Flagship phones may come packed with features, but that can mean high price tags — sometimes in the quadruple digits. Who needs that weighing down their credit card bill? Not me and not you either — not with so many cheap phone options out there right now delivering good value for money.
I should know. As the managing editor for mobile at Tom's Guide, I see all kinds of phones come and go. And the crop of affordable midrange devices as of late has impressed me to the point where I would argue that no one needs to spend $800 or more on a smartphone.
The trend's continued into 2023, as I've just finished reviewing the best cheap phone under $500. That would be the Samsung Galaxy A54, a $449 device that manages to offer some flagship-quality features in a very affordable package. Here's why I think the Galaxy A54 is the best phone you can get for $500 or less.
Why the Galaxy A54 rules
When I'm evaluating devices, I look for a phone to deliver on three key things — cameras, battery life and screen brightness. There are other things to consider, of course, but if a phone ticks those boxes, it immediately rises in my estimation.
The Galaxy A54 delivers on all three criteria, which is especially impressive given that humble price tag.
Let's start with the cameras. While the ultrawide camera on the Galaxy A54 is nothing to write home about and the macro lens is as irrelevant as the dedicated macro shooter on any phone, the A54's main camera delivers the goods. It's the same 50MP sensor that the Galaxy S23 uses, and in my testing, it really excelled in low-light situations that benefitted from the camera's ability to take in more light.
Up until now, the Pixel 6a has been the gold standard for the best camera phones for less than $500. And while Google's device outperformed the new Samsung model in some areas during our Galaxy A54 vs. Pixel 6a camera faceoff — it takes better portrait shots and its digital zoom is a bit cleaner — the A54 bested it in numerous situations. It's the low-cost camera phone I'd take with me if I didn't think lighting conditions were going to be ideal.
On the battery front, the Galaxy A54 turned in a better-than-average time on our battery test. But that was with the phone's 120Hz refresh rate turned on. (And think about that for a second — a sub-$500 phone with a faster refresh rate than the more expensive iPhone 14.) When we reran the battery test with the refresh rate locked at 60Hz, the Galaxy A54 lasted more than 11.5 hours, landing on our best phone battery life list.
You'll find a lot of cheap phones on that list recognizing the longest-lasting handsets we've tested in the last year and a half. But in many cases, battery life is the one thing these cheap phones have going for them. In the Galaxy A54's case, it's just another pro in a whole checklist of strengths.
As for screen brightness, we use a light meter to measure the brightness of every phone display that comes into our lab. The Galaxy A54 registered a brightness of 854 nits, beating out devices like the Pixel 6a (778 nits) and iPhone SE (590 nits). The bright screen means you'll never have a hard time reading anything on the display, even when you're in direct sunlight.
The Galaxy A54 has other things going for it. It looks absolutely gorgeous, at least in the Awesome Violet color of my review unit. I certainly wouldn't look at that phone and think it was something I got on the cheap. IP67 water resistance and the flexibility of a microSD slot for expanding storage just add to the phone's appeal.
What sacrifices you make with the Galaxy A54
Naturally, you don't pay less than $500 for a phone without expecting to make some sacrifices. In the Galaxy A54's case, the biggest probably comes down to the phone's chipset. The Exynos 1380 powering the phone performs adequately in real-world use, but it's not going to convince anyone that it's much of a speed demon. In benchmark tests, the phone even lags behind the Pixel 6a, which is running on an older Tensor G1 chipset that's not really designed with peak performance in mind.
Is that a show-stopping flaw? If you plan on playing some graphically intense games, then sure. But if that's the case, you're probably going to turn to one of the best gaming phones, most of which cost a lot more than $449. For most purposes, the Exynos 1380 silicon inside the Galaxy A54 is good enough.
You won't find a telephoto lens on the back of the Galaxy A54, and forget about wirelessly charging the phone. Then again, those are features that rarely find their way onto sub-$500 phones. If you want either capability, you're probably going to have to set aside more for your budget.
I'm also not a fan of the noticeable bezel at the top and bottom of the Galaxy A54's 6.4-inch display. In an era where displays increasingly run from one edge of the phone to the other, it's a little jarring to have a head and chin on the A54, even if they are relatively small. Again, though, that might be because I see so many phones — for most people, the bezel would be hardly worth mentioning.
What's coming down the pike
The Galaxy A54's time as the best phone under $500 may be limited, though that's not a reflection of any weakness on the part of Samsung's phone. Rather, it's an indicator of just how strong this market is.
OnePlus has already announced the OnePlus Nord CE 3 Lite, which is selling for £299 in the U.K. Despite the low price, you still get a 108MP main camera built into this phone. It's also able to charge at 67W, a bit faster than the 25W speeds supported by the Galaxy A54.
The latest low-cost Nord device isn't coming to the U.S. at the moment, though that might change. We've heard rumors that the phone may arrive later this year rebranded as the OnePlus Nord N30. If so, it's a device worth keeping an eye out for, given that impressive main camera.
But a more immediate challenger to the Galaxy A54 is looming in the form of the Pixel 7a. We're expecting Google to at least show off the new midrange device at Google I/O 2023 next month, and it could start shipping immediately according to some rumors. Rumors point to the Pixel 7a adding a number of potentially game-changing improvements, from a fast-refreshing display to better cameras to wireless charging support.
Should that pan out, we may have to revisit our opinion on the best phone you can buy for less than $500. But it's going to take those kind of enhancements to knock the Galaxy A54 off its perch.