Your buying guide for the best budget phones in 2017
In our experience the best way to get a cheap phone is to buy it SIM-free then grab a great-value SIM-only deal. You won’t be paying £50-odd per month for a phone for the next two years, and you can swap it for a newer model whenever you fancy it and have the spare cash.
Don’t miss: Best phone deals
All the phones in this best budget phones chart cost under £200 (higher than our previous limit of £150 to reflect the changing market), which is just a third of the price you’d often pay for flagships such as the Galaxy S8, HTC 10 and LG G6 – take a look at our guide to the best phones on the market for more on those flagships.
If you’re after a phone for under £50 take a look at our Best basic phones roundup, which includes less-smart but still decent phones that give up features for the best prices – from £10.
If you are in the market for a budget phone, you’ll quickly find that some of the best deals are sold via mobile operators. What you need to watch for is whether these phones are sold locked to that operator’s network.
An alternative route to getting a cheap unlocked phone is to buy a Chinese phone – you’ll find some of these in our group test below. You might not have heard of the brands, and they won’t be available on the UK High Street (save for the likes of Huawei and ZTE), but Chinese phones are well-known for offering amazing specs for the money and undercutting their European rivals. In most cases you’ll get a phone with a mid-range specification at a budget price. Also see: What is Android Go?
Of course there are down sides – for example, what should you do if a phone bought from China is faulty? We’ve rounded up the major pitfalls in our article on buying grey-market tech, but if you’re still interested you should see our round-up of the best Chinese phones for 2017.
If you’re looking for a budget phone as for a child who you don’t quite trust with a flagship, you might also want to look at our selection of the best kids’ phones, which includes some of the best budget phones along with a few others particularly well-suited to kids.
Ranked in order below are our reviews of what we consider to be the best budget phones on sale right now. We’ve based this chart on the SIM-free price, specifications, and performance of each budget smartphone.
You can click on a phone in which you’re interested to read the full review, see example photos from the camera, and check out the benchmark results. And if you’re ready to buy one, check out our best phone deals to make sure you find the best price.
What will you get for your money?
If you’re looking for a cheap phone, you have to accept the fact that the manufacturer is going to cut some corners to achieve that low price and you aren’t going to get the same speed, features, and display quality as you might with a phone costing two, three, or even four times the price.
It used to be the case that budget phones were instantly recognisable by their low-resolution displays, meagre storage, and chunky, plastic bodies, but things are improving in this area all the time. These days, for £200 or less it’s quite possible to buy a phone with a full-HD display and an 8mm metal body.
Most will support 4G connectivity, but not all will support NFC (Chinese phones will often feature HotKnot in place of MediaTek and, although it’s a similar technology, it isn’t the same.) We’ve broken down some of the key areas of specifications below.
Features and specifications to look for in a budget phone
At the moment we have a strange situation where some cheap phones have the same processor – and performance – as much more expensive phones.
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. There’s isn’t normally 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 – though there are exceptions, like the Lenovo P2, which can last three whole days.
Of course, if you use the phone for hours on end to browse the web, use it as a satnav, 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.
A plus point of budget phones when it comes to battery life is that they very often feature lower-resolution screens, which place less of a strain on the battery.
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, and as we’ve mentioned you can find a full-HD screen at this price (though don’t expect Quad-HD).
On smaller phones with, say, 4.5in screens, you can get away with 960×540, but you really can do better.
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.
Low brightness can make a screen difficult to view in bright sunlight.
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 whether it will take good shots or not: the numbers are largely meaningless – at best they’re a rough guide to how capable a phone camera is going to be.
If one manufacturer offers a 13Mp rear camera and another just 5Mp, it doesn’t take a genius to expect better quality from the manufacturer who offers 13Mp. Just be sure to check that 13Mp camera is not actually an 8Mp camera using software interpolation to get to 13Mp.
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. In many cases these days you can get 5Mp at this price.
Numbers do matter at this level, as manufacturers often really skimp on the front camera, so if selfies or Skype chats are the order of the day, choose a budget phone with a good front camera.
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 run ‘stock’ Android, and Motorola’s aren’t very far off, 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 be sluggish and unresponsive.
Going for 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.
Finally, before you buy it’s worth checking our guide to the best new phones coming in 2017, just in case there’s something on the way you’d rather buy.
There’s plenty of competition in Android’s budget market, but the Moto G5 is the best around right now. The build quality alone feels like it belongs on a much more expensive phone, while the fingerprint gesture controls genuinely improve the Android experience. The benchmarks and battery hold it back, but they’re not unreasonable given the price – and you won’t find a much better looking phone at £169.
Read our Moto G5 review.
The Lenovo P2 is really being sold on the strength of its battery, and the great news is that it lives up to the company’s hype, offering you days of usage and a power bank in a pinch. Throw in the premium design and build quality, and you have a phone that delivers tremendous value for money. It may not boast flagship performance, but by the time you hit your third day without charging, you’re not likely to care that much.
