If you’re shopping for a new smartphone, but you’d prefer not to spend big on the very latest releases, then you should consider the bumper crop of affordable flagships from yesteryear. Tech moves fast, so there’s always an argument for buying something new, but many flagship phones from a year or two ago are still great devices that will meet most people’s needs and you can often pick them up heavily discounted.
Here are our picks of a few older flagship phones that are still worth buying in 2020 and why we recommend them. We’ll also take a look at the pros and cons of choosing a new budget phone versus an older flagship.
Older flagships worth buying
Apple iPhone 11 or iPhone XR
If you’re an Apple person and you’re not keen on spending too much, then you should definitely consider an older model iPhone. Apple still sells the iPhone XR and, if your budget will stretch further, the iPhone 11. The main step down from the latest model, the iPhone 12, is the lack of 5G support, although most people probably won’t notice the difference, given that 5G isn’t really widespread at the moment. The iPhone XR also lacks the extra, ultrawide camera of the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12, so anyone wanting versatility from their camera setup may prefer either of those two later phones.
Apple is very good at continuing to update and support older devices; the iOS 14 update made it onto the iPhone 6S and every model thereafter, for example. The oldest iPhone we’d recommend is the iPhone 8, which lacks the edge-to-edge display of the iPhone XR and 11, but still comes with a pretty powerful processor and a decent main camera.
Buy the Apple iPhone 11
Buy the Apple iPhone XR
Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus or S9 and S9 Plus
For fans of Samsung’s Galaxy S range, the gradual refinement means that Samsung’s Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus, and even the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, are still well worth considering. These older flagships still have gorgeous screens, modern curved glass designs, and enough processing power for most people. The S10 is a little faster, offers longer battery life, and also comes with a triple-lens camera setup, while the S9 settles for a single lens (the S9 Plus comes with a dual-lens setup). The S10 also comes with a larger 6.1-inch screen that’s capable of HDR10+, whereas the S9 provides a slightly smaller 5.8-inch screen with HDR10.
Samsung’s software update record isn’t the best. You can expect regular security updates, but it generally takes a few months after a new Android version is released for it to land on top Samsung phones and you’ll likely only get two. The Galaxy S8, for example, won’t be updated to Android 10, which has already been superseded by Android 11. That’s the top reason, but it’s not the only reason we don’t recommend going back as far as the S8 — it’s also starting to look decidedly dated and the processing power and camera are, at best, on a par with midrange phones today.
Buy the Samsung Galaxy S10
Buy the Samsung Galaxy S9
Google Pixel 3 and 3XL
If you want a taste of Android as Google intended, then a Pixel phone is the way to go, but there’s still some mileage in the older Pixel 3 or 3 XL. Compared to the Pixel 4 or 5 you have slightly smaller screens and less processing power, but there isn’t a massive gap. The excellent photography chops that made the Pixel 4 our pick for the best camera phone apply to the Pixel 3 range as well. The streamlined interface and Google’s software know-how also ensure a slick feel to general performance. The Pixel 3 XL does admittedly look a little dated now, what with its ugly forehead notch, but it does boast a very beautiful display.
All of Google’s Pixel phones benefit from timely software updates. The original Pixel is a tougher sell, especially since the midrange Pixel 3a actually packs more processing power. That said, the Pixel 2 is still worth buying if you’re comfortable going even further back in time. It has a faster processor than the 3a, the dedicated Visual Core for image processing, and better water resistance.
Buy the Google Pixel 3
OnePlus 7 and 7T or 6 and 6T
OnePlus has been on something of a roll for several years now, releasing a string of great flagships that provide high-spec performance for a comparatively affordable price. If you’re prepared to look beyond its latest flagships — the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro — you’ll find that the OnePlus 7 and 7T are still very good Androids, as are the OnePlus 6 and 6T. The OnePlus 7T offers great performance, a very versatile camera system, super-fast battery charging, and a wonderfully smooth touchscreen with a 90Hz refresh rate. Even though the OnePlus 6 is now just over two years old, it offers many of the same strengths and benefits, including a large 6.28-inch screen that still impresses today.
