By Stephen Schenck | May 1, 2013 7:09 AM
Last Thursday, a smartphone press release hit my inbox. I gave it a passing glance – T-Mobile, Windows Phone, Lumia 521 – and assuming it wasn’t anything earth-shattering, filed it away for review later. A couple hours passed before I gave it a second look, and that’s when I saw the price: $150. I assumed there had to be a catch, so quickly skimmed the rest of the release, looking for the tell-tale asterisk. After not finding it, I read through again in closer detail, but still wasn’t seeing any mention of a catch.
Could this have been in error? I fired-off an email to the PR firm handling the news, and while I like to think I was a little more eloquent, my message was pretty much “$150??? Seriously?!?” Sure enough, the price was confirmed: $150 for a brand-new smartphone from a respectable manufacturer.
Now really, that shouldn’t have been the biggest shock in the world, as the international Lumia 520 sells in the $200-$240 range, but there’s still something special about that sub-$200 zone. That’s what you spend on a fancy dinner out, or a couple video games – not a full-fledged smartphone.
After I got past all my “this is so awesome” shock, I started getting a little disappointed. I mean, Windows Phone is fine for what it is, but the platform just ain’t my jam. Then the jealousy started setting in. “Why isn’t one of the better Android OEMs making its own $150 smartphone?”
The State of the Cheap Android Union
Don’t get me wrong: there are PLENTY of inexpensive Androids out there. Just a couple weeks back, I wrote about some new models from Archos that were as cheap as $100. Now, I’ve got nothing against Archos, but I really don’t have any strong positive feelings towards the company either, not like the kind I have for Nokia. Even when you’re not dropping that much cash on a phone, you’d still prefer it come from a brand you really like. Not only does that give you some peace of mind about the handset’s quality, but lets you show it off without feeling a tinge of embarrassment in the process.
The specs for those Archos models were also a little hard to stomach. The $100 model, the Archos 35, had just a 3.5-inch HVGA screen and a single-core SoC. I remarked at the time that WVGA would go a long way towards making the phone more palatable – not unlike the screen on the Lumia 521. Similarly, the 521 has a dual-core SoC based on more modern silicon – I would easily pay another $50 to make that Archos 35 into an Archos 40 with 521-like specs.
What about other cheap Androids? Pre-paid carriers are good sources for finding affordable Android models. Sure enough, Boost Mobile has a number of $150-or-less Androids, but what can you actually get for that money? There’s the Samsung Galaxy Rush for $100, and while it’s not running Jelly Bean, at least it has Ice Cream Sandwich – more than I can say for a lot of these other cheap phones. There’s another thing that users shouldn’t have to compromise on when trying to save a buck; the Lumia 521 runs Microsoft’s latest software, so why should a $150 Android be forced to sacrifice having the platform’s most recent build?
Again, the specs of this cheap Android pale in comparison to the 521: a single-core, outdated SoC and too-low-res screen. What about the LG Venice? Here, we’re getting closer; the display is big enough (and WVGA, to boot), but the SoC could be better. I poked around some other carriers, and saw more of the same – lots of phones that were hitting the right price notes, but with one or more specs that just seriously fell short.
So, What Do I Want?
I really don’t think I’m asking for much. I’d love to see someone with at least a little clout – a Motorola or an LG, not a Kyocera – develop an Android phone featuring a 4.0- or 4.3-inch display in a WVGA resolution or better, with a dual-core SoC. I’m flexible on flash storage so long as there’s microSD expansion, and it’s gonna need at least 1GB of RAM. I know, that’s a bit much for a budget phone, but that’s one place you really don’t want to skimp.
Give it Android 4.1 at a minimum. Honestly, what I’d love to see would be for this to be a Nexus model – latest software, Google’s attention, and all – but that would mean no microSD, and I really can’t stomach the thought of a 4GB phone with no avenue for expansion.
You know, a good candidate for the sort of hardware I’m looking for is the Galaxy S III Mini. I’ve hated on that phone a lot – mostly because it’s very much not at all a miniaturized version of the GS3 – but give it another name, and we’ve got something to talk about. Its specs closely match what I’ve laid out, but there’s one big problem: it still sells in the $275-$320 range, when I’m looking for a phone that’s half that much. Sure, it has an AMOLED panel and that 1GB of RAM I dig, but it really shouldn’t be twice as expensive as a Lumia 521.
Will we ever see this mythical super-cheap, totally decent, won’t-be-ashamed-to-be-caught-using Android? I’m not holding my breath. But in a lot of ways we’re already very, very close to being there, and a bold OEM just has to get it into its mind to produce this hardware. Everyone keeps saying that developing markets are where the next big money is, so why not give them an Android those new users could be proud to buy?