By Louis DeNicola, Cheapism.com
The latest high-end smartphones feature blazing-fast performance, beautiful screens, and hefty price tags, even with a new contract. But as manufacturers introduce new models, well-reviewed handsets quickly drop from $199 or more to almost nothing when you sign up for a two-year plan. For frugal shoppers looking to spend a bit less without sacrificing quality, or consumers who worry about splurging on a top-of-the-line gadget only to lose or break it, Cheapism.com has highlighted four top picks for a penny or less. While you may briefly see similar deals on hotter handsets, these are all consistently available for no more than $50 with a new contract.HTC Windows Phone 8x
Related: Our cheap smartphones buying guide
- The HTC Windows Phone 8X (starting at 1 cent with AT&T) is available to Verizon and T-Mobile customers as well. Windows Phone 8, the latest version of Microsoft's mobile operating system, was unveiled late last year to largely positive reviews. Experts and consumers have found this phone an appealing and affordable alternative to an iPhone or Android phone, although the app selection is still comparatively limited. The handset features a 4.3-inch HD display, 16 gigabytes of memory, an 8-megapixel camera, and 4G LTE connectivity (in areas where that accelerated data service is available).
- The Motorola Droid Razr M (starting at 1 cent with Verizon) runs on Android 4.1, one of the most up-to-date versions of the platform. The 4.3-inch screen isn't high-definition, but that doesn't stop reviewers from calling it gorgeous and vivid. This phone has an 8MP camera and connects to Verizon's vast and fast 4G LTE data network. The 8GB of memory within the handset's characteristically slender form can be supplemented with microSD cards up to 32GB.
Related: Top inexpensive tablets
- The Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G (free with T-Mobile) has lasted more than 11 hours on a single charge in expert testing, a lifetime in the world of smartphone batteries. The version offered for free comes with Android 2.3 (a.k.a. Gingerbread) although users can upgrade to version 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). The 4-inch screen is smaller than others on the market, but some users may prefer the more compact design to some of the almost tablet-like alternatives out there.
- The HTC Evo 4G LTE (starting at 1 cent with Sprint) is an Android-based smartphone and makes an excellent choice for consumers who live within one of Sprint's limited 4G LTE coverage areas. It sports a large 4.7-inch HD screen and an 8MP camera, which earns glowing reviews where many other budget phones fail to impress. This smartphone includes 16GB of storage plus a microSD card slot.
While 1-cent handsets are tempting, the real cost lies in the data plans, which add an extra fee each month to a typical talk-and-text agreement and vary from carrier to carrier. Be wary of signing an expensive contract to save a quick buck now. If you're serious about saving money, start looking at phones only after you're satisfied with your carrier and the available plans. Then you can compare hardware: Would you rather have a lightweight model or a large screen for games and movies? Do you want your phone to double as a camera? Smart consumers will weigh such considerations carefully. The Kyocera Rise, for instance, is available free with Sprint and incorporates a physical keyboard -- a declining yet desirable feature for many users. After researching the phone and reading reviews, however, we concluded that its specs and performance do not live up to the standard set by the best low- and no-cost smartphones.
More from Cheapism:
Best budget laptop reviews
Free online dating website guide
Low-priced wireless routers to keep you connected
For more ways to save, follow Cheapism on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook.
To stay on top of the latest posts, read the Cheapism Blog.