The best phones under $500

Phone makers are trying to outdo one another by racing to add new, advanced features to their flagships, but these tools are not equally useful. Who really needs Face ID, Animoji or eye-sensing authentication? Some of us just want a good, no-frills phone. Plus, not everyone can or wants to spend almost a thousand dollars on something we’ll trade in after two years. For these people, there’s a range of options from truly basic sub-$ 250 phones to more powerful mid-range devices that can be had for less than $ 500. The latter group is better described as aggressively priced flagships that can serve you almost as well as their costlier counterparts — and there’s now a decent selection to consider.

What to expect

Although they cost hundreds less than their premium counterparts, mid-range phones often feature the same (or comparable) components. The best sub-$ 500 handsets use the latest CPUs and run the newest software, and some even offer amenities like nearly bezel-less displays and facial recognition. Some of these devices even outdo flagships when it comes to things like RAM capacity and software customization options.

What you might miss, however, is cutting-edge features like pressure-sensitive home buttons, depth-sensing infrared cameras and slow-motion video capture at higher rates than others. Those can be nice to have, but you’re unlikely to miss them. All told, you’ll find that these sub-$ 500 phones are almost as capable as a flagship twice the price.

The best phones under $ 500

OnePlus 5T ($ 499)

Chris Velazco/Engadget

After years of honing its line of affordable flagships, OnePlus delivered a truly great phone in the OnePlus 5. And, come November 21st, it’ll be replaced with something better. The just-announced OnePlus 5T sports a bigger 6-inch, nearly bezel-less screen with an 18:9 aspect ratio like those on pricier phones. It also makes use of a surprisingly fast face-recognition unlocking system that could take on Apple’s Face ID. OnePlus also improved the dual-camera system that we already liked on the 5, while continuing to use the premium Snapdragon 835 chipset found in most contemporary flagships. Oh, and you’ll still find a headphone jack here, which should please those of you who are resistant to change.

Chris / Velazco

Moto Z2 Play ($ 499)

Motorola continues to excel at making budget-friendly phones — so much so that it won two spots on this list. The Z2 Play is the slightly more advanced of the pair, with its razor-thin design and compatibility with Motorola’s “Moto Mods” line of bolt-on accessories. You can snap these accessories onto the Z2 Play to add a JBL speaker, a projector or an Amazon Alexa speaker, giving the phone more functionality. On its own, the phone offers decent performance, thanks to its octa-core Snapdragon 626 chipset, while its 12-megapixel rear camera makes use of dual-pixel focus technology that results in fast speeds. As with other Motorola phones, the Z2 Play comes with the company’s useful software additions, including Moto Display, which allows you to check notifications without waking your phone. Motorola also coated the device with a water-repellent material to help keep it safe in wet conditions. The Z2 Play doesn’t offer the same epic battery life as its predecessor, the original Z Play, but it’s good enough to get you through the day.

Chris Velazco / Engadget

Essential PH-1 ($ 450)

You may not have heard of Essential, but the new company from the creator of Android drew plenty of attention within the tech world. Its debut product, the Essential PH-1, was designed to be a top-of-the-line device without “unnecessary features.” The phone crams flagship-level components like a Snapdragon 835 chipset, 128GB of storage and a quad HD display into a dense, sturdy body. The PH-1 is also the first handset to sport a notch where its camera juts into its all-screen front (sorry, Apple), which should give you some bragging rights if that stuff matters to you. Its dual 13-megapixel cameras work well in optimal light but are merely serviceable in dark situations, so if you intend to take a lot of pictures at night, you should look elsewhere. Those who want to keep using their wired headphones should keep looking too, since the PH-1 doesn’t have an audio jack. Although some glitches kept the PH-1 from living up to the hype surrounding its launch (and triggered a price cut from $ 699 to $ 450), it’s still a compelling phone — you’ll be getting what’s essentially a $ 700 flagship at practically half the price.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Moto X4 ($ 400)

The Moto X4 trades in Mod compatibility for dual cameras, landmark recognition and built-in Alexa. Amazon’s assistant not only identifies you by voice but also answers your questions without waking the phone (so long as it’s you asking, not someone else). The X4’s 12-megapixel camera is capable, considering the price, and its landmark-detection feature provides potentially helpful information about historic buildings that it sees through the lens. The phone also meets IP68 standards for water resistance, meaning it can survive a dip for up to 30 minutes. Its Snapdragon 630 processor and 5.2-inch full HD display are also adequate for the money. My favorite thing about the X4, though, is its shiny, eye-catching design, which makes it look and feel more expensive than it is.

