At this price, you can’t have everything, but you can have an excellent smartphone. You have alternatives whether you want an iPhone, a 120Hz screen, or water resistance.
You can’t walk into a wireless retailer without being besieged with “free phone” offers. While there’s nothing wrong with getting a free phone, there are typically always a lot of strings attached. Paying cash gives you a lot more flexibility, but because flagship phones are so expensive, it’s not an option for everyone.
The budget phones come to the rescue. These handsets cost $500 or less, making them far more enticing if you want to buy your phone entirely or keep your monthly payments to a minimum.
What I’m looking for
- Strong software support: at least two years of operating system upgrades and, ideally, three years of security updates. It’s pointless to buy a cheap phone if you have to replace it after only a few years because security fixes are no longer available.
- A nice screen: Because you stare at it around two thousand times every day, your phone’s screen is one area where you should not skimp. OLEDs have more contrast and colour saturation than LCDs, yet the large screens on today’s phones require at least a 1080p resolution. Faster refresh rates, such as 90Hz and even 120Hz, are becoming increasingly frequent on low-cost phone displays, but a smooth-scrolling LCD doesn’t look as great as an OLED with a regular refresh rate in my opinion.
- Serviceable storage space: If you intend to keep your phone for a long time, you’ll need adequate storage space to save all of the system files, images, and videos you’ll gather over time. Ideally, you’ll receive at least 128GB built in, but I like 64GB with the ability to extend storage via a MicroSD card.
- Not four terrible rear cameras, but one fantastic one: Upgrades like telephoto cameras and optical image stabilisation are uncommon in the sub-$500 category, but any current smartphone can still provide acceptable, basic performance in good lighting. Low light is more difficult. Phones in this category should include a night mode to assist with non-moving subjects in low light. There are no bonus points for adding additional macro and depth cameras to the back camera array – those 2- and 5-megapixel sensors are essentially worthless.
Because of Apple’s great track record of providing iOS upgrades to ageing devices, the 2022 iPhone SE will live for more than five years if properly cared for. However, its 4.7-inch screen seems cramped now and may be difficult to use in five years as apps and websites continue to be created for larger screens.
|Apple||iPhone SE (2022)|
|Display||4.7-inch LCD (1344 x 750)|
|Storage||64GB, 128GB, 256GB|
|Rear cameras||12MP (f/1.8)|
|Front camera||7MP (f/2.2)|
|Size||5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches|
|Colors||Midnight, Starlight, (PRODUCT)RED|
Period. The 128GB iPhone SE is the finest bargain on the smartphone market. When you consider that it will receive iOS upgrades for the next five, six, or seven years, it’s a steal for $479.
But, before you buy a SE and hope to go the rest of the decade without purchasing a new phone, be sure you can live with its very little, very antiquated 4.7-inch screen. It’s the same size as the one on the iPhone 6, yet in an age where applications and web sites are meant for larger screens, it’s starting to seem claustrophobic. The SE’s large bezels also make the gadget appear antiquated, but the utility of a tiny screen will be more important.
That is the most serious criticism levelled towards the SE. Otherwise, it’s an excellent intermediate tablet. It has the same A15 CPU as the iPhone 13 Pro Max, thus performance is outstanding. It has IP67 waterproofing and wireless charging, both of which are unusual in this price bracket, and while using the same 12-megapixel camera that iPhones have had since the beginning of time, it shoots really beautiful images and high-quality video clips. The camera lacks a night mode, which is an odd omission given that many other midrange phones have some form of low-light photo option, and the phone’s chipset is obviously capable. Apple will be Apple.
This SE version only has low- and mid-band 5G connection, which is enough. You won’t receive the rapid millimeter-wave 5G that you could find at an NFL stadium, but it’s not a deal breaker. The battery life has also been increased over the previous generation, and it will typically last a whole day unless you really push it with demanding applications like gaming and video streaming.
If you don’t mind the tiny screen and don’t mind the absence of night mode, we recommend getting the 128GB version. The standard model’s 64GB of storage is insufficient, and you’ll be pleased you invested the extra $50 when you use this phone for years to come.
The Pixel 7A comes with some features that are difficult to obtain for under $500, like as wireless charging and an IP67 classification for dust and water protection. It’s not the cheapest phone in the class, but it’s the one most suited to long-term use.
|Dimensions:||152.4 x 72.9 x 9mm|
|Screen size:||6.1 inches|
|Resolution:||2400 x 1080 pixels|
|CPU:||Google Tensor G2 w/ Titan M2 security|
|Storage:||128GB (UFS 3.1)|
|Rear Cameras:||64MP main, 12MP ultrawide|
The Google Pixel 7A sets the bar for what a midrange phone can provide. At $499, it’s squarely at the top of our “budget” range — and a little more costly than its closest competitor in the US, the $449 Samsung Galaxy A54. But, with a class-leading camera and flagship-like features like wireless charging, it’s a cut above the competition in the midrange.
A new 6.1-inch, 90Hz display, which makes animations and scrolling seem considerably smoother than on last year’s 60Hz panel, is one of the 7A’s significant changes. The 7A has the same Tensor G2 processor as the premium Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, as well as 8GB of RAM. This translates to outstanding performance for everyday chores as well as heavy lifting like gaming. The 7A is also more durable than the ordinary midranger, having an aluminium frame and an IP67 designation for dust and water protection.
