If you’re looking to buy a new phone in 2021, 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 under $500, you can buy a phone that will handle everything you throw at it and look good doing so.
Attractive designs, bright screens, and high-end hardware aren’t hard to find at a price where ugly devices with middling specifications were the only option even just a few years ago.
- Screen: 5.8-inch OLED
- Storage: 128GB
- RAM: 6GB
- Battery: 3140mAh
- Dual SIM?: Yes (physical + eSIM)
- Runs On: Android
- Screen: 6.44-inch OLED
- Storage: 128GB or 256GB
- RAM: 8GB or 12GB
- Battery: 4100mAh
- Dual SIM?: Yes
- Runs on: Android
- Screen: 4.7-inch LED
- Storage: 64-256GB
- RAM: 3GB
- Battery: 1821mAh
- Dual SIM?: No
- Runs On: iOS
- Screen: 6.5-inch OLED
- Storage: 128 + micro-SD slot
- RAM: 6GB
- Battery: 4500mAh
- Dual SIM?: No (USA) / Yes (Europe)
- Runs On: Android
- Screen: 6.55-inch OLED
- Storage: 128-256GB
- RAM: 8-12GB
- Battery: 4500mAh
- Dual SIM?: No (USA) / Yes (Europe)
- Runs On: Android
When picking the best mid-range smartphones for travelers, we take several things into account.
Cameras need to reliably take good photos 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 a minimum of 64GB storage built-in, and being able to add more via a micro-SD card is a nice extra. The battery also needs to last until the end of a long travel day away from charging points. 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(although many do), but the specs need to be good enough to reasonably last at least a couple of years without being out of date.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 new, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world.
Some of these recommendations are towards the top of that price range, but not all: you’ll find some very good options under four hundred dollars. The majority of these phones run Android, but there is one iPhone model that comes in well under our price threshold as well.
These are our top mid-range smartphone picks for 2021.
Best for Photography: Google Pixel 4a
We were big fans of Google’s Nexus devices from a few years ago, which combined mid-range prices with impressive hardware and regular software updates. The switch to the Pixel brand sadly meant a big jump in price, and while they’ve still been pretty good phones, it left value-conscious customers looking elsewhere.
Google’s roots are showing with the Pixel 4a, a phone that offers the best bits of higher-end Pixel models at half the price. For many travelers, this could easily be the only phone they need to consider.
The Pixel 4a comes in exactly one version — there’s one size, one color, and one set of specifications. Fortunately, Google’s chosen well, with a 5.8″ OLED screen, 3140mAh battery, and an inoffensive black coloring that gets a slight splash of personality from the green-tinged power button.
The front of the 4a is easily the best-looking design we’ve seen from any Pixel device, regardless of how much it costs. Slim bezels and a smallish camera cutout at the top left gives the phone a modern look, and means few distractions from the sharp, colorful OLED display.
The back of the phone? Well, it’s not so pretty. The big expanse of plastic isn’t going to set anyone’s heart on fire, especially when the only adornments are a mostly-empty camera array and a very plain fingerprint sensor. If you’ve ever needed another excuse to keep your phone tucked away in a case, you’ve found it here.
Inside the phone, you’re getting a lot for your money. It comes with 6GB of memory, 128GB of storage (there’s no SD card), and a mid-level Snapdragon 730G chipset. It’s not the fastest in terms of raw performance, but Google has optimized the phone well and you’ll rarely notice slowdowns in daily use.
The most exciting part for travelers by far, however, is the camera. The rear sensor and underlying software are exactly the same as in the Pixel 4, a phone that was right near the top of every “best smartphone camera” comparison when it came out.
As a result, the Pixel 4a takes the best photos of any mid-range smartphone, and betters many others that cost significantly more. You’ll get highly-impressive shots from this device regardless of overhead conditions, and Night Sight mode ensures great low-light images as well.
Battery life is fine, typically lasting a day and a half, and there’s an 18W USB-C fast charger in the box for speedy top-ups when time is short. eSIM support is also built-in, alongside the standard nano SIM slot. There’s no official water resistance rating, but there is that rarest of features in 2021: a headphone jack. These days, we’ll take the tradeoff.
On the software side, a pure Android experience and consistent updates have long been one of the best reasons to buy a Google device. That’s no different here, with Android updates promised for at least three years. That’s extremely rare in a mid-range phone.
Sure, we could nitpick about the lack of wireless charging on the 4a, or how the free Google Photos storage doesn’t cover full-size photos. It’d be nice if the processor was a bit faster, or you could drop in a microSD card if you need it.
