Inflation is very real, and while the latest flagship smartphones bring the glitz and glamour, it may be in your best interest to buy a more affordable 5G phone instead.
The 5G smartphone sweet spot has typically been between $400 and $700, but there are some cases where you can get a solid device for $200 or less. Are there compromises? Sure, the cameras are typically the biggest downgrade from more expensive alternatives, but most of the devices in the mid-range can snap good-enough photos. Recent launches from Google as well as Samsung highlight how the price-camera gap is closing more and more.
As smartphone vendors continue to bring more flagship features downmarket, we’ve rounded up the best 5G phones that you can buy for less than $500.
- Reliable 64MP main camera with OIS
- Immersive 120Hz display
- IP67 rating for dust and water resistance
- Has most, if not all, essential smartphone features
- Macro camera and depth sensor are unnecessary
- Samsung Exynos 1280 processor is no Qualcomm Snapdragon
Tech specs: Price: $449 | Display: 6.5 inches 120Hz AMOLED | CPU: Samsung Exynos 1280 | RAM: 6GB | Internal Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 12MP ultra-wide f/2.2, 64MP f/1.8 wide angle (123-degree-field-of-view), 5MP f/2.4 depth sensor, and 5MP f/2.4 macro camera | Front camera: 32MP f/2.2 camera | Weight: 189g | Dust/water resistance: IP67
There are a lot of phones in Samsung’s Galaxy A range, all with a focus on mid-range and lower pricing. The Galaxy A53 5G is the cream of the current crop — a 5G handset with IP67 certification against dust and water ingress. Then there’s the 6.5-inch screen’s 120Hz refresh rate, that when paired with the dual speakers, makes for an immersive multimedia experience. You won’t find a better display performance for the money.
Read the review: Our full Samsung Galaxy A53 5G review
ZDNET’s Matthew Miller gave the device high remarks when first launched, praising the A53 5G for its distinctive design, durability, and accouterments of smartphone perks like a MicroSD card slot and 3.5mm headphone jack. All of this comes at a price to beat at $449.99.
- A 5G iPhone for under $450
- Same chip as Apple’s latest flagships for a fraction of the price
- Home button access to TouchID remains preferable to FaceID for some
- Seamless integration within the Apple ecosystem
- Starts at 64GB
- Doesn’t support some of the fastest 5G bands
- Old-fashioned design
Tech specs: Price: $449 | Display: 4.7 inches | CPU: A15 Bionic chip | RAM: 3GB | Internal Storage: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Rear camera: 12MP rear f/1.8 wide | Front camera: 7MP f/2.2 camera | Weight: 144g | Dust/water resistance: IP67
Apple was arguably a bit late to the 5G game, at least compared to some of its Android counterparts. While it’s been a couple of years since the company introduced the latest networking protocol to its flagship line, it’s only now brought the technology to its more budget-friendly iPhone SE line with the device’s third edition. The smartphone’s $420 starting price makes it easily the cheapest 5G option for iPhone fans. However, as we’ve covered previously, the third-gen iPhone SE does not support mmWave 5G services, nor does it support the 3.45GHz band that AT&T plans to use for its future 5G proliferation.
Read the review: Our full Apple iPhone SE (2022) review
This means that the top-end speeds users can experience will be limited significantly if they are in areas where the only 5G available is of the mmWave of 3.45GHz variety. That said, the iPhone SE does support other C-Band-based 5G services on Verizon and T-Mobile, meaning it still has the chance to experience ample speed increases, when compared to its LTE-only predecessor. The reduced cost of the latest iPhone SE does come with the potential FOMO iPhone 13 and iPhone 14 owners could avoid. But, the extra money in your pocket may be more than enough of a benefit to ignore the potentially moot issue of 5G band support.
- Bloat-free, stock Android
- Excellent software support
- Compact size compared to other smartphones
- Reliable cameras with Pixel-exclusive features
- Lack of telephoto lens
- 60Hz display inferior to similar-priced Samsung Galaxy A53 5G
- No 5G mmWave support
Tech specs: Price: $449 | Display: 6.1 inches | CPU: Google Tensor | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultra wide | Front camera: 8MP | Weight: 178g | Dust/water resistance: IP67
While many would argue that Google’s just started to find its groove in the flagship smartphone segment, its affordable Pixel A range has always delivered killer value propositions. The latest from the company, the Pixel 6a, is no different.
For one, the device retains the essence of Google’s new “camera bar” design, as seen on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 7 series. That means that even if you’re paying significantly less for the 6a ($449), you aren’t necessarily settling for an inferior design. That sentiment holds true with the heart and soul of the Pixel, its Android 13 software. With Pixel smartphones, especially the more modern ones, you can expect consistent security and feature updates for years down the road. That reason alone may sway you to the Pixel 6a over our other top picks on the list.
