The $500 Pixel 4a 5G sets the benchmark for mid-range phones, but you can still go a lot cheaper. Google
As flagship devices from Samsung, Apple, Google, and OnePlus get more and more expensive, you might feel forced to keep up with the increased prices. But times have changed, and most phones under $500 offer the performance, battery life, and camera quality that used to be reserved for high-end handsets. In other words, you don’t need an expensive phone anymore.
“Downgrading” from a flagship to a mid-range or budget phone can be a little anxiety-inducing, especially if you’re a geek who loves cutting-edge features. But cheap phones can still feel like a solid upgrade thanks to improved camera tech, faster charging speeds, and other neat perks. Sure, you won’t get the groundbreaking features that come with $1,000 devices, but you may be surprised to see just how unimportant most of those exclusive features actually are.
Mid-Range Phones Rock
The OnePlus Nord N10 5G, a $300 phone that punches far above its weight. Andrew Heinzman
In our recent buying guide What’s the Least You Should Spend on a Smartphone, the standout devices all lay within the $300 to $500 range. That’s where “flagship” performance meets killer camera tech, flashy OLED displays, and the occasional 5G modem. Some devices, like the OnePlus Nord N10 5G, even throw 30-watt Warp Charging charging into the mix—but what does the average mid-range phone look like?
Let’s take a look at the Pixel 4a 5G. Released at the tail-end of 2020, the 4a 5G sets the benchmark for today’s mid-range phones. It sports a large 6.2-inch OLED HDR display, an unbeatable dual-camera array, a headphone jack, NFC for contactless payments, and an impressively snappy 5G-capable Snapdragon 765G processor. What more do you need?
Other mid-range phones dance around the Pixel 4a 5G’s specs, usually swapping camera quality or processing power for a larger display, a two-day battery life, wireless charging, flexible quad-camera arrays, ultra-fast wired charging, a 90hz refresh rate, and other perks.
And while you might assume that $300 phones offer slower performance than the $500 Pixel 4a 5G, that isn’t necessarily the case. The 4a 5G’s price tag is mainly a consequence of its 5G capabilities, which aren’t all that useful today. Cheaper 4G LTE devices like the standard Pixel 4a, the BLU G90 Pro, and the iPhone SE (2020) offer comparable performance at a much lower price. In fact, the iPhone SE (2020) contains the second-fastest mobile phone processor of all time, Apple’s A13 Bionic chip (bested only by the iPhone 12’s A14 chip).
This isn’t to say that mid-range phones are perfect. Manufacturers often skip wireless charging and IPX water-resistance ratings in mid-range phones to cut costs. (The iPhone SE is a notable exception.) Mid-range phones also tend to use older, less durable Gorilla Glass than their flagship alternatives. The Pixel 4a 5G, for example, uses Gorilla Glass 3, while the more expensive Pixel 5 has a Gorilla Glass 6 panel. These shortcomings won’t impact the average user’s experience, but they may be a turn off if you’re upgrading from a flagship device.
Today’s Cheap Phones Offer Years of Usability
The Pixel 4a 5G, a benchmark for mid-range phones. Michael Crider
One of the big selling points for flagship phones is that they last for a long time. Why buy a cheap phone every year when you can enjoy a flagship device for three or four years? In the not-so-distant past, I would agree with that argument. But today’s mid-range phones are here for the long haul thanks to their advanced performance and, depending on the manufacturer, guaranteed update cycles.
The big thing here is power and performance. So long as your phone has a decent processor (and most mid-range phones do), you shouldn’t have any trouble running your usual apps and games for the next few years. You’ll only run into problems with demanding applications, like 3D games, which grow more resource-hungry with every release.
But you don’t just want your phone to be usable, you also want it to keep up with new features and security patches. That’s why, if you plan to use a mid-range phone for more than 2 years, you may want to stick with Google, Samsung, or Apple. These companies guarantee 3 years of security updates and 2 years of OS updates (iPhones go a bit longer, with around 5 years of security and OS updates). While your phone doesn’t need the latest version of an OS to run your most-used apps, the regular OS updates can keep your phone feeling fresh, and extended security updates make you less vulnerable to hackers, bugs, and unsafe applications.
Budget phones in the $100 to $200 range still lack the lifespan of their mid-range and flagship counterparts, which is why I suggest a year-old mid-range device if you’re on a tight budget. It’s also worth pointing out that, while brands like OnePlus, LG, ASUS, Motorola, and Sony don’t commit to 3-year update cycles, their phones are usually more cost-effective than products from The Big Three, which may be a decent trade-off if you don’t care about OS updates or security patches.
Do You Really Need High-End Features?
The $1,000 iPhone 12 Pro—a pretty expensive phone! Justin Duino
Mid-range phones offer great performance and years of usability, and they often support features that were exclusive to flagships just two or three years ago. But what about all the cool cutting-edge features that come with a $1,000 phone? Isn’t that stuff worth the extra money?
Yeah, some flagship features are absolutely worth the money, but they probably aren’t the cutting-edge features that you’re thinking of. Like I mentioned earlier, flagships usually have tougher glass than their mid-range cousins, along with IPX water-resistance ratings and wireless charging. These perks are accompanied by brighter display technology, premium “clickly” buttons, high-quality speakers, better night photography, extra RAM for multitasking, and glass backs (although some flagships are pivoting to plastic, which is fine).
These are modest features make your phone more reliable, durable, and usable. They aren’t flashy or superfluous, and they give you a real reason to spend the money on a flagship device (or a flagship that’s a year or two old, if you don’t mind the limited manufacturer support). Cutting-edge flagship features, on the other hand, are rarely worth spending your money on. Foldable display tech is in its infancy, MagSafe charging is cool but unnecessary, and LiDAR is … well, it has a lot of potential, but app developers need to get serious about it first.
The two most compelling cutting-edge features are 120hz displays and 5G support, although both technologies eat up battery life and aren’t nearly as useful as they may seem. It’s true, 5G is faster than 4G LTE and will revolutionize the internet, but 5G networks (and especially the ultra-fast mmWave5G networks) won’t be available to the average person for another couple years. And while a 120hz display might make the animations on your phone look buttery-smooth, 60hz and 90hz displays look fine as it is.
While expensive flagships still have a place in the world, the benefits of buying a high-end device are questionable. Mid-range phones kick ass at half the price of their flagship counterparts, and often offer years of usability and guaranteed OS updates. Plus, flagship features aren’t as groundbreaking as they used to be, and may never impact the average person’s experience.
Tip: Shopping for a new phone? Be sure to check out the companion piece to this article, What’s the Least You Should Spend on a Smartphone. It provides an overview of the best phones at each at each price point so you can buy a killer device without breaking your budget.