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How things have changed in the world of budget smartphones.
Until a few years ago, we didn’t bother recommending any low-cost options, because there was simply nothing worth buying.
All the budget phones were badly-made, with low specifications and worse battery life. You’d almost have been better off having no phone at all than relying on one during your travels.
Today, though, it’s a different story. Asian manufacturers, in particular, have been producing phones offering most of the features a traveler needs for a relatively small amount of money.
No longer are dim screens, slow processors, and awful cameras the only option when you’re on a budget. These phones aren’t up there with high-end options costing three times as much, but for many travelers, they’re good enough.
For our purposes, a budget smartphone is one costing under $300/£300, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world.
Some of these recommendations get close to that limit, while others are much less. They all run some version of Android, as even the cheapest iPhone is significantly more expensive.
Best Overall: Motorola Moto G7
Motorola has been turning out good, reliable budget smartphones for several years, and the latest Moto G series is no exception. There are a few different versions, but the best for most travelers is the Moto G7, and it’s our top pick as a result.
Unlike many lower-cost handsets, the G7 doesn’t look cheap. Available in black or white, the all-glass design really sets it apart at this end of the market. What’s inside is equally impressive, with a mid-range Snapdragon 632 chipset, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage upgradeable via the micro-SD slot.
It has fast USB-C charging to keep you topped up during a short layover, and a bright 6.2″ display that doesn’t feel enormous due to the 19:9 aspect ratio and small bezels. There are dual rear cameras, and a fingerprint sensor on the back.
The Moto G7 also has a feature you won’t find on many smartphones three times the price: a headphone jack. The bundled Moto Actions like shaking the phone twice to turn on the flashlight are also somewhat useful, rather than just pointless gimmicks.
Rather than using the standard notch approach to house the front camera, Motorola has gone for a more subtle “teardrop” at the top of the display that help preserve the phone stylish, understated looks.
So what’s not to love? Not much, really. It’s only splash-proof rather than having true water resistance, and the day-long lifespan of the 3000mAh battery is acceptable rather than outstanding.
The camera quality is better than most others in this price range for both stills and video, but is still unlikely to be a replacement for a dedicated camera for most travelers.
Those are the only shortfalls, though, in what is an excellent phone for the money. If you’re looking for a budget smartphone with the looks and many of the features of a device costing far more, go for the Motorola Moto G7.
Best for Battery Life: Motorola Moto G7 Power
In many ways, the Moto G7 Power is an inferior version of our top pick, the Moto G7. The screen isn’t as sharp, the phone is heavier and less well-made, and the camera is noticeably worse.
If you buy the North American model of the Power, you’ll also get less storage and RAM than with the G7. Given there can be less than a $50 price difference between the two, why would you go for the Power?
One simple reason: battery life.
The huge 5000mAh battery inside the Power is two-thirds larger than the one in the regular G7, and it shows in daily use. Coupled with that lower-resolution screen, you’ll often get two days between charges. That’s better than anything else in this price range worth owning.
The Power does retain a few of the things we love about the regular G7. There’s a headphone jack, and a microSD slot that lets you add up to 512GB of additional storage. Fast USB-C charging is also available, via the 15W charger that comes in the box.
There’s a fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone. There’s no official weather resistance, although a “nano coating” provides some protection against rain and splashes.
While we suspect that the small price difference will mean many travelers opt for the Moto G7 instead of the G7 Power, it’s not a slam dunk. If long battery life is more important to you than camera quality or screen resolution, the Power is very much the phone to go for.
Best on a Tight Budget: BLU Vivo X5
While all of the phones on this list are fairly inexpensive, there’s still quite a price gap between top and bottom. When you’re really on a tight budget, but still want a decent phone, the BLU Vivo X5 is the way to go.
Despite its sub-$100 list price, it has a reasonable set of specifications. You’ll get a 5.7″ HD+ screen, dual rear cameras, and fast charging. There’s 3GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, and a 2800mAh battery.
That’s probably not enough to last heavy users an entire day, unfortunately. You’ll want a portable charger (or a spare battery, since it’s user-replaceable) to get you through long layovers and bus rides.
The screen looks better in person than it does on paper. The HD+ resolution isn’t super-exciting these days, but it’s enough for a screen this size. Images are bright, colorful, and fairly crisp as long as you’re not examining them from two inches away.
Dual SIM slots are always useful for international travel, and you’ll find them on the Vivo X5. One of them doubles as a micro-SD slot, so you can opt to lose the second SIM option in favor of adding up to 64GB of extra storage.