Read our Lenovo P2 review.
Overall, we enjoy the Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus. It’s an all-rounder, with features you’d expect from a flagship such as its fingerprint sensor and gorgeous design. But when you dig deeper you notice the flaws that better reflect its price tag, which is a bit of a shame. Closer inspection of its design shows that it’s a bit rough around the edges, and the screen quality and battery life are beaten by similarly priced rivals. Therefore it’s a tricky one to offer a solid verdict on. For the price, you’re getting a good phone that looks deceivingly premium, but you could opt for the Moto G5 for a better screen and similar overall features at a lower price.
Read our Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus review.
The UMI Z is an excellent-value Android phone with a large battery, a decent screen, the most powerful MediaTek processor you can get and a very good selfie camera. Unfortunately the primary camera doesn’t quite live up, but it’s otherwise difficult to fault. With full UK 4G connectivity it’s a great buy.
Read our UMI Z review.
The Elephone S7 is a very good-looking phone at an affordable price, with decent performance and a generous helping of storage. On the down side the cameras are disappointing and the rear panel is plastic. Even at this price you don’t need to compromise so heavily.
Read our Elephone S7 review.
Although the new Moto G4 is more expensive than the third-generation, Motorola is offering a Full HD screen, better processor, more storage and memory. Not everyone will enjoy the jump to 5.5in or the lack of full waterproofing but this is still a brilliant phone for under £200. Just bear in mind that the 3rd-gen Moto G is now a great buy at £149 and the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 offers similar specs for just £125 (albeit SIM-locked).
Read our Motorola Moto G4 review.
The Moto G4 Plus is a nice phone but it’s very similar to the regular model. Since we’re disappointed in the camera (with no noticeable difference), it’s not worth paying the extra money to get a fingerprint scanner which can’t even be used with Android Pay since there’s no NFC. The only real reason to opt for the Plus is to gain more storage and the extra RAM which comes with the 64GB model; however, the Micro-SD card slot negates this somewhat.
Read our Motorola Moto G4 Plus (2016) review.
We like the improved design of the Smart Prime 7 and Vodafone has even dropped the price, even if it is by £4. You get a decent phone for the money but we can’t help but be a little disappointed by the downgrade to a Snapdragon 210 and that the camera is suddenly limited to 720p. Prime 6 owners have little reason to upgrade and although you can’t go too wrong for just £75 you might be better off spending a little more on a better rival.
Read our Vodafone Smart Prime 7 review.
We’re very impressed with the Elephone P9000, which is a great all-round Android phone at an unbelievable sub-£200 price. It’s fast, battery life is good, it’s feature-packed and it even runs Marshmallow. Wireless- and quick-charging-, NFC-, USB-C-, dual-SIM- and microSD support are the icing on the cake. Recommended.
Read our Elephone P9000 review.
Ulefone has attempted to build a futuristic phone with the Future’s edge-to-edge display and USB-C port. For a mid-range Android phone performance is good, and the design is good, even if the phone is on the heavy side. We can’t turn a blind eye to the camera quality, although a software update should be able to fix the issues we saw.
Read our Ulefone Future review.
UMIDIGI C Note
The UMIDIGI C Note is a very well-designed budget smartphone with a premium design. Performance is lacking, but capable, and the camera can produce decent results in good lighting. A good budget buy.
Read our UMIDIGI C Note review.
Xiaomi Redmi 3S
Right now the Redmi 3S Pro is available for just an extra £5 over the 3S, but ordinarily we would have said you will struggle to find better value for money than what is offered by Xiaomi’s new Redmi 3S. This budget Android phone is feature-packed and capable, and has a new fingerprint scanner. You can’t expect any more for £120, just remember that Google Play isn’t installed out of the box.
Read our Xiaomi Redmi 3S review.
Meizu M3 Note
The Meizu M3 Note is a great phone, with outstanding battery life and a nice metal unibody design, but it isn’t a patch on the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, which is faster and comes with a better camera, more up-to-date software and, importantly, a cheaper price tag. That said, it’s difficult for us to recommend to UK users (particularly novice UK users) the Meizu M3 Note over other budget Chinese smartphones we’ve tested, given that Google Play is not preinstalled and so much of it has not been adapted from Chinese.
Read our Meizu M3 Note review.
Sony Xperia XA
We quite liked our time with the Sony Xperia XA, and it represents much better value for money than the flagship Xperia X, which is overpriced. We recommend the XA if you want a sleek, smart, mid-range phone that does everything acceptably well. If you get it on contract it’ll be about £20 per month, so for about half the price of a 2016 flagship. It’s solid, but we are strangely still waiting for Sony’s world-beater. We’re beginning to think it might never appear.
Read our Sony Xperia XA review.