively nice-looking phone. If you took the EE logo off the back cover, then at a glance it could easily be confused for something towards the higher end of the mid-range smartphone spectrum. The back plate helps out in that respect, and while it's not metal you can't really tell from looking at it.
The phone is a pleasure to use. It feels incredibly lightweight, has a great display, and has an incredibly clean layout not too dissimilar from the stock version of Android. The only major downside in terms of hardware is that, like the other phones tested, the Harrier Mini only has a single speaker on the rear of the phone. The sound was a little tinny at times, but it was not really a major issue.
Following the battery test the Harrier Mini came out with 80 per cent of its power left, the highest of all seven phones tested. We all know battery life is the most important feature a phone can have, so getting as much juice as possible is a major bonus – even if it is only two per cent more than Vodafone's Smart Prime 6.
Major disadvantages come in the form of storage and bloatware. Only 4GB of onboard storage was available on the model I had*, with 2.4GB available for general use. It also happens to have nine extra pieces of bloatware and not a single one of them can be uninstalled, which is not great, considering a number of the phones I tested let you get rid of any unnecessary software.
The Harrier Mini is a decent phone, and if you'd prefer to go with EE rather than Vodafone then it would make a good purchase. Especially since it'll be getting EE's Wi-Fi calling sometime over the summer. [Buy here]
*EE claims that the phone comes with 8GB of storage on its website. I got in touch with EE to double check the specs of the retail model and will update this when I hear back.
When it comes to budget phones, Motorola has a reputation for producing some rather impressive budget phones. From what I've seen the Moto E is no different, even if it wasn't the most impressive budget device available.
It's got a fairly nice design, even if it's not quite as sleek as the Harrier Mini and Smart Prime 6. I appreciate the removable band round the side of the phone, and found it an inventive way to disguise the SIM and microSD port and keep a consistent design across the entire phone. At first glance it seems a little odd, but it suits the Moto E well.
The layout of the phone is fairly standard, and is clean version of Android not dissimilar to the stock version. It does have a couple of Moto specifics, but the only one of note is the gesture controls. The only one present in my review model opens up the camera with two twists of the wrist, which, while basic, is incredibly handy on a phone that doesn't have a dedicated camera button.
Amazingly the Moto E was the only phone tested to have a front-facing speaker, meaning it doesn't suffer from the muffling that afflicts the other phones when you put them down screen-up. The sound itself is nothing to go nuts about, but it's all perfectly adequate for the majority of people.
The quarter-HD display does mean that the screen seems fuzzy when using the Moto E, but it's not really a deal-breaker. You don't see any serious pixelation in the display, and having a less impressive screen is probably one of the factors that kept the battery level at 75 per cent following the battery test.
At £100 the Moto E feels a little bit expensive, but that doesn't really put it any major disadvantage. It has its pros for sure, but it's not got the most impressive hardware either. If you want something very basic it could be worth it, I'd suggest getting it in a colour other than white, though. [Buy here]
If you've seen any of the recent HTC flagship offerings, then the Desire 510 is going to look remarkably familiar. It's a fairly standard HTC look, but made out of rubber-like plastic. It's not as classy looking as the metal-effect Smart Prime 6 or Harrier Mini, but as far as plastic goes it's not too shabby.
Obviously, being an HTC device, the Desire 510 deviates from the stock version of Android quite considerably thanks to HTC Sense. Navigating the settings hasn't changed all that much, but customisation options is a little bit different and may take some getting used to if you're not familiar with HTC devices. It's not too difficult to get your head round, though. I did find that the system menus were a lot brighter than I'm used to with Android, and the changes in font type and size still feel a little bit strange.
One of the things that really bothered me was the storage space on the Desire 510. The phone itself comes with 8GB of onboard storage, but only around 3GB of that is available. That's means you'll have to put the microSD card slot to good use fairly quickly. You can get a small amount of space back by uninstalling some of the pre-installed apps, but that is almost negligible. It doesn't help that there are five pieces of bloatware installed that can't be removed.
That said, I was surprised to find that the Desire 510 had a sub-720p resolution. There's some blurriness to the display, but it's not offensive to the eyes like some lesser-resolution phones. The battery life isn't quite as impressive, and following testing it was left with 66 per cent of its power remaining. It's not dreadful, but other phones have shown that it's possible to do better,
It was also disappointing that HTC decided not to include it's trademark Boomsound front-facing speakers, but buying budget handsets does require some sacrifices. Still, having a single rear-facing speaker is rather annoying given the hardware included in HTC's flagship devices. That being said, I have no complaints about the quality of the sound. It's just a shame that it has to deal with the muffling that comes with a rear-facing speaker.
The Desire 510 was a nice phone to deal with, and it has an awful lot going for it. That being said it definitely falls short in many places. If you're a fan of HTC phones, then I'd say you can't go too wrong with the Desire 510. If not, I'd recommend something better and probably cheaper. [Buy here | Buy direct from O2]
I'm a fan of Sony's Xperia line, owning a Z3 myself. Sadly I can't really say many fond things about the Xperia E3. On the surface it looks like a standard Xperia offering, but on closer inspection it's nothing of the sort.
