Welcome to the golden age of budget phones

Jimmy Westenberg/Android Authority

Remember with me, if you will, a time not so distant. A time before Samsung’s Galaxy A series flourished like it does now. A moment before Google figures out how to distill its Pixel experience into a wallet-friendly package. A time when affordable phones weren’t worth looking at. They were overpriced, underpowered, crammed with extra apps, rarely updated – take your pick. Now we live in another era, a golden age of budget phones.

See also: The best budget phones you can buy

Of course, you will always find limits. A sub-$500 smartphone will in no way give a $1,000 flagship a run for its money in the camera department. However, we are getting more and more money for not too much money, and all I can say is that it was about time.

When hardware meets software

Galaxy A32 Budget Phones

Ryan Haines/Android Authority

For all the gains we’ve seen in flagship devices, we’ve also seen them drop fan-favorite features. Instead, you’ll have to turn to one of the many budget phones to find once-standard hallmark features like the headphone jack. It’s still at home on the Samsung Galaxy A32 as seen above, as well as the Google Pixel 5a, but you won’t find it on their high-end Galaxy S22 or Pixel 6 alternatives. That same Galaxy A32 still offers a built-in microSD slot to boost your storage – again absent from Samsung’s glossy flagships.

Choose wisely: Samsung Galaxy A Series Buying Guide

Of course, talking about new hardware on budget phones isn’t just about listing the features flagships leave behind. Instead, it’s important to consider features that have escaped from the upper echelons of smartphone design. Our own Hadlee Simons recently spent some time with the Poco X4 Pro, a budget phone with a 120Hz OLED display and 108MP main camera. Both features debuted on flagships, but you can put them in your pocket for $300 or less. You might even experience blazing 67W wired charging without breaking the bank.

Going back to the Pixel 5a, or even the Pixel 4a 5G, it’s easy to see what we mean. Both models offer the same premium camera experience you’ve come to expect from Google flagships, but without the flagship price tag. The availability of the Pixel 5a may be a swing and a miss, but the IP67 rating, massive battery (for a Pixel) and solid build quality are enough to make you look twice before heading straight for a flagship. Even the Pixel 4a 5G sports a relatively modern design – at least compared to the iPhone SE (2022) which still lives in an iPhone 8 body.

Budget phones don’t just pick up what flagships leave behind, they add previously unattainable features for less than $450.

We’ve also seen budget phones take advantage of the software improvements of their flagship counterparts. The version of One UI you see on the Galaxy S22 is the same software you’ll get through the Galaxy A13, although it may not receive updates as quickly. Google’s Material You movement in Android 12 didn’t stop at the Pixel 6 either. The Pixel 5a got its software bump just in time with Google’s other devices and will continue to do so for some time.

Related: The best Material You apps for Android 12

Google and Samsung may be leading the budget phone renaissance in the US, but the global market paints a bigger picture. Hadlee’s X4 Pro is once again a prime example – Poco itself only launched in 2018 as a sub-brand of Xiaomi before becoming its own entity. Realme finds itself in much the same boat, having come to life the same year under the Oppo umbrella.

Sometimes that close relationship results in a sub-brand repurposing its parent company’s designs at cheaper prices, as we saw with the Poco F3. This is a global market version of the Redmi K40, which is, in turn, the same model as the Xiaomi Mi 11i. Not all budget phones have learned to stand on their own just yet, but Poco’s split from Xiaomi could be a good indicator of what’s to come.

Still a distance to go

Realme 8 Pro budget phones

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Throwing new hats in the ring and giving budget phones updated hardware only goes so far. We’ve still seen budget phones run into snags, often in cases where the in-hand experience doesn’t match the on-paper offering. Dhruv Bhutani downgraded the Realme 8 Pro to “a leap behind the competition” despite its 108MP main camera. That wasn’t enough to make up for the 60Hz display or the poor in-screen fingerprint reader (even though the latter is a popular flagship feature these days).

Unfortunately, Dhruv’s other problem is one that continues to plague some of the most popular and cheapest Android skins. While Google and Samsung have taken steps to refine their software, Realme, Poco and many others have continued to offer ad-laden software that still needs some improvement. We’ve seen Samsung reinvent itself from TouchWiz to One UI, so there’s no reason to expect younger smartphone gamers can’t do the same.

Samsung has moved from TouchWiz to One UI, and other budget OEMs would be wise to follow suit.

Additionally, companies like Poco tend to leave their update policies on the back burner. You’ll likely get the standard two major updates, but there’s no guarantee how quickly they’ll arrive on your phone. The Poco X4 Pro launched with Android 11 more than six months after Android 12 launched, and we’ve yet to see a full version update.

The bigger question is how long this software revolution might take and whether the budget phones with the best hardware are about to miss their window.

Putting all that skepticism around other gamers aside, there’s no denying that Samsung and Google have raised the bar on the budget and mid-range smartphone landscape, and ushered in a golden age where paying less doesn’t necessarily mean compromising. quality or user experience. . Both the Pixel a and Galaxy A series offer more solid choices at more affordable prices, and users are doing better with them.

Would you consider buying a budget phone? (About $300-450)

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