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Premium smartphones like the iPhone 11 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10+ have started creeping closer to $1,000, while dual-screen models like Microsoft’s Surface Duo will set you back even more. These phones have impressive technology inside, but they’re total overkill if you need a smartphone for taking pictures, updating your social media, checking your email, video calling, and occasionally making actual phone calls.
Getting a “budget” smartphone used to mean settling for a subpar experience, and accepting that you’d probably have to upgrade it sooner than you’d want to, but that’s no longer the case. Major companies like Apple and Google have recently released smartphones that can compete with their higher-end (read: expensive) siblings. These phones may not have every single new feature, but the hardware inside of them was built to last for several years.
There are many ways to buy a phone, including monthly installment plans with hard to understand terms. The smartphones below all cost under $500 and come “unlocked,” which means you can use them with the carrier you have, and take it with you if you switch your provider. You won’t have to pay a monthly hardware fee, and can even pop in an international SIM card when you travel abroad.
If you’re due for a phone upgrade, and want to stay within a reasonable budget, you should seriously consider the smartphones below.
There are many factors to consider when choosing the best smartphone under $500 for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Operating System: All of the smartphones in our guide run either iOS (Apple’s software) or Android (Google’s software). Each system has a set of pros and cons, but both can run popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Vibr. Android and iOS also come preloaded with apps that allow you to check your e-mail, add events to a calendar, send and receive messages, and browse the web.
Screen Size: The smartphones below have screens between 4.7-inches and 6.4-inches across. Larger screens are better for reading or watching videos, but you’ll have a harder time fitting them into your pocket, or holding them in your hand.
Camera: Every one of our recommendations can take high resolution pictures and record 4K video, both of which will look good when you upload them to social media sites, or view them on a larger screen like your computer or TV.
Battery Life: Your phone’s battery life will depend on your preferred screen brightness, the apps you use, and your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings. You should be able to get at least seven hours of continuous use from all of these phones, especially if you enable their low power or battery saver modes.
Security: Your smartphone will probably contain sensitive data like your bank information, photos, and messages, so we made sure that our picks had some basic security features to help you avoid getting hacked.
Smart Assistant: The smartphones we’re recommending come with a smart assistant: Siri on the iPhone, and the Google Assistant on Android devices. You can use your smart assistant to send messages, open apps, set timers, create calendar events, or get answers to common questions about the weather, world news, unit conversions, math problems, and more.
4G Compatibility: One of the few downsides to all of these smartphones is that they don’t support 5G networking. That doesn’t matter right now (5G is only available in niche markets,) but it’ll become a bigger deal over the life of your phone once 5G becomes a widespread technology.
1. Best Overall: iPhone SE
The second-generation iPhone SE is Apple’s newest smartphone, and it has many of the key tech specs of the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro.
It has a 4.7-inch high resolution “retina” display with a resolution of 1334 x 750. This makes it the only smartphone in our guide without a Full HD screen, but you’re less likely to notice the difference because of its modest screen size. This is definitely a pocket-friendly smartphone, in a style and shape that many long-time iPhone owners will be familiar with.
The iPhone SE’s screen can show the entire P3 color gamut, so everything you view will look more realistic, and a technology called True Tone will automatically change the display’s color temperature based on the lighting conditions in your room. If you’re in a dark room, it’ll turn a little more amber to stay easier on your eyes.
This smartphone has a single back-facing camera that can take 12MP (megapixel) photos, and record 4K video at up to 60fps (frames per second). It captures high dynamic range photos, which means their colors will look more true to life, and has optical image stabilization, which will compensate for your slight movements to help you get a clear shot. Its front-facing camera can take 7MP photos, and record 1080P (full-HD) videos.
Both the front and rear-facing cameras support “Portrait Mode,” an Apple-developed technology that can blur the background of your pictures to make them look closer to the one’s you’d get from a DSLR.
Apple says you can expect to get about 8 hours of video streaming done on the phone (it’s their most accurate battery measurement), so you should expect to get something close to that with mixed use. The phone supports both fast charging (with the right cable and power adapter), and wireless charging if you’ve got a wireless charging pad.
The iPhone SE has two main security features: the secure enclave, and a Touch ID fingerprint reader. Apple’s security chip automatically encrypts all of your phone’s data, so it won’t be accessible to anyone but you. There are a couple of exceptions: First, if someone is able to figure out your password (please, make it a good one), they’ll have complete access to your phone.
