No Contract Smartphones Shoppers Guide

smartphones
No contract smartphones offer users an ideal combination of a powerful cell phone that can do a lot, along with a low priced plan without contract obligations. Smartphones are complex in features, so there are a number of factors to consider when picking out a good phone. Through this easy-to-understand guide, we hope to equip readers with useful information in a digestible manner.

Readers seeking more general information regarding prepaid phones (smartphones, dumbphones and everything in between) can check out the No Contract Cell Phones Guide.

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If you are a seasoned smartphone shopper or already have a fairly good idea about the specific phone you want, feel free to skip ahead to the Best No Contract Smartphone Deals section. You may still want to glance through this guide as a reminder.

Price

iphone 5s smartphone

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Price is an important factor as no contract smartphones are prepaid smartphones – users buy and own their phones outright. For this reason, many users are willing to forgo the latest models. Despite that, high end phones like iPhone 6, however, remain best-sellers. iPhones cost in the range of $200 – $800, depending on the exact model, color and memory included. Premium Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S series is closest in performance to the iPhone and costs around $600.

Mid-tier Android phones that cost $100 to $200 are extremely popular. Samsung, LG and HTC are the top brands for popular mid-tier Androids. ZTE and Huawei are two popular Chinese brands that are fast establishing themselves in offering budget, entry level and mid-tier range of smartphones. Budget Android phones cost anywhere from $60 to $100.

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ZTE also manufactures store branded phones for Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile. They definitely pack a lot of features into a small price tag of $60 to $100. Undoubtedly, these cheap pay as you go Android smartphones provide a lot of bang for the buck. User ratings are high as well. The only downside is that some users reported that their phones got a little less stable over time, although they were still able to function.

There are new smartphone models being introduced all the time. Phones that are just a few months older can go on sale. If you are not fixated on specific phone models, you can probably find a good smartphone deal online. Check these out: Best No Contract Smartphone Deals

Plan

A related consideration to price is to consider the plans that you want the phone to work with. For example, with Virgin Mobile, you could have an unlimited messaging and data smartphone plan for just $35/month. Many people want to go for a plan like this as it means monthly savings of $10 to $15 a month they may have to end up spending with other providers. Likewise, other customers like to go for TracFone because they can operate their smartphone for under $10 a month.

The “catch” is that companies like Virgin Mobile or TracFone have plans that will only work with cell phones that are sold by them and tied to their network. If you have already set your sights on a particular prepaid or no contract provider, then the easiest way to shop for a smartphone is to consider what choices they offer. You can use the pointers contained on this page to see if a phone is right for you.

Other companies like Net10 or Straight Talk allow users to bring their own phones to use with their network. However, if you are going to buy a new phone, it may still make sense to consider one that is offered by the phone company directly. There are 2 reasons for it. Firstly, phones offered directly by cell phone service providers are usually lower in cost than what you would pay in the open unlocked market. Secondly, there is less hassle or chance that the phone would turn out not to be compatible with the network that you want to use.

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For more general guidelines on no contract phones and plans, check out our basic guide here.

Operating Systems

The operating system of a smartphone is software that manages a phone’s resources and programs. It plays a strong role in the overall user experience. Think of the smartphone as a small computer. With computers, you have operating systems like Windows for PCs or Mac OS for Macs. With smartphones, the 4 major OS platforms are Android, Apple iOS, Windows Phone and Blackberry.

Apple iOS for iPhones

iPhone 5c Smartphone

iPhone 5C

Apple iOS runs on iPhones. It provides one of the largest selections of mobile Apps and games that users can choose from. The hottest apps and games tend to get released on iOS first, although the gap between iOS and Android apps is fast closing. The latest version is iOS 7. This version is available with iPhone 4, iPhone 5, iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S.

iPhone users like how easy it is to navigate the iPhone interface. Newer iPhone models include Siri, a personal assistant that recognizes voice commands. For Mac or iPad users, the benefit of having an iPhone is that they can more directly connect with each other. Check out iPhone offers at Straight Talk.