The Samsung Galaxy A54 5G includes the rear panel design of the S23-series as well as a few other flagship-like characteristics, beginning with its 6.4-inch display.
The screen of the Samsung Galaxy A54 5G is its finest feature. It’s a 6.4-inch 1080p OLED with a silky 120Hz refresh rate that makes you think you’re holding a $1,000 phone. Its camera and general feature set don’t quite match those of the Pixel 7A, but it’s a very nice midrange phone in its own right, with a little cheaper $449 MSRP.
The A54 is made with tough glass panels on the back and front, and it has an IP67 rating for dust and immersion in shallow water. It is also backed up by a strong software support strategy. Samsung guarantees four years of OS version upgrades and five years of security updates, which is one of the finest warranties for any Android phone, regardless of price. There’s also a large 5,000mAh battery that can power the device for a whole day of intensive usage, but you’ll need to buy a charger separately if you want to take use of the rapid 25W charging speeds.
|Dimensions:||158.2 × 76.7 × 8.2mm|
|Screen:||6.4-inch 19.5:9 FHD+ (2340 x 1080) 120Hz Super AMOLED, protected by Gorilla Glass 5|
|Chipset:||Samsung Exynos 1380|
|RAM:||6GB / 8GB (LPDDR4X)|
|Storage:||128 / 256GB (UFS 3.1) + microSD (up to 1TB)|
|OS:||Android 13 w/ One UI 5.1|
|Primary camera:||50MP, f/1.8 w/ OIS|
|Ultrawide camera:||12MP, f/2.2|
|Macro camera:||5MP, f/2.4|
|Front camera:||32MP, f/2.2|
|Colors:||Awesome Graphite, Awesome Violet, Awesome Lime, Awesome White|
Google’s Pixel 6A has a modest 6.1-inch OLED screen but is a strong performer with a fantastic camera and battery life..
The Pixel 6A remains in Google’s portfolio despite the release of the 7A, thanks to a permanent price decrease of $349. Its regular 60Hz screen isn’t as good as the 7A’s quicker display, and it has outdated camera technology. But there’s still a lot to appreciate about it, particularly at the current pricing.
Tensor, Google’s custom-built processor utilised in the company’s 2021 flagships, the 6 and 6 Pro, is the phone’s most valuable asset. It not only enables extremely strong overall performance now, but it also ensures that the 6A will remain competitive for many years to come. It will only receive two further OS upgrades (Android 14 this autumn and 15 next year), although it will continue to receive security fixes until at least July 2027. The 6A also has an IP67 water resistant rating, making it a fantastic all-around choice if you want a low-cost phone that will endure.
The 6.1-inch 1080p OLED display on the 6A has a standard refresh rate of 60Hz. It wasn’t particularly amazing given the phone’s original $449 retail price, but it’s one of the nicer displays available for under $400. Unfortunately, the fingerprint sensor beneath the display is likewise sluggish. It’s not useless, but it’s notably slower than the finest fingerprint sensors on the market. But then, so is the one on the 7A.
The N20 5G comes with a 6.4-inch 1080p screen, a quick fingerprint reader, and fast wired charging through the provided in-box charger.
The OnePlus N20 5G is a $280 phone that feels much more expensive. It has a 6.4-inch screen with a decent 1080p resolution. Even better, it’s an OLED display in a market dominated by lower-contrast LCDs. You’ll have to make due with a conventional 60Hz refresh rate, but you won’t notice the difference unless you’re coming from a phone with a quicker 90Hz or 120Hz screen. Aside from the refresh rate, it’s a fantastic screen that’s delightful to use. In addition, there’s a superb fingerprint reader beneath the display that makes unlocking the phone a breeze.
The N20 5G is available unlocked, but it is not compatible with Verizon. It’s also confined to 4G on AT&T, which isn’t a bad thing considering the carrier’s delayed rollout of their mid-band 5G network (the excellent 5G). The unlocked N20 works on both T-Mobile’s 5G and 4G networks, and if you want to take advantage of a free phone offer or bundle the cost with your monthly phone bill, you can buy a network-locked version of the phone directly from T-Mobile.
The N20 5G is outfitted with a powerful Snapdragon 695 CPU and a substantial 6GB of RAM for excellent day-to-day performance. With the provided charger, it also enables 33W wired fast charging, something you won’t find in any of the N20’s competitors. You can charge the phone from 0 to 30% in only 20 minutes, which is quite useful if you’re in a hurry and need a quick battery boost. NFC is also incorporated for contactless payment; however, many cheaper phones do not contain it to save money.
- Android 11 w/ OxygenOS 11
- 6.43in FHD+ AMOLED 60Hz, 20:9,
- In-display fingerprint sensor
- Face unlock
- Schott Xensation Up
- 6nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 5G
- 6 RAM LPDDR4x
- 128GB UFS 2.2 with microSD card slot
- 64Mp, f/1.8, main camera with OIS
- 2Mp, f/2.4 macro camera
- 2Mp, f/2.4 depth
- 16Mp, f/2.4 front-facing camera
- Single speakers
- WiFi 5
- Bluetooth 5.1
- USB-C port
- Headphone jack
- 4500mAh battery
- 33W fast charging
- 159.9 x 73.2 x 7.5mm
- Launch colours: Blue Smoke