Check camera before buying cheap phone

Brian X Chen, INYT Mar 4 2018, 22:24 IST
A woman tries out augmented reality glasses with the new Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus mobile during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The evolution of the smartphone can be summed up by two trends: Phones just keep getting bigger. They are also getting pricier.

The chief examples are phones from Apple and Samsung Electronics, the top handset makers. Samsung last week introduced the Galaxy S9, its new flagship smartphone, with starting prices of about $720 and, for a slightly larger screen, $840. Years ago, Galaxy phones started at about $650.

Apple's iPhone prices are also increasing. Last year, Apple released the iPhone 8 for $699, up from the $649 starting price of earlier iPhones. In addition, the company introduced the iPhone X, its first premium-tier handset, for $999.

Rising prices make the smartphone one of the most expensive household products. But unlike televisions, which plummet in price and attract bargain hunters, many consumers are willing to up their spending on phones.

"They become more and more essential to people's everyday life, so price sensitivity just continues to erode," said Jared Wiesel, a partner at Revenue Analytics, a pricing and sales consulting firm.

Yet plenty of people don't want to splurge on a fancy phone every few years. Huawei, the Chinese manufacturer, was the No. 3 phone maker in the fourth quarter last year, IDC, a research firm, said. Sales of cheaper Honor smartphones and other low-end devices contributed to the company's growth.

And there's a silver lining for those who want to spend less: Cheaper smartphones have never been better. If you spend between $200 and $300, you can get a capable, fast smartphone for basic tasks like placing calls, using maps and sending texts. Of course, there are trade-offs, like lower-quality screens and less impressive cameras. Is a budget phone right for you? Here's an overview on the pros and cons of going cheap, with some phone recommendations from Wirecutter, a New York Times company that tests products.

Pros and cons

Let's start with the downsides of buying a cheaper phone.

nYou won't get the best camera. Budget phones lack the advanced camera sensors found on high-end smartphones. So if you go cheap, your phone camera probably won't be very fast, won't do a great job at taking photos in low light and will lack features like optical image stabilisation, which helps photos remain clear even when your hands are shaky.

"The camera is a big one," said Andrew Cunningham, a Wirecutter editor. "If you're taking photos, especially in low light, performance is going to fall off a cliff."

n Obviously, you won't get cutting-edge features like the infrared face recognition system on the iPhone X or the fancy stylus on Samsung's big-screen Galaxy Note. You also won't get the fastest computing processor, so your phone won't be as capable of running games with heavy graphics.

n You also won't get the brightest and most vibrant display. The fanciest smartphones have OLED screens, which have better colour accuracy and contrast.

n You won't get many software updates, which are important because they introduce new features and security enhancements. For phone makers, the priority is issuing big software updates to more powerful smartphones. At best, with a cheap Android phone you will probably get one major software update and a few security updates over 18 months.

With all that said, there are plenty of benefits to buying a good budget phone.

n You will get a decent camera. Many cheaper phones have high-resolution sensors that can take clear, rich photos. "A cheap phone today is going to have a better camera than a cheap phone from three years ago," said Nathan Edwards, a senior editor for Wirecutter. "It's not like they're truly awful."

n You'll get a good enough screen for reading websites, watching videos and looking at photos. Budget phones still use LCD, an older display technology that has greatly matured and still looks quite good.

n Your phone will be fast enough for important tasks like placing calls, sending and receiving email, browsing the web and running lightweight apps. If you aren't an app-aholic or a gamer, maybe that is all you will need.

So here's the upshot. There is a strong argument for spending more on your smartphone: If it is your most important technology tool for work and play, you should probably invest in a superior device. But if you want a phone only for basic tasks and you're not in a hurry to adopt the latest and greatest technology, a cheaper phone may serve you well.

Picking the right one

Now comes the tough part: picking a good budget phone and avoiding the duds. Wirecutter tested 20 of the best budget smartphones over the last few years to highlight a few. Expect to spend roughly $200.

Wirecutter's top budget phone is Motorola's Moto G5 Plus, which costs about $230. It has a high-quality camera, a good 5.2-inch screen, a fast fingerprint sensor and plenty of storage. The device also comes unlocked, meaning it works with all American carriers. (If you want to spend a bit more, you could buy the Moto X4, which is water-resistant and on sale for $300, down from $400.)

Wirecutter also highlighted Huawei's $200 Honor 7X, which has a better camera and bigger screen than the Moto G5 Plus. The downside is it runs an older version of the Android operating system, called Nougat.

Another option, if you prefer iPhones, is to buy an older iPhone model. Apple is still selling the iPhone 6s, introduced in 2015, which is reasonably fast with a nice camera and a good screen. It costs $449 through Apple, but you may find it much cheaper elsewhere. What's more, Apple typically supports its iPhones for about five years, so the 6s should continue to get software updates through 2020.

"A lot of things you'd have to pay 600 or 700 bucks for three or four years ago, you'll get for $200 or less now," Cunningham said. "If you just want the basics, a budget phone is going to do just fine for most people."

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