Android

Samsung Galaxy SIII

Samsung Galaxy SIII

Android-based phones are in head-to-head competition with Apple iPhones. Android, developed by Google, is an open source platform. Being a good open source platform, Android has attracted a number of manufacturers to provide Android devices and phones, such as Samsung, LG, HTC and ZTE. This means a wider selection of high quality cell phones for users, and at competitive prices.

For a majority of no contract smartphone users, Androids make an ideal choice because of their affordability and features. Even modest Android phones these days come equipped with good cameras, sharp screen displays and premium features.

The latest version is Android 4.3, also called the 4.3 Jelly Bean. Phones with older versions like versions 2 or 3 are still being sold. We recommend going for a no contract smartphone that is Android 4.0 or later. Some Android apps may not be incompatible with much older versions of Android.

Currently, there are over a million Android apps and games available. Major apps will almost always have an Android version out.

Shop for Android smartphones.

Windows

Windows phones lag behind iPhones and Android phones in popularity, but traction is gaining. As there are currently less manufacturers for Windows phones, users have less choices. However, big names like Nokia and HTC offer Windows smartphones. Windows phones’ key strength lay in their ablility to communicate with Windows PCs and integration with Microsoft Office and Outlook. Users also like the customizable touchscreen interface and the phone’s document management functions. It has much less apps than Android phones or iPhones.

BlackBerry

Blackberry curve 9310

Blackberry Curve 9310 – Boost Mobile has been a pioneer in offering no contract Blackberry plans.

Blackberry used to be a dominant brand for Personal Digital Assistant type cell phones but have lost major marketshare to iPhone and Android phones in recent years. Classic Blackberry phones incorporate a signature touch keyboard design. For some users, the touch keyboard design could one reason to get a Blackberry. Newer full touchscreen smartphone models have been introduced recently.

In general, Blackberries have remained somewhat less exciting in nature compared to iPhone or Android phones that can run lots of apps through easy-to-navigate dashboards. However, they are good quality phones and relatively inexpensive. You can probably find one for $50 – $100 through Straight Talk or Boost Mobile. Boost also has a certified pre-owned Blackberry program that offers Blackberries at bargain prices.

Processor

Moto G

The Moto G uses the Snapdragon 400 processor which offers 1.2GHz quad-core performance.

The smartphone’s processor determines how quickly and smoothly the phone will operate. A fast processor is especially important if you plan to run a lot of apps and play games with your phone. There are a few parameters to look out for, such as the
  • model of the processor chip (eg. Snapdragon 600, A7),
  • clock speed (how many mHz, ranges from less than 1 GHz to over 2 GHz)
  • whether it is dual-core or quad-core (quad core is faster)

The easiest way is just to go by the name and model of the chip. For example, Snapdragon is the chip of choice for many brand-name Android phones. The higher the number next to it, the more powerful it is. Currently, the Snapdragon 800 (Quad core, 2.7 GHz) is used in the higher-end Android phones, and Snapdragon 400 (Dual Core, 1.7 GHz) used in mid-tier smartphones.

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The Snapdragon S series (eg. S4) is a chipset designed for fast performance without costing a lot, and can be found in premium or mid-tier phones. The A7 is the latest chip that is used in the iPhone 5 series with iPhone 5S. It is also considered a slightly faster chip than the Snapdragon 800.

The race continues with the newest Samsung Galaxy S5 model based on the spanking new Snapdragon 801 chip. In the meantime, Apple is gearing up for the A8 chip.

RAM Memory

Samsung Galaxy SIII

The Samsung Galaxy SIII comes with 2 GB of memory (RAM), 16 GB of internal storage and supports up to 64GB in external storage (microSD card).

RAM memory is the short-term memory of a smartphone that supports the operations of phone apps, multitasking, web browsing or playing games. For example, running the text messaging WhatsApp would take up about 25MB of RAM. The Processor and RAM work hand-in-hand to provide a fast, seamless smartphone experience for users. It’s no fun to have apps crash because you have an incoming call.

