Entry-level phones used to be drab plastic affairs with limited features and barely usable cameras.
All of that has changed in recent years. Budget phones today offer much of the same experience as flagship devices, including bezel-less designs and multiple cameras. But which phone gives the most bang for buck?
ASUS ZENFONE MAX PRO M1
Despite its bombastic name, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is actually quite understated with a fairly generic design that looks a little bit like a Space Gray iPhone 6. The phone has a plastic frame with a fairly convincing metallic finish, and a metal alloy insert on the rear. The back of the phone has a circular fingerprint scanner and a vertical dual camera setup in the top left corner. Both the power button and volume rocker can be found on the right-side. The power button has ASUS’ signature concentric circle design on it, but this is the only design flourish you’ll find on the phone.
On the left side you can pull out a comically long SIM tray that houses two Nano-SIM card slots as well as a dedicated microSD card slot, so unlike a lot of dual-SIM phones, you don’t have to choose between expandable storage or a second SIM. Having said that, it’s worth noting that the phone has just 32GB internal storage, which is hardly anything, so you’ll almost definitely have to use that microSD card slot. On the bottom there’s a single speaker, a micro-USB port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The Max Pro M1 has a 5.99-inch 18:9 aspect ratio 2,160 x 1,080 pixels resolution (~404ppi) IPS LCD display. The display has good color reproduction, but it’s a little dim, which makes it hard to see under bright light. The viewing angles also aren’t great, and the contrast could be better too.
On the back, the dual rear camera setup comprises of a 13-megapixel, f/2.2 lens paired with a 5-megapixel f/2.4 lens. As with many entry-level phones, the secondary lens doesn’t really do anything, and is only there to collect depth information for Portrait mode. The rear camera uses an Omnivision 16880 imaging sensor. Overall image quality isn’t too bad, although there is some noticeable image processing if you zoom in closer. The camera also struggles to auto-focus in low-light environments.
The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor with 3GB RAM. ASUS normally installs its ZenUI skin on its phones, but surprisingly, the Max Pro M1 runs on stock Android 8.1 Oreo. The phone isn’t part of Google’s Android One program, so you won’t get OS updates as fast as the Nokia 6.1 Plus and Xiaomi Mi A2, but ASUS is normally pretty good with rolling out updates in a timely manner.
The stand out feature of the Max Pro M1 is its 5,000mAh battery. However, while that will give you nearly two days of battery life, the phone does not support fast charging, so it takes over three hours to fully recharge. Like all of the phones in this shootout, the Max Pro M1 also does not support NFC, which rules out most cashless mobile payment apps.
The Max Pro M1 is mostly plastic with a metal alloy rear insert.
While the phone has a dual camera setup, the secondary camera is only used for depth information.
HUAWEI NOVA 3I
The Huawei Nova 3i has the most interesting design out of all of our phones with a flashy metal and glass chassis available in an array of bright and iridescent colors. The aluminum frame and even the bezel around the camera module are color-matched to the rear, which makes the phone look and feel a lot more premium than its $398 price tag.
On the back of the phone, a dual camera setup can be found in the top left corner and there’s a circular fingerprint scanner in the middle. Both the power button and volume rocker can be found on the right side, while the dual Nano-SIM card tray is on the left side, with the second SIM doubling up as a microSD card slot that is compatible with cards up to 256GB in capacity. Having said that, the phone has a very generous 128GB internal storage, so you probably won’t need an SD card. On the bottom, there’s a single speaker grille, a micro-USB port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Despite having the biggest screen in this shootout, the Nova 3i is actually quite compact thanks to a 19.5:9 aspect ratio display with a notch that houses the earpiece and dual front camera setup. The bottom bezel is also quite small, which is impressive for this price point.
The Huawei Nova 3i has a 6.3-inch 19.5:9 aspect ratio 2,340 x 1,080 pixels resolution (~409ppi) IPS LCD display. It’s quite bright, with good viewing angles, and vivid colors. However, contrast could be a little better.
The Nova 3i is powered by Huawei’s new Kirin 710 processor and runs on Android 8.1 Oreo with Huawei’s EMUI 8.2.0 skin on top of it. EMUI removes the app drawer, with all apps sitting on the home screen similar to iOS. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to restore the app drawer in the Settings menu.
Huawei has its own version of facial recognition unlocking, and it’s actually surprisingly good. It uses the front- facing 24-megapixel camera and is both fast and reliable.
