The best smartphone 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 just 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 Samsung Galaxy A52 5G is your best bet right now. It comes with an excellent 6.5-inch screen with 120Hz fast refresh rate, still a rarity at this price point. Even better, Samsung says it will offer four years of security updates, including three years of major OS upgrades. The A52 5G isn’t the cheapest — it’s priced right at $500 — but that healthy support policy means you’ll get many years out of your investment.

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.

Apple iPhone SE (2020)

  • $399

The best smartphone under $500 for 2021.

  • $399

    at Apple

  • $399

    at Amazon

Samsung Galaxy A52 5G

  • $499

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.

  • $499

    at Samsung

  • $450

    at Best Buy

The best smartphone for under $500 in 2021

1. Apple iPhone SE

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.

As a total package, the 2020 iPhone SE is the best smartphone under $500 for most people

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.

2. Samsung Galaxy A52 5G

The best budget Android phone

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.

if you want to make an investment in a phone that you can keep using years from now, the A52 5G is your best bet right now on Android

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.

3. Google Pixel 4A

An affordable Android phone with the best camera

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, 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.

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 Pixel 4A uses Google’s version of Android, which means it’s easy to navigate and free of extra stuff

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.

Google Pixel 4A

  • $349

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

  • $349

    at Google

  • $300

    at Best Buy

4. OnePlus Nord

The best all-around Android phone outside the US

Technically, saying the OnePlus Nord costs less than $500 doesn’t make much sense because it’s not available in the US, and the company doesn’t plan to sell it in the States. But if you live in a market where it’s available, the OnePlus Nord is the kind of phone that aims for a solid B grade in every category instead of trying to ace one or two. For £379 / €399, it’s a safe Android bet.

The OnePlus Nord has a couple of features that are normally reserved for much more expensive phones: support for sub-6 5G networks and a high refresh rate 90Hz display. If you live in an area where 5G is built out, you may notice faster download speeds. But it’s the display that’ll have a bigger impact on your day-to-day experience. It makes everything feel smoother and better.

You will miss out on wireless charging and a headphone jack with the Nord, but they’re really the only big things that are lacking. Battery life is strong, the 6.44-inch screen is big and beautiful, and the software is less annoying than some competitors (though not as clean as Google’s). The £379 / €399 model comes with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM, both plenty good for this price point.

As for cameras, there are a bunch of them — maybe even too many. There’s a standard, an ultrawide, and a macro camera on the back as well as a couple of selfie cameras on the front. As is the norm with most smartphone cameras these days, they will get you decent photos in decent light but fall down a bit in the dark. You’ll mostly want to use the main camera, as the ultrawide has a noticeable drop in quality, and the macro is only good for, well, macro or close-up shots.

All too often, phones at this price point have some critical compromise you’re forced to make in order to get the feature you really want. With the OnePlus Nord, there’s no big flaw you’ll have to work around. Again, though, it’s not available in the US. You can import it, but it’s not recommended as it won’t work correctly on US LTE networks.

OnePlus Nord

  • $460

The OnePlus Nord has better specs than you’ll find on almost any other Android smartphone in this price range.

  • $460

    at Newegg

5. OnePlus Nord N10 5G

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.

OnePlus Nord N10 5G

  • $299

The N10 5G offers good all-around performance and 5G as a bonus.

  • $299

    at OnePlus

6. Motorola Moto G Power (2021)

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.

Motorola Moto G Power (2021)

  • $189
  • $199
  • 6% off

The Moto G Power is all about a big battery.

  • $189

    at Motorola

  • $89

    at Best Buy

7. Motorola Moto G Play (2021)

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.

Motorola Moto G Play (2021)

  • $160
  • $169
  • 6% off

The Moto G Play offers basic performance and strong battery life at an affordable price.

  • $160

    at Motorola

  • $160

    at Amazon

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