OnePlus does a good job of updating the software on its phones. If you can find them, the OnePlus 5T and the OnePlus 5 are still solid smartphones with plenty of processing power, good screens, fast charging, and decent cameras. The designs are a little dated and less distinct than the newer models, but these phones are still worth considering. We wouldn’t go any further back than that, though, because previous models are now beginning to look old.
Buy the OnePlus 7T
Sony Xperia XZ2 or XZ1 Compact
The best small phones nowadays aren’t really all that small. Our favorite pocket-friendly line was Sony’s Compact, which packed the same powerful tech as its flagship model into a smaller form factor, but it looks as though the XZ2 Compact will be the last of its kind. The good news is that it’s still a good phone that offers strong performance, a capable camera, and decent battery life. Though we had some issues with the price and design of the XZ1 Compact when we first reviewed it, the deep discounts available now make it worth looking at for people seeking a smaller smartphone. It’s also worth looking at the Sony Xperia 10, which isn’t quite as compact as either the XZ2 or XZ1 (it offers a 6-inch rather than 5-inch screen), but nonetheless offers many similar features
Sony is usually pretty good at updating software and both the Compacts have Android 9.o Pie and recent security updates. We definitely don’t recommend going back any further than the XZ1 Compact, though, as its predecessor, the X Compact, had a midrange processor, which is outdated now.
Buy the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact
LG G8 ThinQ or G7 ThinQ
Though we were initially disappointed with both the LG G8 ThinQ and the LG G7 ThinQ, their falling prices have made both phones increasingly attractive. The design of either doesn’t really stand out, but both phones provide pretty snappy performance, with big, bright screens, and very satisfying audio quality. They also come with versatile cameras and decent battery life. That said, the G8 ThinQ has a better display, a bigger battery, and a faster processor, but it’s likely to remain a bit more expensive, even if it’s now over a year old. If you can find a good discount, the LG V30 or LG V35 ThinQ are also worth a look.
LG has a mixed record when it comes to software updates, but the G7 ThinQ has received Android 10. Although we liked the trendsetting LG G6 when it first came out, we don’t recommend it anymore because the processor is aging.
Buy the LG G8 ThinQ
Old flagships vs. best budget phones
You might prefer to pick up one of the best cheap phones from today, rather than something that was top of the line a year or more ago. There are pros and cons to this approach, so it depends on what you value most. Let’s dig into the argument a little, but bear in mind that we’re talking generally here, so there will be exceptions to some of what we’re about to say.
If you had to choose between a high-quality model from a previous generation or a current-generation mid-range or basic model, you should probably go with the older device. They tend to have better screens with higher resolutions; they often have better camera suites; they may have features like water resistance and wireless charging which are still rare in cheaper phones. The regularity and speed of software updates depend on the manufacturer, but most manufacturers are much better at updating their flagship range, even older flagships than they are at updating midrange or budget phones. Having said that, Nokia is a great example of a budget phone maker that updates swiftly.
The top-tier models used to be the only devices with excellent designs, but these days you’ll find that manufacturers have become market savvy, modeling cheaper devices after a popular and efficient design from a flagship phone. Even a budget phone like the Moto G8 has a curved glass body and a punch-hole selfie camera, which makes it look more modern than many flagships from a couple of years ago. The midrange processors you’ll find in the latest variety of budget phones are fairly decent, but flagships come with flagship processors, so it takes a while for them to hit parity. Most likely any flagship from the last two years will outperform a midrange or budget device in today’s market, but there’s a line there. Right now we’d draw it under the Snapdragon 845, which slightly outperforms something like today’s midrange 765, whereas the 765 will beat the previous top chip, the Snapdragon 820.
A big plus to current cheaper phone models is that their batteries tend to last longer. This is partly because of greater capacity and partly because of greater efficiency. You’ll get more improved customer support, in theory at least, with newer phones. Since storage and RAM have trended upwards drastically, recent midrange and even budget phones will likely have more storage and RAM than older flagships.
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