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Best budget smartphones in South Africa 2021

Best cheap phones
(Image credit: Motorola, Samsung, OnePlus)

Today's affordable phones perform only slightly below the blockbuster phones from a year or two ago, so don't be put off by the 'budget' title. These wallet-friendly handsets have solid build quality, decent specs and performance, above-average cameras and more, all without costing too much.

You won't find phones like the Samsung Note 20 Ultra and the new iPhone 12 on this list. All the phones in our budget line up cost less than R6000, which is our cut off point for a true budget phone. Amazingly, some of our favourite value phones cost much less than R6000. That's because when we review a budget handset, we weight its price more heavily than we do for the best phones overall where price is no object. 

Some brands, like Xiaomi, do especially well in the budget phone market, so expect to see some lesser-known brands like Vivo, Oppo and Tecno on this list regularly. 

To help you work your way around all the budget handsets and phone brands around, we've made this list of the best value phones you can buy.

Best budget phones at a glance

  1. Xiaomi Redmi Note9S
  2. Nokia 4.2
  3. Oppo A72
  4. Nokia 3.2
  5. Nokia 2.3
  6. Samsung A31
  7. Huawei P40 Lite
  8. Huawei P Smart (2019)
  9. Tecno Camon 12

Xiaomi Redmi Note9S

Xiaomi Redmi Note9S (Image credit: Xiaomi)

1. Xiaomi Redmi Note9S

Strong all-rounder with no corners cut

Specifications
Weight: 309g
Dimensions: 165 x 77 x 9mm
OS: Android 9
Screen size: 6.67-inch
Resolution: 2400 x 1080 FHD+
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G 2.3GHz, Adreno 618 GPU
RAM: 4/6GB
Storage: 64/128GB
Battery: 5020mAh
Rear camera: 48MP+5MP+2MP
Front camera: 16MP
Reasons to buy
+Great battery life+Big and vibrant display+CPU and GPU performance
Reasons to avoid
-Somewhat bulky build-Camera bump

The Redmi Note9S is, quite simply, the most phone you can buy below R6000. With specifications that read like a phone costing far more and build quality rivalling the market leaders it tops our list of affordable phones. The properly massive 6.7 inch screen is a delight with rich colours and a decent FHD+ resolution. The processing power, graphics chip and large 50120mAh battery make this a great gaming phone too.

We're a sucker for this arrangement of the recessed power button which doubles as a fingerprint sensor, and the quad camara, although protruding, is positioned so the phone doesn't rock when you're using it on a flat surface. Then main camera uses a simplified version of the pixel-binning tech used by upmarket phones for less grainy low light photos. There's Gorilla Glass 5 covering front and back, and there's a decent silicone cover in the box.

Our favourite budget phone of the year is, unfortunately, also one of the hardest to find. If it's not readily available from your service provider, you can still buy it online in SA. 

FULL REVIEW: Xiaomi Redmi Note9S

Nokia 4.2

Nokia 4.2 (Image credit: Future)

2. Nokia 4.2

The best cheap Nokia phone

Specifications
Weight: 161g
Dimensions: 149 x 71.3 x 8.4mm
OS: Android 9
Screen size: 5.71-inch
Resolution: 720 x 1520
CPU: Snapdragon 439
RAM: 3GB
Storage: 32/64GB
Battery: 3,000mAh
Rear camera: 13MP + 2MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Sharp design+Good-looking UI
Reasons to avoid
-Sluggish performance-Underwhelming display

Nokia is known as a great budget smartphone manufacturer, but not all of its phones actually fall below the R6000 threshold we had for this list. The Nokia 4.2 is one such device, and it'll do you well without costing you much.

Sure, its specs are a little on the low side, but that's to be expected in a phone at this price, and there are very few compromises you might notice.

But at its core, the Nokia 4.2 is a standard and conventional Android phone, and at a glance it's not that different from a mid-range or even high-end device with the same design.

