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The Best Mid-Range Smartphones For Travellers

In Phones by David Dean4 Comments

Just a few years ago, you couldn’t get an unlocked smartphone worth talking about for much under five hundred bucks. Spend less than that, and you’d end up with an outdated, fragile piece of junk that worked poorly, if at all. That’s all changed now, of course — you can get some good budget smartphones for under $200.

Now, if you drop a few hundred dollars on a mid-range phone, you expect much more. Speedy performance, plenty of storage, and a decent camera are a minimum, along with good battery life and LTE support. Extras like fast charging, dual SIM slots, and maybe even protection from the elements are all welcome, if not a given.

For the purposes of this roundup, a “mid-range smartphone” is an Android or iOS device that costs between $250 and $500 USD, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world.

To make the cut, a phone had to come with 32GB+ of storage, or at least have a microSD slot for adding extra space at a later date. Storage is vital for travellers, who tend to use their device for entertainment and taking photos and video. Being limited to 16GB or less just doesn’t cut it in phones costing this much.

Surprisingly, there aren’t all that many good mid-range options available at the moment — you don’t always get much more for your extra couple of hundred bucks than you’ll find with the best budget options. That said, there are still a few stand-out candidates.

OnePlus One

One Plus OneEven though it’s around a year old, the OnePlus One is still a great mid-range smartphone choice. The specifications and design are right up there with many premium phones, but at $299 for the unlocked 64GB version, it’s half the price of most flagship models.

The 3100mAh battery should last a day and a half of moderate use, despite the large 5.5″ HD screen. Performance is extremely good, and while the camera isn’t the absolute best on the market, the 13MP Sony sensor is as good or better than anything else you’ll find in a phone this price.

It also includes support for many (but not all) of the different 4G/LTE frequencies around the world. It also includes fast charging, voice wakeup and gesture support.

It used to be very hard to get your hands on one of these devices, but you can now buy them direct from the company’s website. If you’re looking for a high-end phone without a high-end price tag, The OnePlus One deserves serious consideration.

What we like:

  • Great design and value
  • LTE support
  • Good battery life
  • Good camera
  • Speedy processor
  • Plenty of RAM and storage
  • Fast charging
What we don’t like:

  • A bit large for many travellers
  • Lack of dual SIM or microSD options
  • Service and support reports are hit and miss

The specs that matter:

  • 5.5″ 1080p display with Gorilla Glass 3
  • QualcommSnapdragon 801 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 13MP rear camera / 5MP front camera
  • 3100 mAh battery
  • 64GB storage
  • Single SIM slot
  • Android 4.4 (upgrades to 5.x after setup)

Buy from OnePlus


Asus Zenfone 2

Zenfone 2The recently-released Asus Zenfone 2 straddles the line between budget and mid-range smartphones, depending on which version you get. The lower spec model was our budget pick last month, and the higher-end version is extremely competitive in the mid-range category.

For the money, it’s hard to find anything except the OnePlus One with similar specs. It’s fast and far from ugly, with large amounts of memory and storage and a good camera for $299 unlocked. With LTE support, dual SIM cards, a microSD slot and fast charging (zero to 60% in under 40 minutes), there’s an awful lot to like about it.

What we like:

  • Dual SIM
  • MicroSD storage
  • Plenty of RAM and storage
  • Good camera for a budget smartphone, especially in low light
  • LTE support
  • Fast charging
  • Speedy processor
  • Great value
What we don’t like:

  • Battery life isn’t remarkable
  • Top-mounted power button is annoying, especially on a large device
  • A little large and heavy for many travellers
  • Speakers won’t impress anyone

The specs that matter:

  • 5.5″ 1080p IPS display with Gorilla Glass 3
  • Intel Atom Z3580 processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 13MP rear camera, 8MP front camera
  • 3000 mAh battery
  • 64GB storage, with microSD slot
  • Dual SIM slots
  • Android 5.0


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Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

Sony Xperia Z3 compact The lower end of the smartphone market tends to be dominated by less-familiar brand names, so it’s nice to see Sony offering a solid mid-range option.

As the name suggests, the Xperia Compact Z3 is a smaller version of the standard Z3 model — but unlike most ‘compact’ versions, there isn’t a huge drop in specs to accompany it. While screen resolution, RAM and internal storage aren’t as high as the other phones listed here, they’re all fine for everyday use.

With 5.5″ screens rapidly becoming the norm on Android phones, it’s rare to find one with a 4.6″ display like this. Smaller, however, is often better for travel — the reduced size and weight make it easier to fit in a pocket, hold and use with one hand, and you tend to get better battery life as well.

That’s the case here too: even though the battery is relatively small, the phone gets up to two days between charges.

Unsurprisingly from Sony, the 20MP camera is a big talking point, but I was actually more impressed by the IP68 rating. A dust-proof phone that can handle being dunked in five feet of water for up to half an hour makes for a very useful travel companion.  You’ll pay a little under $400 on Amazon, depending on colour choice.

What we like:

  • Rugged, waterproof design
  • Good battery life
  • Excellent rear camera
  • Well-known brand
What we don’t like:

  • Uninspiring front camera
  • Average screen resolution, RAM and internal storage

The specs that matter:

  • 4.6″ 720p display with Gorilla Glass 3
  • QualcommSnapdragon 801 processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 20MP rear camera / 2MP front camera
  • 3100 mAh battery
  • 16GB storage, with microSD slot
  • Single SIM
  • Android 5.0


The Final Word

Realistically, any of these three phones would be a good choice. If you don’t mind the larger size, you can’t go wrong with either the OnePlus One or the Asus Zenfone 2 — they’ve got similar specifications, and blow the competition out of the water when it comes to value.

The One looks and feels better, and is slightly lighter and faster. If I was spending my own money on one of these two devices, though, I’d probably opt for the Zenfone.

Dual SIM slots are definitely useful for travel, and from a reliability perspective, I’ve been happy with the variety of Asus gear I’ve owned. Being brand new, the Zenfone is likely to be supported for longer — OnePlus is already drip-feeding information about the replacement model (called, obviously, the Two), and nobody really knows what long-term support will look like for the One.

For those who prefer a smaller device, though, the answer is clearly the Xperia Z3 Compact. It’s lighter, easier to hold and use, and has better battery life than either of the other phones. The water and dust-proofing is a major bonus, and it has the best camera of the lot.

The storage and RAM are a little disappointing given the higher cost, but given the SD card option, they’re not going to hold you back. For $400, it’s still a great traveller’s phone.

Note: This list only includes devices easily available for purchase in the US and Europe. If you’re not looking to buy a mid-range smartphone right now, it might be worth waiting for the rumoured release of the new Google Nexus 5 later this year. The previous model was our overall smartphone pick until it was discontinued, and although no details are confirmed yet, it’s likely to have good specifications and cost under $500.

Oppo will also soon be making its R7 Plus available in the US, a high-spec phone that should come in just under the $500 mark.

So those are our mid-range smartphone picks in mid-2015. Do you think we left something out? Sound off in the comments!

Main image via Raffaele Esposito, other images via manufacturers.

About the Author

David Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a wanderer for nearly 20 years and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. Nice round up! The xperia cameranis bomb. Listing the frequency/ bands would be a great addition, to see if lte is supported in specific countries.

  2. I own a one plus one and I love it especially for it’s huge memory ad decent battery. The only problem is that it goes crazy some times with flickering screen. I am hoping one of the Nexus makes into the list next time.

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