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Best budget smartphones under $200 (summer 2015)

Posted by wicked May - 25 - 2015 - Monday Comments Off

Just a few years ago it was near impossible to find a capable smartphone for a decent price. Most of the high-end offerings used to cost anywhere from $600 to $900, and most low-end devices were somewhataffordable, though they couldn’t keep up with simple day-to-day tasks. Luckily a few manufacturers have made great strides in the budget-friendly market, and now it’s easier than ever to find a perfectly capable device for under $200.

In a budget-friendly market that’s increasing rapidly in size, you might find it challenging to find a device that best suits your needs. With that said, let’s take a look at the best budget smartphones for under $200!

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#1 – Asus ZenFone 2

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 The recently-announced Asus ZenFone 2 offers flagship-level specifications, a premium build and a smooth software experience, which is why we name this device the best all-around smartphone you can buy right now for under $200. The device caught headlines when it launched at CES 2015, mainly for it being the first smartphone that came with 4GB of RAM. While that’s certainly an impressive feature, there’s a lot more to the story. In our full review, we took a look at the higher-end model, which features 4GB of RAM, a quad-core 2.3GHz Intel Atom Z3580 processor and 64GB of on-board storage. However, since that model is available for $299, today we’re taking a look at the lower-end option. The base model features a quad-core 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z3560 processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of on-board storage.

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It also comes with a vivid 5.5-inch 1080p LCD display, which we understand might be a bit too large for some users. Even so, the phone’s curved design makes one-handed use easier and the rear-mounted volume keys are an excellent departure from the norm. Placed on the very top, the power button can be difficult to reach much of the time, but thankfully the phone supports double tap to wake. And despite the phone’s chassis being made entirely of plastic, it still feels plenty premium. Even though the device only comes with 16GB of internal storage, Asus has provided a microSD card slot for expandable memory – a feature many users have come to appreciate over the past year or so, despite Samsung ditching the port with its latest Galaxy S6 flagship. The ZenFone 2 also has a 13MP rear-facing camera and a 5MP front-facing camera that will take sufficient pictures for most users out there.

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On the software front, the phone ships with Android 5.0 Lollipop running underneath Asus’ ZenUI software overlay, which some users may not like. That said, this most recent build of ZenUI is much-improved over past versions, and many of the UI elements are very similar to “vanilla” Android. Asus has been diligent about updating its devices’ software in a timely fashion over the past few years, so folks who buy this device will probably have a positive software experience for (hopefully) two full years.

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The ZenFone 2 is available for use on AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S., among many other carriers and markets throughout the world. It also has dual SIM card support, which is a feature we’re always happy to see on low-cost smartphones.

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#2 – Motorola Moto G (2nd Gen.)

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 The followup to the original Moto G holds a lot in common with its predecessor, though in this case, that’s not a bad thing in the slightest. For just $180, Motorola’s Moto G (2nd Gen.) offers its users very impressive specifications, a high-end build and an incredible software experience. For those who think the ZenFone 2 is too big, the Moto G (2nd Gen.) is the next best device. It has a 5.0-inch LCD display with 1280 x 720 resolution, making the device very easy to hold in the hand. Although it doesn’t feel as premium as the ZenFone 2 in terms of build quality, a few features stand out that make this a very well-rounded device.

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Since the overall size of the chassis is much smaller, the power button on the Moto G is much easier to reach than the one on our first pick. Additionally, the front-facing speakers on this device are much louder and clearer than the ZenFone 2’s single rear-facing speaker. Unfortunately, the Moto G isn’t nearly as fast as the Zenfone 2, but it’s still more than capable of handling everyday tasks. The power-efficient quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor clocked at 1.2GHz is enough for basic tasks, but the 1GB of RAM makes the Moto G feel sluggish at times. Luckily, the near-vanilla build of Android helps manage RAM usage pretty well, but it still can be a problem when opening more than a few apps at once. The jump from 1 to 2 GB of RAM is a major one, at least right now, and that’s where I think the Zenfone 2 really has an edge over the Moto G.

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The Moto G also comes with just 8GB of internal storage, though you have the option to add an extra 64GB via the microSD card slot. Also present on this device is an 8MP rear-facing camera and a 2MP front camera, which is nothing to get excited about. The phone also has a non-removable 2070mAh battery, which should be able to get most light users through the day on a single charge.

