Buying a smartphone for under $500 is a lesson in setting priorities. It’s impossible to buy a phone that does everything at this price point, but luckily you will be able to buy a great phone that does the things that matter the most to you.
Phones at this price point are better than ever, many coming with features that used to be reserved just for flagships. But instead of getting it all, you should think about the features that you care about and focus on finding a phone that nails them. Some phones emphasize a big screen, others a quality camera, and one of them emphasizes speed and longevity.
The trend of inexpensive phones getting better has been happening for a few years now, with companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung making devices that absolutely can meet your needs for less. Other companies like TCL have started trying to build their own brand by marketing directly, and OnePlus is also making a return to the lower end of the market.
Our pick for the best inexpensive iPhone is the 2020 edition of the Apple iPhone SE. It serves the needs of most people and does a competent job at everything, but its standout feature is that it should last four or more years if treated well.
If you prefer an Android phone or are looking to spend less, then the options start to bifurcate a little bit. The Google Pixel 4A has an excellent camera and good software, but it doesn’t have the large screen many people are looking for. To get that, your best bet is Samsung’s Galaxy A51 smartphone, which does boast a big, beautiful screen.
Those phones are pretty much available worldwide, but if you’re in the markets where OnePlus has more presence, the OnePlus Nord is a newcomer that beats out the competition by hitting a higher baseline in all its categories rather than excelling at just one.
What most people are looking for in a sub-$500 smartphone are the same things people want in a flagship: long battery life, good screen, good camera, and decent performance. It’s difficult to get high straight As 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.
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. Specifically, 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.
But in exchange for that very familiar phone body, you get a lot of value. The best thing about the iPhone SE is its processor, Apple’s A13 Bionic. That matters because it is literally the fastest processor you can get on any phone, anywhere. It’s the exact same chip found in Apple’s $999-and-up iPhone 11 Pro. 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 that 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, a relative rarity at this price point. And because it has the exact same shape of 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 2020 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, five, or even six 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 clean iOS software, and huge ecosystem of accessories.
The best inexpensive Android phone with the best camera
If you prefer Android, want to spend a little less money, or just want the best camera, then the Google Pixel 4A is the obvious choice. It doesn’t have the largest screen or the fastest processor, but it does have a clean version of Android that’s guaranteed to get software updates for at least three years. It only comes in one version: black with 128GB of storage for $349.
The Pixel 4A’s main claim to fame is its camera, which can go head-to-head with smartphones that cost $1,500 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. It means that the Pixel 4A can take night photos, do astrophotography, and has a passable portrait mode. It can’t hang with the iPhone SE for video but beats it for photos every time.
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. That puts you first in line for Android updates and also guarantees you’ll get them for three years.
Unfortunately, in three years, it’s quite likely that the Pixel 4A will be on its last legs. 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 less than $500. You’ll get better software support and a better camera for $350. Not a bad deal.
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 right now. 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 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 solid, 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 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 support the right LTE bands.
The best phone if you want a big screen
Samsung’s $399 Galaxy A51 Android phone may well turn out to be the bestselling phone of 2020. Its predecessor, the Galaxy A50, outshone all expectations. For the A51, Samsung focused on nailing a big screen, good battery life, and the camera. It got the screen just right; the other two are just fine.
The 6.5-inch OLED display on the A51 is bright and vivid, and you’d have to be pretty persnickety to find fault in it. It doesn’t offer the same high refresh rate you can get on the OnePlus Nord, but it makes up for that with Samsung’s great quality. If there’s one weird thing about the screen, it’s that Samsung put a chrome bezel around the hole punch for the front-facing selfie camera. It’s distracting.
The A51 sports nice build quality, though you can definitely feel that it’s plastic on the back. It has a headphone jack and 128GB of storage, which is the number you should be aiming for on any phone these days. Battery life should be superb thanks to a 4,000mAh battery, but because it has to power that big screen, it nets out to being just so-so.
As is becoming a (weird) standard on this class of phone, the A51 has a regular wide angle, an ultrawide, a depth sensor, and a macro camera. And as is also standard, the regular wide angle will get you the best images. The A51 can’t beat the Pixel 4A for quality, but the different lens options might be more fun for you.
Samsung recently committed to providing the A51 with three generations of Android software updates, which is great news. Less great is that it usually takes Samsung longer than you’d like to get software updates out to the A-line of phones. Samsung has also started to junk up its previously elegant OneUI software interface with ads and other junkware, so be prepared to do some cleanup.
