Best cheap phone 2021: eight smartphones for under $500

Best cheap phone 2021: eight smartphones for under $500

If you’re shopping for a new phone on a budget, we’ve got good news: there are more great, affordable phones on the market than ever. Companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung are spreading the wealth of features enjoyed by their flagships down to less expensive options. Other brands like OnePlus are finding ways to challenge more established manufacturers with budget devices that make smart sacrifices to keep costs down.

The bad news is this makes the job of picking the best budget phone that much harder. Bear in mind that it’s impossible to buy a phone that does everything at this price point; instead, prioritize the features that matter most to you. You’ll have an easier time deciding, and you’ll end up with a great phone that you should be able to use for years to come.

Our pick for the best inexpensive iPhone is the 2020 edition of the Apple iPhone SE. Even though it’s well over a year old, we think it’s still the best bet for most people. While it does a competent job at everything, its standout feature is that it should last four or more years if treated well.

If you’re looking for the best cheap Android phone, then the Google Pixel 5A is our top choice right now. You won’t find a big, show-stopping screen here, or bells and whistles like a fast refresh rate screen. Instead, you get a phone that covers the basics really well, plus IP67 waterproofing and timely software updates — all at a lower price than last year’s model.

What most people are looking for in a sub-$500 smartphone are the same things people want in a more expensive model: long battery life, good screen, good camera, and decent performance. It’s difficult to get high straight A’s in every single one of those categories, but if you’re able to decide where you’ll tolerate the occasional B grade, you’ll find a phone you’ll love.

Google Pixel 5A

You won’t find any bells and whistles like a big, fast-refresh rate screen, but the Pixel 5A does the basics very well with IP67 water resistance, a great camera, and timely software updates.

The Apple iPhone SE is a great choice if you want a phone that lasts for years.

The Apple iPhone SE is a great choice if you want a phone that lasts for years.

The best smartphone under $500

The phone that strikes the right balance of camera, build quality, speed, battery life, software, and longevity for most people is the Apple iPhone SE 2020. Even though it’s over a year old now, it should still give you an excellent return on your investment. We recommend upgrading to the model with 128GB of storage for $449, which is $50 over the base price but well worth it long term.

The iPhone SE follows a very tried and true formula. It has the same body and 4.7-inch LCD screen that Apple has been using since the iPhone 6. That puts the display on the smaller end of screen sizes today and also means the phone’s bezels are bigger than anything else sold on the market. High refresh-rate screens with smoother animations and scrolling have been trickling down into the budget class recently, and you definitely won’t find one here.

It’s a familiar design and not one that screams “modern.” But in exchange, you get a lot of value. The 2020 SE is part of the iPhone 11 generation, so its A13 Bionic processor is a year behind the latest and greatest. (That would be the A14 chipset in the iPhone 12 lineup.) However, it’s still one of the fastest processors you can get on any phone, but especially one in this price bracket. Normally, speed isn’t something we prioritize on phones at this price point, but it’s nice to have.

Why that processor really matters, though, is overall longevity. Apple consistently supports its phones for four or more years with software updates. (That’s in opposition to Android, where getting software updates on anything but the Pixel is still a struggle.) So Apple’s choice of a fast processor means, in a few years, the iPhone SE will still feel snappy and still be supported with iOS updates.

Battery life is good but not best in class. It should last about a day. Luckily, this iPhone supports wireless charging, which is still uncommon at this price point. And because it has the exact same shape as the iPhone 6, 6S, 7, and 8, there is a huge ecosystem of chargers and cases for it. Unlike many inexpensive Android phones, finding compatible accessories for the iPhone SE will be a breeze.

The iPhone SE has just one camera on the back and just one selfie camera on the front, 12 megapixels and 7 megapixels, respectively. Neither is great by 2021 standards, but both are significantly better than what Apple shipped in older iPhones. It’s also fairly good by the standards of sub-$500 phones, though the Google Pixel 4A continues to win this category by a knockout. You will get a lot of camera features on the iPhone SE, including portrait and HDR, but unfortunately, there is no night mode.

As a total package, the 2020 iPhone SE is the best smartphone under $500 for most people. If you think of it on a cost-per-year metric, it ends up being significantly less expensive than the competition because it’s likely to last four or five years if you take care of it. Just as importantly, it’s a great phone on its own merits. You get access to the vast array of iOS apps, Apple’s strong support network, and a huge ecosystem of accessories.

