What are the best mid-range smartphones?

samantha smith
By Samantha Smith

mobile phone battery

IT WOULD be lovely to say that money was no object and treat ourselves to the latest flagship smartphone from our favourite manufacturer, but the reality is that most of us have rather more modest means.

Once upon a time that would have meant choosing between various brick shaped objects, but as top end phones continue to advance the features we might have lusted after a year or two back are quickly filtering down to more affordable models.

Here we look at five of the best mid-range smartphones - costing £400 or less - and show that it's possible to get a surprisingly high end device on a mid-range budget.

Five of the best mid-range smartphones

If £400 seems a lot, it's worth bearing in mind that with each of the devices we've chosen below, it's possible to spread the cost by signing up for a pay monthly deal, without adding a horrendous amount onto the usage plan part of the bill.

Each of these handsets is therefore available from at least one of the main UK mobile operators on pay monthly terms; some of them are also available with pay as you go deals, and they're all available to buy outright from various retailers.

1. One Plus 3T

We're taking a chance by including the One Plus 3T, but only because One Plus have shown themselves incredibly eager to update their devices. Its predecessor, the One Plus 3, received plenty of praise when released in June 2016 - but within six months it was superseded by this improved model.

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Like the iPhone SE (below), the 3T is designed to compete with flagships while priced to rival lesser devices. Also like the iPhone, however, is the issue that the internal storage is all we get, and it's only the version with the least memory that's available for less than £400.

That said, for £399 we get 64GB of internal storage (about 50GB of which is free), and doubling that only costs around £40 more. We also get a top end Snapdragon 821 processor with 6GB of RAM, two 16MP cameras, a 5.5-inch AMOLED screen, and a battery that can easily last a day of heavy usage.

The One Plus 3T should now come with Android 7.0 (Nougat) - or be ready to update straight out of the box - and that processing power means it can handle almost anything we throw at it, including recording 4K video at 30fps, without so much as a stutter.

A 16MP main camera is still pretty good going for a phone of this price: a 16MP front facing camera was, until the 3T, unheard of. That means way better selfies, in all manner of conditions - so if we look bad in them now, it's us, not the camera.

Calls and texts Data Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
o2 Unlimited 1GB 24 months £9.99 £35

2. iPhone SE

We've said before that Apple don't really do "budget" - but the iPhone SE proves they can do mid-range very well. It's basically the iPhone 6S squashed into the body of an iPhone 5S - combining the incredibly popular design of the latter with what were then Apple's top spec components.

To put that into perspective, the SE is designed to hold its own in performance terms against Apple's flagship rivals: the Samsung Galaxy S7, the LG G5 and, yes, the iPhone 6S - but at a price that puts it more directly in competition with handsets featuring much lesser hardware.

It's a neat little thing, with a four-inch 1136 x 720 display. With so many rival models now sporting five-inch screens it might feel dinky, but the image quality is fantastic. The smaller screen is also less of a drain on the battery, helping it last a whole day even with heavy use.

There are a few niggles. The lack of expandable storage will be the main gripe for many - only the 16GB version is available for less than our ceiling of £400.

The front camera is also disappointing. The iPhone 6S finally saw Apple's selfie cameras upgraded from 1.2MP to 5MP - but the SE returns to the much lower resolution. The main camera uses an almost identical setup as that on the iPhone 6S; it only lacks the optical image stabilisation found in the bigger phone.

Calls and texts Data Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
ee Unlimited 1GB 24 months Free £30.99
o2 Unlimited 1GB 24 months £264 £18
three Unlimited 1GB 24 months £19 £30
vodafone Unlimited 1GB 24 months £20 £28

3. Samsung A5 (2017)

While Samsung give each new flagship S series phone a new number, they simply update their existing A and J series devices, meaning we need to look for the year in brackets after the name. Here, we're talking about the 2017 version of the A5, which at the time of writing is available on pre-order.

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Last year's A5 had an Exynos 7580 processor, equivalent to a Snapdragon 615, using 2GB of RAM. This year's model features a slightly better Exynos 7880, using 3GB of RAM to run Android 6.0 (Marshmallow), 32GB of internal storage and the ability to add up to 256GB via micro SD card.

