Google Pixel 4a
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The Engadget guide to the best midrange smartphones

Who says greatness has to be expensive?

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Smartphones have become necessities of modern life, but you certainly don't have to pay through the nose for a good one. Maybe money is tight, maybe you’re opposed to needless spending. Heck, maybe you don't care about phones all that much. (It's OK, I care enough for the both of us.) No matter your reason, there's never been a better time to choose a midrange smartphone.

Consider this: Companies go to great lengths to sell you on the flashiest, most expensive phones, but the features they pioneer quickly trickle down to more reasonably priced devices. Big, beautiful screens? Multiple rear cameras? Huge batteries? These all used to be high-end hallmarks that are now readily available in devices under $500. You simply don’t need to spend top dollar to get a reliable smartphone, and this guide will help you find exactly what you're looking for at the right price.

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.

  • Platform

    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.

  • Priorities

    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.

  • Price

    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.

Chris Velazco/Engadget
Chris Velazco/Engadget

The best overall midrange phone: iPhone SE (2020)

Buy iPhone SE at Walmart - $400

If you're truly open to smartphones of all stripes, we think you'll get the most out of Apple's new iPhone SE. That's largely thanks to the company’s choice of chipset: Unlike other phones in this price range that rely on dedicated midrange processors, the $400 SE uses the same A13 Bionic found in the company's most expensive iPhones. That’s enough to make the iPhone SE the fastest midrange smartphone available right now by far. 

It doesn’t take long for that power to become apparent. Frenzied multitasking poses no issue. High-intensity games, while a little cramped on the SE's 4.7-inch Retina HD display, run incredibly smoothly. Even the single rear camera -- which uses a sensor that debuted in the iPhone 8 more than two years ago -- takes startlingly good photos in most situations because of the serious image processing that A13 performs. Looking ahead, industry observers can also vouch that Apple is up to something in the augmented reality space, and the SE has more than enough power to handle what comes of that work. In other words, all that power is valuable not only now but also in the years to come.

With all that said, the iPhone SE isn't perfect for everyone: Its screen is the smallest of the lot, and you shouldn't expect much more than one full day of battery life. So what does the SE offer to offset these shortcomings? Simple. It's the most future-proof phone in its price range.

Apple has the longest hardware-support timelines in the game, which means an iPhone SE you buy now will continue to get big software updates for years. As I write this, the original iPhone SE — a device that launched in 2016 — is still getting new software. Samsung, by comparison, typically only offers two years’ worth of major software updates. Same goes for Google, though it provides its Pixels with three years of security updates. Beyond that, it's also worth noting that the iPhone SE has lower screen- and battery- replacement costs than other new iPhones. For these reasons and a handful more, we're comfortable calling the 2020 iPhone SE the best midrange smartphone for most people.

Richard Lai/Engadget
Richard Lai/Engadget

The best midrange Android phone: OnePlus 7 Pro

Buy OnePlus 7 Pro at OnePlus - $500

Up until this year, OnePlus had a simple mantra: Make the best phones possible for a reasonable price. (These days, they've moved more definitively into the premium phone tier.) At $699, the OnePlus 8 is too pricey for this list, but last year's OnePlus 7 Pro squeaks in at just over $500. Don't let its age fool you either. Thank to its Snapdragon 855 chipset and 6GB of RAM, it's by far the fastest Android phone on this list, and its super-smooth, bezel-less screen is the prettiest you'll find for the price. And did I mention how well-built this phone is? The 7 Pro feels like a proper flagship phone.

Throw in a clean, fuss-free version of OxygenOS built atop Android 10, 128GB of storage and a flexible triple-camera system around back and you have what might be the best all-around package in the Android pack. If nothing else, it's certainly the most future-proof. If there's one knock against the 7 Pro, it's that its battery life is merely OK. Thankfully, the phone comes with a Warp Charge 30 charger that, in our experience, takes the 7 Pro from bone-dry to full in one hour. It's also a serious handful, so people with smaller hands may want to look elsewhere.

I should point out that this pick has an asterisk attached to it: If you’re a T-Mobile customer, you should look at the OnePlus 7T instead. It packs an extra 2GB of RAM and a slightly faster Snapdragon 855+ chipset for the same price as the unlocked 7 Pro, and its body is slightly more compact, so it’s easier to hold. (For what it’s worth, OnePlus told us that it’ll start selling the unlocked 7T starting at $499 again soon; we’ll update this guide if and when that happens.)

Chris Velazco/Engadget
Chris Velazco/Engadget

The midrange phone with the best battery: Moto G Power

Buy Moto G Power at Best Buy - $250

There’s something uniquely stressful about watching your phone’s battery inching toward zero, but that shouldn’t be a problem with the Moto G Power. With a 5,000mAh battery tucked inside, this $250 phone has longevity that’s measured in days, not hours. (We can’t say the same about most of the premium phones we’ve tested this year.) In our testing, two full days of use off a single charge was the norm, and if you’re the sort who uses your phone sparingly, hitting the three-day mark is doable.

The Moto G Power's longevity is its biggest selling point, but it's no slouch in other departments either. Motorola went with a 6.4-inch full HD display that gives your photos and videos plenty of room to breathe. And its 16-megapixel main camera takes reasonably crisp, well-exposed photos in good lighting conditions. (The phone also packs ultra-wide and macro cameras, if you want to mix up your shots a bit.) You may notice some occasional choppiness when jumping between apps, but that's not unusual for something so modestly priced, and it's far from a dealbreaker. All told, the Moto G Power's tremendous battery life and passable performance make it perhaps the best $250 phone you'll find right now.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The midrange phone with the best camera: Google Pixel 4a

Buy Pixel 4a at Best Buy - $350

Yes, you can buy an inexpensive phone with multiple rear cameras, but Google's cost-conscious Pixels are proof that more isn't always better. The Pixel 4a ($350) uses the same primary sensors and processing tech that the flagship Pixel 4 does, so you'll get a very similar experience when grabbing photos and video with this handset. In fact, the photos we took with the Pixel 4a were nearly indistinguishable from those taken by the Pixel 4. The only thing the 4a lacks is the Pixel 4's extra rear telephoto lens, but we think that omission is justified by the 4a's much more affordable price tag.

Beyond the cameras, the Pixel 4a runs on a Snapdragon 730G and 6GB of RAM -- while it doesn't have the speed of a flagship, it won't slow you down either. Google also upped the storage to 128GB, which is double the amount that the Pixel 3a had. Plus Google still managed to include a headphone jack and a fingerprint sensor on this handset. It's also worth mentioning that, being a first-party Android device, the Pixel 4a will be one of the first in line for the latest software updates and Google has already promised three years worth of software and security updates to the handset.

This time around, you don't have to choose from different sizes like you did with the Pixel 3a (which may be good or bad depending on your preference). There's only one variant of the Pixel 4a right now and it includes a 5.8-inch full HD+ OLED display that dominates the front of the handset. It looks and feels a lot more modern than any $350 smartphone has the right to. While the 5G variant may arrive before the end of the year, it’s probably still safe to grab the standard Pixel 4a, unless you absolutely need to be one of the first on the 5G bandwagon. (But then again, you probably wouldn’t be shopping for a budget smartphone then, would you.)

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