The Pixel 5A’s 6.34-inch screen isn’t huge, but it’s just big enough to not look out of place next to the 6.5-inch competition.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

The best budget Android phone

The $449 Pixel 5A features a 6.34-inch OLED screen that’s on the smaller side for the budget class, but it’s bigger than the previous-gen 6.2-inch panel on the Pixel 4A 5G. There’s a bigger battery too, a 4,680mAh cell that will last through a full day of heavy use and well into day two if you’re a lighter user. The 5A also offers IP67 water resistance for added peace of mind in the event of accidental spills or tumbles into the water.

That’s more or less the extent of the 5A’s improvements over its predecessor, and that’s fine. The 4A 5G was already a well-equipped midrange device and the 5A makes some strategic updates to its foundation. The dual standard / ultrawide rear-facing camera, Snapdragon 765G processor, and 6GB RAM / 128GB storage combination served the 4A 5G well and still deliver solid performance in this iteration.

Another thing we can count on Pixel phones to do well is software, and the 5A is no exception. It ships with Google’s own Android 11 OS and is refreshingly free of the added clutter that other manufacturers sometimes pile onto it. The Pixel 5A is also guaranteed three years of OS platform upgrades and security updates, which isn’t quite as long as Apple or Samsung’s standard software support timespan, but is certainly better than a lot of the Android competition.

There’s also, of course, 5G connectivity. You won’t get the super-fast mmWave flavor of 5G support, but that’s a highly range-limited network that’s still pretty hard to find. That’s fine, but there’s a weird question mark over whether Google will support another set of frequencies that AT&T and Verizon will start using later this year called C-band. The company isn’t committing to making the necessary software update to use it, despite supporting it in hardware. It’s a strange blemish on the 5A’s otherwise strong feature set.

The 5A is also getting somewhat of a limited release — it’s only available in the US and Japan, and isn’t being sold through any of the major US wireless carriers. Taking all of that into consideration, the Pixel 5A is still the inexpensive Android phone that we’d recommend to most people. It’s not flashy, but it’s well priced and has it where it counts.

The Galaxy A52 5G offers a 120Hz fast refresh-rate screen.

The best budget Android phone with a fast refresh-rate screen

On the Android side, the Galaxy A52 5G is a great option, albeit at the very top of the price range considered in this guide. It includes some features that aren’t too common in a budget phone, like its fast-refresh rate screen, an IP67 water resistance rating, and for now at least, monthly security updates for fast access to bug fixes and improvements.

The A52 5G’s 6.5-inch screen is an OLED panel that’s bright with good contrast that’s generally nice to look at. But its best feature is a subtle one: a 120Hz refresh rate that gives a much smoother appearance to animations and content as you swipe and scroll through menus and social feeds. We’ll likely see this feature make its way into more budget phones soon, but for now the A52 5G is one of only a few to offer better than the standard 60Hz screen in its class, and it makes the experience of using the phone that much nicer.

The phone overall performs well for its class with a Snapdragon 750G processor and 6GB of RAM. You may notice the occasional hesitation or stutter with heavy tasks, but otherwise everyday scrolling, app switching, and navigating is handled easily. And even with a power-hungry display, the Galaxy A52 5G’s 4,500mAh battery should get you through at least a day of moderate to heavy use before needing another charge.

One of the A52 5G’s not-so-bright-spots is Samsung’s current take on Android, which puts a lot of pre-downloaded apps on your phone that you probably don’t want, and it even includes the occasional ad in places like the native weather app. For a cleaner or more grown-up Android skin, look to the Pixel or OnePlus. The Galaxy A52 5G’s camera is another consideration: it’s capable, but it tends toward an oversaturated look. If you prefer a more natural look to your photos, then the Pixel 4A is the winner here.

There’s also 5G, which we still don’t think is a feature you should run out and buy a new phone for, but it is nice to have the support here — particularly if you plan to hold on to your phone for a few years. This device doesn’t support super-fast mmWave 5G, but it’s hard to come by so that’s not a huge loss. Importantly, it supports more widely available sub-6GHz bands and should be able to take advantage of improving 5G networks in the US over the next few years.

You can buy a much less expensive device to get you through the next couple of years, and that’s just fine. But if you do want to make more of an investment in a phone that you can keep using three or four years from now, the A52 5G is your best bet right now on Android.