The Nova 3i uses a dual-camera setup pairing a main 16-megapixel, f/2.2 lens with a 2-megapixel lens that only collects depth information. Surprisingly, the front camera is actually superior, using a 24-megapixel f/2.0 lens paired with the same 2-megapixel depth sensor.
Like Huawei’s flagship phones, the Nova 3i’s camera is AI-assisted, and includes image recognition that will enhance your pictures. For example, if it detects you’re looking at food, it will make colors more vivid to make the food look more enticing. The Nova 3i also includes a multitude of shooting modes, including light painting, long exposure, time-lapse, pro mode, night mode, slow-motion, and HDR. Image quality is quite good, with good color reproduction and reasonably sharp details throughout. Auto-focus is fairly fast, even in low light.
Like the rest of our phones, the Nova 3i does not support NFC. It has a 3,340mAh battery, but lacks fast charging.
The back of the Nova 3i looks very similar to Huawei’s flagship P20.
The phone unfortunately is still using an outdated Micro-USB port.
NOKIA 6.1 PLUS
The Nokia 6.1 Plus has an attractive metal and glass build with an aluminum frame and glass on the front and rear. It’s not as flashy as the Huawei Nova 3i, but it looks classy and elegant. The phone is available in gloss black, gloss midnight blue, and gloss white, and all three are quite understated. The midnight blue model is a very dark, almost black color.
On the back there’s a vertically- oriented dual camera module in the middle of the phone. Beneath it, there’s a circular fingerprint scanner. It’s worth noting that the 6.1 Plus doesn’t offer any form of face recognition, so you have to use the fingerprint scanner to unlock the phone. The camera module and fingerprint scanner both have a ring of shiny metal around them to add some much-needed design-flair. On the right-side, you’ll also find shiny metal chamfered edges on the power button and volume rocker.
On the left there’s a dual Nano- SIM card tray with the second SIM doubling up as a MicroSD card slot compatible with cards up to 256GB. Internally, you get 64GB storage. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on top and a USB-C port on the bottom next to a single downward firing speaker.
The phone has a 5.8-inch 2,280 x 1,080 pixels resolution (~432ppi) 19:9 aspect ratio IPS LCD display. This makes it the shortest and most compact out of all of our phones.
The screen itself is quite good, with high brightness, vivid colors and reasonably good contrast ratio. Like the Nova 3i, the display has a notch in it, however it’s one of the smallest we’ve seen, and there’s a good amount of space on either sides for displaying icons.
The 6.1 Plus is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor and has 4GB RAM. It’s part of Google’s Android One program, which means it runs on essentially stock Android, with software and security updates coming directly from Google.
It is currently running on Android 8.1 Oreo, however an update to 9.0 Pie should be available soon.
The 6.1 Plus has a dual rear camera setup pairing a 16-megapixel f/2.0 lens with a 5-megapixel f/2.4 lens. The secondary lens is only used for capturing depth information. Like the Nova 3i, the camera also boasts AI object recognition and will automatically enhance your pictures based on what you’re shooting. Image quality on the 6.1 Plus is quite good, with natural color reproduction and relatively clean details. Portrait mode is surprisingly good too, and there’s even a slider that lets you adjust the amount of bokeh you want.
The 6.1 Plus has a 3,060mAh battery and is the only phone in our shootout to support fast charging through Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 standard. Like the rest of our phones, it does not support NFC, which rules out most mobile payment apps.
The camera module and fingerprint scanner both have metal accent rings.
The notch in the 6.1 Plus display is one of the smallest we’ve seen.
XIAOMI MI A2
The Mi A2 has an aluminum unibody design with minimal antenna bands at the top and bottom. It’s a good looking phone, but Xiaomi hasn’t changed the design on any of its phones in the past two years, and it’s starting to show. While the side bezels are fairly thin, the top and bottom bezels are quite thick.
On the back of the phone there’s a dual camera module in a vertical orientation with one of the biggest camera bumps I’ve ever seen. The phone itself is fairly slim at 7.3mm but the camera bump means it won’t sit flat on a table. Like the rest of the phones in this shootout, there’s also a circular fingerprint scanner on the back.
The power button and volume rocker can both be found on the right side, while the dual Nano-SIM card tray can be found on the left. The phone doesn’t have a MicroSD card slot and, to make things worse, it only has 64GB internal storage, which is very limited. On top there’s an IR blaster you can use to control your TV or other IR appliances.
