In 2015, there's no meaningful difference between a $100 phone and a six times pricier iPhone or Galaxy

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

It's now been some 8 years since Apple launched the original iPhone at a memorable event hosted by Steve Jobs. The iPhone is now widely accepted to have given birth to the modern smartphone in a form that will get larger (much larger!), but remain the same at its core until this day.

Nonetheless, one thing that smartphones were not when the iPhone and Android phones started selling is affordable. The $200 on-contract price hiding a full price of the hefty $650 paid in monthly installments hidden in your two-year plan, has remained largely intact for high end devices.

Change has been coming for a long time with affordable devices, but up until recently, I have also felt let down by either lag, a horrific camera, poor battery life, hugely insufficient storage, or some other shortcoming that affordable phones had.

I do believe that is no longer the case for most people, as affordable phones have gotten so good as to require no big compromises. After observing the industry for years, it is only recently that I have an overwhelming feeling that the pace of innovation has not necessarily stopped, but has somehow become petty and ultimately reached a plateau.

Here are a few examples that come to mind:
  • smartphone resolution which affects the sharpness of a phone has been changing quickly in the past few years, but ever since the jump over the psychological 300ppi barrier, this has become less relevant. Screens keep on improving in sharpness and - most recently - color, but the change is on a much smaller scale than the monumental jump from a phone with buttons to an all-touchscreen devices with no QWERTY keyboard or any other buttons
  • smartphone cameras have gotten more and more megapixels, but the difference in camera quality between - say - the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 is really not all that great
  • smartphone batteries have not changed much and continue lasting just around a day
  • interfaces have undergone a change to look modern in the past couple of years, but it’s hard to foresee any ground-breaking changes in that aspect in the future

All of this leaves the single biggest technological breakthrough of the past couple of years in one particular area: the falling prices of smartphones.

While technology keeps on evolving, it seems that we have settled on the basics of what makes a good smartphone. Gone are design abominations like the ones you used to see in the 90s and early 2000s, and practicality has won. This somewhat reminds of the evolution of the automobile industry where crazy concepts used to appear all throughout the 20th century, but seem to have nearly completely disappeared in the 21st.


Everything I need to do in my daily grind, I can do with a $100 phone without any big compromises. And I don't think I am the only one, to paraphrase The Beatles. Illustrating my point, here is an unusual comparison of the features of a brand new sub-$100 phone against the $650 iPhone 6 (but you can easily replace it with the Galaxy S6, if you prefer).

$96 Xiaomi Redmi 2A vs $650 Apple iPhone 6 (unusual feature comparison):

  • 4.7” screen with sufficient sharpness for most people and great colors on both
  • Vastly different processors, but the end result is nearly equally smooth performance for most daily tasks
  • 8-megapixel camera that does comparably well in good light and is comparably useless in low light
  • Battery that lasts slightly more than a day (the Xiaomi even has fast charging that the iPhone lacks!)
  • You can play Asphalt and Modern Combat on both (details may or may not appear a bit better on the iPhone)
  • You can use all of the platforms’ apps with no limitation on both

But doesn't this go against all that the media (us included) has been saying?!

Yes, and no. With less and less differentiation between even the cheapest $100 Android phone and a high-end iPhone, we’ve made sure to cover the details at much more detail to illuminate those tiny changes better. This, however, does not make the tiny details any more important.

Fact remains that now there is much less practical difference between a $100 phone and a top-notch $650-$750 iPhone or Galaxy than there was even a couple of years ago.

Android, in particular (Windows Phone also to some extent, but it still lacks crucial apps that would make it hard to get a heart-felt recommendation for a daily driver phone), has dealt with the huge issue of lag and the falling price of components has made cameras on cheap phones good enough for most people that won't project unrealistic expectations on a small-sensor phone camera.

Expensive high-end phones are effectively more of a fashion and status statement

As competition in smartphones heats up, we are seeing affordable phones now made using the same high quality materials as the much advertized high-end ones.

The Blu Vivo Air is a recent example: a $180 phone (that's full retail price, with no tied contract) thinner than the iPhone and made of solid aluminum is one of a few up and coming devices that promise to leave more expensive phones the privilege of being status symbols only, without having a functional advantage in terms of pure construction and fashion style. We've seen this long ago in the industry of traditional watches - there is no huge need to wear a watch these days (they do have the useful function of telling time, but with a phone in your pocket, you don't really need a watch to tell the time), but people wear them for reasons of style. As years have passed, even less expensive models have become extremely well-made, leaving more expensive watches serve as a demonstration of their owners' high position in society, without the watches themselves being functionally much better.

This revolution in access to information has come largely thanks to Android

Even though the Apple iPhone started the era of modern smartphones (others, like Nokia, made ‘smartphones’ earlier, but looking from today;s perspective of apps and all-capacitive screens and all-touch interface, those phones simply do not qualify), it was Android that built the open ecosystem of phone vendors and the free market and competition did the rest. The end result? Devices like the Motorola Moto G, Moto E, Xiaomi Redmi 2A, Meizu M1 Note, Blu Vivo Air, and many others.

