I review phones for a living — and this is the cheapest phone I'd recommend

OnePlus Nord N30 5G review
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

When people find out I've been reviewing phones for more than a decade now, some frequent questions work their way into the conversation. Is there a particular phone I would recommend? (I tend to direct them to our best phone rankings.) What's better — Android or iOS? (They both have their strengths and weaknesses.) Can I do something about a particular iPhone feature? (I assure you I do not have that kind of expertise or influence.) But usually, people just want to know if I've reviewed something cool lately.

The last time I got asked that question, I had just posted my Google Pixel 7a review, and I felt pretty enthusiastic about Google's latest midrange phone. Since it's running on the same Tensor G2 chipset as other Pixel 7 phones, the same AI-powered experiences are part of the 7a, too. It also happens to be great at taking pictures — one of the best camera phones we've tested, really. "And best of all," I told a person who had asked me what I had tested recently, "the Pixel 7a costs $499, so it's really affordable."

That person just stared back at me. "A $499 phone is considered affordable these days?"

To some folks, anything that costs more than a couple hundred dollars is a big ask.

Certainly, you can find phones with bargain basement prices. The challenge is finding one that didn't strip away too many features to get to that lower cost. We're always on the lookout for the best cheap phones under $300, and sometimes it's a long, difficult search because handsets with that price often make way too many sacrifices to recommend with much enthusiasm.

Some good news then — I've just reviewed a phone that meets the elusive criteria of being both cheap and a pleasure to use. The OnePlus Nord N30 doesn't have all the features you'd get in a more expensive phone — we'll talk about those later on — but what it does have is pretty impressive. And it will cost you only $299 if you buy the phone unlocked. (Get it through either T-Mobile or Metro By T-Mobile, and you can pay a little bit less for the OnePlus Nord N30.)

Why the OnePlus Nord N30 should be your next cheap phone

OnePlus Nord N30 5G review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For me, the standout feature of the OnePlus Nord N30 is the phone's battery life. We put each phone we review through a pretty demanding battery test, in which phones have to surf the web continuously over cellular until it runs out of power. If a phone can do that for 10 hours or more, you know you've got a device that will last you from dawn til dusk. The handsets with the best phone battery life last for 11.5 hours or more.

The OnePlus Nord N30 held out for 12.5 hours in our test.

What makes that result especially impressive is the fact that it came with the adaptive display refresh rate turned on. When that feature is enabled, phones will refresh their screen at an optimized rate – in the case of the OnePlus Nord N30, that's 120Hz. A refresh rate in that range makes for smoother scrolling and more immersive graphics, but it also can drain a phone's battery more quickly. Clearly, in the case of the OnePlus Nord N30, that's not that much of a concern. (When we turned off the fast refresh rate, the phone lasted for 12 hours and 42 minutes, so clearly, OnePlus has figured out how to manage power efficiently on this particular model.)

OnePlus Nord N30 5G review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If you were paying attention in that last paragraph, you noticed another top feature with the OnePlus Nord N30 — it's got a 120Hz display. High-refresh rates are becoming more common on less expensive phones these days, but it's still worth acknowledging that the Nord N30 delivers a refresh rate comparable to what you'd get from phones that cost around $1,000. At $299, the Nord N30 can be had for a fraction of that.

You're not getting a cramped display either. The Nord N30 offers a 6.72-inch panel that leaves a lot of space for gaming and gives you an ample viewing area when you want to watch videos. I also appreciate the phone's stereo speakers on the top and bottom of the Nord N30 — they're even positioned in such a way to ensure that my hands don't cover them up, muffling the sound when I'm playing a game in landscape mode. And for those times when I need a lot of sound, there's a 200% Ultra Volume Mode that pumps up the audio without blowing out the Nord N30's speakers.

When you're looking at phones under $300, you want to identify the features that are most important to you to ensure that the phone you're considering ticks those particular boxes. If you want a long-lasting device with an expansive display and great sound, you're not going to find a better option than the OnePlus Nord N30 at this price.

Where you have to compromise

On the flip side, you also have to recognize that phones aren't as cheap as the Nord N30 is without scaling back in some areas. The good news is that many of the Nord N30's shortcomings fall within the realm of reasonable sacrifices. For example, the phone's Snapdragon 695 5G chipset is not exactly a powerhouse, but it will get the job done for most tasks. The N30's design won't fool anyone into thinking you paid big bucks for your phone, but I wouldn't describe the Nord 30 as cheaply made. During my testing, I had the phone resting on a ledge that my cat jumped up on, sending the Nord N30 hurtling downward to a hardwood floor. The phone survived its 3-foot plunge without a case on to protect it, something I wouldn't bet a lot of budget phones can pull off.

The two biggest compromises you'll need to make if you opt for the OnePlus Nord N30 come down to the phone's software support and its camera performance. When it comes to software, you can expect just one Android OS update — since the phone ships with Android 13, the upcoming Android 14 release will be the only software update the Nord N30 gets. That's actually a fairly common practice for phones at this price range, but it doesn't make OnePlus' stance any more tolerable.

The camera performance is probably the biggest area of concern, given what we ask our mobile devices to take on when it comes to capturing photos. You get a 108MP main camera with the OnePlus Nord N30, but no ultrawide lens like you'll find on other cheap camera phones. And while the Nord N30's main camera doesn't take bad photos, it can be inconsistent, particularly when there's a lot of shadows to deal with.

In this photo of a merry-go-round, for example, the OnePlus Nord N30 struggles with sunlight streaming in from the left side of the frame, as it tries to balance everything with the shadows on the right. As a result, the colors feel a bit off to me. You may find the comparison photo shot by the Moto G (2023) to be too dark in areas, but I think the colors look a little bit richer.

I don't want to give the impression that the OnePlus Nord N30 is hopeless when it comes to photos. Sometimes, the phone takes perfectly presentable shots, like this one of an elaborately composed milkshake. I'd argue that the Pixel 7a's photo is better, thanks to more detailed coloring for both the waffle cookie and the cream at the top of the shake, but the Pixel 7a is one of the best camera phones around. That the OnePlus Nord N30 is able to produce a photo that's in the same ballpark as the Pixel 7a's while also costing $200 less is worth taking note of.

OnePlus Nord N30 outlook

The OnePlus Nord N30 isn't going to be for everyone. If you want a more powerful processor or cameras that perform with greater consistency, you're going to want to pay up for a midrange phone or better. But if you are limited by what you can spend on your next handset, rather by circumstances or by choice, you don't have to settle for a severely limited device. The OnePlus Nord N30 delivers a lot more than its low price tag might suggest, and if you opt for this phone, you'll certainly get your money's worth.

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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.