How to work hard and save big with a powerful cut price smartphone
The capability of budget smartphones has shot up over the last year. But are they now realistic replacements for flagship models? Adrian Weckler takes a look at the four best models
In a month's time, Apple will launch its newest iPhone, sparking an annual wave of upgrades and holiday wish lists. But rival smartphone manufacturers have quietly released a different, almost as intriguing, batch of smartphones this summer: powerful ultra-budget models.
Nokia, Motorola and Huawei have led the charge, launching modern handsets that look and feel like expensive devices but that cost under £250. Here's a look at four of the best budget models.
1 Motorola G6 Play
(£150 from Argos, 32GB)
Over the last four years, Motorola has arguably become the standard-bearer for good budget smartphones. It has done this through its 'G' series of handsets.
The G6 range is no different: you get extremely usable, practical modern smartphones for a fraction of the money you'll spend.
There are actually three in the G6 range, but the one I think is most useful is the cheapest - the G6 Play. That's because it has one feature prized above almost all other among a certain type of power-user: battery life. This phone's 4,000mAh battery is almost twice that of some phones in its price range. It even breezes past most top-end flagship devices, including Samsung's S9 Plus (3,500mAh) and Apple's iPhone 8 Plus (around 3,000mAh). Only Huawei's P20 Pro - at a whopping £850 - can match this upstart of a budget smartphone for battery longevity.
In practice, the extra-long battery means you can skip charging it for two days or, if you hammer your phones the way I do, it is guaranteed to last you an actual full day.
It has a 5.7in screen (almost the same size as a Samsung S9) and, while it's not as good as a premium phones, it's fine. Its 32GB of internal storage is an acceptable minimum for anyone who isn't filling the device up with photos and videos. You won't be tempted to anyway, as the handset's 13-megapixel rear camera is run of the mill. It does have a (rear-mounted) fingerprint sensor for security and a traditional 3.5mm headphone jack.
2 Nokia 3.1
(£149 from Argos, 16GB)
Remember Nokia? The company that used to hold a staggering 80% market share in Ireland just 10 years ago is back with a bang. It is targeting the 'value' end of the market and it's very hard to see anyone doing it better right now.
While its '7 Plus' handset is probably the best overall large-screen phone you can get for under £400 at the moment, the just-launched 3.1 model is a pretty incredible deal for the money.
The 5.2in handset looks and feels like a smartphone two or three times the price, with many of the features that would have been considered premium a few years ago.
The design is a high point, with a smooth metallic frame around the sides and a glass display that curves gently at the sides.
It cuts costs by omitting things like a fingerprint sensor but keeps the beloved headphone jack.
It has a reasonable 13-megapixel rear camera and a decent 3,000mAH battery.
Like many of Nokia's Android phones, it uses Android One, which eschews most of the 'skins' that manufacturers usually try to overlay on Android phones and that mostly just get in the way. The processor and Ram memory (2GB) in this device are basic, so if you're depending on the phone to cut through tasks in rapid succession, you might notice that it's a bit slow from time to time. Casual users won't see this, though. Instead, what they'll notice is a handset with excellent build quality that performs well overall.
This is probably one of the last new phones we'll see released with the old micro USB power connection (instead of the newer USB-C one). The upside to that is that micro USB cables are plentiful and cheap.
3 Huawei P-Smart
(£240 from Littlewoods, 32GB)
Huawei recently overtook Apple to become the second-biggest phone manufacturer in the world (behind Samsung). It has done it not only with flagship devices like the P20 Pro but with budget models that over-perform. Alongside Nokia's 3.1 and Motorola's G6, Huawei's P Smart is the best budget smartphone you can buy right now and is tailor-made for those who want a larger screen while not paying more.
Its 5.7in display means that you get to scroll through emails, documents and social media much more comprehensively than with smaller-screen devices. (A 5.7in screen is around 25% bigger than a 5in screen). The phone's design isn't thrilling, insofar as it looks like any other generic smartphone. But it's more than adequate and the handset is both slim and light. It includes a fingerprint scanner but opts for a micro USB port rather than a new USB-C variant.
The 3,000mAh battery on this phone is moderate and definitely won't see you through to a second day.
Unusually for a non-flagship device, the 32GB model has two rear cameras (although the second 2-megapixel camera is there to guide the first one rather than being a second, distinct telephoto lens like on an iPhone). Its selfie camera is eight megapixels.
The quality of the photos is only okay, but definitely on par with other phones in its price range. If you need a big phone (or a second one), this is a great choice.
4 Apple iPhone SE
(£249 from Argos, 32GB)
We're not used to thinking of iPhones as 'budget' devices, yet the current SE model all but qualifies.
For the money, this is one of the best-equipped, most powerful smartphones you can buy right now.
Its main compromise (although it's really a design choice) is its screen: at 4in, it stands out as the smallest display you can get among any of the major phone brands.
It means that it's not as good for watching videos or TV and possibly not as good for long surfing sessions through social media or email.
On the other hand, it's much easier to handle and operate with one hand, which is one of the biggest drawbacks of the larger smartphones. There'll be no thumb-strain here.
There is an argument that the iPhone SE is the most aesthetically beautiful handset that Apple ever produced. It's utterly distinctive.
You get 32GB of storage as standard, which is reasonable. The iPhone SE also has an excellent 12-megapixel camera, better than just about any other smartphone in its price bracket.
It also runs a powerful processor (the A9, which is the same as on the iPhone 6S) and can run the latest iOS interface, similar to any of the bigger iPhones.
Unlike the larger models, the SE also retains a headphone jack. For those who are nonplussed by the shiny black slabs that appear to make up 99% of all new smartphones, regardless of manufacturer, this stands out as a real, modern, powerful alternative. There's only one thing to bear in mind - Apple will probably update this model in September when it unveils its latest iPhones. So while this generation of SE phone will likely keep up with iOS for at least another two years, Apple may shove more power under the hood in a few weeks.