Top 5 budget phones in 2021 – Excellent performance, big screens, and all features you might need
While you need to invest a top dollar into the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S series, you can still get a lot from much more affordable phones. For $500 or less, you have many devices offering impressive performance, giant screens, or every feature you might need. If your budget is even tighter, I’ve also prepared phones for less than $300 or even $200. You’ll be surprised about their quality and performance, and the compromises they make may not even affect you. I wanted to focus on the widely available models, so you can get them today and for the best price.
|Google Pixel 4A||5.81″||12.2 MP||Snapdragon 730G|
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Apple iPhone SE||4.7″||12 MP||Apple A13 Bionic |
3 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Samsung Galaxy A51||6.7″||48 MP||Exynos 9611 |
4/6/8 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|OnePlus Nord N10||6.49″||64 MP||Snapdragon 690 5G|
6 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Moto G Power||6.6″||48 MP||Snapdragon 662|
3 GB/4GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Google Pixel 4A||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Apple iPhone SE||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Samsung Galaxy A51||SEE ON AMAZON|
|OnePlus Nord N10||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Moto G Power||SEE ON AMAZON|
What are the essential characteristics of the best budget phones under $500?
While buying a budget phone means that you have to make some compromises, all of them should include the following:
Decent battery – Powerful phone doesn’t mean much if you need to recharge it a couple of times per day. You don’t want a device that requires you to carry a charger with you all the time.
Quality screen – Budget phones can still have giant screens, but if the color reproduction and resolution are weak, then what’s the point?
Performances – Not all budget phones can compete with the flagship models, but all listed here run all current software. This includes not only your favorite apps but also games. While you’ll maybe have to lower visuals by a bit, they still play and look great.
Camera quality – Even if taking selfies is not among your favorite activities, having a decent camera is a must.
Internal storage – It’s great if the phone supports memory cards, but it’s even better if it all already has impressive internal storage, so you don’t have to make additional investment.
The best overall budget phone combines a fantastic display with an impressive camera
Google Pixel 4A specifications:
- Display: 5.81 inches OLED, 1080×2340
- Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 730G, 6 GB RAM
- Camera: 12.2 MP, f/1.7/ (rear), 8 MP, f/2.0 (front)
Excellent night mode
Not water resistant
No wireless charging
Google Pixel 3a was a fabulous phone, so I had high expectations from Pixel 4a. Of course, as this is not a premium model, I was ready for some trade-offs. However, it’s harder than ever to spot them. Still, one thing that’s easy to notice is the removal of glass and metal found on Pixel 5. Nevertheless, the chassis build is still impressive and feels solid in my hands. As for the design, the whole Pixel series is pretty conservative. However, bezels are thinner than on previous models. The only thing that’s in your face is a massive square camera patch. Still, one look at it, and you’ll see that this is a compact device, despite packing a pretty large screen.
The one thing you may not like is that this model is widely available only in black. There’s also a blue version, but it’s only available if you buy it on Google. The uniformity continues with the storage, as this phone comes only with a 128 GB option. This should be plenty of space for everyone, despite the device traditionally lacking a microSD card slot.
Beautiful OLED screen
OLED displays are still rare on budget-friendly phones, but Pixel 4a has one. Substantial 2340×1080 resolution only helps the 5.81-inch screen look even better! The color reproduction is fantastic with impressive brightness. However, the only way to maximize is to enable Adaptive Brightness. While I’m not a fan of it generally, it works very well, reaching 681 nits. The negatives are somewhat expected and include a slightly limited viewing angle and a 60 Hz display. Still, I don’t think that any of it matters.
When compared to its main rival, iPhone SE, Pixel 4a’s performance obviously lags. Still, Snapdragon 730G is well, snappy, and 6 GB of RAM is well above the average. In practice, the only limits are when it comes to gaming, as you’ll have to lower the details sometimes. Still, among the similarly priced Androids, Pixel 4a is the ultimate choice. The battery life is pretty average, but one charge should take you throughout the day. Plus, going from zero to 50 percent takes only slightly above 30 minutes!
The rear camera is rather impressive, despite the modest megapixel count. Photos look marvelous, though colors are slightly saturated. What makes the performance shine is the software which includes Night Mode and Super Res Zoom. Overall, this is the best camera phone on the test!
