Spend Less on Your Next Smartphone
These days, you really can find a model packed with the features you want at a reasonable price
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.
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.
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.
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.