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If you’re looking to buy a new phone in 2020, 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 it.
Attractive designs, bright, colourful 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.
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(although many do), but the specs need to be good enough to reasonably last at least a couple of years without being out of date.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.
Most of these recommendations are towards the top of that price range, but not all — you’ll find at least one very good option under four hundred dollars. Likewise, the majority of these phones run Android, but there is one older iPhone model that just scrapes in under our price threshold as well.
These are our top six mid-range smartphone picks for 2020.
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 often shines. On the back, there’s a pair of Leica wide-angle lenses: a 20MP monochrome sensor, and a 12MP color version with optical stabilization.
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 last year’s model, 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.
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Best for Photography: Google Pixel 3a
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 great phones, it left value-conscious customers looking elsewhere.
Google returned to its roots in May with the Pixel 3a, a phone that offers the best bits of the high-end Pixel 3 at half the price. For many travelers, this could easily be the only phone they need to consider.
The Pixel 3a comes in two versions, standard and XL. The $399 standard version has a 5.2″ display and 3000mAh battery, while for an extra eighty bucks, you’ll get the 6″ XL model with a 3700mAh battery. All other specs are the same.
Whichever one you go for, you’re getting a lot for your money. The phone comes with 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage (there’s no SD card), and a mid-level Snapdragon 670 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 3, a phone that’s been right near the top of every “best smartphone camera” comparison this year.
As a result, the Pixel 3a easily takes the best photos of any mid-range smartphone, and bests many others that cost significantly more. You’ll get highly-impressive shots from this device regardless of overhead conditions, and Google’s included its Night Sight mode for great low-light images as well.
The 3a camera does miss out on a couple of things compared to the Pixel 3, though. The second, wide-angle lens at the front has disappeared, along with the dedicated Visual Core processor. The latter means the 3a takes longer to process each photo, but for the money, I suspect exactly nobody cares.
The polycarbonate back of the Pixel 3a is available in three colors: black, white, and “purple-ish”. There’s no official water resistance rating, but there is that rarest of features in 2020: a headphone jack. These days, we’ll take the tradeoff.
There’s an 18W USB-C fast charger in the box, which means you’ll get speedy top-ups during those tight layovers. eSIM support is also built in, alongside the standard nano SIM slot.
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 3a, or how the free Google Photos storage doesn’t cover full-size photos. Sure, 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.
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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’s typically less than $100 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.
Best for iPhone Lovers: Apple iPhone 8
Recommending 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 2017.
The specifications seem positively anemic compared to some of the Android devices on this list, so is the iPhone 8 really worth buying in 2020?
The answer is a qualified yes. The iPhone 8 is by no means a bad device. It has features that some of the latest models from other manufacturers still don’t, like IP67 water and dust resistance and a rear camera with optical image stabilization.
That camera was one of the best 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 8 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 A11 chipset and 2GB of RAM aren’t particularly impressive, the iPhone 8 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. There’s no headphone jack, for instance, and 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 64 or 256GB of storage, although only the smaller capacity version falls within our price range. As with all Apple devices, there’s no micro-SD slot.
Overall, the iPhone 8 isn’t our favourite phone on this list, and you can get more for your money elsewhere. As far as Apple devices go, however, it’s the best option if you don’t have $750+ 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.
Best of the Big Brands: Samsung Galaxy S9
Samsung’s Galaxy S9 was the company’s premium smartphone until recently, but a new version came out in early 2019. As a result, prices on the previous model have fallen to within our mid-range budget, and it offers great value right now.
The specifications are in line with many current high-end smartphones. You’ll get a fast Snapdragon 845 chipset, 4GB of RAM, and at least 64GB of storage. A micro-SD slot lets you add up to 512GB more.
There’s proper IP68 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. The gorgeous curved 5.8″ screen is a major selling point of the device, with impressive brightness and color accuracy.
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 f1.5/2.4 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 color 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 under six hundred bucks, the Samsung Galaxy S9 is your best choice.
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Best for Raw Power: OnePlus 7T
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 OnePlus 7T has all the power you could hope for at a very sharp price.
The spec sheet of the OnePlus 7T basically reads like a geek’s wishlist. There’s a Snapdragon 855 chipset, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage (no micro-SD slot, though.) You’ll get a stunning 6.55″ 90Hz 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 OnePlus 7T absolutely flies, with none of the stuttering or weird scrolling we saw on earlier models.
There are dual active SIMs with strong LTE band support, both of which are great for travelers. 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, which protects the back and sides from scratches and marks, but you may well want something stronger.
The 3800mAh 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 close to 70% in half an hour.
It’ll slow down quite a bit between there and 100%, but that’s standard for most fast chargers to avoid damaging the battery. There’s no wireless charging.
Camera performance is generally much better than earlier models. The image stabilization helps, both for video and stills, and there are warmer colors, more detail, and less noise than in photos from many phones costing more.
The ultra-wide angle gives plenty of extra flexibility, too. Shots still aren’t as consistently good as what you’ll get out of an iPhone 11 or Pixel 4, but it’s still pretty damn good 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 7T is a very appealing phone, and was oh-so-nearly our top pick. If the company hadn’t ditched the headphone jack in this model, it very well might have been.
In the end the lower price and better camera of the Pixel 3a just tipped the scales for us, but it was a close-run thing. Either way, if you want a high-spec smartphone for several hundred dollars less than most other companies are charging, the OnePlus 7T really deserves to be right near the top of your list.
Images via rawpixel, Huawei, Google, Honor, Apple, Samsung, and OnePlus