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Best budget phones in 2021

Pixel 4a 5G - best budget phones 2021
(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The best budget phones today are far more capable than a flagship phone of just a few years ago. While there are some sacrifices when compared to a current flagship, don't look for wireless charging, big telephoto lenses or top-of-the-line CPUs, but not everyone needs the power of a laptop in their pocket. 

The cut point for consideration as a budget phone for us is $500, most come in well below that, but we won't go any higher. Beyond $500 take a look at our best smartphones, we cover a few budget options there as well, but most fall into the $600 to $1,200+ flagship level. But that's not what you are here for, whether you value a great camera, the best battery life or want a phone with a stylus we'll find the best budget phone for you.

What is the best budget phone?

The best budget phones offer a mix of performance to price that make them an excellent value without leaving you feeling like you are missing out on all of the great features of modern smartphones. 

At $499 the Pixel 4a 5G is at the upper-end of budget phones, but it absolutely earns its top spot on this list with features that rival the much pricier Pixel 5. You get identical cameras that can go toe-to-toe with many flagships, the best software support available on Android and are future proof with 5G, something you won't find on many budget phones today.

If you’re looking for the best performance and software support in a budget phone then look no further than the iPhone SE (2020). It looks great, feels great, and has the best overall performance due to its A13 Bionic chipset, it may be one generation old now, but it still outclasses virtually every other CPU.

The OnePlus Nord N10 5G is perhaps the best all-around budget smartphone you can find from a pure price to performance standpoint. Cramming in as much premium quality and performance as possible, all for a very modest budget price tag.

The best budget smartphones

  1. Google Pixel 4a 5G
  2. iPhone SE
  3. TCL 10 5G UW
  4. Moto G Power
  5. Samsung Galaxy A71 5G
  6. Moto G Stylus
  7. OnePlus Nord N10 5G

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

1. Google Pixel 4a 5G

The best budget phone under $500

Display: 6.2-inch FHD OLED (1080 x 2340) | CPU: Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear camera: 12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 8MP wide (ƒ/2.0)

Flagship tier camera
Colourful display
5G capable
Great value
Middling performance

For $499, the Pixel 4a follow-up, the Pixel 4a 5G adds... well, 5G support for a start. Other new additions include a second rear-facing ultrawide 16MP camera; a Snapdragon 765G CPU upgrade; an expanded 6.2-inch FHD display; and a slightly increased battery capacity.

The Pixel 4a 5G’s predecessor was lauded for its use of software and hardware to produce fantastic results from a single 12.2MP camera, and the 5G isn’t resting on its laurels, having further improved your ability to capture the moment. The newer model now features cameras identical to those found on the Pixel 5 with Night Sight, HDR+, and the ability to adjust lighting post-snap. This results in flagship-level photography from a device at a fraction of the price.

The Pixel 4a 5G — as hinted to in its wildly creative name — includes a built-in 5G modem, meaning you can take advantage of the network’s lightning-fast, roaming internet speeds wherever you find yourself in its coverage. This will be great for uploading pictures and videos you’ve taken, or enjoying Duo calls on the move.

(Image credit: Apple)

2. iPhone SE (2020)

The best (and only) budget iPhone

Display: 4.7-inch Retina IPS LCD (1334 x 750) | CPU: A13 Biotic | RAM: 3GB | Storage: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)

A13 Bionic performance
Premium design
Great price-performance ratio
Wireless charging
Battery life could be better

Apple’s site claims they took the brains of the iPhone 11 Pro and placed it into the body of the iPhone SE. An impressive feat considering Apple sells this device for only $399.

The brains in question, Apple’s A13 Biotic chipset, give the SE an incredible price-to-performance ratio. It makes multitasking and mobile gaming a breeze on its bright and colourful 4.7-inch Retina display, even with just 3GB of RAM. It’s not the only premium feature that was transplanted over from other premium devices, with the SE able to use wireless charging and retaining the signature iPhone glass and metal design.

However, the SE’s camera is its downfall, at least on paper. We know the brains of the iPhone 11 Pro managed to make the jump to the SE, but the eyes didn’t. While the 12MP rear camera is fine, that’s about all it is. The SE’s powerful SoC and next-gen Smart HDR work in tandem to make the most of what’s on offer though, with portrait mode and intelligent relighting giving your pictures and videos a little extra pep in their step.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

3. TCL 10 5G UW

Best 5G phone under $400

Display: 6.5-inch LCD (2,340x1,080) | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 8MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2); 5MP macro | Front camera: 16MP (f/2.4)

Amazing value
Gorgeous vivid display
Excellent battery life
Solid performance
Full Verizon 5G support
Runs Android 10 at launch
Inconsistent camera performance
Relatively dim display

The TCL 10 5G UW is a forgettable product name for a brilliant budget smartphone on Verizon that offers full 5G support for less than $400. That alone is impressive, but this smartphone also delivers one of the best displays I've seen on a budget smartphone, easily the equal of smartphones twice its price.

The battery life is another big win for the TCL 10 5G UW with a 5,000 mAh battery that can keep it going well into a second day or beyond depending on your usage. Performance is solid with the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G found in the much pricier Pixel 5 and paired with 6G of RAM and 128GB of storage.

My two knocks against the TCL 10 5G UW are that it runs Android 10 at launch, Android 11 is coming in 2021 and the cameras aren't great with the exception of the front-facing camera. However, weighed against the cost of the device those seem like reasonable trade-offs to save yourself hundreds of dollars.

See our full TCL 10 5G UW review.

