If you’re looking for a new phone on a budget, there’s good news: in these days of tight supply chains, mid-range sub-$500 phones are more likely to be available than many of the recent flagships. Fortunately, there are a slew of good alternatives to the more expensive premium models that are nearly as capable and cost a fraction of the price.
Companies such as Apple, Google, and Samsung are bringing the abundance of capabilities seen in their flagship phones to lower-cost models. Other companies, such as TCL, are attempting to compete with more established manufacturers by offering lower costs and more premium features.
The bad news is that this makes choosing the best cheap phone much more difficult. At this pricing point, it’s impossible to find a phone that does everything well. So, whether it’s 5G connectivity with a certain network, a high-resolution screen, a low price, the greatest camera, or software update lifespan, prioritize the aspects that matter most to you. It’s tough to obtain perfect A’s in all of these categories, but if you can live with the occasional B, you’ll find a phone you’ll adore. For the best price and mobility, we recommend acquiring an unlocked phone, but you might be able to get a better deal by purchasing through a carrier and signing up for a cellular plan.
The Apple iPhone SE 2022 edition is our pick for the greatest low-cost iPhone. You’ll need to be used to using a small screen, as the SE’s 4.7-inch display is starting to feel cramped in this era of giant displays, but aside from that, this latest iteration of the SE does exactly what the previous generations have done: provide a low-cost entry point to Apple’s iOS ecosystem from a device that will last upwards of five years if cared for properly.
If you’re looking for the greatest Android phone on a budget, we recommend the Google Pixel 5A. You’ll get an all-around good phone with a flagship-level camera, three years of Google software upgrades, and IP67 water resistance for less than last year’s model.
THE BEST SMARTPHONE UNDER $500
The iPhone SE is, without a doubt, the best value proposition on the smartphone market. Even though it’s $30 more expensive than the second-gen model, it’s still a good deal at $429 when you consider that it’ll get iOS updates for at least another five, if not seven, years.
If you’re ready to pick up a SE and glide through most of the next decade without having to buy a new phone, there’s one important consideration to make: dealing with its very little, very antiquated 4.7-inch screen. It’s the same one as the iPhone 6, and in an age where apps and web pages are meant for larger screens, it’s starting to seem a little claustrophobic. The SE’s large bezels make it appear antiquated as well, but the usability of a small screen in the long run is the most crucial issue to consider.
A CURIOUS OBSERVATION IS THAT THERE IS NO NIGHT MODE FOR BRIGHTER PHOTOS IN VERY LOW LIGHT.
That is the most serious criticism leveled about the SE. Aside from that, it’s an excellent midrange tablet. Performance is superb thanks to the A15 chip, which is the same as Apple’s top-tier iPhone 13 Pro Max. It’s waterproof to IP67 standards, which is unusual in this price bracket, and it shoots excellent images and video clips while using the same 12-megapixel camera that iPhones have used since the beginning of time. A odd omission is the lack of a night setting for brighter images in low light. Many other midrange phones have a low-light photo mode, and the phone’s processor is more than capable of handling it. Apple is going to be Apple.
Of course, this generation SE supports 5G, but just in the low- and mid-bands, which is acceptable. You won’t receive the same rapid millimeter wave 5G you’d get in an NFL stadium, but that’s not a deal breaker. The battery life has been increased over the previous generation, and it will usually last a whole day unless you use it for intensive tasks like gaming or streaming video.
We recommend the 128GB version if you can live with the small screen and aren’t worried by the lack of night mode. The 64GB of storage on the base model isn’t nearly enough, and you’ll be pleased you paid the extra $50 when you use this phone for years to come.
The 6.34-inch OLED screen on the $449 Pixel 5A is smaller than the previous-gen 6.2-inch panel on the Pixel 4A 5G, but it is larger than the previous-gen 6.2-inch panel on the Pixel 4A 5G. There’s also a larger battery: a 4,680mAh cell that will last a full day of intense use, or far into day two if you’re a light user. The 5A is also water resistant to IP67 standards, providing further piece of mind in the case of spills or falls into water.
That’s pretty much it for the 5A’s advancements over its predecessor. The 5A’s two rear-facing cameras (primary and ultrawide), Snapdragon 765G processor, and 6GB RAM/128GB storage combo were all carried over from the 4A 5G and continue to give solid performance.
Another area where Pixel phones excel is software, and the 5A is no exception. It debuted with Google’s Android 11 operating system and has since been upgraded to Android 12. The software is pleasantly devoid of the extra junk that other manufacturers frequently include. The Pixel 5A also comes with a three-year warranty on OS upgrades and security patches, which isn’t nearly as long as Apple or Samsung’s regular software support period, but it’s clearly better than the competition.
Of course, 5G connectivity is available. You won’t be able to connect to the ultra-fast mmWave 5G network, but you will be able to connect to the slower but more prevalent sub-6GHz 5G network. Unfortunately, despite the hardware’s capability, Google has decided not to offer C-band 5G frequencies on the 5A.
If you’re on T-Mobile, this isn’t a significant concern because the carrier doesn’t use much C-band for its 5G network, but if you’re on AT&T or Verizon, it’s something to think about. They’re using C-band to make their 5G networks actually operate, and they’ll be using a lot more of it in the coming years. That spectrum will be unavailable to the Pixel 5A, which is unfortunate.
The 5A will similarly have a limited release: it won’t be available via any of the major US carriers, but it will be available from the Google Store and Google Fi. Overall, we still think the Pixel 5A is the best inexpensive Android phone. It’s not showy, but it’s reasonably priced and functional.
The $500 Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is a terrific option for future-proofing your phone if you’re seeking for the best display for your money. It’s at the very top of this buying guide’s price range, but it’s definitely worth it.
