You don't need me to tell you that your dollars aren't going as far as they used to. The indexes economists use to measure inflation are on the rise, and that translates to higher prices — for gas, for food — and in some cases, for tech.
Even if smartphone prices hold the line, the prospect of spending $799 or more on a flagship device may not be appealing as it was just a few months ago. (See that bit about food and gas taking out a bigger chunk of your budget.) And that's a challenge if you need to get phone in the immediate future, should your current device be showing its age.
You can only defer smartphone purchases for so long. These days, mobile phones are pretty much primary phones, connecting you to work, family and friends. So naturally, if your current handset is about to give up the ghost, finding the money to get a new model may be an unwanted source of stress.
There's a silver lining to all this, though. Prices may be on the rise across the board, but midrange phones have never been more powerful. These days, you can easily find a feature-packed phone for less than $500, with the best devices coming from some pretty familiar names. And you won't have to make too many trade-offs to get a lower-priced midrange model of your own.
Peruse our list of the best cheap phones, and you'll certainly find some devices that sacrifice a lot on the feature front for a lower cost. But at the top of that list, you'll find a trio of phones that are a cut above the rest — so much so, in fact, that we'd even include them among the best phones overall. And not one costs more than $500.
If you're looking to stretch your phone-buying dollar further, these are the models to consider. Here's a closer look at each one, including who the device is perfect, and which one I'd recommend to someone shopping for a sub-$500 phone.
Google Pixel 5a
It's actually hard to recommend the Google Pixel 5a at this point, not because of any noteworthy faults with the phone, but because it's the one most likely to get replaced. In fact, the Pixel 5a successor could be debuting in a matter of weeks, if the Pixel 6a rumors we've heard are to be believed. But more on that phone, at the end of this article.
The Pixel 5a stands out from the other entries below because it's the best camera phone. You won't get a telephoto lens — that's one of the trade-offs you do have to make — but Google does include a main shooter plus an ultrawide angle camera. The true star of the show, though, is Google's computational photography prowess, which enables features like a killer Night mode and the ability to digitally zoom in on your subject without too much in the weigh of noise and fuzziness.
If there's a knock on the Pixel 5a — other than the fact that another Pixel A Series device is in the works — it's that the phone doesn't last very long on a charge. (Unfortunately, that's a trait that a lot of these lower-cost devices share.) It also has the most underpowered processor among this trio of impressive sub-$500 phones, though it will handle most everyday tasks with aplomb.
The phone is available for $449 unlocked, but just in the U.S. and Japan. Google's own Google Fi wireless service is the only phone carrier selling the device.
Why you should get the Pixel 5a: You need a phone right now, and you want the very best cameras at this price range.
Why you should look elsewhere: Better Pixel A phones could be coming soon.
iPhone SE 2022
Expensive devices are considered the cost of doing business with Apple, but the iPhone SE (2022) puts the lie to that hoary assumption. At $429, it's the lowest-cost phone on this list. And for that money, you also get the best performing mobile processor we tested.
Notice we didn't say the "best performing processor in this price range." The iPhone SE (2022) uses the same A15 Bionic chip found in the iPhone 13 lineup, meaning you're getting flagship performance for $270 less than Apple's cheapest iPhone 13 model.
The problem with the iPhone SE is that it's the only significant improvement over the last iPhone SE model (as big an upgrade as the A15 might be). Apple still uses the iPhone 8-influenced design for the SE, which means thick bezels and a lone rear camera. Like Google, Apple excels at computational photography, so the iPhone SE produces some stellar shots. For some reason, though, Apple still won't support a Night mode on this model, and the phone lacks support for Verizon's mmWave-based 5G installations.
Nevertheless, if you want an Apple phone without the inflated price tag, there's only one place to look.
Why you should get the iPhone SE (2022): You like Apple's phones, and you want iPhone 13-level performance without the attendant price.
Why you should look elsewhere: You won't get Verizon's fastest 5G connections, and the lack of Night mode is pretty disappointing.
Samsung Galaxy A53
Samsung's midrange Galaxy A phones have enjoyed better word-of-mouth recently, as Samsung has put more effort into its midrange devices. The Galaxy A53 is the culmination of those efforts.
Samsung equipped this phone with an excellent display capable of a 120Hz refresh rate; both the Pixel 5a and iPhone SE are stuck at 60Hz. This is the only phone among these three to offer expandable storage. And Samsung now promises four years of Android updates, addressing a long-standing complaint about Android phones. That's not Apple levels of support, but it's getting closer.
Even the cameras on the Galaxy A53 can hold their own against the iPhone and Pixel 5a, though Samsung unwisely included a superfluous macro lens. Battery life for the Galaxy A53 approaches the average for smartphones we run through our demanding battery test, which in this category of phones is saying something.
Let the deciding word come down to our recent Samsung Galaxy A53 vs. Google Pixel 5a face-off, in which Samsung's phone just edged ahead of the discount Google device. With both phones priced at $449, it's clear to us that Samsung's offers just a little more value.
Why you should get the Samsung Galaxy A53: It's got a 120Hz display, expandable storage and enough Android software updates to let you hang onto the phone for years.
Why you should look elsewhere: Comparable phones take better photos.
The sub-$500 phone you should get... for now
All things being equal, I'd point anyone looking for the best value phone under $500 to the Samsung Galaxy A53. It's got the best mix of features for the price, and its few flaws — its cameras are just a step or two behind the ones on the other phones, and Apple's iPhone SE really outperforms it — aren't deal killers.
iPhone fans will gravitate to the iPhone SE (2022), as well they should, even if I wish Apple would have added Night mode support to its new budget phone. But if you're an Android fan or platform agnostic, the Galaxy A53 is the best buy under $500 at this time.
"At this time" is a key qualifier, as we may just be weeks away from the Pixel 6a's debut. That phone is rumored to be appearing at Google I/O 2022, which gets underway May 11. And the latest Pixel is rumored to be introducing some interesting improvements. In addition to Google's usual stellar work with cameras, even on its budget phone, the Pixel 6a could be getting the Tensor processor that debuted with the Pixel 6 flagship devices last fall, which will mean a slew of AI-powered features. Google could be taking steps to improve the battery life on its Pixel A Series phones, too.
So if you need a phone under $500 right now, the Galaxy A53 stands tall. But the answer on which phone to get could be very different by mid-May.