When purchasing a Motorola device, one thing is for certain – you’ll likely receive timely updates for two full years. Motorola has been very good about updating its devices as of late, and the Moto G (2nd Gen.) is no exception. The phone comes with a near-vanilla build of Android with a few of Motorola’s software enhancements on top. Most Motorola phones feature a great software experience, so we think you’ll be pretty happy with this offering if you’re looking for a simple, functional software experience.

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There is a Moto G variant that supports 4G LTE connectivity, though it will run you more than $200. The model we’re looking at today only supports speeds up to HSPA+, so keep that in mind before you choose this device over the 4G-capable ZenFone 2.

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#3 – Xiaomi Redmi 2

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Announced January 2015, one of the latest products from Xiaomi continues to surprise us when it comes to specs, build quality and software experience. The Redmi 2 is a great option for folks who want to experience Xiaomi’s MIUI while still maintaining a tight budget. There are two models available, the first of which featuring 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage. While the attractive $150 price point may entice you, we’d wager to say that the higher-end Redmi 2 Pro is more worth your time. Featuring 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, the Redmi 2 Pro costs around $20 more than the Redmi 2 proper, which may be a good option for those who don’t mind spending a little closer to $200.

Today, though, we’re looking at the $150 Redmi 2, which is surprisingly solid and very comfortable in the hand. It has a 4.7-inch 720p LCD display, with quality coming really close to that of the Moto G and viewing angles being just as good or slightly better than those on the Zenfone 2. The rear-facing speaker on the Redmi 2 seems to be louder than the speakers on both the ZenFone 2 and Moto G, although the Moto G still has the least amount of audio distortion overall.

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On the performance front, the Redmi 2 is just about as fast as (if not faster than) the Moto G, though both devices are still a tad slower than the ZenFone 2. Both the base and pro models of the Redmi 2 have quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 410 processors, which are still perfectly capable CPUs. The Pro model should be faster and much better with multitasking, however, since it has 2GB of RAM compared to the 1GB found on the base model.

You’ll get 8GB of internal storage with the Redmi 2 (16GB with the Pro model) with expandable memory up to 64GB, though MIUI doesn’t allow applications to be moved or installed on the microSD card. This is both a positive and a negative for the end user. On one hand, installing apps externally can free up a ton of space on your device. But much of the time, apps installed on the microSD card can act up, which is obviously something that should be avoided. The Redmi 2’s 8MP rear camera is overall pretty good. Featuring a higher dynamic range than on the ZenFone 2, the Xiaomi offering produces much more noise in low-light environments. It also has a removable 2200mAh battery that should get most users through a full day on a single charge with roughly three hours of screen-on time.The

The Redmi 2’s 8MP rear camera is overall pretty good. Featuring a higher dynamic range than on the ZenFone 2, the Xiaomi offering produces much more noise in low-light environments. It also has a removable 2200mAh battery that should get most users through a full day on a single charge with roughly three hours of screen-on time.

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The Redmi 2 runs Xiaomi’s MIUI V6 atop Android 4.4 KitKat, which will likely turn some users off from this device. MIUI is a pretty heavy Android skin, and it has been criticized for taking some inspiration from a certain fruity tech company, but the experience is truly unique and different compared to vanilla Android. Xiaomi releases occasional updates for the Redmi 2, and if you flash the developer ROM, you can even receive an update every Friday. The company is pretty optimistic with its release timelines, so hopefully we’ll get to see Android 5.0 Lollipop make its way to the device in the coming months. The ZenFone 2 and Moto G are likely to receive Android updates much faster than the Redmi 2, so keep that in mind if quick updates are important to you.

While the Redmi 2 is slightly better than the Moto G overall, availability is a major challenge with this device. You can’t officially buy the phone in the U.S., which means you’ll have to import it. Importing the device won’t get you the standard one-year warranty that many people expect, and the models available for import are not intended for the U.S. market either, meaning that carrier support isn’t always what you may expect.

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The Redmi 2 has dual SIM card support. But unlike the Moto G, which fully supports both AT&T and T-Mobile HSPA+, the Redmi 2 has limited support for U.S. carriers, depending on the specific variant. There is a variant that supports WCDMA 850 / 1900 / 2100MHz, which is fully compatible with AT&T and partially compatible with T-Mobile, depending on your specific coverage area. I wouldn’t recommend buying the Redmi 2 unless you’re on AT&T, and even then, please make sure to confirm that you’re getting the right variant.

