The price of the low-end ZTE Score on Cricket's (now Leap's) network keeps dropping lower and lower, in one sale after another. Last November it cost $49 from Amazon Wireless, $80 less than its original $129 price tag. Now it's down to $69 -- without a two-year contract -- and it's on sale now at Best Buy for $29, for an unspecified length of time.
It's not alone
Many other Android smartphones have dropped below the $99 mark, even without 2-year contracts. Kroger-owned iWireless offers two for $49, although they may require a membership card. And Virgin Mobile has been taking preorders for the $99 Venture, a new entry-level smartphone.
What these phones have in common
First, all are available on contract-free wireless carriers. Virgin and Leap offer unlimited data plans, while iWireless offers tiered voice and data packages with unlimited texting. Packages range from $25 per month for an extremely basic iWireless plan up to the neighborhood of $55, which is the only package Leap offers for smartphones. It includes the Muve subscription music service, which doesn't allow you to transfer songs to your computer or any other devices but lets you listen as long as you're paying for it.
Second, all are extremely basic and entry-level. Specs for these cheap, low-end Android smartphones include paltry amounts of RAM, pre-Ice Cream Sandwich versions of Android, and processor speeds clocked at 600 MHz or below. In the case of the ZTE Score, which pairs an unusually cheap sale with an especially expensive prepaid plan, the monthly fee actually costs more than the handset itself.
One option for first-time buyers
Because the phones are sold contract-free, buyers don't actually need to purchase a monthly plan. It's possible to use the phones as-is, as Wi-Fi only devices, using home and public Wi-Fi to browse the web ... or even send texts and make phone calls, using apps like GrooVe IP.
An Android phone used in this way is less like an iPhone, and more like an extremely cheap iPod Touch running Android. They still have access to Gmail, the web, and hundreds of thousands of games and apps on Google Play (formerly known as the Android Market). They won't be able to run some modern games with intensive 3d graphics, but a large assortment of games and apps will work on them.
Compared to the iPod Touch they won't be as simple to use. Someone used to the iPhone / iPod way of doing things, and the App Store's selection, may not enjoy the smaller selection of games or the more customizable (and more complicated) Android interface. At only $29, though, the ZTE Score costs roughly a tenth as much as a new 32 GB iPod Touch does.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.