If you miss 5G connectivity and need a better gaming performance, there is a solution. Google Pixel 4A 5G has a more advanced Snapdragon 765G chipset and a slightly bigger 6.2-inch screen. However, the picture quality is identical. The 5G model includes a 16 MP wide-angle camera which might make a difference for you. Finally, the battery has a 3885hAh capacity, giving the more expensive model another slight advantage. The 5G model is $100 more, so it still fits easily in the budget category, and it’s a great choice. However, Google Pixel 4a remains the best buy.
The best alternative offering top performance
Apple iPhone SE specifications:
- Display: 4.7 inches Retina IPS LCD, 750×1334
- Chipset & RAM: Apple A13 Bionic, 3 GB RAM
- Camera: 12 MP, f/1.8 (rear)/ 7 MP, f/2.2 (front)
No headphone jack
With its iPhone SE, Apple finally has a winner in the budget-friendly market. The $399 retail price makes it compete against the best affordable Androids, but can this lone warrior take on all of them? Well, while I still rate Google Pixel 4a as a better overall device, the truth is that iPhone SE beats it in some aspects. This is a very compact phone which is all good and nice, but it does look outdated. By that, I mean that bezels are massive, making the already small screen even tinier. That’s too bad as the combination of glass and aluminum design would shine more otherwise.
The color choice is pretty decent, as it includes white, red, and black. Unlike Pixel 4a, iPhone SE comes with different storage options, starting with the 64 GB model. There are also 128 GB and 256 GB versions, though the last one is above our $500 limit. Of course, keep in mind that the device doesn’t have a card slot, so maybe a 64 GB model won’t be enough for you.
The speed that no Android can match
Of all the phones on the test, iPhone SE has the smallest screen. A 4.7-inch LED display at relatively modest resolution still surprises with excellent color reproduction that even slightly beats Pixel 4a OLED. As for the brightness, it goes above 600 nits, so it’s pleasant to look at outdoors. Despite the sub 1080p resolution, the details shine, so that’s much less of a problem than I’ve expected.
iPhone SE is an absolute beast when it comes to performance! The A13 Bionic chip introduced in iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro runs this one too, and it’s not crippled in any way. The gaming experience even beats Galaxy S20, so you can run pretty much any title. Video encoding annihilates Pixel 4a, as it’s up to three times faster. Also, 3 GB of memory might be the minimum on Android devices, but Apple uses it much better. A small 1821 mAh battery allows up to 13 hours of video playback. However, you’ll need to purchase an 18W charger separately if you’re not happy with the included 5W one.
A single 12-megapixel rear camera is rather impressive thanks to software including Smart HDR and Portrait Lighting. On the other hand, the lack of night mode makes it trail behind even Pixel 3a. However, you can record beautiful 4K 60 fps videos.
As the best performer on the test, iPhone SE is an excellent choice for gaming or other heavy-duty tasks, such as video editing. It’s also a very compact device, despite the pretty big bezels. While the camera is impressive, expect very modest results when shooting during the night. If speed is your priority, and you don’t care about the relatively small screen and lack of 5G support, iPhone SE is a terrific choice.
The best budget phone with a big screen
Samsung Galaxy A51 specifications:
- Display: 6.7 inches Super AMOLED, 1080×2400
- Chipset & RAM: Exynos 9611 4/6/8 GB RAM
- Camera: 48 MP, f/2.0 (rear)/ 32 MP, f/2.2 (front)
Beautiful and massive screen
External storage support
Available in many version
Lacks wireless charging
4 GB version can be sluggish at times
Having a phone with a massive screen is something that your eyes will be thankful for if you’re doing a lot of reading. If you need that, then Samsung A51 is the best budget phone from the company and the best cheap big-screen phone. The Samsung A as series was always an excellent choice, and it’s still comparable to the elite S line, despite being more affordable. Having a plastic body is one of the first compromises you’ll find, but this also means that if you drop it, it will take it much better than something made of metal and glass. Despite the material, the build quality is excellent, though this model ain’t water-resistant. The overall look is very modern, thanks to thin bezels. This makes it pretty compact, despite the impressive screen size.
