Most people aren’t going to spend $1,000 on a phone. Around the world, the average selling price of a smartphone is closer to $300. That used to mean buying something that’s a pain to use. But in recent years, some of these less-expensive smartphones have gotten surprisingly good.
In many ways, these cheaper phones are all the more important. It’s through phones in this price range that a vast number of people will take photos, check their email, read news, and interact with the world. So exactly how good these phones are matters — a lot.
Fortunately, the situation has been getting better and better. Yes, you’ll have to miss out on some top-of-the-line features when getting a less expensive phone. But you won’t have to subject yourself to a bad experience. A great budget phone should still be great to use, even with its price-sensitive limitations.
For this article, we’re looking specifically at phones below $300, without contracts or additional fees. We’re also focused on phones that you can buy in the US, with a US warranty. Many of these phones are available around the globe and will be great selections; but some countries, like China and India, also have a number of popular sub-$300 phones that we haven’t included here, because they aren’t sold in the US.
This article will be continually updated as new phones are released and reviewed, so be sure to check back if you’re not in the market right now.
The best phone below $300, without much contest, is Motorola’s Moto G6. And making it all the better, it costs just $250.
The Moto G6 looks and feels like a phone twice its price. It has a bright, clear, and colorful 5.7-inch display that fills up most of the front of the phone. And despite its large display size, the G6 still feels relatively slim, small, and easy to hold.
The G6 is also just nice to use. In my testing, performance was never an issue — many phones in this price range stutter at times, particularly when scrolling through apps — and its battery easily lasted me through a day’s use. The phone includes the latest version of Android, Android Oreo, and it’s promised an upgrade to Android P as well. Motorola only makes a few, mostly helpful, tweaks to Android, so the experience here is clean and familiar.
Motorola includes a few other important features that aren’t necessarily standard: a headphone jack, a fingerprint sensor, and a USB-C port for charging, which is nicer to use than Micro USB. The phone is also available unlocked and works on all major US carriers. One thing it would have been nice to see Motorola add is NFC, for mobile payments; that’s not a huge loss in the US, but they’re far more widely used in many areas of the world. (And in fact, the European model of the phone includes it.)
The biggest miss on the G6 is its front and rear cameras, which produce some nice photos in bright daylight but become slow, blurry, and dull in lower light, including just indoors. Unfortunately, that’s the norm for phones in this price range; so while this is still very much a drawback, the G6’s cameras are about as good as it gets without spending considerably more.
Picking a phone below $300 generally involves some tradeoffs. But it largely doesn’t feel that way with the Moto G6. It is, simply, a great phone, and it’s hard to beat without spending a whole lot more.
Apple doesn’t sell an iPhone under $300. Its cheapest, the iPhone SE, regularly sells for $349. But that’s not the case everywhere: many prepaid carriers sell the iPhone SE for under $200, with the caveat that it’s locked into their service. And at that price, it’s a great deal.
The iPhone SE is two years old at this point, but it still runs fantastically well out of the box. It’ll get iOS 12 this fall, which is supposed to offer further performance improvements, and it may very well get another year (or more) of OS updates, which is more than any other phone in this article can say. And while its camera tends to render images that are a bit bland, it captures clear photos that are the best you’ll find in this price range.
Really, there’s only one downside to the iPhone SE: it’s really, really small, with just a 4-inch display. Most people seem to prefer much bigger phones, and the iPhone SE feels a little bit like a toy in comparison. Its keyboard is tiny and harder to type on, and it’s almost silly looking at photos on its small screen.
If you’re looking for a small phone, then this is a fantastic choice, and you should definitely get it. iPhones are also fairly reliable and have a strong support network, should you ever need to get it repaired. Plus, iOS still has better apps, and it gives you access to services like iMessage.
Once you get under $200, you have to start making some significant compromises. Maybe you get solid performance, but a worse screen. Maybe you get a better screen, but no fingerprint sensor.
The best phones in this price range do a good job of managing those tradeoffs, and the one doing it best right now is LG’s K30.
The K30 has a relatively good screen, a decent speaker, and a solid build. It runs smoothly in daily use, and it even uses a Snapdragon processor (an older version of the model used in the Moto G6). Viewing angles are one of its obvious weak spots — if you’re looking from an angle, brightness quickly begins to drop off. It also lacks support for 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, which is frustratingly true for most phones below $200.
The phone runs Android Nougat, which is a year old, but standard in this price range. LG has added some tweaks to Android that make the home screen look a bit more like an iPhone, and included a handful of apps as well. You can’t remove them, but some of them — like a voice recorder and a radio app — are useful additions. Unfortunately, you’ll likely be stuck on Nougat; LG is slow to update even its high-end phones, so it’s unlikely the K30 will get Oreo (let alone P).
Its camera is among the better options in the sub-$300 phone field. Images look good as long as they’re zoomed out on your phone; but it’s clear when zooming in that the camera struggles to pull out pretty much any details.
The real thing that gives the K30 the edge in this field is its fingerprint sensor: many phones below $200 don’t have one, which is a major flaw. Smartphones need to be secured, and fingerprint sensors make it incredibly easy for everyone to do that. Not only that, but they just make opening your phone more convenient, since all you have to do is tap the sensor.
The K30 sells for $180 and works on all major US carriers. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can also get a Prime Exclusive version for $140, which includes half the storage (16GB) and a bunch of non-removable Amazon apps. The apps are a reasonable tradeoff; storage might be a bigger issue for you, but it can be expanded by a Micro SD card if you wind up needing more.
There are an immense number of other options out there, and you need to be careful because a lot of them are just plain bad. You can find some other strong choices from Motorola, and Samsung has some great low-cost phones, too. But in general, everything in this price range that’s stronger in one area has given up something in another, so be sure to look out for major flaws if you’re considering something else.
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