Home Tech, Science, Ideas, Future The Best Cheap Phones for (Almost) Every Budget

The Best Cheap Phones for (Almost) Every Budget

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You might know TCL for its affordable TVs, but now it’s selling affordable phones. Don’t worry, it’s not its first rodeo—the company has made phones under brands it owns or used to own like Alcatel, Palm, and BlackBerry. But the TCL 10 Pro and 10L are the first phones sold in the US under its own name, and they’re a very promising start.

The 10 Pro has excellent performance with the Snapdragon 675 chip inside, and its 6.5-inch OLED screen is sharp and bright, even in broad daylight. The 4,500 mAh battery keeps it running for a full day, and the four-camera system does well in a variety of lighting conditions, though it’s still not as good as the Pixel 3A. It feels more premium because it’s a glass sandwich, but that also makes it fragile.

The plastic-backed 10L is more durable and has similarly good performance, even if it uses the slower Snapdragon 665 processor—for $200 less. Its battery can go past a full day, and while it can take some nice photos during daylight hours, the lack of a night mode on this model means your low-light shots are going to look quite poor. Its screen is also a little too dim to see in the sunny outdoors.

TCL’s biggest drawback is that, like Motorola, it’s only promising one Android version update for these phones for now. That’s disappointing, and doesn’t bode well for the longevity of these phones.

Works on all three major US carriers

TCL 10 Pro costs $450 at Amazon and Best Buy

TCL 10L costs $250 at Amazon and Best Buy


Should You Buy Now?

Yes. Now is as good a time as any to snag a new phone. For the rest of 2020, we’re only expecting a few more affordable phones, like the Pixel 4A 5G and the Nokia 8.3 (and perhaps something else from Motorola). Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until 2021 for new budget smartphones. You have a lot of good options out there right now, and we’re also testing a few other devices, like the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G ($600) and the Nokia 5.3 ($200).

Check Network Compatibility

If you buy an unlocked phone on this list and try to take it to one of your wireless carrier’s retail stores, they may tell you it isn’t compatible with the network. It likely is. Just use a paper clip or SIM ejection tool to pop the SIM card out of your current phone, then slide that SIM into your new phone. If it doesn’t work at first, reboot the phone or wait a couple of hours.

If you need a new SIM, try ordering one online from your carrier, or try to get them to give you a SIM when you activate a line in the store (if you’re starting coverage). Tell them you have a phone. Many times, reps will want to sell you a phone; that’s one potential reason they might hassle you into buying a different device in the store.

Having said that, please make sure whatever phone you buy will work on your wireless network. Listings on retailers like Amazon should state clearly which networks it will be compatible with. Also, make sure the listing says that the phone is being sold “unlocked.”

Warning for Verizon users: There’s a higher chance an unlocked phone will not work on your network. Make sure it is labeled to work on Verizon, or that it says the phone is CDMA-capable. If something strange is going on like you get no texts, you may also need to contact customer service and tell them to enable CDMA-Less roaming. AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers, which is the standard for most of the world; most unlocked phones are compatible with them.