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Are cheap phones any good?
Going cheaper typically means more compromises, but buying a cheap phone with the right ones isn't as hard as you think.
Are cheap phones any good? It's a simple question with a tricky answer. The definition of both what a cheap phone is and what a good one looks like varies from person to person, based on their budget and their needs.
Some consider a $500 phone to be budget-friendly. Others expect a cheap phone to cost around that sum. It's all going to be depend on your financial situation and you individual needs.
A better question might be whether cheap phones are good enough, and the best place to start looking for the answer to that lies in the past. Each year, the expectations of consumers shift a little bit when it comes to what the best phones under $500 you can buy look like.
However, the premium phone market doesn't move that fast. Most of the time, the differences between this year's Samsung and Apple flagship and that of last year's is incremental. Unless there’s a specific feature or spec that you’re after, chances are that what qualified as a good phone a few years back will mostly hold up nowadays.
If you do a specs-focused comparison between something like 2022’s budget-friendly Samsung Galaxy A53 to 2017’s Samsung Galaxy S8, there’s a surprising amount of areas where the cheap phone wins out over something that was at the time more expensive. Premium phones have gotten much better in the last five years, but they haven’t improved nearly so much nor in as significant ways as their cheap phone counterparts.
Another helpful way to think about and distinguish between the different price segments of the smartphone landscape is the degree of compromise involved. The best phones tend to have the fewest, mid-range devices tend to have a few more, and bottom-of-the-barrel cheap phones typically have the most. However, just because budget phones tend to boast the most compromises doesn't necessarily mean that all cheap phones are going to be too much of a compromise to get by with.
If you’re looking for an explanation of whether cheap phones are good enough for your needs, it’s worth having a think about what those needs are, what you’re willing to compromise on and where the biggest differences between cheap and more expensive smartphones lie.
Best phones under $500
You'd be surprised what $500 can afford.
Design: Cheap phones vs expensive phones
While pricey handsets like the Apple iPhone 13 or Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra do a great job of distinguishing themselves when it comes to material design, it’s rare to find a cheap phone that doesn’t feel it.
Exceptions to this dynamic do exist, but they’re few and far between. If you’re looking for a cheap phone or planning to pair it up with a case regardless, then maybe the sleek or stylish aesthetics of a more expensive phone aren’t as meaningful of an omission.
All the same, aesthetics are one area where cheaper handsets do tend to compromise. While there are some premium features that cheap phones now have access to, such as 5G connectivity, face unlock, fingerprint sensors and (in some) cases water resistance, there are others like wireless charging that remain out of reach.
Still, the most important design detail of any smartphone is the screen, and the differences between the screens on a cheap phone and a more expensive one might not be as big as you think. Sure, finding a cheap phone with QHD screen like the on Samsung's latest flagships is impossibly tricky. However, unearthing one with FHD resolution, a high refresh rate or even an OLED panel isn’t.
Even if the screens found in the premium end of the market will ultimately look better and provide better performance, today’s cheap phones do a decent job of looking good enough that some budget-conscious shoppers might not even feel the difference.
- No better than 1080p
- No wireless charging
- Thickers bezels
- High refresh rate
- 5G connectivity
- An OLED screen
Performance: Cheap phones vs expensive phones
When it comes to performance, the difference between cheap and expensive smartphones is a little harder to overlook.
Since budget devices tend to rely on older or slower processors and less or slower memory, they tend to lag behind their mid-range and premium counterparts when it comes to everyday use. Practically, this means that apps on a cheap phone will load slower and that multitasking will be more demanding.
The apps you’re going to install and use regularly on your phone aren’t going to vary too much based on the price of the device in question, but the capabilities of you handset will. This is one of those areas where you can’t really do more with less. A more expensive will have the extra RAM and the superior processor needed to run those same apps more smoothly. A cheap phone won't.
There is a silver lining here. Cheap smartphones often deliver significantly better battery life than more expensive devices. This isn’t usually because cheap phones have bigger batteries, but because the slower hardware attached to them is sometimes less energy-intensive or even more energy-efficient.
That said, the value provided by this trade-off a little tricky to calculate. A cheap phone that runs Facebook or Snapchat slowly isn’t the same thing as one that can’t run them at all, and the difference between a phone that runs apps slower versus one that runs for longer is similarly blurry.
Going for a cheap phone over a more expensive one is always going to invite more compromises. However, buying a cheap phone that doesn’t compromise too much on performance is one of the most meaningful ways to optimize that experience and get the most value for your money.
- Better battery life
- Less RAM
- Slower processors
- 5000mAh battery
- 6GB of RAM
- 256GB of storage
Camera: Cheap phones vs expensive phones
Smartphone cameras are typically the poster child for innovation in the premium segment, but cheap phones are usually the last in line to reap the benefits.
If you’re shopping on a budget, that means this is one of the hardest areas to optimize your choice of smartphone. If buying a mid-tier phone means missing out on cutting-edge camera features like AI enhancements, night modes or telephoto zoom lenses, then buying a cheap phone is even more of a gamble.
There are very few cheap smartphones that deliver a competitive or quality smartphone photography experience. What's more, cheap phones tend to be highly homogeneous when it comes to camera hardware. Once you go below $500 or so, you’ll find a staggering amount of overlap when it comes the number of camera sensors and their overall quality.
The upshot of this is that it’s hard to find a particularly bad camera. However, the downside is that a good camera at this price-point is typically more of a mediocre one.
If camera performance is paramount to your specific needs, then spending a little more and opting for something like the Google Pixel 6 or the baseline iPhone 13 is probably going to be worth it. However, if your expectations are more modest or you don't care about camera quality at all, then there's a chance that a half-decent cheap phone should fit for purpose.
As with performance, a compromised camera isn’t the same as the lack of the one. The best budget phones aren't equipped to produce incredible low light photography, but they're adequate enough to get by.
- Worse low-light performance
- Minimal AI enhancement
- Limited zoom
- Telephoto lenses
- Dedicated night mode
Are cheap phones good enough?
If we’re talking about the essentials, then a cheap phone with a big battery, a decent processor and a solid screen is what consumers seeking a good cheap phone should be keeping an out for.
If features like wireless charging, 5G connectivity, water resistance or a powerful smartphone camera aren’t appealing enough that you want to spend the premium to get your hands on them, then look for a cheap phone that nails those practical priorities before trying to squeeze in anything extra.
The Samsung Galaxy A53 5G is an example worth considering. This device features a 6.5-inch Super AMOLED screen, 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM, plus IP67 water resistance and a triple-lens rear camera. Check out the widget below for a round-up of popular plans for the device.