It’s a Good Time to Buy a Cheap Phone

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It’s a great year to shop for a smartphone on a budget—and a bad year to drop a ton of money on one.

This month, Google started selling the $350 Pixel 4a, which we think is the best all-around Android phone you can buy right now. In April, Apple released the $400 iPhone SE 2, a spruced-up version of the iPhone 8 with a faster processor and improved cameras. Both of these phones cost around half of what phones like the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 cost, but they still do all the important stuff right.

These aren’t the first truly great cheap phones. But they are particularly great and cheap choices as the world enters a recession, and in an era when their fingerprint readers might actually be more convenient than face-scanning cameras, which get tripped up by masks. New high-end phones released in 2020 won’t be as appealing as such models have been in other years, partially because the transition to 5G wireless technology isn’t as exciting—or ready—as marketers want you to believe.

Today’s cheap phones give you more for your money

The Pixel 4a and the iPhone SE 2 largely avoid the normal pitfalls of budget phones: They have fast processors (especially true of the iPhone) that will be able to run apps and games for years to come, as well as great cameras (especially true of the Pixel) that can take decent photos even in challenging lighting conditions, and both are guaranteed at least a few years’ worth of software updates that will add features and keep your phone secure.

Usually if you’re trying to save money on an Android phone, cheap models like those we recommend in our budget Android phone guide would have you covered for software updates, but their processors and cameras would be only serviceable, not great. You could instead buy a high-end Android phone from a year or two ago, which would still perform well and have a nice camera but would get few if any security updates. If you’re buying a cheap iPhone, you’re usually looking at a high-end iPhone from a couple of years ago, which means your processor and camera would still be fine, but the phone itself would be that much closer to aging out of updates. If, for example, you bought an iPhone 7 when it was new in 2016, you could expect at least five or six years of updates, but if you bought it as a budget model in 2018, that number would be closer to three or four.

For the Pixel 4a and iPhone SE 2, none of those things are true. The Pixel 4a isn’t the fastest Android phone you can buy, but its camera is top-notch and you get at least three years of software updates (which is as much as you can reasonably expect from any Android phone). The iPhone SE 2 uses the same Apple A13 processor as the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro and a camera that’s almost identical,1 and you can count on somewhere between five to seven years of software updates.2 In the past, a phone with these perks would have cost $700 or $800—now it’s less than $400.

The iPhone SE against a purple background.Photo: Andrew Cunningham

Expensive phones include features that aren’t worth the price

By now, whether through news articles or some ad somewhere, you may have seen that phone carriers are pushing their new 5G network technology this year (plus brand-new phones that support these flashy new networks). There’s a lot of misinformation about 5G, but when you’re buying a phone, what you need to know is that it’s very new and that you don’t need to buy into the hype yet.

We wrote back in 2019 about all the reasons not to buy a 5G phone: They were bulkier and more expensive than typical 4G LTE phones, 5G was a big drain on the battery, and 5G networks didn’t offer wide enough coverage or good enough range to be all that useful. Some of those things are less true now—the battery life and physical size of phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S20 series are a bit better, and phones like the OnePlus 8 and the upcoming 5G version of the Pixel 4a offer 5G for prices that aren’t eye-wateringly exorbitant.

One day 5G may deliver on its promise of speeds 20 times as fast as current 4G connections. And as carriers build out their networks, 5G will help alleviate congestion so more phones can get and keep a good connection at the same time. But right now, last year’s advice still holds true, and you’re not missing much if you stick with a 4G phone for a few more years and wait for 5G to improve—especially if you don’t live in or near a major city, where most 5G coverage is concentrated.

The other reasons that expensive phones don’t feel all that compelling right now have more to do with the ways Apple, Google, Samsung, and the rest have improved their high-end phones in the past five years or so. Because it has become more difficult to deliver year-to-year speed increases and camera improvements, phone makers have turned to add-on features. These extras—things like big edge-to-edge screens, multiple camera lenses with different zoom levels, and depth-sensing cameras that let you unlock your phone with your face—are often nice to have but rarely essential to the smartphone experience. You don’t need any of that stuff to do the things most people do with their phones: Texting friends, taking photos or selfies, filming your kids, playing a game, scrolling (or doomscrolling) through social media, hopping on a video call, and looking up directions all work just as well on the Pixel 4a and iPhone SE 2 as they do on those phones’ more expensive counterparts.

So if your phone is a few years old, if its screen is cracked or its battery is wearing out, if it’s not getting software updates anymore, or if it’s just having trouble keeping up with your apps, buy one of these less-expensive options rather than waiting for this fall’s noisy 5G phone launches. They’ll cost a lot less, they’ll be familiar and reliable, and you’ll still end up with a faster, better phone than what you have now.

Footnotes

1. Night Mode is the only major exception.
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2. Apple doesn’t publish an official update policy like Google does, but the upcoming iOS 14 update will run on phones released in 2015, and phones released in 2013 and 2014 are still currently receiving security updates.
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