The first thing that you should know when buying a budget smartphone is that there’s always a compromise compared to top-of-the-range phones out there. Don’t expect performance to rival the latest iPhone or other high-end Android smartphones. Although budget smartphones will offer similar features to the most expensive phones, they’re built to a price, so tend to have lower-quality, lower resolution screens, slower processors, less storage, poorer cameras and fewer features.
There are two main operating systems that you will find on a budget smartphone: Google Android, Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 10. These operating systems will let you download the major apps such Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Whatsapp and more. However, if you want native Google apps including Gmail, YouTube, Maps and others, you should to opt for a smartphone running Android.
We like Windows Phone, but the choice of apps is much more limited, especially when it comes to UK-specific ones and those for physical gadgets such as smart home devices. Also, apps may not have the same set of features that you get on Android. You can’t download TV shows from BBC iPlayer on Windows Phone, for instance. And that will be a deal-breaker for some people. Also see: Best sounding phone 2016.
At the moment we have a strange situation where some cheap phones have the same processor – and performance – as much more expensive phones. For example, the new 4G version of the Motorola Moto E has the popular Snapdragon 410 CPU. Yet, there are lots of phones costing twice at much as the Moto E’s £109 price with exactly the same chip.
What’s important is not the benchmark results (they’re a way to compare phones to see if one is better or worse than another) but whether they feel responsive in real-world use. You’ll need to read our reviews to find out whether a phone performs well or not.
Battery life is also a factor in performance. However, there’s isn’t a great difference between the best and worst budget phones in this respect. They generally have similar size batteries which typically last a day (and a bit) in ‘normal’ use.
Of course, if you use the phone for hours on end to browse the web, use it as a sat nav, play games or watch videos you’ll find the battery might run out well before the day is out. Battery saver modes won’t really help here, since the only modes which will significantly extend battery life will also prevent you from doing those things and limit use to phone calls and text messages.
When it comes to screens, arguably the other component you should care about, there are some things to look out for. One is resolution. With screen sizes gradually increasing, low resolutions mean text and icons can look blocky and jagged. On a 5in screen, 1280×720 is the minimum you want, but higher is always better. On smaller phones with, say, 4.5in screens, you can get away with 960×540, but again a higher resolution is better – all else equal.
Screen quality and brightness may not be so important to you, but it’s worth checking our reviews to find out if a screen is particularly good or bad.
People’s phones are increasingly their main camera, so it pays to choose a phone with the best possible camera for photos and videos. Cameras are the first items to be cut down in budget phones, so it’s common to find low-quality, low-resolution sensors and lenses. We always take test photos and videos and explain whether they’re any good or not in our reviews.
What you can’t do is to look at a camera’s specifications and work out if it will take good shots or not: the numbers are largely meaningless.
Don’t overlook the front camera. It’s rare not to get one at all if you’re spending over £60, but quality varies hugely. Avoid anything with a very low VGA (640×480) resolution and aim for at least 1.2 or 2Mp. Numbers do matter at this level, as manufacturers often really skimp on the front camera, so if selfies or Skype chats are order of the day, choose a budget phone with a good front camera.
We’ve already mentioned the difference between Android and Windows Phone. Android is the best choice for most people, but be aware that manufacturers often add their own interfaces on top of Android. Google’s own Nexus phones and Motorola’s have ‘plain’ Android, but the rest are customised to greater or lesser degrees. Again, our reviews will give the specific details.
Some of these interfaces have extra features worth having, or a replacement camera app that’s much better than the stock Android one. Others take it too far and can also be sluggish and unresponsive.
Going or a phone with plain Android generally means you’ll get any updates faster, especially when a whole new version of Android comes out. It can be a wait of many months for other phones, or they may not get updates at all.