Will Lipman / Engadget

iPhone SE ($ 349)

Sure, the iPhone SE is due for an update, but as the only sub-$ 500 iPhone available, it’s the best choice for Apple fans on a budget. If you can overlook its dated design, the iPhone SE is a capable phone that performs well despite (or thanks to) its now two-year-old A9 processor. Its compact 4-inch size also makes it a strong option for those who prefer something smaller. Plus, Apple recently doubled the iPhone SE’s storage, which is another bonus. You’ll also like the 12-megapixel rear camera, which delivers accurate colors and crisp details, but its 1.2-MP front-facer will disappoint selfie lovers.

Honorable mention

ASUS ZenFone 4 ($ 349)

Also worth a look is the ASUS ZenFone 4, which stands out for its 12-megapixel dual cameras, which can save pictures as RAW files. It also features a dual-pixel sensor for faster autofocus, along with optical image stabilization and Portrait mode for artificial bokeh. The secondary sensor on its back side uses a wide-angle lens in the same vein as the LG G6, allowing you to capture landscapes and skylines more easily. The rest of the phone’s specs are typical for the price: a Snapdragon 630 processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Its 5.5-inch full HD IPS display can get pretty bright too, with a max setting of 600 nits. Some people might not like ASUS’s ZenUI skin, which runs on top of Android 7 Nougat, but camera aficionados who can put up with a slightly different (and cartoonish) UI might find the ZenFone 4 compelling.

HTC U11 Life ($ 349)

I sincerely hope “squeezable” sides won’t spread to smartphones other than the HTC U11 and the Google Pixel 2, but I have to admit they can be helpful at times. On the HTC U11 Life, pressure-sensitive edges detect when you’re squeezing the phone, and launch your designated apps. You can also set this to perform specific actions within some apps, like zooming out in Google Maps, which is more useful than the Pixel’s implementation. In addition to this novelty feature, the U11 Life packs a Snapdragon 630 chipset, a 5.2-inch full HD screen and built-in Alexa support. Each U11 Life also comes with a pair of HTC’s uSonic earbuds, which tunes audio based on the shape of your ear, making it an even better deal overall. But the reason for these is the missing audio jack on the U11 Life, so be aware that you won’t be able to plug in wired earbuds before you decide.

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The best phones under $250

The iPhone X: $ 999. The Galaxy Note 8: $ 930. Even the more affordable Google Pixel 2 commands a significant investment of $ 650. Today’s flagship phones are expensive enough that spending a significant chunk of your rent on a handset is seemingly the norm. You can opt for an installment plan to pay it off more easily, and for some people it’s worth paying a service provider for two years to own one of the best devices available. But many other people can’t afford, or would prefer not, to spend that much money on something they’ll replace in two years (or less). Fortunately for the budget-conscious, you can find a better selection of phones for $ 250 than you could even a few years ago.

What to expect

Before we get into the best phones at this price, let’s talk expectations. First off, many of the devices we’re discussing come unlocked, so it’s imperative that you check to see if they’ll work on your carrier before you buy one. Many unlocked handsets are only GSM-compatible, so they’ll support only AT&T, T-Mobile and their subsidiaries. Sprint and Verizon customers should be especially careful when making their selections.

At this price, you’re not going to get high-end features like face-recognition cameras, curved screens or high-res, edge-to-edge displays. Most of these phones use older chipsets and often run Android 6 Marshmallow instead of the newer Android 7 Nougat (which itself is no longer the latest OS).

For daily use, you won’t really notice a difference in speed with these phones, but don’t expect much if you’re using these for heavy-duty gaming or intensive multitasking. If that’s going to be a problem, you’re better off getting a flagship phone on an equipment installment plan (EIP) instead.

Flagships on a budget

You can still get a premium phone for cheap if you have the time and patience to monitor deal listings. Some carriers and websites slash prices for older (but still perfectly respectable) phones in anticipation of new launches or when approaching the holiday season. If you can wait till Black Friday, you’ll probably find plenty of deals bringing down the cost of usually expensive phones. In 2016, T-Mobile offered the iPhone 7, the Galaxy S7 and the LG V20 for free to people who traded in eligible smartphones, while Huawei’s Honor 8 dropped that year from $ 400 to $ 300. Right now, you can even find an iPhone SE ($ 399 at launch) for less than $ 250, or the older (but still good) HTC One M8 for $ 160. A Google search for “iPhone SE” returns options as low as $ 150 at Target for an AT&T version in space gray with 16GB of storage.

Affordable by design

If you weren’t fast enough to snag one of those deals, you still have decent options. Bright, crisp screens with full HD (1080p) displays are common at this price, so don’t fall for cheap phones with piddly 720p panels. Sub-$ 250 phones run the gamut when it comes to size, too, so you can pick from a big 5.5-inch screen down to a more compact 4.7-inch option. Many budget handsets also pack fingerprint sensors, long-lasting batteries, and dual cameras for special effects in portrait photography (although these tend to pale in comparison with iPhones and Samsung phones when it comes to quality).

