(CNN) -- While the Android mobile operating system is free, the smartphones and tablets that use it have generally been rather pricey and thus out of reach for many consumers.
But now, Android is getting more accessible to typical consumers -- both in terms of usability and (more importantly) price.
At last week's CTIA mobile technology conference and expo in San Francisco, California, several vendors introduced simpler, less costly cell phones that run Android -- all under $150 (after rebate), and some as cheap as $50.
Some carriers have already revealed prices for data plans for these phones, at a cost significantly less than what smartphone users typically pay per month.
The phones don't necessarily offer the same speed and performance as higher-end smartphones. But this is where the line between feature phones and smartphones is blurring.
Sprint and T-Mobile are launching versions of this phone, which is basically a low-cost starter smartphone. It has a 3.2-inch capacitive touch screen (one that responds to human fingers), a 3.2-megapixel camera (with video capture), microSD expandable storage (a 2 GB card comes standard, but the phone supports cards up to 32 GB), and the latest version of Android (2.2 "Froyo").
Sprint plans to offer the Optimus starting October 31 for $49.99 -- after a $100 mail-in rebate and with a two-year contract that could cost about $60 a month. That's not quite as affordable as the flat $40-a-month "for everything" offer from discount carrier MetroPCS, but it's a lot less expensive than a Droid 2 or an iPhone.
T-Mobile has not yet given a price for its Optimus phone but expects to release it for the holiday season.
This slider-style device has a full QWERTY keyboard, a form factor that appeals to many feature phone and BlackBerry users but also is reminiscent of the EPIC 4G smartphone.
It has a 480 x 320-pixel touch screen display, front- and back-facing cameras for video chat, up to 32 GB of microSD storage and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth capability. It's running Android 2.1 -- not the latest version -- but will support most Android apps, widgets and services.
According to Android Central, Sprint began selling the Transform on October 10 for $149.99, after a $100 mail-in rebate and with a new two-year service agreement.
This phone (which actually is manufactured by Kyocera) will be offered by Sprint for Zio for $99.99, with a new two-year service agreement and after a $100 mail-in rebate. It features a 3.5-inch WVGA touch screen, 3.2-megapixel camera and 30-frame-per-second video.
Motorola Flipout, Flipside and Bravo
This trio of midrange Android phones is coming from AT&T. The Flipout is due out October 17, and the other two around the holidays.
The Flipout has a pivoting QWERTY keyboard and will cost only about $80. The Flipside costs about $100 and has a slide QWERTY keyboard and 3.1-inch HVGA screen. The Bravo will cost about $130 and comes with a 3.7-inch WVGA screen, 800 MHz processor and 3-megapixel camera. (All prices are after rebates, and with a two-year contract.)
RCR Wireless reports, "All three devices require a data package beginning at $15 per month as well as qualify for an early termination fee of up to $325."
In the October 7 episode of The Cell Phone Junkie podcast, host Mickey Papillon and Dieter Bohn from Smartphone Experts discussed the pros and cons of several lower-end Android feature phones shown at the CTIA conference.
Papillon and Bohn also discussed the new Sprint ID service for Android phones, which debuted at CTIA. Through partnerships with content providers like Yahoo and Electronic Arts, Sprint is selling prepackaged sets of apps, ringtones, widgets, wallpaper and more for its Android phones.
"The idea is that it's a pain for many people to figure out how to customize your Android phone," Bohn said. "Yes, it's bloatware -- but it's a place to start and you at least get to pick which bloatware you want."