On the whole, though, what the A51 gets you is a very big, very beautiful screen. If that’s your highest priority — and for many people, it is — the A51 is a solid choice.
If you really think you need 5G
If you live in the US, chances are the 5G networks in your area are not going to live up to the high-flying promises carriers have been making. But if you really do think you’d benefit from 5G, the best phone under $500 that supports it is Google’s Pixel 4A 5G. At $499, it comes in just under the wire on our price limit — but the Verizon version costs an extra $100.
The Pixel 4A 5G is good for all the reasons that the Pixel 4A is good: it has a great still camera, solid battery life, and clean Google software. It has some other benefits, though. It uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G processor, which means it’s faster than the Pixel 4A and nearly all the rest of the sub-$500 Android phones you can find.
It also has a larger screen, clocking in at 6.2 inches diagonally. It doesn’t feel too gigantic when you hold it, but you can tell it’s a larger phone. Google chose this size not to give you that bigger screen, but because it needed the extra space to hold all the components and antennas required for 5G.
The Pixel 4A 5G has a slightly better camera system compared to the Pixel 4A, thanks to the inclusion of an ultrawide sensor. Google has also made its excellent Night Sight mode automatic and improved video with some new stabilization modes.
Otherwise, it follows the standard low-cost Pixel formula. It has a plastic back with fingerprint sensor and a headphone jack. Google doesn’t load down the software with extra crapware you don’t want, but it does include some nice little Google touches like a voice recorder that automatically creates a transcription as it records.
Someday, not having 5G will be a serious downside for smartphones, but right now those networks still need to be built out a little bit more. Even if you ignore the potentially faster network speeds, the Pixel 4A 5G is a surprisingly great phone.
The phone with maximum battery life
Motorola makes a pair of phones that are siblings: the G Stylus and the G Power. The difference between them is right there in the names: the G Stylus comes with a stylus and the G Power has a larger battery.
We prefer the G Power because a 5,000mAh battery on a $249 phone is a shockingly good deal. You will, of course, notice a bunch of other compromises in exchange for that huge battery, but if you definitely need a phone that will last, the G Power is your best bet.
The G Power has a 6.4-inch FHD+ display which looks decent, but it unfortunately only has 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM. You’ll get by on both, but you’ll run into hassles just a bit more quickly than on phones with more. The processor is a Snapdragon 665, which will be enough to run whatever app you want, it just won’t launch it quickly and overall the phone may feel too slow in two or three years.
As for cameras, the G Power keeps the trend of a main sensor, an ultrawide, and a macro on the back. The main sensor is 16 megapixels and performs much better than the $250 price would lead you to expect. If you’ve used inexpensive Motorola phones before, you’ll likely find that the G Power offers a big step up in picture quality.
If you’re very confident you want a stylus, your best bet is to see if you can find a refurbished or gently used Samsung Galaxy Note. It does a much better job providing a software ecosystem of compatible apps for its stylus. If you can’t, the G Stylus pretty much matches what we’ve said about the G Power, just with less battery life.
The phone that looks professional
TCL is probably best known for its televisions, but it has served as the white label manufacturer for smartphones for many years. Now, it’s trying to make a name for itself in smartphones with new, low-cost options like the TCL 10L and the TCL 10 Pro. The Pro is the upgrade pick and retails for $449.90, though you can often find it on sale for less.
The 10 Pro looks like it means business. Instead of iridescent colors and big camera bumps, it’s thin, flat, and gray. It has a 6.47-inch display, but overall feels smaller than some phones on this list. You also get a headphone jack and a big, 4,500mAh battery that should get you through a full day without issue.
The best spec on the 10 Po is its 6GB of RAM, which is plenty for multitasking and should keep your most recent apps from shutting down in the background. There’s the appropriate 128GB of storage, too.
The 10 Pro’s understated looks also extend to the Android software, which has a few extra little features but generally tends to stay out of your way.
As for cameras, they’re somewhat uninspiring: there’s a 64-megapixel main sensor, a 16-megapixel ultrawide, and a 5-megapixel macro. The photos you’ll get have that over-processed look that sometimes makes images look artificial.
Overall, the best thing about the TCL 10 Pro is that it has plenty of RAM for multitasking and a thin shape that isn’t bombastic. If you can find a good deal on one, it’s worth a look.