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I bought two pre-paid phones for under $50, and they're actually pretty good
Black Friday, and the subsequent Cyber Monday/week, offer up some huge sales in the United States every year. This particular year, I picked up two brand new pre-paid Android phones from Best Buy for a total of $49.98. Surely they would be pathetic excuses for Android phones? Let’s take a look, then you can be the judge.
Disclaimer: these are carrier specific phones, which I have not put into service. If you are looking to purchase one of these phones yourself, please pay careful attention to the carrier limitations for each.
Before we get started
I would like to establish a baseline for comparison. There is actually no better phone for this comparison than the original Motorola Moto G.
Powered by the Snapdragon 400 SoC with 1GB of RAM, the 4.5-inch Moto G clocks in as low as $50 itself, if you can catch a Verizon or Boost Mobile sale. The exact unit we’ll use today is the Google Play Edition Moto G with 16GB internal storage, purchased for $200.
I’ll invite you to check out our full review of the original, 1st Gen. Moto G (2013).
For our testing, let’s use the AnTuTu benchmarking app. The Moto G averaged a score of 17,178 while running Android 4.4.4 KitKat and on Android 5.0.1 Lollipop the device averaged 18,392.
Let’s get started
In shiny hard black plastic we have the Boost Mobile LG Realm, and in soft black rubber we have the Virgin Mobile HTC Desire 510.
The LG Realm is a Snapdragon 200 powered device with 1GB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage. There is a microSD slot to offset the minimal storage and a removable 2,100mAh battery to keep the 4.5-inch display lit. That display measures in at just 460×800 resolution for 240dpi, which is a reasonable task for the Adreno 305 at 400mHz to keep running smoothly. Helping the display feel a little larger are physical navigation buttons.
Software and handling
The Realm comes with LG’s skin on top of Android 4.4.2 KitKat. A handful of LG apps and functions are also included, such as Knock Code with KnockOn, Guest Mode, Q Slide and more. In general, the software package is good, there is minimal bloat and little need for additional productivity apps.
If you are accustomed to the on-screen navigation buttons, this device may not be for you. The Back button and menu/recents button are capacitive, registering to a gentle touch, but that old school clicky-clicky Home button requires a fair bit of force to activate, enough to knock the phone out of many stands and holders. Speaking of the menu/recents button, you single tap to access the menu, this goes for nearly any app menu as well, then you must tap and hold to activate the recents list. If you are like me, this is going to drive you nuts, but the persistent menu button is kind of nice.
The back of the LG Realm offers up a single LED flash just to the left of the 5MP shooter and a small slot for the speaker. A removable battery is a nice touch, but there is no access to the SIM card.
“Premium” is not a word you would use to describe this device, but it is not junk either. Overall, the LG Realm is a solid unit, the back cover fits snug, there is no rattling or squeaks to speak of, nor are there any gaps to worry about.
One word of warning, the LG Realm is slippery. No word of a lie, within 15 minutes of taking this thing out of the box it slid out of my hand and hit the floor, sending the back cover and battery sliding underneath the couch. I think I have dropped it in one shape or form every day since then. Except today… so far. It is surviving the falls very well, just a few scratches, but I would suggest buying a case.
As the SoC is equipped with just 2 ARM Cortex A7 chips at 1.19GHz, the AnTuTu benchmark is reasonably lower than the Moto G, clocking in at 13,801 for its average out of three.
Battery life has been comparable to the Moto G, with 3 hours of typical screen-on usage sending me to the charger at the end of a 16 hour day with 25% or so remaining.
The camera on the LG Realm offers a decent overall experience, for a 5MP cellphone sensor. The LED flash makes a huge difference to photos, adding a well balanced white light.
The LG Realm camera offers quick and excellent focus, no lasers included. The highlight of the Realm camera is its ability to come to focus on extremely close up objects, I wouldn’t want to use the word ‘macro’ here, but still pretty darn good. Truth told, most of the photos of the Desire 510 in this article were shot with the LG Realm. On the flip side, its greatest con is its slow capture speeds. Expect as much as a half second between tap and snap.
The LG Realm offers nice loud volume, and crisp clear voices, but any music aficionados out there will want to steer clear of playing music through the external speaker. Sound is fairly tinny. The good part is that audio output through the headphone jack does not suffer, making the LG Realm a good choice as an MP3 player.
Final thoughts on the LG Realm
The LG Realm is a fairly solid device that is extremely slippery, but otherwise handles well in the hand. It may not be very comfortable to hold for long periods of time, but it gets the job done. You will find that the small side display bezels make unintended palm presses a common thing. LG’s software experience is non-intrusive and easy to manage and understand.
The LG Realm LS620 is a carrier exclusive phone to Boost Mobile, it regularly sells for $79.99, with a Black Friday sale sending it home with many new owners for just $19.99. More details and purchase options as follows:
We have been excited for the HTC Desire 510 for a couple months now. We learned that it was going to be one of HTC’s first 64-bit devices to market, even if it was only equipped with mid-range specs. From first boot, the Desire 510 felt pretty good, and we quickly placed it side-by-side the Moto G to see what the 64-bit upgrade had to offer.
Then we looked closer, and it is very important you pay attention here, the Virgin Mobile version of the HTC Desire 510 does not come with the 64-bit Snapdragon 410 SoC! It ships with the exact same 32-bit Snapdragon 400 as the Moto G (2013).
With the bad news out of the way, the Virgin Mobile HTC Desire 510 comes with the Snapdragon 400 processor, 1GB of RAM, the Adreno 305 GPU clocked at 450mHz. Also shipping with 4GB of internal storage and a microSD slot, the Desire 510 rocks a much larger 2,600mAh battery, or so the benchmarks would have you believe, the battery itself is etched with a big 2,100mAh on it. Either way, there is enough juice to keep the 4.7-inch display lit up with its 480×854 resolution for 240dpi.
