If you’re looking to buy a new phone in 2022, 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: 6.4-inch OLED
- Storage: 128 or 256GB
- RAM: 8GB
- Battery: 4600mAh
- Dual SIM?: Yes (nano SIM + eSIM)
- Runs On: Android
- Screen: 6.3-inch OLED
- Storage: 128 GB
- RAM: 6GB
- Battery: 4680mAh
- Dual SIM?: Yes (nano SIM + eSIM)
- Runs On: Android
- Screen: 6.43-inch OLED
- Storage: 128GB or 256GB
- RAM: 8GB or 12GB
- Battery: 4500mAh
- Dual SIM?: Yes
- Runs on: Android
- 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: 128GB
- RAM: 8-12GB
- Battery: 4500mAh
- Dual SIM?: No (USA) / Yes (elsewhere)
- 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 (more is definitely better), and being able to add more via a microSD 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(although many do), but the specs need to be good enough to reasonably last at least a couple of years without being out of date.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 2022.
Best Overall: Google Pixel 6
Google’s flagship Pixel phones have been a bit of a mixed bag over the years. Some models have been very much worth buying while others definitely have not. Pixel 3, I’m looking at you here. Fortunately, the current Pixel 6 falls firmly into the former camp.
I’d been wanting to include it in this roundup for a while, but Google stubbornly kept the price just above our cutoff point. New year, new discounts, however, and with the phone now available for (just) under $600, it’s an easy recommendation for a number of reasons.
To start with, let’s talk about the camera. It’s one of the biggest selling points of the Pixel 6, and with the exception of the 6 Pro (which costs half as much again), takes the best photos you’ll get from an Android device. Wherever and whenever you’re shooting, the shots are by far the best you’ll get from any phone in this price range.
Helpfully for travelers (and everyone else), the Pixel 6 comes with a few exclusive camera features that you’ll actually want to use. The best of these is Magic Eraser, which automatically removes unwanted people and background features from your shots just by circling them on the screen.
The only real limitation of the Pixel 6 camera is the lack of a telephoto lens. The digital zoom works surprisingly well thanks to Google’s software smarts, but if you’re prone to taking a lot of zoom shots, you may want to at least consider the Pro model instead.
In terms of specs, the Pixel 6 ticks all the right boxes: 12GB of RAM, 128 or 256GB of storage (no SD card), and a 6.4″ OLED display that looks gorgeous when you’re using it. The 90Hz refresh rate keeps things silky-smooth, although it’s not quite as high as the 120Hz versions we’ve seen from some of the competition.
5G is included, pretty much a given for a midrange phone these days, and dual SIM options thanks to the nano SIM slot and eSIM support. The phone is rated to IPX8 for water resistance, so rain and unexpected drops in the toilet shouldn’t pose any concerns.
Google’s used its own Tensor chip for the first time in this phone, and while it’s not the absolute fastest in raw benchmarks, it’s plenty quick enough in the real world. That’s especially true for specific tasks like machine learning and translations, and extra security features are baked in as well. It’s an impressive debut for a new chipset.
Google’s been pretty good about supporting its phones in recent years, and that continues with the Pixel 6: you’ll get a guaranteed five years of security updates from the date of release, and three years of OS updates. That’s better than any other Android phone maker, but still not as long as what Apple offers on its devices.
Battery life is very good thanks to the 4600mAh battery, and you’ll really have to try to get less than a day’s use out of it. Charging, though, could be a little better: the Pixel 6’s max 23W charging rate isn’t particularly quick these days.
You’ll go from 0 to 50% in half an hour, but given the OnePlus 9 (below) can provide a full charge in that time, it’s not something to get excited about. There’s also no charger in the box, so you’ll need to provide your own. Wireless charging is included, at least, and you’ll get up to 21W from Google’s proprietary wireless charger, and up to 12W from generic Qi chargers.
Given how much it gets right, and newly discounted in 2022, recommending the Google Pixel 6 really is a no-brainer. It’s easily our top midrange smartphone pick right now.
Best for Photography on a Budget: Google Pixel 5a
Google’s low-cost roots are showing with the Pixel 5a, a phone that offers the best bits of the high-end Pixel models at a significant discount. For many travelers on a budget, this could easily be the only phone they need to consider.
The Pixel 5a comes in exactly one version — there’s one size, one color, and one set of specifications. Fortunately, Google’s chosen well, with a 6.3″ OLED screen, 4680mAh battery, and an inoffensive black coloring that gets a slight splash of personality from the contrasting power button.