The design isn't particularly pleasant, and despite being made from a similar rubbery plastic as the Desire 510 it feels slightly tackier. What's more, the phone is far too large for the screen, and there's a good two centimetres of unused space present on the top and bottom of the display. It's a poor aesthetic choice, and it feels like the phone could look a lot nicer if that wasn't the case. Presumably it was done to try and make the phone as thin as possible. However I did find it impressive that Sony have managed to cleverly conceal the fact that the backplate is removable. That caused some initial confusion when I was trying to find the slot for the SIM card.
The interface of the phone is relatively clean, though Sony have chosen to add a bit more colour and substance to the menus. This is a good thing, and it makes navigating through settings more pleasurable than on a lot of other phones. I also like the fact that the apps list has a separate menu to make uninstalling and managing the apps much easier than stock Android. It's much more efficient that trawling through the internal settings menus.
However, the downside is that everything is slightly large on the E3 compared to other Android devices. Couple that with 480p resolution it means the display doesn't look that great, and there is a fair bit of pixelation. There's also an awful lot of bloatware. I counted 12 pre-installed apps that couldn't be removed, seven of which were Sony apps that the phone could really do without.
As seems to be the standard with budget handsets, there is a single speaker on the back of the phone. The sound itself isn't terrible, but it did seem rather tinny at times. Of course the positioning also means that you have to keep the E3 screen down to avoid muffling. There's also only 4GB of onboard storage, and 1.75GB of storage is actually available for use. Anyone planning on buying this is going to have to bundle it up with a memory card for the E3 to be any use.
I suppose none of those are major deal-breakers, and the phone's saving grace is its battery. The test yielded fairly average results, with 66 per cent power leftover after the battery test. It's not incredible, but it's certainly not a terrible result. That low-res display does have one advantage, then.
My opinion? Don't buy the E3, it's not very good. It's certainly not the worst phone I had to test, but it's far from being the best. Maybe it would be worth it if you were able to get it for a considerable discount. [Buy here | Buy direct from Vodafone]
Microsoft has really been hitting the budget smartphone market hard over the past year or so, and there are a few sub-£100 phones to choose from. The Lumia 535 is one of the more recent releases, and if it's representative of the other options available it means Microsoft is going to have to step up its game in the near future. I was also impressed when it came to software, and while there is a bit of bloatware installed on the phone only two of them cannot be uninstalled.
To say the phone is all bad is a little bit unfair, and I was quite surprised by the strength of the single rear-facing speaker. In fact when testing the phone I found that even when the speaker was facing down, the volume and sound quality didn't suffer very much. The display quality was also quite good for a sub-720p phone, and some residual resolution fuzz aside the screen generally looked good.
The rest isn't all that positive, most obviously with the design of the phone itself. The review model I had was bright orange, which I wasn't particularly fond of. I have a feeling that it would look great at a rave, but out in the real world it seemed far too conspicuous. Thankfully it's also available in other colours like green, blue, white, and black. The back plate is also quite awkward to remove, and my nail-biting self needed something to help me pry it off and access the battery and card slots.
The 535 also didn't fare that well in the battery life test, falling from fully charged down to 48 per cent over the course of the two-hour test. That's pretty poor when compared to other devices tested, and only the two-and-a-half-year-old S3 Mini fared worse.
When it comes down to it, the 535 is let down by the simple fact that it's running Windows Phone 8. While Live Tile and quick access to the apps list are both handy, navigating the menus feels like a real chore. There doesn't seem to be any logic to how the menus are sorted, and the fact that it's all plain text doesn't help the navigation problem. Hopefully the ever-looming Windows 10 will take steps to solve that problem and make the menus more user friendly.
If I were you I'd wait until then before even considering buying the Lumia 535, or any other Windows Phone. If Microsoft can solve the UI problems, then maybe the Lumia range can become a more serious contender. A bit more power to the battery wouldn't go amiss either. [Buy here]
Despite being nearly three years old at this point, the S3 Mini still seems to be quite popular. Popular enough to still be readily available and advertised in phone shop windows at any rate. Unsurprisingly it's also at the very bottom of this list
The main factor that lets the S3 Mini down is its battery life, and following the streaming test it came out with a mere 45 per cent charge left over; the worst result of the seven phones tested. No doubt that's down to its age, and the small 1,500mAh battery. The display isn't that fantastic either, and everything on-screen has a very noticeable fuzz to it.
The UI is fairly easy to use, and despite the major reskin that comes with TouchWiz, anyone familiar with Android should have no problem navigating the phone. It's a little bit different, and, aside from the fact that the placement of the back and menu buttons have been reversed, it's no major issue. Sadly the icons and design look ugly and dated, and so completely different to the smartphone design we've seen in the time since the S3 mini was released. Another problem is that the phone does come with an awful lot of bloatware, 15 examples to be exact, and none of it can be removed. That means roughly only half of the onboard storage is still available. While that sounds like a lot of room is taken up, it isn't too dissimilar to the other phones tested.
On a more positive note, the S3 Mini does come with a classic Samsung Galaxy design which makes it nice to look at. It's also fairly lightweight due to its small size. I also have no complaints about the sound, though that fact that it's on the back of the phone is rather awkward and leads to significant muddying of the sound when the is phone is left facing screen-up. It's also easy to access the battery, if that's the sort of thing you look for in a phone. God knows a removable battery is a rarity these days.
While it has aged well, the fact is it's still an old phone and it's probably not worth buying unless you can getting for a very good deal. Unfortunately £90 is a lot to spend on what basically amounts to obsolete technology. It doesn't even have 4G for crying out loud. [Buy here | Buy direct from O2]