The Problem With Cheap Smartphones


Is there something like a perfect smartphone? That question will unlikely be having a definite answer any time soon. There are iPhone 6 users who are so pleased with what it offers that to them it is the ultimate perfect smartphone. The same is the case for those who’ve recently picked up Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge and LG’s G4. They all have a downside however much you try to look at them. What about the cheapest smartphones? Those exist. In plenty. But are they really worth it?

The thing about cheap smartphones is that corners have to be cut before the product hits the shelves at a sub $150 price tag. Production costs, shipping costs, marketing costs and others have to be factored in. The companies making them and those distributing them also have to take their cut. In the end? A not so cheap price tag. Don’t get me started on the taxes.

I set out to find out the very many corners that are cut in the quest to avail a budget smartphone. Here are our top ten:

1. Battery

While things like how a smartphone performs and at what level have a direct bearing on a smartphone’s battery life, the capacity matters. Most cheap smartphones have a battery capacity as low as 1500 mAh. Good luck finding a sub $150 smartphone that has a battery whose capacity exceeds 2500 mAh. There are exceptions to this “rule” like the Infinix Hot Note we reviewed but while that scores on this one, it flops in the other factors we are looking at here. Besides the great battery life, the Hot Note barely has anything going for it.

2. Camera

If you need a smartphone with a good camera then be prepared to spend. More often than not, I get enquiries from family members, friends and even strangers who happen to know me by virtue of writing pieces like this.

“Emmanuel, which phone has a good camera at Ksh 10,000 or below?” “I want a nice phone that has a very good camera. My budget is Ksh 12,000.” Most of the time, this is usually my reaction:


Seriously speaking, there are no Android devices at that price point capable of taking really awesome sunset photos with just one attempt. I guess guys who struggle to get good sunset shots on such devices give up halfway and end up being the ones stealing the amazing works of dedicated and hardworking professional photographers and other hobbyist shutterbugs on Instagram.

There are several decent new Sony Xperias just a few bucks up and even older ones like the Xperia V that will still do some great justice to your pizza and not make it look like a backstreet mashup of unleavened bread and tomatoes.

3. Display

Washed up displays are pretty much a feature of dirt cheap smartphones. The resolution is neither here nor there. I really admire the fact that we have some budget smartphones that pack HD displays. Like the Tecno Boom J7.

Want a decent display? Add a few bucks and buy a mid-range device like the Lumia 640.

4. Gorilla Glass

Corning’s Gorilla Glass is an industry standard. It adds an extra layer of protection to your smartphone’s display panel. It doesn’t come cheap and as a result, you won’t find it on those cheap smartphones. Ever!

5. Sensors

Proximity sensors. Gyroscopes. Accelerometers. Those are probably the only sensors you’ll get on those cheap smartphones. Even some of those are missing on some of the cheap devices. Have a look at the cheap phones Wiko is selling in Kenya and see for yourself.

Want humidity and temperature sensors? A barometer? You need to spend more. No question about it.

6. Build Quality and Design

Good quality is cheap. It’s poor quality that is more expensive.

A lot of these cheap phones will have every piece falling apart in under a year. Ever been in a situation where your phone’s screen just cracked while in your pants pocket and there’s no possible explanation as to what actually happened? Then there is colour peeling off. Yes the device was gunmetal gray when you walked away from the shop with it but now it looks like some clay toy. Blame no one. You get what you pay for.


Traditional big name smartphone brands fair well here as their phones tend to be very durable no matter the price. They only miss the point when it comes to the design. Most of the cheap phones the likes of Samsung or Microsoft make aren’t what you’ll exactly call good-looking. They’re just there. Bland. White, black or cyan plastic pieces that can also call and take photos.

On the other hand, the no-name brand cheap smartphones from Nanjing and Shenzhen are quite the lookers. Well designed and appealing to the eye. However, your perception of them changes when that chromium-looking bezel starts turning black and some pixels on the display start burning out leaving you with huge black spots on your 5 inch display. And here you thought that black spots are only found on roads.

7. Processors

They are all Mediatek. End of story. Not that there is anything wrong about Mediatek chips but they happen to be the cheapest hence their prevalence of the smartphone entry level category. Qualcomm had an arrangement with quite a number of players that saw the American chip company provide reference design to the OEMs for budget devices. I am not so sure how that went but it has been a while since we saw the likes of Tecno selling budget devices with Snapdragons (200, 400). There are other players like troubled Broadcom which Samsung has a liking for in its cheap devices but they are not as prevalent.

While Mediatek is making inroads (almost every smartphone in the just concluded Jumia Mobile Week Megathon had a MTK chip bar the Samsung J1 and the Microsoft Lumias), it still has a lot of ground to cover.

8. Operating system and updates

If you buy a smartphone at just $99 full price then don’t expect anything else regarding the operating system after that. Updates? What updates? You’re stuck with the Android 4.2.2 that your cheap phone shipped with. Even hitting the forums like XDA won’t be of great help. Your Mediatek processor hardly has any developer love thanks to proprietary sources and there are no ROMs for you to flash and remove all the cartoon stuff somebody thought would be of great help to you.

The best thing about this part is that most buyers of budget smartphones are oblivious of such facts and appreciate their devices for what they are which is a good thing because if you want more, you have no choice but to spend more. Else every time you need to update your cheap smartphone there is only one alternative: buy the newest no-name smartphone that already comes with the new version of Android. Then do the same next time. And the time after that. It’s a never-ending cycle!


Updates are one of the reasons Google is pushing Android One. How I wish it really gets aggressive and guides all the no-name brands in the market. It would be a win-win for all of us.

9. After-sales service

You’re unlikely to get any software updates on your X-TIGI Dream smartphone but what about the warranty terms? Most of the time you’re on your own if you buy these dirt cheap unbranded smartphones. More mature brands like Samsung, Microsoft, Huawei and Tecno have established structures to assist you incase you have issues after you buy your smartphone. They have fully operational 24 hour customer care hotlines and you can as well walk into any of their shops or care centres for assistance. Also depending on where you bought the phone, the retailer may be of great assistance.

While it is expected that a budget smartphone will definitely cut corners, after-sales service is very important. Make sure that $120 smartphone you’re buying has a valid locally-enforceable warranty. A warranty whose terms can only be honoured in Dubai is of little help to you. It may probably make sense for a $1000+ laptop but it will never make sense for an $80 no-name Android device.

10. Brand

In the budget smartphone category, established brands tend to overprice their entry level smartphones and going overboard with their corner cutting. Seriously, we shouldn’t be having those 512 MB RAM droids from respected brands. With Android being Android, what do you want your customers to do with that 512 MB RAM? Sketch doodles all day long? I am actually glad that Microsoft is making it possible to get a decent Lumia, the 430, for just $85 or thereabouts. Previously, that has been unheard of.

On the other hand, the no-name guys are very generous with their offerings. While OPPO and HTC will give you just 4 GB on the devices they are positioning as entry level, Brand XYZ which you’ve never heard before will give you twice that (8 GB) at a price that is $25 or thereabouts cheaper. Of course Brand XYZ’s proposition is more appealing. Should you go for it? Think twice.

Sometimes, if not all the times, as you have been told before, cheap is very expensive.