Smartphones have largely replaced portable media players for most people. It’s been a few years since Apple bothered to update its iPod touch, and it’s been even longer since I’ve seen any other company try to offer a good Android-powered alternative to Apple’s touchscreen media player.

Sometimes it can be useful to have a device that doesn’t make phone calls, send text messages, or do anything else that requires paying a monthly fee.

Sure, you could pay $199 or more for an iPod touch. But you could also just buy a cheap Android phone… and then not activate it. That option could save you as much as $180, because Walmart and Best Buy are each selling surprisingly decent Android phones for as little as $20.

Left: Alcatel Pixi 4 / Right: ZTE Midnight Pro 4G LTE

Walmart Family Mobile Alcatel Pixi 4

Walmart sells this for just $19.88. It features a 4.5 inch, 854 x 480 pixel display, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, a microSD card slot, front and rear cameras, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 210 processor, a 1890 mAh (6.76 Wh) battery, and Android 6.0 software.

It’s not going to win any speed awards, but it’s more than capable of functioning as a small, cheap media player, web browser, or handheld device for casual games.

I actually picked one up recently, and it suffers from limited screen viewing angles and the audio quality from the headphone jack isn’t superb, but it’s certainly acceptable for a $20 device.

Best of all, if you disable WiFi and enable Android’s battery saver mode, you can get stellar battery life. After playing music for more than 5 hours with the screen on, the Pixi 4 was reporting that it still had 63 percent of its battery capacity left to burn through. Oh, and the battery is user replaceable, something that’s not true of many phones that are significantly more expensive.

So what’s the catch? This phone is locked to Walmart’s Family Mobile service. So if you do plan to use this $20 Pixi 4 smartphone as, well, a phone… then your only choice is to use it with Walmart’s pre-paid wireless network (with plans starting at $25 per month).

The $20 price is also technically a discount. The phone has a list price of $40, and other stores are selling similar Alcatel smartphones for even more. So you may not always be able to pick up a Pixi 4 for this price. At $20, it’s a steal. But I’m not sure I’d recommend this phone for $60 or more when there are significantly better phones available in that price range.

ZTE Midnight Pro 4G LTE 

Best Buy sells this 5 inch smartphone for just $19.99.

Like the Walmart Pixi 4, the ZTE Midnight Pro 4G LTE is locked to a budget wireless carrier. In this case, the phone is designed for use with Simple Mobile, a pre-paid carrier with plans that start at $26 per month.

But like the Pixi 4, this is a phone you should be able to use without activating the cellular service.

The ZTE Midnight Pro 4G LTE has a Snapdragon 210 processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, an 854 x 480 pixel display, a microSDHC card reader, and a 2,300 mAh battery.

It’s a little larger than the Alcatel phone, but has a bigger battery. On the down side, the ZTE phone ships with Android 5.1, which is an older version of Google’s mobile operating system. I wouldn’t really expect either phone to get any major software updates.

Both phones include the Play Store

These phones both support Google Mobile Services, and come with the Google Play Store pre-installed. That means you have access to millions of Android apps out-of-the box.

If you’d prefer not to login with a Google account or use the Play Store, you could also set up the phones with a third-party app store like F-Droid.

That way if you lose the phone while out on a run, you don’t have to worry about someone gaining access to your personal data. Or you could give the phone to a kid without worrying that they’ll start purchasing paid apps without your permission.

A few other notes

I haven’t personally used the ZTE Midnight Pro 4G LTE yet, so I can’t say how it compares with the Pixi 4 in terms of audio quality, screen viewing angles, or battery life. But there is one thing the Midnight Pro has going for it: Best Buy’s website allows you to buy as many as 5 phones, while Walmart will only let you purchase 2 Pixi 4 phones.

The reason I know that is because, as I mentioned recently, I’ve been in the market for some cheap MP3 players to use as part of an upcoming multimedia exhibit in Philadelphia. While I really like the super-cheap Simplicity Fashion Pocket MP3 Player, it doesn’t have a display. And ultimately we decided a portable music player with a screen would be preferable.

After looking for a good portable media player in the $20-or-less price range, I ultimately realized that a cheap phone would be the best option since it would have a larger, easier-to-read display and the ability to run a variety of apps. It’s also more likely that I’ll be able to find a use for these phones after the exhibit closes.

Look, I’m not saying these are good phones, or even particularly good portable media players. But they meet my needs at the moment, and they’re way more versatile than any $20 device really has a right to be… probably because they’ve got more than $20 worth of hardware under the hood. A big part of the reason they’re sold this cheap is because Walmart, Best Buy, and Simple Mobile expect you to sign up for cellular service. But you don’t have to.

I’ll update this post with some notes about the ZTE phone after I’ve had a chance to test one.


