Smartphones -- by which I mean proper, iPhone/Android handsets that you'd actually want to own, not Windows Mobile 6.5 monstrosities -- have been around for seven or eight years. Although the tech has changed drastically over that time, the price for a flagship device has remained at around £600 or so. That, unfortunately, is still a lot of beers.
Mercifully, budget handsets have got a lot better. These days, £150 or so will get you a phone that you don't want to instantly smash into a brick wall, and can really do most of the things that the latest iDevice can, admittedly with a little less flair.
To find out what the absolute best cheap handset is, we rounded up and put to the test the five most promising devices in the £100-200(ish) range: the rave-reviewed Moto G, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, Sony's Xperia SP, Nokia's Lumia 630, and the EE Kestrel (a rebranded Huawei Ascend G6, more or less).
Out of the five phones on test, there's basically two you should consider buying: the Moto G, if you want four-point-some inches of excellent but soulless phone; or the Lumia 630, if you want a handset that has a smidgen of personality, but is also well-built, fast, has a simple UI and is generally a pleasure to use.
The Moto G is a marvel of engineering and economics -- an utterly fantastic machine that has no business costing about £125 (or a little more for the 4G version, which adds -- you guessed it -- a 4G radio and a microSD card slot).
On paper, the G's specs match up well to everything bar 2014's high-end flagships like the Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8. The processor is a 1.2GHz chip which, paired with 1GB of RAM, isn't going to win any speed awards -- but honestly, when actually using it, you're hard-pressed to tell the difference between the G and something like the LG G3, which has a monstrous, laptop-eating processor under the hood.
That speed can probably be attributed to two things: Motorola's choice of software, namely an unskinned version of Android 4.4, without any of the bloat that Samsung, LG or Sony like to add on; and a screen that's a lower resolution than most high-end Android phones, since a screen with fewer pixels is easier on the phone's processor.
Bottom line: the Moto G is plenty fast enough for everything you'll ever want to do with it. There's the very occasional hang-up on a more graphically intensive game, but I'm yet to test a phone that doesn't glitch now and again.
And, one big benefit to the slightly lower specs is decent battery life. The G is comfortably an 'all-day' phone -- no need for a mid-afternoon charge in the office, unless you've spent the entire morning sadistically trying to torture your battery into submission with some ungodly combination of GPS navigation, Bluetooth streaming, and using the screen as a torch. I was normally getting to the end of my day with 10-15 per cent battery left, though, so don't forget to plug in overnight, or there'll be no morning Twitter-check for you.
Design-wise, the G is probably best described as 'unoffensive'. While trendy judges with carefully groomed facial hair and expensive glasses aren't going to be lining up to praise the G's curved, soft-touch rubber body any time in the near future, it does have a kind of rugged practicality that's fairly pleasing to the eye.
More importantly, the G fits in your hand well -- the soft-touch rubber back and gently contoured edges meant I never felt in danger of dropping it, and the buttons and ports are all in the right place, meaning I can even reach the volume button with my entertainingly small hands without too much difficulty.
As already mentioned, the Moto G runs the latest (for now) version of Android, 4.4, without any kind of skinning on top. That's a good thing -- Google's operating system is more than good enough to stand on its own, without a glitzy, bloated extra software layer on top. As a result, the Moto G should also get software updates almost as soon as Google releases them -- no tricky software to mess things up! -- and, of course, you have access to the full gamut of Play Store apps, unlike on phones like the Amazon Fire, which don't get to play in Google's app store.
The only real negative is the camera -- a disappointing 5MP sensor that'll probably just about do Snapchat duties, but not a lot else. Focus and metering are both terrible, and photos are fairly grainy in anything but the most ideal of lighting conditions.
Overall, the Moto G is probably the best phone to buy if you want the closest thing to a £600 flagship smartphone that you're going to get for £125. Sure, there's no bells and whistles -- no fingerprint sensors or heart-rate sensors or glitzy Beats-branded speakers on show here, and heck, you don't even get NFC -- but in terms of getting about 90 per cent of the performance for less than a quarter of the price, the Moto G is unstoppable.
The only other phone out of this line-up that you should really consider buying is the Lumia 630. In many ways, it's the polar opposite of the Moto G: where Motorola's handset is subtle, efficient, and almost boring, the Lumia attacks you with its almost-offensive orange-ness. (Though it's also available in green and black.)
The Lumia 630 runs Windows Phone 8.1, which marks it out from every single other device in this test (all of which run Android). Windows Phone has never been quite as good as iOS or Android, either in terms of features or in terms of the number of apps available.
