Summer reissue: When the iPhone owns less than half the market, what are the best Android alternatives at every budget?
First published June 23, 2020.
Getting a new phone can be one of life’s little pleasures. Many of us hang onto our handsets for two years or more, so when that magic upgrade day finally rolls around, no one should be begrudged the enjoyment of a little retail therapy.
If you want an iPhone there’s only three choices: iPhone SE, iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro. iPhones have 41% market share at the time of writing, but that means 59% of the smartphones in Kiwi pockets are Android – phones that run Google’s Android operating system.
What are your options?
There are fewer Android manufacturers selling in New Zealand than other countries. Europe is the best region for Android diversity, while India, China and the US have their fair share of choices. Over here, you’re looking at Samsung, Huawei and Oppo with a bit of Nokia thrown in occasionally.
Samsung is so ubiquitous with Android that some people think it’s the only Android brand. This is wrong, but the Korean giant sells phones in almost every country at every price point. It’s known for good-looking hardware and bright, attractive software.
Chinese company Oppo is a slow-burn success in the West. Its latest phones have brought it right up to speed, besting Samsung in some cases for sheer design and specs at lower or similar prices.
You may well have had a trusty Nokia back in the day, but now the brand name is licensed by another Finnish company called HMD. HMD manufactures the phones and puts the Nokia name on them, but the quality is still there and if you want a simple Android phone, they are a solid choice.
What about Huawei?
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend Huawei phones released since May 2019 due to the ongoing trade ban the company has in the US. It means Huawei’s latest phones can’t run Google services, which means no Gmail, no Google Maps and no Play Store for your favourite apps. That’s the reason this list is full of Samsung and Oppo phones, the best alternatives now that President Trump has sadly stunted Huawei’s momentum.
Things to consider
According to research firm IDC in early 2019, New Zealanders were spending more on smartphones as time went on. Spending on low-end phones declined 19% from 2018, but that was pre-Covid. Now, you might be looking to spend a little less if the phone in your pocket is giving up the ghost.
The most important thing to consider is what you can realistically afford. Your head might want the $2,000 phone on the golden plinth in the shop but if your heart knows the $700 option hiding below it will do everything you need, then it’s probably going to pay off (literally) if you go for the latter.
In New Zealand, it’s common for Android phones to be sold locked to one of the big networks, even if you’re buying the phone outright from a retailer or the manufacturer. Double check that you’re buying a completely unlocked phone or one locked to the network you want to use.
If you are buying on contract, consider if you can afford a 24- rather than 36-month contract so you’re locked in for two years of payments instead of three. Contracts with a phone are pricey in New Zealand for not much mobile data, so if you can afford to buy a phone outright, you might be able to afford a better monthly data plan.
Here are my picks of the best Android phones for three budgets: low-end (up to $300), mid-tier ($300-$800) and high-end ($800+).
The low-end (up to $300)
There is nothing wrong with spending under $400 on a smartphone. When you consider the apps and services that the Google Play Store provides, you can do everything on a $100 phone that you can do on a $1,000 phone. That said, a $100 phone will be incredibly frustrating to use with a grainy screen and very slow performance.
Nokia 1.3 ($169)
The cheapest Android phone I recommend is the Nokia 1.3. Thankfully, it does a good job with the build quality and software even at this price, and generally all cheap Nokia smartphones are fine for light use.
The Nokia 1.3 is the phone to get if you want to spend as little as possible and only really want to use calls, texts, Facebook, maps and email. Anything else and the little guy will struggle. The camera is really only there for appearances, but it has a 5.7-inch screen, a headphone jack and a version of Android that will be updated to the next version – not something every Android phone gets.
Samsung Galaxy A10 ($219)
The Galaxy A10 aims to bring the allure of Samsung’s expensive S20 phones into a sub-$300 phone. It looks a lot like the Nokia 1.3 with a teardrop shaped notch in the display for the front facing camera and a plastic build.
Like the Nokia there’s no fingerprint sensor but the camera offers a quick way to unlock the phone with your face. It has a large 6.2-inch screen and a decent size battery but don’t expect to be playing Fortnite on it, as performance is weak. Then again, you get Samsung’s latest Android 10 software and a screen big enough to watch a few Netflix episodes on comfortably.
If you prefer, the Nokia 4.2 will also do you well at around $300.
The mid-tier ($300-$800)
For this price you’ll get a phone you won’t want to throw against a wall if you try and use anything more than maps and email. You’ll get better cameras and displays, too.
Oppo A72 ($499)
Oppo is doing a great job of stepping up at a time where Huawei’s new phones can’t run Google services. Oppo’s software has got so much better recently, making its phones a pleasure to use. The A72 is no different, and exemplary of great value for money in the Android world.
There’s a striking purple version with a sharp HD display, decent four camera array on the back that can shoot 4K video, dual stereo speakers and a huge battery that might last lighter users two days without charging.
Samsung Galaxy A51 ($699)
This phone was the best-selling Android phone in the world for the first half of 2019, and with good reason. It has a lovely bright, sharp screen, very fast charging, four rear cameras and a futuristic design.
It suffers a little in performance, but the software is excellent and it’s one of the easiest phones to get hold of in the country – often at a heavy discount if you shop around.
The most likely price bracket where you’ll want to buy into a contract instead of buying outright, but these are the best spec Android phones you can get right now in New Zealand. The newest will include 5G compatibility.
Oppo Find X2 Pro ($1,899)
The best premium Android phone you can buy at the moment is the 5G-ready Oppo Find X2 Pro. It’s the first time that I’ve preferred an Oppo device to the Samsung equivalent.
It’s got a 120Hz display that makes everything look smoother, amazing cameras that rival a DSLR in some situations, solid battery life, huge 512GB storage, a pin-sharp screen and performance that makes it a top phone for gaming. Oppo’s Android software has also had a makeover so it’s much nicer to use now.
For the price you might expect wireless charging but instead Oppo bundles a charger than can charge the phone from dead to full in around half an hour. I prefer that convenience, but you might not.
If you want Oppo quality for less, the excellent Reno 10x Zoom is now around $1,000.
Samsung Galaxy S20 range (from $1,499)
The Galaxy S20 is the safest bet in premium Android. You get excellent everything – cameras, 120Hz smooth screen, waterproofing, speakers, performance and design. In New Zealand, the $1,499 regular S20 is 4G-only, so if you want 5G you’ll have to get the $1,899 S20 Plus, which has a bigger screen and battery (5G phones still work with 4G SIM cards, by the way).
2019’s Galaxy S10 phones are still a good choice too if you can find them cheaper and don’t mind not having 5G. They have headphone jacks, where the S20 phones do not.
I think the $2,199 Galaxy S20 Ultra is overkill with a too-big design and only 128GB storage. Its 100x zoom camera, which makes the unit bulky, isn’t good enough to warrant the expense either.
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