Phones are crazy expensive right now if you insist on buying a company's latest and greatest. But if you're like me, you're just not going to spend $1,000 of your hard-earned dollars on a phone when you know there are alternatives that offer almost as much for a good bit less cash.
Thankfully, there are some great phones you can buy right around the $400 - $500 mark. The Pixel 3a is still a good buy, Apple's iPhone SE 2020 is super cheap for a new iPhone, and Samsung still sells 2019's sleeper hit, the Galaxy S10e. I've tried them all — not just picked them up and looked at them, but signed in with all my accounts and actually used them — and for my money, the Galaxy S10e is the clear choice if you want 90% of a flagship phone at 50% of the price.
I just can't iOS
I'll let you in on a secret — I like the iPhone. I always have. Apple makes great hardware and when it comes to the basics of what a smartphone should be such as communications and entertainment, the iPhone nails it. Most of the time, those basics are exactly what I want from my phone.
But then there are the other times; maybe I want to watch a video while checking messages or goofing around on Twitter. Maybe I'm "talking" to several people at once and need good notifications. Or maybe I want to open some app I hardly ever use and enjoy the tie-in to Google's huge library of online services. During those times, you love having an Android phone in your hands.
It's icons. In a grid. With a folder named "junk" because you can't make them go away.
Apple knows this, too, and iOS is slowly getting things like better notifications or widgets and has allowed Google to upload apps that help you connect your Google services together securely. That's a big deal and not any sort of admission of defeat by Apple — it's a case of giving customers the best features that they really want.
The iPhone SE 2020 is a great phone, especially if you use a MacBook or an iPad or both. Apple has a gem with iMessage, and the hardware itself just feels good. But in 2020 I just can't deal with iOS.
The best Galaxy S10
Samsung's Galaxy S10 line was a phenomenal success but it seems like everyone forgets about what I think was the best Galaxy S10: the Galaxy S10e.
With the S10e you get a phone that's a great size, has an incredible display, great cameras, amazing build quality, and all the features you expect from a Galaxy flagship plus a flat screen instead of that curved waterfall deal that a lot of people hate. It's really the only Galaxy S10 I was interested in having.
It's not perfect. For starters, it's already a year old so that means you won't have the longevity of a 2020 model. When you compare that to the iPhone SE, which should get about five years of updates and support, that isn't something you can just dismiss.
Ask yourself if you're going to really keep a cheap phone for five years. Spoiler: you're not.
Except you probably can. If you're like a lot of people, myself included, you're never going to use a phone for more than a couple of years. Buying a phone with a zero-interest finance plan makes it too easy to upgrade, and when you're only spending half the amount of a flagship, the payments amount to what's basically pocket change each month. That makes it easy to not care about five years of updates, but I still can't ignore that Apple will give them to you, and Samsung won't. It's just not as big of a deal as it's made out to be for most of us.
There's also the whole processor thing. The iPhone SE has a chip that's about twice as powerful in meaningful ways as the Galaxy S10e's Snapdragon 855 found in North American models. Having said that, you really won't see the difference during day to day use. The Galaxy S10e will do everything you ask it to do without bogging down or doing anything that makes you wish you had a chip that was twice as fast.
The A13 Bionic futureproofs the iPhone SE in ways the Snapdragon 855 does not.
This matters when it comes to future-proofing — one day there will be a game or an app that needs more horsepower that the S10e can deliver but that day isn't going to come very soon. You'll be using a different and newer phone by then anyway. Apple putting the A13 chip in the iPhone SE is astounding and important for Apple's supply chain, but overkill is overkill and either phone delivers the power you need to work, communicate, or just goof around with your phone.
Android 10 seals the deal
When it comes to the hardware or camera or fingerprint sensor or any other physical thing about both the iPhone SE and the Galaxy S10e, you can't go wrong either way because both are great. I'd pick the iPhone simply because I like top and bottom bezels to hold the phone with my gnarly old fingers, but you might want to full-screen experience of the S10e. As I said, both are great.
Sorry, but Android is just better.
But the big difference, and what makes the Galaxy S10e my choice in the "cheap" phone lineup is Android. Android 10 brings some great privacy and security enhancements and it runs beautifully on the S10e's hardware. Plus Samsung adds some meaningful additions in areas like the camera app or HD Bluetooth codecs.
I don't even use half of the features of Android on the S10e, but the ones I want and need the most make the phone a treat to use. I can tap my security key to the back of the phone to sign into my work email. I can talk in a big family group chat right from the notification. I can switch between personal and work Google services with a single tap. These are the sorts of things that make Android a much better choice for me, and why I think the Galaxy S10e is the best phone in this price range even though it's not brand new.
You really can't say the Pixel 3a (or the 4a, which is coming so very soon) or iPhone SE or Galaxy S10e is a bad choice. But if I didn't have phones coming and going all the time because of my job, I know the S10e is the one I'd buy because I get to use them. If you're not completely entrenched in Apple's App Store or in iMessage, I think you would like the S10e better, too.
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