The best entry-level smartphones of 2013

2013 has been a really interesting year at the lower-end of the handset market, with the world of budget smartphones moving forward at an impressive pace.

Of course, the phrase “entry-level” covers a pretty wide span of handsets. At the very least expensive end of the budget spectrum, you’ll find cheap and cheerful candybar feature phones running old operating systems like Series 40. The lowest priced phone I reviewed this year was Alcatel’s OneTouch 20.05, at just £22.49.

But “entry-level” also encompasses fairly sophisticated phones running on Android and Windows Phone. Gone are the days when an entry-level phone had to be slow, buggy, short on processing power and lacking resources. If you are strapped for cash you no longer need to feel you are settling for less – if you select carefully you’ll get a perfectly capable handset.

The proof of that is in the selection I have made here, which includes a 4G phone, a dual-Sim handset, and even a big screened “phablet.” Read on for my top picks of this year’s most impressive entry-level phones – and keep a close eye on ITProPortal later this week, as I’ll also be picking out my favourite mid-range and premium handsets.

Motorola Moto G (£146)

The Moto G was a latecomer to the year’s crop of smartphones – I reviewed it in November. It is the first Moto handset to launch in the UK since Google bought the company, and the Google influence is obvious. The specifications are impressive considering the price of this phone, and any handset maker pushing an Android phone at around this price point must be wondering how they can compete.

Not content with producing a great phone, Motorola has also come up with personalisation features in the form of add-on covers in bright colours. These help give the handset some extra oomph for people who don’t look at specifications too closely, but like the idea of a coloured flip case or shell.

And that’s not all. The Moto G is water-resistant, and it runs Android 4.3 with a promise of an upgrade to the all-new 4.4 (KitKat) soon. That’s what you get when you are owned by Google.

The thorn in the side of the Moto G is that its internal storage is not expandable, so the 8GB of built-in memory – of which only 5GB is actually available – is all you’ve got space-wise. This is the biggest problem with the Moto, and it lets down what is otherwise a phone that offers superb value for money.

Acer Liquid S1 Duo (£220)

If the Moto G came late to the 2013 party, the Acer Liquid S1 Duo arrived at the equivalent of one minute to midnight. It fits into the phablet class of phone with a screen that measures 5.7in across the diagonal, and let’s face it, you won’t be able to slip it into your skinny jeans. But nor will you find another phablet that comes anywhere near the S1 Duo in terms of its price.

Acer has exercised some impressive judgement on the compromise front to get the handset out at this price level. So, the screen is not as high resolution as most phablets – its 1,280 x 720 pixels falls short of the 1,920 x 1,080 of most of the competition – but I still found it just fine to use. The processor is quad-core and good enough, and the build quality is solid.

There is support for two Sim cards. That means you could pop in a cheap local Sim when you are travelling, or use a work Sim and a home one. Acer loads up quite a few apps, such as a notes app, calculator, and even a camera app – all of which can be handily popped up on top of whatever you are doing.

It doesn’t tick every box – battery life could be better for example – but I’m a big fan of this entry level phablet.

LG Optimus L5 II (£138)

LG doesn’t always hit the sweet spot with its handsets, but the Optimus L5 II did a great job as a low-cost handset when I reviewed it back in June.

There are some nice quirks in both the software and hardware. I like the side button that you can assign to any app you like – it’s a throwback to the old BlackBerry days that I think works really well. And on the software side there’s a nice app called QuickMemo which LG uses on lots of its handsets. It’s just a memo app that accepts notes written to the screen with a finger as well as typed on the keyboard, but it’s a useful pre-installed addition.

You might not like the “blingy” alert lights around the physical home button, and the single core processor can struggle at times – LG should really have equipped it with more than 512MB of RAM. But the basics are all well covered, and there are some nice aspects to the Android skin that are designed to help you get around quickly.

The problem for the LG Optimus L5 II, as with every other budget Android handset, is Motorola’s Moto G. In June this was a good handset – but six months on you can get the Moto G for just a fraction more of an outlay.

Nokia Lumia 520 (£110)

The Lumia 520 was Nokia’s lowest priced Windows Phone when I reviewed it in April, and it still is. You can spend hundreds of pounds more on a Windows Phone handset if you want to, but if money is tight you can now get with the Windows Phone groove for just £110 with the Lumia 520.

The build is really nice and the Lumia 520 comes in some stunning and vibrant colours. There’s even a microSD card slot and the screen can be used when you are wearing gloves – which is perfect for the cold winter days to come.

Windows Phone might look full-blown thanks to the very familiar user interface, but you don’t quite get everything here. Some apps won’t load because the specs are too low so check out any favourite apps before buying. Still, you don’t miss out on the free apps that make Nokia’s handsets arguably the best of the Windows Phone bunch. So there’s HERE Drive for navigation and HERE Maps for on-foot navigation and finding places to eat, drink and be merry. There’s also my favourite Nokia freebie – Music for streamed tunes.

The Lumia 520 is certainly Windows Phone on a budget, but there is some good stuff going on here.

Nokia Lumia 625 (£230)

The Lumia 625 is Nokia’s lowest cost 4G phone. If you like colourful handsets you’ll be onto a winner here with orange, lime green and yellow among the colours available. Or you could go for black or white – do note that the shiny chassis isn’t too grip friendly.

The screen is big at 4.7in, and its relatively low resolution of 800 x 480 pixels can result in some less than stellar experiences. If you read a lot of text this might not be a good phone to select as text can be fuzzy. However, on the other hand there’s a reasonable amount of storage here with 8GB and a microSD card slot for expansion.

There’s a 1.2GHz processor that is rather a long way behind the leading edge, but let’s face it, you aren’t going to be selecting this handset because of snazzy core specifications. It is the 4G support that will lure you. If you need the superfast speeds that 4G offers, then the Nokia Lumia 625 is going to be hard to beat in terms of pricing.