We tend to overspend on smartphones, partly because we believe we need one or other special feature, or perhaps because we want a phone that suits one's social status.
However, there are dozens of fantastic cut-price phones on the market that do almost everything a flagship phone can do, but are far kinder to your wallet than those on our listing of best phones.
The budget-priced phones on this list have excelled in one or more areas. The Huawei P40 Lite produced the best photos and the Nokia 5.3 was the most sleek in hand and the most striking in appearance, while the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S was the best package overall.
Best budget phones at a glance
- Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S
- Oppo A72
- Xiaomi Redmi Note 9
- Nokia 5.3
- Samsung A31
- Huawei P Smart 2021
- Huawei P40 Lite
- Oppo A53S
- Tecno Camon 12
- Nokia 2.3
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. The 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, too.
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
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. 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. It's 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 system for subtly 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 its 48MP main shooter. To our eye photos were on par with the very best phones on this list, and possibly better.
Like the Redmi Note 9S at the top of this list in the Note 9 still you're getting excellent build quality and camera performance for an exceptionally low price, but there are two or three differences which knocked it down a peg or two.
It's just a shade thinner and lighter than the Note 9S and it now includes NFC which is crucial if you're big on the tap-to-pay with your phone idea. Otherwise, it sports the same excellent quad camera system both wide angle and macro sensors, unusual at this price point. The processor is the capable, but less prestigious, MediaTek Helio G85, and you go down to 3GB of RAM.
Battery life is still best-in-class, though, and it still adds up to stellar performance for just R4000.
FULL REVIEW: Xiaomi Redmi Note 9
The charm of Nokia phones has always been their rugged reliability, achieved without compromising the overall aesthetics. The Nokia 5.3 epitomises these characteristics. It's a svelte, pocket friendly shape that feels light but resilient. For a phone priced below R5000 you're getting a great suite of features including a proper Snapdragon processor, a large bright screen and a 4000mAh battery that somehow lasts well into a second day. We also like the inclusion of both wide angle and macro lenses, unusual on phones in this price band.
But our favourite feature by far is that unsung hero: the Android One operating system, which trims off all the bloatware that most manufacturers add on top of stock Android, so your phone runs more efficiently and gets updates quicker and more regularly.
FULL REVIEW: Nokia 5.3
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.
FULL REVIEW: Samsung A31
The P SMart has consistently been one of the best sellers in Huawei's phone lineup. Serving as the de facto flagship for its budget range it normally brings together the best of the mature tech on the market, presented at a bargain price.
This year it includes an impressively large 6.67-inch screen, a massive 5000mAh battery and a fingerprint sensor built into the recessed power side button (our preferred arrangement). Its quad camera setup is almost the best on our list, producing superb photos which were pipped only by Huawei's own P40 Lite, also on our list.
Unavoidably, the lack of Google services on Huawei phones, while not an insurmountable problem, knocks this phone down our list, but the fundamentals of this phone are still excellent for the price.
FULL REVIEW: Huawei P Smart 2021
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. Unsurprisingly, 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.
FULL REVIEW: Huawei P40 Lite
The launch of the Oppo A53S in South Africa passed almost unnoticed amid the noise created by the launch of the latest fruit phone, which is a tragedy given how well this budget offering held up in testing.
It is the only budget priced phone we could find with a higher-than-average screen refresh rate of 90Hz: a feature found only on top end phones which makes scrolling buttery smooth. We were also impressed with the power of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 460 processor which, combined with a generous helping of 4GB of RAM, kept things flying while the 5000mAh battery lasted nearly a full two days.
But the big win is in the camera setup with a 13MP main sensor which produced beautifully sharp, colour-balanced photos to challenge those of the best phone cameras on our list.
FULL REVIEW: Oppo A53
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.
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.