Smartphones are ridiculously expensive, and U.S. wireless carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon go out of their way to make them seem affordable. I mean, why not buy a $950 Galaxy Note 8 if you only have to pay $0 down and $30 a month for it?
Let me list the reasons why: you’re still wasting hundreds of dollars you could use to buy or save for something else that may add value to your life. It also gives your wireless carrier a lot of control over you, since you can’t leave a carrier until you pay off the balance on your phone. A phone you buy from your carrier likely won’t work on other networks either. Having a locked phone makes it harder to sell or use elsewhere should you decide to switch your LTE provider.
But mostly, why pay $800 – $1,000 when you can get a seriously great, cheap phone for half that price? The affordable smartphones below are WIRED Recommends award-winners. Our top pick is as good as almost any device you can buy, and our other picks strike a great balance between price and luxury.
The OnePlus 5T (9/10 WIRED Recommends) is one of our favorite Android phones at any price. It has the chops (and chips) to go head to head with any device, but costs $200-$500 less than its rivals. You just don’t see devices with top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processors, AMOLED screens, 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of internal storage for $500. And if you do want to spend another $60, you can future proof it for another year or two, giving it 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.
Our only real complaints were that the camera has a few quirks (still very good), it’s only “splash” proof instead of waterproof, and OnePlus doesn’t have the best history with software updates. You’ll probably want to buy a case (this one should protect it from drops) with the money you save. It also only works on GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile.
I could go on, but I’ll just say this: It’s a comfortable, pleasant, fast phone to use. I used to go back to using an iPhone in between other phone reviews. Lately, I keep charging up the OnePlus 5T instead.
The Moto X4 (8/10 WIRED Recommends) is the perfect example of an Android phone that has it where it counts, with some mild compromises to keep costs down. It has a beautiful, waterproof metal and glass design that’s comfortable to hold and well sized. The HD screen is so nice I initially thought it might use fancy OLED technology. Its dual rear cameras and 16-megapixel front camera also get the job done better than many Motorola cameras of old. It’s also unlocked and works on all four major U.S. wireless carriers. Oh, and it runs the latest version of Google’s Android OS (8.0 Oreo). (104) add
Because it runs on a mid-range Snapdragon 630 processor and 3GB of RAM, you will get an occasional dash of lag, but I found its slowdowns predictable and far less annoying than most phones at this price. You also may want to buy a MicroSD card (they’re cheap) to amp up the 32GB of onboard storage.
The best part about the X4 is that it’s often on sale for $250 – $350, even cheaper than its normal $400 price. I recommend the Amazon version, though you’ll need Amazon Prime to get it. It comes with some Amazon apps, but it’s usually a lot cheaper.
The Moto G5 Plus is about a year old, but it’s still a fine phone, and you can absolutely pick it up. It will likely be replaced by the Moto G6 sometime before summer 2018. The G5 Plus performs every essential phone function well enough that you won’t go nuts taking a photo or waiting for an app to load.
This phone is almost competitive with the Moto X4, but lags behind in processor speed, waterproofing, and a few other areas. But if you’re on a budget, it will do the trick just fine, and is more than adequate for a teenager or casual phone user. It’s unlocked and works on most U.S. wireless carriers.
If you want a small upgrade, the Moto 5GS Plus is a great alternative. It’s an upgraded Moto G5 that came out in late 2017. The two phones are mostly identical, but the G5S has a slightly larger 5.5-inch screen, upgraded 8-megapixel selfie camera, and dual rear cameras for depth effects. Opt for the version with 64GB Storage and 4GB RAM. It’s faster and will last longer.
Buy the G5 Plus for $220, exclusive to Amazon Prime members or $260 on Motorola.com, Walmart, Jet.com, and Newegg
Let’s get real here—the iPhone is awesome. When it’s all said and done, I still prefer iPhone to most Android devices because of its stability, app selection, and camera quality, among other reasons. Problem is, it’s expensive. Since Apple only releases 2-3 iPhones a year, selection is limited.
If you want to spend less than $500 on an iPhone, try an iPhone 7. The iPhone 7 (8/10 WIRED Recommends) is still new enough that it should last you at least a couple years before it’s too weak to keep up. iPhone 6S/SE are also okay, but I’d advise against buying them due to their age (unless you want a small phone).
One of the links below are to a “Certified Refurbished” iPhone 7 on Amazon. Amazon guarantees the products for at least 90 days if it’s certified, which is why I prefer it’s plans more than some other retailers. I recommend you buy a 128GB unit (unless you don’t have many photos) and choose a retailer with at least a few hundred reviews (90% or above), preferably with Amazon Fulfillment. Don’t be picky about color. You can buy a nice case to make it any color you prefer.
Apple is a safer choice. If you go with Apple, you’ll have somewhat higher prices, but it will come with a one-year warranty, which is good piece of mind. You can also go complain directly to Apple if things go awry.
LG G6: The LG G6 is one of the best, most powerful Android phones from 2017. It has a top-notch processor, camera, and screen.
Currently, it’s $420 Unlocked on Amazon and $513 on Jet.com.
Google Pixel (Certified Refurbished): Google’s Pixel phones are our favorite devices on the Android side because they get software and security updates directly from Google each month. The 2016 model is still speedy (9/10 WIRED Recommends), and we’ve seen some Certified Refurbished models on sale for less than $350. That means you’ll get a 90-day warranty with it. Try to pick a vender that has well over a 90% positive rating and hundreds (preferably thousands) of reviews. Amazon Fulfillment is great, too.
iPhone SE: This iPhone is small but mighty, even if it’s getting old. This compact device has the brain and camera of the late-2015 iPhone 6s, which holds up pretty well today. The iPhone SE (which we rated a 7/10 when it debuted) is also one of the only iPhones that retains a headphone jack, great if you don’t want to tote Lightning dongles with you everywhere. But, most importantly, the iPhone SE starts at only $349 brand-new, making it worth considering if you just gotta have an Apple smartphone.
If a phone isn’t listed here, or if it’s refurbished, be careful. It’s easy to waste money or time when you’re shopping for affordable phones. You cannot trust how a cheaper phone will act in the long-term when you use it in a store for five minutes, and retail employees may not be much help. Make sure you read reviews online. For instance, in the last couple months we were not thrilled with the affordable HTC U11 Life or the Honor 7X.
For whatever reason, big manufacturers like Samsung like to keep selling their notable, old pre-2016 devices, like the Galaxy S5. Avoid any device that originally came out before 2016 (and try for 2017) on principal because it probably won’t continue to get software updates for long, if it’s even supported now. It may also have other outdated components.
Make sure whatever phone you buy will work on your wireless carrier. It should say clearly whether it will on retailers like Amazon. Make sure it also says it’s “unlocked,” but know that if you’re a Verizon or Sprint customer, there’s a higher chance an unlocked phone will not work on your network. Make sure it is labeled to work on them or says it’s CDMA capable. AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers, which is the standard for most of the world; most unlocked phones are compatible with them. If you’re nervous, Google the “specs” on the exact model you’re buying. Make sure it has the LTE bands it needs to run on your carrier. This guide may help. (119) add
Winter and spring are good times to buy a more affordable phone. Most top devices come out toward the end of the year, so there are a lot of fresh options in the new year. A few high-end devices will come out from March – June and then more in late summer, but this is the best time of year to buy a phone without also getting a major case of FOMO after you buy. The OnePlus 5T, Moto X4, and LG G6 won’t be replaced until the second half of 2018, most likely, which is also when the iPhone 9 (or 11 or XI or whatever Apple calls it) will come out. (113) add
The Moto G5 Plus, on the other hand, is likely due for a replacement this spring.
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