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Hello, I’ve been using ExpressVPN now for a couple of years and was hoping for some advice. I am budget-conscious and need a new cell phone. I don’t want to spend more than US$400. Could you give me a Top 5 list in your opinion?
I need a minimum of 128GB storage and snappy performance. Also, the fingerprint reader has to work well. I use this for work and will be taking pictures daily to send to clients. I know that’s not a lot of dough to work with, but I think I can get something good without having to break the bank just to get a name brand with all the bells and whistles.
I don’t mind having a lesser-known brand if it has good customer feedback and some updates. I have had plenty of Samsungs, and they get wet or break just as easily as the next, I’m sure! I use Android but am not opposed to iPhone. There are so many reviews out there it is hard to sift through. Thanks for your help!
Submitted by: Joelle Kaut (via blog comments)
Phones these days can cost more than a computer—but there are budget buys for decent quality. And phone technology has reached a point where year-on-year improvements are minimal, so you can get away with buying an older model that does just about the same things as a new one.
To help you on your quest, Tech Friend asked ExpressVPN employees for their recommendations. Here’s what they said.
(Note: We’ve listed prices that are found on widely accessible sites such as Amazon. ExpressVPN is not affiliated with any of these brands—we just like sharing all things tech!)
Google Pixel 6a
Recommended by: Greg, Content Strategist
Price: 349 USD
When it comes to Android phones, I think there are none better than Pixel phones. The Pixel A-series is a great way to get the Pixel experience at a more affordable price. You do lose some nice-to-haves like wireless charging and a high refresh screen on the 6a, but if you can live without those features, it is worth considering.
Pixel phones are known for their incredible photos, thanks to Google’s computational photography smarts. You can get a good shot even under less-than-ideal circumstances, making it especially handy when you’re dealing with kids or pets. The front camera isn’t the clearest, though. I notice it can get grainy on video calls. There are also loads of Google AI-based features exclusive to Pixel, like Call Screening, which automatically screens your calls for spam.
All my apps run smoothly, though processor-intensive apps can get the phone toasty. The fingerprint scanner is fast enough, even when I’m rushing to make payments with GPay. Which brings us to one particular downside: you’re forced to use Google services on the phone. For example, Google Photos is your only gallery, which might be an issue if you’re trying to have less Google in your life.
Security updates come every month, and being a Pixel, it is first in line to get new OS updates. Best of all, Google sends “Feature Drop” updates that add new features to the phone. That said, the phone is starting to get old (we’re now on the Pixel 8 generation!), but Google has promised OS updates until 2025 and security updates until 2027, so it still has some longevity built in.
- Access to Google’s AI smarts for cheap
- Cameras output flagship-grade photos
- Clean, unintrusive software
- New features added via regular “Feature Drop” updates
- Excellent update support, with security updates until 2027
- Google doesn’t have the best reputation for data privacy
- Some comparable phones have extras like wireless charging
OnePlus Nord CE3 Lite 5G
Recommended by: Carlos, Platform Engineer
Price: 274 USD
I recommend OnePlus and its various flavors. For the lower price point, Nord CE3 is a lite version that has a lot to offer. What’s good about it is it has almost the same strengths as the higher-end OnePlus models, with a good battery and great photo-taking abilities.
For the system in OnePlus phones, they use their OxygenOS 13 version of Android, which is an almost “vanilla” Android, meaning it does not have a lot of bloatware. Most phones come with a lot of software that cannot be removed, which I’ve never liked, but OnePlus doesn’t have much on it.
It sports a very cool minimalist design. The only downside of the lite models is the processor is not as powerful as the ones in their pricier models like OnePlus 11.
- Great battery life, with fast charging
- Takes great photos
- Uses OxygenOS 13, which has very little bloatware
- Stands out with a minimalist design in a fun color
- The processor isn’t as powerful as high-end models
Samsung Galaxy A54
Recommended by: Marcus, Video Lead
Price: 399 USD
Samsung phones are reliable, built well, and have strong software update support. Samsung’s warranty support is pretty good, too. Being one of the largest brands in the world, it won’t be hard to find a warranty center to get your phone fixed if there’s a need. Chances are, a Samsung phone will last longer than other budget phones in the market.
