Saturday, September 8, 2012

The budget smartphone – great value or false economy?

In these straitened times our desire to stay in touch and up to date wherever we are has only grown. In order to connect we need big, shiny, expensive, contract-laden smartphones, right?

Not necessarily - there are a growing number of smartphone manufacturers offering capable budget models for less than £100, such as the £50 ZTE Kis. They may not be as shiny and feature-laden as an iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy S3, but they essentially offer the same functionality.

Manufacturers like Huawei and ZTE are capitalising on dropping prices for parts and the growing demand for smartphones in the emerging markets. Low-end growth is driving the global market, with entry-level smartphone prices dropping thanks to greater manufacturer competition, data tariffs receiving closer regulation, and operators updating minimum hardware specs for so called ‘low-end devices’.

This all sounds great for consumers looking to step up from feature phones, but do they really represent great value or is it a false economy in a fast-changing market?

Great value

Let’s be clear, we’re looking at the SIM-only pay-as-you-go smartphone option, meaning no 12 or 18-month contract with fixed monthly costs. Set yourself a budget and top up your SIM with that amount - when it’s gone, it’s gone. Take the ZTE Kis as an example - you can kit out the whole family for less than the cost of one iPhone 4S.

As the minimum hardware specifications for operating systems constantly improves, manufacturers are having to up the processing power of budget models. The ZTE Kis runs Android on an 800MHz processor, while the ‘upper entry-level’ £100 Huawei G300, for example, boasts a 1GHz processor running on the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS and is powerful enough to stream online content over the air and run multiple apps. Mix in a 5-megapixel autofocus camera with flash, 4-inch capacitive touchscreen and not unattractive styling and you start to wonder why it’s so cheap.

Sure, the build quality isn’t premium and the design won’t wow phone fashionistas, but they’re improving fast and will soon become indistinguishable from current midrange models from manufacturers like HTC and Nokia. We're starting to see some of the more establish manufacturers break the £100 mark, such as the Sony Xperia Tipo (£89).

False economy

Sometimes the mantra ‘you get what you pay for’ rings true, and that’s the case with budget smartphones. The smaller your budget, the more limited your choice and that’s most obvious in the operating system, with only Android currently falling into the budget category, and often not the latest version. Windows Phones are starting to get cheaper though (with the Nokia Lumia 710), but the iPhone certainly isn’t.

Software updates aren’t as regular or convenient and over the air updates can be harder to find (although the Huawei G300 is an exception). This may not sound too off-putting, but with budget smartphones often targeted at newcomers to the technology, user friendliness and convenience are crucial factors.

It’s in the details where the differences add up. Low screen resolution and viewing angle denigrate user experience, from browsing the web to checking out photos. Often cluttered and confusing user interfaces make every action a chore rather than a pleasure. Less responsive touchscreens make typing texts and emails hard work. Low internal memory limits options for things like playing games (on the ZTE Kis Angry Birds worked fine but Temple Run wouldn’t work at all), and minimal storage capacity means you’ll often need to invest in an SD card to increase it, which costs more money.

And then there’s the old sticking point of build quality. Cheap materials mean a cheap feel, with clunky styling a common issue. And for a gadget that has to live with you wherever you go and suffer the knocks of life in your pocket or handbag, forking out £50 may mean it doesn’t last as long as its pricier rivals.

Final thoughts

The less you pay, the fewer features you’re going to get. Forking out £50 is never going to get you an iPhone-rivaling wonder with the latest interface and add-ons – but that’s not really the point.

The budget smartphone is amazing because it opens up the functionality and connectivity of the wider virtual world to the cash conscious, to parents for their kids, to small businesses for their employees, and to those who just want to know what all the fuss is about.

As long as you manage your expectations, do some research to make sure the model you go for has the features you want and factor in other costs such as SD card to boost memory and a decent case to keep it safe, then it represents a great way to take your first step into the wonderful world of the smartphone.

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