Buying a phone for under $500 is a lesson in goal setting. It’s difficult to buy a phone that has everything at this price range, but fortunately, you will be able to buy a decent phone that will do the things that really matter the most to you.
The trend of improving cheap phones has been happening for some years now with companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung producing smartphones that can satisfy your needs for much less. Other businesses like TCL have started trying to develop their own brand by selling directly, and OnePlus is also making a comeback to the lower end of the market.
Something most people are searching for in a sub-$500 device is the same things people want in a flagship: long battery life, nice screen, good camera, and solid performance. It’s tough to get high straight As in every single one of those areas, but if you’re able to determine where you’ll accommodate the inevitable B grade, you’ll find a phone you’ll need.
GOOGLE PIXEL 4A
If you use Android, would like to spend perhaps less money, or do want the best camera, the obvious option is Google Pixel 4A. It will not have the largest screen or fastest processor, but it has a clean android operating System that promises app updates for at 3 years. It only arrives in one variant: $349-storage black with 128GB.
The Pixel 4A’s biggest claim to fame is its camera that can go head-to-head with smartphones costing $1,500 or more. That’s because Google does too much software image processing—the sensor itself is actually very old, not very special. The Pixel 4A will take pictures at night, do astrophotography, and have a pretty decent portrait mode. It can’t just hold for video with the iPhone SE, but still beats it for pictures.
The other Pixel 4A specifications are decent, but not brilliant. It has a 5.8-inch screen, enough RAM to prevent background apps from closing, and a headphone jack. No wireless charging, no stylish face unlocking, and the body is made of plastic rather than something more luxurious like glass. The Pixel 4A gives no water resistance ratings (but a splash of water is probably fine).
But the Pixel 4A is possibly the best bet to get an Android phone for cheaper than $500. Better tech support and a better camera for $350. There’s no bad deal.
APPLE IPHONE SE
The Apple iPhone SE 2020 is the phone that strikes camera balance, build quality, power, battery life, software, and durability for most people. Specifically, we recommend upgrading to the 128GB storage model for $449, which is $50 over the base price, but worth it long-term.
The iPhone SE implements a tried-and-tested formula. It has the exact body and 4.7-inch LCD screen that Apple has been carrying since the iPhone 6. That places the display on the lower end of screen sizes today and also indicates the phone’s bezels are bigger than everything else offered on the market.
But for that very similar phone body, you get a lot of benefits. The greatest part about the iPhone SE is its processor, Apple’s A13 Bionic. That counts because it is basically the best processor you could get on any phone, anywhere. Because that is the very same chip used in Apple’s $999-and-up iPhone 11 Pro. Usually, speed is not something that we emphasize at this price point on phones, but it’s good to have.
As a complete bundle, the 2020 iPhone SE is the best phone under $500 for most people. If you consider it on a cost-per-year metric, it winds up being considerably less expensive than the competitors as it is likely to last four, five, or even six years if you take good care of it. Likewise, it’s a decent phone on its own qualities. Access to the wide range of iOS apps, Apple’s clean iOS tech, and massive accessory ecosystem.
SAMSUNG GALAXY A51
Samsung’s $399 Galaxy A51 Android phone may well become the best selling phone of 2020. The Galaxy A50’s predecessor outshone all hopes. Samsung concentrated on a large screen, decent battery life, and a camera for the A51. The screen was right; the other two are perfect.
The A51’s 6.5-inch OLED show is bright and vibrant, and you’d have to be pretty persnickety to find fault with it. It doesn’t deliver the same high refresh rate you can get on the OnePlus Nord, but with Samsung’s great quality it compensates. If there’s one odd thing about the screen, for the front-facing selfie camera, Samsung puts a chrome bezel around the hole punch. It’s distractive.
The A51 sports good build quality, though you certainly feel it’s back plastic. It has a headphone jack and 128GB of storage, which is the amount to target on any phone these days. Thanks to a 4,000mAh battery, the battery life should be superb, but since it has to fuel the huge screen, it’s just like that.
However, what the A51 gets is a very large, very beautiful screen. If that’s your highest priority—and for many, it’s—the A51 is a solid option.
Technically, claiming the OnePlus Nord is less than $500 makes no sense since it’s not accessible in the US yet. However, if you live in a region where it’s available, the OnePlus Nord seems like the kind of phone that strives for a solid B in each group, rather than trying to ace one or two. For £379/€399, a healthy Android bet.
OnePlus Nord has a few features usually reserved for far more costly phones: support for 5G sub-6 networks and a 90Hz high-refresh monitor. If you live in a 5G area you will experience faster download speeds. But it’s the show that will profoundly affect your everyday experience. It makes it feel smoother and stronger.
You’ll miss wireless charging and a Nord headphone port, but they’re just the only major stuff that’s missing. The battery life is solid, the 6.44-inch screen is wide and stunning, and the app is less distracting than other rivals (although not as clean as Google’s). The £379/€399 model comes with 128GB storage and 8GB RAM, both great for this price range.
Often, phones have some crucial compromise you’re forced to accept to get the functionality you would like. There’s no huge flaw to work around with OnePlus Nord. Again it’s not available in the U.S. You can import it, but it isn’t recommended because it won’t support the right LTE bands.
TCL 10 PRO
TCL is probably most famous for its televisions but has long served as the smartphone white label maker. Now it’s trying to get famous in smartphones with new low-cost alternatives like the TCL 10L and the TCL 10 Pro. The Pro is the $449.90 upgrade select and retail, though you can often find it for less.
The 10 Pro seems to mean business. It’s thin, smooth, and gray instead of iridescent colors and large camera bumps. It has a 6.47-inch display, but this list feels smaller overall than other phones. You also get a headphone jack and a large 4,500mAh battery that should get you through a trouble-free day.
The best spec on the 10 Po is its 6GB RAM, which is enough for multitasking and should not shut down your new apps in the background. There’s also the required 128GB capacity.
Cameras are rather uninspiring: a 64-megapixel main sensor, an ultra-wide 16-megapixel, and a 5-megapixel macro. The pictures you’ll get will look over-processed even making images look fake.
Overall, the best thing about the TCL 10 Pro is it has plenty of RAM for multitasking and a thin, not bombastic form. If there’s a decent offer on one, it’s worth having a look.