It's the choice of processor that keeps this phone at under £400, as apart from that a lot of its features could have been lifted from the flagship Galaxy S7 - the fingerprint sensor, dust and water resistance to IP68 standards (drop it in the washing up and it'll be fine for up to half an hour), and a superior camera.

The inclusion of the S7-standard 16MP main camera would be impressive enough, as it's one of the best smartphone cameras out there - but Samsung have gone a step beyond One Plus and used the same specs for both the A5's main and front cameras; only the optical stabilisation and immediate autofocus are lacking on the selfie camera.

The 5.2 inch 1980 x 1080p screen is standard resolution for this price bracket, but being Super-AMOLED it still looks rich and sharp. The battery should last a full day - which is just as well, because the change to USB C charging will make all those spare charging cables useless.

Calls and texts Data Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
ee Unlimited 1GB 24 months Free £35.99
o2 Unlimited 1GB 24 months £9.99 £34

4. Sony Xperia X

When the Sony Xperia X was released, it puzzled a lot of people. It was marketed as a flagship device - and it certainly cost enough, at least at first - but aside from the attention grabbing camera, it's far more accurate to say it's a good mid-range device.

It's now possible to buy the Xperia X for just under £400, but there are other smartphones that offer the same - or more - for less. Buying it on contract seems to be the better option, as it's priced sensibly for what it offers compared to other handsets.

The Snapdragon 650 processor is exactly what we'd expect to find in a decent mid-tier smartphone; there's 3GB of RAM to help it cope, but against the likes of the iPhone SE and the One Plus 3T it can feel painfully slow. At least we can boost the fairly generous 32 GB internal storage with up to 256GB via a micro SD card.

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Out of the box the Xperia X runs Android 6.0 (Marshmallow), although an upgrade to Android Nougat is expected in the near future. The five-inch screen has a resolution of 1980 x 1080 (full HD), with Sony's Triluminos technology helping make it brighter and clearer than those of some of its rivals.

Where this handset really does outperform its mid-range rivals is its cameras. Although the default setting on the main camera is a resolution of 8MP, that can be cranked up to 23MP; the selfie camera can take snaps with a resolution of up to 13MP.

Calls and texts Data Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
ee Unlimited 1GB 24 months Free £30.99
o2 Unlimited 1GB 24 months Free £34

5. LG G4

The oldest and cheapest handset on our list, the LG G4 is still a solid choice for those who want as much smartphone as possible for a reasonable price: the former flagship now costs around £300.

Back when this was a true flagship, the six-core Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB of RAM were notable; a couple of years on they're still impressive. Whatever version of Android the handset is running out of the box it's in line for an imminent update to v7.0 (Nougat).

The other obvious flagship feature is the 5.5-inch screen: while our other choices have full HD displays, the G4 is quad HD (2560 x 1440p; roughly 538 pixels per inch), and reviews suggest it's as bright and rich as we'd expect from a Samsung.

When the G4 launched in 2015, "flagship" had just started to mean a metal or glass-coated metal body - a feature that's now filtered down to many mid-range smartphones. The G4 stands out then, for still being made of plastic - even if one version had a leather coat.

The main camera continues to measure up well with its 16MP sensor, three-axis optical image stabilisation and the ability to shoot in the RAW format; the 8MP selfie camera doesn't seem as impressive as it might once have done, but the gesture control is still a nice feature.

Calls and texts Data Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
three Unlimited 1GB 24 months £19 £32

What to expect from a mid-range phone

Hopefully we've shown that it's possible to get an awful lot of phone for £400 or less - although admittedly four of our choices are at the higher end of that budget.

Beyond the kind of screen size and resolution we can expect to see, it's difficult to define a set of specifications that make a mid-range smartphone - particularly now Apple have shown that it's possible to put flagship specification components in a smaller, cheaper, package.

As our choices above show, the difference between a top of the range handset and a middle tier mobile can be just one or two features, but the camera doesn't need to be one of them any more.

What will usually make the difference is the choice of processor: look at a phone's listed specs to find out what it is. Most use Qualcomm Snapdragon processors: 400 series chips are at the lower end of mid-range, while 800 series chips are generally flagship standard.

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