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If you’re looking to buy a new phone in 2018, the middle of the road is the place to be. As with the best budget smartphones, Chinese manufacturers have shaken up the mid-range part of the market. Several companies now offer high-powered, well-built devices that rival premium models, but cost hundreds of dollars less.
For around $500, you can buy a phone that will handle everything you throw at it, and look good while doing it. Attractive designs, bright, colourful screens, and high-end specifications aren’t hard to find, at a price where ugly devices and middling specifications were the only option even just a few years ago.
When picking the best mid-range smartphones for travelers, we take several things into account. Cameras need to reliably take good photos, at least in well-lit environments, and preferably in more challenging conditions too. You won’t always be able to replace a dedicated camera with one of these phones, but it should at least be an option for some trips.
The device needs to have an absolute minimum of 32GB storage built in, and we look for 64GB or more. Being able to add more via a micro-SD card is a nice extra here, too. The battery also needs to last until the end of a long travel day away from charging points, and fast charging is always useful for getting a decent top-up during coffee breaks and short layovers.
We don’t expect every mid-range device to have the latest chipsets and large amounts of memory (although many do), but the specs need to be good enough to reasonably last at least a couple of years without being out of date. Extras like dual-SIM support and headphone jacks are always valuable for travelers, as is proper water and dust resistance.
For our purposes, a “mid-range smartphone” is one that costs $300-$600, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world. All of these recommendations are towards the top of that price range, as that’s where you’ll find the best value by far at the moment. Most of these phones run Android, but for iOS lovers, there’s an Apple option that fits the bill as well.
- Best Overall: Huawei Mate 10 Pro
- Best for Value: Honor View 10
- Best for iPhone Lovers: Apple iPhone 7
- Best of the Big Brands: Samsung Galaxy S8
- Best for Raw Power: OnePlus 6
Best Overall: Huawei Mate 10 Pro
If you want the best example of a Chinese manufacturer offering a flagship-level phone at a mid-range price, look no further than Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro. It’s a great device for anyone, but travelers in particular will appreciate many of its best features.
The Mate 10 Pro is one of the best-looking phones on the market at any price. With tempered glass front and rear, a beautiful 6″ Full HD OLED display, and minimal bezels, it looks like it’s worth double what it actually costs. Well, once you’ve finished wiping fingerprint smudges off the glass, at least.
Thankfully, it’s not just the outside that’s impressive — Huawei hasn’t skimped on the internal components either. Powered by the company’s own speedy Kirin 970 chip, and paired with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage (plus a micro-SD slot for adding more), the Mate 10 Pro should be able to handle whatever you ask of it, both today and a couple of years from now.
The 4000mAh battery is impressively large, and easily lasts an entire day of pretty intensive use. If you’re not playing games for hours and taking photos every ten seconds, it should last well into the next day as well.
Huawei also promises its fast-charging tech will give “a whole day’s use with a single 20-minute charge,” which is not exactly true unless you don’t plan to actually use the phone during that day. Still, it does charge quickly, regardless of the marketing promises. There’s no wireless charging option, which is a bit surprising, since that’s usually why phone companies opt for a glass back instead of metal.
So, what about the camera? It’s often the downfall of otherwise-impressive mid-range phones, but here as elsewhere, the Mate 10 Pro shines. On the back, there’s a pair of Leica wide-angle lenses: a 20MP monochrome sensor, and a 12MP colour version with optical stabilisation. The combination allows for useful features like virtual aperture and zoom modes that actually work, but more importantly, solid image quality as well.
In good lighting, you’ll consistently get vibrant, crisp photos, and shooting at night — traditionally the weakest point of any smartphone camera — usually yields usable images rather than the dark, blurry mess we’re used to seeing. They’re not quite on par with the best Samsung, Google, or Apple cameras, but for the money, they’re more than acceptably close.
Huawei’s EMUI 8.0 software sits over top of Android 8, and unusually for these type of overlays, actually offers useful features. You can plug the phone straight into an external monitor with the right USB-C to HDMI cable, making for a great entertainment option in hotel rooms. It’d be nice if Huawei actually bundled or at least sold the right cable, but hey, you can’t have everything in life.
There’s dust and water-resistance built in, which comes in super-handy when, say, you get caught in a sudden downpour in the middle of a tulip field in the Netherlands. Not that I have any experience of killing a smartphone that way. No, not at all.
All in all, this is a hell of a phone — especially since it’s now a few months old, and the price has dropped to within our mid-range budget. If you want a premium device at far from a premium price, you’ve found it in the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.
- Stunning design
- High-end specs
- Dust and water-resistant
- Very good battery life
- Camera quality not far behind the best premium phones
- All that glass needs to be in a case to avoid damage
- No headphone jack
- No wireless charging despite the glass back
Best for Value: Honor View 10
Huawei does a great job of competing with itself in certain markets. Honor is the company’s budget subsidiary, and it often turns out nice-looking smartphones with good specs and sharp pricing. Example: the Honor View 10.
