Who would’ve thought a few years ago that phones would be described as smart? Gone are the days of typing in your own ringtones and trying to beat the top score on Snake (although we sometimes wish it would make a comeback): now is the era of the smartphone.
People seem to forget, when discussing smartphones, that what you have in your pocket is a supercomputer. Technology is developing quicker than ever: compared to what we were dealing with even 20 years ago, you have a lot of power in your palm.
For us, “budget” smartphone stretches close to £400, especially for a phone that will last you a good few years: it’s a vital piece of personal tech, and has only become more so in the time of lockdown.
However, there are plenty of examples of budget smartphones at the lower end of the scale that do a great job for solid value.
A new generation of smartphone producers from China have disrupted the budget phone market, with brands like Xiaomi providing high-end specs for a low-end price. The usual suspects also make an appearance, but with a wider range of choices than ever, now’s the time to shop around.
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The best budget smartphones for 2021 are:
- Best starter smartphone – Xiaomi redmi note 9T: £179, Amazon.co.uk
- Best battery life – Moto G9 power: £179.99, Johnlewis.com
- Best for families – Nokia 1.4: £89.99, Nokia.com
- Best mid-range budget smartphone – Moto G 5G plus: £179.99, Johnlewis.com
- Bestoverall Android experience– Google pixel 4a: £299, Currys.co.uk
- Best no-nonsense performer – POCO X3 pro: £229, Mi.com
- Best for portability– Xiaomi mi 11 lite 5G: £399, Mi.com
- Best value galaxy smartphone – Samsung galaxy A52 5G: £349, Samsung.com
- Best Android 5G experience – Google pixel 4a 5G: £299, Currys.co.uk
- Best value Apple smartphone – iPhone SE (2020): £399, Johnlewis.com
Best phones under £200
Best: Starter smartphone
Dimensions: 161.9 x 77.3 x 9.05 mm
Camera: Rear 48MP wide angle, 2MP macro, 2MP depth; front 13MP
OS: Android 10 with MIUI 12
Xiaomi has done a brilliant job of disrupting the smartphone market in the UK. Its various ranges – redmi, POCO, mi – all offer great specs for any budget, but its redmi note 9T is perhaps one of its best launches. It’s barely believable that a 5G-ready phone is on the market for such a low price, and you’d fear that this indicates a lack of quality elsewhere. However, the note 9T has snappy processing speed thanks to MediaTek’s 800U chip – great for gamers and streamers – and its screen is comparable to any other phone at this price.
There are other phones from Xiaomi with 5G capability that rival the redmi note 9T for specs, such as the mi 10T lite or slightly-pricier mi 11 lite (see below), but this is a solid phone that is future-proofed and performs tasks with a minimum of fuss.
Best: Battery life
Dimensions: 172.14 x 76.79 x 9.66 mm
Camera: Rear 64MP, 2MP macro, 2MP depth; front 16MP
OS: Android 10
Storage: 128GB with microSD slot
Motorola fills us with warm, techie emotions: we still consider the original Motorola razr to be the pinnacle of phone aesthetics. While the G9 power doesn’t have the flip phone thrill, its Moto approach is one of reliability and performance. The “power” in the name comes from the frankly outrageous 6000mAh battery, comfortably the biggest battery in a phone at this price and above. To get almost two days of life out of a smartphone is ludicrous, but that’s what you get here, along with decent performance across the board, smooth operation and a bright, vibrant screen. A very sound choice when it comes to value for money.
Best: For families
Dimensions: 166.42 x 76.72 x 8.7 mm
Camera: Rear 8MP, 2MP macro; front 5MP
OS: Android Q Go
Storage: 32GB with microSD slot
It’s nice to see Nokia still producing phones. There’s something a little nostalgic about switching on the 1.4 – maybe it’s the characteristic Nokia tune that anyone reading this can now hear in their head, or maybe it’s because of how no-nonsense Nokia has been since its inception as a pulp mill in 1865, right through to the first truly-indestructible human-made product, the Nokia 3210.
Back to the present day, the Nokia 1.4 is the perfect starter smartphone, at a price that beggars belief. From a great screen size to its super lightweight feel, there’s not much wrong with it. Yes, its specs aren’t brilliant: it’s not the smoothest operator, feeling a little clunky when moving between apps, and the camera is grainy and struggles in low light. But it all works, and at this price, what more could you want?
Best phones under £300
Best: Mid-range budget smartphone
Dimensions: 168 x 74 x 9 mm
Camera: Rear 48MP, 5MP macro, 8MP ultra wide, 2MP depth; front 16MP ultra wide, 8MP
OS: Android 10
Storage: 64GB/128GB with microSD slot
It’s only taken a couple of years, but there are now 5G-ready phones at prices that rival their non-5G counterparts. One such phone is the Moto G 5G plus, a handy phone that has an impressive Snapdragon system under the case and 90Hz screen refresh, both seen rarely at this price point. This is a great all-rounder of a phone, a dependable handset that has above and beyond the goods to do its job, while offering 5G at an affordable cost.
Best: Overall Android experience
Dimensions: 144 x 69.4 x 8.2 mm
Camera: Rear 12.2 MP dual-pixel; front 8MP
OS: Android 11
The Google pixel 4a is a cut above the rest of the sub-£300 market. It’s smaller than many of the other phones on this list, but its screen reaches the edges of the phone, making for a pretty lightweight, slender smartphone that still provides a widescreen appeal.
