I review phones for a living, and budget devices impress me more than flagships these days

pixel 7a motorola razr and galaxy a54 are the best midrange phones of the year
(Image credit: Future)

I'm on the smartphone reviews team here at Tom's Guide, which should mean that I get to test my share of all sorts of handsets, be they high profile or under the radar. But this year, thanks to quirks of scheduling, release dates and workloads, I've seen an influx of lower-cost midrange devices cross my desk.

I'm not complaining — this has been a rather fortunate turn of events for yours truly, as it's been a really strong year for cheap phones that might otherwise get overshadowed by more powerful flagships.

Take the Samsung Galaxy A54 that came out earlier this year. Samsung may prefer that you confine your smartphone search to its Galaxy S23 lineup, so much so that phone maker has come out with a lower-cost model, the Galaxy S23 FE, that looks to entice people put off by the flagship's $799 starting price. But even with that cheaper phone, I'd still steer people toward the Galaxy A54, thanks to its strong battery life, colorful display and impressive-for-the-price cameras. Even people not on a tight budget would be well-advised to consider the $449 Galaxy A54, given that phone's strengths.

Google Pixel 7a vs. Samsung Galaxy A54

Pixel 7a (left) and Galaxy A54 (right) (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Of course, the Galaxy A54's reign as the best cheap phone lasted right up until the Google Pixel 7a arrived later in the summer. By using a Tensor G2 chip, Google's budget phone could deliver the same features found on more expensive Pixel 7 models. And its cameras proved to be the best of any phone under $500, capable of holding their own against the best camera phones.

The midrange advances don't stop with phones offering conventional designs, either. The foldable phone market took a big leap forward with the release of the Motorola Razr (2023), the least expensive foldable we've yet seen. At $699, it costs $300 less than next cheapest foldable, though as our Motorola Razr (2023) vs. Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 face-off, the gap between those two devices is about as narrow as it can be.

Don't think of this as a one-off either. Exactly 12 months ago, I was trumpeting 2022 as the year of the midrange phone, and you could easily make the case that 2023 has been even better. Certainly, the idea that phones just a step or two behind flagships in terms of spec sheets can pack just as much of a punch is no longer one you'd dismiss out of hand.

Why midrange phones are thriving right now

Motorola Razr 2023 review

Motorola Razr (2023) (Image credit: Future)

Let's be clear — if you want the greatest and latest in mobile features, you're still going to want to turn to premium offerings like the latest iPhones, Galaxy S models and even Pixel flagships. But for two years running now, the step down to a less expensive device in some phone makers' lineups hasn't been that much of a step down. And it's worth considering the reasons why.

Part of it is simply a trickle-down effect, as technologies that debut on flagship phones eventually make their way down to lower-cost handsets. Dual camera lenses used to be a premium feature; now even budget devices offer at least two lenses. The same thing goes for phones offering high refresh rates for their displays. Maybe you don't get the range of a device like the Galaxy S23 Ultra, which can go all the way from 120Hz when there's a lot of scrolling and immersive graphics down to 1Hz when things are fairly static. But it's not too hard to find 120Hz displays on really cheap phones right now.

The midrange models I lauded at the outset are an example of this. The Photo Unblur and call screening features introduced by the Pixel 7 in 2022 found their way to the Pixel 7a half-a-year-later. Motorola developed a hinge design that let its premium Razr+ phone close without any gap and create a minimal crease on the interior display. It was able to then incorporate that setup into the cheaper Razr (2023), sacrificing some other features to keep costs down.

It helps that camera hardware and photo processing features are among the improvements that have made it down the line from flagships to midrange phones. The Galaxy A54, Pixel 7a and Motorola Razr (2023) all boast impressive main cameras with respective sensors of 50MP, 64MP and 64MP capturing detailed images. The computational photography going on with these phones impresses, too — I defy you to look at this Pixel 7a vs. Pixel 7 camera face-off and tell me with a straight face that the images produced by the more expensive Pixel 7 are that much better than what the Pixel 7a turns out.

Google Pixel 7a

Pixel 7a (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Basically, phone makers have figured out where to cut corners on midrange models and where to pour in resources. As great as it is to have a state-of-the-art chipset, for example, anyone who demands that kind of performance will happily pay up for a premium device. The rest of us will be happy with the good-enough processing power delivered by less advanced — and less expensive — silicon. 

The Exynos 1380 powering the Galaxy A54 isn't going to set any speed records nor will the Snapdragon 7 Gen 1 inside the lower-cost Razr. But you're not likely to be bothered by that in the same way you would if the screen weren't bright and colorful or the battery didn't last a long time on a charge. And both those phones deliver in those key areas.

Midrange phone outlook

Put another way, deciding not to get the latest flagship doesn't mean you're forced to make do with an also-ran device. Just like last year, the midrange models released in 2023 give you plenty of low-cost alternatives that provide more than just relief to your credit card balance — they're capable devices that don't stray too far from their premium counterparts.

It's a welcome trend for the world of smartphones, and I hope I'm making this same argument a year from now.

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Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.