Samsung Galaxy A52 5G

The Galaxy A52 5G offers a great screen, healthy battery life, and a generous timeline for security updates that should ensure you’ll get many years out of your investment.

The Google Pixel 4A has an incredible camera.

The Google Pixel 4A has an incredible camera.

The best “get it while you can” affordable Android phone

If you want to spend a little less money, or just want the best camera, then the Google Pixel 4A is the obvious choice. Its screen is on the small side, lacks 5G support, and it doesn’t have the fastest processor, but it does have a clean version of Android and is first in line for updates from Google. The 4A came out in August last year, but it’s still guaranteed to get software updates until at least August 2023. It comes in either black or baby blue with 128GB of storage for $349 but you’ll have to act fast if you want one — with the Pixel 5A and Pixel 6 debuting this fall, Google won’t be selling the 4A for much longer.

The Pixel 4A’s main claim to fame is its camera. It’s based on generation-old technology at this point, but it’s still the best in this class and it can go head-to-head with smartphones that cost $1,000 or more. That’s because Google does so much of the image processing in software. (The sensor itself is actually quite old and not very special.) That means the Pixel 4A can take night photos, do astrophotography, and has a passable portrait mode.

The rest of the Pixel 4A’s specs are good but not great. It has a 5.8-inch screen, just enough RAM to keep apps from closing in the background, and a headphone jack. There’s no wireless charging, no fancy face unlock, and the body is made out of plastic instead of something more premium like glass. The Pixel 4A doesn’t even offer any IP water resistance ratings (but a splash of water is probably fine).

The Pixel 4A uses Google’s version of Android, which means it’s easy to navigate and free of extra stuff you probably don’t want. More importantly, it means that Google can supply the software updates directly instead of waiting for another manufacturer or carrier to approve it, putting you first in line for Android updates.

Unfortunately, in a little over a year’s time, it’s quite likely that the Pixel 4A will be slowing down. Android phones generally don’t last quite as long as iPhones do because Android tends to bog down on older hardware more quickly. The Pixel 4A’s processor is fast enough today to not be a bother, but over time, it’s possible that it won’t age well.

But for all that, the Pixel 4A is probably the safest bet if you want to get an Android phone for well under $500. You’ll get better software support and a better camera for $350. Not a bad deal — while you can still find it.

Google Pixel 4A

A very inexpensive smartphone with one of the best cameras for photography you can get on any smartphone at any price.

The Nord 2 covers the essentials with a couple of nice touches, like a 90Hz screen.
Photo by Jon Porter / The Verge

A great midrange option if you’re outside the US

The OnePlus Nord 2 isn’t sold in the US, and that’s our loss because this follow-up to the original Nord checks all the right boxes for its £399 / €399 price. Even more so than last year’s model, the Nord 2 feels like a pared-down flagship that covers all of the basics well, with (almost) nothing that you don’t need.

The Nord 2 offers a 6.43-inch display with 90Hz refresh rate — a bit faster than the standard 60Hz, but not quite the buttery smoothness of a 120Hz screen. We were a little apprehensive of the MediaTek Dimensity 1200-AI chipset that OnePlus has opted for in favor of proven Snapdragon processors, but in testing, it was more than adequate for daily tasks.

The 4,500mAh battery will comfortably get you through a full day’s use, and although there’s no wireless charging included (not a surprise at this price), OnePlus’ signature fast wired charging is supported. With the included charger, you can power the phone from zero to fully charged in well under an hour.

OnePlus’ unfussy UI is another strong point. The Nord 2 ships with OxygenOS 11.3, and is the uncluttered, unfussy experience we’ve come to expect from OnePlus. The company says it will offer two OS upgrades and three years of security support for the Nord 2, which is a good, if not great update policy.

You won’t find the Hasselblad branding of the OnePlus 9 flagships on the Nord 2’s cameras, and that’s no great loss. What you do get is a capable camera system consisting of a 50-megapixel main stabilized rear camera, an 8-megapixel ultrawide, and a questionably useful 2-megapixel monochrome sensor, along with a 32-megapixel selfie camera. Image quality is good all around — photos from the main camera lean into a slightly saturated, punchy look, but nothing distracting. Low-light photos aren’t up there with the Pixel’s, but they work in a pinch.

It’s a shame that US customers can’t pick up the Nord 2 (technically you can import it, but it won’t work properly on our wireless bands so it’s not recommended), because it’s an ideal midrange device in a lot of ways. Our loss is the rest of the world’s gain.