With Windows Phone 8.1, though, things are arguably now good enough that I'd say anyone can use a WP device as their main smartphone, and not want to fire up an industrial-sized shredder for a carefully planned 'accident' after 48 hours. 8.1 added a number of small-but-important features, like a notification centre. The app store has also been growing steadily, and while there's still a laundry list of neat iOS/Android apps that you won't find on Windows Phone, at least the 'core' apps (Facebook, Twitter and the like) are now somewhat polished. Whereas previously, I'd use a Windows Phone device for a week, before longing to run back to the warm embrace of a 'real' iOS/Android device, the Lumia 630 feels like a complete enough package to use day-to-day without inducing rage.
Windows Phone does come with some major benefits, as well. The user interface is a refreshing change from the home-screen app grid that you'll find in iOS; the OS runs super-slick, even on a cheaper device like the Lumia 630, and it's arguably more intuitive for a first-time smartphoner to use.
The hardware design is where the Lumia particularly excels, though. For a phone that can often be found selling for under £100, the Lumia does an excellent job of not feeling cheap. The body is a single piece of (in my case, orange) plastic, but it still manages to give the impression of being well-built -- there's no sign that this is a budget phone from the hardware, at all. And, as a few different girls pointed out to me, the colour makes it easy to find in a handbag.
A few other notes: there's a built-in motion tracker, which lets you use your phone as a fitness tracker, or to see how far you've walked on any given day; battery life is fairly excellent, normally managing to scrape me through two days of solid usage; there's a microSD card slot, which is handy if you want to use your phone as a music player, and the camera is decent, but the omission of a flash definitely hurts when you're trying to take grainy life portraits in some grimy dive bar.
It's also worth noting that the Lumia 630 can't use 4G networks, but if that's a deal-breaker, the Lumia 635 adds that ability on for a few extra quid.
The bottom line is this: the Lumia 630 is hands-down the phone I'd recommend to people who aren't addicted to their smartphones. If you want 'a phone' that will do pretty much everything a smartphone should do, but for a small amount of money, and manage all that while looking good, the Lumia 630 is probably the one you should go for.
Best of the Rest
Sony Xperia SP
You can actually read our full review of the Xperia SP here. The short version is, however: it's an excellent phone, but it's last year's excellent phone. Standout features include the decent camera app, good battery life, and slightly quirky design. However, Sony's bloatware layer seriously slows things down, to the extent where the phone feels sluggish compared to the Moto G.
There's another good reason not to buy the Xperia SP -- price. Although it's a good phone, with a fairly great camera, it sells for about £175 these days, which is a major step up from the Moto G or Lumia 630. Unless you absolutely need the best camera money could buy, there's no real reason to consider the Xperia SP.
The EE Kestrel is basically a rebranded Huawei Ascend G6, which is no bad thing -- the specs that have been crammed into the (slightly cheap, plasticky) body are impressive. The phone runs at a good lick, and if you can get past the slightly childish EE skin that has been put on top of Android 4.3, it's actually pleasant to use.
There are a few nitpicks, however. The headphone port is bizarrely placed on the bottom-left corner, but on the side, which makes it a bit awkward to cram into your pocket when you've got headphones plugged in. The body of the phone, as mentioned before, is easily the cheapest feeling out of all the phones on test: flimsy plastic that groans a little under stress. Finally, the screen could use the same Gorilla Glass protection that serves the Moto G so well: our Kestrel review sample had a bunch of small scratches on the screen after a month of use, which doesn't bode well for the long term.
The Kestrel does, however, have one big selling point: a 4G radio. (Unsurprising, seeing as it's a device sold by EE, a network that prides itself on its 4G coverage.) With a retail price of £99, you'll be hard-pushed to find 4G on a similarly decent-performing phone for the same price.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini
The S4 Mini is the most expensive device in this test -- the price occasionally dips below £200, but for the most part stays around £220 (although that'll almost certainly plummet in the next couple of months, when the Galaxy S5 Mini goes on sale).
For that price, you get a phone that's OK, but definitely not worth the step up from the Moto G. The guts are adequate -- fast processor and enough RAM to make the phone run smoothly. The camera's actually pretty decent, and the screen deserves a mention for being crisp and bright, especially in the bright sunlight that seems to have got lost in Britain on its way to the south of France.
However, the S4 Mini is crippled with Samsung's TouchWiz UI, which complicates Android to an unnecessary extent, and will also guarantee that updates take forever to be released, as Samsung will have to make sure that TouchWiz works with whatever the latest version of Android is, before pushing out the update to consumers.
Put bluntly, the S4 Mini isn't a bad phone -- it would work perfectly well as my only smartphone -- there's just no reason to buy one when there's a bevy of cheaper, more stylish, less bloatware-ridden options on the market.