On the bottom there are two speaker grilles (although sound only comes out of the right one) and a USB-C port. Unlike the rest of our phones, the Mi A2 does not have a 3.5mm headphone jack, although a dongle is provided in the box.
The Mi A2 has a 5.99-inch 2,160 x 1,080 18:9 aspect ratio IPS LCD display. The screen is fairly bright, with good color reproduction, but it lacks contrast.
The Mi A2 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor with 4GB RAM, which is fairly unusual for this price point. The 660 is Qualcomm’s upper mid-range processor and is normally found on $500 phones.
Like the Nokia 6.1 Plus, the Mi A2 is part of Google’s Android One program, which means it runs on stock Android OS, and receives software updates directly from Google. The phone is currently running on Android 8.1 Oreo, however, a 9.0 Pie update should be available soon. Xiaomi also includes a few of its own apps, including a file manager, a Mi Remote app for controlling the IR blaster, and a Mi Drop file-transfer app, however these can all be deleted if you prefer. The phone also has a Face Unlock feature but we found it to be unreliable in usage. You’re better offsticking to the fingerprint scanner.
The Mi A2’s dual camera setup pairs a 12-megapixel f/1.75 lens with a 20-megapixel f/1.75 lens. The secondary camera uses a Sony IMX 376 sensor and can do 4-in-1 pixel binning to generate a 2.0um super pixel. Essentially, this technology joins four adjacent pixels into a single “large pixel” to improve sensitivity in low light.
Inside the Mi A2 is a fairly small 3,000mAh battery. Unfortunately, the phone does not support either fast charging or NFC.
The Mi A2 has a huge camera bump.
The phone has two speaker grilles at the bottom, but sound only comes out of the right one.
The three Qualcomm phones all performed at a similar level, while the Nova 3i lagged slightly behind. In terms of actual browsing performance, there wasn’t any discernible diﬀerence between any of the phones, and all four oﬀered a snappy and lag-free browsing experience.
BASEMARK OS II
Basemark OS II is an all-in-one benchmarking tool that measures overall performance through a comprehensive suite of tests including system, internal and external memory, graphics, web browsing, and CPU consumption.
The Mi A2 pulled slightly ahead here thanks to its more powerful Snapdragon 660 processor, however it wasn’t a lot better than the other three. Huawei’s HiSilicon chip was about on par with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 found in the Max Pro M1 and Nokia 6.1 Plus.
3DMARK - SLING SHOT UNLIMITED
3DMark Sling Shot is an advanced 3D graphics benchmark that tests the full range of OpenGL ES 3.1 and ES 3.0 API features including multiple render targets, instanced rendering, uniform buﬀers and transform feedback. The test also includes impressive volumetric lighting and post-processing eﬀects. We’re running this benchmark in Unlimited mode, which ignores screen resolutions.
The Mi A2 was once again the best performer in this benchmark thanks to its 660 processor, while the Max Pro M1, Nova 3i, and Nokia 6.1 Plus were all very close.
Our standard battery test for mobile phones involves looping an HD video with screen brightness and volume at 100%, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on, and constant data streaming through email and Twitter.
Unsurprisingly, the Max Pro M1 had the best battery life thanks to its massive 5,000mAh battery. The big disappointment here was the Mi A2. Even with its relatively small 3,000mAh battery, it still underperformed compared to the Nova 3i and 6.1 Plus.
AND THE BEST BUDGET SMARTPHONE IS…
HUAWEI NOVA 3I
All of the phones in this shootout prove that you don’t need to settle for a bland, featureless device, even when you’re on a budget. All things considered, it came down to two phones: the Huawei Nova 3i and the Nokia 6.1 Plus. Both feature modern metal and glass sandwich designs, small bezels, and extra tall aspect ratio displays. Both phones are more well-rounded in features including expandable storage, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and decent camera performance. But while the Nokia 6.1 Plus has fast charging capabilities and a reversible USB-C port, we ultimately chose the Huawei Nova 3i as our budget winner for its more interesting design, bigger display, excellent face unlock system, its ability to do Portrait selfies with its 24-megapixel dual front camera, and very generous 128GB internal storage.
Photography by Veronica Tay
Art Direction & Digital imaging by Ashruddin Sani
PICTURE (BURGERS) 123RF