Exploring smartphone choices under $600

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There’s a new reality in play: the Canadian dollar is weak, affecting the prices of smartphones as a result. We’ve seen the discrepancies enumerate, but the practical takeaway is that Canadians are paying a 25 percent premium on devices over their US counterparts, something we haven’t seen in over ten years, especially since the Great Smartphone Proliferation began in 2007.

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It’s therefore important to look at any ‘Best Of’ list with the awareness that we are in uncharted territory, and that the newer the device, the more likely it has been affected by a $0.75 Canadian dollar.

The setup is this: these are sanguine times for smartphone buyers. You can get a good Android device for $200 and a great one for $400. In the Canadian market, these phones are sold on contract by carriers, or outright by those same means, often with discounts to one’s monthly plan; or they are sold unlocked from retailers like Newegg, Staples or Canada Computers.

The upside of limiting these choices to devices under $600 is that it eliminates the two major smartphone players on the market, Apple and Samsung. While nearly every phone in Canada is available for under that amount on contract, my emphasis in this column is on devices purchased outright or unlocked, which affords particular advantages.

Not only do these phones usually afford their users monthly discounts, between $15 and $20 per month depending on the carrier, but buying a phone without signing a contract allows customers with existing plans — plans they often don’t want to change — stick with them for a few more years.

This list is current as of October 28th, 2015. It will periodically be updated when new phones are released.

Under $300

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Moto E (2015)

Even though we recently learned the new Moto E won’t receive Marshmallow, the device is one of our favourites to recommend to first time smartphone buyers. Compact and stout, the Moto E can withstand a beating, and won’t prompt mourning should its screen meet pavement.

Motorola really got a lot right with the second-generation Moto E, and by charging under $170 for it, it allows anyone, from the old BlackBerry user hopping onto the Android bandwagon, to the flip phone diehard whose RAZR is still somehow alive, to make significant productivity gains.

Available: Telus, Koodo, Videotron, Wind Mobile
Price: $150 – $170

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Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 4.7

Long name; great phone. Alcatel OneTouch’s smaller Idol 3 variant was released in Canada earlier this year, and while it’s gone largely under the radar it has succeeded in inspiring hope for small, powerful Android phones.

The device mimics its larger 5.5-inch counterpart in many ways, but scales back the number of CPU cores and RAM without sacrificing speed. Running Lollipop with a minimal, near-stock interface, the Idol 3 has a decent camera and lots of cool customizations.

And the best part is that it is $179.99 USD, which translates to $235 CAD, a great price for a phone that should last a couple of years.

Available: Online at AOT.ca
Price: $179.99 USD (appr. $235 CAD)

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Moto G (2015)

Likely the most well-known Android device under $300, the third-generation Moto G is fast, well-built and competitively priced for its category.

The company fixed a lot of its predecessors’ issues in this third version, improving the camera and build quality while bringing most of the Moto X’s software features — namely, Moto Display and Moto Assist– to give it a bit more value.

Finally, Motorola made the third-gen Moto G almost waterproof, a feat it accomplished without eliminating the phone’s replaceable back covers.

Available: Telus, Virgin Mobile, Bell, SaskTel
Price: $230-$250

Best Value: Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 4.7

Of the three devices listed, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 4.7 is the best bet. While the Moto G benefits from waterproofing and some Motorola software flourishes, Canadians are limited to the version with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. And while I don’t usually harp on specs, having only a gigabyte of RAM and under 5GB of usable storage space in a phone these days is a recipe for disaster in the Android world, even with microSD storage.

On the other hand, the Idol 3 4.7 has a high-quality 720p display, 1.5GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, plus a microSD slot and 13MP camera sensor that rivals the Moto G’s in quality. And what it lacks in high-quality materials it makes up for in versatility. This thing is light, compact and a joy to use.

Under $500

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Asus ZenFone 2

Asus created a really great phone with its ZenFone 2. While there is a version under $300, I’m going to recommend the more powerful $399 version, which features a 2.3Ghz quad-core Intel Z3580 chip and 4GB of RAM.

Specs aside, the ZenFone 2 is just really good value at its price range: it provides a decent smartphone experience in almost every area, with smooth Android performance, consummate camera quality, and a variety of bundled apps that add a remarkable amount of value.

The ZenFone 2 is, like the Idol 3 4.7, sold with no carrier support at all in Canada. Asus decided to go the direct-to-consumer route, partnering with retailers like Newegg, Staples and Canada Computers for distribution. The low price, high-end internals, and to some extent Intel Inside branding, has given the ZenFone 2 a certain reputation as an enthusiast handset.

Available: Newegg, Canada Computers, Staples, NCIX, Memory Express
Price: $379

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Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 5.5

This one is available through the carrier channels, and with its extra power (an octa-core chip versus a quad-core chip in the 4.7-inch version) and half a gigabyte more memory, the Idol 3 is quite a contender.

Alcatel OneTouch came out of nowhere this year with this product, and even months later continues to impress with its unencumbered Android 5.0.2 build (though we’d love to see an upgrade to 5.1 or 6.0 in the near future), great performance and excellent photo quality.

But it’s the $350-ish price that really makes me appreciate how far low-cost Android phones have come in the past couple of years. Look for AOT to try to repeat this success over the next few years as it tries to edge its way further into the competitive North American smartphone market.

