6 affordable Android phones you'll actually enjoy using

Looking for a decent unlocked smartphone that doesn't cost too much? You'd be surprised what you can find.

Affordable Android smartphones

Affordable and advantageous

It wasn't long ago that budget-level Android phones were universally dreadful devices.

For years, paying less than $300 for an unlocked smartphone got you a barely usable handset with subpar performance, ancient software and an appalling display. It was only around 2013 that the standard started to evolve.

And boy, has it ever. Nowadays, you can find pretty compelling Android phones for as little as $120 -- and that's $120 unlocked, with no contracts or carrier commitments. (Most flagship phones, in contrast, actually cost around $600 to $700; carriers sell them for lower up-front rates and then recoup the costs by locking into you two-year agreements with elevated monthly rates.)

With an unlocked phone, you can get service anywhere you want, with no strings attached -- including at a prepaid carrier that'll charge you as little as $30 to $45 a month for the same basic service you're getting now.

These six devices will let you cash in on the savings while still enjoying a nice smartphone experience.

alcatel onetouch idol 3

Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3

The OneTouch Idol 3 packs a whole lot of bang for 250 bucks. Alcatel's leading phone has a sharp-looking 5.5-in. 1080p screen in a reasonably attractive (if somewhat insubstantial-feeling) plastic body. Factor in solid performance, adequate battery life and intuitive software that doesn't veer far from Google's Android Lollipop vision, and you've got an admirable all-around device that seems far more expensive than its price tag suggests.

Basics aside, the Idol 3 has a few extra bells and whistles, including a biometric security system that can recognize you by vessel patterns in your eyes and a reversible form that's able to make and take calls no matter how you pick up the phone. The phone also has dual front-facing speakers that sound better than those on many flagship-caliber phones.

That being said, the Idol 3 is by no means a top-of-the-line experience: The device's materials and build quality aren't at the level of more expensive high-end smartphones, for instance, and its camera quality is mediocre. It also ships with a paltry 10GB of usable onboard storage (though the phone does have a microSD card slot if you need more space).

As far as midrange phones go, though, Alcatel's Idol is an impressive effort at an affordable price.

Asus ZenFone 2

Asus ZenFone 2

If you're looking to spend $200 to $300 on an Android smartphone, you could certainly do worse than Asus's ZenFone 2. There are two versions being sold in the U.S.: The higher-end ZenFone 2 ($299) packs an extraordinary amount of horsepower, with a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel processor and 4GB of RAM under its hood. Consequently, performance is top-notch -- no small feat for a phone of that price. The lower-end model ($199) has a 1.8GHz quad-core Intel CPU but only 2GB of RAM, which should still be quite sufficient for everyday use.

The ZenFone 2 has an understated plastic-centric body. As with most phones in this range, you aren't going to get the most elegant or distinctive design -- but Asus's presentation is pleasant-looking, if a bit cheap in appearance.

The device's software, meanwhile, is so-so: Asus's heavy-handed approach to Android doesn't make for the greatest user experience -- nor does the company's overzealous loading of superfluous preinstalled apps and services -- but it's tolerable enough, relatively speaking. And Asus makes up for those weak areas with a praise-worthy 5.5-in. 1080p display, a surprisingly good camera and commendable battery life.

The $299 model of the ZenFone 2 also has a whopping 64GB of internal storage (the $199 version offers 16GB); both models provide a microSD card slot for local storage expansion.

huawei p8 lite

Huawei P8 Lite

With its sleek design and lightweight body, Huawei's P8 Lite ($250) brings a touch of style to the budget smartphone realm. The P8 Lite, as its name suggests, is a lower-end version of Huawei's flagship P8 phone (which isn't sold in the U.S.).

The P8 Lite maintains its sibling's visual approach but sheds its metal construction for plastic with a brushed-metal-emulating finish. Thin bezels along the sides of the screen help the device seem especially svelte. It's by no means a premium phone, but it exudes a classy sort of vibe that's not frequently seen in this price range.

