Why Your Next Smartphone May Not Cost a Fortune

Wanting to own the very best—the fastest processor, a display packing the most pixels, a professional-grade camera—made sense in the days when nearly every smartphone was terrible. A raft of new devices, though, has cemented that cheap price no longer means cheap quality. And they're going to save you a whole lot of money.

Just this week, two impressive devices were announced at equally low prices, chilling well below the $300 mark off-contract. Sharp's Aquos Crystal is a quirky, virtually bezel-free stunner that's deceptively competent, while ZTE's Nubia 5S Mini LTE found a way to pack in a 13-megapixel camera into a sleek, styled, affordable body. These phones join a growing group of devices that offer capable performance at similar prices like the Moto G or the Lumia 630. We've even crossed the price threshold were $300 can still get all the top specs you want; just look at the OnePlus One.

If $300 sounds expensive, remember that the full retail price of that new iPhone is at least twice that. The reason you get it for less is that you're signing away the next two years of your mobile life to one carrier. And if you lose or break your device midway through that contract? You're going to feel the full weight of that $650 replacement phone. T-Mobile's already done away with the antiquated concept of subsidies to a degree, but most of us are still trapped in that two-year mindset. Having affordable options that exist outside of that system, though, could finally set us free.

The biggest factor in all of this? The actual phones. In 2008, I bought an 16GB iPhone 3G on contract (c'mon, everyone was doing it) for $300. We're talking single core processors, 128MB of memory, 2 megapixel camera. After two years of use, Apple upgraded my phone into oblivion, and I moved onto the next best thing, which was substantially better. It was like leapfrogging into the future.

Why Your Next Smartphone May Not Cost a Fortune

That's not really the case any more. I test, hold, poke, prod, and review all kinds of smartphones—I have four on my desk right now. Switching between them and my two-year-old iPhone 5, which you can buy used (and probably in better condition) for about $350, performance-wise. is pretty negligible. Smartphone progress has moved in, unpacked, and picked out matching drapes in the cul-de-sac of diminishing returns.

That's why many companies don't obsess over specs anymore, and instead explore frontiers like waterproofing, "premium materials," optical heart rate sensors, and even iris scanners. These peripheral features help Samsung and Apple justify top-tier prices. Meanwhile the cost to make smartphones do what we use them for 99 percent of the time, like navigating without stutter, playing games and movies, taking some decent pictures, and overall just looking great, keeps getting cheaper and cheaper.

And it's not just smartphones; the same thing's been happening for years in digital cameras, music, and even military tech. Some describe it as a "Good Enough" era, but these sub-$300 options are starting to offer features and hardware that we can just drop "enough" altogether. They're just good. In some cases, they're great.

Why Your Next Smartphone May Not Cost a Fortune

This doesn't mean wanting the biggest or greatest or most powerful smartphone makes you weird. Believe me, I'll be obsessing over the new Note 4 and the iPhone 6 like the rest of you. But even for spec-heads, there's comfort knowing that if I need to replace my phone mid-contract, I can get a pretty damn good one for less than half of what a new, full-price iPhone would cost me.

Pulling back this long-standing pricing veil as well as a swell of smartphone manufacturers trying to undercut current devices leaders with competent low cost options shows that cheap smartphones could be making serious inroads in the U.S. And that means serious savings for your wallet, without even feeling like you're sacrificing.