The best (and worst) smartphones that won’t cost you a dime

Nov 24, 2010
Finance

The major cell phone carriers are ushering in the holiday shopping season by literally giving away popular smartphones. While fire sale promotions on Amazon.com (AMZN) and other sites typically require a two-year contract commitment (which will ultimately run you hundreds of dollars), state-of-the-art devices like the HTC Droid Incredible – which only months ago cost […]

The major cell phone carriers are ushering in the holiday shopping season by literally giving away popular smartphones.

While fire sale promotions on Amazon.com (AMZN) and other sites typically require a two-year contract commitment (which will ultimately run you hundreds of dollars), state-of-the-art devices like the HTC Droid Incredible – which only months ago cost $200 after all the rebates – can now be acquired for a penny or less.

Here are the best (and worst) freebie phones currently available for each major carrier. Act fast, as many of these Black Friday deals expire before Monday. Also note that all deals below are current as of Wednesday afternoon, and there is no guarantee they won’t sell out early.

HTC Droid Incredible (Verizon)

One of a series of would-be iPhone killers that runs on Google’s (GOOG) Android mobile operating system, the Droid Incredible by HTC was heralded as a “state of the art smartphone” by PC Magazine when it debuted last April.

This touchscreen device boasts more than five hours of talk time while featuring an 8.0 megapixel camera and FM tuner. The Droid Incredible has fingertip access to the more than 100,000 apps available in the Android Market, and also includes deeper social integration with services like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

While the Droid Incredible is not as cool to own as Apple’s (AAPL) iconic smartphone, being carried on Verizon’s (VZ) more reliable network is enticing to any iPhone owner who experiences too many dropped signals on AT&T (T).

What to avoid: Verizon subscribers should pass on devices like the Samsung Zeal Phone that aren’t connected to a major mobile operating system like Android, Apple’s iOS, BlackBerry OS or HP’s webOS. While conveniences like a flip-style format and QWERTY keypad are nice, with smartphones, it’s all about what’s on the inside. As more consumers and manufacturers embrace the major operating systems, independent offerings like the Zeal will become obsolete.

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Palm Pixi Plus (AT&T)

While the iPhone and Android phones get most of the attention, Palm continues to develop solid handheld devices that technologically hold their own. Released in November 2009, and one of the first phones to come equipped with HP’s webOS, the Palm Pixi Plus has everything you can ever want for zero dollars down.

The Pixi Plus, like its counterpart the Palm Pre, features arguably the best web browsing experience available on any smartphone, email supported by Microsoft Exchange, Yahoo! Mail and other major clients, and access to a growing number of popular apps including the iPhone and Android hit game Angry Birds.

What to avoid: Not having clear and easy Wi-Fi access made the Nokia Surge 6790 dead-on-arrival when it debuted last year. While the phone is great for texting, it fails in almost everything else. With its overpriced games (Nokia’s Symbian operating system is miles behind the major players with minimal access to apps), as well as performance and data transfer issues, this is one phone that barely lives up to its penny price-point.

HTC Hero (Sprint)

This is another great Android phone that Sprint (S) subscribers will want to snap up while the one-cent offer is still available. Similar to the Incredible, the HTC Hero has a stronger battery than many Android-based phones with more than five hours of talk time. While the 5.0 megapixel camera doesn’t match the 8.0 megapixel quality of the Incredible, it does the trick for most casual shutterbugs.

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Built-in Google mobile services like Search, Maps, Gmail and YouTube are nice to have at your fingertips, as well as all the apps and the Sprint-specific features like turn-by-turn navigation and full-motion video on demand.

What to avoid: While we applaud the environmentally-friendly LG Remarq – which is partially comprised from recycled materials – the phone’s limited camera features and weak battery make it tough to recommend.

BlackBerry Bold 9700 (T-Mobile)

If you’re happy with using a BlackBerry (RIMM) or are looking for a smartphone that focuses more on work and productivity rather than fun and games, this is a great option. Linked to the reliable BlackBerry Internet Service (which comes with push email notifications), and equipped with a tactile QWERTY keyboard, the Bold 9700 is a superior mobile messaging device.

Thankfully, the phone is not all business! Easy web surfing and pre-installed apps like Slacker Radio are fun to have between meetings, as is access to the thousands of titles available at the BlackBerry App World store.

What to avoid: Motorola (MOT) is manufacturing some of the best Android phones on the market including the DROID X and DROID Pro. Accordingly, you should avoid the clunky and outdated Motorola CLIQ. When the phone isn’t experiencing software crashes or placing calls without your knowledge, its heavy emphasis on social networking is a turnoff, and the web browser is an embarrassment.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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