A Guide To Getting The Best Free-On-Contract Android Phone

There are many people out there who are on a budget and won’t pay big money for a high end phone. Yes, we urge them to. Right at the beginning of this article, I will state that there is little reason to buy a budget device. I would suggest always going high end. That $200 between a free phone and a high end phone will go a long way in helping your phone stay modern for a long time, and that charge will pale in comparison to what you pay for service. There, I said it, always go high end.

And I can confidently say budget devices have hurt Android more than almost anything. Most manufacturers put almost no thought or care into their budget phones. They release devices that barely work, that aren’t compatible with a lot of apps, and when people buy them, they blame Android. They go out and drop $200 on an iPhone and say iOS is better. Of course an iPhone 5 is better than your 500 MHz, 128MB of RAM no-name piece of garbage. With a free phone, you don’t even get your money’s worth. You’d have to pay me handsomely for me to use most budget phones. Of course there are exceptions, but I’ve seen too many people get a budget Android phone and hate it.

However, there is an alternative. You can get an older phone. There is the option of getting a high end phone, one that held a crown in its day, that has been replaced by a successor. These phones are no less capable, they just lose value fast when the next phone by the same manufacturer comes out. They’re often tossed to the side for being “too old,” no matter how excellently they still perform.

For example, when the Galaxy S III came out, the original (Exynos based) Galaxy S II on AT&T dropped in price. Eventually, not so long after its release, it was free. Being free, it was no worse of a phone. In fact, to this day, the Galaxy S II, with its dual core Exynos processor, manages to keep up with a lot of current phones. Sure, it has an old display (WVGA Super AMOLED+ without PenTile), but it has a great camera, a very potent processor, a healthy 1GB of RAM, and Android 4.0.4.

Compared to budget phones at the time of the Galaxy S III release, it offered better specs for less money. The Galaxy S II is one of those devices that keeps on going, no matter what. It’s still fast, smooth, powerful, and all around a wonderful device. AT&T doesn’t even sell them anymore, but I would choose it over most of the free phones they offer.

With a little hacking (and I mean very little), the S II will run a fully working version of stock Android 4.1.2, or even 4.2.1 soon. This phone is nearly unstoppable. Even when left stock and unrooted, it’s great.

However, there are a few budget phones that stand out in recent memory. The Pantech Marauder is currently free on Verizon with a new two year contract, and it’s an excellent phone packing some good specs in a small size. It has its compromises, but it still offers a good experience, sometimes better than the pricier phones. There are others, too. If you do your research properly, you can find a free phone that will serve you well for a good amount of time.

If you’re looking for a cheap phone (and you refuse to listen to me and just buy a nice high end phone you know will last for a long time), you have a few options and a few things to research. The decision isn’t easy, because when going cheap, you have to make compromises and those might get you into a bad situation down the line. You don’t want that, you want to be happy for the length of your two year contract. So here are the factors to keep in mind:

Buying a newly released budget phone

With one of the new budget phones, you’ll be getting parts that cost very little right now. This means that for the most part, you’ll either be getting weak internals or old (and weak) internals. They often won’t last you that two years. The phone will bog down to the point of no longer being usable, even if you take care of it by not installing a ton of crapware.

You’ll also be getting a phone with other cost-cutting compromises, such as poor antennas and weak earpieces. Your actual carrier experience may be degraded. Without a reliable signal, what use is your phone?

You’ll also probably be stuck on the version of Android you buy the phone with. This shouldn’t matter for most, but if you skimp on the specs, you get few or no upgrades. Even higher end phones will often be stuck because the manufacturer skimped on something (look at the DROID 3, released with Gingerbread and damned to be stuck there for all eternity. It was not a low end phone, but “only” had 512MB of RAM).

Build quality is also a huge issue. You always have to check how well a phone is build, because it will have to last you two whole years. A phone, no matter how fast, won’t do you any good broken. Budget phones often skimp on this, making phones that break easily. This is a big problem and should be avoided at all costs. I cannot put enough emphasis on this, never buy a poorly made phone.

Then there is the issue of support. With cheap phones, they often have unknown hardware and few buyers. App developers won’t always support it, so you may get a phone that can’t run your favorite apps. And if you plan to hack it to get more worth with a new version of Android and a bit of overclocking, keep in mind budget phones will often get absolutely no developer support. Say goodbye to an overclocking kernel and any hope of CyanogenMod 10.

Buying an aged free phone that used to be high end

This option guarantees you’re getting a phone made to impress at one point, but it comes with its own set of problems.

Oftentimes, the internal components will be better than new free phones purely because, though the components themselves are still pricey, the actual device value is depreciated due to a successor. The Galaxy S II being free did not mean that the Exynos dual core was akin to a single core processor of an HTC One V, and the S II has 1GB of RAM, but it became free because Samsung released the Galaxy S III. You’ll often be getting hardware that’s still fairly modern.

Though the phone was high end, it also might be stuck on an outdated version of Android. It’s an old phone and the manufacturer probably stopped support for it. However, if it was popular (like the Galaxy S II, Galaxy Nexus, or original One X), app developers will not stop supporting it if there are many of them being used. Another plus is that you’ll get good developer support. If you decide to hack any of these devices I mentioned, you’ll be getting a wide choice of ROMs, custom kernels, and the absolute newest versions of Android with the stability even an average user wants. A 20% overclock is generally considered safe but will do wonders for making that phone last an extra year.

With high end phones, they were designed with good materials and were built to last. Again, they were built with a high manufacturing cost compared to budget phones. Do you think a Galaxy Nexus is badly made? No, it will last a long time. It’s cheap because the Nexus 4 is out, not because it was made cheaply.

If an older phone is free, don’t assume it is on par with current free phones. It may cost little, but its parts don’t. They may have been depreciated by outside forces, like new phones being released, but the hardware often still stands up to time.

Conclusion

None of the things I mentioned hold true 100% of the time. There are exceptions. There are great brand new free phones out there that will last you two years. There are also bad older phones, because they were not very good in the first place. The key is research, and a lot of it. If you’re going to get a free phone, always do as much research as possible. The worst think you can do is make an impulse buy.

Look for reviews of old phones, not at hardware numbers. Those numbers are made to mislead you. Look for build quality problems, look at sales numbers, make sure you’re getting a phone that will last and will do everything you want it to do. Android phones are not equal. In the end, just make an educated decision and you’ll be fine.

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