Best budget smartphones that don’t miss out on functionality

·11-min read
 (Motorola)
(Motorola)

Phones are expensive. Every year when the biggest brands launch their new devices, it feels like an extra 0 is added to the end of the already elevated price tags.

When you’re cash-strapped and need to replace a phone that has finally gone to meet its maker or your child’s come of an age where they need a device that will likely suffer from knocks and bumps, you might want to limit the amount that you spend.

Luckily, budget phones have come a long way in recent years. Gone are the cumbersome bricks with only basic functionality of yesteryear; nowadays, affordable mobiles can include everything from high-resolution cameras and screen displays, to powerful processors and long-lasting batteries.

The cheapest are those from emerging brands, including Xiaomi, Oppo and Realme, although corners do have to be cut to make these phones so affordable. Keep an eye on refresh rates (the number of times the screen refreshes per second) and the screen resolution, which can make the display less impressive than more expensive handsets - although unless you’re playing games requiring extremely good graphics, then you’re unlikely to notice.

We’ve scoured the shelves for handsets cheaper than £200, where possible, as well as throwing in a couple more expensive but still affordable phones for those keen to stick to a well-known brand but dodge the hefty price tag.

Xiaomi Poco X3 NFC

Battery size: 5,160mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.67-inch, 1080 x 2400 resolution DotDisplay

Refresh rate: 120Hz

Operating system: Android 10

While most budget phones inevitable come with their compromises, you’ll be hard pushed to find them on this standout device from Chinese brand Xiaomi. The Poco X3 NFC impresses with its extremely sharp display. This is helped by the excellent 120Hz refresh rate - in layman’s terms that’s a refresh of the screen 120 times per second or double what you’ll typically find in most of the competition.

Combining its punchy Snapdragon 732G chipset with a huge 6.67-inch display with 2400 x 1080-pixel resolution and you’ve got a handset that’s ideal for gaming, particularly once you add on the large 5,160mAh battery (which allowed this phone to last a couple of days in testing). The NFC functionality is also handy for contactless payments via Google Play, but the one major downside here is the lack of 5G.

The 64MP main camera should ensure high-quality photos but was a little disappointing, so expect to capture only decent images. Despite this, the Xiaomi Poco X3 NFC proves impressive and remains at the very top of the list based on how much is packed into this sub-£200 device.

Buy now £179.00, Xiaomi

Google Pixel 6a

Battery size: 5,000mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.1in, 1080 x 2400 resolution FHD+ display

Refresh rate: 60Hz

Operating System: Android 12

Hot off the press comes Google’s latest mobile phone - the Pixel 6a. An impressive £200 cheaper than the Pixel 6 and with almost identical capabilities, if you’re in the market for a new phone, it doesn’t get much better than this. The adaptive battery can last over 24 hours (up to 72 hours with Extreme Battery Saver) and the intelligent photography captures images arguably better than other big brands on the market.

Powered by Google Tensor, the same processor as the 6 Pro, apps launch and run quickly, images load instantly and everything runs incredibly smoothly.

The phone offers up to 128GB of storage, a dual rear camera system and a 8 MP front camera. With its water and dust proof capabilities, it can be taken anywhere without it getting damaged.

Buy now £399.00, John Lewis

Apple iPhone SE (2022)

Battery size: 2,018mAh

Display size and resolution: 4.7in, 750x1334 resolution ISP display

Refresh rate: 60Hz

Operating System: iOs 15

While there’s always cheaper and more function-packed phones out there, Apple remains a firm favourite among many consumers. While they might not normally be known for the affordability of their smart phones, Apple’s iPhone SE (2022) has bucked that trend.

Despite its teeny tiny battery, this handset uses extremely efficient processing chips to ensure that it lasts a lot longer than you might expect - although it’s unlikely to go for more than a full day with moderate usage. This third-generation phone also includes the A15 Bionic, the same chip used in the iPhone 13, ensuring punchy power.

It’s rated 1P67 for water and dust resistance (meaning it can spend up to 30 minutes in a metre of water without damage) and the 12 MP camera takes decent daytime photos but struggles in low light. It also comes with Apple Pay as standard and 5G connectivity.

Sure, there are more powerful phones that are cheaper, but if it has be Apple and you’re on a budget, then the iPhone SE (2022) will do the trick.

Buy now £419.00, Currys

Nothing Phone (1)

Battery size: 4,500mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.55” 2400x1080-pixel flexible OLED display

Refresh rate: 60Hz - 120H

Operating System: Android 12

The first smartphone from London based tech startup is finally here, and it’s unlike other models on the market. It’s design is particularly unique - the transparent phone exposes over 400 components inside and is inspired by the New York subway map. It runs on Android 12, is available in 128 GB or 256 GB and has an impressive battery life given it’s price.

Nothing’s phone is a leader in sustainability as it’s made with 10 per cent recycled aluminium and industry-leading 50 per cent bio-plastic. The LED interface is a nifty addition that lights up the back of the phone for personalised notifications - the 900 LEDs create unique light-up pattern to indicate who’s calling, app notifications and charging status.

Buy now £399.00, Nothing

Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro

Battery size: 5,020mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.67in, 1080 x 2340 resolution AMOLED

Refresh rate: 120Hz

Operating system: Android 11

If you’ve got the cash, we recommend spending that little bit extra on this smartphone. Essentially an upgraded Xiaomi Poco X3 NFC, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro has a hugely impressive 108MP wide-angle main camera, delivering photo capability that’s the best you can get for a budget phone below £250.