Having 1 GB (ie. 1000 MB) of RAM or more is highly desirable. Higher end smartphone models like the Samsung Galaxy S3 has a RAM memory of 2 GB, while the iPhone 5C has 1 GB of RAM memory. RAM memory is often just abbreviated to the term “memory” on specification sheets of smartphones. RAM memory is not to be confused with storage memory (ROM and Storage), which is explained next.

Internal & External Storage For Pictures, Music Etc

The internal storage for a smartphone is the built-in internal memory of the phone. It works somewhat like a combination of the ROM (read only memory) and hard drive of a computer. External storage refers to external memory usually provided through microSD card slots. You could think of it as a type of thumb drive. Smartphone storage memory is important for storing games, photos, videos and other documents.

Internal storage is usually fixed at, such as 4 MB, 16 MB, or higher. A part of this internal memory is tied up as ROM or Read Only Memory. ROM is reserved for running programs to operate the smartphone and certain apps. The rest of the internal storage space is available to store any pictures, music, files, videos, documents etc.

Users who need more storage memory space may add them through external microSD cards if the phone has a microSD slot. Most smartphone also allow for external storage of up to 32 MB through microSD cards. Some phones like the iPhone does not support external storage. Instead, they are sold with various levels of internal storage, as such 16 MB or 32 MB. iPhones will also connect users to the iCloud, a cloud-based storage facility that is available through wifi.

Having a minimum of 4 GB of storage to start is a good yardstick. Higher end smartphones tend to pack more internal storage into the phone. Similar to the iCloud feature for iPhones, other smartphones can access Android or Windows cloud storage applications. However, these are only accessible when wifi is active, or they could drain your data plan.

Data Network 3G/4G LTE

4g lteCell phone users benefit from high speed data connections as it makes sending/receiving emails, tweeting or web browsing so much faster on their mobile phones. 3G and 4G LTE are standards that describe the high speed data networks that a smartphone will connect to. Currently, we recommend at least choosing a combination of smartphone model and no-contract provider that allows for a 3G or 4G LTE experience.

4G LTE is the standard most people aim for these days. To connect at this speed, the phone must also be compatible with the standard. Whether it is a 2G/3G/4G connection is dependent upon both the prepaid/no-contract smartphone model you are using, and whether the phone carrier offers connections through these network standards.

An older network standard is 2G. Some users also reported improvements in their voice calls switching up from 2G to 3G networks. 4G networks offers better speed than 3G, but it doesn’t impact the quality of voice calls. 4G is also frequently referred to as LTE. LTE refers to a specified type of high quality 4G network, distinguishing a “real” 4G network from what some might consider lesser versions.

Wifi

Smartphone WifiUsing a smartphone’s wifi connection to get an internet connection for emails, browsing the web, send text messages, make Skype calls or more. Nowadays, wifi or wireless internet is ubiquitous – you are likely to find high speed wifi connections in work places, cafes, restaurants, malls or right at home.

A no contract phone user can get lots of communications done without spending their monthly data or text messaging allowance. This might be a matter of lesser concern for folks with unlimited cell phone plans. However, wifi still presents speed advantages when compared to a 3G data network connection. For smartphone users with smaller no-contract monthly plans, wifi can allow them to keep their monthly plan cost down, while allowing for an active level of cell phone use.

Most would expect smartphones to be enabled for wifi access. However, it doesn’t hurt to check that wifi connectivity is included, especially for entry level no-contract smartphones.

Apps

smartphone appsMany users love their smartphones because of the number of apps available. They are small programs that run on smartphones to help users with various tasks, provide interactive help or to entertain users. For example, there are online banking apps that makes it easy to do online banking from a cell phone. Another example is WhatsApp, which is a popular app that allows users to send SMS text messages to other phones that also have WhatsApp installed. Users can save a lot on their phone plans’ airtime usage or monthly text allowance. Fortunately, the app is available for iPhone, Android, Windows and Blackberry phones, so users can connect with friends with different kinds of phones.

