5 Trade-Offs of Buying a Budget Smartphone

By Ryan Whitwam

Budget phones have gotten much better in recent years, but they're not good at everything. You can save a few hundred bucks, but at what cost?

If you've been buying smartphones for a while, you probably remember a time when buying a cheap phone was a sure sign you were going to be disappointed. In those early days of Android, anything with a retail price of less than $500 was sure to have underpowered hardware and outdated software. That started to change a few years ago when phones like the Moto G showed us that cheap phones don't have to be terrible experiences.

For many phone buyers, spending $700 on a new phone seems pointless when a $230 phone like the Moto G5 Plus is so good. And it is good, but it's not good at everything. Some features are still lacking on budget phones, and you should know what to expect before jumping in with both feet.

The Camera

A phone like the Galaxy S8 can easily replace a point-and-shoot camera, but a cheap phone has to prioritize other things. Here, we go back to the age-old debate about megapixels. While a budget phone might have the same number of pixels, that's only a small part of what makes a camera good or bad.

Some more important metrics are the aperture, which is below f/2.0 on high-end phones. Budget phones tend to have narrower apertures, which allow in less light. That means poorer exposure in dim settings. The size of pixels on the sensor is also notable. The larger pixels on expensive phones like the GS8 (1.55µm) can take clear photos with less light than a Moto E4 (1.12µm).

Processing technology is where we see the most difference. Two devices can use the exact same image sensor (usually made by Sony) and get very different results. Some phones over-sharpen, some end up with uneven exposure, and others might nail all of it based on the firmware. Technologies like Google's HDR+ are not cheap to create, and licensing someone else's algorithms is expensive, too. For a phone that costs $200, it's not worth the price.

The Display

The display on most budget phones will be a 1080p or 720p LCD, and it might be a reasonably nice LCD. It'll be a far cry from the high-resolution OLED panel used on expensive phones, though. You may be thinking, "Hey, there have been a few cheap phones with AMOLEDs." You're right, but those were blips on the radar that will not repeat in the foreseeable future.

Right now, the supply of OLED displays is constrained. Samsung has been making the overwhelming majority of the world's OLEDs, and it's using a big chunk of that production for the Galaxy S8 and upcoming Note8. Apple is expected to gobble up most of what left as it switches to AMOLED on the next iPhone. In fact, Google invested in LG's fledgling OLED manufacturing operation to ensure it would have panels for the upcoming Pixel 2. All this drives up the costs of what few panels remain.

If you're selling a phone for $200, you can't spend that much on a display and still make money on the phone. So, LCDs it is. This isn't the end of the world, but LCDs tend to have less accurate colors and lower power efficiency. They're also not fast enough for VR.

Gaming performance

A cheap phone will currently ship with a mid-range ARM chip, usually a Snapdragon 600 or 400-series. These chips have four or eight CPU cores, but not the faster custom ones Qualcomm uses in the 800-series chips. Some phones might also come with a MediaTek chip with up to eight cores, but they all suffer from the same problem: weak GPUs.

All these chips are capable of keeping a phone chugging along as you open apps, stream media, and browse the web. A SD625 can even handle frequent multitasking, but gaming performance is not great. The GPUs in budget phones are very easy to bog down with a heavy 3D game. Casual games should run fine, but anything with lots of textures and particles will cause lag.

Gaming benchmark on Snapdragon 425 (left) and 625 (right). A flagship phone would score over 4,000.

If you're the sort who likes to try every new game that comes out, you might want to spend a bit more on a powerful phone. Some games have settings that can make them smoother on cheap phones, but that's fairly rare.

NFC

You would think that adding an NFC antenna would be a simple process, but time and time again we see budget phones shipping without this feature. The first NFC-enabled phones shipped way back in 2010, but it's still not a universal feature. Perhaps it's more about positioning phones to encourage users to buy more expensive models, but the result is the same. You've got to spend at least $400 on a phone to be assured of it having an NFC antenna.

That used to be a nice to have feature, but not something you'd use all that often. Now, NFC can help set up your phone and Android Pay is finally showing up in the real world. Using your phone to pay for things is actually a cool experience, but you can't do it on a lot of budget phones.

Updates

Android updates on non-Google devices aren't great, but they've actually improved considerably in recent years. You might wait a few extra months, but phones from Samsung, LG, and Motorola will get a few major system updates. However, that only goes for the flagship models. Cheap phones are much more likely to be left in the dust.

Currently, every phone requires a unique update build. OEMs will go to the trouble to support an expensive phone because they make more money on them. Less money is made on each unit of a budget phone, thus spending big on updates could mean losing money. So, you get fewer updates and they're usually more delayed.

At most, you can count on one major system update for a budget phone. There might also be a few security patches peppered throughout its lifecycle. The end result is it'll start to feel outdated when it's around a year old. After two years, you're going to be running an ancient security patch that could leave you vulnerable to malware.

There is some hope this will change when Project Treble rolls out in Android O. This is a new modular approach to OTAs that uses a hardware abstraction layer that plugs into the OS framework. The result is faster, easier updates. However, Treble will only be included on devices that ship with Android O or later.

Wrapping up

A cheap phone will probably serve casual users well enough. As long as you pick one that is well-optimized and supported, the experience is good. However, you lose out when it comes to camera and gaming performance. Don't expect a nice OLED display or contactless payments, either. The limited update support is probably the biggest problem with cheap phones.

There are certainly some sacrifices required when you buy a phone for $200 instead of $600. Whether or not they're reasonable trade-offs is up to you.