8 Best Cheap iPhones and Android Smartphones ($180-$550)


U.S. wireless carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon go out of their way to make expensive smartphones seem affordable. Why not buy a $1,000 Samsung Galaxy Note 9 if you only have to pay $0 down and $30 a month for it? Whether you pay it at once, or in 24 installments, you’re still blowing hundreds of dollars. Your pricey new phone will also keep you locked to your network, unable to switch wireless carriers until you pay it off.

Here’s another idea: Forget the spendy phones and get a seriously great, cheap phone instead. We’ve tested dozens of phones this year to find the best cheap smartphones that aren’t annoyingly slow. 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.

Updated on November 29, 2018: We refreshed this list with two new phones and some fresh advice.

1. Best Overall

OnePlus 6T ($549)

OnePlus

Works on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon

The OnePlus 6T (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is one of our favorite Android phones at any price, much like the OnePlus 5T and OnePlus 6 before it. It has the chops (and chips) to go up against any device, but costs $200 to $400 less than its rivals. You just don’t see devices with top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processors, AMOLED screens, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage for $549. It’s also nice that OnePlus has become one of the fastest manufacturers when it comes to Android software updates. This phone already has Android Pie and should get bimonthly security updates.

Our only real complaints were that the camera has a few quirks, it lacks a headphone jack (like many phones), and the snazzy glass-backed design makes this phone more delicate—though it comes with a case in the box. It’s also only splashproof, not waterproof.

Buy the OnePlus 6T

2. Best Under $400

Moto Z3 Play ($370)

Motorola

Works on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint

The Moto Z3 (7/10) has a respectable mid-range processor and performance to match. It connects to any of Motorola’s many magnetic Moto Mods, which can add capabilities like speakers, a Hasselblad point-and-shoot camera, or even a photo printer to the back of the phone. This model even comes with a battery Mod in the box, which adds up to 16 extra hours of juice to the Z3 when you slap it on. It’s thin enough that you may just leave it on for periods of time.

Like other Z phones, there is no audio jack (thankfully, a USB-C adapter is included). Motorola’s cameras get the job done adequately, and the glass back does add some fragility. But it’s hard to argue with that bonus battery.

Buy the Moto Z3 Play from Amazon ($370) or Motorola ($400)

3. Another Great Phone Under $400

LG G6 ($360)

LG

Works on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon

The LG G6 is one of the most powerful Android phones from 2017. It has a top-notch processor, camera, and screen and amenities like waterproofing and even a headphone jack. It should cost hundreds more, but it’s been available at a very affordable price for nearly a year now, probably thanks to the release of the new LG G7 ThinQ.

LG is not speedy at updating the software on its phones, but the G6 has gotten the Android Oreo OS update, which is a positive sign. This year-old LG handset may be the best deal going right now.

Buy the LG G6

4. Best for $350

Nokia 7.1 ($350)

[Image here]

Works on AT&T, T-Mobile

The Nokia 7.1 is a step up from some phones in its price bracket, with a reasonably fast mid-range processor, dual rear cameras, and 64GB of storage. On the inside, it has a faster processor than the Nokia 6.1 (see below) and more storage, but with a full top-to-bottom screen with a small notch cutout up top, like all the fancy phones. It’s also an Android One device, which means it gets software updates directly from Google on a regular basis. This makes it one of the only Android phones that will remain updated and secure.

On the downside, it’s only slightly water resistant and you’ll need a case (here’s a good one) because the glass back, though attractive, is very fragile. The phone also lacks a headphone jack.

Buy the Nokia 7.1

5. Best Under $250

Motorola Moto X4 ($180)

Motorola

Works on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint

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.

You will get an occasional dash of lag from the Android operating system, but its slowdowns are 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.

Buy the Moto X4 for $180 from Amazon, Motorola ($230), or Walmart ($230)

6. Another Great Phone Under $250

Nokia 6.1 ($199)

Nokia

Works on AT&T and T-Mobile

Today, Nokia phones are among the best Android phones you can buy. The Nokia 6.1 is possibly the most sturdy, best-built phone at its price point, with a solid metal frame with sleek orange accents. The camera and overall performance isn’t as quick as the Moto X4 or higher priced phones, but it also won’t leave you hanging.

The real star is its Android One certification. That means it gets operating system updates directly from Google, so it should get Android Pie this year along with all of Google’s monthly security updates—even $800 Android phones often don’t get updates for months, if ever, which makes this Nokia a fantastic investment.

Buy the Nokia 6.1

7. Always a Good, Affordable Choice

Motorola Moto G6 ($200)

Motorola

Works on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint

Motorola’s G phones kickstarted the wave of affordable, decent smartphones several years back and the Moto G6 (8/10, WIRED Recommends) continues that trend. It’s not the fastest or sexiest phone you can buy, but it’s incredibly affordable and 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, and is more than adequate for a teenager or casual phone user. There is a 64GB and 4GB of RAM option that’s worth it if you can afford another $30-$50.

Buy the Moto G6 from Amazon ($200), Motorola ($200), or Walmart ($200)

8. Best Cheap iPhone

iPhone 7 ($449)

Apple

Works on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint

Let’s get real here: The iPhone is awesome. I still prefer an iPhone to most Android devices because of its stability, app selection, and camera quality, among other reasons. Problem is, iPhones are expensive, and since Apple only releases two or three each year, selection is limited.

The iPhone 7 (8/10, WIRED Recommends) should last you at least a couple years before it’s too weak to keep up. The iPhone 8 is more powerful and a better long-term buy, but it costs $599.

Buy the iPhone 7

(Apple also sells refurbished iPhone 7 models that are a bit cheaper and/or give more storage space for your money.)

Should You Buy Now?

It’s a great time to buy a phone. Most of the entries on this list are new for 2018. These phones won’t start to get replaced until mid 2019.

Checking Network Compatibility

If you buy an unlocked phone on this list and try to take it to one of your wireless carrier’s retail stores, they may tell you it isn’t compatible with the network. It likely is. Just use a paper clip to pop the SIM out of your current phone and put it in a new one. It will just work. If it doesn’t, reboot the phone or wait a couple hours.

If you need a new SIM, try ordering one online from your carrier, or try to get them to give you a SIM when you activate a line in the store (if you’re starting coverage). Tell them you have a phone. Many times, reps will want to sell you a phone, that’s one potential reason they might hassle you.

Having said that, please make sure whatever phone you buy will work on your wireless network. Listings on retailers like Amazon should say clearly whether it will. 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, look up the specifications of the exact model you’re considering. Make sure it has the LTE bands it needs to run on your carrier.

Avoid These Phones!

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. It’s hard to get a sense of 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 whatever reason, big manufacturers like Samsung like to keep selling their old pre-2017 devices, like the Galaxy S6. Avoid any device that originally came out before 2017. It probably won’t continue to get software and security updates for long, if it’s even supported now.

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