Best Smartphones for Under $100

There’s no need to pay big bucks for a powerful, full-featured smartphone. We’ve rounded up the best inexpensive smartphones across the four major carriers. Whether you’re a social networker, business executive or multimedia addict, there’s a wallet-friendly smartphone out there for you.

Nokia E71x ($100 with a two-year AT&T contract)

The unlocked Nokia E71 wowed us with its sleek design and its various business and entertainment features. The $500 price tag, however, wasn’t as impressive. Thankfully, AT&T is now offering the Nokia E71 under a slightly new name, the E71x, and for a much more attractive price.

This candy-bar phone is remarkably slim at 0.4 inch thick, and it fits as easily in your hand as it does in your pocket. Nokia made the sometimes confusing Symbian S60 platform more user-friendly by including customizable shortcut keys and a standby screen. A Switch mode allows you to create two separate standby screens to accommodate the business and personal sectors of your life. The free Nokia Exchange client synchronizes your phone with push e-mail, contacts, and calendar appointments from Microsoft Exchange.

iPhone 3G 8GB ($100 with a two-year AT&T contract)

At last, the iPhone is actually affordable. Though the iPhone 3G isn’t perfect, its new low price makes it supremely appealing. With its slick design, its iTunes integration, and its 3.5-inch multitouch screen, the iPhone 3G is the best entertainment smartphone out there, hands down. Another selling point? Thousands of apps and accessories are available for it, as well.

The iPhone 3G supports AT&T’s 3G network (though its speediness and coverage have come under fire recently), as well as Wi-Fi and GPS. It also has a 2-megapixel camera, the easy-to-use Safari browser, and a quick accelerometer.

BlackBerry Pearl 8120 ($80 with a two-year T-Mobile contract)

Thanks to T-Mobile's innovative HotSpot@Home technology, the slick BlackBerry Pearl 8120 lets you make VoIP calls over Wi-Fi. The voice-over-Wi-Fi feature improves reception in locations where cell signals are weak. In our tests the technology (called Unlicensed Mobile Access, or UMA) worked very well, and the call quality was excellent.

The T-Mobile 8120 is less attractive than other versions of the Pearl, in part because of its drab gray exterior. The BlackBerry OS interface is a bit cluttered, as well. Aesthetics aside, the Pearl 8120 comes with a few productivity applications (such as a voice-command app and a Microsoft Office document viewer), along with some games. The Pearl 8120 also has superb battery life, with 10 hours of talk time.

Samsung Omnia ($50 with a two-year Verizon contract)

The sophisticated Samsung Omnia has a high-quality build, a gorgeous touchscreen, and some beefy specs. It has a 5-megapixel camera, Wi-Fi, and GPS support, and comes with the Microsoft Office Suite. It also has an IM client that supports AIM, ICQ, and Yahoo Instant Messenger. For Web browsing the Omnia offers Windows Mobile Internet Explorer and Opera 9.5.

The Omnia has two different media players (Windows Media Player and Samsung’s own Touch Player), as well as an FM radio. Unfortunately, Samsung's failure to provide a standard 3.5mm headphone jack undermines the phone's potential as a music device.

Samsung Jack ($80 with two-year AT&T contract)

Running Windows Mobile 6.1, the Samsung Jack has just about everything you could want from a smartphone. It comes preloaded with an array of business and social networking applications, offers a full QWERTY keyboard, and provides impressive call quality. It also has a 3.2-megapixel camera, a media player that supports a gamut of file formats, and GPS support.

Unfortunately, the design is far from perfect: The display size is a small 2.4 inches, and the keyboard can be difficult to type on due to its odd key arrangement. On top of that, Samsung nixed the navigational scrollwheel of earlier BlackJacks in favor of a four-direction central button; though it worked fine for navigating through Windows Mobile, it seemed to skip all over the place in Internet Explorer.

HTC Snap ($100 with a two-year Sprint contract)

For this Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone, HTC seems to have taken some design cues from RIM, including a full QWERTY keyboard and trackball navigation. The HTC Snap's headline feature, however, is the new e-mail management function called Inner Circle: Users can bring e-mail from a preselected group to the top of their inbox by pressing a dedicated key on the Snap. This feature is useful for businesspeople who receive an overwhelming amount of e-mail daily, and it should help to prevent any missed high-priority messages and cut down on the time users spend searching through a full inbox.

The HTC Snap has 3G connectivity, a 2-megapixel camera with video capture, and a vendor-stated talk time of 8.5 hours. Measuring 4.6 by 2.4 by 0.5 inches, the HTC Snap is similar in size to the BlackBerry Curve 8900 on T-Mobile.

BlackBerry Storm ($50 with a two-year Verizon contract)

The BlackBerry Storm got off to a rocky start when it launched with buggy software. A few firmware updates later, the Storm is running a lot more smoothly. The press-to-click touchscreen, however, still takes some getting used to.

Nonetheless, the Storm has impressive call quality, a solid camera, GPS, and, of course, RIM’s excellent support for corporate e-mail systems. But definitely take the Storm for a spin in a Verizon store before you decide whether to purchase it--you’ll either love or hate the touchscreen.

Nokia Surge ($80 with a two-year AT&T contract)

With a full QWERTY keyboard and messaging apps, the Nokia Surge is a great starter smartphone for teenagers or social networking addicts. It is incredibly pocketable, measuring 3.8 by 2.2 by 0.6 inches, but it isn't exactly eye-catching--the phone's dull, all-black body is almost completely plastic except for the metal trim around the keyboard. The Surge also has one very annoying design quirk: It has no separate numeric keypad, which means you can access the numbers only from the slide-out keyboard. This means that you must have the keyboard open every time you dial a number.

The Surge's strongest selling point is that its browser supports Flash Lite. On the Surge, viewing pages with heavy Flash content, such as, Hulu, and YouTube, is no problem--unlike on the iPhone.

T-Mobile Shadow ($100 with a two-year T-Mobile contract)

The T-Mobile Shadow has undergone a minor makeover since the first-generation handset released more than a year ago, gaining a handful of upgrades such as threaded messaging and a copy/paste function. The menu overlay for this Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone (manufactured by HTC for T-Mobile) is a vast and fun-to-use improvement over the typical Windows Mobile interface.

Unfortunately, the Shadow's call quality can be unreliable, and its interface can be a bit sluggish. The phone also lacks a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, so you must use either the headphones that come with the device or a clunky adapter.

Palm Centro ($30 with a two-year Sprint contract)

With the dawning of Palm’s WebOS platform, Palm OS feels like ancient history. And with slick phones like the Palm Pre and Pixi (coming soon) on Sprint, merely considering the Palm Centro feels like a joke. But for $30, you get excellent call quality, a speedy Web browser, and a good music player, all packed into a slim design. Sure, it doesn’t have GPS, Wi-Fi, or the pizzazz that newer smartphones have. But if you’re on a tight budget and you want more than a basic flip phone, the Centro is a decent choice.

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