Update: We’ve replaced the OnePlus 3T with the OnePlus 5. The OnePlus 5 is now our top pick, and the ZTE Axon 7 is now the second-best budget Android smartphone.
Well more than a billion smartphones were sold across the world in 2016. One of the great things about the fierce competition in the smartphone market is that prices are tumbling down. That makes buying one of the best cheap phones outright, without being locked into a two-year contract, a realistic possibility for everyone under the sun.
The tricky part is finding the right phone for you, but don’t worry, because we’re here to help. We’ve been testing out the best budget smartphones and this is our short list. If you have a little more money to spend, head over to our best smartphones guide to see our top picks.
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Why should you buy this: With specifications surpassing even the Samsung Galaxy S8, the OnePlus 5 does everything well at a fraction of the cost.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants a near stock Android experience at a lower price than the Google Pixel
How much will it cost: $480+
Why we picked the OnePlus 5:
While the $480 price tag means this is the most expensive OnePlus smartphone to date, you’ll be hard pressed to find internals as powerful for a comparable price. The OnePlus 5 is sleek, with a minimal design that resembles the iPhone. The dual-camera setup on the rear is heavily inspired by the camera on Apple’s latest iPhone 7 Plus — there’s even a Portrait mode that applies a bokeh effect, where it blurs out the background of a subject. It’s mostly accurate, and sometimes beats out the iPhone 7 Plus.
Want the fastest Qualcomm processor to power your smartphone? The OnePlus 5 has you covered with a Snapdragon 835. It’s the same chip powering the Samsung Galaxy S8, HTC U11, and Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium — phones that cost more than $650 a pop — and it even offers more RAM. You get a choice of either 6GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage, or 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
The 5.5-inch AMOLED screen only offers 1,920 x 1,080-pixel resolution, but that should be more than enough for most people. You also get Bluetooth 5, which offers faster connectivity and range, along with OnePlus’ proprietary fast-charging technology, Dash Charge. The latter provides you with a full day of battery life in just 30 minutes. Speaking of the battery, the OnePlus 5 has a 3,300mAh capacity and can be charged via a USB Type-C port. And yes, you can charge and listen to music at the same time, because there’s a headphone jack on the bottom of the phone.
One of the OnePlus 5’s biggest draws is its smooth and accessible user experience. The Oxygen operating system is based on Android 7.1.1, and the user interface is akin to the one on the Google Pixel, except it allows for far more customization. For example, you can turn on a system-wide dark mode, or change the accent color of the notification drawer, among other actions.
You should note, however, that the OnePlus 5 is only available on GSM networks, meaning you can use it on AT&T and T-Mobile, but it won’t work with a Sprint or Verizon connection. Other downsides include the phone’s lack of water resistance and its slippery exterior. Some people may also scoff at how similar it looks to the iPhone, and the lackluster camera. But for $480, you’re getting equal, if not better performance, than the Galaxy S8 — without the gimmicks.
OnePlus 5 Review
The best cheap iPhone
Why should you buy this: It’s the best 4-inch smartphone ever made with many of the same specs as the iPhone 6S and a strong camera.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants an iPhone, but has limited cash or just likes ‘em small
How much will it cost: $400+
Why we picked the iPhone SE:
This is the obvious choice for bargain-seeking Apple fans who have their hearts set on an iPhone. It takes most of the features of the iPhone 6S and packs them into the body of an iPhone 5S. If you feel like modern smartphones are getting too big, then the iPhone SE will suit you perfectly.
It has the same A9 processor as the 6S, backed by 2GB of RAM. On paper that doesn’t sound impressive, but in terms of real world performance, it’s lightning fast and beats many more expensive phones. There’s a great 12-megapixel main camera that takes sharp, crisp, natural-looking photos, and has support for Live Photos. You also get Touch ID, Siri, and NFC for Apple Pay.
The 4-inch screen matches the 6S for pixel density, so it’s sharp and clear. The iOS platform is very easy to use and you get access to an excellent library of slick apps and games. The battery is only rated at 1,642mAh, but since it’s powering a smaller display, it results in above average stamina.
Inevitably, there are some disappointments here. The front-facing camera is just 1.2-megapixels, so this is not the phone for selfie fans. The basic version only has 16GB of storage, which isn’t enough, and it will cost you an extra $50 to jump up to 64GB. There’s also no 3D Touch. Despite the compromises, this is the most reasonably priced iPhone you can buy right now.
iPhone SE Review
The second budget Android phone
ZTE Axon 7
Why should you buy this: It’s a true flagship killer with high-end specs, great processing power, and a sharp camera — all wrapped up in a sleek metal package.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants a great Android phone at a relatively low price
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the ZTE Axon 7:
Nothing about the ZTE Axon 7 suggests a budget price. This is a classy piece of tech, sporting an attractive all-metal design with prominent dual speaker grilles flanking a gorgeous 5.5-inch AMOLED screen. It looks and feels expensive and it can compete with some of the best Android phones on performance.
Things don’t get any less impressive when you pop the hood, because there’s a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with 4GB RAM and a whopping 64GB internal storage inside. There’s also a more expensive 128GB version with a whopping 6GB of RAM, and you get a MicroSD card slot for further expansion in both models.
