Suddenly need a budget Android phone? Start here.

With the ongoing and upcoming economic catastrophe, this is causing individuals and companies to make hard financial decisions. One of which are mobile phones and associated carrier plans. People might be looking to cut their monthly expenses and looking for new carriers to reduce their monthly bill. Others might need to get an entire new phone, after handing in their previous flagship device back to their employer.

I’m going to try to help with both of these scenarios. First, the hardware.

Budget hardware

At my previous employer, I was lucky enough to have the option for a company phone. They generously provided an iPhone, although a couple generations older. This was a nice perk of the job, along with the ability to upgrade the device every couple of years.

Obviously, when my duties ended at that company, I could no longer keep the device. For me, this is no big deal. As a tech enthusiast I have a ton of extra devices around and I’ve written extensively about budget devices, so I wasn’t concerned about being without a phone.

For non-tech enthusiasts, this is much more difficult to navigate. If your company provided you an $800 (or more) flagship device, especially if its iOS based, purchasing and using a budget, low-end Android is tricky. There are a slew of devices, all from companies you’ve probably never heard of. All you know is you need a working device and a shrinking budget.

With a family of 6 and an extremely tight budget, I’ve purchased many budget devices. At this point in time, we have 4 budget Android phones in use, none of which cost more than $200.

Keep in mind, a device at this price range will always come with sacrifices. Low resolution camera or screen, micro-USB for charging, older versions of Android and zero promise of updates.

Before choosing one of these phones, I recommend taking these steps first:

  1. Do not get a carrier phone.
    Avoid going to AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon stores and taking the phone you get for free. Now that you’re on a budget, device longevity and portability are crucial. Getting a phone locked to a carrier means you won’t be able to switch without getting a different phone. Yes, there are exceptions. But, the easiest path is to start with a carrier unlocked phone that will allow you to take it to other carriers and won’t have all the carrier bloatware. Try to purchase an unlocked phone off Amazon instead.

  2. Check the XDA forums for reviews.
    XDA Developers site has been around nearly as long as Android. This is an exceptional resource for all things Android, from reviews of nearly every device to deep technical information for extreme nerds. This site includes phones from all over the world, which is why its a great resource for those brands you may not recognize.

  3. Check iFixIt.
    Before I purchase a phone, I always check iFixIt to see what, if any, repair guides and parts are available. It might feel like using a budget phone is only for a limited time, but you never know. Having a phone that can be repaired, especially being able to replace the battery, will go a long way.

Just tell me which one to get, please?

Wish I could, but there are so many variables. Who’s your carrier? Do you travel? Do you have multiple SIM cards? How important is the camera? What do you do most of the time on your phone? What is your budget?

I will give you a starting point. I’ve purchased two Xiaomi phones recently and really, really liked them. My most recent was this Xiaomi Note 8 and I use with Mint Mobile as the carrier. Camera is decent, battery life is great, and screen is amazing for the price.

If you need help in choosing a device, Tweet me @domcorriveau or email obscurednarration@gmail.com.

I picked a phone, what’s next?

I mentioned previously there are a lot of sacrifices for phones at this price point. This means the processor and RAM may be underpowered. Or, you could be using an older device that 5-6 years ago it might have been okay, but in 2020 it chugs.

There are some settings you can tweak and apps to use to help the experience.

  1. Go into Settings → Apps and tap on each non-essential app you’re not going to use. This is often bloatware or stock apps that come with the device. If you can remove them, do it. However, its unlikely you can do that. If you can’t delete/remove, then tap on “disable” if that option is there.
  2. Use lightweight alternative apps instead of the standard ones. Several big name apps also have “lite” versions that are easier on a phones limited resources. Check out these ones:

Not all of these apps may be available in the US.

  1. Use other apps that aren’t the big names. This is a little tricky and I’m weary to even recommend this. But, if you’re feeling rather adventurous, you can check out either alternative apps or even alternative app stores for Android. One of the best features of Android is that you can sideload apps of your choosing.

Android allows you to set default apps for almost anything. This means you can change the default app used out-of-the-box to something more lightweight and efficient. Some of these can come from the regular Play Store, some have to come from an external repository.

If you’ve never done this and are not techy, do not proceed. Stick to the Play Store. If you know how to research things ahead of time and understand the risks of sideloading, check out these apps on the F-Droid app repo.

  • SuperZZZ (put apps to sleep in the background)
  • NewPipe (alternative to YouTube app)
  • Etar (calendar)
  • K-9 mail* (email client)
  • AntennaPod* (podcasts)
  • OpenCamera* (a way better camera app)
  • Slide* (Reddit)
* = Also available in Google Play store.

MVNO carriers

There are a TON of low cost carriers out there, instead of the standard AT&T/Verizon/T-Mobile. I’ve been using various MVNO’s for years with very few hiccups (except Boost Mobile, they can go fuck themselves).

There are basically two types of carriers: CDMA and GSM. CMDA is typically Verizon and Sprint with GSM being AT&T and T-Mobile. The two types are not interchangeable. You cannot use a CDMA phone on a GSM carrier. This is one of the main reasons why I suggest not getting a carrier phone. There are some MVNO’s that are CDMA-based, but most are GSM and use the T-Mobile network.

Just like budget Android hardware, there are also sacrifices made by going with a MVNO as a carrier. First and foremost, do not count on customer support. If they have it, good luck getting through or getting a person who cares about your issue. This is why I stay away from Boost, Straight Talk and Virgin after having bad experiences with all three. The two I recommend are Ting and Mint Mobile. If you’re a podcast listener, I’m sure you’ve heard of them before.

Do not cancel your existing phone plan before switching to an MVNO if you want to keep your number. Start the new plan first, porting your number, then cancel your old.

If you’d like to see a whole range of alternative carriers, with the features and costs, check out this Google spreadsheet. Its been a little more than a year since it was last updated, but is a good starting place.

Cell Phone Plan Comparison Chart

Update: Google Voice

After a couple of days of thinking about this post, I realized I missed a key aspect of how I operate with a very low end Android device. Hopping from phone to phone and carrier to carrier can cause disruption of service for extended periods of time as replacement devices or SIM cards are being shipped, or worse, my budget says no spending. I’d like to think that if my primary device broke, I’d be able to replace it ASAP. But, that’s not always the case.

When operating on a very tight budget (especially if you’re like me and are currently out of work) it might take some time to get a replacement device. This is where Google Voice has been a life saver. Using Google Voice, I can still receive text messages and phone calls, without the other person knowing there’s been a change. I can switch devices and carriers at a moments notice, without having to notify everyone in my contact list of my new number. I know you can port your number when switching carriers, but that experience doesn’t always go smoothly.

Using Google Voice, I can also take these calls and messages on my laptop/desktop or login to my Google account on my wife’s phone temporarily to receive communications. Although I have a phone, my primary day-to-day device is my Galaxy S5e tablet. Google Voice is loaded on both devices and a tab on my laptop, allowing me to have a phone anywhere I have internet.

Conclusion

There are a plethora of options out there for both budget Android devices and carrier plans. So many that its overwhelming, especially when you’re on a budget and can’t waste any money. If I was to be in the market for both, with under $200 in total to spend, I would take a serious look at this Moto E6 Plus with a 3-month Mint Mobile plan. The reason I chose this phone first is its lower cost, plus a US warranty.

If I had a little more money, I’d go with this Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 with the same plan.