Which entry-level smartphone should I buy?
January 22, 2014 9:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm finally going to ditch my trusty LG enV 3 for a smartphone, but I want one off-contract, and I don't want to spend a ton of money.

My criteria:

* As noted, I'm off-contract and I want to stay that way.
* I don't want to spend more than, say, $250. (If need to, I could spend more, but I would feel nervous walking around with a $600 piece of tech in my pocket all the time.)
* I'm familiar with Android (I have a Nexus 7), but I'm open to an iPhone. I don't have have any specific platform exclusive apps that I need: I just want to be able to do mapping, navigation, and look stuff up on the internet. (That said, I probably want to avoid a Windows phone because of the lack of apps, unless you can make a really compelling argument.)
* This phone will live in my pocket, so it should be fairly small.
* I do actually make phone calls every now and then, usually a few hundred minutes a month, so the voice quality should be decent.
* I want to use this phone for at least a couple years.
* I'm planning on using this on T-Mobile, and I would prefer a totally unlocked GSM phone, so that I could also use it on AT&T or any GSM MVNO, if the need arose. (But Ting also looks tempting, so I would be open to a phone that would work there.)

Based on that, the two phones I'm considering most seriously right now are the Motorola Moto G or a used iPhone 4S, but obviously I'm open to other suggestions.

I feel drawn to the iPhone 4S because of the small size (I have small hands, and as I mentioned I don't want something bulky in my pocket) and iOS's smooth, snappy responsiveness, but I worry that it's near the end of its life in terms of running new apps and new versions of iOS smoothly. And how does the GSM iPhone situation work? Is there a model specific to AT&T, a model for T-Mobile? Or is there one GSM model that works on both?

And the Moto G seems nice because it has a pretty clean version of Android, and it looks like it will receive OS updates for at least a while. And the price, obviously. But I haven't touched one in person yet so I don't know how I feel about the size.

Please give me your thoughts on these two phones, any other phones you think would be a good fit, and whether I need to up my price ceiling to get a good phone.
posted by jcreigh to Technology (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The moto G is decent enough, but it made me want to shell out the full $400 for the Moto X, which is just nicer in every way. I'm personally kind of meh on the Nexus 5 ($350) because of the battery life.

I just upgraded from a 4S running iOS 7, it was totally fine. I wouldn't have upgraded if not for AT&T offering me $220 in trade-in, making my upgrade free. That being said, it's basically EOL, it won't run the next version of iOS in the fall.

Basically, if $250 is your hard cap, get the Moto G, you won't find anything even close at that price range. If $250 is softer, you may want to put your hands on the Moto X, it's a much nicer phone for not that much more money.
posted by Oktober at 9:25 AM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have an iPhone 4S and, like you, I have small hands. Most newer phones feel clumsy and uncomfortable. However, the performance on my phone is deteriorating and I'm concerned my battery will die a horrible death in the next six months. So I would not get an iPhone 4S if I were you. (Sorry, I have no suggestions on what you should get.)
posted by desjardins at 9:26 AM on January 22, 2014

For the price, I've had both recently, and the Moto G is far more for your buck than a iPhone 4S. It's not really that much bigger, either.

4G Internet for AT&T and T-Mobile run on slightly different frequencies, but otherwise the networks are compatible. I think you'll be stuck on T-Mobile's 3G service (2G maybe?).

Note that the Moto G only uses 3G internet.
posted by General Malaise at 9:35 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Moto X on Republic Wireless. $299 w/no contract. Service from Wi-Fi only for $5/month to unlimited everything on 4G for $40. (I pay $25 for unlimited 3G.) Only downsides: Phone is 16g version, firmware mod only allows phone to work on Republic's system ( backbone is Sprint), and customer service is online only. Great deal.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:59 AM on January 22, 2014

Yeah, either the Moto X or Moto G are fantastic options. The Moto G is almost silly in a "what's the catch" kind of way. There's no 4G/LTE on it, but aside from that it's an amazing device for the price point. My friend has the Moto X on Republic Wireless and loves it—it's an insanely cheap monthly that includes data and runs on Sprint's network. He paid $300 for the phone itself and like $40/month for service.

