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Smartphone prices have soared to new levels over the last few years, driven by factors such as competition, demand and innovative technologies. Take a look at the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4, which, at an already whopping $1,800 and widely regarded one of the best phones, makes you wonder what’ll be the next big feature to push it over the edge.
Gone are the days of paying $200 to snag yourself a fancy flagship smartphone with a two-year contract on a carrier of your choice. Instead, today’s best smartphones are no longer subsidized and are now paid in full by the consumer with the option to pay them off month-to-month. Think of it much like financing a car, where the cost of ownership is broken up typically over the course of 24 months.
While fancy phones like the Galaxy Z Flip 4 or iPhone 14 Pro Max have the coolest and most innovative features, they’re still often north of the $1,000 mark. Luckily, you don’t need to spend a fortune to own a decent smartphone. Today’s budget options have their own merit, blending value and performance to please people who just want a reliable smartphone.
For our purposes, we’re defining cheap phones as any smartphone that costs under $500. For this review, we tested over a dozen smartphones released in the past year that were priced under $500. After using them for over a week at the minimum and running a battery of tests, we’ve selected the best cheap smartphones of 2022.
The Best Cheap Smartphones At a Glance
1. Best Overall: OnePlus Nord N20 5G — $259.99 at Amazon
2. Runner Up: Samsung Galaxy A53 — $439.90 at Amazon
3. Best Camera: Apple iPhone SE (3rd Gen) — $429.00 at Amazon
4. Most Utility: TCL Stylus 5G — $79.99 at Metro
5. Best Design: Google Pixel 6a — $409.00 at Amazon
1. OnePlus Nord N20 5G
Best For: Anyone looking for the best cheap smartphone of 2022. If you have a tight budget, OnePlus offers this modestly specced out 5G smartphone that has nearly everything a user would need in a phone today.
Why We Chose It: It balances out its package with a premium design and user experience.
Review: Is the OnePlus Nord N20 5G the Best Budget Phone of 2022?
Who said you need a flagship to have a decent phone? The OnePlus Nord N20 5G is the best cheap smartphone to satisfy the needs of the average consumer with its muscle power and balanced package.
Surprisingly, it features an incredibly svelte 7.5mm chassis that looks and feels premium. It’s also equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 SoC that delivers reasonable responses to most everyday tasks. And finally, you can’t get more value out of its sub-$300 cost because it features flagship amenities like a triple camera system, speedy 5G connectivity, and a sharp AMOLED display. There’s no wonder why it’s the best smartphone under $500.
- Affordable price
- Premium looking design
- Lightweight feel
- Camera performance could be better
2. Samsung Galaxy A53
Best For: Value shoppers searching for the best smartphone under $500. Shoppers on a budget who still want an impressive camera. Samsung fans that prefer the One UI experience.
Why We Chose It: Sure, it costs more than our top pick, but the Samsung Galaxy A53 meets the criteria of being under $500. You’re really getting a solid package with this option.
For the cost, we were satisfied by the sturdy design it was flaunting. The matte finish of the chassis really did a good job at masking smudges and fingerprints, while its 189-gram weight made it feel like we were holding nothing in our hands. Another standout of the Samsung Galaxy A53 is its impressive camera performance, which didn’t disappoint with its solid dynamic range performance. We also enjoyed the minimalist look of the Samsung One UI. It’s undeniably at the higher end of the spectrum, but it’s nonetheless a cheap smartphone to think about.
- Sturdy construction
- Sharp-looking 120Hz AMOLED display
- Underrated cameras that deliver sharp photos
- Takes longer to charge
3. Apple iPhone SE (3rd Gen)
Best For: Photographers who desire better photography in a variety of shooting conditions. Apple users who are invested in the iOS ecosystem.
Why We Chose It: Don’t be disappointed by the fact that it’s packing only a single camera on its back because you’ll be delighted by the results it pulls off.
Read More: The iPhone SE Proves Apple Routinely Focuses on These 5 Qualities
While you may associate Apple with flagship smartphones like the new iPhone 14 Max Pro, the company still has one of the best smartphones under $500 in the iPhone SE. One look at the Apple iPhone SE’s single rear camera, most people would think it would pale in comparison to the double and triple camera systems in some of the other best budget phones in this list. That’s far from the truth because this single rear camera delivered the most impressive photos.
Armed with a 12-megapixel rear camera, the Apple iPhone SE (3rd Gen) produced photos worthy of a flagship smartphone. Obviously, you’re paying a fraction of the price (and with fewer cameras), but the single camera did extremely well under low light, portraits, and general scenery. Best of all, we didn’t have to tinker much with the camera. Just point, tap to focus and capture the image. Seriously, it’s that easy. Who said the best cheap smartphones should be inferior? Apple proves there’s still a ton of value in them, especially when you find a good iPhone deal — like the bundle offer Visible’s offering right now.