Second, data that’s synced to your iCloud account can still be accessed through a web browser if somebody figures out the password associated with your Apple ID. You can reduce this risk by setting up two-factor authentication, which would send a unique access code to one of your other Apple devices (if you have one).
Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint reader allows you to unlock the phone and pay for purchases without having to enter in a password. Your fingerprint data is stored in the iPhone’s secure enclave, and is never synced to the cloud.
The iPhone SE is a very well-rounded device, and if you’re part of the Apple ecosystem it’ll serve you very well. Apple has already said the phone is compatible with the next version of iOS, and the company typically supports its hardware with regular software updates for several years.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for the best smartphone under $500, you’ve found it.
2. Entry Level: Google Pixel 4a
The Pixel 4a is the latest Android phone released by Google, and it follows many of the same principles that make the iPhone SE such a good value. Instead of starting from scratch Google took most of what’s good about its high-end phones and tricked it down to this one.
The Pixel 4a has a 5.8-inch display with a resolution of 2340 x 1080, which is actually better than a typical full HD display. It’s longer than it is wide, though, which means it should still fit in your pocket pretty well.
This phone has a back-facing camera that can take 12.2MP photos, and record 4K video at up to 30fps. The camera supports optical image stabilization, and can take Portrait Mode style pictures. The Pixel 4a’s front-facing camera can capture 8MP photos and 1080P video at up to 30fps.
Google doesn’t give exact figures about this phone’s battery life, but it includes a fast charging power adapter in the box instead of making it an optional accessory. Oddly, this is the only phone in our guide that doesn’t support wireless charging.
On the security front the Pixel 4a has Google’s Titan M1 chip, which verifies the phone’s operating system each time it boots, encrypts all of its data while the phone is locked, and makes it more difficult for hackers to enter the device by entering different password combinations. As always, please use a strong password to reduce your risks of being hacked. The Pixel 4a also has a fingerprint reader, which allows you to unlock your phone and authenticate yourself in certain apps without entering in a password.
One of the knocks against Android phones is that they don’t receive regular software updates, but the Pixel 4a bucks that trend. Google has committed to supporting the device through at least 2023, so you can get it now without worrying about missing out on the latest and greatest features.
The Pixel 4a is Google’s most basic phone, but it’s also one of the best values in tech.
3. MOST AMBITIOUS: TCL 10 Pro
The TCL 10 Pro is the first smartphone from the company best-known for its excellent 4K TVs, and it’s fully loaded with high-end features.
The 10 Pro has a 6.5-inch screen with a resolution of 2340 X 1080, which stands out from the one on the Pixel 4a despite having an identical spec. First, the screen is physically larger, so it’ll take up more space in your pocket, but offer a more immersive experience when watching video. Second, the TCL 10 Pro has an AMOLED display, which will show colors more accurately than the LCD screen found on the Pixel 4a.
This is the only phone in our guide to feature more than one back-facing camera, and it has four of them. There’s a 64MP camera, a 16MP camera, a 5MP camera, and a 2MP camera. Each has a different aperture, which means it lets in a different amount of light.
The idea is that TCL’s phone can use these four cameras to handle different lighting conditions — bright sunlight, a dark room, sunrise or dusk — better than a single-camera system. The 10 Pro also has a 24MP front-facing camera for video calls or selfies. The back-facing cameras can record video at up to 4K at 30fps, while the front-facing camera is locked at 1080P at 30fps.
Having a camera with such a high megapixel count doesn’t mean it’ll blow the iPhone SE or Google Pixel 4a out of the water on the photo front. You’ll have a higher resolution image, but it’s still up to the camera’s sensors to capture the scene properly.
TCL says the 10 Pro should get you through 10 hours of video playback at maximum brightness, which is its strictest metric. The phone supports fast charging, and TCL includes a fast charging power adapter with it.
This phone doesn’t have a special security chip built into it, but there is a fingerprint reader built below the screen, which lets you unlock the phone without entering in a password.
That’s one of the few limitations that holds the TCL Pro 10 back from being our top-tier pick. Another is that it only works on GSM networks (T-Mobile and AT&T), although the company says this phone is certified to work on Verizon’s LTE network. Finally, the TCL Pro 10 runs Android, and Google isn’t under any obligation to ensure it gets software updates for years down the line.
TCL’s 10 Pro is an ambitious newcomer in the budget phone market, but you should definitely weigh its on-paper specs against its real world performance.