Published On: Fri, Feb 19th, 2021

Best budget phone 2021: seven smartphones for 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 coming up on 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 we think the Google Pixel 4A is a great option. It has an excellent camera and good software, though its screen is smaller than a lot of the competition at this point.

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.


Google Pixel 4A

Prices taken at time of publishing.

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


The Apple iPhone SE is a great choice if you want a phone that lasts for years.

The Apple iPhone SE is a great choice if you want a phone that lasts for years.

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 almost 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.

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.

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.


The Google Pixel 4A has an incredible camera.

The Google Pixel 4A has an incredible camera.

The best inexpensive Android phone

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. 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, 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.) That means 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 a couple of 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 OnePlus Nord has very good specs for its price.

The OnePlus Nord has very good specs for its price.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

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

Prices taken at time of publishing.

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


You probably don’t need 5G yet, but the Google Pixel 4A 5G has other strong benefits.

Even without considering 5G, the Pixel 4A 5G has other strong benefits.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

A big screen with timely software updates

The Pixel 4A 5G is good for all the reasons that the Pixel 4A is good: it has a great camera, good battery life, and clean Google software. Maybe most importantly, it has a bigger 6.2-inch screen, which is spacious but doesn’t make the phone feel too gigantic. It also 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. And there’s support for 5G, of course, which is largely underwhelming in the US right now, but might actually be good toward the end of this phone’s lifespan. It all adds up to a $499 price that’s just under the wire for this category, though the Verizon version, unfortunately, costs $100 more.

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 a 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 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 that reality is still at least a year or two away. Even if you ignore the potentially faster network speeds, the Pixel 4A 5G is a surprisingly great phone.


Google Pixel 4A 5G

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Priced at $499, Google’s Pixel 4A 5G is a slightly bigger, 5G-ready version of the 4A.


The N10 5G is priced well under $500.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

If you want 5G for the least amount possible

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.

If you can afford to spend a little more, you probably should. A device with better support in the long run will save you some money later. But 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

Prices taken at time of publishing.

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


The Samsung Galaxy A51 has a huge screen and is otherwise a pretty decent phone.

The Galaxy A51 offers an excellent screen for the price.

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 may like to get software updates out to the A-line of phones. Samsung has also started to junk up its previously elegant One UI 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.


Samsung Galaxy A51

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Samsung’s Galaxy A51 has a big, beautiful OLED screen.


The 2021 Moto G Power offers days-long battery performance but makes a lot of sacrifices for it.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

The 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.



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