You won’t be disappointed by the camera, either. It features a 21-megapixel camera sensor with electronic and optical image stabilization. The front-facing camera is rated at 8-megapixels. Both take great pictures and offer manual settings. A 3,140mAh battery ensures that the Axon 7 will get through an average day with juice to spare.
Then there’s the front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos technology for unrivaled smartphone sound. If you’re looking for the compromise, you’ll be hard pressed to find it. Even ZTE’s MiFavor UI is mercifully close to stock Android and the manufacturer has pushed out Android 7.0 Nougat, the latest and greatest Android version from Google.
One thing to watch out for is that the ZTE Axon 7 is not officially supported on Verizon or Sprint. It is technically capable of working with their networks, and some people report limited success, but your mileage may vary. It’s also slippery, it’s not water resistant, and there’s no wireless charging support, but we’re nitpicking because this is an unparalleled phone for the money.
ZTE Axon 7 Review
The best phone under $300
Moto G5 Plus
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends
Why should you buy this: The Moto G5 Plus is a great, cheap Android phone with solid specs and a decent camera that won’t let you down.
Who’s it for: Pure Android fans on a budget who prize substance over style
How much will it cost: $280
Why we picked the Moto G5 Plus:
Despite Lenovo’s takeover of the Moto brand, the budget Moto G line is still a budget phone flag bearer. This is the best smartphone you can buy for less than $300 right now.
The G5 Plus boasts a 5.5-inch full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) screen, a zippy Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, and 4GB of RAM. The basic model has 32GB of storage, and there is a MicroSD card slot for expansion. You’ll also find a 12-megapixel camera with phase detection autofocus and laser autofocus, and a wide-angle 5-megapixel selfie camera. A 3,000mAh battery provides enough power to see you through a full day, and there’s a fingerprint sensor with support for swipe gestures.
One of the best things about the G5 Plus is the complete absence of bloatware. It almost feels like stock Android.
Motorola isn’t the most timely manufacturer when it comes to updates, which means it might be a while before the G5 Plus gets a major software upgrade, such as Android O. U.S. G5 Plus models also lack support for NFC, which is sure to disappoint if you’re keen to use your phone for contactless payments. Despite all that, the Moto G5 Plus is still a great all-rounder.
Motorola’s selling a cheaper variant of the G5 Plus, the G5, for $50 less. But you sacrifice the G5 Plus’s superior camera, half the RAM and storage capacity, and the fingerprint sensor. That’s not to say the G5 is a bad budget option, but if you have an extra $50 to spare, the G5 Plus is worth the splurge.
Moto G5 Plus Review
The best phone for less than $200
ZTE ZMax Pro
Why should you buy this: It’s amazing to get a phone this good for less than $200. Its 6-inch Full HD screen is great for phablet fans.
Who’s it for: Anyone with a hard budget who likes big phones
How much will it cost: $100-$180
Why we picked the ZTE ZMax Pro:
You’ll be amazed at what you can get for a single Benjamin here. ZTE is offering an unbeatable bargain with the ZMax Pro, and we’re not sure how it can turn a profit with these specs at this price.
The ZTE ZMax Pro follows the big screen trend with a 6-inch, full HD display. It has a respectable Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor inside with 2GB of RAM. There’s 32GB of storage, with support for MicroSD card expansion. You also get a 13-megapixel main camera and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. The phone is ably powered by a 3,400mAh battery that easily lasts a day between charges.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the ZMax Pro also features a nice curved design, a USB Type-C port with support for fast charging, a fingerprint sensor, and a minimal UI that’s close to stock Android.
The ZTE ZMax Pro is only available through T-Mobile and MetroPCS right now. The only major omission here is NFC. Camera performance is also mediocre, but for $100 it seems churlish to complain, because you are not going to find anything better. It’s $180 at T-Mobile, but that’s nothing to sneeze at, either.
ZTE ZMax Pro Review
How we test
We’re fanatical about our phones here at Digital Trends. Every phone we test serves as our main device for at least a week, often longer, so we can get a real feel for what life would be like living with it. We read on them, game on them, shoot video and photos, navigate, organize, and occasionally even make calls. Every facet is explored, every manufacturer claim is challenged, and we’re careful to take the intended audience and price tag into account when judgment time comes.
Debates on the best phones in different categories are a regular occurrence and no one on the mobile team is shy about sharing their opinion. When we find flaws, we tell like it is. Ultimately, we’ll never recommend any phone that we wouldn’t be happy using ourselves.
Is now a good time to buy?
This is a thorny question for technology in general, because there’s always something better just around the corner. There are signs the smartphone spec war has been slowing down recently, but what you can get for your money at the budget end of the market continues to change quite rapidly.
Much depends on your current situation. If you’re content with the phone you have, then keep it, because the longer you wait, the better your choices will be. You can also potentially save up more money while you wait to see what’s released.
In terms of events, there aren’t many options for budget phones other than the upcoming Moto Z2 Play, Moto E4 Plus, and a rumored budget Google Pixel 2. For Apple fans, there likely won’t be any new phone releases until September 2017, but you never know – the iPhone SE’s March, 2016 release was a surprise.
We think it will probably be late summer, or the middle of fall before we see new smartphones forcing their way onto this list. If you can’t wait that long, and you see something you like, this is a good time to pull the trigger.