Today’s flagship phones are impressive, no doubt, and the iPhone 12 may end up being the new king. But have you seen what sub-$500 models can do lately? If you gawk at the grand-plus prices of today’s flagships, you might be surprised at how easy it is to get by with a lower-priced model.
Sure, budget phones might not have the same flash as their high-end counterparts, but this isn’t the early days of Android and iOS, when every update was a giant leap forward. Last-gen processors can handle daily tasks without skipping a beat, and the biggest features—fingerprint scanners, multiple cameras, and edge-to-edge displays—are common on devices costing only a couple hundred bucks. You could go with a flagship phone from a generation or two ago, bought used or refurbished—an approach that has its advantages (better screens and cameras, for example) and disadvantages (less longevity in terms of software support). For now, we’re sticking to this year’s affordable models, which our friends at Gizmodo have been putting through their paces throughout 2020.
Best Budget Android Phone: Pixel 4A
Google’s Pixel line, like the Nexus phones that came before it, showcases pure, slimmed-down Android. You don’t get the customized manufacturer interfaces, extra apps, or other nonsense: just Android, as Google intended. And the Pixel 4A slims things down even further, eschewing the flashy extras for the most important features in a smartphone, at an affordable price. “You get a single flat screen, a camera in the front, a camera in the back, a fingerprint reader, and a headphone jack for $350,” explains Sam Rutherford in Gizmodo’s review. “If the Pixel 4a is supposed to be the essence of smartphone simplicity, I think Google nailed it.”
You don’t get the extra color choices, size options, or a multi-camera layout, but it does the important stuff well—including that camera, which is better than you’re likely to find on most budget phones. It’s also one of the more powerful devices on this list, which is good for longevity—as are the software updates you get straight from Google. It doesn’t have an official water resistance rating, which Rutherford notes is a sour point for that peace of mind, but the overall package is still incredibly compelling. “It’s damn near impossible to find a better phone in this price range without turning to one of its spec-heavy Chinese rivals,” he notes—which rarely work well on US networks anyway (looking at you, OnePlus Nord). If you want a solid Android phone at a more budget-friendly price, the Pixel 4A is it.
Best Budget Samsung Phone: Samsung Galaxy A51
While I’ve always been a fan of Google’s pure, unadulterated Android phones, there are advantages to Samsung’s more kitchen-sink approach. Not only does the affordable Galaxy A51 include a headphone jack—priceless if you ask me—but it features Samsung’s more feature-rich software, with loads of settings to customize your experience in ways Google doesn’t offer. It also has microSD storage (which the Pixel 4A doesn’t have), multiple cameras, and a larger screen, if you’re into those things. My colleagues at Gizmodo haven’t reviewed this one, but it probably deserves consideration.
That said, most reviews point out that the Galaxy A51, while more feature-rich on paper, doesn’t always live up to the promise. Where the Pixel 4A simplifies its feature set in order to do each thing well, the Galaxy A51 is more of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. If you like Samsung’s software and old-school features like headphone jacks and microSD cards, it may still be worth your time—but for most people, the Pixel 4A is arguably the better phone. (The Galaxy A71 does kick it up a notch, but at $500, it’s more midrange than budget.)
Best Budget iPhone: iPhone SE
I’m tired of people talking like Apple only sells $1,000+ monstrosities. I’m as quick to dunk on Apple as anyone (terrible keyboards, flexgate, dongles aplenty ... the list goes on), but the iPhone isn’t only for rich people anymore. In fact, Apple has offered affordable iPhones for years, and the latest iPhone SE is the best yet. The new SE contains the same A13 Bionic processor as last year’s iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max, albeit slightly downclocked, which means the internal hardware should last you for a good number of years.
Instead of skimping on power, Apple cut costs by ditching the unnecessary stuff like an edge-to-edge screen and multi-camera layout. While those are nice-to-haves, you still get the most useful goodies, like a fingerprint scanner (which I much prefer to face unlock), wireless charging (goodbye cables!), and IP67 water resistance—plus Apple’s fantastic software support. The iPhone 12 is undoubtedly the better phone, but if I only had $400 to spend, I’d gladly take a phone that’s designed to last instead of one that tries (and fails) to act like a modern flagship. In fact, Gizmodo’s Caitlin McGarry called it “the best iPhone for most people right now,” which I’d agree with—if I were an iPhone user, it’d be at the top of my list for the next upgrade. You can get it new from Apple directly, or grab it refurbished on Amazon or Back Market for even less. (Sadly, Apple isn’t selling it refurbished yet.)
Best Sleek Design: TCL 10L
$250 may sound like a bottom-of-the-barrel price, but you might be surprised what a couple Benjamins will get you these days. The TCL 10L sports an edge-to-edge display, four cameras (okay, three plus a depth sensor), and a programmable Smart Key that you can use to launch any app you want. More importantly, budget phones tend to keep a lot of old-school niceties that flagships have abandoned, like expandable SD card storage and headphone jacks.
There are sacrifices here, of course. In Gizmodo’s budget Battlemodo, Sam Rutherford called the TCL’s camera an “adequate shooter,” with a slight edge over the Moto G Power (see below) for its ability to “nail exposure more often and with better focus.” It doesn’t handle dim light as well as some more expensive cameras, but if you don’t take a ton of pictures anyway, you’ll probably be satisfied. The Snapdragon 665 processor is far from the fastest on the market, but more than usable—Rutherford noted that “compared to budget phones from just a few years ago, it’s encouraging to see how smooth both phones are during everyday use” (referring to the 10L and G Power). “if you’re playing a game while installing an Android update, neither phone suffers from lag or stuttering.” Don’t expect the world, but for $250, the TCL 10L will get the job done.
Best Battery Life: Moto G Power
For years, many of us have clamored for slightly thicker phones with better batteries. While flagships haven’t really gone in that direction, Motorola’s G Power line has heeded the call for a few years, at a crazy-good price. This year’s version boasts a 5,000mAh battery, which Rutherford found lasted 15 hours and 44 minutes, well over the 12 hours of the TCL 10L—all while keeping the same performance and high-end perks, like an edge-to-edge display and multi-camera layout. It also has better speakers, if that’s one of your must-haves.
The G Power doesn’t have the 10L’s programmable button, though, and its camera isn’t quite as good. Couple that with a slightly chunkier build, and the TCL may edge it out for some in terms of design. “But if you’re looking for a new daily driver” at this price point, Rutherford says, “the Moto G Power is the one you want, thanks to its fantastic battery life and much better speakers.”