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The best old phones to buy: New doesn't always equal best

"Latest and greatest" doesn't always make a device your best buy. Today's phones are capable of lasting a couple of years with little compromise, and Matthew Miller found a few select older models that you should consider.

Could a past flagship be your ideal phone? 

High-end flagship smartphones appear in advertisements and dominate review headlines, but these innovative smartphones are often priced at $1,000 or more. There are more competitively priced options today in the $600 or more range as well, but we also see manufacturers like Samsung, Google, and Apple providing firmware updates for years so older flagships and other past high-end phones are perfectly fine options for many people.

Smartphones today have high-quality components, durable features, high-performing cameras, and the capability to receive software updates for years. That flagship you lusted after a year or two in the past, can be yours now for a more affordable price.

The following are excellent smartphones to consider as you ignore the hype around the shiny new phones available at the beginning of 2022. They are not in any sort of ranked order, but they are all very capable phones that are definitely worth considering.

You can read more phone buying tips and how we make our recommendations here.  

OnePlus 8T

Affordable, colorful, and powerful

OnePlus 8T

In late 2020, OnePlus released a T-series phone and we questioned whether or not there was a place for a T-series given that the two OnePlus phones were already extremely capable. The OnePlus 8T proved to be a solid phone with high-end specifications that is now available for as low as $499.

The phone is available in a lovely Aquamarine Green or Lunar Silver with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. It's powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor with support for super-fast charging with a 65W Warp Charge system. A fluid 120Hz refresh rate is found on the display too. If you are thinking of new mid-level phones in the $500 price range, I highly recommend you consider a flagship of the past in the OnePlus 8T.

Pros:

  • Affordable 
  • Fast charging

Cons:

  • No headphone jack
  • No support for wireless charging

Must read:

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

The last Galaxy Note is still expensive

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

The new Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is probably the best enterprise phone available today and while it is not a Note in name, it has all of the features previously found on a Galaxy Note. If you want to own the last true note, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still worth considering. Samsung doesn't sell it directly any longer, but places like Amazon still offer it.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still a very expensive phone, even 18 months since its release. It has specs that rival the S22 Ultra with full 5G network support, a large AMOLED display with 120Hz adaptive refresh rate, extensive S Pen support, a very capable rear camera setup, and much more. The new S22 Ultra has the latest Qualcomm processor and other software enhancements.

Pros:

  • S Pen capabilities
  • 5G support

Cons:

  • Expensive for an older model 
  • Fairly large 

Must read:

Samsung Galaxy S21 series

Three sizes to meet your needs

Samsung Galaxy S21 series
Image: Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy S21 series was announced in January 2021, with multiple models ranging from a smaller sized one up to one packing Samsung's latest camera technology and support for the S Pen. There is no silo for the S Pen, but if you don't mind carrying around the stylus you can enjoy many of the features found on a Galaxy Ntoe.

The Galaxy S21 is offered in the form of the S21, S21 Plus, and S21 Ultra. There is some difference in the cameras, as well as display and battery size. Samsung still sells the S21 series with prices starting at $799.99 to $1,199.99.

The cool Contour Cut camera array was a nice design element while camera performance, especially telephoto, was stunning. 

Pros:

  • Great camera 
  • Different sizes to choose from 

Cons:

  • No silo for S Pen
  • Ultra is pricey

Must read:

Apple iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max

2020's Pro models are still awesome

Apple iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max
Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Apple's iPhone models are sold on an annual basis, but Apple is the leader in keeping its phones updated for years after launch. While the four iPhone 13 models are compelling, you can save some money and pick up the iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max from 2020 and maintain a high level of productivity.

The 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max differ only in screen size and battery capacity with the Apple A14 Bionic chip and three internal storage options. The latest version of iOS is available on these phones, and the triple rear cameras help you capture amazing still and video content.

The iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max have a high level of water resistance and will last you through a full day. There are also plenty of accessories available at low prices. The 12 Pro and Pro Max are no longer available directly from Apple but can be found from other online retailers. Amazon sells renewed iPhone 12 Pros starting at $849.

Pros:

  • Triple rear cameras are excellent 
  • Supports the latest iOS

Cons:

  • 5G isn't widespread enough to be truly useful

Must read:

Google Pixel 5A with 5G

Google's affordable phone with imaging prowess

Google Pixel 5A with 5G
Image: Google

The Pixel 5A brings nearly the same amazing imaging experience to a phone with a mid-level processor and a reasonable starting price of just $449. Sales are common with the price dropping as low as $399 so keep your eye out for those special offers. While Google continues to tweak the firmware and reliability of the Pixel 6, the Pixel 5A is a rock solid phone with excellent camera performance that rivals Apple and Samsung flagship phones at half the price.

With the Pixel 5A, you get a classic, fast rear fingerprint sensor, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, 12.2-megapixel camera, front 8-megapixel camera, and a capable Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor. It even has an IP67 dust and water-resistant rating so you can use it wherever you travel.

Pros

  • Great camera performance 
  • Inexpensive and sales are common

Cons

  • No 5G mmWave support
  • No wireless charging

Also: Pixel 5A review

Which old phone is right for you?

While all these options are solid, it'll ultimately come down to your personal preference in which phone you choose. If you're an avid Apple user, stick with the iPhone. However, if you're an Android fan, the Samsung models or the Google Pixel 5A are great older phones that still provide a lot of must-have specs.

Be sure to take a look at the specific specs of each phone if you're looking for a better camera, a cheaper price, or more storage.

Phone

Price

Camera

Storage

OnePlus 8T

$499

48MP Quad Camera

256 GB

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

$999

108MP Triple Camera

128 GB (up to 1TB with separate MicroSD card)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Series

$799-$1,199

12MP-108MP

128 GB-512 GB

Apple iPhone 12 Pro/Pro Max

$999/$1,099

12 MP Triple Camera with a wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto, Lidar sensor 

128 GB-512 GB

Google Pixel 5A with 5G

$449

12.2 MP dual-pixel and 16 MP ultra-wide

128 GB

Are there alternative old phones worth considering?

Here are a few other options to look into:

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