Such are these tough economic times, many will be tightening belts and concentrating on the essentials ahead of material acquisition. But with Christmas fast approaching, the annual dilemma of watching the pennies versus satisfying the desires of those nearest and dearest is about to raise its ugly Yuletide head. And for those of you with children this can be a tough time indeed, especially if your brood is collectively piling on the pressure to find under the tree that most desirable of tech trinkets: the smartphone.

However, whilst the media is seemingly always awash with tales of early adopters camping out overnight and splurging the best part of a weekly wage to be first in line for Apple’s latest smartphone effort, there are devices other than the iPhone, and many are not as prohibitively expensive as you might think.

In fact, taking those first steps into the world of the smartphone and leaving behind the clunky, hand-me-down relics that just don’t cut it anymore isn’t the financially draining minefield it’s often portrayed to be. Several major handset manufacturers now produce budget devices that offer a comprehensive smartphone experience at competitive price points. And here are just a few:

Sony Xperia U

Sony is a seasoned campaigner in the world of mobile, although the Japanese company might be more well-known to a smartphone novice as part of its fruitful partnership with Ericsson. Now flying solo having jettisoned the Swedish telecommunications giant, Sony has reinvigorated its Xperia range of devices, releasing high-end phones such as the Xperia S and Xperia T. Not wanting to neglect the mid-range market, the Xperia refresh has also given rise to the Xperia U, a compact Android-powered handset with a stylish design and impressive 3.5-inch screen powered by the same BRAVIA technology featured in the company’s range of high-end television sets. Whilst the Xperia U doesn’t run the latest version of Android (Ice Cream Sandwich is the operating system of choice here), the software and its user interface are easily mastered and the inclusion of a 5 megapixel camera with 720p HD video recording capabilities is perfect for those with a Facebook or YouTube affliction.

Nokia Lumia 610

Mobile stalwarts Nokia recently entered a big money partnership with software giant Microsoft to showcase the often overlooked Windows Phone operating system, the results being a slew of impressive high-end devices that made up the Nokia Lumia range. Whilst the flagship (and suitably expensive) Nokia Lumia 920 may well be grabbing the headlines currently, the Finnish company’s mid-range device, the Lumia 610, is still popular, catering for those wanting to sample the Windows Phone experience without paying through the nose for doing so. Despite being on the shelves for coming up to a year now, and its Windows Phone 7.5 operating system about to be superseded by the forthcoming Windows Phone 8, the Nokia Lumia 610 still offers an inexpensive inroad to Windows Phone and the functionality it offers. Powered by an 800MHz processor and featuring Windows Phone’s innovative Live Tiles user interface, the Lumia 610 presents a user experience that’s a radical departure from that offered by the likes of Android and iOS’ icon-based efforts, and yet still engaging, responsive, and most importantly, centred around you. When you factor in a wealth of social options enabled by Microsoft’s People Hub area (which groups every possible facet of information relating to your contacts in one easy to reach place), the familiar Internet Explorer browser and a more than adequate 5 megapixel camera, the Nokia effort shapes up to be a more than viable route into the world of the smartphone.

HTC Desire C

Small but perfectly formed, the HTC Desire C is another Android handset that offers a premium experience – both in terms of aesthetics and performance – without breaking the bank. HTC has quite a track record in producing good-looking handsets packed full of functionality, and the Desire C is no different featuring HTC’s sturdy construction, a vibrant 3.5-inch display (quite a boon for a handset in this price bracket) and a 5 megapixel camera complimented with a host of social media sharing options making it easy to post your pics for the world to see. As with Sony’s Xperia U, Google’s Android Ice Cream Sandwich is the operating system used, although in this case the mobile platform is overlaid with HTC’s own user interface, the highly stylised yet incredibly intuitive HTC Sense. This brings impressive personalisation options including handy widgets displaying information on pretty much anything (stocks, news, weather, social media updates) which can be placed on one of the many home screens for quick access. Add to this a raft of Google software including Maps, YouTube and Google Messenger and the opportunity to pimp out the device with a multitude of apps from the Google Play app store, and the Desire C is an enticing proposition indeed.

By Dean Quinn, Tech writer at Phones 4u – the go-to retailer for upgrades, top deals and awesome handsets