The best budget phones of 2016. These are the best value phones you can buy in the UK: best cheap smartphones, budget smartphone reviews. Plus: what to look for in a budget phone.
What’s the best budget phone? The best cheap phone in the UK is the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6, closely followed the Smart Prime 7 and the Motorola Moto E 4G which is not sold locked to a particular mobile network. Read more about these phones and some top cheap phone alternatives in our best budget phones chart below. Plus: what to look for in a budget phone.
In our experience the best way to get a cheap phone is to buy it SIM-free then grab a great-value SIM-only deal. You won’t be paying £50-odd per month for a phone for the next two years, and you can swap it for a newer model whenever you fancy it and have the spare cash. All the phones in our best budget phones chart cost under £150, which is just a quarter of the price you’ll pay for flagships such as the Galaxy S7, HTC 10 and LG G5 – also see Best phones 2016.
If you are in the market for a budget phone, you’ll quickly find that some of the best deals are sold via mobile operators. What you need to watch for is whether these phones are sold locked to that operator’s network. This is the case with the best cheap phone on our list – the Vodafone Smart Ultra 6 – but if you don’t want to become a Vodafone customer you should look further down the list for a non-network-branded handset, such as the Moto E.
We’ve rounded up some of the best network-unlocked phones here, and an alternative route to getting a cheap unlocked phone is to buy a Chinese phone, and you’ll find some of these in our group test. You might not have heard of the brands, and they won’t be available on the UK High Street (save for the likes of Huawei and ZTE), but Chinese phones are well-known for offering amazing specs for the money and undercutting their European rivals. In most cases you’ll get a phone with a mid-range specification at a budget spec. Of course there are down sides, for example what should you do if a phone bought from China is faulty? We’ve rounded up the major pitfalls in our article on buying grey-market tech, but if you’re still interested you should see our round-up of the best Chinese phones 2016.
Ranked in order below are our reviews of what we consider to be the best budget phones on sale right now. We’ve based this chart on the SIM-free price, specifications and performance of each budget smartphone. You can click on a phone in which you’re interested to read the full review, see example photos from the camera and benchmark results.
Best budget smartphones: buying advice
If you’re looking for a cheap phone, you have to accept the fact that the manufacturer is going to cut some corners to achieve that low proce and you aren’t going to get the same speed, features and quality of screen as you might with a phone costing two, three or even four times its price.
It used to be the case that budget phones were instantly recognisable by their low-resolution displays, meagre amounts of storage and chunky, plastic bodies, but things are improving in this area all the time. These days, for £150 it’s quite possible to buy a phone with a full-HD display and an 8mm body. Most will support 4G connectivity, but not all will support NFC (Chinese phones will often feature HotKnot in place of MediaTek and, although it’s a similar technology, it isn’t the same.) We’ve broken down some of the key areas of specifications below.
There are two main operating systems that you will find on a budget smartphone: Google Android and Windows Phone 10. These operating systems will let you download the major apps such Facebook, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp and more. However, if you want native Google apps including Gmail, YouTube, Maps and others, you should to opt for a smartphone running Android.
We like Windows Phone, but the choice of apps is more limited, especially when it comes to UK-specific ones and those for physical gadgets such as smart home devices. Also, apps may not have the same set of features that you get on Android. You can’t download TV shows from BBC iPlayer on Windows Phone, for example. And that will be a deal-breaker for some people. Also see: Best sounding phone 2016.
At the moment we have a strange situation where some cheap phones have the same processor – and performance – as much more expensive phones. For example, the 4G version of the Motorola Moto E has the popular Snapdragon 410 CPU. Yet, there are lots of phones costing twice at much as the Moto E’s price with exactly the same chip.
What’s important is not the benchmark results (they’re a way to compare phones to see if one is better or worse than another) but whether they feel responsive in real-world use. You’ll need to read our reviews to find out whether a phone performs well or not.
Battery life is also a factor in performance. However, there’s isn’t a great difference between the best and worst budget phones in this respect. They generally have similar size batteries which typically last a day (and a bit) in ‘normal’ use.
Of course, if you use the phone for hours on end to browse the web, use it as a sat nav, play games or watch videos you’ll find the battery might run out well before the day is out. Battery saver modes won’t really help here, since the only modes which will significantly extend battery life will also prevent you from doing those things and limit use to phone calls and text messages.
A plus point of budget phones when it comes to battery life is that they very often feature lower-resolution screens, which places less of a strain on the battery.
When it comes to screens, arguably the other component you should care about, there are some things to look out for. One is resolution. With screen sizes gradually increasing, low resolutions mean text and icons can look blocky and jagged. On a 5in screen, 1280×720 is the minimum you want, but higher is always better, and as we’ve mentioned you can find a full-HD screen at this price (don’t expect Quad-HD). On smaller phones with, say, 4.5in screens, you can get away with 960×540, but you really can do better.
Screen quality and brightness may not be so important to you, but it’s worth checking our reviews to find out if a screen is particularly good or bad. Low brightness can make a screen difficult to view in bright sunlight.
People’s phones are increasingly their main camera, so it pays to choose a phone with the best possible camera for photos and videos. Cameras are the first items to be cut down in budget phones, so it’s common to find low-quality, low-resolution sensors and lenses. We always take test photos and videos and explain whether they’re any good or not in our reviews.
What you can’t do is to look at a camera’s specifications and work out whether it will take good shots or not: the numbers are largely meaningless – although they can be a good guide to how capable a phone camera is going to be. If one manufacturer offers a 13Mp rear camera and another just 5Mp, it doesn’t take a genius to expect better quality from the manufacturer who offers 13Mp. Just be sure to check that 13Mp camera is not actually an 8Mp camera using software interpolation to get to 13Mp.
Don’t overlook the front camera. It’s rare not to get one at all if you’re spending over £60, but quality varies hugely. Avoid anything with a very low VGA (640×480) resolution and aim for at least 1.2 or 2Mp. In many cases these days you can get 5Mp at this price. Numbers do matter at this level, as manufacturers often really skimp on the front camera, so if selfies or Skype chats are order of the day, choose a budget phone with a good front camera.
We’ve already mentioned the difference between Android and Windows Phone. Android is the best choice for most people, but be aware that manufacturers often add their own interfaces on top of Android. Google’s own Nexus phones and Motorola’s have ‘plain’ Android, but the rest are customised to greater or lesser degrees. Again, our reviews will give the specific details.
Some of these interfaces have extra features worth having, or a replacement camera app that’s much better than the stock Android one. Others take it too far and can also be sluggish and unresponsive.
Going or a phone with plain Android generally means you’ll get any updates faster, especially when a whole new version of Android comes out. It can be a wait of many months for other phones, or they may not get updates at all.
- UMI Iron Pro
- UMI eMax
- Ulefone BeTouch
- UMI Hammer S
- Motorola Moto G 4G 2015
- Moto G 4G
- EE Rook
- Samsung Galaxy Core Prime
- Just5 Blaster 2
- Motorola Moto G 2014 (second generation)
- EE Harrier Mini
- Bluboo X9
- Xiaomi Redmi 3
- Xiaomi Redmi Note 3
- Wileyfox Swift
- Cubot P12
- Motorola Moto E 4G
- Vodafone Smart Prime 6
- Vodafone Smart Prime 7
- Vodafone Smart Ultra 6