The A-series Samsung phones are a great way to get many of Samsung’s features at a lower price. Useful features include pro-camera modes and Edge panels—a shortcut feature you can pull up from any screen. You also get native Samsung apps, such as an internet browser and gallery, that allow you to be less reliant on Google. On the flip side, it does mean your phone comes with extra bloatware, as these apps are duplicates of existing Google ones.
Additionally, you get some nice extras like a high-refresh-rate screen, fast charging, and flagship-grade water and dust protection. The phone also comes with Samsung Knox built-in, which is Samsung’s proprietary security framework.
- Excellent battery life
- Has a microSD card slot to expand your storage
- Fast and reliable fingerprint sensor
- Great update support, with security updates until 2028
- It’s powerful enough but less powerful than similarly priced phones
- Samsung’s One UI is somewhat bloated
Recommended by: Tim, Content Strategist
Price: 400 USD
In a sea of glass slabs, why not opt for a phone that not only punches above its weight but also has a cool party trick—a color-changing back. Yep, the Vivo V27 has a backplate that changes colors when exposed to bright light. It’s not a feature that impacts how you use your phone, but it’s certainly cool.
The phone isn’t all show and no substance either. You get quite a lot for 400 USD: a powerful, efficient processor, an excellent camera system, a large, high-refresh-rate screen, and impressive battery longevity. That should make the V27 perfect for your use as a work phone. Its front camera is surprisingly good, too, so you’ll show up nicely for Zoom calls on the go.
One downside, though, is that the phone doesn’t have ingress protection, which is worth noting if you’re concerned about dust and water. Also, Vivo is a Chinese phone brand, which can give some people pause due to privacy and security concerns.
- Class-leading battery longevity (it never seems to die)
- Flagship-grade features like ultra-fast charging
- Top-notch screen with high refresh rate and HDR10+
- Excellent camera output from front and back cameras
- Eye-catching color-changing back
- No ingress protection
- Consistent update support, but Vivo isn’t the most committed to long-term updates
- Heavily skinned version of Android might not be everyone’s cup of tea
- Inevitable questions surrounding security due to being a Chinese brand
Xiaomi Redmi Note series
Recommended by: Wynona, Growth Marketing Manager
Price: from 175 USD
I wouldn’t consider myself a techy person. As long as my phone serves its basic functions, that’s good enough. I’ve never found it to be laggy or slow in any way, and the fingerprint scanner is superb. The camera is decent. I’m not much of a photographer, but it gets the job done.
Of course, the questionable aspect is the fact that it’s a Chinese-brand phone, which could bring up concerns about quality and security. In my use, I’ve found it to be durable and lasting. Obviously, it doesn’t feel as well made as an iPhone, but considering how much cheaper the phone is, I have no complaints. Updates are fairly regular, and I haven’t come across anything to make me believe my privacy is compromised. I do supplement the phone’s security with ExpressVPN and a mobile antivirus, though.
One thing to note, some Xiaomi apps have ads in them. They’re not super intrusive, but some people might consider this a deal-breaker. I guess you do end up paying in other ways for a cheaper phone. Again, at this price point, I still think it’s a deal.
- Among the cheapest phones you can buy from a name brand
- Fast fingerprint sensor
- Decent 100MP camera
- Ads peppered throughout the phone in Xiaomi apps
- Xiaomi’s long-term software update record is spotty
- Not all Redmi Note phones have ingress protection
- Inevitable questions surrounding security due to being a Chinese brand
Bonus: Shop second-hand
An often overlooked option is shopping for used phones. Make sure to buy from trusted sources, though; check that the phone’s completely wiped, and inspect it carefully to ensure it’s defect-free. Some companies, like Apple and Samsung, sell refurbished phones where they check, clean, and fix older phones and resell them for a lower price. If you’re looking for a flagship phone, this could be an avenue worth checking out.
Got a cheap phone you love? Let us know in the comments!
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