Moving beyond surface-level aesthetics, the P8 Lite has 16GB of internal space (along with a microSD slot) and a 5-in. 720p display -- an undeniably low resolution by high-end smartphone standards but one that's generally considered fine, if unexceptional, in a screen of that size. The phone's performance is solid, meanwhile -- the same internals as the aforementioned Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 -- while its battery life and camera quality have been deemed mediocre by most reviewers.

The biggest downside to the P8 Lite may be Huawei's software: The phone ships with a heavily modified version of Google's 20-month-old (!) Android 4.4 KitKat operating system. Huawei has transformed the OS into a weird Android-iOS mashup that's going to leave many users scratching their heads.

If you can tolerate that, though, Huawei's latest will give you a looker of a phone at a hell of a price.

moto e

Motorola Moto E

Motorola started the trend of selling decent smartphones at reasonable costs, and the company's Moto E is its most affordable Android device to date. The Moto E runs $150 for an LTE-enabled model, or $120 for one with 3G-level speeds.

Either way, you're getting a comfy if somewhat chunky phone with an unassuming plastic-based design. The Moto E comes in black or white and uses a series of interchangeable multicolored bands to add a splash of color onto its body.

The device has a modest 4.5-in. 540 x 960 display -- nothing like the vibrant and crystal-clear screens you'll see on high-end smartphones, but something that's perfectly usable nevertheless. The phone is similarly adequate in most other areas, including its storage (8GB of internal space and a microSD slot) and performance -- which is by no means snappy but fine enough for casual use.

The areas where the Moto E shines are in stamina and software, both of which are better than what you'll find on many phones with six times the cost. On the latter front, Motorola provides a version of Android that sticks closely to Google's Lollipop-level user interface, with no arbitrary visual changes and just a small handful of genuinely useful feature additions.

And cost is the key thing to keep in mind with the Moto E. For $120 to $150, it provides a respectable overall user experience -- one unlike anything else you'll find for that price.

moto g

Motorola Moto G

If you've got a little more to spend but still want to keep costs down, Motorola's Moto G ($180) offers a meaningful step up from the Moto E with a sleeker design and some significant hardware improvements.

To wit: The Moto G has a 5-in. 720p screen -- still not at the resolution level of a flagship smartphone but a noticeable bump up from the E's non-HD display. It has dual front-facing stereo speakers flanking the screen, too, which go a long way in making video-watching and music-streaming more pleasant.

The Moto G also has better front- and rear-facing cameras than its lower-end sibling. Under the hood, meanwhile, it's similarly okay -- with decent performance and a 8GB of internal storage (coupled with a microSD card slot for external expansion). However, it works only at 3G speeds.

Motorola is expected to release a new model of the Moto G soon, so it might be worth holding off a bit to see what's in store. (Adding LTE support seems like an obvious move, for instance.) But if you're looking to spend less than $200 on a smartphone today, the Moto G is the best you can buy.

oneplus one

OnePlus One

Want a flagship-caliber smartphone at a budget-level price? The OnePlus One ($249 for 16GB or $299 for 64GB) is the device for you.

The OnePlus One was introduced last year by a China-based startup that originally only sold it to people who had an invitation. The phone is now available to anybody who wants one, and has the kind of hardware you'd expect to pay $600 to $700 for -- elements like a Snapdragon 801 processor with 3GB of RAM (in other words, the phone is fast) and a sharp-looking 1080p 5.5-in. screen. The phone is plastic but doesn't come across as chintzy; it's simple but solid-feeling and inoffensive to the eyes. The only real issue some might have is that it's a large device, so don't expect to handle it easily with one hand.

Factor in solid battery life, a commendable 13-megapixel Sony-sensor camera and a special Cyanogen-made version of Android -- a tricked-out, extremely customizable take on Google's mobile operating system -- and you've got a killer all-around smartphone at an unbelievable cost.

Time is of the essence on this deal: The second-gen OnePlus Two is set to be unveiled in late July and there’s a good chance the current OnePlus One will be discontinued in favor of its higher-priced successor. So if you don't mind having last year's (still impressive) model, this is one worth jumping on ASAP.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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