Read our full review: Nokia 4.2

Oppo A72

(Image credit: Oppo)

3. Oppo A72

Solid specs and top rated photos

Specifications
Weight: 214g
Release date: October 2020
Dimensions: 162 x 76 x 9mm
OS: Android 10
Screen size: 6.5-inch
Resolution: 2400 x 1080
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 + Adreno 610
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 128GB
Battery: 5000mAh
Rear camera: 48 + 8 + 2 + 2 MP
Front camera: 16MP
Reasons to buy
+Stylish finishes+Superior photos
Reasons to avoid
-Slightly expensive

This is a strikingly good-looking phone, and its two-tone metallic gradient finish certainly captures more attention than either the Huawei P40 Lite or the Samsung A31, two of its closest technical competitors on this list. But there's plenty of brawn behind the beauty. The A72 has all the hallmarks of solid value phone: a large, bright and sharp screen with FHD+ resolution (2400×1080) and an ample 4GB of RAM to keep things flying. Its all packed into a solid chassis with finishes that feel great in hand. Combined with the 5000mAh battery this makes it a pretty decent gaming phone too.  

We also enjoyed the audio performance. Oppo uses its own subtle system for optimising sound on cabled headphones, but can also play back high resolution music over Bluetooth using the aptX protocol. 

But what really distinguishes the A72 is the excellent camera set that snaps wonderfully balanced, colour-rich photos right out the box. By default it uses pixel binning to achieve excellent shots in both daylight and darkness from it's 48MP main shooter. To our eye photos were on par with the very best phones on this list, and possibly better. 

Nokia 3.2

Nokia 3.2 (Image credit: Future)

4. Nokia 3.2

Another solid workhorse from the comeback king

Specifications
Weight: 181g
Dimensions: 159.44 x 76.24 x 8.60mm
OS: Android 10
Screen size: 6.26-inch
Resolution: 720x1520
CPU: Snapdragon 429
RAM: 3GB
Storage: 16/32GB
Battery: 4,000mAh
Rear camera: 13MP
Front camera: 5MP
Reasons to buy
+Big, decent screen+Big battery
Reasons to avoid
-Slightly fragile build

Nokia continues its comeback with another impressive budget offering. The Nokia 3.2 feels extremely thin and light in hand so much so that we doubted there was enough space for a whopping 4000mAh battery as claimed , but we felt more convinced when the phone ran for nearly two days, even playing some music and social media video clips in between.

Its extraordianary to have a quality 6.2inch screen at this low price and we even foud the single 13MP rear camera to deliver pretty sharp, colour balanced photos in natural light (less so in low light, obviously, even with a flash).

Almost best thing about Nokia phones is the commitment to rapid Android upgrades, and this phone is now running the latest Android 10.

Read our hands-on review: Nokia 3.2

Nokia 2.3

Nokia 2.3 (Image credit: Nokia)

5. Nokia 2.3

Legendary build quality continues

Specifications
Weight: 183g
Dimensions: 158 x 75 x 9 mm
OS: Android 10
Screen size: 6.2-inch
Resolution: 720 x 1520
CPU: Mediatek MT6761
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 32GB
Battery: 4000mAh
Rear camera: 13MP
Front camera: 5MP
Reasons to buy
+Large screen+Tough but stylish design+Android One
Reasons to avoid
-Basic cameras-All plastic body

The 2.3 is a very worthy successor to last year's model, the 2.2, which seriously impressed with its large screen, above average camera and excellent build quality. We're pleased that all the same characteristics are abundantly in evidence on the 2.3. This time the body is finished in elegant metallic emerald green over a tough aluminium chassis. The screen is even bigger than before at 6.2 inches, and glossy and sharp enough to pass for a much more upmarket model. Using the clean Android One OS version means regular, early updates too.  

Samsung A31

Samsung A31 (Image credit: Samsung)

6. Samsung A31

Safe choice for the brand loyalists

Specifications
Weight: 185g
Release date: May 2020
Dimensions: 159 x 73 x 9mm
OS: Android 10
Screen size: 6.4-inch
Resolution: 2400 x 1080
CPU: MediaTek Helios P63 + Mali G62 GPU
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 128GB
Battery: 5000mAh
Rear camera: 48 + 5 + 8 + 5 MP
Front camera: 20MP
Reasons to buy
+Super AMOLED screen+Superior build quality
Reasons to avoid
-Unremarkable

Samsung's single entry on this list the A31 sports a predictable but solid set of mid-range specifications like the MediaTek octa-core P63 processor with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The A31 is a good -rather than a great- phone: you can't point to any flaws in its make-up but it also lacks standout, exciting features that could set it apart from competitors. 