(Image credit: Motorola)

4. Moto G Power

Best battery life in a budget phone

Display: 6.4-inch LCD (2300x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 665 | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 64GB | Rear camera: 16MP (ƒ/1.7), 8MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2), 2MP macro (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 16MP wide (ƒ/2.0)

Incredible battery life
Very affordable
Bright LCD screen
Lacklustre colours
Lacking more stand-out features

Motorola’s primary selling point of the Moto G Power is its claimed 3-day battery life. Motorola even says that with one charge you’ll be able to stream 150 hours worth of music, and most battery tests I’ve come across manage to squeeze somewhere between 16 to 18 hours out of the Moto G Power’s 5,000 mAh battery with in-house testing.

The Moto G Power is priced at $249.99, and if you’re looking for a budget buy that you can rely on to hold a charge, very few smartphones come close to the same endurance on offer here, let alone budget smartphones.

While the battery is a crowning feature for this device, you may find that the rest of the Moto G Power’s offerings are not a standout affair. Its 6.4-inch LCD display is bright but doesn’t impress in terms of colour. The internal 64GB of storage is lower than most in the same price category, and the Snapdragon 665 CPU with 4GB of RAM isn’t exactly going to stand out as a powerhouse against the competition either. 

If you’re on the move a lot throughout the day or are a heavy smartphone user who's tired of reaching for the charger every few hours, this is your battery solution. But, if you’re looking for the wow-factor in other areas also, there are other smartphones out there.

(Image credit: Samsung)

5. Samsung Galaxy A71 5G

Best budget Samsung phone

Display: 6.7-inch FHD OLED (2400x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 765 | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear camera: 64MP (ƒ/1.8), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2), 5MP macro (ƒ/2.4), 5MP depth (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 32MP (ƒ/2.2)

Solid performance
Above average battery life
5G compatible
No standout feature
Pricey for a budget smartphone

The Samsung Galaxy A71 5G is the jack-of-all-trades budget smartphone, flaunting speedy Snapdragon 765 performance paired with a generous 8GB of RAM; a bright, 6.7-inch FHD, OLED screen; 5G modem; and around 10 hours of battery life all comes together nicely. The problem? The same as with any jack-of-all-trades: you tend to be a master of none.

While the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G can do a little bit of everything well, there’s no one avenue it goes down where it excels over the competition. If you want the best camera, while the A71 5G is no slouch, it simply can't beat the Pixel 4a 5G. If you want to get the most out of gaming, the iPhone SE’s A13 Bionic chipset has you beat dead to rights. Even with its above-average 10-hour battery life, this Samsung falls short of the Moto G Power’s impressive longevity.

On the flip side of this, there’s no one area that the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G fails at either. It’s a solid all-rounder and a reliable smartphone that has you covered on multiple fronts. The main consideration with this one is price, at $499 if you are a big Samsung fan you should definitely consider paying up $50 to $100 for the Galaxy S20 FE.

(Image credit: Motorola)

6. Moto G Stylus

Best budget phone with a stylus

Display: 6.4-inch LCD (2300 x 1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 665 | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.7), 16MP ultrawide action cam (ƒ/2.2), 2MP macro (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 16MP wide (ƒ/2.0)

Very good battery life
Bright LCD screen
Camera improvements
Stylus feels unnecessary

If the Moto G Power caught your attention but seemed to be lacking anything that made it truly stand out, then Motorola has another budget phone that may be of more interest to you. For $300, the Moto G Stylus is essentially the same phone beyond some minor improvements. The rear-facing cameras have been updated to feature 48MP and 16MP cameras, and the internal storage has been doubled to 128GB. Outside of this, the devices’ internals remain pretty much the same.

That is, aside from one other new addition: a built-in stylus. It seems a strange decision, one that doesn’t add much to the experience other than having a slightly more convenient way of jotting something down quickly. On removing the stylus from the body of the smartphone, Motorola’s proprietary sketching software opens up, allowing you to jot, sketch or doodle without delay. 

Moreover, the increases in storage and adjustments to the cameras are welcome changes, and if you believe them to be worth the $50 increase in price, then the Moto G Stylus might be the better option for you.

(Image credit: OnePlus)

7. OnePlus Nord N10 5G

Display: 6.5-inch LCD (2400x1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 690 | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB (expandable to 512GB) | Rear camera: 64MP wide (f/1.79); 8MP ultra-wide-angle (f/2.25); 2MP macro (f/2.4); 2MP monochrome (f/2.4) | Front camera: 16MP (f/2.05)

Premium design
Decent 6.5-inch display
Quad cameras
Mediocre performance
Inconsistent image quality

The OnePlus Nord N10 5G is coming to the US with sub-6Ghz 5G support. While we don't know the official US starting price, its UK price of £329 suggests the phone will cost between $425 and $450 when it comes stateside.  

Unlike other smartphones in this category, the OnePlus Nord isn’t simply a budget phone with one of two flagship features haphazardly thrown in to whet people's appetite for more expensive models. Instead, the Nord is designed and built to be a premium budget buy, however oxymoronic that might sound.

From the Nord’s bright and vivid 6.5-inch LCD 90Hz to the five-camera configuration that features rear ultrawide sensors for all-encompassing snaps, the N10 5G delivers a lot for the price. The OnePlus Nord N10 5G attempts to cram in features and versatility however it can. While the Qualcomm Snapdragon 690 inside isn't the fastest, the phone has extra-long battery life and supports 5G for the fastest mobile speeds. 

All-in-all, the OnePlus Nord is a great budget buy that more than succeeds in its efforts to show that premium doesn’t always have to mean pricey.

See our OnePlus Nord N10 5G review