Spend Less on Your Next Smartphone

These days, you really can find a model packed with the features you want at a reasonable price

OnePlus 8 smartphones
The OnePlus 8T smartphone, $400
Photos: OnePlus

Not so long ago you had to make a painful choice when shopping for a new smartphone: Either shell out big money for a top-of-the-line model or settle for a no-frills budget phone with limited features and battery life.

In recent years, however, Apple, Samsung, and rivals like OnePlus have released an armada of midpriced models that can compete on many levels with even the most expensive devices, which these days run upward of $1,000. More than half of the 50 phones in our current smartphone ratings are priced between $200 and $700, and many receive either a Best Buy or CR-recommended designation from our expert testers.

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The truth is, lots of the features that used to distinguish top-of-the-line models—high-definition screens, image stabilization, and that artsy photo mode that blurs the background of portraits, to name a few—are now available on plenty of lower-priced models.

So what are you sacrificing if you decide not to fork over $1,000 or more for your next phone? Your screen probably won’t boast a “refresh rate” as high as those on top-tier models, so the text and images will be slightly less crisp as you scroll through your Instagram feed. You may have to do without certain advanced camera features—a high-powered optical zoom lens, for example. And you’re not likely to get wireless charging, which lets you power up by setting your phone on a charging “pad” rather than plugging it into an outlet.

For many consumers, those are easy to pass up. But here’s the thing: While lower-priced models don’t sport all those top-shelf features, they often do have some. If you choose carefully, in other words, you may not have to make any sacrifices when it comes to the features that matter most to you.

Below, we look at how today’s less pricey phones stack up in key areas and provide tips on how to find a model with the extras you covet most.

Long-Lasting Battery Life

Even the most feature-packed phone will disappoint if it can’t get you through a full day of work and play. In recent years, Apple, Samsung, and other manufacturers have stretched the battery life of their models, outfitting even budget phones with large batteries and computer chips designed to boost energy efficiency.

In fact, many of today’s lower-priced models deliver a once inconceivable 40-plus hours of use per charge, according to CR testers. The $1,100 iPhone 13 Pro Max logged a category-best 52.5 hours in our labs, but the $400 Samsung Galaxy A42 5G is next at 49 hours and the $170 OnePlus Nord N100 is third at 48.5. All told, 18 of the 50 models in our current ratings reach or exceed the 40-hour threshold.

Great Displays

Consumers tell CR researchers that they want phones with high-quality displays—and here, again, there’s little need to pay top-dollar to get one.

Models like the 6.5-inch Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G, $600, offer the OLED screen technology found in some high-end televisions and the priciest phones from Apple and Samsung. These screens deliver sharper contrast, nearly unlimited viewing angles (so multiple people can comfortably view a photo or YouTube clip at one time), and text and images that are easy to see in all lighting conditions, indoors or out.

And the odds are good you’ll be similarly impressed by the traditional LCD screens on many sub-$700 phones.

Instagram-Worthy Cameras

If there’s one area where midpriced phones tend to fall short of their premium rivals, it’s photography.

Not that less pricey phones deliver obviously substandard images. On the contrary, many produce very impressive selfie shots, rear-camera photos, or rear-camera video, just typically not all three. And the models generally can’t do as much gee-whiz photo magic as the flagship Apple and Samsung phones. Those harness multicamera setups (wide-angle, ultrawide-angle, and zoom) and advanced software to capture sharp images in low-light conditions and crisp action shots from halfway across a soccer field.

So you may have to make some concessions—or pay up—if you’re a serious shutterbug. But maybe not: It’s actually not hard to find older, less expensive iPhone models with premium camera features. The iPhone 12 Mini, $600, and the iPhone 11, $500, have wide- and ultrawide-angle rear cameras like the iPhone 13s. And the iPhone 13 Mini, which sells for $700, has an all-new camera setup designed to produce better low-light shots.

You can also save by zooming in on specific advanced camera functions. For example, the Google Pixel 5a 5G, $450, performs admirably well when it comes to still shots and selfies. The OnePlus 8T, $400 (shown at top), is particularly adept at taking 1080p video. And the $280 LG Velvet 5G produces snapshots worthy of any Instagram feed.

Choose Your Bonus Feature

The priciest phones on the market do bring some cool tricks to the party, including wireless charging, water resistance, and secure facial recognition tech to unlock them.

If you want all of that, you probably do have to spend more than $1,000. But again, many lower-priced models offer one or two of those perks, so check our smartphone ratings chart or online product descriptions if there’s a feature you particularly like. The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G, $600, for example, has wireless charging and a memory card slot for expanded storage in addition to a top-rated camera and long-lasting battery life.

That’s the sort of savvy shopping that leads to real savings—the kind worth phoning home about.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the June 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

As a service journalist, my goal is to help people get the most out of their technology and other tools. Prior to joining CR, my work appeared online and in print for publications including The New York Times, Wirecutter, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics, and PCWorld. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or chasing the puppy. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola). 

Chris Raymond

I was the first kid on my block to own an Atari Pong console. In the years since, I have written scores of stories about tech and innovation, which means I know lots of smart people with the answers to my questions. When I'm not working—or watching college football—you'll find me on Twitter. (@CRay65)