That battery capacity is much higher than in the previous model, and it shows. In earlier versions, you’d likely get a day of moderate use, but not much more. This time around, you can push the phone as hard as you like and it’ll still keep going, with anything up to 15 hours of continual web browsing on offer.
The front of the 5a 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 the 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, you’re getting a fair amount for your money. It comes with 6GB of memory, 128GB of storage (there’s no SD card), and a mid-level Snapdragon 765G chipset. It’s not the fastest in terms of raw performance, but Google has optimized the phone well and you’re unlikely to see slowdowns in daily use.
Lighter use should see anything up to two days between charges, and there’s an 18W USB C fast charger in the box for when you run low. That’s not particularly impressive, but for the price, we’re more inclined to give it a pass than with the Pixel 6 above.
The most exciting part for travelers, though, is the camera. The Pixel 5a takes the best photos of any sub-$500 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.
You’ll still get better shots from the Pixel 6 if you’re happy to spend the extra money, along with the other benefits we mention above, but you’re very unlikely to be disappointed by what comes out of the 5a.
eSIM support is built-in, alongside the standard nano SIM slot. Like its big brother, there’s no headphone jack in the Pixel 5a, but there is water resistance (IP67).
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 ongoing 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 5a, or how the free Google Photos storage that came with Pixel phones has gone away. It’d be nice if the processor was a bit faster, or if you could drop in a microSD card when you need it.
The reality is, though, that if you care about your photos, there simply isn’t a better travel phone for the price 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.
Best Outside the US: OnePlus Nord 2
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 2attempts 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 2022. Assuming you can actually buy it, that is — more on that below.
The Nord has a fast Mediatek Dimensity 1200 AI chipset inside, which was exclusive to OnePlus at launch. It’s roughly comparable to a Snapdragon 870: not the absolute quickest you’ll find, but still very fast, and more than you’d ever reasonably expect for the money.
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 smooth 6.43″ 90Hz display. There’s a big 4500mAh battery, dual-SIM support (including 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 65W USB C charger comes in the box, and takes the phone from empty to full in a remarkable 30 minutes.
Mid-range phones often look like they were designed by committee, but other than the elongated camera cutout on the back, this is actually quite an attractive device. Slim and stylish, and available in two shades of 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 to a certain degree, with overprocessed shots and a lack of detail noticeable in most daylight photos.
Surprisingly, though, Night Mode on the Nord 2 is very good. This is typically the weak point of almost any mid-range phone, but there’s better clarity, less noise, and more accurate colors than we’ve seen in some phones costing a lot more.
Overall, this still isn’t the best midrange phone for photos (that’d be the Pixel 5a above), but it’s a lot closer race than it used to be.
Overall, the Nord 2 really does get almost everything right. You get an attractive, well-built smartphone from a fairly well-known manufacturer that performs well, takes decent (and at times, good) photos, and comes in at a very affordable price. So, what’s the downside? Availability.
At the moment, you can’t officially buy the Nord 2 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 it in the US, but so far, those noises haven’t amounted to anything.
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)[Product unavailable]
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 was in the iPhone 11 Pro, a phone that cost $1000+ at launch. That not only makes the SE remarkably fast for the money, but also means it should keep getting iOS upgrades for the next few 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.
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 9
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 9, and with the next model recently announced, discounts are common. Prices, at least when it’s on sale, 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 super-fast Snapdragon 888 chipset, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage (no microSD slot, though). As you’d hope, this all pays off when it comes to performance: the phone absolutely flies, with none of the stuttering or weird scrolling we saw on earlier models.
You’ll get a stunning 6.55″ 120Hz AMOLED display, and a 48MP Hasselblad rear camera with optical image stabilization. There’s also a 50MP ultra-wide lens on the back, along with a somewhat-pointless 2MP monochrome sensor.
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 5G and 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 65W charger will get it from dead to full in half an hour. That’s spectacularly fast, and makes a huge difference when you’re short on time.
There’s also 15W Qi wireless charging built in, which is the same as the latest iPhones, and as good as it gets when charging without wires. OnePlus has long avoided wireless charging in its phones, and it’s nice to see it finally make an appearance.
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 more accurate colors, greater clarity, and less noise than photos from previous OnePlus phones.
There’s no telephoto lens, however, so you’ll lose detail as soon as you zoom in. Portraits and low-light shots, while noticeably better than in the past, still suffer a bit from noise and washed-out. Overall, shots aren’t as good as what you’ll get out of the Pixel 6, and arguably trail the Pixel 5a at times despite the higher price, so if photography is your priority, go for a 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 9 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 many other companies are charging, it really deserves to be right near the top of your list.
Main image via rawpixel, OnePlus Nord 2 image via OnePlus, other product images via Amazon