Why You Don’t Need an Expensive Smartphone Anymore

by ANDREW HEINZMAN

The $500 Pixel 4a 5G.
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.
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

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