Google's Android, however, is not the only enabler of the affordable smartphone revolution: the name MediaTek deserves credit where credit is due. The company pushed the envelope with its affordable chips powering most affordable phones nowadays, and made it possible to have this practically compromise-free $100 Android smartphone experience.

What really matters, though, is the end result: the dream of a $100 smartphone with no huge compromises has become a reality.

Right below, you'd find some suggestions for such affordable devices.

#1: Xiaomi Redmi 2A

Price: $100 off-contract

The Xiaomi (pronounce "show-me") Redmi 2A is one of the most affordable of the Android bunch here, yet it packs pretty stellar specs for the price, and it runs buttery smooth. With a new, colorful and fun plastic design, the Redmi 2 has a playful appearance. It runs Android 4.4 KitKat with MIUI 6 on board, and that skin is very rich in useful additions. You also get a 4.7" 720p display, a good 8-megapixel main camera with a 2-megapixel front shooter, and a dual SIM option. It's a bit of an adventure ordering it from Chinese phone resellers, but hardly a risk as Xiaomi is one of the biggest brands in China that takes pride in good craftsmanship of its devices.

#2: Motorola Moto E (2015 edition)

Price: $120/$150 off-contract

The 2015 edition of the Motorola Moto E continues the tradition of the ultra affordable Moto E, but upgrades in a few key areas: it's got a larger, 4.5-inch display (with a qHD resolution), and it comes in an LTE version with a much more powerful processor. There is also a cheaper, $120 3G version with a Snapdragon 200, but for $30 more - at a starting price of $150 - the 4G LTE Moto E is a device that makes much less of a compromise with its Snapdragon 410 system chip and connectivity. The camera on both is also improved to a 5-megapixel one with auto-focus, but image quality is still far from stellar.

#3: Meizu M1 Note

Also known as: Meizu Blue Charm Note
Price: $200 off-contract

The hard-to-get exotic Meizu M1 Note is a no-compromise affordable phone that blows the competition away with a 5.5-inch 1080 x 1920-pixel display, a very good 13-megapixel main camera and a 5-megapixel selfie shooter, a colorful body with compact for its size dimensions (it's got super slim side bezels, a feature reserved for costlier devices), and a long-lasting battery. Problem? You have to order it from Chinese phone resellers like Merimobiles, for instance, and you don't get the standard warranty you might be used to with first-tier manufacturers. If you're willing to go through the hassle of waiting for the order from China, the Meizu M1 Note is not likely to disappoint.

#4: Blu Vivo Air

Also known as: Gionee Elife S5.1 / Kazam Tornado 348 / Allview X2 Soul Mini
Price: $200 off-contract

Holding onto the BLU Vivo Air for the very first time, it’s hard to imagine that it’s priced at $200 – the outright cost for the phone; not subsidized. That’s pretty incredible given its world-class razor profile and the premium aesthetic that’s attached to its design. With a 4.8-inch 720 x 1280-pixel AMOLED display, a very decent MediaTek MT6592 system chip, and above average battery longevity, it's an impressive package for the price. The camera is a bit hit or miss, but it's hard to demand perfect at $200, isn't it?

#5: Motorola Moto G (2014 edition)

Price: starting from $179

The Motorola Moto G (2014 edition) improves on the successful formula of the original G, adding a larger, 5-inch display with similarly pleasing colors and the signature, near-stock, fast Android experience. With a promise for a quick migration to Android 5.0 Lollipop, the Moto G is the most future-proof of all the afore-mentioned affordable devices. It can also be customized with colorful shells and that's a nice touch. Other spec highlights include a zippy, quad-core Snapdragon 400 system chip, spacious (but not record-breaking) battery, front-firing stereo speakers, and a much improved 8-megapixel camera. With the right balance of speed, looks, and camera performance, the Moto G is our pick for the best affordable smartphone money can buy.



1. Awesoman64

Posts: 292; Member since: Mar 18, 2015

I agree that expensive phones is just for show and luxury. But it's people's choice so we are not to judge. I myself would want an iPhone 5c. The hardware still isn't stagnant and I'd be more willing to invest myself to the Apple ecosystem.

28. MySchizoBuddy

Posts: 159; Member since: Aug 23, 2011

yes Gold is just a metal like Iron. I dunno why people pay so much for Gold.

35. rihel_95

Posts: 305; Member since: Mar 21, 2012

The only major notice able diff is the camera, thought it has caught up a lot.

34. DillWeed

Posts: 150; Member since: Mar 14, 2014

Galaxy Note series is not "just for show"

55. corporateJP

Posts: 2458; Member since: Nov 28, 2009's just generally overrated, so it finally made it to that "iPhone Status" it was always trying to attain.

