The two best smartphones under $300 that work on all four major US carriers

Smartphones are expensive. Whether you can afford a $700 Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, $800 iPhone 6S Plus, or $700 Galaxy Note 5, it can be a heck of a lot of money to drop on one item.

For many of us, spending $700 at one time can bust our wallets. Even with financing options available from carriers, it still works out to the same amount. There are millions of people around the globe who cannot afford flagship prices, yet need to own a smartphone to keep up in the world around them.

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I was asked a question recently by a friend who is on a limited budget, “what smartphone would you get for recommend today if your maximum budget was $300?

Should I buy used?

As a smartphone enthusiast, this was a challenging question. I could go used and get the best bang for my buck. The problem with going the used route are the variables of human inaccuracy in phone descriptions. Some websites like Swappa are good at minimizing underreporting of problems with a smartphone, but for many people, buying used isn’t an option. If they get burned on a bad sale, they might have little recourse to recover their money. Many manufacturers will not honor warranties once a phone has been resold.

Whereas with a new purchase, the customer is guaranteed help with a one year manufacturer warranty, or a 14-30 return policy from a store like Best Buy or Amazon.

iPhones are out of the question

Since there are no Apple smartphones that are sold new under $399, this pretty much limits us to Android smartphones. There are plenty of Windows phones under $300, but Windows Mobile hasn’t been much of a success. The latest iPhone SE comes close at $399, and would be a strong contender, but sadly it is out of budget.

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Wait or buy an unlocked Chinese smartphone

As with most electronics, the price comes down rather quickly once a product has been on the market for six months or more. So picking a phone that is over six months old is a good place to start. Early adopters always pay the high price of owning a new device, but prudent buyers tend to wait out the inevitable price drop.

Unlocked Chinese phones are pretty freaking awesome for the price, but the main issue most of them run into in the US is lack of carrier compatibility. I have several unlocked phones from China, like the Xiaomi Mi5 and Elephone P9000, but their LTE capabilities are limited. The specs are almost jaw dropping for the price I paid, but I can’t recommend them to a typical user who needs their phone to perform its best over two years.

Choices

Given the limitations of what I can pick from, new and LTE compatible within the US, there are still a few great options to pick from.

The major carriers in the US offer budget phones, but they are usually so bad that they make customers want to spend what they can’t afford on a flagship. I don’t understand why carriers would choose to sell phones like the LG Escape 2 which runs an old version of Android and has specs from three years ago. They can do better than that. I would steer just about everyone away from budget carrier phones. Not only are they locked to the carrier, but they are some of the worst phones you can buy.

Which leaves me to two great phones to recommend:

Moto X Pure 16GB – $299 at Amazon and Motorola

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Originally priced at $399 for the base 16GB model, the Moto X pure is now just $299 on sale at Amazon and Motorola. The AndroidGuys Editor-in-Chief, Scott Webster, has used a Moto X Pure (with more memory) as a daily driver for over half a year now. His was made using Moto Maker where he picked this strange yellow and blue theme and it burned its way into my memory with its unique look after I saw it at CES. Regardless of his choice of colors, you can select from a wide range of materials and colors to make your Moto X pure your own. That’s a rarity amongst all smartphones.

$299 is a steal for a 5.7″QHD display, Android 6.0 Marshmallow, 21MP dual flash rear camera, Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor, with compatibility across all four major carriers in the US. It’s got all of the specs you could want, but is limited by just 16GB of internal memory. Luckily, if you need more space, you can add a microSD card and expand your storage by 128GB. It doesn’t offer features like wireless charging, and can be a bit large for some users. Other than that, it was one of our favorite phones to be released late last year.

Nexus 5X – 16GB $199 at Project Fi with a plan, or $239.99 at Amazon$279.99 at Amazon for 32GB contract free 

Nexus 5X

It should be no surprise to you that I would pick a stock Nexus device. It shouldn’t be a surprise because you would think I am biased towards stock Android devices since I write for an Android website. It shouldn’t be a surprise because at just $239.99 this is one heck of a smartphone.

Google designs its hardware to keep up with its software updates. With any Nexus device, you are guaranteed a minimum of two years of software updates, meaning the 5X will keep up to date with the latest software bugs and security threats. The Nexus 5X will get Android Nougat when it is released later this year. Some $700 Samsung Galaxy flagships may not even see Android N until 6-12 months after the 5X.

The Nexus 5X is not a flagship killer mid-2016, but it can hold its own. It is compatible across all four major US carriers, and can even be used with Google’s Project Fi service which so many people love.

If you compare the 5X to its larger 6P sibling, it has a smaller 5.2″ 1080p display that lacks the vibrancy that the AMOLED panel on the 6P has. Yet it is accurate in its color reproduction. The 5X also runs the Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor with 2GB of RAM, which won’t win any benchmark tests, but is snappy enough to be used as a daily driver. 16GB can be a limitation for many without the option to expand via microSD, but you can still get the 32GB model for under $300.

The 12.3MP rear camera with laser auto focus is the same one that is used in the 6P, but starting it up can be a little slow. However, once you open the camera app, with a steady hand, the 5X takes great pictures. It does especially well in low light situations too with its large sensor.

Battery life in my experience was average to slightly above average, and it could get me through a full day of moderate usage. Heavy usage had me in need for a charger sooner than I would have liked. It also uses the latest charging standard with USB type-C which is nice for future proofing, but there is a good chance you will need to buy a few new cables for your home or office.

Software updates, clean Android, great camera and specs that can handle daily use, make the 5X a favorite of mine under $300. I still use my 5X as my work mobile phone.

Conclusion

You can’t go wrong with either of these two contract free phones under $300. They both originally started out over $300, but with over six months of being on the market, they have dropped in price to put them into the budget category. With full access to all four carriers on LTE, these are two smartphones I can recommend to just about anyone.

The NextBit Robin is priced at $298 right now on Amazon, and is a strong contender, but without compatibility for Verizon or Sprint, it didn’t make the cut.