The Samsung Galaxy A51 comes in so many versions that it’s hard to keep track of them all. The cheapest one has 4 GB RAM and 64 GB internal storage, which is barely enough. On the other hand, the top option includes 8 GB and 256 GB internal storage. My choice would be 6 GB RAM/128 GB or even 8 GB/128 GB if the price point is pretty close. If the internal storage becomes limited, you can expand via a microSD card. Also, you have a four-color choice, including black, white, blue, and pink.
Gorgeous and massive screen
You already know that A51’s main attraction is its screen. At 6.5 inches, it’s close as it can get to Samsung Note, and mentioned thin bezels make it even more impressive. Luckily, the size is not the only quality of this Super AMOLED display. The 1080 x 2400 resolution is impressive, with a maximum brightness of 565 nits. As expected, the viewing angles are limited, but it never really impacted me, unlike with budget TVs.
As for the performance, it seems that all cheap Androids in 2021 follow the same pattern. This means that they use a pretty average chipset, in this case, Exynos 9611. While you can still play games on it, A51 isn’t made for heavy-duty tasks. However, everyday performance is excellent, especially on models with 6 GB or more. At 4000 mAh, the battery is impressive, and the phone also comes with 15W fast charging.
The A51 has remarkable cameras, with wide-angle producing the best pictures. There’s no optical stabilization here, and the colors are a bit saturated, but you have more shooting options than on iPhone SE. However, the night mode is not nearly as impressive as on Google Pixel 4a. Finally, while you can film at 4K, the fps is limited to 30.
While it’s not a top performer, A51 has a massive and beautiful-looking screen and is also doing a great job taking photos. Headphone jack and microSD card slot is something to appreciate these days, although as on other budget-friendly Androids, it lacks water resistance or wireless charging.
The best budget phone under $300
OnePlus Nord N10 5G specifications:
- Display: 6.49 inches IPS LCD, 90Hz
- Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 690 5G, 6 GB RAM
- Camera: 64 MP, f/1.8 (rear)/ 16 MP, f/2.1
128 GB internal storage
Impressive battery life
The macro camera is useless
Budget phones rarely are 5G compatible, so it’s a miracle that the OnePlus Nord10 5G is, despite selling for under $300. While this sounds like the manufacturer had to make some wild compromises, this device still has much potential. This phone doesn’t look cheap with its polished and glossy design, despite not particularly thin bezels. Of course, it’s also heavier than the top models from OnePlus, but that shouldn’t really make a difference nowadays.
To make the manufacturing costs lower, OnePlus decided to offer a single model, but luckily, you can expand the storage via a memory card slot. However, 128 GB should be plenty of space for a long time. Nord N10 5G comes in a single color, labeled as Midnight Ice. Well, at least it’s not the usual black.
5G for less, but that’s not all
Another visible compromise is the screen, although, at 6.46 inches, it’s among the largest on the test. The LCD does have the above-average 90 Hz refresh rate for some smoother scrolling. While the technology is behind the usual AMOLED screens on OnePlus models, that’s really hard to notice in practice. Viewing angles are still decent, as well as the 440 nits brightness and the color reproduction. Also, no one will complain about the 1080×2400 resolution, identical to most phones listed here.
As expected, this is not a top-performing device, so it can’t keep up with Pixel 4a. However, Snapdragon 690 combined with 6 GB of RAM is still a decent combination for everyday use, and it doesn’t lag much. At 4300mAh, the battery capacity is excellent, lasting for two days with moderate use.
Similar to Samsung A51, N10 5G has four rear cameras. A monochrome camera has very limited use, while a 2-megapixel macro cam is pointless. On the other hand, ultra-wide and standard cams are excellent, providing sharp and vibrant pictures with an impressive digital zoom. There’s a night mode here (Nightscape), but the results are nothing to write home about. The recording is limited to [email protected], as expected.
If you need a cheap 5G phone and appreciate a large screen, there’s nothing better than OnePlus Nord 10 for under $300. Plus, it has a MicroSD card slot, headphone jack, and large storage. Just keep in mind that it won’t get a version upgrade after Android 11.
The best smartphone under $200, with an impressive battery life
Moto G Power specifications:
- Display: 6.6 inches IPS LCD, 720×1600
- Chipset & Memory: Snapdragon 662, 3 GB/4GB RAM, 32/64 GB storage
- Camera: 48 MP, f/1.7 (rear)/ 8 MP, f/2.0
Very long battery life
A decent camera
In 2020, Motorola already launched a phone named Moto G Power, but don’t confuse it with the one we’re going to talk about. This model is all about being dirt cheap while having a massive battery that’s far better than any other model on the test. Despite its low price tag, the device looks unique with its spiral pattern on the back, but thin bezels impress me even more.
