Buying a smartphone for under $500 is a lesson in setting priorities. It’s impossible to buy a phone that does everything at this price point, but luckily you will be able to buy a great phone that does the things that matter the most to you.
Phones at this price point are better than ever, many coming with features that used to be reserved just for flagships. But instead of getting it all, you should think about the features that you care about and focus on finding a phone that nails them. Some phones emphasize a big screen, others a quality camera, and one of them emphasizes speed and longevity.
The trend of inexpensive phones getting better has been happening for a few years now, with companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung making devices that absolutely can meet your needs for less. Other companies like TCL have started trying to build their own brand by marketing directly, and OnePlus is also making a return to the lower end of the market.
Our pick for the best inexpensive iPhone is the 2020 edition of the Apple iPhone SE. It serves the needs of most people and does a competent job at everything, but its standout feature is that it should last four or more years if treated well.
If you prefer an Android phone or are looking to spend less, then the options start to bifurcate a little bit. The Google Pixel 4A has an excellent camera and good software, but it doesn’t have the large screen many people are looking for. To get that, your best bet is Samsung’s Galaxy A51 smartphone, which does boast a big, beautiful screen.
Those phones are pretty much available worldwide, but if you’re in the markets where OnePlus has more presence, the OnePlus Nord is a newcomer that beats out the competition by hitting a higher baseline in all its categories rather than excelling at just one.
What most people are looking for in a sub-$500 smartphone are the same things people want in a flagship: long battery life, good screen, good camera, and decent performance. It’s difficult to get high straight As 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.
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. Specifically, 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.
But in exchange for that very familiar phone body, you get a lot of value. The best thing about the iPhone SE is its processor, Apple’s A13 Bionic. That matters because it is literally the fastest processor you can get on any phone, anywhere. It’s the exact same chip found in Apple’s $999-and-up iPhone 11 Pro. 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 that 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, a relative rarity at this price point. And because it has the exact same shape of 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 2020 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, five, or even six 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 clean iOS software, and huge ecosystem of accessories.
Prices taken at time of publishing.
The best smartphone under $500 for 2020.