Picking out the best phone to buy is tougher than ever these days. It’s not just because we’re spoiled rotten with decent choices, but also because top tier products now cost upwards of $1000. That’s certainly not within everyone’s budget, and there are plenty of great new handsets available for substantially less.

Unfortunately it’s these expensive models that grab all the attention, headlines, and bragging rights when showing off to your friends. Most of us probably look at these models first because we think we should, anything less is a cut down experience, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This handy guide is here to help you figure out what type of handset you should spend your cash on.

Premium tier flagships

Every company has its flagship products, but on an industry scale there are few handsets really worthy of this title. When we talk smartphone flagships we mean those that offer up the crème de la crème of smartphone technology and experiences. This year’s handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8, LG V30, and Huawei Mate 10 Pro set a very high benchmark.

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Unfortunately some of these phones are now hitting the $1000 mark, making them worth more than my first car and a substantial investment whether you’re buying on or off contract. If you’re stumping up this sort of cash you’re going to want to be sure you really need these phones’ best features. We’re not just talking top tier performance, but the very best photography and video capabilities, and cutting edge extras like wireless charging and even PC docking capabilities. If all of the below applies to you, then this is the price bracket to look at:

  • Heavy multi-tasker and/or gamer
  • The very best camera performance, even in low light. Shoots with manual modes and/or in RAW, optical zoom, or wide angle
  • Listening to Hi-Res music files or 24-bit Bluetooth streaming
  • Watching HDR TV shows and movies
  • Need 64 GB or more of offline storage for apps, media or documents
  • Want a waterproof phone with a bezel-less style to match
  • Fastest Android and security updates for at least 18 months
  • Want to be on the cutting edge with AI
  • Lives or dies by what peers and strangers think

In summary, these very top-tier handsets should be on the radar for those who have to be on the absolute cutting edge of technology, heavy media-oriented users, or enterprise customers looking for style and the latest software and security features. Otherwise, you’re probably better saving some cash and looking at other high-end options.

The LG G6 and OnePlus 5T are arguably the best value flagships on the market this year, costing substantially less than $1000.

More affordable high-end

The move towards ultra expensive $1000 smartphones has left the market segment for $500 to $800 handsets wide open. You’ll find plenty of flagship-caliber features in this sector, but if you primarily use your phone for a particular purpose, say photography or music, you can save some money here by scrimping on some other features.

This certainly isn’t to say handsets in this price bracket are in anyway compromised. You’ll still receive excellent performance across all the core features, like the processing package, camera, wireless connectivity, and software. Not to mention design and build materials will still be very much in keeping with more expensive models. You just might not want or need the latest or greatest of absolutely everything. Let’s take a look at some handsets’ pros and cons to get a better idea of what’s on offer at this price point:

  • LG G6 – MIL-STD 810G military dust and water resistance, HDR display, and excellent cameras, but older Snapdragon 821 processor. Great for media-centric users
  • OnePlus 5 – Top notch performance for gamers and multi-taskers, with optical zoom camera. But no IP rating or expandable storage, and 1080p display rather than QHD. Excellent for the price
  • Moto Z2 Force – Modular accessories and top-tier performance, but so-so camera and no headphone jack. Do you even module, bro?
  • Huawei P10 – Excellent dual cameras, all-day battery, lots of color options. Poor speakers, 1080p display, and no water resistance. Plain, but good value

You might not get absolutely everything the mobile industry has to offer in this bracket, and you’ll often find that last year’s flagships fall into this price point after 12 months. However, if you can forgo wireless charging, waterproofing, or perhaps only need 32 GB of storage (instead of 128 GB), you can still grab one of the year’s best phones without taking out a loan.

Huawei’s Honor series has proven that you don’t have to compromise on looks or features when you’re budget conscious.

Sensible mid-tier

These days you don’t need to go high-end to buy a great smartphone, and if you’re a penny pincher the mid-tier of $300 to $500 phones offer a great compromise. 1080p displays are more than good enough for general viewing (if you’re not into VR), and today’s mid-range processors still offer up plenty of performance for browsing the web and even light gaming. Selfie addicts and casual photographers will find phones dedicated to providing very compelling experiences at a sub-$500 price point too.

Most of us primarily use our smartphones for checking email, swiping through Facebook updates, and whiling away the hours with YouTube video. You don’t need an expensive smartphone to do any of that these days. If this sounds like you, then this is probably the price bracket to take a look at. But check out some other criteria that mid-range phones will happily cater to:

  • Heavy web and social media-based usage
  • Casual photography & selfies, not too worried about low light performance
  • Music streaming from normal res services and/or Bluetooth
  • Moderate gaming and 1080p video
  • Willing to forgo some features, like IP rating, fast charging, or large storage capacities to save some dollars
  • Not too bothered about having the latest Android OS features out of the box
  • Happy to use something that looks good, even if no one knows what it is

You needn’t be worried about cheap designs at this price point either, Huawei’s Honor, Xiaomi, Oppo, and others offer some very well built and swanky looking designs. Check out the Honor 9 or HTC U11 Life, for example. Not forgetting that Google’s revamped Android One initiative is promising longer running OS and security support for these lower cost phones.

Reasonable budget options

The budget category is a broad subject in itself, ranging from sub-$100 handsets in some markets, to just under $300 for some nicer features. You won’t find anything cutting edge in these phones, but thanks to ever-improving technologies, you’ll still find passable cameras and performance here. Just don’t count on high frame-rate gaming, carrying around a library of your favourite films, or timely OS upgrades from your manufacturer.

Ultimately, this category is for consumers who prefer low prices over everything else. If you often find yourself saying “as long as it’s functional and gets the job done”, then this is the market segment for you.

  • Primarily web and social media use, not a multi-tasker
  • Limited need for storage, small app and media collections
  • Minimal photography and video capture needs, good enough for social media
  • Doesn’t require any serious gaming capabilities
  • No need of water resistance, fast charging, USB Type-C, NFC for mobile payments, etc.
  • Is OK with older Android versions and waiting for updates
  • Couldn’t avoid dropping/losing/breaking a phone to save your life
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Today you’ll find a number of low cost handsets that will cater to some slightly fancier demands too, including fingerprint scanners and even metal build materials (see the Nokia 6). If you want a low cost snapper the Oppo F1 does pretty nice selfies. Xiaomi has plenty of Dual-SIM models for travelers and business users. The Alcatel Idol 5s looks stunning and can be grabbed for just $200 with lockscreen ads. Alternatively, check out the Moto G5S for a very capable all-rounder that won’t break the bank. Then there’s the Xiaomi Mi A1 that even promises rapid Android updates from Google.

Flagship phones from a generation or two ago are a also a great way to buy on a budget.

Wrap Up

Hopefully this walkthrough has given you a better idea about what the best kind of phone might be for you. While flagships are a guaranteed great experience these days, there are plenty of niche, well-crafted, cheaper models that can give you exactly what you’re looking for in a phone. Better yet, these handsets won’t break the bank like today’s most expensive models. As many commentators have noted: good phones got cheap and cheap phones got good.

My advice is to figure out what you prioritize most in a smartphone, be that cutting edge everything, specific features, or even just price. From there, it’s much easier to hunt down what you need. As a rough guide, business multi-taskers, gamers, and heavy media consumers will want to spend more, while those looking just to cover more common web-based experiences will be more than happy with reasonably priced models. There’s never been a better time to not spend much on a smartphone.