Moto G Power comes in two versions. The sub $200 one has 3 GB RAM and only 32 GB. For $50 more, you’ll get a 4 GB RAM/64 GB storage version. In both cases, a MicroSD card slot is included. The color choice is also minimal and includes Flash Gray and Polar Silver. Finally, the device supports the headphone jack.
A champion of durability
As expected, Moto G Power has the most modest display on our test, as it’s an IPS LCD. The colors are still solid, but the 720p resolution (720×1600) means that the picture isn’t sharp on this massive 6.6-inch screen. At 438 nits, the brightness is tolerable and even better than the OnePlus Nord N10 5G.
Snapdragon 662 chipset certainly isn’t worthy of praise, but it’s still perfectly fine for watching YouTube videos, surfing the net, or even playing PUBG. While a 3 GB version is fantastic for the price, get a 4 GB edition if you can afford it. Whatever you do, you’ll feel a slight delay, but honestly, it’s hard to complain at this price. A gigantic 5000 mAh battery can easily last four or five days with moderate usage! Interestingly, this is the same capacity as found on Samsung S21, but as this far less powerful device, it’s much easier on the battery.
The 48-megapixel primary camera is better than expected, providing nice pictures when there’s a lot of daylight. Night Vision mode is very limited, so expect the results to look washed out. The same can be said about the color accuracy and the dynamic range. This is also the only phone on the test limited to 1080p video recording. Despite some severe cuts made, the results are still pretty decent.
Moto G Power delivers for the price, despite some cutbacks. The battery life is by far the best on the test, the camera is solid, as well as the design. Performance probably won’t bother you while surfing the web or watching videos, especially on the 4 GB version. Keep in mind that the phone comes with Android 10, and Android 11 is its only update.
The best budget phone – Frequently asked questions
Should I buy a refurbished phone?
You can often find phones at an attractive price, but be careful, as they are almost always refurbished! This means they are second-hand phones that had a significant flaw, like a cracked screen or dead battery. Of course, these phones are guaranteed to work and usually come with a 12-months guarantee, so you might be tempted to save money and choose them. However, even though there’s a high chance it will serve you well for years, don’t forget that you are taking a risk. Buy a refurbished phone only if they offer a year-long guarantee and come from respected companies doing the refurbishing. Also, if a refurbished model is not radically cheaper than the new one, I don’t think it’s worth it.
Should I save money by buying an older device?
Even big manufacturers continue selling their old phones, introduced three or four years ago. They indeed have an attractive price and even solid performance if they were top models once. However, stay away from these! The trouble is that these phones either don’t get software and security updates or will soon stop getting them. So no, an older iPhone like XR is not an excellent investment, no matter how limited your budget is. Whatever phone you are buying, make sure that it’s not on the market for more than two years.
How long should I use a phone before replacing it?
Well, I have great news for you, as the phone manufacturers won’t let you use it for more than three years on average, anyway. Why three years? Well, because that’s the average lifespan of the battery inside them! A long time ago, I had a Nokia phone for eight years, and I was quite happy with it. Yes, my battery died a couple of times, but I could easily replace it and buy a new one for a couple of bucks. Nowadays, finding a phone with a replaceable battery is impossible, and I’m not sure why this practice is even allowed.
In theory, you can find shops that will perform the delicate operation of replacing the battery for you, but that might not be cheap. The second thing is, you’ll still have to buy a new battery, and if you are lucky to find it, it might not be original and will probably die sooner. In short, even if you are perfectly happy with your device, when the battery is in bad shape, you’ll have to buy another one.
Apple or Android – Should I care about it when buying a budget phone?
Whenever we put these two in the same discussion, the result is an endless and entirely pointless debate. If you really don’t care about brands, then you have a considerable advantage. In short, iPhones generally offer the top build quality, and you know what you are getting. It also has much longer software support than most Android devices, including those made by Samsung. However, Apple can’t compete in the $300 or $200 market, so in that case, Android is the only choice. At around $400-500 iPhone becomes a viable option, as iPhone SE is a great choice. In short, the best pick for someone might not be the best for you!