The powerful Snapdragon 732G processor is the same as its cheaper older brother, so spending the extra £50 is really for those where the quality of photography is a deal-breaker. That said, it does boast an AMOLED screen, offering more vivid screen colours and using less battery, as well as being less chunky and slicker looking in the design department, too.

The battery is a whisker smaller than the Poco X3 NFC, but comes with 33W fast charging, meaning you can have it over half charged within just 30 minutes, as well as a handy headphone jack and Android 11 operating system.

Buy now £219.00, Xiaomi

Motorola G50

Battery size: 5,000mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.5in, 720x1600 resolution ISP display

Refresh rate: 90Hz

Operating System: Android 11

For clumsy owners or older family members who have a tendency to leave their devices in a drawer, the Motorola’s G50 is an excellent choice. Sturdy and with a 5,000mAh battery that can last a good few days on one charge, this budget buy is reliable and affordable.

With only a 720-pixel display, would-be gamers or photographers need go elsewhere. Browsing, messaging and calling are the main functions of this phone, particularly as the triple camera array is nothing to write home about, but will capture decent, if thoroughly unremarkable, images.

The Snapdragon 480 chipset is also a little slow, but that’s not really the point with this device. Reliability and sturdiness are its main selling points, as well as 5G connectivity.

Buy now £169.99, Argos

Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T

Battery size: 5,000mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.53in, 1080 x 2400 resolution FHD+ DotDisplay

Refresh rate: 60Hz

Operating system: Android 10

Keen to hit the ground running with 5G connectivity? The Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T means you can do this without breaking the bank. You also get a dual sim, plus NFC capability. What you don’t get is a slick, small phone that fits easily into your pocket - but that’s the case with practically all of the Xiaomi budget range.

You are still paying a price for that 5G inclusion. The display underperforms the Redmi Note 10 Pro, although you’re unlikely to notice, while the refresh rate of just 60Hz is disappointing and an indicator for die hard gamers to go elsewhere. The rear 48 MP camera delivers solid, if not remarkable images, and the processing speed of the MediaTek Dimensity 800U allows it to take multiple apps in its stride.

Realistically, this is worth the cash if you’re desperate for 5G but if not, there are cheaper, and more well-rounded options out there.

Buy now £249.00, Xiaomi

Oppo A54 5G

Battery size: 5,000mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.5in, 1080x2400 resolution Full HD+ display

Refresh rate: 90Hz

Operating System: Android 11

Little known in the UK, OPPO is a Chinese brand that has been making waves with affordable smartphones and they don’t come much more budget than the Oppo A5 2020, which impresses at a sub-£150 price point. Yes, we couldn’t believe it either.

It certainly doesn’t look anything flashy, but it’s 6.5-inch 1080x2400 screen is extremely spacious and competitive, but it is by no means mind blowing in the resolution department. That said, you probably won’t notice the difference when compared with other more expensive devices, so this shouldn’t be a deciding factor.

What should be is its large 5,000mAh battery, which can last and last, making this a reliable choice if you need a phone with long battery life. Processing is also a little slow with only a bog-standard Snapdragon 480 5G chip and a quad-lens camera that’s similarly just ok. But you can’t get everything, and at this price, we think this is a very attractive device.

Buy now £179.99, Currys

Realme 8 5G

Battery size: 5,000mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.5in, 1080x2400 resolution LCD display

Refresh rate: 90Hz

Operating System: Android 11

Want a decent display, a passable camera and 5G, all below £200? You’ll find it in this offering from Realme, a company based in India. The Realme 8 5G is a truly affordable 5G phone. However, to reach this accessible price point, they’ve shaved more than a few corners.

The MediaTek Dimensity 500 5G processor works well, however the 1080x2400 screen uses the less visually attractive LCD display rather than the flagship AMOLED in the Realme 8 model, which may well be a sticking point for gamers, although it does come with a decent 90Hz refresh rate.

And, while the camera array is reduced compared with the previous model, the 48 MP main camera works very well in good light. Despite these downsides, you can’t argue with the price on this one and it’ll make an excellent first phone for kids or cheap handset for students.

Buy now £189.99, Amazon

Samsung Galaxy A32 5G

Battery size: 5,000mAh

Display size and resolution: 6.5in, 720x1600 resolution LCD display

Refresh rate: 90Hz

Operating System: Android 11

Committed to Samsung but struggling to justify the price of the company’s flagship models? The Samsung Galaxy A32 5G is a great halfway house between dependable specs and the quality you expect from this industry leader.

The 90Hz refresh rate and MediaTek Dimensity 720 5G processor promise smooth performance and a slick experience, while the 48MP camera promises high-quality images, although you can expect the normal tendency for oversaturation that you find in most Samsung handsets.

It also includes a MicroSD slot, headphone jack, fingerprint sensor and NFC, plus 5G connectivity, making it a well-rounded and easy to use phone that still comes in below £250.

Buy now £249.00, Samsung

Verdict

You can’t beat Xiaomi’s incredibly well-rounded, and well-priced, Poco X3 NFC, which is a sub-£200 steal. Alternatively, if it’s an iPhone you want, and iPhone you must have, then the SE (2022) is a surprisingly affordable and powerful option from Apple.

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