With flagship components like a Kirin 970 chipset and 6GB of RAM, performance is impressively fast, and you won’t feel the need for an upgrade for quite some time. There’s 128GB of inbuilt storage, plus a micro-SD slot for adding more, and dual-SIM support for traveling overseas. A headphone jack is a welcome addition for many people, although it comes at the expense of any real water and dust-resistance.
Design-wise, the Honor View 10 is a reasonably attractive device, with an 18:9 screen ratio and slim bezels top and bottom. It’s not as visually stunning as the Mate 10 Pro, but you’re not going to be embarrassed to pull this phone out of your pocket either. Likewise, the 6″ LCD display is perfectly fine, but doesn’t have the same deep blacks and vibrant colours you get from OLED screens on other devices.
The 3750mAh battery is larger than much of the competition, and as a result you can expect the phone to easily last until the end of a long travel day. Once you do manage to drain it, the Honor View 10 will go from flat to full in around two hours.
The dual rear cameras, though, aren’t quite as impressive. Due probably to a lack of optical stabilisation, photos aren’t as crisp in low light as those from the Mate 10 Pro, despite using the same sensors. You’ll get noticeably better results in daylight, although the AI image “enhancements” sometimes get a little carried away, turning up brightness and saturation to unnatural levels.
When the Mate 10 Pro cost a few hundred dollars more at launch, recommending this device instead was a no-brainer. It’s a tougher choice now, since there can be as little as $50 between the two. If you’re after a headphone jack and dual-SIM support, and are happy to trade them for water resistance and camera quality, the Honor View 10 is the perfect phone for you. If you’re not, pay a bit more and go for the Mate 10 Pro instead.
- Solid value
- Good battery life
- High-end specs
- Dual-SIM support
- Headphone jack
- Camera quality isn’t as good as the competition
- No water or dust resistance
Best for iPhone Lovers: Apple iPhone 7
Recommending any Apple phones in this price range is tricky, because the company prices its latest models firmly at the premium end of the market. Spend less, and you’ll get less: in this case, a phone released at the end of 2016. The specifications seem positively anemic compared to some of the Android devices on this list, so is the iPhone 7 really worth buying in 2018?
The answer is a qualified yes. The iPhone 7 is by no means a bad device. It was the first iPhone with some of the features we look for today, from IP67 water and dust resistance to a rear camera with optical image stabilisation. That camera was one of the better ones you could get in a phone at the time, so even now, you’ll likely be pretty happy with the results in both bright and dim lighting.
Apple build quality is very high, and we know plenty of people who’ve dropped their iPhones repeatedly onto hard surfaces and walked away with nothing more than a small dent. Sure, we know several who’ve smashed the screen to pieces as well, but all in all, for a phone not marketed as being particularly rugged, it takes plenty of abuse.
Buying the iPhone 7 is also a good way of getting access to the Apple app store without spending an absolute fortune. Even though the Android equivalent has closed the gap in recent years, it’s still the case that if you’re running iOS, you’ve got a better range of high-quality apps available. Being able to walk into a physical Apple store to deal with any problems, at least if you’re traveling in the right parts of the world, is also a significant comfort.
Even as it adds extra features to each new iOS version, Apple remains committed to ensuring good performance from its phones for several years. As a result, even though the A10 chipset and 2GB of RAM aren’t particularly impressive, the iPhone 7 should continue to run well for at least another two or three years.
Still, it has its issues, some of which are common across the Apple range, and some which are specific to this model. It was the first iPhone to do away with the headphone jack, for instance, and received a lot of criticism for it. It uses its own proprietary Lightning cable to charge, which is both fragile, and expensive to replace when it breaks. The design looks dated these days, with large bezels, and although the 4.7″ screen is bright and vibrant, it’s small by current standards.
The phone is available with either 32GB or 128GB of storage, and as with all Apple devices, there’s no micro-SD slot. We view 32GB as the bare minimum these days, but if you’re buying this phone and have an extra $100 to spend, upgrading to the larger size will be worth it over the long term.
Overall, the iPhone 7 isn’t our favourite phone on this list, and you can get better hardware for your money elsewhere. As far as Apple devices go, however, it’s the best option if you don’t have $700+ to spend. It performs well, takes decent photos, and has the benefits of physical stores, a wide range of quality apps, and dedicated tools like Facetime and iMessage that you can’t get on other devices.
For some travelers, that’s exactly the combination they require.
