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Best affordable phones that won't let you down on performance

Affordability too often comes at the cost of performance, but these affordable phones won't lag.
August 12, 2019
best affordable phones

Not everyone is in the market for an expensive flagship smartphone, but finding the best affordable phones is difficult. Unfortunately, affordability has too often come at the cost of performance, leaving the budget-conscious to suffer laggy apps and slow load times. The situation has improved in the past year or so. There are now a number of handsets that offer excellent performance for most apps and even games for under $400.

As part of our review process, we extensively test smartphone system, CPU, and GPU performance. We’re using those results today to bring you the very best performing affordable handsets. You can be sure these models won’t let you down. We’re sticking to a sub $400 budget, as much cheaper models tend to be stuck with sluggish performance while more expensive phones are already decent performers. Let’s break out the top 10 and delve a little deeper into what makes the top half so great.

Best affordable phones with great performance:

Editor’s note: We’ll be updating this list of the best affordable phones with the best performance regularly as new devices launch.

1. Nubia Red Magic Mars

Android has been inundated with gaming smartphones and the Nubia Red Magic Mars launched as one of the more affordable options at $399.

Packing in a flagship-grade Snapdragon 845 processing package, the Red Magic Mars offers top-tier app and gaming performance. The handset is also available in 6, 8, and 10GB LPDDR4X RAM options, with the latter two quite likely being overkill. There’s also a mostly stock implementation of Android 9.0 Pie on top to keep things running as smoothly as possible.

The bright red design might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and the camera performance is a little sub-par. But at this price point, performance is simply phenomenal and should certainly be at the top of your list if you love to game on the go.

Nubia Red Magic Mars specs:

  • Display: 6.0-inch, Full HD+
  • SoC: Snapdragon 845
  • RAM: 6/8/10GB
  • Storage: 64/128/256GB
  • Rear cameras: 16MP
  • Front camera: 8MP
  • Battery: 3,800mAh
  • Software: Android 9 Pie

2. Xiaomi Mi 9T

Xiaomi Mi 9T Display on soft surface

Android Authority’s Ryan-Thomas Shaw called the Xiaomi Mi 9T “probably the best mid-ranger right now” in his review and with good reason. The phone features a ton of great design choices, including a pop-up camera, stunning glass and metal design, and a flexible rear camera setup that takes very good pictures.

Performance is fantastic too, thanks to the inclusion of a cutting edge Snapdragon 730 processor and 6GB RAM. The phone blazes through CPU performance benchmarks, actually beating last year’s Snapdragon 845 in single-core performance. The Adreno 618 GPU is also a dab hand at gaming, making this an excellent allrounder.

With prices starting at just £270 / €300 / ~$350, the Xiaomi Mi 9T is more affordable than many of its rivals. It offers superior performance to boot and plenty of excellent extras that make it well worth the money.

Xiaomi Mi 9T specs:

  • Display: 6.39-inch, Full HD+
  • SoC: Snapdragon 730
  • RAM: 6GB
  • Storage: 64/128GB
  • Rear cameras: 48, 8, and 13MP
  • Front camera: 20MP
  • Battery: 4,000mAh
  • Software: Android 9 Pie

3. Honor Play

The Honor Play. an older but great affordable phone

The Honor Play is a little older than some models on this list, but it continues to pack a punch when it comes to price and performance.

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samsung galaxy a13 angle

2018’s Kirin 970 processor provides the backbone of the phone’s performance grunt. That’s the same chip you’ll find inside Huawei’s older P20 Pro flagship but without the flagship price tag. The Mali-G72 MP12 GPU comes in second place for graphics performance on our list, and the chipset offers great CPU performance too. This package is backed up by 4 or 6GB LPDDR4X RAM and 64GB UFS 2.1 storage for strong overall system performance.

In our review, we also noted that the Honor Play provides decent battery life and a striking solid metal design. The phone is regularly discounted to £280 pounds / €280, making it one of the fastest affordable phones around.

Honor Play specs:

  • Display: 6.3-inch, Full HD+
  • SoC: Kirin 970
  • RAM: 4/6GB
  • Storage: 64GB
  • Rear cameras: 16, and 2MP
  • Front camera: 16MP
  • Battery: 3,750mAh
  • Software: Android 8.1 Oreo

4. Vivo Z1 Pro

Vivo Z1 Pro showing gradient and logo

The Vivo Z1 Pro nips ahead of the competitive mid-range market thanks to quickly adopting the latest processing technology. The Z1 Pro packs in a new Snapdragon 712 processor, edging out the Snapdragon 710 and 600 series models that are so common in this price bracket.

As a result, the handset nudges out its closest competitors with a slightly faster GPU score. Although real-world performance is likely to be within a couple of frames and gaming isn’t this chipsets strongest suit. The SoC’s improved clock speed and single-core CPU result is more of a boon for running slightly more demanding apps and games.

Related: Best phones under $300: What are your options?

Besides performance, Vivo Z1 Pro highlights include a versatile camera package, excellent battery life with fast charging technology, and stunning design. Unfortunately, this handset is only available to Indian customers at the moment.

Vivo Z1 Pro specs:

  • Display: 6.53-inch, Full HD+
  • SoC: Snapdragon 712
  • RAM: 4/6GB
  • Storage: 64/128GB
  • Rear cameras: 16, 8, and 2MP
  • Front camera: 32MP
  • Battery: 5,000mAh
  • Software: Android 9.0 Pie

5. Google Pixel 3a

Pixel 3a, Google affordable phone

Rounding out our top five picks is the Google Pixel 3a. This handset has helped drive Google’s phone sales to new heights and it’s not hard to see why. Google’s much-loved stock Android experience and excellent camera package can be had for a fraction of the Pixel 3’s flagship price — just $399.

Performance-wise, the Pixel 3a won’t win any awards for high fidelity gaming but it certainly flies through apps and multitasking. And that’s despite the phone’s comparatively limited 4GB RAM package. This just goes to show that a lot of phones are probably including in more RAM that your phone will ever need. Overall, the Snapdragon 670 offers a well-balanced CPU and GPU package for mid-range phones.

Read more: The best phones with a headphone jack

The Pixel 3a drops a number of features for its flagship sibling. There’s no IP rating or water resistance, wireless charging is gone, and there’s still no microSD card. However, the 3.5mm headphone jack makes a welcome return. Overall, the Pixel 3a offers a very competitive mid-range package with Google’s signature style and software.

Google Pixel 3a specs:

  • Display: 5.6-inch, Full HD+
  • SoC: Snapdragon 670
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 64GB
  • Rear cameras: 12.2MP
  • Front camera: 8MP
  • Battery: 3,000mAh
  • Software: Android 9.0 Pie

Honorable mentions

An obvious device missing from our list is the Pocophone F1, which boats a speedy Snapdragon 845 SoC. If you’re living in a region with stock, this phone should definitely be on your radar at just ~$300. Unfortunately, we can’t run our GPU tests on the phone to put it on the graph, but it should place right near the top.

The Samsung Galaxy M40 is also a phone worthy of consideration, providing that you’re not into gaming. The Snapdragon 675 offers excellent CPU performance but falls behind in graphics scores. Still, it’s a decent phone at 15,000 rupees. Finally, the Realme X is also another great option for Indian consumers, offering Pixel 3a and Vivo Z1 Pro levels of performance, a good camera, speedy charging technology, and great design for a low cost.

That’s our look at our picks for the best affordable phones offering the very fastest performance possible. Stay tuned as we’ll be updating this list regularly as new devices launch!