What is the minimum amount of RAM I need to have on my phone?
In 2021, you shouldn’t consider a phone with only 2 GB of memory. These devices might be fast on factory settings, but even if you don’t install tons of background apps, they will be disappointingly slow after a couple of weeks or months. While 3 GB is already a considerably better choice, I wouldn’t suggest going below 4 GB.
How much storage do I need?
By this point, I really, really hope that people know the difference between storage memory and random access memory (RAM). Unless you are a massive photo and video enthusiast, 64 GB should be plenty, even though you should know that the phone will take up to 10% percent of that space even before you install anything. Finally, you should also check if the device supports SD cards. They are pretty cheap but also consistently slower than the internal memory. When buying an SD card, make sure you have the fastest one, especially if you love 4K videos!
What are the characteristics of a good phone cam?
Hopefully, you’ve heard this before, but the megapixel count is not a guarantee of quality. Some phones make massive images, but who cares if they are grainy or blurry? Instead, focus on optical image stabilization, aperture, and dual lenses. Don’t be afraid to take a picture when buying a phone in the store and see if it’s good enough for you.
Should I care about smartphone radiation?
News flash – every smartphone emits radiofrequency radiation, but that doesn’t mean it will hurt you. FDA believes that radiofrequency energy from your phone won’t give you cancer or any other health problems based on the current evidence. However, you can still easily reduce unnecessary exposure in several ways. For example, don’t sleep near your device or have it close to your body whenever you can. Also, speakerphone and headset are safer ways to make calls. The most important piece of advice is the most simple – use your phone only when you need it!
Buying guide for budget phones under $500
What is the best budget smartphone you can buy in 2021?
As a smartphone is something that’s pretty much with us all the time, it’s imperative to choose the one that’s the best for you. However, the device that is considered the best might not be the perfect choice for you. If you want something compact, you won’t get a Samsung A51. Also, if the performance is your top priority, none of these phones can hold a candle to Apple iPhone SE. However, among the devices we talked about, at least one should fit your needs.
Google Pixel 4a is currently the overall champion, as it’s the fastest among budget Android phones, has an excellent camera, and a beautiful OLED screen. Despite lacking MicroSD card support, 128 GB of internal memory should be enough for everyone. Also, let me remind you that Google phones are getting software updates for about four years, which is better than any other Android manufacturer. There’s also a slightly faster 5G version for $100 more.
iPhone SE is the best Apple budget phone ever, and while its design is a bit outdated, the build quality is the best on the test. This is the only device I tested that’s water-resistant! This is the fastest device on the test by far, so if you’re into gaming or are doing a lot of video manipulation, you’ll appreciate it. The camera is also terrific and even better than 4a, not counting the limited night mode. Skip it if you don’t want a smartphone with a small display, limited to 750p.
Samsung A51 is the best choice if you favor a high-resolution, massive screen using Super AMOLED technology. Plus, this is the best device if you need options, as it comes in many different versions. However, the one with 6 GB RAM/128 GB internal memory is currently the best choice. The performance is only average, but you won’t have trouble watching videos while surfing the net.
OnePlus Nord N10 5G is the only 5G device costing less than $300. While that’s its main claim to fame, you also get large internal storage and a massive screen. The battery is impressive, and the two main cameras provide results that won’t disappoint amateur photographers. However, don’t expect performances that will blow you away.
Moto G Power (2021) does make a couple of significant compromises, as it has a 720p screen and the average camera. On the other hand, performances are still good enough even for some gaming, while the battery life is unbeatable, as it can last for up to four days. At less than $200, you can even think about it as your secondary phone.
How to choose the best cheap smartphone in 2021?
Unless you really don’t want an Android phone or are looking for a compact device, Google Pixel 4a is a steal. For $100 more, you can get a slightly larger and faster 5G version. iPhone SE is the best alternative with its ultimate performance, compactness, and a great camera, although a night mode is limited.
Samsung A51 looks gorgeous thanks to its thin bezels, massive screen, and high resolution. It still is a decent performer, with a pretty powerful camera. At less than $300, OnePlus Nord N10 5G is the cheapest 5G solution and features a large 90Hz screen and an excellent camera.
Finally, if battery life is your priority, no one does it better than Motorola and its G Power. The performance is incredible for a device costing less than $200, and its 720p screen is the only significant drawback.