OnePlus Nord 2

The Nord 2 offers a pared-down flagship experience with enough processing power to keep up with your daily tasks.

The N10 5G is priced well under $500.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

If you want an inexpensive 5G phone

At $299, the N10 5G is well below the threshold for this category. Given its price, you might expect to see some significant sacrifices compared to a $400 or $500 phone, and OnePlus has made a few. But they’re smart sacrifices that add up to a device that’s really quite good for the money.

You won’t find a fantastic screen here, although its large 6.46-inch LCD does come with a faster-than-average 90Hz refresh rate. Worth noting is the device’s somewhat “tall” 20:9 aspect ratio, which is a little unusual at first glance but makes the phone slightly narrower and easier to use with one hand. Its processor is capable enough, though it sometimes shows its limits. It also ships with Android 10, which OnePlus says it will update to 11, and is only offering two years of security updates in addition to that.

On the camera side, the N10 offers a 64-megapixel main camera that’s surprisingly good in daylight and even moderately low light. There’s an 8-megapixel ultrawide, too, along with macro and monochrome cameras that aren’t really worth talking about. It’s not Pixel 4A-level good, but if you don’t push it too hard, the N10’s main camera takes good photos in the right light.

The Samsung Galaxy A32 5G is also well worth considering in this price bracket for two very good reasons: it’s a bit less expensive and will be supported with security updates for the next four years. However, it lacks some of the N10’s nice features like a faster refresh rate screen, the camera isn’t as good, and its software feels more cluttered and bloated. The A32 5G is a better pick if you want to hang on to your phone for as many years as possible, but the N10 is a more likable device overall.

If budget is a major consideration, the N10 5G is about as good as it gets at this price. It offers the future-proofiness of sub-6GHz 5G support, a thoroughly decent camera, good battery life, a capable processor, and a fairly clean implementation of Android. It’s not a standout in any one way, but as a total package, it’s very hard to argue with its capabilities at this price.

The 2021 Moto G Power offers days-long battery performance but makes a lot of sacrifices for it.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

The budget phone with maximum battery life

The Moto G Power does exactly what it says it will: provide days and days of power on a single charge, thanks to its larger-than-average 5,000mAh battery. This is a slightly different version of last year’s phone with the same name, and it starts at a lower $200 price.

The lower price tag does come with trade-offs. It includes just 32GB of built-in storage, so adding a microSD card for some extra space is a must. There’s also a slightly slower processor on board, and while it’s capable enough for all of your daily needs, it’s a little laggy jumping between apps and opening the camera.

As for the camera: it’s just okay. Motorola did away with the ultrawide in this year’s models, so you’ll just be working with the 48-megapixel standard wide and 2-megapixel macro cameras in addition to an 8-megapixel selfie cam. Photos in bright outdoor light look good with plenty of detail, though colors can be a little washed out. The camera struggles with high-contrast scenes and low light, but all things considered, it’s fine for a $200 phone.

If top-notch battery performance is an extremely important feature in your smartphone, then the Moto G Power should be on your shortlist. It’s capable, and you really will get multiple days of battery life on a charge. But if you’re fine getting by on a battery that’s just average, then we think you’ll be happier with a more well-rounded device.

The Moto G Play covers all of the basics for well under $200.

The best phone under $200

There are plenty of options for those shopping on a tighter budget, but the Motorola Moto G Play is the one that stands out to us. It covers the basics well with a big 5,000mAh battery and a Snapdragon 460 processor that does a good enough job handling daily tasks.

The G Play has a generously sized 6.5-inch screen. It’s a lower-resolution panel at 720p and is difficult to see outside in direct light, but it’s more or less just fine. Camera specs are likewise basic: there’s just one rear-facing 13-megapixel camera that performs well in bright light but isn’t well suited for low-light photography.

You’ll also want to strongly consider a microSD card purchase with this phone. It only includes 32GB of built-in storage, a lot of which is already occupied by system files. Motorola has only promised security updates for two years, but realistically, the G Play isn’t built to last much longer than that.

It has its shortcomings — the G Play’s performance doesn’t keep up with many phones that are just $50-100 more expensive, for example — but it’s hard to argue with what it does offer for its price: good, basic performance without any major flaws. If there’s flexibility in your budget to spend a little more, you’ll get some meaningful upgrades, like a better camera or a longer-lasting device. But for its price, the G Play does just what it needs to.

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