Despite what you might be inclined to think there are actually some truly excellent smartphones for under $400 (in this article I narrowed down the options to my top 3). You can call the phones I’ve selected in this article “budget” or call them “affordable” but just don’t call them “lame.”
So what makes a phone a “budget” phone? Well, basically, budget phones are simply cheaper and more affordable. But does buying a budget phone mean you have to compromise when it comes to features and looks? The answer is increasingly no (although there are certainly cheap phones out there which are definitely low-quality). See, in recent years as component prices have dropped and as phones have become more and more commoditized, several manufacturers have been pushing the limits of what a less expensive phone can do — and the results are pretty amazing. To me, a good budget phone falls somewhere between flagship (top-of-the-line) and low-end smartphones.
That said, let’s be clear about what you will and won’t be missing out on when you’re shopping for a budget smartphone. A budget smartphone isn’t going to give you a bleeding-edge camera, the highest storage or, in some cases, the very latest industrial design (how the phone physically looks). But at the same time you won’t be skimping on things like app selection and you’ll still get a very usable camera and processor (the chip inside your phone that largely determines how fast or slow your phone operates — and which can have a massive impact on phone usability when it comes to cheaper phones).
Using any of the phones I’ve mentioned below (which are my picks for the top 3 budget smartphones of the second half of 2016) you’ll be able to play your favorite games, launch your favorite apps, take quality mobile photos and, of course, stay in touch with the most important people in your life.
I’m an iPhone lover and have been since the iPhone 4 (my first iPhone) but one thing is for sure: iPhone’s are incredibly expensive. At least they used to be (and most still are). But that notion changed with the release of the iPhone SE which costs nearly half the price of a flagship iPhone model (check price on Amazon). With the iPhone SE you’re essentially getting an iPhone 6S on the inside with an older phone body and a slightly smaller size — not a bad deal at all! The tech specs include a 4″ Retina Display, Apple’s snappy A9 chip and a 12MP iSight camera. The camera can not only shoot 4K videos, but it also shoots Apple’s Live Photos as well. With a fingerprint scanner and Siri baked in, this is, in Apple’s thinking, the most powerful 4-inch phone ever. If you’re looking for the cheapest, most-affordable iPhone this is it; and it’s anything but a disappointmet.
Idol 4S with Included VR Goggles
If you’ve never owned or played around with an Alcatel Idol phone in the past, you’ve really been missing out. I reviewed the Idol 3 and was blown away by how much phone a person could get for such an incredibly reasonable price. It was my first true introduction to the world of higher-end budget phones and I can’t wait to get my hands on the Idol 4S (check price on Amazon). I’m expecting the 4S to be well-built and lightweight based on my previous experience and it looks like Alcatel has packed plenty of uniqueness into this phone. Tech specs include a 5.5″ (yep that’s phablet-sized) QHD Amoled display, a 16MP camera and 32 GB of memory (double that of the iPhone SE for the same price) and it’s all running on Android M. Special features include packaging that turns into VR goggles(1!), a Boom button which can instantly snap a photo among other things, 3 way speaker reversibility and the ability to take interactive 360 degree photos. That means that this phone has lots of features you won’t find on even the most expensive flagship Android devices!
The OnePlus 3 has won all sorts of praise since it’s release and I have to say it seems quite well-deserved. Of all Android phones, this is the budget phone that comes closest to being a “flagship killer.” From it’s looks (that slim metal body carved from a single piece of aluminum) to it’s performance (the high-powered Snapdragon 820 processor, 6 GB of Ram, a 16 MP camera and an AMOLED display), it’s a truly beautiful mobile powerhouse. The OnePlus 3 features some insanely fast charging that claims to be able to get you a full day’s charge in just 30 minutes (yep, this phone uses the latest and greatest USB C technology)! If you really enjoy taking photos on the go you’ll love this phone’s quick shutter speed and autofocus as well as the built-in noise-reduction technology that is designed to help you take pictures that are as clear as possible.
The Moto G Plus (4th Generation) definitely deserves at least a quick mention (check price on Amazon). This is what you might call a super-affordable phone which is all the more amazing considering it’s packing a 16 MP camera, a 5.5″ HD display, a fingerprint reader and it can give you 6 hours of charge in just 15 minutes. Seriously, for the price, as long as you’re checking out the best budget phones of the year, you should probably include this phone in your research.
Recommendations and Conclusion
So which phone is right for you? Maybe I can help.
- Photos: I’d say if you’re really into photography and want the best quality camera you can get for under $400 go with the iPhone SE. It may have a smaller screen, but Apple’s camera technology is far and away the best out of this bunch (like no comparison).
- Games: If you’re into mobile gaming you’ll need a good amount of RAM and a fast processor and that leads me to recommend the OnePlus 3 since it’s got lots of power in both areas and a large 5.5″ screen to play on.
- Virtual Reality: If you’re into VR there’s no question that the Idol 4S with it’s included VR Goggles is the best bet at this price point — especially if you want to go beyond Google’s rather primitive Cardboard experience.
- Work: If you’re a business person and need to get a lot of work done (i.e. a power user) I’d recommend going with the OnePlus 3 since it can charge very quickly and the screen is big enough to see and edit spreadsheets or get some serious typing done in a pinch.
- Mac/iPad/Apple TV Owners: This should go without saying, but if you already own (and like) one or more Apple products, it only makes sense to go with the iPhone as you’re already plugged into that ecosystem and all of Apple’s devices play well together (iCloud syncing, AirPlay, AirDrop, etc.).
- Unique Features: If you’re looking for a phone that not everyone has and that sports some features you can show off to your friends, take a look at the Idol 4S. The Boom button, the reversible screen and speakers and other features make it one-of-a-kind (budget or otherwise).
At the end of the day if you’ve got $400 or less to spend on a new phone, any of the options I’ve mentioned above would be pretty great. There are plenty of other phones in the same price range, but I’d certainly urge caution when making your buying decision as not all budget phones are created equal. Specifically, watch out for things like sluggish performance, bloatware, sub-par cameras, poor build-quality and outdated operating systems. If you buy any of the phones I’ve recommended here, you won’t need to worry about any of those issues!