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How smart is your budget phone?

A few years ago, purchasing a smartphone was considered to be a major investment decision. A decent smartphone could put you back by anything upwards of Rs 15,000. Fast forward to present, and you can get an entry-level smartphone for a third of the price and one that sports a dual core processor and a large display for less than Rs 10,000, albeit from slightly lower-profile brands.

Nokia Lumia 520
Nokia Lumia 520

While some consider these devices to be great ‘tech enablers’ allowing even those with relatively smaller budgets to avail of the benefits of smartphone technology, there are others who deride them as being sub-standard products whose only redeeming feature is their price tag. The truth, as ever so often, lies between these two extremes. Yes, some of the cheaper devices are not exactly star performers but then there are those that tend to work staggeringly well, when you consider what they cost. The trick, of course, is to figure out which is which. And while there is no fixed rule that will work, tick off the following subject boxes the next time you think of investing in a low-cost smartphone:

Micromax Canvas HD
Micromax Canvas HD

Build: Look, press and feel
This is perhaps the oldest test of them all -- does the phone “feel” solid and reliable? Do not get distracted by talk of metal and plastic, as there is no evidence that either is superior. What you need to look out for is whether the phone feels well put-together: are there are any shaky parts, or do portions of it creak when pressed gently? It also makes sense to remove the back cover and see just how sturdy it is and how smoothly it fits back. Also check whether that metal sheen is actually metal or just painted plastic -- the latter is often preferred by low-price players.

Spice Stellar Pro
Spice Stellar Pro

Display and camera: Sight, touch and shoot
Two areas in which budget phones do tend to cut corners are cameras and displays. When it comes to displays, check how bright it is at both maximum and minimum settings (you will be surprised at how often it goes pitch black at the latter) and if you are dealing with a touchscreen, try a few gestures and see how smoothly it works -- touch can be laggy in low-quality touchscreens. Keep an eye out for resolution too -- a resolution of 800 x 480 is good enough for a display that is around four inches in size but anything larger and things will start looking stretched. As regards the camera, forget the megapixel count and shooting options, and instead take a few sample shots and view them on a larger display -- preferably a computer -- to see how well the colours and detail are reproduced. Colour is often a casualty in low end phones, with bluish-grey images ruling the roost. It is these parameters that separate a Micromax Canvas HD from Samsung Galaxy Grand -- the latter’s display seems more vibrant and responsive, even though it is actually of a lower resolution, and its camera takes distinctly better pictures.

Specs: Beyond cores and RAM
A look at some of the advertisements these days will reveal devices with multi-core processors and 1-2 GB RAM, while costing a fraction of their higher-profile counterparts. The important thing is not to look at the number of cores in a processor or Gigabytes of RAM, but simply see how smoothly a device works. This can be done by editing videos or text (most devices come with a preloaded software for this), run HD video and a high-end game, open multiple applications and tabs in the browser and see how the device handles it. Not all quad -- and dual-core processors are alike at the end of the day -- some of the quad core processors found in relatively inexpensive phones are laid low by devices powered by single core chips. At the end of the day, it is all about how smoothly a device performs. Many people have found the old, dual-core Samsung Galaxy SII performing more smoothly than multiple-core offerings from the likes of Micromax, Spice and Karbonn.

Software: Present and future
Another place where a budget device can come up short is in terms of software. Many low cost devices come loaded with older versions of software, simply because it is less demanding in hardware terms. Of course, some older versions are good enough for most users’ tasks, but if you are looking to experience a new OS on a budget device, then check out not only the version of software currently running on it, but also whether any future updates to it are on the anvil. And in the case of the latter, do check the company’s track record -- in many cases, the brand that promises updates but either delivers them too late or worse, does not deliver them at all. When in doubt, simply opt for the latest software -- it is likely to be the least buggy.

Connectivity: Checking different versions
Yes, your low-cost smartphone might come with a cohort of connectivity options ranging from 3G to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but that does not mean it handles all of them well. Many budget devices have problems locking on to GPS satellites and some even struggle in terms of basic network connectivity. Some also come with older versions of Bluetooth which result in very slow file transfers and connectivity. While it is not possible to check out each and every connectivity option in a store, we would recommend trying to do so - make a call and see if the receiver hears your voice clearly, see how long it takes to lock on to GPS or pair over Bluetooth with another device and so on. Else, you run the risk of ending up holding a device that is well connected only on paper.

Support: When things go wrong
This is perhaps the one area where the difference between an established brand and a lesser-known one becomes particularly stark. While the likes of a Nokia or Samsung may have multiple service and support centres and also online support, lesser lights tend to struggle in this department and often also come with high support costs. It might sound a bit like overdoing things but whenever possible, we would recommend checking the support centres of the brand in whose budget phone you intend investing -- do not take the company’s word for the number of support centres, but instead actually try contacting them and see how well they function. After all, there is no point in investing in a budget device if you are going to spend a fortune in keeping it functional. Also check the warranty for any fine print and clauses -- you will be surprised at how few budget devices come with global or international warranties.  

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