The bad budget smartphone is dead.
Never again should you put up with pixelly screens, sluggish web speeds and cameras so bad that an Etch-a-Sketch would be better, because you can now get an all-round reliable phone for less than £150. So while there still are plenty of bad phones out there, you needn't concern yourself with them any more.
We’ve taken all the cheap smartphones that matter and tested them against each other, with our comparisons and verdicts tidied up neatly into the individual reviews below. First up, the clear winner and new benchmark for budget smartphones, the magnificent Moto G 4G.
Moto G 4G (£150)
The 2013 Moto G is now ludicrously cheap, frequently dipping below £100 - but 4G makes this new model ever better.
It's sturdily built and fits snugly into one hand, while its use of swappable Motorola Shells give you the option to customise its look on a daily basis. The 4.5in, HD, 326ppi screen is the real selling point over its fuzzier-screened rivals; it matches the much pricier HTC One Mini 2 on this front. Next to most other phones in its class it looks pin-sharp, with vivid but natural colours and good contrast.
It’s not without problems - the 5MP camera does still disappoint sometimes, especially in low light, and you only get 8GB of built-in storage. But the addition of a microSD card slot means you can now add up to 32GB of space, and in day-to-day use nothing comes close.
Moto’s also left the 4G with an almost-untouched version of Android KitKat, adding a few genuinely useful features but nothing more. That helps everything run smoothly and you can can expect speedy downloads, streaming and browsing over 4G. The best bit? Even with more pixels to push than most cheap phones, the Moto G still lasts a day between charges.
If you have specific criteria - for instance you’re a n00b who likes the look of Windows Phone or taking pics is your priority - then other budget phones down this list might make more sense. But for most people, the Moto G 4G will do very nicely indeed.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✭✭
Fantastic and futureproof, this is as close to budget phone perfection as you can get in 2014
Hisense Sero 5
The Hisense Sero 5 offers a feature list that’ll make your jaw drop when you hear the phone costs just £130. 4G, a 5-inch 720p screen plus an 8-megapixel camera mean the Sero 5 offers even more gumpf than you get in the Moto G.
Sure enough it is a real bargain, a stunner for penny-pinchers, but there are some elements that ensure it’s not quite the very best option in the world. Build quality isn’t up there with the best as the screen flexes a teeny bit under pressure, causing wobbles in the display. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker but tells you the Sero 5 doesn’t use Gorilla Glass like the Moto G: not good news for the butter-fingered.
The software won’t dazzle, either. Using Android 4.3 it’s a bit out of date and the interface isn’t exactly pretty: it’s workmanlike at best. With display colours a bit undersaturated, the screen does look a tiny bit glum until you get used to it too.
We’re just trying to manage your expectations here, though, because on paper the Hisense Sero 5 sounds like the best budget phone in the universe. It isn’t, but it is very, very good if you don’t want to spend a lot but do want 4G.
Battery life and performance are solid, and with a few tweaks you can improve the interface no-end. For the more advanced Android user, the Hisense Sero 5 is fab.
The screen is big and sharp, a Snapdragon 400 provides enough grunt for gamers and the camera isn’t even too bad, offering similar performance to the Moto G but with slightly worse colour reproduction.
Only the finishing touches are missing here: the Hisense Sero 5 does feel a little bit cheap and thanks to its non-Gorilla Glass front you won’t want to treat it too carelessly. Hisense seems to admit this itself by putting a plastic screen protector on the thing direct from the factory. Other than that, though, it’s grand.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✭✭
The Sero 5 is a bargain winner with just a couple of niggles keeping it behind the Moto G
Sony Xperia M2 (£150)
The Xperia M2 is the best way to get a big screen from a big brand on a little budget. It’s just a shame that 4.8in screen isn’t very sharp at 229ppi and suffers from poor viewing angles. Because otherwise you get a ton of Sony for your money here.
Its blocky plastic design, available in purple, white and black, is based on the high-end Xperia Z2. There’s no waterproofing as you'd find on that premium Xperia, but for £150 PAYG, we’re not complaining.
Performance is much better than previous mid-range Sony phones we’ve encountered thanks to a Snapdragon 400 processor which powers every handset on this test bar the Moto E and HTC Desire 301. Battery life is pretty good, too, matching the Moto G 4G. Plus Sony has thrown in extras you won’t find on other budget blowers such as small apps, Stamina mode for the battery and a pulsing notification light to stretch to over a day of use.
Its more than decent 8MP camera is the highlight, though. AF can be a little sluggish but it’s easy to use, with Sony’s quick Superior Auto mode plus lots of settings to dig into and reliably good 1080p video. It doesn’t get close to the top smartphones for picture quality, but it’s the best all-round snapper of all the cheap phones we’ve tested.
If Sony had stuck a higher res screen on the M2 and added support for 4G, this would be more of a rival for the Moto. As it is, it falls just short.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✭✩
Fine features and the best choice for shutterbugs, only the screen lets the M2 down
Nokia Lumia 630 (£90)
In a sea of cheap Androids, the Lumia 630 stands out like an alien-goo-green buoy keeping Windows Phone fans safe from ridicule. Sure, Android has more games and the 630 is far from the highest specced device here, but this Nokia gets a lot right.
The battery life is the best for the money - not by much, but the 630 will give you an extra hour or so over the rest. It’s the lightest at 134g, comes with a decent, if low-res, screen and some excellent freebies including Nokia Drive.
