The world of Android offers up plenty of options for those looking to splash out on a flagship, but there’s also a budding range of quality mid-range smartphones for those who are more restrained in their spending habits. Of course, the other option is to plump down the cash for a slightly older flagship model. Technology has moved on rather quickly these past few years, so now is a particularly interesting time to look at the hardware on offer in the mid-range segment compared with what was considered the best of the best in the past.
For this comparison we’re going to look at some of today’s best mid-range smartphones in the sub $250 price bracket and compare them to the most modern flagships that we can find for the same price. Importantly, this means that we’re often looking at flagship handsets from at least a couple of generations ago if not older.
For the mid-rangers, I’ve picked out the OnePlus X, the Honor 5X, the 5.5-inch Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3, and the ultra-cheap Lenovo K3 Note. The older flagships I’ve found that fit into the same price bracket right now are original HTC One as the cheapest option, the second generation Moto X, the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact, and the probably the star find of the bunch is the LG G3. You will almost certainly be able to find other similar handsets too as deals vary, and you can find slightly newer certified refurbished models around, such as the Galaxy Note 3 and the HTC One M8, for around the $250 mark. That said, we know that not everyone likes dealing with previously used hardware.
The modern mid-rangers:
|Honor 5X||OnePlus X||Lenovo K3 Note||Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3|
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 616||Qualcomm Snapdragon 801||MediaTek MT6752||Qualcomm Snapdragon 615|
|CPU||4x 1.5GHz Cortex-A53|
4x 1.2GHz Cortex-A53
|4x 2.3GHz Krait 400||8x 1.7GHz Cortex-A53||4x 1.5GHz Cortex-A53
4x 1.0GHz Cortex-A53
|GPU||Adreno 405||Adreno 330||Mali-T760MP2||Adreno 405|
|RAM||2GB / 3GB||3GB||2GB||2GB|
|Cameras||13MP, f/2.0 rear|
|13MP, f/2.2 PDAF rear|
|13MP, f/2.0 rear|
|13MP, f/2.0 rear
|OS||Android 5.1.1 Lollipop||Android 5.1.1 Lollipop (6.0 upgrade?)||Android 5.0.2 Lollipop (6.0 upgrade)||Android 5.0.2 Lollipop|
|Size||151.3 x 76.3 x 8.2 mm, 158g||140 x 69 x 6.9 mm, 138g||152.6 x 76.2 x 8 mm, 150g||152.7 x 75.1 x 7.4 mm, 141g|
When it comes to processing hardware, it’s actually possible to find older Snapdragon 800 series flagships that have been reduced to sub-$250, providing you’re willing to scour through eBay and Amazon. However, it’s rather difficult to directly compare the older flagship quad-core Snapdragon 800 series handsets to the new octa-core Cortex-A53 chips that power most of today’s mid-range phones. Only the $250 mid-range OnePlus X shares the older generation hardware and will offer similar performance. So let’s take a look at some benchmarks.
While CPU performance across all of these models will certainly be fine for your day to day tasks and all offer up decent multi-tasking capabilities, the Snapdragon 800 and 801 handsets provide the strongest single core performance. The GPU performance of the Adreno 330 also still packs a punch above and beyond that offered by today’s mid-range Adreno 405 or the Mali-T760MP2 that gamers will find difficult to ignore. Although opting for the QHD display with the LG G3 will see performance take a bit of a hit.
Unfortunately, the Snapdragon 600 powering the HTC One, or other older handsets like the Galaxy S4
or LG G2, is really beginning to show its age and doesn’t quite keep up, so handsets from this generation are not quite such a good deal. The MediaTek MT6752 that powers the $130 Lenovo K3 Note easily fits right in to the pack and performs exceptionally well in the multi-tasking benchmarks, possibly due to MediaTek’s CorePilot technology making the most of all eight low power cores.
You will also find comparable RAM and internal memory options available across all of these smartphones. 2GB RAM and 16GB internal memory is the norm in today’s mid-range smartphones, but you can find 3GB RAM options around if you’re prepared to splash a little more cash. 32GB memory is also more readily available in the older flagship models, but you will find that some of the smartphones lack a microSD card slot, so there are pros and cons to consider.
Display technology shows the same similarities across all of our handsets. A 1080p resolution remains the norm and is perfectly suitable for handsets around the 5-inch mark. Amazingly, the Lenovo K3 Note offers up a 1080p display at a fraction of the price of all these other models. Gone are the days of sub-par 720p mid-rangers, although the Xperia Z1 Compact has the lowest resolution of the bunch, but it is a much smaller handset than the others. If you’re looking for something that’s a little more competitive with today’s high-end smartphones, the LG G3 packs a QHD (2560×1440) display at the upper end of our budget.
