What is a midrange phone, anyway?
Despite how prevalent the term is, there is no widely accepted definition for "midrange" beyond "something that isn't a flagship or a budget pick." That's a pretty broad field to work with, so for our purposes we’re going to say a midrange smartphone is any device with a full retail price between $250 and $500. If you're looking to spend less than the bottom end of that range, you can expect to see some notable compromises in performance and feature sets.
What should I consider when buying a midrange smartphone?
There are a lot of factors to bear in mind when you start shopping for a phone, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Our advice: Don’t sweat it so much! The first thing to sort out is your carrier: AT&T and T-Mobile offer the most flexibility in that you can use phones they sell directly or most unlocked phones with near-full compatibility. Verizon, meanwhile, only supports some unlocked smartphones, so you’re generally safer buying a phone straight from it. (Note: Verizon is Engadget’s parent company, but it has no control over what we write or how we write it.) To help keep things simple, all the devices we recommend below are compatible with all the major US wireless providers.
Next, we recommend taking some time to sort out where you stand on the Three Ps.
This is an easy one: Do you prefer Android or iOS? Because Android is freely available to any phone maker willing to play by Google’s rules, there’s no shortage of great choices. If you’re an iOS fan, meanwhile, there’s only one device that falls into the midrange category. (Thankfully, it’s pretty great.) If you haven’t made up your mind yet, well, that’s alright too. Both platforms have their strengths and quirks, but they’re both easy to get acquainted with.
What do you absolutely need your smartphone to have? A long-lasting battery? A big screen for binging videos in bed? Cameras that can snap photos worthy of a gallery wall? Ideally, the midrange smartphone for you will be solid in all of these departments, but make note of which of those factors are especially important to you.
Even though we’ve narrowed the options down to devices that cost between $250 and $500, there’s still a lot of wiggle room in that range. What’s the most you’d feel comfortable spending on your smartphone? Midrange phones tend to use slightly older or more-modest components compared to the flashy, expensive devices people often slobber over, so it’s worth buying a device toward the top end of what you can afford. That way, you’re left with a phone that should last you awhile.
It’s also worth noting that if you buy a smartphone from a wireless carrier, you have the option of paying for it in installments. This guide will mostly look at full retail price, but once you find something you like, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to pay for it over time.
That’s pretty much it! There might be other factors to consider like release timing, since that often means big price cuts on previously expensive devices. Feel free to let us worry about that though: We track price changes and new discounts on our Deals page, and we’ll continue to update this guide as new smartphones are released.
What won’t I get from a midrange smartphone?
The line between midrange phones and their upmarket cousins is blurring in interesting ways. However, there are a few things you generally won't get in a sub-$500 device. Water and dust resistance are good examples: Many premium phones tout an IP68 rating, which means they're sealed against dust, dirt and sand, and they can sit under a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. When it comes to midrange phones, though, the best you're likely to see is the occasional water-repellent coating: Those can help phones survive the occasional splash or spill, but that's it.
Ultra-fast 5G network support is off the table for midrange phones too, for now. That's bound to change as 2020 presses on, thanks to new, less expensive 5G-compatible chipsets from companies like Qualcomm, Samsung and MediaTek. At the moment though, you're not missing out on much.
A few more notes
You can certainly find great deals on pre-owned devices on resale platforms like Swappa and BackMarket, and I have personally had good experiences with both services. Still, buying pre-owned or refurbished isn’t for everyone, so this guide will focus on devices you can buy brand new in box right now. This guide is also mainly meant for our US readers, so some popular foreign brands you might have heard of — Oppo, Realme, Xiaomi and more — don’t get much of a spotlight here. Don’t get us wrong: We’re fans of these companies and the devices they make, but differences in supported network bands, warranties and more mean those phones don’t always make sense for US-based shoppers.
Now onto our picks.