The Galaxy A53 5G has just gone on sale for $50 less at the time of this writing. For the time being, the A52 5G is still available. We’re keeping with our existing suggestion while we evaluate the A53 5G because it has a new Samsung-made processor, which is a bit of an unknown commodity compared to the Snapdragon chipset in the A52 5G. Oh, and what else do you receive in exchange for the A52 5G’s increased price? In the box is a charger.
The 6.5-inch OLED screen on the A52 5G is bright, has decent contrast, and is generally pleasing to the eye. The finest feature, though, is a 120Hz refresh rate, which delivers animations and information a significantly smoother appearance as you swipe and navigate through menus and social feeds. This technology will most likely make its way into more budget phones in the near future, but for now, the A52 5G is one of the few phones in its class to provide a screen that is faster than the typical 60Hz, which improves the whole experience.
With a Snapdragon 750G engine and 6GB of RAM, the phone performs admirably in its class. With intensive work, there may be some stuttering or reluctance, but everyday browsing, app switching, and navigating are all simple. Even with a power-hungry display, the Galaxy A52 5G’s 4,500mAh battery should last at least one day of moderate to heavy use before requiring recharging.
One of the A52 5G’s less-than-stellar features is Samsung’s current take on Android, which installs a slew of pre-installed apps you probably don’t want, and even MORE OF AN INVESTMENT IN A PHONE YOU CAN KEEP USING THREE OR FOUR YEARS FROM NOW includes the odd ad in places like the native weather app. Look to the Pixel or OnePlus for a cleaner, more mature Android skin. Another factor to consider is the camera of the Galaxy A52 5G: it’s capable, but it has a tendency to look oversaturated. The Pixel 5A is the winner if you prefer a more natural look to your images.
There’s also 5G support, which we don’t think is a feature you should rush out and buy a new phone for, but it’s nice to have it here if you plan to keep your phone for a few years. This device doesn’t support super-fast mmWave 5G, but that’s not a big deal because it’s hard to come by. It also supports more commonly available sub-6GHz bands, allowing it to take advantage of improving 5G networks in the United States over the next few years.
You could buy a lot less expensive equipment to carry you through the next few years, and that would suffice. The A52 5G, on the other hand, is your best bet right now on Android if you want to make a larger investment in a phone that you can retain for three or four years.
The TCL 20S demonstrates that a nice phone can be purchased for $250 without making many concessions. It just hits all of the essentials that anyone looking for a phone should look for: decent performance, a good screen, and long battery life, all at a reasonable price.
The TCL brand is well-known for its affordable smart TVs, and the TCL 20S‘ vivid, 6.67-inch 1080p screen is no exception. The rear of the 20S is covered in a layer of fingerprint-resistant “micron-sized prismatic crystals,” which gives it a faint shine. It boasts a rapid fingerprint sensor incorporated into the power button, as well as the option of using face unlock.
THE $250 TCL 20S IS A SOLID CHOICE FOR THE BEST BANG FOR YOUR BUCK.
While the camera system on the 20S isn’t particularly impressive, its 64-megapixel main camera and 15-megapixel front camera are both capable to taking detailed photos in bright light — just don’t use them for night or macro photography.
The 20S has no discernible lag in speed for a cheap phone, thanks to its Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor and 4GB of RAM. It comes with 128GB of internal storage, a microSD card slot, a 3.5mm audio input, and a 5,000mAh battery that lasts for two days without needing to be recharged by default.
If you’re on a tight budget and want the most bang for your buck, the $250 TCL 20S is a good option that should function on all major 4G networks in the US.
For Android users looking for a new inexpensive phone with a stylus, the options are limited. Only Motorola’s Moto G Stylus remains to hold the line, with LG abandoning the smartphone industry and Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Note Ultra priced substantially higher.
The Moto G Stylus (2021) delivers the best blend of functionality and cost-cutting measures among the Motorola budget handsets we’ve lately evaluated. Whether you’re a stylus fanatic or just intrigued about them, it’s a good phone for the money. Motorola recently announced a 2022 version of the G Stylus, which we haven’t yet tried, but in the meantime, the 2021 edition is on sale for $200 while supplies last.
It sports a large 6.8-inch LCD display with 1080p quality, a 4,000mAh battery with exceptional battery life, and 128GB of internal storage. The G Stylus manages to keep up with the competition thanks to its Qualcomm Snapdragon 678 CPU and 4GB of RAM.
WHETHER YOU’RE A STYLUS DEVOTEE OR JUST STYLUS-CURIOUS ONCE IN A WHILE, IT’S A GOOD PHONE FOR THE PRICE. The cameras are adequate, despite their flaws. You won’t find a great night mode or top-notch picture quality here, but for a phone that costs less than $300, it’s quite adequate.
The stylus of the Moto G Stylus, like the Galaxy S22 Ultra, is incorporated into the device. When you pull it out, a brief menu of shortcuts to stylus-friendly apps, such as its coloring book app, appears.
There’s no telling how long Motorola will keep selling this second-generation Moto G Stylus, so if you’re looking for a low-cost phone with a built-in stylus, now is the time to buy.
For its low price of $140 (down from $160), the Motorola Moto G Pure does a lot of things well. It’s a 4G-only phone with a slower processor that makes everything from opening a web page to switching apps take a fraction of a second longer than most other inexpensive phones. However, it does come with a capable 13-megapixel rear camera and a long-lasting battery that should last most users for a whole day and far into the next.
The Moto G Pure only has 32GB of storage, which isn’t nearly enough when the Android operating system takes up over half of it. Thankfully, the microSD card slot allows you to expand your storage. If you don’t already have one, anticipate on spending an extra $15 or $20 on a microSD card when you buy this phone.
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