- Access to Apple’s app store, Facetime, etc
- Good build quality
- Decent camera, even in low light
- IP67 water resistance
- No headphone jack
- No micro-SD slot
- Dated design and specifications
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Best of the Big Brands: Samsung Galaxy S8
While Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is a high-end smartphone with equally high-end pricing, it’s still possible to pick up the previous model. Why would you want to do that, you ask? Well, because it has many of the same features as its newer sibling, for a lot less money. If you’re happy to not have the absolute latest version, the Galaxy S8 offers great value right now.
Despite being last year’s flagship, the specifications are in line with many smartphones released in 2018. You’ll get a fast Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage, plus a micro-SD slot that can add up to 256GB more. There’s dust and water resistance, a headphone jack, and the 18:9 screen ratio that’s been so beloved of phone makers in the last year.
Speaking of the screen, the S8 was the first phone to introduce the gorgeous “infinity” display that many other devices have since copied. The vibrant, curved 5.8″ screen was a major selling point of the device when it came out, and the brightness and colour accuracy remain impressive to this day.
The camera is always a selling point of the Galaxy S range, and so it is here, too. The 12MP rear sensor, paired with a f1.7 lens, is fantastic for food, macro, and low light shots, in a way most phone cameras aren’t. Outdoor photos are very good as well, helped by the wide-angle lens, and there’s great colour saturation and white balance in almost any conditions. There’s a useful 8MP, auto-focusing front camera as well.
The 3000mAh battery is perhaps the only weak point — it’s enough to get you to the end of a travel day, but you won’t have much juice left when you do. At least there’s fast charging included, which takes well under two hours to get it back to full if you use the included USB-C charger. Somewhat unusually these days, wireless charging is also available, although it takes longer to do its thing.
If you like the idea of a premium device from a major manufacturer for around five hundred bucks, I’d suggest not waiting too long to think about it. The longer the Galaxy S9 is out, the harder it will get to find the S8. Pick it up soon if you’re going to!
- Great screen
- Very good camera performance
- Water and dust-resistant
- Headphone jack
- Fast charging
- Last year’s model
- Battery life is fine, but not great
- Too much unnecessary Samsung software loaded for our liking
Best for Raw Power: OnePlus 6
If all you care about is the raw tech specs of the phone you buy, OnePlus will pretty much always be at the top of your shortlist. The company made its name selling devices with the best hardware inside, at a cost unmatched by anybody else. That’s become less true as other Chinese manufacturers have entered the market, but even so, the latest OnePlus 6 has all the power you could hope for at a very sharp price.
The spec sheet of the Oneplus 6 basically reads like a geek’s 2018 phone wishlist. There’s a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 845 chipset, 6 or 8GB of RAM, and up to 256GB of storage. The top configuration just slightly edges over our $600 threshold, but all the other models come in below it. Buy the OnePlus 6 with more storage than you think you need, however, as there’s no micro-SD slot.
No matter which model you buy, it comes with a 6.3″ AMOLED display, and 16+20MP rear cameras with optical image stabilisation. As you’d hope, all those fancy components pay off when it comes to performance: the OnePlus 6 absolutely flies, with none of the stuttering or weird scrolling we’ve seen on previous models.
There’s dual-SIM support and a headphone jack, both of which are great for travelers, and a curved, all-glass design front and back that looks fantastic, at least until you hide it away in a case to avoid expensive repairs. There’s a basic translucent case included in the box, which protects the back and sides from scratches and marks, but you may well want something stronger.
There’s a 3300mAh battery onboard, which typically lasts a full day of moderate to heavy use. If you need to top it up on a quick layover or coffee break, the bundled Dash charger will get it back to 50% in half an hour. It’ll take nearly three times as long to go from there to 100%, but that’s pretty standard for most fast chargers to avoid damaging the battery. There’s no wireless charging, however.
Camera performance is generally much better than earlier models. The image stabilisation helps, both for video and stills, and there are warmer colours, more detail, and less noise than in photos from many phones costing more. They’re still not as consistently good as what you’ll get out of an iPhone X or Pixel 2, especially in low light, but it’s as much as you’d hope for from a phone in this price range.
The phone has some basic weatherproofing, but no official resistance rating. Moisture, dirt, and sand aren’t covered by the warranty, so try to keep it away from the elements if you can.
All in all, the OnePlus 6 is a very appealing phone, and was oh-so-nearly our top pick. The longer battery life, expandable storage, and slightly-better photos from the Huawei Mate 10 made the difference for us, but if you just want the highest-spec smartphone for several hundred dollars less than most other companies are charging, there’s no question: pick up the OnePlus 6.
We gave this phone a full review here.
- The best specs for the money
- Good battery life and fast charging
- Good image quality both day and night
- Headphone jack
- Dual-SIM support
- Only basic weather resistance
- No micro-SD slot
- No wireless charging
- All-glass design looks great but is easier to break
Images via rawpixel, Huawei, Honor, Apple, Samsung, and OnePlus