The reality is, though, that if you care about your photos, there simply isn’t a better travel phone for the money right now. It’s one of those unusual cut-down devices that’s made compromises in areas most people don’t care about and kept nearly all the good bits.
We’re impressed.Buy on Amazon
Best Overall: OnePlus Nord
For the first few years of its existence, OnePlus made a name for itself by offering high-spec phones at midrange prices. Economics slowly caught up with the company, however, and prices inched upward with every new release.
The OnePlus Nord attempts to woo value-conscious buyers once more, and it very much succeeds. This is a phone that offers plenty for the money, so much so that it’s our top midrange smartphone pick overall in 2021. Assuming you can actually buy it, that is — more on that below.
The Nord has a Snapdragon 765G chip, a step down from the 800-series chipsets found in its premium devices. This accounts for much of the cost saving, while still providing more than enough power for most smartphone users today.
The other specs are as good as you’ll find in many phones costing twice as much: 8 or 12GB of RAM, 128 or 256GB of storage, and a gloriously-smooth 6.44″ 90Hz display. There’s a big 4100mAh battery, dual-SIM support (including basic 5G), and a fingerprint reader built into the display. The only thing missing is a headphone jack.
OnePlus has long offered extremely fast charging, and that’s the case here as well. The company’s standard 30W USB C charger comes in the box, and takes the phone from empty to full in just over an hour.
Mid-range phones often look like they were designed by committee, but other than the large camera cutout at the top left, this is actually quite an attractive device. Slim and stylish, and available in both grey and a vibrant light blue, the Nord looks like it costs a lot more than it does.
OnePlus always hypes up the cameras on its phones, and other than the expensive Pro models, usually disappoints. That trend continues here, with six different sensors spread across the front and back that still only really deliver good results in well-lit areas.
Are the photos terrible? Not at all. Are they anywhere near as good as the similarly-priced Google Pixel 4a? Again, no, they aren’t. If the camera is the most important factor in a midrange smartphone for you, go for the Pixel.
Other than that swing and a miss, though, the Nord really does get everything else right. You get an attractive, well-built smartphone from a fairly well-known manufacturer at a very affordable price. So, what’s the downside? Availability.
At the moment, you can’t officially buy the Nord outside Europe and India. Potential customers in North America, Asia, Oceania, and elsewhere are out of luck right now. OnePlus has made noises about selling the Nord in the US, and even lists it on its US site via a beta program that you have zero chance of joining, but so far, that’s it.
You may be able to buy an international model of the Nord on the US Amazon store, but without an official warranty, you’re taking a risk. If you live in Europe or India, however, this is the midrange smartphone you’ll probably want to buy.
Best for iPhone Lovers: Apple iPhone SE (2020)
Recommending Apple phones in this price range is tricky, because the company prices most of its models firmly at the premium end of the market. Spend less and you’ll get less: in this case, a phone released in 2020 with a design from several years earlier.
It looks dated compared to the other phones on this list, and some of the specifications aren’t much to get excited about either. Given that, is the iPhone SE really worth buying?
For many people, the answer is a definite yes. The latest iPhone SE is an upgraded version of a model whose popularity caught Apple by surprise. A phone that does the basics well, can access the Apple app store, and costs under five hundred bucks, is exactly what a significant chunk of the population is looking for.
Even in what is by Apple standards a budget device, you’ll still find features that more-expensive phones from other manufacturers don’t have. IP67 water and dust resistance is a big one, along with wireless charging.
The cameras, too, are extremely good for the money. Shots taken in good lighting are often barely distinguishable from those coming out of phones costing twice as much. Video footage, too, is very good, even in 4K (which goes all the way up to 60fps.)
The processor in the SE is the same as what you’ll find inside the latest iPhone 11 Pro that costs $1000+. That not only makes the SE remarkably fast for the money, but also means it should keep getting iOS upgrades for the next several years.
Apple build quality is very high, especially with a design like this that’s been around forever and had all the kinks worked out of it years ago. 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 for a phone not marketed as being particularly rugged, the SE should take plenty of abuse.
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.
Of course, Apple has to give you some reason to buy its more-expensive models, so the iPhone SE isn’t perfect. Even though the 4.7″ screen is quite a bit larger than what was on the original SE, this is still a small phone by current standards. Small phones have small batteries.
You may get to the end of the day without needing to plug in a portable battery when the phone is new and you’re not pushing it too hard, but it’ll be a different story in a year or two.
As impressive as video and still shots are in good lighting, you can’t say the same at night. There’s no dedicated night mode, and it shows, with a lot of noise and dark pictures when the lighting gets bad. Google’s budget Pixel model (above) costs about the same, but does a much better job here.