The quad rear cameras do a decent job of snapping photos, and there's nothing wrong with the colour balance and sharpness of the snaps, but it's not the kind of best-in-class performance we think of with Samsung's more upmarket handsets.

But the A31 makes our list for two reasons. First, It's rare to find AMOLED screens on budget phones, and this 6.4-incher at FHD+ (1080 x 2400) is certainly beautiful to look at. It's also far more power efficient than the traditional LCD screens, so you're winning on battery life too. We also liked the polycarbonate body which wears much better than conventional plastic, and the shimmering finish on the A31 gave it some character.  

Huawei P40 Lite

(Image credit: Huawei)

7. Huawei P40 Lite

Well appointed, but not one for newbies

Specifications
Weight: 183g
Dimensions: 159 x 76 x 8mm
OS: Android 10
Screen size: 6.4-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2310
CPU: Kirin 810 + ARM Mail G52 GPU
RAM: 6GB
Storage: 128GB
Battery: 4200mAh
Rear camera: 48MP + 8MP wide + 2MP + 2MP TOF
Front camera: 16MP
Reasons to buy
+Compact and sturdy+Superb cameras
Reasons to avoid
-No Google services -Slightly boring design

As the first Huawei product to launch in South Africa without Google services the P40 Lite had a lot to prove. The biggest challenge is getting up and running without Google's Play store. It's a steep learning curve, make no mistake, from tracking down, installing (and often hacking) the core apps you need to be productive to finding replacements for all the Google services you take for granted (Google Maps, Drive, Gmail and more).

But get through that and you'll find a fantastic performer running lean and clean Android beneath it all. 

It feels wonderfully compact for a 6.4" screen format, with generous horsepower for the price, including a whopping 6GB of RAM and the highly regarded Mali G52 graphics chip.  The recessed power button doubles as a fingerprint scanner, something we think works very well indeed. 

It's got five cameras sensors in all, including four on the back, and we got superb results from all them. Certainly the camera AI easily outclassed all rivals at this price. Unsuprisingly, then, this handset also appears on our top camera phones listing, amongst phones costing more than double the price. A 5G model is now also available making this the most affordable 5G phone in South Africa.

Huawei P Smart (2019)

8. Huawei P Smart (2019)

The best cheap phone you can buy right now

Specifications
Weight: 160g
Dimensions: 155.2 x 73.4 x 8mm
OS: Android 9
Screen size: 6.21-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2340
CPU: Kirin 710
RAM: 3GB
Storage: 32/64GB
Battery: 3,400mAh
Rear camera: 13MP + 2MP
Front camera: 8/16MP
Reasons to buy
+Slick design at great price+Ample storage
Reasons to avoid
-Only one speaker-Camera can overly process

The Huawei P Smart 2019 is the best cheap phone you can buy right now, and has been for some time.

It packs a usable camera, plenty of storage and great battery life as well as a screen and design that punch way above their weight.  

There is very little between the Huawei P Smart and the Honor 10 Lite, and they're practically the same device, but the P Smart tops our list with its slightly sharper design.

Read our full review: Huawei P Smart (2019)

Tecno Camon 12

Tecno Camon 12 (Image credit: TECNO)

9. Tecno Camon 12

Strong start for a newcomer

Specifications
Weight: N/A
Dimensions: 164 x 76 x 8mm
OS: Android 9
Screen size: 6.55-inch
Resolution: 720x1600
CPU: 2 GHz octa-Core
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 64GB
Battery: 4000mAh
Rear camera: 16MP+2MP+5MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Thin and light+Decent screen+Cover in box
Reasons to avoid
-Limited camera AI-Nuisance software-Intrusive add-ons 

While Tecno is a dominant brand in many African markets is it still staking its claim in South Africa. The Camon 12 is a beautiful design: slim yet sturdy and finished in a few striking two-tone colour schemes. The screen as amongst the best we're seen at this budget end of the market, and we liked the triple camera arrangement which exceeded our expectations in default settings straight out of the box. The flash effect on the selfie cam is a nice touch too. This phone could have ranked higher but for all the profoundly annoying software and nuisance OS settings that needed to be exorcised over the first few days of use.