There are many factors to consider when buying a new phone, but for most people the crucial element is the price. Are you willing to shell out over $1,000 on the latest and greatest flagships? Perhaps a $400 mid-range champion takes your fancy? Or maybe you want something under $200 that simply gets the job done.
To help you make your decision, we’ve collected together the top handsets from several different price ranges, explaining their best features and what makes them great buys.
Best for Most People: The New $400 Mainstream Segment
We’d been waiting a long time for the successor to the original iPhone SE, but the wait was worth it. With this device, Apple proves its best handsets don’t always come with a sky-high price tag. At just $400 for the base model, Apple has grabbed the value-for-money title with the iPhone SE 2020.
It’s very similar to the iPhone 8, featuring a 4.7-inch Retina HD (1,334 x 750, 326ppi) LCD, a 12MP single lens camera, and a near-identical chassis. But there are some significant differences.
Despite its relatively low price, the iPhone SE comes with the same A13 SoC as the iPhone 11. That means you get flagship-level performance at a mid-range phone price, and the camera has been boosted with improved image processing. Speaking of the camera, the iPhone SE can take some amazing shots, and there are several new features such as portrait mode for the selfie cam, depth control, and Smart HDR.
Other iPhone traits are all here: great build quality, water resistance, wireless charging, impressive display (despite the lower resolution), and the usual software and OS support/updates. It’s also surprisingly loud.
With modern smartphones embracing larger screens, that 4.7-inch display will be small for some, and the three-year-old design does look a bit out of place in a bezel-less world, but you won’t find better at this price point—the new mid-range champion.
For $100 more, an amazing Android alternative
If you’re willing to spend a little extra, the excellent OnePlus 7T is now available for just $499. That price gets you a phone with a larger 6.55-inch AMOLED screen and 90Hz refresh rate that is usually reserved for premium handsets.
The OnePlus design is modern and well executed, showing a small teardrop notch for the front-facing camera with minimal bezels. There’s a fast processor inside (Snapdragon 855 Plus, 8GB RAM) running OxygenOS, a modified version of Android 10 that is praised by owners as it’s very close to stock Android with some useful additions.
The OnePlus 7T gets a main 48-megapixel camera with OIS and two more 12MP telephoto and 16MP ultra-wide lens on the back. In the front, a 16MP front facing camera. So you get all the array of options, however most critics agree that photos are not nearly as good as those taken by top iPhones, Huawei and Google phones.
The in-screen fingerprint reader is excellent, you get 128 GB internal storage, but no option to expand it. The OnePlus 7T lacks wireless charging, water resistance, and a headphone jack. But there’s a reason why this was regularly voted one of the best smartphones of 2019 and it’s found a new breath of life at $499.
You should also consider…
Google Pixel 3a (kind of), until the Pixel 4a arrives
The Pixel 3a is still a pretty good phone and was our top recommendation for people seeking a $400 handset last year. The camera remains excellent, and being a Google handset means Pure Android and fast OS updates, but the whole package simply can’t compete with the iPhone SE anymore.
Why mention it, then? As of writing you can find the Pixel 3a selling for as little as $279 and the Pixel 3a XL for $319. And that may be enough for many cash-strapped shoppers to consider it. It is a very solid phone. Meanwhile, the Pixel 4a is set to arrive in a matter of weeks, in what should be a true contender to the iPhone SE pound for pound.
For those who simply will not use an iPhone, Samsung positions its Galaxy A51 as a $400 Android alternative to the SE. One thing it does have over its rival is a 6.5-inch, 2,400 x 1,080 AMOLED display. You also get a 4,000mAh battery, a more modern (though plasticky) design, and up to 8GB of RAM.
While the A51 comes with four rear cameras that offer plenty of options, the iPhone’s single lens and image processing often outperform the Galaxy, especially when it comes to video. Apple’s phone is capable of recording 4K at up to 60 fps, whereas the A51 can only manage 4K@30fps. It also has an inferior Exynos 9611 processor, and the reviews haven’t been as glowing as those for the iPhone SE for the overall experience.
Best of the Best: Flagships
If you want the most premium Android smartphone on the market, get the Galaxy S20. Samsung’s latest entry in the S-series has plenty of cutting-edge features: 5G, a triple or quad (S20+) camera setup with a 64MP telephoto lens, Snapdragon 865 SoC, up to 12GB RAM, in-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, and an AMOLED screen that refreshes at 120Hz.
We can’t predict if this is going to be a keeper, but since launch Samsung has lowered the price of the Galaxy S20 twice now to $799 for the standard model, and $999 for the S20+. That’s still premium pricing for a flagship phone, but it renders many other high-end alternatives obsolete and gives it an edge when competing with the iPhone.