2. WAusJackBauer

Posts: 455; Member since: Mar 22, 2015

I wouldn't say a $100 phone (but I guess it does depend on where you live) Generally in Australia a $300ish dollar phone will do everything flagships will, except photos and video recordings.

11. jaytai0106

Posts: 1888; Member since: Mar 30, 2011

Totally agreed. $100 phone might have the same functions as flagships, but performance wise have noticeable different. I would say a lot of $300ish phone this year will be more bang of your buck Like Asus Zenphone 2.

3. LikeABauss

Posts: 29; Member since: Mar 03, 2015

A $100 phone will do for pretty much everybody out there....Except PhoneArena people. Love me some megapixels!

54. ILikeBubbles

Posts: 525; Member since: Jan 17, 2011

totally agree. do i NEED a 2.5ghz octa core processor and 4gb ram in my phone? no.. but it makes me happy.

4. NexusKoolaid

Posts: 493; Member since: Oct 24, 2011

Re: the odd phones - You hated the Flipout so much you mentioned it twice? (#4 and #18)

5. theguy2345

Posts: 1216; Member since: Jun 24, 2014

I think people (regular phones) because they don't even look at the low end and what it offers. For most people, they won't even notice the difference. As a techie, I would. But regular people? Fine. I think it is more they can have the best thing on the market. Look at this way: Many people want a Ferrari,not because of performance,but for looks and status. If they could get that "Ferrari" for $600, or even with contracts, $200, why not. I think that is what it boils down to.

6. kaikuheadhunterz

Posts: 1157; Member since: Jul 18, 2013

I think that applies mostly to casual users. 0 Power users will definitely feel the difference

7. xq10xa

Posts: 810; Member since: Dec 07, 2010

They should have mentioned the BLU Studio Energy phone. It is quite a bad ass phone for $150 from, the battery is tremendous.

29. orphant

Posts: 35; Member since: Oct 22, 2014

I only found out about BLU last year, and they actually have some very spectacular devices.

8. ChooseGoose

Posts: 5; Member since: Jul 09, 2014

Is there a Nazi symbol on the middle button of that buddha phone? Or does it stand for something else

12. DnB925Art

Posts: 1168; Member since: May 23, 2013

It stands for something else in Buddhism. "Generally, people regard that swastika symbols mean "good fortune", but most people have forgotten the very original meaning of the symbols. The very origin of swastika symbols is not from human world but from Buddha's paradise. It is a mark on Buddha's body that represents the Buddha's level and status in heaven. A Buddha of Tathagata level only has one swastika on the body, while higher level Buddhas have more swastika symbols. Arhats and Budhisattvas do not have any swastika on their bodies. We can find one swastika on many Buddha statues' chests."

21. Planterz

Posts: 2120; Member since: Apr 30, 2012

The "swastika" is used as a symbol by many cultures, and has been for centuries. Note that the Nazi swastika points the other direction.

49. itsdeepak4u2000

Posts: 3718; Member since: Nov 03, 2012

That is the same Nazi swastika symbol on the phone. Indian Swastika points the opposite of that.

9. mrej201

Posts: 226; Member since: Feb 04, 2015

put can it play those high end game on a hdtv

10. mrej201

Posts: 226; Member since: Feb 04, 2015

put can it play those high end game on a hdtv

13. tedkord

Posts: 17397; Member since: Jun 17, 2009

So, right before the biggest Android/Samsung launch probably ever, Victor comes to the conclusion that there's really no reason to buy an expensive phone, the cheap ones are just as good. I look forward to reading a reminder about this concept just before the next iPhone launches, Vic. (In the same way I look forward to world peace)

30. Victor.H

Posts: 1076; Member since: May 27, 2011

Yeah, and that's why I use the iPhone 6 as an example, and put it in the headline. You exposed my agenda. Almost.

37. tedkord

Posts: 17397; Member since: Jun 17, 2009

Like I said, print the same article right before the iPhone 6s comes out.

44. ZEUS.the.thunder.god

Posts: 1134; Member since: Oct 05, 2011

Very well written article. Its been a long time I read something meaningful here at PA. Good job victor.

14. Muzhhur

Posts: 261; Member since: Sep 14, 2012

Try to save money and you will save performance too

15. Awesoman64

Posts: 292; Member since: Mar 18, 2015

Save money by buying the phone that deserves its price.

16. UglyFrank

Posts: 2194; Member since: Jan 23, 2014

It is true, the differentiation between tiers is becoming less apparent. P.S the mobile view is doing wonders, my iPad Air can actually make it to the bottom of the page without crashing now

31. Victor.H

Posts: 1076; Member since: May 27, 2011

Made me laugh with this! Glad you made it to the comments! :)

36. JunitoNH

Posts: 1946; Member since: Feb 15, 2012

The question is, where to find these phone in the US, besides Amazon? You really don't know what you are getting from those more obscured websites.

39. elitewolverine

Posts: 5192; Member since: Oct 28, 2013

Newegg tigerdirect

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