I like to think of the Redmi 2 as being the option for users wanting something different – it’s a great phone, but it is difficult to get and carrier support can be complicated.

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So, there you have it – our top three picks for the best budget smartphones under $200! We understand that there are dozens of other viable options that fit into this category, but we kept our list exclusive to the phones we thought gave the user the best bang for their buck. What are your thoughts? Do you feel another smartphone should take the top spot? Be sure to let us know in the comment section below!

Infographic: the phones with the highest and lowest screen-to-body ratios

Posted by wicked May - 25 - 2015 - Monday Comments Off

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So you want your next smartphone to feature a large screen and a compact body. That sounds like the ultimate first world problem, but you know what, we feel your pain. With new smartphones regularly coming out in the 5.5-inch range, and some skirting tablet territory, a compact build is more important than ever.

If a high screen-to-body ratio is what you’re after, this simple infographic put together by Danish website Mobilsiden should come in handy. Showing 30 modern smartphones running Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, the infographic is a clear illustration of an aspect that not many phone buyers consider before handing over the credit card. Phones with the same screen size can be very different in actual size: just compare the 5.5-inch LG G4 (72.5%) with the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus (67.9%).

screen to body ratio infographic Mobilsiden

Ranking first are the two generations of the Sharp Aquos Crystal, both of which feature striking “no-bezel” designs. But this comes at a price, as the lack of the upper bezel means you will have to put up with the front camera being located on the bottom, in an area where it can be easily blocked by your palm.

Coming up next is the just-launched Oppo R7 Plus, the ridiculously large Huawei P8 Max (6.8 inches!) and the Xiaomi Mi Note. The infographic shows that the larger the phone, the higher the screen to body ratio typically is. Though a high ratio doesn’t necessarily mean you will have the most compact body possible: see the Mi Note.

One last note: sometimes a lower screen to body ratio enables the addition of some nice features. Case in point, the One M9 and its big BoomSound speakers.

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Cased-up vs naked: how do you feel about cases?

Posted by wicked May - 21 - 2015 - Thursday Comments Off

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There is quite a case for cases. Ever since smartphone design fully embraced the slate shape, people have been preoccupied with putting their product into a piece of plastic (or other material). The sheer number of cases available for any given device is impressive, but just look at a more mainstream device like the Samsung Galaxy S6 or the One series, and the selection is just short of startling.

While many of us do, in fact, use cases, there are also those who prefer not to. These people like to go “naked”; to display their device in the nude. In this feature, we will break the case culture down to four basic types of consumers in an effort to determine just why cases are so important to smartphone users.

Protection at all costs

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One of the largest segment of case owners are those individuals who purchase a case for purposes of protection. This might be from a sheer cosmetic point of view (to prevent scratches or damage), or it might be from a more basic need (someone who is clumsy and might drop their phone often).

Users who obsess about keeping their phones perfect go over products with a fine-toothed comb. These individuals are the ones who will return an item continuously until they get one that is absolutely perfect. It is not uncommon to read their doings on sites like XDA Developers or Reddit where they will often complain about poor quality control issues or frustration about things such as an earpiece receiver that isn’t properly aligned or a 1mm scratch along the bezel of the Galaxy S6 Edge.

This extreme attention to detail may be derived from several motivating factors, including the desire to resale the product later, high expectations of quality control due to the expensive nature of the product, or else simply genuine “OCD,” wherein the user’s state of mental well-being is fixated on the presence of a flaw.

Long term usage

Another category are those users interested in long-term usage: users who don’t obsess over damage but who do want to protect their phone are likely to be those who plan to use their product for a long period of time. These individuals aren’t necessarily concerned with having the latest and greatest, but rather a single product that works well for years, even beyond the span of the device contract itself.galaxy-note-4-cases-i-biason

For these users, a case is essential as it will prevent drops and major damage that might otherwise jeopardize the product’s life span or functionality.

Fine for fashion

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The other main type of case consumer may approach the prospect of cases from a more superficial perspective: adding some visual flair to their product. If a product starts to feel old, one sure-fire way to reinvigorate it is to stick it into a case, preferably one that totally alters the look or feel of a device. Likewise, adding a case means that you can accessorize: it can match your needs and styles.