Read the review: Our full Google Pixel 6a review
ZDNET’s Jason Cipriani tested the Pixel 6a earlier this year and found the camera performance admirable, especially for a $449 phone. While the device lacks the telephoto sensor of its Pro siblings, you can still expect a well-colored, naturally sharp output thanks to Google’s computational chops.
- Hardware specs overdeliver for a $299 phone
- Same screen resolution as much pricier flagships
- In-display fingerprint sensor is a rarity in this price range
- 4,500mAh battery with 33W fast charging is a cut above the competition
- No IP rating for water and dust resistance
- Cameras are not a strong suit
- No mmWave 5G support
Tech specs: Price: $282 | Display: 6.43 inches 60Hz AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 5G | RAM: 6GB | Internal Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 64MP rear f/1.8 wide, 2MP f/2.4 macro, and 2MP f/2.4 depth| Front camera: 16MP f/2.4 | Weight: 173g | Dust/water resistance: none
The OnePlus Nord N20 5G comes from the company’s mid-range Nord line of devices. Although OnePlus first few generations stuck exclusively to the concept of making smartphones that could compete with big-name flagships at mid-range prices, the company’s more recent offerings have grown well into the “premium smartphone” price range. With the Nord N20 5G, OnePlus has returned to its roots of churning out exceptional phones for a fraction of the cost of flagships.
Surprisingly, the $282 Nord N20 5G comes reasonably close to its $899 sibling, the OnePlus 10 Pro. Some hardware similarities include the screen size and resolution (albeit at a lower 60Hz refresh rate), a Qualcomm Snapdragon Series chipset, and a very similar front-facing camera. Visually, you won’t find a sub-$300 phone that beats the Nord N20 5G, given its thinness and matte-textured body. The 6.34-inch AMOLED panel is also a tier above its LCD-dominant competition, delivering sharper and more color-accurate imagery.
Read our full review: OnePlus Nord N20 5G
And when you need a top-up, the Nord N20 5G is bundled with a 33W charging brick to give you a day’s power in just 45 minutes.
- 90Hz refresh rate display offers smoother motion than many more expensive models
- Compatible with both AT&T and T-Mobile 5G networks in the US
- Gorilla Glass 3 display promises a sturdy display
- No water or dust resistance rating
- Memory is limited to just 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage
Tech specs: Price: $249 | Display: 6.5 inches (720 x 1,600-pixel resolution) 90Hz LCD | CPU: MediaTek Dimensity 700 | RAM: 4GB | Internal Storage: 64GB | Rear cameras: 50MP rear f/1.8 wide, 2MP f/2.4 macro, and 2MP f/2.4 depth | Front camera: 5MP f/2.0 camera | Weight: 195g | Dust/water resistance: none
It wasn’t too long ago that 5G was a feature that could only be had in the best and brightest flagships from the leading smartphone manufacturers. Now, things have reached the point where the latest generation of connectivity is coming to devices that are almost as cheap as phones were back in the halcyon days of carrier-subsidized $200 flagships. These aren’t from no-name makers, or from Chinese smartphone brands that may or may not lose access to Google Play at any moment from rising political tensions, either.
More: Samsung’s Galaxy A13 5G launches for under $249
The Galaxy A13 is Samsung’s best crack yet at retaining 5G functionality while reaching down into the bargain-basement pricing tier. It’s part of the same line as the also-excellent, though quite a bit pricier, A51 on this list. Of course, that price difference shows itself in their respective spec lists, with the worst of the concessions found in the A13 likely being its mediocre CPU, display resolution, and last-gen front-facing camera. Still, if getting into the 5G game is your main goal, and your budget is tight, the A13 provides a shockingly low entry point from one of the most popular smartphone makers in the world.
- Superb battery life
- Smooth 90Hz display
- Competitively priced among 5G budget phones
- Screen isn’t bright in sunlight
- Lack of water and dust resistance rating
- Vibration motors aren’t the best
Tech specs: Price: $299 | Display: 6.7 inches (2,400 x 1,080-pixel resolution) LCD | CPU: Snapdragon 750G | RAM: 6GB | Internal Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 48MP rear f/1.7 wide, 8MP f/2.2 ultrawide, and 2MP f/2.4 macro| Front camera: 16MP f/2.2 camera | Weight: 212g | Dust/water resistance: N/A
Motorola One 5G Ace builds on the Motorola One 5G with an original MSRP of just under $400. You can even find ones going for less than $300 right now. Motorola, owned by Lenovo, has a full range of value devices, but this mid-range smartphone is compelling.
