04 Sep Best budget smartphones to buy in 2021: top affordable models
You want a new phone, and you don’t want to pay a small fortune for it. We get that. Many of our favourite phones are affordable, and we probably had the same reaction you did when £1,000 Androids started being ‘a thing’.
The good news is there’s no feature you have to forego when spending, say, £200-250 instead of £900. You can get superb gaming performance, a great camera, a fancy glass back, 5G or a dazzling OLED screen.
The bad news is you can’t get all of these in the same phone and expect to pay peanuts for it. That’s why there is still a market for much, much more expensive mobiles.
How much should you pay for a budget phone?
Phones start to get really good around the £200 mark. The sign of a truly great budget mobile is when we start to wonder why anyone in their right mind would consider spending four times as much for something that seems pretty similar 95% of the time. This happens quite a lot.
The closer you get to £100, the more likely you will see fundamental performance problems that may well get on your nerves. These include things like a virtual keyboard that takes a while to pop up, long app load times and obvious lag when switching between apps. Given how much most of us use our phones, these are to be avoided at all costs.
That said, a few flat-out cheap phones are still a joy to use. But may not, for example, have amazing cameras or oodles of storage for your apps.
Get to the £200 mark, and you can take your pick of advanced features. You can have 5G, great gaming performance, higher-end design elements like a glass back cover or a surprisingly high-quality camera (or two).
No phone offers all of these in one package until you spend significantly more, so you will have to think about which of these matters most. And to get the most for your money, consider moving away from household names like Samsung to companies you may never have considered before, like Xiaomi, Oppo and Realme.
- Best buy at around £100: Xiaomi Redmi Note 9, £109
- Best camera: Pixel 4a, £349
- Best for gaming: Xiaomi Poco X3 Pro, £199
- Best for higher-end design: Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro, £269
- Top budget 5G pick: Motorola Moto G 5G Plus, £299.99
- Best for zoom photography on a budget: Realme 8 Pro, £259
- Best 5G buy under £200: Motorola Moto G50, £199.99
- Best for even feature coverage: Oppo A54 5G, £219
- Best for Samsung fans: Samsung Galaxy A32 5G, £249.99
Xiaomi Redmi Note 9, £109
Best buy at around £100
- Excellent value
- Long battery life
- Reasonable everyday performance
If you’re only looking to spend around £100 rather than £200 or more, we recommend the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9. Why? Unlike much of the cut-price competition, this phone isn’t annoyingly slow to use day-to-day. That’s the number one thing to look for at this price, even in 2021.
The Redmi Note 9 offers a lot more, too, though, including a ridiculously good screen considering the cost and long battery life. Spend a bit more if you want to play console-style games like Fortnite. But this is a smash at its current price online.
Buy the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 on contract:
Pixel 4a, £349
- Great camera
- Fast software updates
- Clean version of Android
- Only one rear camera
- No 5G
- Battery life is below average in this class
A Google Pixel phone doesn’t offer the kind of price-gouging wealth of tech you get from some of the phones designed by Chinese companies, but its strengths are compelling. The Pixel 4a has a flagship-level camera, enough to persuade many to buy this phone.
It also runs the cleanest version of Android going and will get software updates more quickly than anything else. The Pixel 4a is petite too, handy if you don’t like the look of the many (many) fairly large alternatives floating around at £349 and below. Battery life is not amazing for heavy users, and it doesn’t have 5G. If you want better results there, check out the more expensive, slightly larger Pixel 4a 5G.
Buy the Pixel 4a on contract:
Xiaomi Poco X3 Pro, £199
Best for gaming
- Fantastic gaming performance
- Stereo speakers
- Large 120Hz screen
- Camera is beaten by rivals
Love mobile gaming? Do not ignore the Xiaomi Poco X3 Pro. It is one of the most powerful sub-£200 Android phones we have ever used and is simply in another league compared to others in this price class for gaming performance.
It’s because Xiaomi uses the Snapdragon 860, which has the chops of a slightly older flagship phone at several times the cost. You get stereo speakers and a 120Hz screen too, impressive enough on their own at under £250. The Poco X3 Pro doesn’t have the greatest cameras in its class, but they can still produce nice shots, and the sacrifice will be worth it for many.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro, £269
Best for higher-end design
- Glass rear
- Excellent OLED screen
- Good camera array
We loved using the Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro. It has good cameras, a big battery, fast charging, a superb screen and enough power to tackle demanding games. Unlike most in this class, it also has a glass back rather than a plastic one. This lends the phone an added touch of sophistication.