Windows Phone 8.1 is both friendlier than stock KitKat for beginners and now has useful Android-style features and settings, too. Even the 5MP camera has its moments - outdoor and macro shots look great and low-light images aren't the grainiest we've ever encountered. It’s a little slow in use next to the likes of the Moto G but it's easy to forgive that at this low, low price. If you can’t live without 4G speeds, try the similar but more expensive Lumia 635.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✭✩
Cheap, cheerful and reliable, the Lumia 630 is only outclassed by the best budget Androids
READ MORE: In-depth Nokia Lumia 630 review
More after the break...
Moto E (£90)
Does budget mean less than £100 to you? Serving up tidy, reliable, loveable Android for the masses, the 4.3in Moto E is your best bet below a ton.
A compact and sturdy build, slick performance and close-to-stock-Android OS impress, with only the quality of its 5MP camera, the miserly 4GB of storage and the lack of a front cam letting it down majorly.
The 1980mAh battery isn’t swappable and will conk out an hour before most here, but it still comfortably lasts a day of light use on one charge, and there are swappable Motorola Shell covers to keep things fresh on the desaign front. The screen, though lower-res than the Moto G, is still a cracker at this price, with apps, games and webpages all looking lovely on it. Motorola really has the monopoly on value brilliance and if your budget is truly tight you should look no further.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✭✩
Moto does it again. This is the best smartphone you can buy under £100
READ MORE: In-depth Moto E review
Moto G (2014) (£145)
Another Motorola! The 5in Moto G (2014) isn't a direct replacement for the 4G model or last year's handset (now priced at £100). It's the Moto G for people who don't mind sacrificing a bit of battery life here, a splash of 4G there for a big screen and much better camera than the original 5MP snapper.
So what's been improved? It performs just as fast as the first Moto G and Android is just as clutter-free. The main difference is the bigger build (it's the biggest here) - it's sturdy, though, and still sits nicely in the hand. It's sacrificed the old Moto G's neat, tidy look; there's just more plastic, so that couldn't be helped without impressive - and costly - engineering. But Moto has included some very decent (for the money) stereo speakers on the front. They don't match the One (M8) but you won't be ashamed to use them in the back garden either.
Battery life, again, isn't quite as great as the Moto G 4G. Streaming video on a commute, the bigger 5in screen sucks up 22% an hour versus the 4.5in phone's less worrying 16%. Still, it lasts the day so we're not complaining too much. Speaking of the screen, it's 720p and chances are you won't notice the slightly-less-sharp picture compared to the original. Colours are slightly more natural too.
The real stars are the two new cameras, both welcome improvements. Images look a lot less blurry and smudgy than before with clear, in-focus shots and accurate colours. Video too is much more usable. The new 8MP cam on the back takes a while to focus at night but if you hold steady, you can get some impressive pics for a £150 phone. All round, we'd still recommend the 4G Moto G – but if phone photography is your thing, consider the 2014 model.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✭✭
Moto has done it again - big screen, almost-stock Android and one of the best cameras for the money
EE Kestrel (£100)
4G is no longer a luxury. With the EE Kestrel available for £99 outright, or £14 a month, you might be tempted to choose this tweaked and rebranded 4.5in Huawei handset over the Moto G 4G.
Before you do, bear in mind that it’s not as easy to love. For starters, it lacks the lovely HD screen and smooth performance of the top Moto. It also has the most retro design of the bunch, both in terms of hardware and its Emotion UI software. Still, the battery life is brilliant, the expandable storage is handy and unlike some, it has both an OK front camera and a rear flash. It’s silly-slim too, at 7.85mm thick. The fastest browsing and streaming this side of £150 then, but not quite the full package.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✭✩
Still the cheapest way to get 4G, but there are better all-rounders for the money
READ MORE: In-depth EE Kestrel review
HTC Desire 310 (£130)
The Desire 310 is a smart looker both outside and in. Exterior attractiveness is conferred by a tidy, slightly curved plastic build, while on the interior HTC’s Android skin Sense looks good and runs without a hiccup. Like the Sony Xperia M2, it also packs a few features you’d be more likely to see on a £500 phone. So the Desire 310 gets HTC’s excellent BlinkFeed RSS reader (searchable and with offline reading), plus the ability to make short video montages with the nifty Zoe Video Highlights tool.
But while colours look nice and natural on the 4.5in screen, it’s just not got the pixels to show off Android games and HD movies. Plus, it always seems to look a bit grubby even with brightness on full whack, it can get a little warm when taxed, you might need to charge it up before bedtime and the 5MP camera isn’t anything special. Maybe HTC should've worried about getting the basics right rather than lavishing software treats on us?
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✩✩
Nice looking and packed with features but the Desire 310 doesn’t nail the essentials well enough
Vodafone Smart 4 Turbo (£135)
The 4.5in Smart 4 Turbo doesn’t live up to its tantalising promise: a quad-core, 4G, KitKat budget phone for less than £150. While performance is generally good, the overall feeling with the ‘Turb’ is frustration - with the low-res 480x854 screen that looks a bit 3D (in the bad way), with the very slow 5MP camera that takes fuzzy, mostly unusable shots, with the dark front camera and with the cheap-feeling (and looking) plastic build.
Vodafone’s tinkering with Android is lighter than EE's - you get just a handful of widgets, there’s capacitive buttons to free up screen space and the battery does last a day. But anyone looking for afforda-4G should turn to the Moto or, as a cheaper option, the Kestrel.
Stuff says: ✭✭✭✩✩
A valiant effort but Vodafone has cut too many specs to keep up with the best budget phones
READ MORE: The ten best smartphones money can buy