Simply put, it’s a good value for the money and the 6.7-inch display feels good in one hand. The camera system — three cameras on the back and a selfie in the front — is solid in my tests. There are some areas where Motorola cut corners, from the plastic backing to the lack of a certified water and dust resistance rating, but overall, the device feels like a flagship at a fraction of the cost.
One key item here is that the Motorola One 5G has 6GB of memory with 128GB of storage and microSD card support of up to 1TB. Typically, budget phones scrimp on storage and memory. The microSD card support in Motorola One 5G Ace allows you to bulk up a bit if necessary.
More: Motorola One 5G Ace makes its debut at CES
Motorola’s approach to Android rhymes with Google’s stock version of the operating system. A 48MP camera and a solid display round out the Motorola One 5G Ace perks, and for its price, the device makes for a solid everyday smartphone.
Right now, the best cheap 5G phone is the Samsung Galaxy A53 5G based on our analysis of display, performance, battery life, and price. The device offers one of the best display experiences you can get from sub-$450 phones and offers 5G support with most major carriers.
Cheap 5G phone
Samsung Galaxy A53 5G
6.5-inch 120Hz AMOLED
64MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 5MP depth, 5MP macro, 32MP front
Apple iPhone SE (2022)
4.7-inch 60Hz LCD
12MP wide, 7MP front
Google Pixel 6a
6.1-inch 60Hz OLED
12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 8MP front
OnePlus Nord N20 5G
6.43-inch 60Hz AMOLED
64MP wide, 2MP macro, 2MP depth, 16MP front
Samsung Galaxy A13
6.5-inch 90Hz LCD
50MP wide, 2MP macro, 2MP depth, 5MP front
Motorola One 5G Ace
6.7-inch 90Hz LCD
48MP wide, 8MP ultra-wide, 2MP macro, 16MP front
You need to consider whether you’re brand loyal, an Apple or Android user, and whether you care more about price or premium features. Once you answer those questions, you can refer to the chart below to quickly find the right cheap 5G phone for you.
Choose this phone…
If you want…
Samsung Galaxy A53 5G
The best sub-$450 5G phone that we’ve tested
Apple iPhone SE (2022)
Apple’s most affordable 5G phone
Google Pixel 6a
Google’s clean and reliable software experience for less
OnePlus Nord N20 5G
An affordable 5G phone with a flagship OLED display
Samsung Galaxy A13
One of the cheapest 5G phones on the market
Motorola One 5G Ace
A large-screen 5G phone for on-the-go entertainment
The process to make our smartphone selections includes testing the phones for weeks, reading reviews from other websites and publications, researching reviewer guides and manufacturer websites, talking with colleagues and other users who have hands-on experience with the smartphones, and then selecting the best from all of the available choices.
Over the past year, we tested phones from Google, Samsung, Apple, OnePlus, and several others. As newer models are released, we spend a diligent amount of time testing, analyzing, and comparing devices to the competition and their predecessors.
The prices of 5G phones on our list range from $200 to $450, roughly. You won’t find a cheaper 5G that’s worth buying. This is one of those situations where you get what you pay for.
While 5G integration has been through years of making, the adaptation of the latest cellular network is still in development, with many areas in the world lacking antennas to support it. That said, there is no downside to not buying a phone that is 5G compatible right now, especially if you plan on using it for the next three or more years. The availability of 5G compatible phones is more extensive than ever (as this list proves) and the chances of your next phone supporting the network are high.
Check the 5G availability in your area below:
It’s important to know that you must be enrolled in a 5G data plan with your local carrier, whether it’s T-Mobile, AT&T, or Verizon, in order to take advantage of the faster speeds. ZDNet’s Jason Cipriani has compiled a helpful list comparing the 5G data plans from all major carriers in the US.
When it comes to buying any tech, there comes the dilemma of whether one should buy a new product that’s not a flagship or a used product that once was. In the case of 5G phones, you may be able to pick up, say, a used Google Pixel 6 (or 6 Pro) for the same cost as a new Pixel 6a, so which makes more sense?
Your answer depends on how you respond to the following questions.
- Do you mind using a phone that was previously owned?
- Do timely software updates matter to you? A year-old (or longer) flagship may not receive the same amount of security and feature updates as a newer device, even if it’s not the most expensive.
While the Apple iPhone 13 Mini and Google Pixel 7 are not the cheapest, they’re considerably less expensive than their flagship counterparts. Both models sell for less than $600 and deliver exceptional performance — from what we’ve seen in tests.
If you’re tight on budget and want a 5G phone for even less, check out the Samsung Galaxy A23 5G, which offers a 120Hz refresh rate display, a reliable 5,000mAh battery, and up to 1TB of memory for $299.
…. to be continued
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