- Incredible camera performance
- Great for graphically intensive games
- Simple and intuitive UI
- Its size may be too tiny for some
4. TCL Stylus 5G
Best For: Productivity-centric users who have to deal with spreadsheets on the go. Artists who prefer the pen-meets-paper experience.
Why We Chose It: The TCL Stylus 5G is one of the few budget phones around that comes with a handy stylus for added utility.
First Look: TCL Stylus 5G Beats Galaxy S22 Ultra in Price With Similar Note-Taking Abilities
TCL makes this list because its phone packages a stylus that you won’t find in budget phones. Call it an extra perk, this simple tool improves workflow by adding the much-needed utility of interacting with spreadsheets and documents. Believe us when we say that the stylus helped out in a variety of situations for work. You wouldn’t think an accessory like this would come in something this cheap, which is why we feel it’s the best phone under $250.
On the flip side, the TCL Stylus 5G caters to users who want that paper-meets-pen experience. Have you ever had to sign a PDF document on a smartphone? It never comes out great using just a finger, but a stylus makes it a breeze. Beyond the usefulness of the stylus, you’re still getting a modest smartphone complete with a large 6.81-inch LCD touchscreen and a quadruple camera system on the back.
- Stylus adds enhanced utility
- Captures decent looking photos
- Very large screen for the price
- Battery life is weak
5. Google Pixel 6a
Best For: Android users who want to experience the latest Android features before anyone else. Photographers and editors who want more control of their photos in post-production.
Why We Chose It: Not only does it look like it should cost more, but the Google Pixel 6a won us over for its excellent cameras and compact size.
Review: Google Proves It Makes the Best Budget Phones of 2022
Google releases a ton of new services each year and no other phone on our list gains access to those features faster than the Google Pixel 6a. This sub-$500 smartphone ensures owners get the latest Android updates first. Some of them, like Google’s Live Translate feature, are exclusive to only the Pixel line.
Aesthetically, this compact-sized smartphone feels really good in the hand thanks to its glass rear casing and brushed metal trim. It’s undeniably a show-stealer with its premium design, which is surprising for a phone at this price point. Furthermore, it’s one of the best budget smartphones, not only because of how well it captures images with its dual cameras, but also for the neat editing features you can apply to photos after you’ve snapped them.
Google proves yet again that the best cheap smartphones can take excellent photos and look oh-so good.
- Access to latest Android updates
- Premium compact size
- Excellent camera performance
- Shorter battery life
How We Chose the Best Cheap Smartphones
Even though we’ve tested more than 20 different smartphones over the course of the year, the first requirement was that these smartphones had to be under $500. In today’s market, this price point is what many consider the budget or entry-level category, especially given how frequently high-end phones cost over $1,000. Additionally, we only considered phones that were released in the last year instead of taking discounted, albeit brand new, prior generation models into consideration.
We also made sure to test each of these inexpensive smartphones for at least a week while running our usual battery of tests. Most of the phones consist of Android devices because Apple generally only makes one iPhone model under the $500 limit.
To determine the best cheap smartphones, we rated each in the following categories.
- Display: Screen sizes differ and offer consumers more variety, but we specifically looked at their resolution. On average, the best budget smartphones should have 1080p resolution. We also used a lux meter to determine the peak brightness of each display.
- Cameras: Not only did we look at the number of cameras each smartphone offered, as well as their specs, but we also judged them by their quality when capturing sunny, nighttime and portrait shots.
- Battery: Having a phone with a long-lasting battery certainly helps, so we tested each one to see how it handled our daily usage. Furthermore, we used the included chargers to see how quickly they recharged.
- Design: The best budget smartphones shouldn’t look or feel cheap. Most people would probably think otherwise, but nowadays you’ll be surprised by how much attention to detail they get. Smartphones constructed with premium materials were rated higher.
- Performance: In addition to running synthetic benchmark tests such as AnTuTu, GeekBench 5 and GFXBench to determine CPU and GPU performances, we also consider how smooth and reactive they are with basic functions like navigating around the interface, opening apps and more.
- Price: We heavily weighted price over some of the other categories because the best budget smartphones shouldn’t cost a fortune. Less is more in this case.
Click here to read more about how we test and review products.
About The Author: John Velasco
John Velasco is the Tech Editor at SPY.com and has tested hundreds of smart home products during his decade-long career reviewing gadgets. Since joining SPY.com, he’s reviewed the best home security cameras, flagship smartphones and Amazon’s first smart TV. Previously, John worked as the smart home editor at Digital Trends. He’s also worked for Android Authority covering Android-related news as the editor-at-large and at PhoneArena as the senior editor. John has been covering mobile and smart home tech for over a decade, and he is also passionate about virtual reality, drones and electric bikes.
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