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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, even 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 G6
- Best for Long Battery Life: Motorola Moto G6 Play
- Best on a Tight Budget: BLU Vivo XL4
- Best Value for Money: Honor 7X / Huawei Mate SE
- Best for Longevity: Nokia 6.1
Best Overall: Motorola Moto G6
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 G6, and it’s our top pick as a result.
Unlike many lower-cost handsets, the G6 doesn’t look cheap, with an all-glass design setting it apart at this end of the market. What’s inside is equally impressive, with a mid-range Snapdragon 450 chipset, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB 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 5.7″ display that doesn’t feel enormous due to the 18:9 aspect ratio and small bezels. There are dual rear cameras, and a fingerprint sensor on the front.
The Moto G6 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.
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, not 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 an attractive budget smartphone with many of the features of a device costing far more, go for the Motorola Moto G6.
Best for Long Battery: Motorola Moto G6 Play
In most ways, the Moto G6 Play is an inferior version of our top pick, the Moto G6. The processor is a little slower, and the screen isn’t as sharp. The phone is heavier and less well-made, and the camera is noticeably worse.
Given there’s often less than $50 price difference between the two, why would you go for the Play? One simple reason: the battery life.
The battery in the Play is a third larger, and it shows in daily use. Coupled with that lower-resolution screen, you’ll typically get a day and a half of regular use out of the device. That’s better than pretty much anything else in this price range worth owning.
There are a few other things to like about the G6 Play, too. There’s a headphone jack, and the micro-SD slot lets you add up to 128GB of additional storage. Fast charging is also available, although you’ll need to buy the special charger separately.
Unlike the Moto G6, charging is done via a micro-USB port rather than the newer USB-C, and the fingerprint scanner is on the back of the phone. There’s no official weather resistance, although a “nano coating” provides some protection against rain and splashes.
Overall, we suspect that most travelers will likely opt for the Moto G6 instead of the Play, especially if there’s not much price difference. If long battery life is more important to you than camera quality or screen resolution, however, the Play is an excellent option.
Best on a Tight Budget: BLU Vivo XL4
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 XL4 is the way to go.
Despite its low cost, it has a reasonable set of specifications. You’ll get a large 6.2″ screen, dual rear cameras, and an all-day 4000mAh battery inside a metal body. There’s 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and fast-charging as well.
The screen looks better in person than it does on paper. The HD resolution really isn’t much to spread across a screen as large as this, but images are still bright, colorful, and crisp enough if 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 XL4. 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 128GB 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 not much more than a blurry mess at night. You’ll want to take a dedicated camera to record your trip, rather than rely on shots from this device.
The chipset is also at the low end of the range. This makes the phone fine for most daily tasks, but you’ll still get a bit of stuttering and slow performance at times, and playing much more than basic games isn’t going to be much fun.
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.
All in all, this is a perfectly good super-budget 2019 smartphone, with better specs and build quality than anything else at a similar price. 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.
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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 option for travelers being the Honor 7x.
With a slimline, all-metal design, it’s particularly attractive, especially for such a low-cost device. The nearly-6″ display is colorful and vibrant, and while it’s a 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 mid-range 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, although given how many other travel gadgets still use that type of cable, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 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 about $50 more expensive than the Honor 7X, and the only difference is the 4GB/64GB configuration that comes standard elsewhere in the world. It’s worth the upgrade cost for most travelers.
Best for Longevity: Nokia 6.1
Remember Nokia? Just when you thought it was dead and buried, the brand was bought by hardware company HMD, and started releasing a range of surprisingly-good budget smartphones with numerical names.
The best of them is the Nokia 6.1, which combines useful specifications and solid hardware with Google’s Android One program that promises ongoing system and security updates for at least two years.
Built from a single block of aluminium, it manages to stand out from the crowd in a way that most budget smartphones don’t. It should be a bit more durable than those with plastic or glass backs, too, but the lack of any kind of water resistance is a definite downside.
There’s a headphone jack (yay!) and a USB-C port for fast charging. You’ll get back up to around 50% in an hour.
The standard specifications are about what you’d expect from a good low to mid-range phone in 2019, although again they vary depending on where you are in the world.
While both models ship with a Snapdragon 630 chipset, the North American version has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, while other markets will get 4GB/64GB instead. Either way, there’s also a micro-SD slot for extra storage, which doubles as a second SIM slot.
The 3000mAh battery will get you to the end of an average day, but no further — it’d be nice if it lasted longer, but is no worse than many other similar devices. The bright 5.5″ HD screen has good colour accuracy, and there’s a fingerprint sensor on the back.
There’s only a single rear camera, and as is so often the case with budget devices, both front and back cameras take good shots in good light, but noticeably less so at other times. The camera app can also be a bit slow to focus and unreliable. Given Sony’s long-standing focus on photography, that’s all a bit frustrating.
Still, for under $300 you’re getting an attractive, durable, and useful phone, with extras like dual SIM support. Solid specs and two years of security and system updates mean it won’t be out of date any time soon, which is impressive for a budget device.
All in all, you could do an awful lot worse than taking a Nokia 6.1 on your travels.
Images via MMckein (title image), Motorola x 2, BLU, Apple, Honor, Nokia.