When I tell people my job, I’m often asked, “what’s the least I should spend on a new phone?” The answer, if an admittedly pithy one, is “whatever your budget can afford.” With smartphones as with everything else, if you spend more, you get more. But if all you can afford is a $150 phone, then get a $150 phone.
Now, assuming that you can spend more than the bare minimum your budget will allow on a phone, and you want to spend less money, we’re talking about a different range of priorities. And at that point, it’s important to consider your expectations of what you want your phone to do. In 2021, you can get a pretty good phone for $250, and a really great phone for $400, but you won’t get the latest status symbol with a 5G radio, folding screen, and built-in Bat signal.
So with this in mind, here are a few guidelines on what you can expect at the various price levels. It’s not my job to tell you how much is too much to spend on a phone—your own budget and your desire for features can tell you that. But you can use this information to find a place where those constraints (if you have them) meet in the middle.
And keep in mind that we’re using US dollars as our rubric here. The scale may be different internationally, sliding up or down based on more factors than mere currency conversion. Also note that most carriers now offer monthly payment plans. These don’t typically save you money over a two-year period, but with zero interest, they don’t cost you anything except the lack of choice to switch to another carrier for a couple of years.
Under $100: Buy Used Instead
Woof. Buying a new phone for less than a hundred bucks is a tough proposition: if you want anything beyond a basic “feature phone” (an old-fashioned one that does not run Android or iOS), you’re going to have to make pretty huge compromises on every front: performance, storage, screen, camera quality, sometimes even basic build quality and call reception.
If you positively need a smartphone for less than $100, I recommend that you buy used or refurbished. Android phones lose value quickly, so you can probably find a mid-range phone from 2-3 years ago, or a flagship phone (or iPhone) that’s older than that, in this price range. If it hasn’t suffered screen or water damage, it’s probably going to be a much better experience than the absolute cheapest new phone that you can buy.
The first thing to degrade on pretty much every smartphone is the battery. If you can get the battery replaced with a new one (typically around $75 at a phone repair shop), you can revitalize an old phone very quickly.
$100-200: Expect Some Compromises
This is about the bottom of the range for a new budget smartphone at the moment. At under $200, you’ll get most of the standard capabilities of Android and iOS: browsing the web, downloading apps, taking photos, using Bluetooth accessories, sometimes even (gasp!) texting and talking. You can play mobile games, so long as you keep it basic.
You won’t get what you might think of as the side dishes of the mobile world. No NFC chips for mobile payments, no wireless charging, no water resistance to protect your phone if you drop it in the sink. You might not even get a fingerprint reader. You’ll also be looking at a pretty huge performance gap: with slower processors and less memory, you’ll see apps open and switch slowly, and running multiple high-performance apps at once might tax your phone a lot.
You might be able to find a big screen phone in this range, but it will be a low-resolution, low-quality LCD panel. Lower-quality phone components, including the phone’s body and tempered glass, will probably make it more fragile. The low-quality cameras won’t beat out a point-and-shoot, and with less storage (get a MicroSD-packing model, if you can) you’ll be able to take fewer of them.
BLU G9 Pro
The G9 Pro includes a huge screen and surprisingly packed features for its price.
Moto E 2020
This entry-level phone from Motorola is almost as cheap as they come, just be prepared to deal with low power and few features.
Moto G7 Play
The G7 Play has a little more oomph than the Moto E, thanks to a Snapdragon 632 processor. It also has a fingerprint reader.
$200-300: Surprisingly Good Deals
This section of the smartphone market has seen some shocking improvement over the last few years. These phones aren’t just “acceptable,” they’re pretty darn good in their own right. The biggest boost over the lower level is better processors and more memory, allowing for smooth performance in most apps and easy (if not instant) switching between them.
At this price range, you still won’t get those fancy extras like wireless charging or water resistance in most cases, and the quality of tempered glass is often below others. But you might be able to find NFC for mobile payments, and the cameras will be good enough for posting selfies on social networks at approximately point-and-shoot level. These phones can probably at least try to run 3D mobile games, though performance may not be smooth.
By the end of 2021 you should see at least a few 5G phones below the $300 price point. Even so, you’ll probably still want to find one that lets you expand the storage small standard storage with MicroSD.
BLU G90 Pro
The G90 Pro has tons of features and great specs for its price, with few compromises.
OnePlus Nord N10 5G
The OnePlus Nord N10 5G is one of the cheapest phones on the market with a 5G radio.
Samsung Galaxy A21
The Galaxy A21 gets integration with Samsung services, plus a huge screen, fingerprint reader, and triple-camera array, for an entry-level price.
$300-500: The Smartphone Sweet Spot
Review Geek’s Phone of the Year for 2020 is the Pixel 4a, which retails for $350. And it’s easy to see why: it gets almost everything you want in a high-end Android phone, in a price that’s accessible to many more people than before. The iPhone SE (2020 version) is just a bit more at $400, and it’s the first iOS phone on this list. Again, it’s a great device, giving you almost everything you want from an iPhone for about half the price of the cheapest “flagship” model.