That 120Hz OLED display is one of the S20’s highlights. While it can’t run this at full 3,200 x 1,440 resolution, downscaling to Full HD+ (2,400 x 1,080) still looks amazing and is totally worth using.
As is usually the case with Samsung’s flagships, the 6.2-inch screen is simply spectacular. The camera, meanwhile, lets you capture high-quality 3x lossless optical zoom shots, and can reach 30x. You also get a 10 MP front-facing camera with ƒ/2.2 apertures, and the ability to capture 8K video at 24 fps. Battery life is pretty good thanks to the S20’s 4,000 mAh and the S20+’s 4,500 mAh units—even more if you switch to 60Hz mode. Both phones are 5G ready, too, making them futureproof, though a lackluster record of slow software updates is a real shame.
Picking between the Galaxy S20 and S20+ depends on whether you’re happy to pay around $200 more for an extra 0.5 inches of screen, a larger battery, and a VGA time-of-flight sensor.
The iPhone 11 Pro (5.8-inch) and 11 Pro Max (6.5-inch) look almost identical to its predecessors on the outside, but they come with a new triple-camera system and Apple’s powerful A13 Bionic processor. There’s also an improved XDR “Pro level” OLED screen (458 PPI) that’s bright and vivid, reaching 1200 nits brightness when viewing HDR content.
The iPhone 11 Pro features Apple’s first triple camera setup: a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera (26mm, f/1.8) with OIS, a 12-megapixel telephoto camera (52mm, f/2.0) with OIS and focus pixels, and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera (13mm, f/2.4) with a 120-degree field of view. Across the range of cameras, you effectively get 4x optical zoom.
While Samsung may offer more advanced specs and features in its cameras, you’ll find the iPhone 11 Pro often takes the “Best Smartphone Camera” award, thanks to its image processing tech. There’s also the excellent night mode for low-light environments, and 4K@60fps video, which can be recorded simultaneously with all three lenses.
Battery life has been given a small boost and you also get support for Dolby Atmos, Wi-Fi 6, and Gigabit 4G, but if you want 5G, opt for the Galaxy S20, at least until the iPhone 12 comes out. The lack of USB Type-C and expandable storage still irks some people, the notch remains, and a $999 starting price for the 64GB model is steep. But with the best camera around and a fantastic screen, few would argue that this is the best iPhone to date.
Arguably there’s no better flagship killer than the OnePlus 7T, and that’s the reason it’s at the top of our mainstream recommendations. However seen with a different set of eyes, for those looking to buy a flagship phone from Apple, out of all three iPhones launched last year, many agree that the iPhone 11 brings the best value for most people.
It takes many of its more expensive siblings’ best features, including the powerful A13 Bionic SoC, and packs them into an attractive $700 handset. While the 6.1-inch “Liquid Retina” LCD’s 1792×828 resolution is lower than similarly-priced handsets, it was good enough for the company’s best selling phone last year: the iPhone XR. Ask any owner, and you’ll rarely hear a complaint about the display’s overall quality.
The iPhone 11 gets an upgraded camera, which adds an extra lens for a dual setup. The 12MP ultra wide and wide cameras, with 2x optical zoom and 5x digital, take advantage of Apple’s advanced image processing to create some great snaps. You can also capture 4K video at 60fps, get the excellent new Night Mode, and Face ID—used for authentication and payments—is now 30 percent faster.
Battery life is another reason to opt for the iPhone 11—which can be charged wirelessly— as it offers an impressive 17 hours of video playback. You will, however, find the usual iPhone drawbacks: no expandable storage, USB Type-C, or headphone jack (though most phones are going down this route). Combine all this with the excellent build quality and access to Apple’s walled garden ecosystem, and you’ve got the perfect iOS device for those not willing to spend $1,000.
A worthy mention
One good thing about the release of a new Galaxy S-series is that the previous model drops in price. It means Android fans can get the still excellent Galaxy S10 for around $600. With the S10 comes its gorgeous 1,200 nits screen. Measuring 6.1 inches (550 PPI), this AMOLED reaches 3,040 x 1,440 and supports HDR 10+. You also get a slew of flagship features such as an in-screen fingerprint reader, triple-camera setup, reverse charging, and the still powerful Snapdragon 855 SoC. A headphone jack is part of the incredibly well-built, water-resistant body. While the S10 lacks a high refresh rate display, the rest of the bells and whistles in this 2019 flagship means it remains a great buy, especially at $600.
Best Value Smartphones
Buying a phone in the $200 to $300 range doesn’t mean you have to settle for any phone. Granted, you’re not going to compete with the best there is in terms of features or performance, but at $250 you can get the Nokia 7.2, a very good budget phone with some attractive elements.