I have the Moto X on Verizon and I love it, but I pay a lot more for VZW, which I'd suggest you avoid if price is a factor. (My monthly is about $110 all said and done.)
posted by disillusioned at 10:08 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Note that the Moto G does not have a radio that uses the 1700 band. Depending on your area T-Mobile may have refarmed to 1900... or they may not. They're not a big fan of you know, actually telling you, so you may unexpectedly and unpleasantly find yourself on EDGE 2G.

Interested to hear about Republic experiences because I am thinking of switching to that as well.
posted by selfnoise at 10:49 AM on January 22, 2014

I'm planning on using this on T-Mobile

Here's your argument for Windows Phone: Nokia Lumia 521. No, really. Best off-contract smartphone for $100 (or $90 on Amazon right now). Small form factor (iPhone 5 sized). WP8 works extremely well on lower-tier hardware. Works with Wi-Fi Calling for marginal coverage areas (not true VOIP, as it comes off your plan, but really easy). You can unlock it completely after a few months of use with T-Mob.

Yes, the app ecosystem is limited; yes, it's missing LTE and some of the fanciness of higher-end handsets. But voice quality's good, navigation's worked fine for me (downloadable maps to save on data costs) and there's support for Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare.

The Moto G is the only Android handset that's in that range around that price, but it's not quite as amenable to T-Mobile.
posted by holgate at 11:14 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Note that the Moto G does not have a radio that uses the 1700 band.

I don't mean to threadsit, but I think it depends on which model you buy. From Motorola's online store: [emphasis mine]
Moto G Models
Choose from two GSM models. (Note: Both GSM models require a micro SIM card.)

Global GSM Model
GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
UMTS/HSPA+ up to 21 Mbps (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz)

US GSM Model (AT&T and T-Mobile)
GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
UMTS/HSPA+ up to 21 Mbps (850, 1700 (AWS), 1900 MHz)

CDMA Model
Available at Boost Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
CDMA/EVDO Rev A (850, 1900 MHz)
So my understanding is if I buy the "US GSM Model" directly from Motorola, it would work on the 1700 MHz band. Is that incorrect?

(And thanks everybody for the answers so far, keep them coming!)
posted by jcreigh at 11:31 AM on January 22, 2014

Honestly the moto g will likely get one good software update to a new full release of the OS and then be stuck. That's pretty much what happens to all android phones, even the nexus ones. Lucky ones get two, and only those get 18 months of guaranteed updates. The 4s will get an upgrade to iOS 8, and the point releases of that. You have into 2016 before you aren't running the latest version.

Honestly, I'm partial to iPhones for several reasons. But a big one is that they aren't surfboard-like gigantic and easily fit in pockets, work great one handed(which I'm still kinda mad at them for fucking up a bit with the 5/5s), etc.

Another good one is that even if you buy an iphone off contract, you still get a year of free support at the genius bar. This has literally been "hey I drunkenly fell in a swimming pool with my phone in my pocket and it broke, can I have a new one?" "Ok" before. They've also given me free sync cables every time I've asked when one was getting flaky. In addition to that, I've gotten free repairs and replacements with issues I would have just lived with on other phones knowing the manufacturer would be useless, lie and say it wasn't an issue, etc. Stuff like weird camera problems, or suddenly shitty battery life. And of course actually having a store you can go to that's the manufacturers and not the carriers to deal with issues is nice.

But really though, to be totally straight with you, I've gotten two free phones from them when I blatantly broke the phone myself and it wasn't a defect or something.

So yea, I buy iPhones both for the support and because it's like buying another phone + square trade practically.

Also, Motorola is one of the most dumb obstinate companies I've dealt with. "Hey, the side buttons silence the phone if you double tap them and this happens in my pocket constantly. Is there a way to stop that?" "Tapping the side buttons is supposed to cycle through ring modes, have a nice day!"