The screen itself is vibrant – its well-balanced colours popping clearly – and sound is as close to true stereo as you can get at this level, with the top and bottom speakers playing audio at a barely-discernible volume difference. The cameras, which have long been acknowledged as some of the best available, continue to impress, with incredible detail in close-up shots, great contrast and depth of field, and class-leading low light photography. It also runs more smoothly and snappily than any other phone in our round-up, switching between apps and programmes cleanly and immediately.
The only reason this isn’t the best phone under £300 is the lack of 5G capability (a 5G version is available for £399). However, this is the best Android experience you can get, from a range of phones that have consistently performed at the top of the game for years.
Best: Non-nonsense performer
Dimensions: 165.3 x 76.8 x 9.4 mm
Camera: Rear 48MP, 8MP ultra wide, 2MP macro, 2MP depth; front 20MP
OS: Android 11 with MIUI 12 for POCO
Storage: 128GB/256GB with microSD slot
When you open the POCO X3 pro’s box, you’re greeted with the tagline “Everything you need, nothing you don’t”. It’s exactly right. This is simply a high-performing smartphone for a price that really should be much higher. Marketing for the X3 pro is mainly focused on the gaming potential of the phone, but all of its features extend to making the phone a very impressive device for general use: moving between apps is frictionless, the Snapdragon 860 chip ensures lagless gameplay, the cooling technology protects against your phone overheating during demanding media sessions and the Gorilla Glass 6 should lessen that horrible feeling when you drop your phone.
The look might be a little simplistic and clunky for some, but it feels strong in your hands, and the camera performs admirably. The screen is a good size and offers 120Hz refresh rates, keeping everything smooth as silk, and the battery will give you around 18 hours of non-stop video. It all comes together to make a phone that performs at a much higher level than the price you pay.
Best phones under £400
Xiaomi mi 11 lite 5G: £399, Mi.com
Best: For portability
Dimensions: 160.53 x 75.73 x 6.81 mm
Camera: Rear 64MP, 8MP ultra wide, 5MP telemacro; front 20MP
OS: Android 11 with MIUI 12
Storage: 128GB/256GB with microSD slot
The mi 11 lite 5G is a long winded name for a very well put together phone. The mi range can be a bit of a confusing place to shop, as all the phones have very similar names, including the 11 lite 5G, but this is a handset that stands out from the rest. The word “lite” is a misnomer, as the phone offers plenty of heavy-hitting tech. The 90Hz screen is backed up by solid processing power, the battery lasts an age, and Xiaomi’s MIUI 12 skin for Android is a neat piece of software.
The mi 11 lite is also an absolute beauty: it’s the slimmest 5G phone we tested for this round-up, a huge plus point in a world of relatively clunky budget smartphones. While other phones at this price might offer more power, or slightly better camera specs, the inclusion of 5G capability here really makes the mi 11 lite a serious contender for your cash.
Best: Value galaxy smartphone
Dimensions: 159.9 x 75.1 x 8.4 mm
Camera: Rear 64 MP, 12MP, 5MP, 5MP; selfie 32MP
OS: Android 11 with One UI 3.1
Storage: 128GB with microSD slot
The galaxy A52 5G is easy, snappy and feels much more premium than the price would suggest. The screen is as good as any phone here – an exceptional 120Hz Super AMOLED display – and the sound feels as close to stereo as you’d expect at this level. The cameras are good, albeit potentially not on the same level as other similar models, but shoot crystal clear shots in normal mode.
The A52 is a great Android experience (besides oddly making you download TikTok on setup) and is fantastic value for the price, with much higher specs than you’d expect in a sub-£400 smartphone. For galaxy enthusiasts, this is far and away the best mid-range smartphone you can get, with that all-important 5G capability.
Best: Android 5G experience
Dimensions: 153.9 x 74 x 8.2 mm
Battery: minimum 3800mAh
Camera: Rear 12.2MP wide, 16MP ultra wide; front 8MP
OS: Android 11
The pixel 4a is a brilliant phone. To get the 4a with 5G-ready technology costs an extra £100, which looks, on the surface, a steep extra when compared to other 5G-ready phones on this list.
However, there’s more to the 4a 5G than 5G capability. The 4a 5G has a better battery and is slightly larger, with a bigger screen and more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset. Its camera is also more advanced, with a wide angle lens fitting more of your landscapes in, and a promising-sounding astrophotography mode.
If you’re looking for the pure Google experience and have an eye on the future, the pixel 4a 5G is the perfect option, providing good value for money and specs that outstrip many other options.
Best: Value Apple smartphone
Dimensions: 138.4 x 67.3 x 73 mm
Battery: 1821mAh Li-Ion
Camera: Rear 12MP dual-pixel, panorama up to 63MP; front 7MP
OS: iOS 14
Apple released the iPhone SE as a cheaper option for those who want to be part of the Apple ecosystem without committing a paycheck in one go. The SE, however, is by no means a “budget” phone when it comes to what’s inside, providing most of the features Apple’s more expensive devices have. The super fast A13 Bionic chip inside is the same as the one found in the iPhone 11 Pro: a promising aspect that should keep the phone performing well a good few years down the line.
The high-end processing power found in the SE makes this smartphone a great option for Apple users that have been holding onto an older iPhone for a little too long, or for those who fancy making the jump to iPhone with a little less financial risk. It’s really very good.
The verdict: Budget smartphones
There are great options at each price point. For a great starter smartphone with an impressive array of features, you can’t go wrong with the Xiaomi redmi note 9T. Your choice at the higher end of the budget market really comes down to personal taste, but the Google pixel 4a 5G really has all you need from a smartphone at any price.
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