In this range, you can get good performance, good (occasionally great!) cameras, good screens, NFC for payments, and you might even see one or two of those premium features, like wireless charging or water resistance. (The iPhone SE has both!) We’re even starting to see 5G phones dip into this price range, though I’d consider that the last feature you should look for at its current adoption level.
If your budget is anywhere below $500, you can get an excellent phone for significantly less than a flagship, with few compromises and no regrets. It’s the optimum mix of value and performance.
Google Pixel 4a
Review Geek's Smartphone of the Year for 2020, the Pixel 4a is everything you need in an Android phone and nothing you don't.
Apple iPhone SE (2020)
With a stunning mix of features and performance, the iPhone SE is an absolute star ... unless you want a big screen.
Samsung Galaxy A51
The Galaxy A51 gets the essence of Samsung's flagship phones, while shaving a few features off to bring the price down.
$500-700: Going Back For Seconds
For a few bucks above the midrange phone models, you can get a really nice experience with slightly better screens and cameras. But the big difference will be faster processors and more memory, allowing you faster access to your apps and fewer restarts after you switch away from them. At this price range, there’s a barely-noticeable difference in performance in stepping down from top-tier devices.
Materials start to get much better at this price range, too. Phone cases switch from plastic to metal and/or glass, giving them a more premium feel, and features like 5G, wireless charging, water resistance, and multi-lens camera modules are much more common. With access to premium processors and some clever engineering, they tend to have very good battery life, too.
It’s worth noting that you can usually get last year’s flagship Android and iPhone models in this price range, picking up the last new units that weren’t sold at carriers or retailers. One year’s improvement is usually pretty slight, and most of them (especially iPhones) will be running the latest version of the software.
Google Pixel 4a 5G
The 4a 5G is this year's big-screen Google phone, with extra 5G and multi-camera capabilities over the cheaper Pixel 4a. Note: the Verizon version is more expensive!
Samsung Galaxy S20 Fan Edition
Samsung makes a play for value with this budget alternative to the S20, only skimping on a glass case and high-res screen.
Apple iPhone 11
Last year's iPhone is still an awesome mobile machine, with fantastic cameras and the latest iOS software.
$700-1000: Flagship Playground
This is the price most phone makers want you to consider “standard,” even though it’s moved a lot in the last few years. For $700-1000, you get the tip-top of almost everything: fantastic, high-refresh screens, the latest camera technology, great battery life, and all the extras like wireless charging, 5G radios, and water-resistant body designs with premium materials.
The screen, processor and RAM, and the camera are the most dramatic improvements at this price range. Performance in all apps and games is buttery-smooth on a flagship phone, with quick switching between them. Some of the photos you can take will rival that of a DSLR thanks to advanced post-processing and the latest sensors and lenses. They’ll also get access to some neat extras, like reverse wireless charging (for charging up true wireless headphones on the go) or Apple’s MagSafe magnetic attachment system.
You’ll pay for the privilege in all of these phones, as these are the money-makers in the market. But they do make the experience pretty great. Whether that’s worth the extra expense is up to you. You might consider one last thing: these popular flagship phones also have the widest support for cases, screen protectors, and other accessories.
Google Pixel 5
The spirit of the Nexus returns in this nearly flawless (if slightly pricey) Google flagship phone.
OnePlus 8 Pro
The OnePlus flagship hits all the same notes as competition from Google and Samsung, with smart software tweaks and a great screen to boot.
Apple iPhone 12
The most popular, for a reason. Apple's mix of software and hardware is nearly impossible to beat, and the new MagSafe accessory system is great.
Over $1000: I Want It All
If your budget stretches to the very top of the market, there’s not a lot that you can’t do. To be honest, pretty much no one really needs a phone this expensive, but if you can afford it and you want truly the latest and greatest, it’s what you’re going to spend.
There are two primary areas where these phones go above and beyond the previous range. The first is camera quality. Both Apple and Samsung reserve their very best camera technology for the tip top of the market in their “Pro” and “Ultra” phones, respectively. With more sensors, better lenses, and add-ons like extreme telephoto and laser depth processing, they can capture images and videos that are jaw-dropping. If you have the skills (and sometimes the equipment) to complement them, you can sometimes get even better photos than a DSLR with these phones.
The other area is one that’s less definable: cutting-edge form factors, like folding phones. Samsung’s Galaxy Flip and Galaxy Z Fold series, as well as the Surface Duo (Android-powered despite coming from Microsoft), are all well above the $1000 mark—some approaching close to double that. These whimsical designs might be the future of the smartphone market, but for the time being, they’re priced way out of the reach of most buyers. They’re also still going through fairly rapid design evolution in both software and hardware, so even if you can afford them, you might want to go for a super-premium conventional design instead.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
The best that Apple has to offer combines a massive screen with a triple rear camera module that can go toe-to-toe with professional DSLR cameras.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Samsung's ace in the hole for the camera war is a dedicated lens that can hit a ridiculous 100x zoom.