There’s no headphone jack, and while the phone is capable of fast charging, the 5W charger in the box doesn’t provide it. There’s that dated design, of course, and as with all Apple devices, no micro-SD slot if you run out of space in the future. You don’t get FaceID or multiple rear cameras either.
What you do get is a phone that for a reasonable price performs well, takes good photos most of the time, 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 many travelers, that’s exactly the combination they require.
Buy on Amazon
Best of the Big Brands: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 was the company’s premium smartphone range until earlier this year, when a new version hit the market. As a result, prices on some of the previous models have fallen to within our mid-range budget, offering great value right now.
The S20 FE is the “value” version of the range, with less RAM, a polycarbonate back, lower-quality telephoto camera sensor, and a less-accurate fingerprint reader. Most other aspects remain largely the same as the S20, and for many (including us), the price drop is more than worth the tradeoff.
Because it’s larger than the S20, you also get a bigger screen and slightly larger battery. That screen has a 120Hz refresh rate, which makes for silky-smooth scrolling and video playback.
Specifications are in line with many current high-end smartphones. You’ll get a fast Snapdragon 865 chipset, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. A microSD slot lets you add up to 1TB more. As the name suggests, 5G connectivity is also included if that’s important to you.
There’s proper IP68 dust and water resistance, a headphone jack, and the 19:9 screen ratio that’s been so beloved of phone makers in the last year. The big 6.5″ screen is a major selling point of the device, with impressive brightness and color accuracy, and that 120Hz refresh.
The camera is always a selling point of the Galaxy S range, and so it is here, too. The 12MP main rear camera is paired with a 12MP wide-angle sensor and 8MP telephoto with a 3x optical zoom (30x digital zoom.) The fast lenses deliver fantastic food, macro, and low light shots.
Outdoor photos are impressive as well, and there’s great color saturation and white balance in almost any conditions. The 32MP selfie camera does a good job, with both normal and ultrawide modes available.
The 4500mAh battery seems impressively large, but that big display uses a lot of juice. While you’ll get to the end of a travel day if you’re not using your phone all the time, you probably won’t have much juice left when you do.
Fast charging is available, but since Samsung decided to only include a 15W USB C charger in the box, it still takes quite a while to go from empty to flat. You can buy a faster 25W charger from Samsung, or use any other third-party USB C PD charger you happen to have lying around.
10W wireless charging is also included, although it takes longer to do its thing. If you do have plenty of juice, you can wirelessly charge other Qi devices by putting them on the back of the S20 FE.
If you like the idea of a premium device from a major manufacturer for under six hundred bucks, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is easily your best choice.
Buy on Amazon
Best for Raw Power: OnePlus 8T
If all you care about is the raw tech specs of the phone you buy, OnePlus’s higher-end models should always be near the top of your shortlist. The company’s flagship phone is now the OnePlus 8T, and with the next model now available, prices have dropped to the point where it (just) fits into our mid-range category.
That’s a great deal for buyers, since the spec sheet basically reads like a geek’s wishlist from a few months ago. There’s a Snapdragon 865 chipset, up to 12GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage (no microSD slot, though.) You’ll get a stunning 6.55″ 120Hz AMOLED display, and a 48MP rear camera array with optical image stabilization.
As you’d hope, all those fancy components pay off when it comes to performance: the phone absolutely flies, with none of the stuttering or weird scrolling we saw on earlier models.
While international models include dual active SIMs, North American buyers will sadly have to put up with a single SIM card: the second SIM slot is disabled on that model. There’s strong LTE band support either way, though, which is great for international travel.
The curved, all-glass design front and back 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 to protect the back and sides from scratches and marks, but you may well want something stronger.
The 4500mAh battery typically lasts well over a day of moderate to heavy use. If you need to top it up on a quick layover or coffee break, the bundled fast charger will get it from dead to nearly 70% in half an hour, although it’ll slow down quite a bit after that to avoid damaging the battery. There’s no wireless charging.
Camera performance is better than earlier models when shooting with the main sensor. The image stabilization helps, both for video and stills, and there are warmer colors, more detail, and less noise than photos from previous Oneplus phones.
There’s no telephoto lens, however, and the wide-angle doesn’t do a particularly good job. Portraits also don’t excite, with flat images and washed-out colors the norm. Shots aren’t as good as what you’ll get out of the Pixel 4a despite the higher price, so if photography is your priority, go for the Google option instead.
The phone has some 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 8T is a very appealing phone, and would have been our top pick if it took better photos. Still, if you want a high-spec smartphone for hundred of dollars less than most other companies are charging, it really deserves to be right near the top of your list.
Buy on Amazon
Main image via rawpixel, other product images via Amazon