The Nokia’s sleek chassis is one key highlight here, with Gorilla Glass covering both sides, a circular camera bump with Zeiss branding, and a rear fingerprint sensor. It feels surprisingly solid and premium for something at the lower end of the scale. Do note several retailers can charge over $300 for the same phone, but if you are careful about where you shop, you can get it for just $250 which is the right price to pay for the 7.2.
The device’s 6.3-inch LCD display is bright and clear when viewed in daylight, has a 1,080 x 2,280 resolution, and uses a teardrop notch that’s less intrusive than the one found in the Nokia 7.1. The camera is surprisingly good for this price range, too, boasting three lenses: 48MP main, 8MP ultrawide, and a 5MP depth sensor, all of which produce some impressive results, even in dark environments. The portrait mode is good, too. The phone also supports 4K@30fps video, but 1080p is limited to 30fps, strangely.
Other specs include a Snapdragon 660 SoC and 6GB of RAM, offering the kind of performance you’d expect at this range: fine for most tasks. You also get the stock Android experience of Android One, which guarantees two years of OS updates. Other features include 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, a 3,500mAh battery, USB Type-C, 128GB of storage, a Google Assistant button, NFC for contactless payments, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a loud pair of speakers.
The Nokia 7.2 still has plenty that identifies it as an affordable phone: no waterproofing, slow charging (and no wireless), a less than stellar battery life, no 60fps FHD video recording, and middling performance. But it remains great value and the best buy at $250.
Get it while it lasts
The Pixel 3a is a pretty good phone and was our top recommendation for people seeking a $400 handset last year. The camera remains excellent, and being a Google handset means Pure Android and fast OS updates. As of writing you can find the Pixel 3a selling for as little as $279. It’s a better phone than the Nokia, but a tad smaller. You may want to consider the Pixel 3a XL instead for an extra $40.
A cheaper alternative
If you’re after a strong alternative to the Nokia 7.2 and one that’s $80 cheaper, take a look at Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 8, which is available for $170. The Note 8 shares many of the Nokia’s traits, including the 6.3-inch LCD display, 6GB of RAM, excellent construction, USB Type-C, and a great camera for the price. And while it does sport a Snapdragon 665, the SoC offers about the same overall performance as the 660.
The 1,080 x 2,340 IPS display looks quite crisp, and the four-lens camera, which consists of a 48MP main, 8MP ultrawide, 2MP macro, and 2MP depth sensor, is one of the best you’ll find in an entry-level device.
Other than price, the Note 8 thoroughly beats the Nokia 7.2 when it comes to battery life, with a 4,000mAh battery that easily lasts a full day even with heavy use. It’s also dual SIM and has a micro SD card slot
In addition to the usual compromises phones in this range present like average performance and industrial design, one particular drawback with the Redmi Note 8 could be its potential issues with privacy. The device was one of several from Xiaomi that was found to be collecting users’ phone habits, including incognito browsing (allegedly), and sending data back to the company’s servers. User support and software are of questionable quality as well. And yet some people don’t care about those things and simply want a cheap phones with good specs. If you’re in that camp, the Redmi Note 8 is it.
The Best $100+ Phone
The simple truth is that you’re not going to find any ‘great’ smartphones around $100 or less. There are however several serviceable options available for less than $200. Many of these come from reputable companies with a long history of serving the budget market. Most offer a good overall package and support, and right now our choice for the best inexpensive phone is the Moto G8 Play.
The Moto G8 Play will set you back just $135. For that price you get a few welcome features: USB Type-C, a fingerprint scanner, face unlock, microSD support, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a near-stock version of Android. The 6.2-inch IPS LCD display has a basic 720p resolution and a teardrop notch. While it’s not going to win any awards, it’s quite nice at this price point. The G8 Play also comes with a triple camera setup (13MP main, 8MP ultrawide, 2MP depth), but there are better snappers on budget phones.
As with many low-cost smartphones, battery life is probably the best feature here (after the price). Motorola says the 4,000mAh battery will last two days, though one and a half is more realistic.
Not to be confused with its more expensive Moto G8 Plus sibling that is bigger and uses a Snapdragon SoC, the low-cost G8 Play opts for a Mediatek Helio P70, which combined with 2GB of RAM offers just average performance.
You’re not going to be multitasking several apps at once on this handset. There are other drawbacks common at this range, including a plastic body and an absence of premium features. They say you get what you pay for, but at $135, the Moto G8 Play offers slightly more: a solid low-cost device with excellent battery life.
Masthead credit: Daniel Romero