The best budget phones

Motorola Moto G5S Plus

smartphone affordable budget

One of the best offerings is the $ 230 Moto G5S Plus. It’s the successor to the Moto G5 Plus, which was already our favorite budget phone. The new handset features a 5.5-inch 1080p display, dual rear 13-megapixel cameras and a generous 3,000mAh battery, all wrapped in a body that feels more expensive than it actually is. The phone uses an octa-core Snapdragon 625 chip that can go up to 2.0GHz, which is powerful enough for the average person and quite good for the price. It also runs the relatively new Android 7.1 Nougat and works on all four major US carriers. The main downside is the absence of NFC support, so if you like using your phone for contactless payments, this isn’t going to work for you.

Nokia 6

In that case, you can consider the $ 230 Nokia 6, which has NFC and runs the same version of Android as the G5S Plus. It features dual front-facing speakers with a “smart amplifier” and Dolby audio enhancements for louder sound. The Nokia 6 sports a single 16-megapixel camera on its rear, though, and uses a slower Snapdragon 430 processor. Also, it’s unfortunately stuck in the past with its micro-USB charging port. That’s a minor complaint, but when the rest of the world has already moved on to USB-C, it feels like an antiquated feature. Still, the Nokia 6 offers newish components for a reasonable price, and if you don’t mind getting Amazon ads on your lock screen, the Prime exclusive version of the phone is even cheaper, at $ 180.

Alcatel Idol 5s

Also available as a Prime exclusive is the Alcatel Idol 5s ($ 200 with ads; $ 280 without), which has a vibrant 5.2-inch, a 1080p screen and a USB-C port and runs Android 7. Like the Nokia 6, the Idol 5s has only a single 12-megapixel rear camera, but it uses the faster Snapdragon 625 processor (the same chip used in the Moto G5S Plus). Alcatel’s handset has a smaller battery than the Nokia 6 and the G5S Plus, though, so you might need to charge it more often. The Idol 5s looks and feels like a lot of Alcatel’s previous handsets, with a rounded silhouette, chrome edges and a glass rear. Despite a slightly dated design, the Idol line is known for its good quality and affordable prices. Plus, this is one of the few budget phones to support all four major US carriers while packing a well-rounded feature set.

ZTE Blade V8 Pro

The ZTE Blade V8 Pro is a compelling option. It sports a 5.5-inch 1080p display and dual 13-megapixel rear cameras that enable Portrait mode for bokeh on your photos, although you won’t get iPhone-quality images here. The Blade V8 Pro isn’t as adept at detecting outlines when applying the blur, but in ideal conditions it pulls off the effect well. I liked the phone’s sturdy build when I tried it out in January, but it’s not as pretty as the other options on this list. The V8 Pro is equipped with the same Snapdragon 625 chip as the Moto G5S Plus and the Idol 5s, but it runs the older Android 6 Marshmallow instead. It does support NFC, though, making it one of the few on this list to do so and a good option for people who don’t want to give up Android Pay.

Runners-up

Huawei Honor 6x

There are several other options in this space, but we’ll cap off this roundup with two quick mentions. Huawei’s Honor 6x is very similar to the ZTE Blade V8 Pro: It has dual cameras, runs Android 6.0 and features a 5.5-inch full HD display. But it doesn’t support NFC and it costs $ 20 more. Also, Huawei’s EMUI Android skin makes the software look cartoonish, despite adding useful fingerprint sensor shortcuts. The main reason to spend more for this phone over the Blade V8 Pro would be the Honor’s more elegant metal body.

ZTE Blade ZMax

Finally, those who want a big screen at this price should consider ZTE’s Blade line of affordable large phones. In particular, the Blade ZMax sports a 6-inch full HD display, dual cameras and a large 4,080mAh battery for $ 129. It’s also impressively slim for such a large phone and was easy to use with one hand during a brief demo. Some caveats: It uses a relatively slower octa-core Snapdragon 435 CPU and is available only via MetroPCS for now, but we expect it to be sold unlocked soon as well.

Final thoughts

With all the improvements trickling down from high-end flagships to today’s budget phones, shopping for a sub-$ 250 device no longer feels like digging through a bargain bin of iPhone rejects. They won’t be the fastest or have the best cameras, but the options in this category are respectable handsets with relatively modern features. If you have a bit more cash to spare, you’ll find even better phones in the sub-$ 500 category that are nearly on par with flagships in terms of performance. We’ll be putting together those recommendations soon, so stay tuned.

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