The best cheap phones for frugal times: Flagship features on any budget

The best cheap phones for frugal times: Flagship features on any budget

No matter how you slice it, the price of flagships is still a deterrent for many folks. Thankfully, there are some outstanding affordable alternatives that have significantly improved over the past few years. Various manufacturers, including many from China and Korea, have compelling products that are becoming more popular as we reach smartphone saturation.

Google and Apple are getting in on the budget market too with Pixel 4a, 3a, and iPhone SE models priced less than $400.

Camera performance was a major differentiator between flagships and mid-range phones over the past couple of years, but even today’s affordable phones can help you produce decent photos to share with family and friends or on social media. Let’s take a look at some of the lowest-priced options. These phones are in order from lowest to highest price.

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Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

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Following last years release of a couple of mid-level devices, Google recently launched the Google Pixel 4A. This year we do not see two models, one larger than the other, as Google went with a single device approach. Google will also be releasing a new Pixel 5 model soon too.

The Pixel 4A is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor with 5.81-inch display, 12.2MP rear camera, 8MP front camera, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, stereo speakers, and 3,140 mAh battery. This is targeted to the masses and with Google’s stunning camera software it is a tough phone to beat at the low $349 price.

There is only one color option, black, so your choices are limited to carrier, unlocked, or Google Fi service.

$299 at Best Buy

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Image: TCL

Earlier this year TCL released its first branded phones in the US. The TCL 10 Pro, check out our review, and TCL 10L enter the market at $450 and $250. Both are excellent phones with displays made by TCL themselves.

The TCL 10L may be one of the most full-featured phones you will find at the low $250 price with a 6.53 inch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 665, 6GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot, four rear cameras, a 16MP front-facing camera, and a large capacity 4,000 mAh battery.

TCL’s UI is mostly stock Android and functions well. The Mariana Blue color of the phone looks fantastic and TCL even includes some enhanced functions like Super Bluetooth for connecting up to four external speakers at once.

$199 at Best Buy

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The Coolpad Legacy (see my review) is designed with a large display, huge capacity battery with Quick Charge 3.0, high-quality plastic and glass materials, a microSD expansion card, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and even launches with Android 9 Pie out of the box. There have to be trade-offs made at the $130 price (free on Metro by T-Mobile), but they are hidden well on the Coolpad Legacy.

This is a great first phone, one for someone who needs a phone battery that will last a couple of days on a single charge, or someone who wants a big display that is easy to read.

It has modern features and solid design aspects while performing reliably to help you get things done. I am still stunned by the low price of this phone and did not expect it to be this good.

$130 at Coolpad Legacy

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(Image: CNET)

The Moto G7 Play has a full retail price of $159.99, down from the MSRP of $199.99. It can be found on Amazon or directly from Motorola at this reduced price.

The Moto G7 Play has a 5.7-inch display with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 processor, 13MP rear camera, 8MP front-facing camera, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage with a microSD expansion card slot, and a rather large 3,000mAh battery. It has some water resistance and retains the 3.5mm audio jack.

The Moto G7 Play is priced at less than most insurance policies for flagship phones, so if you need a low-cost phone or a backup, then this may be the one to consider. Motorola also does a great job of providing a stock Android experience that gets fairly regular updates, too.

$160 at Motorola

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The Moto G7 Power (see our full review) is available at Amazon for just $200 or at Motorola for $250.

ZDNet’s Jason Cipriani stated that the Moto G7 power is the budget phone you are looking for, thanks to its very long battery life, solid performance, and affordable price. The photo quality won’t match flagships priced five times higher, but photos are still good enough for social media sharing.

The Moto G7 Power has a 6.2-inch display, rear 12MP camera, an 8MP front-facing camera, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot, and whopping 5,000mAh battery. It is a mid-level phone available at an entry-level price.

$180 at Amazon

$180 at Best Buy

$230 at Walmart

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Image: LG

The Samsung Galaxy Note series is one of the most capable devices for the enterprise, but models also start at $1,000 and go up from there. If you still want an experience with a stylus at a much more affordable price, LG’s Stylo line is worth considering.

The LG Stylo 5 is available as an unlocked smartphone with a 6.2-inch display, 3GB of RAM, microSD card, 3500mAh battery, 13MP rear camera, and 5 MP front-facing camera. It’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 450 processor.

You can use the included stylus for note-taking, artwork, drawing chat messages, and more. Like the latest Galaxy Note devices, you can also slide out the stylus and capture handwritten notes on the go with the screen off.

$200 at Best Buy

$114 at Walmart

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Moto G Power (Image: Motorola)

Moto’s newest budget phone has a focus on very long battery life with an advertised three days of use on a single charge. The Moto G Power has a 5,000mAh battery, 1080p LCD, and Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor to help it achieve long battery life.