Apps are platform based eg. iPhone app or Android app etc. Most apps have both iPhone and Android versions. Windows phones currently have about a fifth of the apps of these two. There aren’t too many Blackberry apps yet, but its improving.

Screen Size

The screen size of typical no-contract smartphones sold measures anywhere from 3.5 inches to 5 inches. The iPhone 5s and 5c, two af the most popular models, feature 4 inch screens. A smaller screen means a more compact phone that is easy to carry around, but it could be less comfortable on the eyes. It may also be harder to navigate since the touchscreen area is smaller.

Screen Resolution

Screen resolution is something else that affects how clear and easy it is to read the screen display. Smaller screens tend to need lower resolutions to provide the same visual clarity as bigger screens. For example, the iPhone 5S has a screen resolution of 1136 x 640 on a 4 inch screen. The display is extremely crisp and clear. A smartphone with a 5 inch screen and a higher resolution like 1280 x 720 pixels could present a technically stronger resolution, but the human eye can’t really tell the difference.

Budget or mid-tier smartphones often have lower screen resolution levels that are half to two-third as good as the iPhone at 320 x 480 or 540 x 960, with screens that measure under 4.5 inches. These resolutions still work well. The higher the resolution is for a particular screen size, the clearer the display is.

SmartPhone Camera

Selfie Photo using Samsung Galaxy smartphone - Ellen Degeneres and friends

Ellen’s famous selfie group shot taken with a Samsung Galaxy Note camera. Credit: ABC news

Using smartphone cameras is the most convenient way to take pictures these days, since our phones are always with us. Most good cell phone manufacturers realize the importance of the camera feature. They do make an effort to include a good camera, complete with extra features for image stablization or editing. In addition, iPhones and Android phones allow users to create better pictures just because they have more photo apps available to adjust, edit and share pictures taken.

The megapixel count for a phone camera is one standard measurement to look at. They range from 1.3 to 5 megapixels. A camera with more megapixels allows for sharper images. However, don’t just rely on this standard. The quality of pictures taken will also depend on the quality of camera lens and the light sensor.

Camera phones that allow users to adjust the shutter speed and exposure allows for better photos to be taken, especially if the phone user understands photographic principles. The best way to see if a smartphone camera is good is to actually use it and judge it for yourself. Perhaps a friend already own a model and will let you take a few snapshots with it or share with you pictures taken with the phone camera. Second to that is to take a look at user feedback, read reviews from others, or see samples of pictures taken from the phone.

Battery Life

A smartphone with a good battery life adds to a better user experience. Most smartphones should provide a day’s worth of power with average use. Nobody wants their conversation to end all of a sudden because the phone went out of juice. Checking the phone’s detailed specifications and feedback from other phone users will give an indication as to the battery life.

A battery capacity of 1500 mAh and above provides decent performance for a smartphone. As a comparison, the iPhone 5 has a battery size of 1440 mAh. This specification is not always available on the details page of budget smartphones, but it worth taking note of when you see it.

With so much you can do with a smartphone, it is easy to drain the battery life quickly. The use of wifi, GPS, bluetooth and phone apps could all add up to lower the battery life. One tip is to keep the use of these to a minimum, or turn them off when possible during the day.

Some users also purchase spare batteries to carry around. Although spare batteries themselves this can be relatively inexpensive, some users consider it a hassle to bring around the spare. Nowadays, many cafes like Starbucks or Coffee Bean welcome customers who like to stop by and charge up their mobile devices while taking a coffee or tea break. This could be another avenue to keep a phone charged when you are out and about.

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Summary

In summary, there are many factors that comes into play when choosing a good smartphone with a no contract plan. If you are unsure of which factors to key in on, review the guide again and concentrate on the top 2 or 3 that standout for you. In general, price and operating system (whether to go for an iPhone or Android) are the main ones that help guide a purchase decision.

To start shopping, check out our Best No Contract Smartphone Deals page.

Interested in non-smartphones? Check out the Feature Phones/Non-Smartphones Guide

 

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