Comparing the 6 best phones you can buy for less than US$300
As smartphones get smarter, they inevitably get more expensive, and last year we saw the iPhone X whiz past the US$1,000 mark. But you don't need to crack open the piggy bank to buy a supercomputer just to make calls and send texts – there's a whole range of phones that trim away some of the fat to bring the price down. New Atlas compares the specs and features of some of the best phones you can buy for under $300 – the iPhone SE, LG K30, Huawei Mate SE, Nokia 6.1, ZenFone 5Q (or 5 Lite), and the Moto G6.
The iPhone SE is the baby of the budget bunch, coming in 25 mm shorter and 20 mm thinner than the other five phones. That said, it's just as thick as some, giving it quite a chunky feel. Asus' ZenFone 5Q is the biggest, at 160 mm tall, while the LG K30 and Nokia 6.1 are tied for thickest.
Most of the phones hover around the 165 g mark, with Nokia's device topping out at 172 g. The iPhone SE, on the other hand, is far lighter, at just 113 g. If you're having trouble picturing those figures, remember that a US nickel coin weighs 5 g, so the difference there amounts to lugging around an extra pocketful of loose change.
Among the standard blacks, blues, grays and golds are little splashes of color. The ZenFone has a striking red model, while Apple and Motorola have metallic pinks that they call Rose Gold and Blush respectively.
The iPhone SE, LG K30, Huawei Mate SE and Nokia 6.1 all have metal backs. The ZenFone 5Q and Moto G6 have glass front and back, ringed in aluminum.
None of these phones have any official IP ratings for water resistance, so you better double-check your pockets before jumping in the pool. Motorola says the Moto G6 has "a water-repellent coating [that] helps protect the phone, inside and out," but also warns that this just lets it shrug off the odd raindrop – submerging the phone is a quick way to drown it.
Most of these budget phones have screens that hover around the 5.5-in mark – except the diminutive iPhone SE, with a 4-in display. At the other end of the scale, the ZenFone 5Q measures up at 6 in.
Overall, the smartphone industry has decided that bezels aren't cool anymore, and are competing to cram as much screen space onto the front of their devices as possible. With high-end phones boasting screen-to-body ratios of upwards of 80 percent, anything too far below that starts to look outdated – we're looking at you, iPhone SE.
Still, it's more of a cosmetic difference than anything else, so if that doesn't bother you there's plenty more to love here. Even so, most of these budget phones do a decent job of squeezing the screen all the way to the sides, with bigger bars remaining above and below.
The LG K30 has a 720p HD display, while the Nokia 6.1 has a 1080p Full HD resolution. The Mate SE, ZenFone 5Q and Moto G6 all push it further towards 2K, while Apple marches to the beat of its own drum with an unusual 1136 x 640 resolution.
All six phones listed here use In-Plane Switching Liquid Crystal Displays (IPS LCD). This tech allows for images to appear sharper and clearer than they might on an OLED screen, while also representing colors more naturally. On the downside though, the backlight can wash out blacks and reduce contrast.
Fingerprint scanners are the baseline unlock method across the board here, but it tends to move around based on the phone. On the LG K30, Nokia 6.1, and ZenFone 5Q that sensor is on the back. The other three phones have the sensor on the front. On the iPhone SE it's built into the Home button, on the Huawei Mate SE it's built into the lower part of the screen and on the Moto G6 it sits just below the display.
The ZenFone and Moto G6 can also be unlocked using facial recognition.
The iPhone SE uses Apple's proprietary A9 chipset. The Huawei's Chinese heritage means it uses a Kirin processor, while all the others are running various versions of Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors. Unless you're really into performance benchmarks and figures, they all do basically the same job.
All six phones run the gamut from 2 GB to 4 GB of RAM, which is plenty to keep them all chugging along without too much slowdown.
Built-in storage is usually the main point of difference between varying price points of the same model, so if you're not filling the phone with too many apps and videos, opting for the lower end of the scale here is an easy way to cut the price tag. Besides, in most cases you can always expand later with a microSD card.
Five of the six phones here offer the option to slide in a microSD card and expand your storage space by, in some cases, up to a whopping 2 TB. Apple's walled garden, however, doesn't offer that luxury, so make sure you're happy with your built-in capacity before putting your money down.
The Android phones all have battery capacities of around 3,000 to 3,300 mAh, which is more than enough for a full day's use usually. While the iPhone's figure sounds alarmingly small, it's worth keeping in mind that Apple's tight control over its operating system means its devices are well-oiled machines, still capable of a full day's charge on less.
The industry's widespread massacre of the headphone jack has yet to reach the budget phone market, so all six of these devices still have the traditional 3.5 mm port. For charging, the Android devices use a mix of microUSB and USB-Type C, while the iPhone uses Apple's proprietary Lightning port.
This staple feature is available on most of the phones, with the exception of the iPhone SE and ZenFone 5Q.
Wireless charging is a luxury that none of these six phones can afford. But in our opinion, the technology isn't yet convenient enough to make it a necessary feature, so it won't be missed.
Five to eight megapixels is about standard for a front-facing camera nowadays, even on a high-end device. But there are two notable exceptions here: the iPhone SE has a grainy 1.2 MP, while the ZenFone 5Q packs 20 MP, which is crazy for a selfie cam – and then it backs that up with a secondary wide-angle lens too.
The main camera playing field is a little more level, with a range of 12 to 16 MP. The Huawei Mate, ZenFone and Moto G6 all have dual lenses, allowing them to achieve some background-blurring and wide-angle effects.
The F-numbers refer to the aperture of the lens, where the lower the number, the more light it lets in. That can lead to better low-light images, and help make the subject "pop out" from its surroundings better.
High-Dynamic Range (HDR) is a common photographic feature to these phones, allowing users to snap photos with better contrast between light and dark. The iPhone SE and ZenFone 5Q can both shoot video with 4K resolution, while the iPhone and the Moto G6 can manage slow motion. The ZenFone's second lens lets it capture 120° wide-angle shots. The Moto G6 can perform timelapses, and thanks to some Google smarts on the software side of things, it can recognize landmarks and objects in images.
The iPhone SE is running iOS 11, the latest version of Apple's operating system. The other five phones are all running Android, with some including the latest version, Oreo 8.1, out of the box, and others requiring an update to get there.
Apple's ever-present Siri is there to lend a hand for iPhone SE users. Google has lent its own Assistant to the Moto G6.
The iPhone SE is the only phone on this list to offer any sort of tap-and-go payment system.
Although it's the "baby" of the group size-wise, the iPhone SE is getting a bit long in the tooth, originally launching more than two years ago. The others are far more fresh-faced, releasing in the last few months or, in the case of ZenFone, next month.
Starting price (US$)
As is the point of this comparison, all of these phones can be snapped up for under $300. The ZenFone 5Q only just makes it under the mark, but considering its relatively high-end features it's worth the asking price. The LG K30, on the other hand, is a bargain at $179.
Note however that these are the starting prices: Choosing higher built-in storage options could raise the price tag.