Do You Actually Need to Spend More Than £100 on a Smartphone?

By Commenter Resis on at

You have absolutely no spare cash. You don't want a contract. You've got a sellable old phone. You want a decent smartphone. And yes, you're a cheapskate. Can you buy a perfectly usable smartphone for the princely sum of £100?

Just over two years ago, I owned a Nokia N95. My contract was up. I was free! As a seasoned gadgeteer I had had my eye on those new-fangled touch-smartphone doohickeys for quite a while, and I had set myself some stiff targets regarding my next phone; it had to be about £100 (the value of my old Nokia) without a contract; had to be an Android phone, and had to have a great screen. I wanted the full Android experience but didn't want to shell out for a flagship phone.

After trawling the web reviews and customisation sites, there emerged one clear candidate -- the San Francisco, Orange's own brand of low-end smartphone, a.k.a. the ZTE Blade. Could this budget phone really give me a satisfactory Android experience? There were several challenges I put in place, before making my final decision...


Challenge 1: Does it look as good as a £500 phone?

The San Fran has an, erm, straightforward plastic design, with a really, really great 3.5" 480 x 800 OLED screen. But due to stock shortages I could only buy the white one. Sorry. But hey, I liked it!

A subjective success.


Challenge 2: Can you install all the apps you could possibly want?

Out of the box, I was initially disappointed. Android 2.1 Eclair was limited to app installs to the not-so-large onboard memory. About 25 apps in, and the low storage space warnings were rearing their ugly head. Grrr. Again, I had done my homework and I turned to the MoDaCo website where the good people there were developing custom Android 2.2 Froyo ROMs. Cue more tense moments as I attempted to flash the custom ROM. Wait. Wait. Failed. Non-working phone. Bugger! Re-read the instructions. Try again. Wait. Wait. Works! Yay!

Scary, but doing this on a non-contract phone worth £100 is a helluva lot less scary than on a £500+ device, I can tell you. I could now install a veritable shedload of lovely apps. Not to mention, have a stable overclock at 672Mhz -- compare that with the en-vogue HTC Desire of the time at 800MHz. Sweet.



Challenge 3: Will it run decent apps or not?

Using customised Android on this phone was a pretty fine experience, even with the relatively slow processor. The screen was way better than any phone of its price at the time, and still looks impressive to this day. Touch was responsive, albeit only 2-point multitouch. But would it run those all-important apps well? Yes and no. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Balloon Fetish (ahem) apps? Oh yes. Angry Birds? Just short of great. Total Bastard Combat Ultra 3D? Not on your nellie.

A qualified success!


Challenge 4: Does it take decent pictures?

No. Move along quickly please...



Challenge 5: Does it have the build quality of an expensive phone?

This phone impressed me by just working, no matter what I did to it. I dropped it several times, including a spectacular trip-on-kerb-stagger-stagger-stagger-fall at my local Asda car park while using the phone, which resulted in a torn jacket and jeans, and bleeding knee and elbow. And my wife who couldn't stop laughing. The phone's back had popped off, scattering the battery. I reassembled the now scuffed phone. It worked. The screen was still perfect. Impressive.

A painful success!


Challenge 6: Can you keep it current?

With a custom ROM, I managed to install Gingerbread, then Ice Cream Sandwich, and then Jelly Bean onto it. Lag did increase with each new version, otherwise no problems at all. Try that with a carrier-based OS!



tl;dr conclusion -- do you need to spend more than £100 on a smartphone?

No...ish. It is possible to get a phone with not-butt-ugly looks, which can hold its own against much more expensive brethren. It can do everything except run processor-intensive games really well, or take great photos. It can run the latest apps too. Just not at warp speed. And with a decent trade-in phone, it can effectively be free! Nothing feels better than free!

The situation today is even better -- the budget phones are much more powerful; have more memory and better cameras, so even a custom ROM may not be necessary. My budget phone ranks as one of my best purchases ever -- I still have it, and it's now my official spare phone. I won't ever part with it, and that's the best recommendation anyone can possibly give, right?

Resis (Paul Hodgson IRL) is a pharmacist and self-taught programmer who has a chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle habit.

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