In addition to long battery life, this budget Motorola phone has 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage with a microSD card slot, water-repellant design, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. It has a rear triple-camera system with the ability to capture close-up macro shots.

While Motorola doesn’t have the best track record for regular updates, it provides a fairly stock experience with some useful Moto utilities to help you be a bit more efficient.

$230 at Best Buy

$230 at B&H Photo-Video

$250 at Motorola

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While we tend to focus on the Samsung Galaxy S and Note series, Samsung is making waves with its extremely capable A series. The Samsung Galaxy A50 is available from various carriers with the least expensive option being the unlocked version at $249.99 from Samsung.

The Samsung Galaxy A50 (see our full review of the Xfinity Mobile model) sports a gorgeous 6.4-inch Super AMOLED screen, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage with a microSD card and a Samsung Exynos 9610 processor. There are three cameras on the back: 25MP, 8MP, and a 5MP depth sensor with a whopping 25MP front-facing camera. A very large 4,000mAh battery keeps this gorgeous phone powered up.

An optical fingerprint sensor under the display works very well while we also still have a 3.5mm headset jack and USB-C port. The Galaxy A50 is a very good phone and will give you an appreciation for the A series.

$340 at Amazon

$350 at Best Buy

$350 at Walmart

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The Motorola One Action stands out from the pack of affordable phones with a triple rear camera design that brings a 117-degree ultra-wide-angle camera, 12MP standard camera, and a 5MP depth-sensing camera lens at a price much less than flagships with three lenses. ZDNet’s Jason Cipriani was very impressed by the release and I personally am considering one for a test phone.

The Motorola One Action is powered by a Samsung Exynos 9609 processor with Android 9.0 Pie, a 6.3-inch display, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, and a 3500mAh battery.

One unique function we haven’t seen from others is the ability to film video in landscape while holding your phone comfortably in portrait orientation. You can enjoy media on the big display with a small hole-punch front-facing camera too.

There is a minimal level of water resistance, a 3.5mm audio jack, Bluetooth 5.0, and more inside. It’s a capable phone available at a very affordable price.

$199 at Best Buy

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Some people still find a stylus to be an extremely useful input device, but also don’t want to pay $1,000 for a Samsung Galaxy Note. Motorola offers the Moto G Stylus with an integrated stylus that helps you navigate, input text, draw, and capture notes. It’s not as full-featured as the S Pen experience on a Note, but you can buy three Moto G Stylus phones for the price of a new Galaxy Note.

In addition to the integrated stylus experience, the Moto G Stylus has 4GB of RAM, 128GB internal storage, and a microSD card slot. It’s triple rear camera system includes the unique Moto Action Cam that lets you shoot landscape video content while holding your phone in portrait orientation.

Check out our full review for all the details on this affordable stylus phone.

The large 6.4-inch display and Snapdragon 665 processor combine with a 4,000mAh battery to provide nearly two days of battery life. Moto Actions help you work efficiently too.

$270 at Amazon

$270 at Best Buy

$300 at Motorola

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Google’s Pixel line of phones has been competing with flagships from Apple, Samsung, and Huawei. Google revealed the Pixel 3a at just $399 a few months ago, and the press has been extremely pleased with its performance. It’s a mid-level phone, but the standout camera from the Pixel 3 is included, so if you want the absolute best phone for under $400 that will be updated for years, then you can’t go wrong with a Pixel 3a in Just Black, Purple-ish, or Clearly White.

Even better for the masses, Google is selling these in T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint stores. Stay tuned as Google gets ready to announce the Pixel 4 in October.

The Pixel 3a is running Android 9 Pie and is assured of getting updated to Android 10 on a timely basis. It has a 5.6-inch display with a rear 12.2MP camera, and a front 8MP camera with Google’s fantastic image processing software.

A Snapdragon 670 powers the Pixel 3a with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 3,000mAh battery, and stereo speakers. A fast rear fingerprint scanner unlocks the phone while it also still retains a 3.5mm headphone jack.

$554 at eBay

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Apple, Inc.

Apple satisfied those looking for a tiny phone a few years ago with the 2016 iPhone SE. This year, it introduced another SE model in a larger form factor that carries on the tradition of the Touch ID front fingerprint sensor. The new 2020 iPhone SE is available now for a very affordable $399 and finds itself on our 10 best smartphones list.

ZDNet’s Jason Cipriani spent a few days with the iPhone SE and offered up four quick thoughts on the new iPhone. I picked one up since I didn’t have an iPhone around and it is more than meeting my iOS needs at the moment. It’s a small smartphone with performance that rivals the best Android phones.

The new iPhone SE is an iPhone 8 with upgraded internals to match the modern iPhone 11 range. A single camera is found on the back, but Apple is able to bring its expertise to play to make it a solid performer in the optical department.

$399 at Apple

$379 at Back Market

$399 at Amazon

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