Our editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, ZDNet may earn a commission.

5G almost cheap: The best affordable 5G phone in 2021

All the action in 5G smartphones is in the mid-priced market as Google, Motorola, OnePlus, Samsung, and LG all battle for a spot in your pocket. Here's a look at your options.

The 5G battle between mid-range devices priced $400 to $700 is heating up as a rocky economy means less love for premium smartphones and more 5G value plays. 

Special Feature

Special Report: 5G: What it means for edge computing (free PDF)

This ebook, based on the latest ZDNet / TechRepublic special feature, helps business leaders understand how cloud providers, telecoms, and carriers will make 5G part of their edge-computing plans.

Read More

The launch of the OnePlus 9 starting at $729 follows a Samsung's A-series unveiling in global markets that will likely challenge its premium Galaxy lineup. Google's primary argument for the Pixel franchise is that you can get pure Android, regular updates, and a strong 5G device for not a lot of money. 

You can see where the market is headed, but it's soon going to be a buyer's market for relatively inexpensive 5G devices. The budget considerations behind these mid-range 5G devices is compelling: You can buy a new smartphone annually if you choose and spend money elsewhere.

Also: What is 5G? Everything you need to know about the new wireless revolution  

According to IDC, the price brand between $400 and $600 is the sweet spot in the smartphone market. IDC projected that global smartphone value is expected to fall to $422.4 billion, down 7.9% from a year ago. Tech buyers aren't going for premium devices and even Apple entered the mid-range segment with the iPhone SE.

Here's a look at your options:

OnePlus 9

Compelling camera, good value

oneplus-9-5.jpg

The just-launched OnePlus 9 starts at $729 and therefore makes the cut for the 5G value category. ZDNet's Matthew Miller is giving the device high marks with few tradeoffs relative to the OnePlus 9 Pro

Overall, the trend among smartphone makers is to bring premium features to lower price points. The big question is what happens to the premium market and whether those devices will need to fold or truly deliver bleeding edge features to justify the price. 

$680 at Best Buy

Apple iPhone 12 mini

Apple: It's the 'smallest and lightest 5G phone in the world'

2020-10-13-at-2-30-13-pm.jpg

Apple's iPhone 12 mini has a 5.4-inch screen, which is a step up from the 4.7-inch screen on the iPhone SE. The big takeaway is that the Apple iPhone 12 mini is a $699 5G smartphone that is able to sneak into your budget. The iPhone 12 mini could be disruptive even though it was just the opening act for its larger siblings

$729 at Amazon $729 at Apple $700 at Best Buy

Google Pixel 4A 5G

Stock Android and the latest and greatest updates

pixel-4a-5g.png

Google Pixel 4A 5G. Starting at $499, the Pixel 4A 5G enters the budget device fray with a few unique advantages such as stock Android and the latest and greatest updates. The Pixel 4 launch is already raising questions of why Google is going for the premium category

The catch here is that Google can be flighty about its devices. It wasn't that long ago that the Pixel 4 came and went out with a thud. Nevertheless, Google is packing some key features into the Pixel 4A 5G.

Motorola One 5G Ace

Good value for the money, plus a 6.7-inch display

motorola-one-5g-ace.png
(Image: Motorola)

Motorola One 5G Ace builds on the Motorola One 5G with a price tag under $400. Motorola, owned by Lenovo, has a full range of value devices, but this mid-range smartphone is compelling.

Simply put, it's a good value for the money and the 6.7-inch display feels good in one hand. The camera system--four cameras on the back and two for selfies in the front--is solid in my tests. There are some areas where Motorola cut corners with a plastic backing, but overall the device feels flagship enough at a good price. 

One key item here is that the Motorola One 5G has 6GB of memory with 128GB of storage with microSD card support. Typically, budget phones scrimp on storage and memory. The microSD card support in Motorola One 5G Ace allows you to bulk up a bit if necessary.