The on-screen buttons do nothing to disguise the big black bar with the letters HTC on it, as became rather unpopular on previous HTC flagship phones.
Software and handling
HTC Sense 6 sits on top of Android 4.4.2 KitKat and you will find a ton of HTC software on the device. Blinkfeed is a welcome addition for many, but the other 37 HTC apps that I chose to disable (see our Friday Debate from December 12 for more info) really made the OS feel bloated and locked down. It was a struggle to get Google Keyboard up and running, for example.
HTC has somewhat overcome the external SD write issue of Android KitKat, doing a great job in the main Settings option to default all possible files to the microSD. Which is a huge saving grace to the mere ~900MB of usable internal storage space.
The back of the HTC Desire 510 is fairly simple, showing off a basic 5MP shooter at the top and a speaker grill at the bottom. OPen it up to get to the removable battery, which then gives access to the microSD slot and Sprint flavored micro SIM.
The volume buttons are a little difficult to identify by touch alone and holding the device in landscape mode very frequently results in an accidental tap of the power button. Otherwise, they are nice feeling buttons, to bad the phone seems designed to only be held in portrait orientation.
Overall, the fit and finish of the HTC Desire 510 is solid and comfortable. It is not as solid as the LG Realm, with the HTC producing some creaking noise in a basic twist test. The back cover is snug, made with a comfortably soft rubbery coating that adds a great amount of non-slip. Despite the larger size display and being an overall much taller device, the better ergonomic design and non-slip finish provide near equivalent one-handed operability as the smaller LG and Moto G.
Even though we are looking at the exact same chips on this Desire 510 as the Moto G, being four of those ARM Cortex A7s at 1.19GHz, the AnTuTu scores were much higher on the HTC. The Desire 510 averaged 17,974. As you noticed, that is 800 points higher than the Moto G on Android 4.4.4, but a few hundred points less than the Moto G after it updated to Lollipop.
Battery life on the Virgin Mobile HTC Desire 510 is great when the display is turned off. I calculate the 2,100mAh battery will get you close to 6 or 7 hours of Google Play Music playback of local files, with the display turned off. However, the larger panel saps a ton of juice, upwards of 40% per hour to keep the lights on, even for just basic usage.
The HTC Desire 510 camera is very slow to focus, and usually does a fairly poor job of it, offering a very limited focal distance range. You will find many of your photos to be way out of focus, a waste of a perfectly good 5MP shooter. It does snap and save images almost instantly, leaving virtually no chance of blurred images due to an unstable hand, nor missing that perfect shot because of delay.
HTC brings forward their pedigree of jacked up bass to the Desire 510. Mid tones were fairly weak – voices, especially background vocals, are all but washed out – the sound otherwise is very nice. For best sound quality, I found that holding the device in the air, with the display facing you, provides the best sound. What a novel idea, and great execution for a rear facing driver.
Display (this is a warning!)
While the Moto G and LG Realm both offer bright panels with good viewing angles, the HTC Desire 510 does not share these compliments. Brightness is not of concern, but the viewing angles of the HTC are what you might call terrible!
When viewed straight on in portrait orientation, the Desire 510 offers an acceptable view, twisting side to side is still view-able, but tilting up a slight ways will dramatically wash out the display, tilting down makes it go dark. This is so dramatic that you will find holding the device in landscape orientation to be painful. With the device turned on its side, you will find that one eye sees the darkened screen and the other sees the washed out colors. The effect is a little dizzying, much like viewing an old blue and red 3D picture without the 3D glasses.
Final thoughts on the HTC Desire 510
The Virgin Mobile HTC Desire 510 is a solid device. It is even 4G capable. Despite being a fairly large device that is a tad difficult to operate with one hand, the non-slip rubberized finish is very comfortable in hand, matched with the same rounded back as other HTC flagships, this phone is extremely easy to hold onto. Performance is on par with the Moto G, so you’ll be more than happy with the device as it bounces from one task to the next in a timely fashion.
That display though, seriously, it is bad. If you plan to hold this thing in landscape orientation or at an angle of any sort, I give you half hour before the headaches start – assuming you don’t accidentally hit that power button first.
The Virgin Mobile HTC Desire 510 regularly sells for $99, but the Black Friday deal put this in hand for an amazing $29.99. More details and purchase options as follows:
When it comes to the overall phone experience, I have had each of these three devices with me full time for nearly a month now. I began by configuring them as similarly as possible and attempting to use them equally throughout my day. After the first week, I changed up to configure the devices to best utilize their strengths and weaknesses.
After a few weeks of catering to each phones needs, I have found the HTC Desire 510 to suffer from intermittently sketchy GPS tracking, but aside from being hard on the eyes, a great secondary device to handle the odd video capture, portrait oriented game and handling communication tasks. The LG Realm has proven itself a capable media player, not powerful enough to cast its own screen to the Chromecast, but providing nice sound quality when hooked to a sound system. However, the Realm will not travel with me, it will live at home hooked to the stereo.
If you are a current customer of Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile and are looking for a capable entry level device to get you by, you may find that the LG Realm and HTC Desire 510 are an absolute steal at their Black Friday pricing. However, if you are not looking to become a new customer to these carriers, or must pay full price for these devices, you are likely to find better options for the money elsewhere. In the end, if you are looking for a daily driver, I would recommend spending the extra money and getting something like the Moto G.
Are you willing to compromise on form, function or features to get an extremely low priced Android smartphone?