There’s just one problem. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro has 4G mobile internet, not 5G. This may not be a big deal if you upgrade your phone every couple of years and live in an area without 5G yet, but bear it in mind.
Motorola Moto G 5G Plus, £299.99
Top budget 5G pick
- Good power
- Good value
- Decent display
One of our favourite Motorola phones was actually released in 2020, rather than 2021. It’s the Moto G 5G Plus, one of the company’s first affordable 5G Androids.
It has an excellent processor, capable of handling tough games well. The main camera beats the newer Moto G50’s, while battery life is good and general performance is great. This phone is slightly more expensive than that newer Moto aimed at budget buyers who want 5G. But we think this minor classic is still the one many should buy. It’s less bulky than it seems on paper, as a 6.7-inch screen phone, as the display is an unusually tall 21:9 shape.
Read our full Motorola Moto G 5G Plus review.
Buy the Motorola Moto G 5G Plus on contract:
Still comparing phones? Don’t miss our expert, in-depth round-ups of the top models to buy in 2021:
Realme 8 Pro, £259
Best for zoom photography on a budget
- Unusually good for zoomed images
- Strong primary camera
The Realme 8 Pro may not look quite as attractive as some other phones on this list on paper. It doesn’t have 5G. It doesn’t have a snazzy high refresh rate screen or a glass back. But Realme has put some extra effort in here.
We really notice it in the camera. The Realme 8 Pro has a 108MP main camera, and it shoots remarkably good 3x zoom photos. They are on par with some phones that have a legit optical zoom. It even performs well at night, making this one of the most accomplished and fun-to-use camera phones you can get at the price. You’ll have to make peace with the questionable “dare to leap” slogan etched into the back, though.
Read our full Realme 8 Pro review.
Motorola Moto G50, £199.99
Best 5G buy under £200
- Camera photos look fizzier than the competition
- Low-resolution screen
The Moto G50 is Motorola’s new-for-2021 affordable 5G phone. It’s a bit cheaper than the Moto G 5G Plus and gets in under that all-important £200 line. However, there are a few compromises.
This phone doesn’t have as sharp a screen as that slightly older 5G Moto or the Xiaomi or Oppo alternatives. 720p screens like the Moto G50’s don’t look bad, but when your rivals offer more at a very similar price, we’re going to raise an eyebrow. The Moto G50’s camera is also not quite as good as those phones or the Moto G 5G Plus. We enjoy using the G50, but you can get slightly more for your money from one of the Chinese brands.
Read our full Moto G50 review.
Buy the Motorola Moto G50 on contract:
Oppo A54 5G, £219
Best for even feature coverage
- Good all-round feature set
- Full HD screen
- Solid general performance
The Oppo A54 5G is a £220 5G phone with a better screen than you get with the 2021 Motorola or Samsung rivals. This alone makes us like the phone a lot, for buyers who want 5G without spending a fortune.
However, we found even more to like after living with the A54 5G for a few days. Its battery life is great, general performance is sound, and its primary camera is great fun to use. It’s responsive and captures nice images during the day. It’s no night photography master, the secondary cameras aren’t up to much, and you’ll find better phones for gaming around this price. But the Oppo A54 5G hits all the right notes for frustration-free everyday use.
Buy the Oppo A54 5G on contract:
Samsung Galaxy A32 5G, £249.99
Best for Samsung fans
- Has Samsung Galaxy street cred
- 5G at a sensible price
The Samsung Galaxy A32 5G is the obvious Android phone to get if a) you want 5G, b) you want a Samsung and c) you don’t want to pay too much. It comes in cute pastel blue and lilac shades if you don’t fancy plain white or black.
However, this phone is otherwise not at the same level as the best 5G options from Motorola, Xiaomi and Oppo. Its screen is lower-res and doesn’t have the high refresh rate some others offer. This isn’t a bad phone, but it makes most sense if you specifically want a Samsung, not just a good 5G phone.
Buy the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G on contract: