What are the best budget smartphones?

samantha smith
By Samantha Smith

mobile phone use©iStock.com/LDProd

SMARTPHONES have very quickly become indispensable parts of our everyday lives, and while not everyone wants or needs the latest or fanciest smartphone, most of us want something that keeps us feeling reasonably connected to the world.

Some manufacturers specialise in budget and mid-range handsets, while others have models aimed at everyone from gadget gurus to the cheerfully cheap. There's a lot of fuss made about the flagship end of the market, but what kind of smartphone can we get for less than £200?

There are going to be concessions made to keep the price down - don't expect a superfast processor, breathtaking camera or the sturdiest build quality - but considering that each of the phones below is has a budget price tag, it's sometimes remarkable what we can get.

If none of our choices appeals, there's a quick guide to what to look for in a handset costing less than £200 further down.

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Each of the mobile phones below is available on either pay as you go or pay monthly terms from at least one of the four big UK operators, and it's also possible to get them all SIM-free from various retailers.

There's no iPhone in here - Apple haven't quite mastered "budget" yet. Of the five handsets we've listed, three run the latest widely available version of Android, and one runs the constantly updating Windows 10 OS.

We've looked for the best overall performers for the price bracket, but a couple have the odd standout feature that we'd expect to find on much more expensive devices.

1. Samsung Galaxy A3 (2016)

Our top choice is the 2016 version of the Samsung Galaxy A3 - which is technically a mid-range phone but now costs just under £200 on pay as you go terms. The reason for the drop in price is that a newer version is now available - but the 2016 incarnation should be available for a while yet.

The A3's mid-range origins are obvious in the design: a glass coated aluminium body that looks rather like a slightly cheaper, smaller version of the flagship Galaxy S6. It's squarer and a little thicker than its more expensive sibling, but it feels like a very well built handset.

It has the smallest screen of the five handsets in this list (4.7 inches rather than five), but it has the same resolution (1280 x 720), which gives for a marginally sharper display. Add to that the fact that it uses Samsung's Super AMOLED technology, and it puts the displays of most budget and some mid-range challengers to shame.

The UK version of the handset features an Exynos 7578 chipset running a quad-core 1.5GHz Cortex-A53, and 1.5GB of RAM. The performance is smooth enough in everyday usage, and with most apps and less intensive games; it doesn't have any problem running Android Marshmallow (v6.0.1). There's 16GB of internal storage, 11GB of which is usable.

The 13MP main camera takes decent photos in most conditions; the 5MP selfie camera won't win any awards but it does a reasonable job. Battery life is pretty decent: most people should easily get a day's standard use out of the phone, and some might manage to get into a second day before needing to find a charger.

Package Calls and texts Data Upfront price Monthly price
vodafone Vodafone Pay As You Go Big Value Bundle £15 250 minutes, unlimited texts 1GB £199 PAYG

2. Sony Xperia E5

The Sony Xperia E5 could be mistaken for a (lower end) mid-range mobile thanks to its design and rear camera. The front camera is a fairly standard 5MP, but the main camera takes pictures at up to 13MP, which is better than any other phone included here bar the Samsung A3.

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The five-inch screen has the same decent 1280 x 720 resolution as the other handsets we've looked at here, and copes well with a wide range of ambient light conditions. The battery is slightly disappointing, however, as even average use will drain it by the end of the day.

While many smartphones these days come with a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, Sony have opted for the slightly cheaper quad-core 1.3GHz Mediatek MT6735 processor, paired with 1.5GB of RAM. Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) runs fairly smoothly on it, but there can be a bit of delay when switching between apps.

Oddly enough, despite the lack of raw power, it's the best device in this list for mobile gamers. The newest and most demanding games might push it a little too hard, and games may be a little slow to load, but once running it can cope admirably with intensive graphics.

Sony are known for installing a lot of duplicate apps with their user interface, taking up valuable internal memory. That's possibly why Sony have been quite generous with the storage - 16GB, of which about 10GB is free; the expandable storage slot can handle micro SD cards of up to 200GB in capacity.

Package Calls and texts Data Upfront price Monthly price
o2 O2 1GB Big Bundle £10 100 minutes, 100 texts 1GB £119 PAYG
vodafone Vodafone Pay As You Go Big Value Bundle £15 250 minutes, unlimited texts 1GB £79 PAYG

3. Vodafone Smart Prime 7

The Vodafone Smart Prime 7 uses a Snapdragon 210 quad core processor paired with 1GB of RAM to run a fairly clean version of Android Marshmallow (v6.0.1).Many handsets are slowed down by duplicate brand-specific versions of existing Android apps, but Vodafone's own devices are notably free of them - and they allow users to uninstall those that are included.

This helps the phone run more smoothly than branded devices with similar specs, but anyone who wants to do more than access emails, play simple games, and do the odd bit of social networking may find it soon slows up.

