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Budget smartphones shine at Mobile World Congress

Budget smartphones shine at Mobile World Congress

These days they have HD screens or better and octa-core processors

Budget smartphones from the likes of Sony, Microsoft and up-and-comer Alcatel OneTouch have improved to such an extent that the question whether or not to buy one of the latest high-end smartphones is tougher than ever before.

The launches of the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge from Samsung Electronics and the One M9 from HTC didn't disappoint. However, it wasn't expensive flagship smartphones like those that dominated in Barcelona, but smartphones that cost US$300 or less unlocked.

Even with such cheaper phones, manufacturers are increasingly focusing on looks.

A company that has succeeded in this regard is Sony, with its Xperia M4 Aqua. The product has a plastic frame and back, instead of glass and metal, but Sony has chosen materials that still look good.

The waterproof M4 Aqua has a 5-inch, 720 x 1280 pixel screen and is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 615, an eight-core processor with integrated support for LTE. The phone has a 13-megapixel camera on the back and a 5-megapixel camera on the front.

But it isn't just the well-established vendors that launched budget products in Barcelona.

TCL Communication, hardly a household name, is the 7th-largest phone maker in the world and sells under the Alcatel OneTouch brand. At Mobile World Congress, it launched the Idol 3, with the same processor as the Xperia M4 Aqua but a larget screen at 5.5 inches and 1080 x 1920 pixels. It too has a 13-megapixel camera on the back, but the front camera shoots at 8 megapixels.

To help differentiate from the competition, the Idol 3 has speakers and microphones on the back and the front, so no matter which way you pick it up, it works. TCL has also worked with speaker manufacturer JBL on the sound.

The styling isn't as good as Sony's; the plastic chosen for the edge of the frame and the back lets it down somewhat. It is aggressively priced at €249 ($280) for an unlocked version and will begin shipping in May or June, according to a spokeswoman. It will also go on sale in the U.S.

The Idol 3 and the Xperia M4 Aqua both run Android 5.0, also known as Lollipop.

For frugal fans of other operating systems, Mobile World Congress also had something to offer. Microsoft continued expanding its portfolio of mid-range and low-end products, which now also includes the Lumia 640 and the Lumia 640XL.

The latter is good example of how affordable smartphones are improving. The Lumia 640XL is a successor to the Lumia 1320, which Nokia launched at the end of 2013.

So how do the two products compare? The Lumia 640XL has a slightly smaller HD screen, measuring 5.7 inches instead of 6 inches. But it's also a lot lighter, 171 grams versus 220 grams. The camera on the front has been upgraded from 0.3 megapixels to 5 megapixels, and there is a 13-megapixel main camera instead of a 5-megapixel one.

That together with a more powerful processor and a lower price makes the Lumia 640XL a much better product. It will start shipping in March and cost €189 ($210) with 3G and €219 with LTE, before taxes and subsidies.

The upgrades seen at Mobile World Congress are by no means the end of what we'll see this year. Two weeks ago, Qualcomm launched new models in both the Snapdragon 400 and 600 processor families, which will have a better graphics and faster LTE connections. They will show up in devices before the end of the year, according to Qualcomm.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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