The older flagships:
|LG G3||HTC One||Xperia Z1 Compact||Moto X (2nd gen)|
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 801||Qualcomm Snapdragon 600||Qualcomm Snapdragon 800||Qualcomm Snapdragon 801|
|CPU||4x 2.5GHz Krait 400||4x 1.7GHz Krait 300||4x 2.2GHz Krait 400||4x 2.5GHz Krait 400|
|GPU||Adreno 330||Adreno 320||Adreno 330||Adreno 330|
|Cameras||13MP, f/2.4, PD & laser AF, OIS rear|
|4MP, f/2.0, OIS rear|
|20.7MP, f/2.0 rear|
|13MP, f/2.2 rear
|Extras||Infrared, 24-bit audio, optional wireless charging||Metal body, Beats audio, Boomsound||IP58||Quick Charge 2.0|
|OS||Android 4.4.2 KitKat (6.0 updgrade)||Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean (5.0 upgrade)||Android 4.3 Jelly Bean (5.1 upgrade)||Android 4.4.4 KitKat (6.0 upgrade)|
|Size||146.3 x 74.6 x 8.9 mm, 149g||137.4 x 68.2 x 9.3 mm, 143g||127 x 64.9 x 9.5 mm, 137g||140.8 x 72.4 x 10 mm, 144g|
|Price||$200 - 240||$158||$196||$175|
Before we move completely away from talking about SoC related hardware, we should note the importance of 4G LTE network bands, particularly in the USA. While you will be able to find some of older carrier specific flagships at these price, many deals that you will find online are for international unlocked models, which more than likely won’t be very if at all compatible with some US carriers, usually Verizon and AT&T. Furthermore, the Lenovo K3 Note is restricted to HSPA+ bands in the US, while the Honor 5X only plays nicely with 4G LTE on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks.
Historically, by far and away the best smartphone cameras have always been found on flagship devices, and it’s often been seen as an afterthought feature for mid-range handsets. Not so in the latest generation of more affordable handsets though, as we’ve noted particularly solid cameras inside the K3 Note and the Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3 for their price. In the older flagships, the LG G3 and the Xperia Z1 Compact both offer up some very good photography results that will be tough to beat, and you’ll also find a couple of handsets featuring optical image stabilization, if you’re into shooting video. The HTC One’s Ultrapixel sensor wasn’t much cop back in the day, and probably hasn’t aged too well here, but it is the cheapest flagship option.
Looking at the major spec sheet talking points, there are already some differences between the old flagship and more modern mid-range smartphones, and this only becomes more noticeable as we delve into the extra features loaded on board.
Interestingly enough, the Honor 5X is the only smartphone to feature a fingerprint scanner, which is a real winner if you’re looking for a little extra security. However, virtually all of the mid-range phones on this list lack NFC functionality, so you won’t be able to make use of convenient contact-less technologies such as Android Pay. This feature is available on all of our older flagship models. If you are after Quick Charge or wireless charging capabilities then the Moto X (2nd gen) and the G3 have you covered, but most of these handsets will support 1A or faster charging, which shouldn’t be too slow.
Best cheap Android phones
There are a few other unique features dotted across the spec sheets, but most of these belong to the older flagship group. Audio enthusiasts will certainly take a lot from the HTC One’s Boomsound speakers and the G3’s ability to play back 24-bit tracks. The HTC One would also have stood out as exceptional value for a metal bodied phone if it wasn’t for the Honor 5X. The 5X proves that metal isn’t just for the high-end these days, but if you’ll have to opt for the Xperia Z1 Compact if you want any sort of water resistance.
Finally, software. While most manufacturers keep their handsets up to date with the last version of Android for two years at least, you’ll often find that you have to wait quite a long time for the manufacturer to get around to supply an update, especially on carrier branded models. You’ll find that a number of the latest Android 6.0 Marshmallow upgrades are available in both groups, but out of the box you’re going to have the most up-to-date software from the newer mid-range models. I’m not going to comment on your choice of UI, as that will really boil down to preference, but I will say that some of these low cost Chinese OEMs have come a long way in recent years, so don’t write them off. Unfortunately, neither older flagships or new mid-rangers are likely to see long running support for future Android versions, but the older the phone the less likely the upgrade is a good rule of thumb.
Clearly, there are some pros and cons to choosing either a new mid-ranger or a older flagship smartphone. Your own choice will likely depend on if you have any specific requirements. These days the mid-range Android market will certainly cover all your needs with the latest features ready to go out of the box, but there are still some features that will be tough to find outside of older flagships. However, you’re also going to have to spend more than $300, typically, to get hold of older flagship handsets that pull notably ahead of these $200 mid-range smartphones.
What would you pick, the latest mid-ranger smartphone or a older flagship? Have you spotted any of your own deals on older handsets?