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28 replies on “$20 Android phones may be the cheapest iPod touch alternatives available”

  1. been doing this at our place for years for reading audiobooks. My wife and I initially used a couple of small samsung phones that I’d bought second hand. Replaced them with a pair of carrier subsidized low end Android phones two years ago in order to get Android 6 which the Audible app runs better on than the older Android 4.x in the Samsungs. None of these phones has ever had a sim card installed and I simply load stuff onto them using our household WiFi

    It’s been a great solution for us

  2. Came here from the ‘Most Popular Liliputing Stories of 2017’ link. Never thought much about the really inexpensive/cheap Android phones but… the upcoming Snowden App, Haven, has me considering them now.

    1. It’s definitely a good option, but the Moto E is currently out of stock on Boost’s website. For my project, I needed to buy 10+ phones, so picking a model that’s $10 more = at least $100 more. But if you’re just getting a single device, I agree, the Moto E has a lot going for it.

  3. I don’t see any point on using either of these if the audio jack sound quality is sub-par. Don’t get me wrong, I ‘m not saying its wrong for your application. I am just saying if I was going to buy one specifically for use as an audio player, and the audio quality was sub-par, I wouldn’t waste my time.

  4. I got some cheap android phone on sale for $10 at Sears and gave it to my son for an MP3 player. For the money, I’m pretty happy with it 🙂

  5. Unfortunately it seems none of the phones in this price range support 128gb sd cards, so I might have to increase my budget. I have about 50gb+ of music, and another 50gb of movies on a 128gb card.

    I’d rather spend $100 on something more recognizable, and maybe get a 720 screen out of it too. With a better screen, it launches it into another class of functionality, watching Youtube and HD movies.

    Although, I’m still interested in getting one of these for another purpose. I travel to mexico often, and Id love to have a $20 cheap phone for using VOIP and using as a GPS. I don’t want to hesitate tossing a theif my phone.

    1. I got the LG Tribute HD when it was $20 at Best Buy. It doesn’t support 128GB microsd cards, but it does have a 5″ 1280×720 IPS screen. Much better than the ZTE I bought for the same price. I use the LG for a lot more than an audio player – it’s a tiny tablet – email, web browsing, etc.

  6. Never under-estimate…..
    iPod touch with 4′ screen is featured in today’s Target ad:
    $200 for 16gb, and just another $100 for 16 more gb.

    1. Well,
      the Cameras are ussally CANCER on cheap phones.
      Once I got a 90$ tablet (to my suprise it was a china tab) and the cameras (front and back) were bot VGA. wtf! VGA on a 90$ tablet. Even the Kindle Fire 5 has dreaded cancerus cameras

  7. Since nearly one year, my main phone is a Pixi 4 with 4″ display for 60€ unlocked. I like the reasonable form-factor and pixel density, Android 6 and dual SIM.
    I hope to get a better device on those points: better touch and screen technology (but no crazy high PPI please, waste of resources), slightly better camera, a GPS chip. Also 8GB of flash would be nice.

    I connect online on a small plan from time to time, so I had to remove some default uninstallable services like Facebook or “user care center”, though. No “standard” rooting method was available at that time, but MTK dev tool leaked in some way (this would be awesome if officially released…).
    There is a pre-boot that let us access the whole flash “offline”, so I dumped and customized the OS without needing root.

    Very happy with this device, overall.

    1. I’ve had the Pixi 3 (4.5/LTE) for almost a year, replacing a first-gen Moto E. This one does have 8 GB of flash, but I agree the screen is the worst part. But otherwise a great option.

  8. I am amazed at the fact that even prepaid phones are now subsidized in order to sell below the cost to manufacture. A couple of Christmas’s ago, I purchased three Samsung Ace Style Net10 handsets for $4.99 each at Kroger. My kids like using theirs for music and games, but I use mine in the office as a Google Music streamer connected to a nice Bluetooth speaker. Even better, if you get a free Google Voice number and install Google Hangouts, you have unlimited voice, text & data anywhere you can connect to WiFi, which in urban areas is almost everywhere.

  9. Android 6 allows use of Google Assistant to voice control home automation systems. Pretty nifty. I didn’t know there was a $20 Android 6 phone – thanks.

    1. And there have been for quite some time too. That’s why i find these sorts of articles odd; maybe it’s just my region of the country (the South), but there have $20 Android phones available for years.

  10. So i brought one of thses when i saw it was on sale for a new youtube series im working on. I got the midnight pro one now im seeing bestbuy dosent sell it anymore. I wad verry impressed with it (keep in mind i have a samsung galaxy s8+) and iphone 7.
    I stumbled upon this artical while trying to find a reason why its not sold by bestbuy anymore

    1. Sorry about the spelling mistakes still getting use to this keyboard

      1. What do you mean getting used to this keyboard. The letters are all in the same place.

  11. Or you could use your old media player/smartphone. In any case smartphones send too many devices to the trash can.

    1. agreed i keep mine alive with FreedomPop really nice to have a device to send a few texts or a phone you just plain don’t care about when you go through a bad neighborhood

      1. FreedomPop is a total joke..hope you NEVER need any customer assistance…it’s non existent.

        1. I think he’s using FreedomPop for emergency purposes, not his main carrier. I can see why. It adds the ability to send a text or two or place a quick phone call if you get lost or in trouble when out on a run. That could be a literal lifesaver depending on where you live.

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