Motorola's approach to Android rhymes with Google's stock version of the operating system.  A 48MP camera and a solid display round out the Motorola One 5G Ace perks. The Motorola One 5G Ace takes over the the Motorola One 5G in this ranking.

$329 at Best Buy

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Pushing the upper range in terms of pricing

2020-09-30-at-1-38-26-pm.jpg

Samsung's S20 Fan Edition seemed odd at first, given that the company has an ample premium lineup with the Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

However, the Galaxy S20 FE includes most of the features that attract buyers to Samsung: Strong camera, microSD card support, and good display technology.

At $699, the Galaxy S20 FE is pushing the upper range of the middle-of-the-pack pricing band, but Samsung has a habit of offering discounts. Galaxy S20 FE has a more powerful processor with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 and 6GB of RAM relative to rivals in that $400 to $700 price range.

$600 at Amazon $700 at Best Buy $748 at Walmart

OnePlus Nord N10 5G

Solid choice if looking for a sub-$300 5G phone

2021-01-06-at-11-08-29-am.jpg

The OnePlus Nord 10 5G recently launched through T-Mobile in the US and costs $200 less than the mid-range Google Pixel 4A 5G. It features a large 6.49-inch 90Hz display, Warp Charge 30T, a quad-camera system, 6GB RAM, 128GB internal storage, a microSD card slot, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and more.

It's made of plastic materials, and the cameras won't challenge high-end flagship phones, but as ZDNet's Matt Miller noted, the back Midnight Ice blue color is lovely, and you can certainly capture decent photos with this $300 5G device. It'd make a great first phone and is solid for someone looking for a sub-$300 5G handset.

T-Mobile is the only wireless provider in the US where you can pick up the OnePlus Nord N10 5G. New and existing T-Mobile customers can snag the device for free when they add a line. Plus, it's available for prepaid customers. Check out our review of the Nord N10 5G for a closer look at what the phone can do.

$299 at OnePlus T-Mobile

OnePlus 8

Packs a wallop and may see further discounts

2020-09-30-at-1-39-45-pm.jpg

Like the Samsung S20 FE, the OnePlus 8 packs a wallop with features at $699. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 is also the processor platform. Although the OnePlus 8 launched earlier in 2020, it is still a compelling value and may see further discounts in the future.

In Europe, OnePlus Nord is the budget play and comes in around $500.

$400 at Amazon

LG Velvet

Dual-screen productivity device

2020-09-30-at-1-38-14-pm.jpg

LG flies under the radar in the 5G smartphone landscape, but it's coming in with a device that has a stylus and 5G for $600. LG Velvet also has a dual screen. 

Matthew Miller noted:

When I first heard about the LG Velvet, I was expecting a device full of compromises and a launch unworthy of LG. I'm pleased to report that the LG Velvet is an excellent 5G smartphone and a great value at $600.

The cameras performed very well; the battery took me through more than a full day... Business customers looking for a productivity device will love the capability of the LG Velvet with the Dual Screen cover.

ZDNet's Cho Mu-Hyun also gave the LG Velvet high marks for the money.

$363 at Walmart

Google Pixel 5

Just a little more than the Pixel 4a 5G

pixel-5-just-black.jpg

In an interesting twist, Google priced the Pixel 5 at $699, the upper range of the mid-tier price band.

The Pixel 5 shares the same camera setup as Pixel 4a 5G as well as memory and storage specs. The big difference is Pixel 5 has fast wireless charging and battery share as well as Corning Gorilla Glass 6 cover glass compared to the soft touch Polycarbonate unibody on the Pixel 4a 5G.

In addition, Pixel 5 has water resistance and 8GB of memory relative to the 6GB on Pixel 4a 5G.

Are those differences between Pixel 5G and Pixel 4a 5G worth $200? Probably not, but the big takeaway is Google sees its smartphone future in the middle of the 5G market.

$700 at Best Buy