There’s also that increasingly rare feature, a headphone jack, to go with a pair of non-terrible earbuds included in the box. So what’s not to like?
Well, as usual with cheap smartphones, it’s the camera. You’ll get passable shots in ideal lighting conditions, and little more than a blurry mess the rest of the time. You’ll want to take a dedicated camera to record your trip, rather than rely on shots from this device.
I also don’t love the use of a micro-USB charging socket in 2019, or its weird placement on the top of the phone rather than the bottom. Why there? I have no idea.
Finally, BLU doesn’t have the greatest reputation for updating the software on its phones. Sure, you might get lucky and see an updated Android version at some point, but don’t buy the phone expecting one.
Even with the downsides, though, this is a perfectly good super-budget 2019 smartphone, and better than anything else at this price point. If you’re trying to save your money for travel, and just need a functioning phone that does the basics well, you’ve found it here.
Note that BLU also makes a larger version, the Vivo XL5. There’s a (very) slightly better camera, much bigger battery, and the charging port is on the bottom like it should be. It costs more, but if the benefits are worth the extra money for you, check it out.
Best Value for Money: Honor 7X / Huawei Mate SE
In the last couple of years, Honor has started making inroads outside its home market of China, and that’s no surprise. You can get an awful lot of phone for not much money when you buy one of the company’s devices, with the best budget option for travelers being the Honor 7x.
With a slimline, all-metal design, it’s attractive for such a low-cost device. The nearly-6″ display is colorful and vibrant, and while it’s a fairly big phone, the tall 18:9 aspect ratio and tiny bezels make it easier to hold than you might expect. There’s also a fingerprint sensor on the back.
The Kirin 659 chipset is a decent performer, and depending on where you buy the device, you’ll get either 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage (the Americas) or 4GB/64GB (elsewhere).
There’s a micro-SD slot for adding extra storage, plus dual-SIM capability, so you can use a local SIM to bring costs down overseas, while keeping your home SIM installed to receive texts and calls if needed.
Charging is done via a dated micro-USB port. There’s also a headphone socket, which we always like to see. The cameras on both front and back do a decent job in good lighting, but as with many budget phones, noticeably struggle in dim conditions.
Speaking of battery life, the 3340mAh battery typically powers the Honor 7x for about a day, but not much longer. Disappointingly, there’s no fast charging — that’s a useful feature for travelers, and one that some other budget phone makers have managed to include.
In an odd move, Huawei (Honor’s parent company) released a slightly different version of the same phone in the US, and called it the Huawei Mate SE.
It’s typically a bit more expensive than the Honor 7X, and the only difference is the 4GB/64GB configuration that comes standard elsewhere in the world. Depending on the exact price difference at the time, it’s worth the upgrade cost for most travelers.
Best for Features: BLU G9 Pro
BLU is known for putting out decent phones at very low prices, but it’s done something a bit different with the G9 Pro. While it still slots easily into the budget category, it’s more expensive than the rest of the BLU range. Luckily, it’s absolutely worth the extra money.
This attractive phone looks like it costs a lot more than it does, with a striking design and surprisingly premium feel in the hand. The 6.3″ display is crisp and high-resolution, even if it’s not especially vibrant, and there’s a headphone jack for those of us who don’t want to use Bluetooth or annoying adapters all the time.
There’s 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, and if you’re happy to lose the second SIM slot, you can add up to a 128GB microSD card. There’s a 4000mAh battery that will last a full day of general use. Surprisingly for a budget phone, there’s 10W wireless charging, as well as the 18W USB-C wall charger that comes bundled in the box.
There are three separate sensors in the rear camera array, but keep expectations in check. You’ll get shots that are better than other phones at this price, but don’t expect anything on par with the latest high-end Apple, Google, or Samsung devices. The front camera is mediocre at best.
There’s a rear fingerprint scanner, as well as a face unlock feature that provides minimal security and should be left turned off.
The MediaTek Helio P60 chipset is good for a budget device. It performs well in benchmark tests, but more importantly in the real world, runs most current apps and games pretty well.
There aren’t many downsides with the G9 Pro, but as with other BLU phones, don’t expect much in the way of Android updates. The company might make more of an effort with this higher-end model, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
Other than that, this is a very good phone for the money, with a feature set that you don’t typically find on phones costing twice as much. It’s well worth a look.
Title image via MMckein