A case makes sense because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to make a statement, or to make something more personal. Someone who covets the color orange might be upset that their favorite flavor doesn’t get much love in the design department, but with the purchase of some protection, suddenly there is an ode to orange. “Fashionistas” might have a separate case for each day of the week (or month) or else seek to coordinate the case with their clothing or even the activity they are doing. Perhaps a night out on the town calls for a more rugged case, a bike ride in Central Park a more sporty one, or a romantic date a more subdued mellow one.

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Nude. Not prude

The final “archetypal” customer is the person who doesn’t care about cases. This might stem from a desire to show off the design or build of their purchase. Perhaps they had a case to begin with but the product was scratched and therefore they wanted to go au naturel. Perhaps they never had a case but still try to keep their phone in mint condition.

Alternatively, this type of behavior might stem from a simple lack of interest in the condition of the product itself, viewing a phone as more of a tool than anything else. It is likely this type didn’t pay full price for the product (i.e. it was purchased on-contract) or else they have a lot of money to spare and just don’t care. The idea of someone paying $1000+ for a factory unlocked Galaxy S6 Edge and then treating it like garbage would be a fascinating find indeed.

If you have ever seen someone with a truly beaten up, battered phone, chances are they fit into this category. While you might feel sorry for the damaged device, they probably couldn’t care less.

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How about you?

Cases are a curious craft. While we have examined four basic types of users/behaviors, this is by no means a comprehensive list, nor is it meant to conclude anything about a person’s habits or thinking. At the end of the day, everyone has different needs and those needs may (or may not) be met with the coddling of a case.

What about you, the reader? Why do/don’t you use a case? Be sure to take the survey below, and leave us a comment with your own reasoning or horror stories about cases.

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Huawei Snapto Review

Posted by wicked May - 19 - 2015 - Tuesday Comments Off

The Bottom Line

PROS
  • 4G LTE support in the US
  • Incredible battery life
  • Budget-friendly price point
CONS
  • Below average camera
  • Sluggish performance
  • Average display
7.0

While have official 4G LTE support is great, the Huawei Snapto is found wanting in key aspects, and falls short when compared to its competitors in this price range.

The worldwide budget smartphone market is extremely competitive, with a slew of solid mid-range and entry-level smartphones from various OEMs making their way to consumers. Not a lot of these devices see an official release in the US unfortunately, often due to their lack of full support for US network carriers, along with the availability of high-end smartphones at subsidized rates, albeit with contractual commitments.

Only recently have a few devices in the sub-$200 category, off-contract, been making their way to US, but there is still a significant gap in this segment, a void that Huawei is trying to fill with their latest budget-friendly offering. One of the big selling points of this device is its support for 4G LTE on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, but what else does it bring to the table? We find out, in this in-depth Huawei Snapto review!

Design

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When it comes to the design, Huawei takes a fairly simplistic approach with the Snapto. The device is made entirely of plastic, with the back featuring a textured leather finish, allowing for a feel in the hand beyond what you’d expect from a smartphone at this price point. The tapered edges of the removable back cover transition into a smooth matte plastic along the sides, and a glossy plastic wraps around the edges of the display. Opening the back cover gives you access to the microSD card slot and SIM card slot, but the battery is not replaceable.

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Going around the device, the power button and volume rocker are both on the right side, and while responsive, they don’t come with a very satisfying tactile feel to them. The headphone jack and microUSB port are placed at the top and bottom respectively. The back houses the 5 MP camera at the top left corner, just above the LED flash, as well as the single speaker unit found towards the right at the bottom, with the Huawei branding featured at the center.

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The company logo returns up front below the display as well, and the bezels around the display aren’t particularly thin, especially surprising given the use of on-screen navigation keys. The Snapto is also on the thicker side of things, with a thickness of 8.4 mm, and is also heavier than its all-plastic build would suggest, weighing in at 150 grams.

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Overall, the design of the Snapto is quite underwhelming, and it feels like Huawei has instead chosen to focus on the internals of the device. That is of course not a bad thing, but if you’re looking for something more aesthetically pleasing, there are significantly better options out there in this segment.

Display

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The Huawei Snapto comes with a 5-inch TFT display with a 720 resolution, with a resulting pixel density of 294 ppi. The display proves to be somewhat