Also worth noting that Nokia windows phone mentioned above can be had for as little as $29. It's constantly on sale for $50-60 and drops lower pretty often too. Check slickdeals if you're open to windows phone.
posted by emptythought at 11:33 AM on January 22, 2014

The Moto G is a much faster and better phone than the iPhone 4S. The physical size differences aren't that much between the Moto G and iPhone. I came from an iPhone 4 and specifically avoided huge Android phones. The phone I ended up with is the same size as the Moto G. The extra screen space is a huge benefit, and worth the slightly bigger physical size.

Also note that the Moto G supports HSPA, which on TMobile is significantly faster than regular 3G. If you're concerned about updates, buy the Moto G Google Play Edition, which will get updates more quickly and quite possibly for a longer amount of time.
posted by cnc at 12:25 PM on January 22, 2014

For at least the last year, the answer to the question of smartphone, but cheap, unlocked, and no contract was the Nokia 5XX Windows Phone. The Moto G joined that club end of last year (full disclosure - I've have one for about two weeks that I'm very happy with).

I've spent plenty of time with iphones, and have had ample opportunity to sign up for a new one. My wife switched from an iphone to a Nexus 5, and I switched from a dual core LTE Android phone to the Moto G. The Moto G doesn't do everything perfectly, but what it does do is last all day. Usage patterns that would require me to plug in my old phone at the end of the work day to have a sufficient charge to get through the evening result in 50-70% power remaining on the Moto G. It's designed to move towards the expectations of dumbphone users - so it's more durable, more water resistant, more power efficient, and cheaper than just about any other option on the market. I used to get Samsung phones exclusively because of the ability to swap batteries - I don't even think about battery usage any more with the Moto G.

I have the world band version on T-Mobile. If you're in an area that's being re-framed from T-Mobile's traditional 1700 to 1900 (used by ATT), then on the Moto G you'll get 3g, edge otherwise. I was on T-Mobile even on my old ATT LTE phone, and the re-framed coverage got me LTE on T-Mobile as well - given how fast T-Mobile's 3g is relative to ATT's 3g - I don't miss LTE at all.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:37 PM on January 22, 2014

I'm familiar with Android (I have a Nexus 7), but I'm open to an iPhone. I don't have have any specific platform exclusive apps that I need: I just want to be able to do mapping, navigation, and look stuff up on the internet. (That said, I probably want to avoid a Windows phone because of the lack of apps, unless you can make a really compelling argument.)

If what you care most about is mapping, navigation, and looking stuff up on the internet, the aforementioned Nokia Lumia 521 is quite sufficient for that. It's what I've been using since it was released last spring and I am happy with the phone. I use the HERE Drive app pretty often, and it gets me where I want to go at least as well as the iPhone's navigation app does (I've used that too).

While it's true that it doesn't have as many apps as are available for iPhone and Android, frankly I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything that really matters to me. There are lots of features on the phone that I don't even use. Unless there's a specific app you're dying to use that isn't available for Windows Phone, you should give this one some consideration.
posted by wondermouse at 1:09 PM on January 22, 2014

I have a Lumia 521. The app selection isn't going to make one bit of difference for the purposes you've specified. While I would like it better if it had more RAM, and I'm waiting for the Windows Phone 8.1 upgrade that may or may not ever come, for the money it's an absolute steal. I bought mine on sale for $80.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:21 PM on January 22, 2014

I ended up getting a Lumia 521, and I'm pretty happy with it.

It makes phone calls. It texts. The web browser works, maps work, navigation works. It's nice to have offline maps, even if only to speed loading times. One small issue is that the "HERE Transit" app is sometimes less-than-optimal with its suggested routes, but I don't use public transit often, so it's not a large issue for me.

But really, it's an $80 smartphone that works well for basic stuff. It'll be interesting to see if Windows Phone 8.1 makes its way to this device.
posted by jcreigh at 11:21 AM on April 5, 2014

It'll be interesting to see if Windows Phone 8.1 makes its way to this device.

Microsoft said that any Lumia device on WP8 will be able to run 8.1; T-Mobile confirmed that the 521 will get the update during the summer. Probably won't get some of the higher-end features, but that's true with WP8 right now, but the ones it should get will be useful additions.
posted by holgate at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2014

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