For a £75 device, the five-inch 720p HD display looks smoother and of better quality than we might expect - and the inclusion of an NFC chip (making the handset compatible with Android Pay) is almost unheard of in other handsets costing this little. There's only about 4GB of usable internal storage, but this can at least be boosted with a micro SD card.

Battery life is reasonable - with the kind of light use the phone is best suited for we should get a good 24 hours out of it - but while the back cover comes off, the battery isn't replaceable.

Package Calls and texts Data Upfront price Monthly price
vodafone Vodafone Pay As You Go Big Value Bundle £15 250 minutes, unlimited texts 1GB £70 PAYG

4. Microsoft Lumia 650

The only non-Android device in this list, the Microsoft Lumia 650 runs the mobile version of Windows 10. It looks much more expensive than the £70 to £100 it's possible to buy it for now, with a brushed metal and glass design usually seen only on high end devices.

The five-inch screen has a resolution of 1280 x 720p - but it looks better than most other displays of the same size and resolution because it uses OLED technology to produce greater contrast and more vibrant, accurate colours - and a polarising layer makes it usable in even bright sunlight.

Battery life is pretty impressive as well: users should be able to get around 24 hours out of a single charge quite easily. The battery is replaceable for quick switches if we prefer popping in a spare to charging on the go.

Despite that, this handset is best suited to those who still use their mobile primarily as a phone. Those of us used to Android and iOS will find Windows 10 takes a bit of getting used to - and there's nothing like the range of apps available.

Then there's the quad-core 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 CPU, running off a Snapdragon 212 processor, with 1GB of RAM. While that's fine for messages, emails and other basic phone type apps, it really doesn't cope very well with multitasking or graphics-heavy apps - including map applications.

Package Calls and texts Data Upfront price Monthly price
vodafone Vodafone Pay As You Go Big Value Bundle £15 250 minutes, unlimited texts 1GB £70 PAYG

5. LG K8

Until they released the modular G5, LG were best known for their curved handsets and rear mounted power and volume buttons - both of which can be found on the lower end LG K8. It looks very like a cheap version of the LG G4, with a much more obviously plastic finish.

The crosshatched back panel gives the phone a solid, well built feel, particularly considering the price: from initially costing around £130 when released in 2016, it's now available for as little as half that on PAYG terms.

For that we get a pretty decent five-inch 1280 x 720p HD screen, and while the phone features a basic Mediatek processor rather than the slightly zippier Snapdragon chips favoured by its rivals, the 1.5GB of RAM helps it run Android Marshmallow (6.0.1) fairly smoothly.

The consensus on the 8MP main camera is that colours are good, but images aren't as sharp as they should be, and in anything but the best light using the flash is recommended. Photos will need to be stored on a micro SD card (up to 32GB) as there's only around 3.5GB of usable internal storage available for apps and files.

Light users - those who check their messages occasionally, for example - should find the battery lasts them the course of the day; those who like settling in to browse the web or Facebook will find that the battery drains much more quickly.

Package Calls and texts Data Upfront price Monthly price
ee EE Pay As You Go Data Pack 100 minutes, 1,000 texts 1GB £79.99 PAYG
vodafone Vodafone Pay As You Go Big Value Bundle £15 250 minutes, unlimited texts 1GB £70 PAYG

Budget smartphone considerations

If none of the above handsets particularly appeal, there are plenty of other fairly cheap devices to choose from.

Possibly the most important feature is the processor. Most manufacturers use Qualcomm Snapdragon processors as they're among the nippiest available; it's almost always the case that the higher the number quoted, the faster the processor. Those who want to use their smartphone as a smartphone will need at least a Snapdragon 210 powering it.

Internal storage is another expensive feature, so cheap smartphones tend to come with 8GB as standard - up to half of which will be used by the operating system.

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Most of the time this isn't the end of the world, as we can boost that storage with a micro SD card - but check how big (in capacity terms) the handset will take. Most will accept cards of between 32GB and 100GB, some can handle up to 200GB SD cards.

In terms of operating system, some very cheap smartphones are still being sold running Android 4.4.4 (KitKat); be aware that an increasing number of Android apps won't run on anything earlier than this.

Android 5.1 is better, and many handsets will be able to upgrade - and as is clear from our selections above, it's also possible to get devices already running Android 6.0. As v7.0 is only gradually arriving on top end devices from various manufacturers, that's not to be sniffed at.

Most of the handsets above feature five-inch screens with resolutions of 1280 x 720, which is fairly standard now; the differences between displays will be because of the kind of display - LED, OLED, or LCD, for example. Also expect to get a main camera with at least an 8MP sensor, and a 5MP selfie camera.

Unless it's truly awful - draining within a matter of hours when we use the phone for anything more than the odd text or phone call - battery life can usually be worked around. We've a guide to some of the best battery packs here.

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