Available: Telus, Bell, Koodo, Virgin Mobile, Videotron
Price: $312-$360

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Moto X Play

The not-quite-sequel to the 2014 Moto X, this year Motorola forwent making its true flagship, the Moto X Style, available in Canada, opting for the cheaper, more battery-focused Moto X Play.

Thankfully, the device rises above its pedigree, offering fantastic performance and an excellent camera, by far the best ever delivered on a Motorola device.

Still, there are sacrifices: it only comes with 16GB of internal storage, and Motorola hasn’t been quite as expeditious as it used to when it comes to software updates. This year’s body is also made of plastic, a clear downgrade over the second-generation Moto X.

But where it counts, the Moto X Play is a winner, and a triumph of battery uptime in a world where most phones die after a few hours.

Available: Telus, Bell, Koodo, SaskTel, Videotron
Price: $410-$450

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OnePlus 2

The sequel to OnePlus’ popular One device is not just a better phone, but a better statement about the progress of hardware startups in 2015. The company managed to fix most of the glaring issues with its inaugural device, while maintaining the hardware customizability that people loved.

The OnePlus 2 stands out a bit less than its predecessor due to its more boxy design, but it excels where it counts: in its speed, display quality, and camera performance.

Starting at $409 for the 16GB model, I’d definitely recommend spending the extra $60 on the 64GB version, which also comes with an extra gigabyte of RAM to round out the Snapdragon 810 chip. While the phone lacks NFC, and doesn’t support fast charging, it’s made really well and features a fairly uncompromised version of Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, which can’t be overlooked.

Available: OnePlus
Price: $409 – $479

LG G3

LG G3

I didn’t expect to see the LG G3 on this list, but a number of carriers have begun pushing it into second life status as a mid-range device. The former flagship has a higher resolution display than any other device on this list, but since it is a first generation QHD panel, it suffers from poor brightness and annoying over-sharpening. Perhaps more important is its chip, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, which is considerably more powerful than the Snapdragon 615 in the majority of these other devices.

The 13MP shooter on the LG G3 is just OK, as is its battery life, and dare I day the company needs to work on its software, but if you’re looking for the most powerful phone under $500, the LG G3 may be your best bet.

Available: Telus, Koodo, Rogers, Fido
Price: $360-$499

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Microsoft Lumia 640XL

A surprisingly good smartphone at a reasonable price, the Lumia 640XL does most things right, which includes having a great 720p panel a very capable 13MP camera, and a huge 3,000mAh battery that lasts all day.

While the device has been stuck on Windows Phone 8.1 since its release, it will eventually receive Windows 10 Mobile and all that entails, including an improved suite of first-party apps, better third-party developer support, and a vastly improved Microsoft Edge browser.

Available: Microsoft (unlocked)
Price: $340

Best Value: Moto X Play

This was a hard one, and it definitely comes down to personal preference, but I think it’s worth spending a bit more to get the Moto X Play, if only for the superior battery life and the immediately indispensable Moto Display feature.

Motorola didn’t compromise too much over last year’s model, but fixed many of the nagging issues we had while keeping the price relatively low. That’s a win in my books. It may not match the power of the LG G3, but the Korean company mires Android with poorly-designed apps and unwelcome gimmicks. Worse, being over a year and a half old, the G3 may never be updated again, stuck on Lollipop for eternity. At least we know with the Moto X Play it will eventually be updated to Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

Under $600

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HTC One A9

HTC’s latest smartphone may look familiar, but it stands on its own in a lot of ways. Not only has the company made sure to address many of the issues its M series contended with, chief among them a poor camera experience, but the phone, for the first time in Canada, will be sold unlocked directly through HTC’s website.

Shipping with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the first non-Nexus device to run it, the One A9 has a couple of extra tricks up its sleeve. Not only does its front-facing fingerprint sensor work beautifully, but its 13MP camera features optical image stabilization, which will be music to the ears of many One M7 owners who missed it in the two subsequent sequels.

Moreover, the One A9 is really fast despite its mid-range chip which, coupled with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, makes it an odd mixture of high-end and mid-range parts.

At $549 CAD*, the One A9 undercuts many of its Samsung and Apple counterparts, sacrificing very little (except for an original design, but that’s another argument) in the process.

Available: HTC (unlocked), various carriers (TBD)
Price: $549 *(rising to $649 on November 7th)

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Nexus 5X

Why did I put the Nexus 5X in this category when it can be obtained for $499CAD? Because I recommend ponying up the extra $60 for the 32GB model.

Either way, the Nexus 5X, ostensibly the sequel to 2013’s Nexus 5, is a fantastic little smartphone. Not only is it relatively compact compared to many devices in its category, but you get a lot for the money. Excellent performance? Check. Fingerprint sensor? Check. Fast updates, directly from Google? Decent build quality? Nice screen? Awesome camera? Check. Check. Check. Check.

While the Nexus 5X isn’t quite the bargain its predecessor was — blame the Canadian dollar, not LG or Google — its price still gives it a significant advantage, given its incredible value proposition.

Available: Google (unlocked), Bell, Telus, Koodo, Virgin (TBD)
Price: $549

Best Value: Nexus 5X

The Nexus 5X is on track to be the best mid-range phone of the year. I just don’t think there’s a better phone on the market that approximates Google’s idealized form of Android, both in hardware and software form: a mid-sized, accessible, relatively inexpensive device that always runs the latest version of Android.

Google didn’t have to make a lot of sacrifices with the Nexus 5X this year, and LG looks to have fixed a number of the quality control issues from the Nexus 5 (though the following months will bear the weight of that assumption).

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