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Who provides the best budget experience for your dollar: Windows, Android, Firefox OS?

Who makes the best budget smartphone? What can you get for less than $200? How about less than $100? We take a look at how Android, Windows Phone, and Firefox measure up in this budget brawl.
By
September 24, 2014

One of the best things about the maturation of the smartphone market is the race to the bottom sparked by commoditization. Smartphones are getting really cheap and there isn’t a great deal to distinguish them in terms of hardware. If you’re seriously strapped for cash, or you’re buying something basic for a casual user, where do you go to find the best bargains?

You’ve got at least three options worth considering when money is super tight and we’re going to have a look at them right here. It’s a choice between Android, Firefox OS, and Windows Phone. Let’s take a look at some of their cheapest smartphones and discuss the differences between the platforms. Before we get into this, bear in mind that many of these budget releases vary in price and availability from country to country.

Going budget with Windows Phone

Microsoft’s platform is a distant third in the race for world domination, but it has been improving steadily and it’s not as far behind Android in terms of usability as the numbers might suggest. Largely thanks to the silky skills of Nokia, Windows Phone has targeted the budget end of the market from day one and had its biggest successes there.

Basic phone features on budget WP devices are solid. You’ll find more than 300,000 apps on offer in the Windows Phone Store now, and Microsoft bundles its own collection of services including 15GB of free cloud storage and the Office suite. You can customize the tile-based interface and overall the platform performs really well on low end hardware. It’s a relatively smooth experience using Windows Phone, it’s very accessible, and there are some good apps and games.

Best budget smartphones running Windows Phone

The best-selling Windows Phone device of all time was the Nokia Lumia 520. You can get one on a prepaid deal for as little as $50 now. Nokia did update the line with the Lumia 530 this year, but it’s actually not much better than its predecessor. It has a slightly faster processor and higher screen resolution, but the GPU and camera (now fixed focus) have taken a step back.

lumia620

If you can afford to spend a little more, then you can get into Lumia 620 and 630 territory starting at around $150, and there are some phenomenal deals to be had on the Lumia 635 which brings 4G to the party. These phones are bigger than the bargain basement 520 and 530 and they have more onboard storage. The resolution points to a lower PPI (pixels per inch) rating, but the ClearBlack technology behind the displays really gives them a boost. The build quality is also higher.

Nokia is one of the best manufacturers around when it comes to producing decent quality hardware at low, low prices and their phones are widely available across Europe and the US.

Going budget with Firefox OS

As a new kid on the block, Firefox OS has an awful lot of catching up to do. It’s an open source operating system being developed by the non-profit organization, Mozilla, and it’s a tempting choice if you’re into the underdog and want something community-based that employs open standards. It is improving quite quickly, but it feels very much like early Android and it’s nowhere near as slick or feature-rich as our other two competitors.

The approach to apps is twofold. Firefox OS is committed to running apps using web-based languages like HTML5 and Java, but it does allow you to install some apps so that you don’t need to be constantly connected to the Internet in order to use them. There’s still some argument about whether web apps are the future or not. As it stands there are a few thousand apps that will run on Firefox OS.

Best budget smartphones running Firefox OS

You’ll find a few different manufacturers have dipped a toe in the water with Firefox OS, attracted by the fact that there are no licensing fees. The ZTE Open C is around $100, but to be honest, it’s a pretty horrible phone to use.

Geeksphone FirefoxOS handsets

There are also offerings from Huawei, LG, Alcatel, and a few others, but availability is limited. A company called GeeksPhone in Spain has made the highest spec hardware we’ve seen for Firefox OS with the Revolution, which also runs Android, but it was expensive on release, though it has dropped down to around $150 now.

The problem you face trying to snag a Firefox OS phone is that the majority have received limited European releases or been put on sale in countries like Brazil. You could probably still get one for around $100 and up, but it’s worth remembering that they’re often being sold a lot cheaper in the targeted release countries.

Going budget with Android

Android has grown to become the biggest smartphone platform around by offering the widest range of hardware at all sorts of price points. It’s a slick platform with close to 1.5 million apps and games. Google has focused recent updates on ensuring that the software will run on limited hardware and the general experience is smoother than ever. The days of laggy, stuttering bargain Android phones are definitely behind us.

Google’s services add a huge amount of value to the Android platform. The search, the Maps app, Google Now, and Chrome are all arguably the best of their kind and the experience of using them is not matched on other platforms, even where they are available. Android’s customizability is still a major draw, but it’s also very accessible for newcomers and casual users.

Best budget smartphone running Android

If you want to take a detailed look at the current options for bargain seekers on Android then check what does Android One give you for $100? The new Android One initiative is aimed at specific markets, but the hardware on offer is impressive for the prices. The first wave hitting the market in India right now offers a lot for the $100 price tag.

moto-e

If you’re based in the US or Europe then you can take a chance on a Chinese manufacturer like Xiaomi for unbeatable spec to price propositions, or you can turn to Motorola. The Moto G ($180) and the Moto E ($130) are excellent value for money and you can find deals that see these devices for under $100 on prepaid, particularly on the first Moto G. They concentrate on the right things offering decent displays, usable cameras, and good battery life.

The problem with opting for an Android One device or something from a Chinese manufacturer if you don’t live in a targeted release country is that you’ll end up paying more and it may not prove as easy to get after sales support, should you need it.

What’s the verdict?

Firefox OS lags behind in terms of features and apps. The quality of the experience is much lower, the general app quality is lower, and it’s still a work in progress up against two platforms that have been honed over years.

When it comes to choosing between WP and Android, Nokia is the only reason that WP has a look in. Nokia has been producing great, reliable hardware for years, at impressively low prices. If you absolutely can’t stretch beyond the bottom tier of prices then the Lumia 520 and 530 are better than your Android choices here in the UK. That won’t be the case everywhere.

If you can afford to go a bit higher and break the $100 mark then you have some really solid Android choices to peruse and the experience is immeasurably better. The quality of apps, built-in services, and features is generally higher on Android, so that could sway your decision even at the rock bottom end. What’s your budget pick? Vote in the poll, tell us in the comments!

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