With the arrival of value-for-money SIM-only plans, it's a good time to consider getting a mid-range phone to go with your mobile subscription.
With manufacturers from China and Taiwan flooding the market with increasingly competitive offerings to vie for market share, we have sorted through the best of the bunch to bring you the top 5 smartphones under $500.
To make this list, smartphones must be readily available in Singapore under the stipulated price point. Also, we are only looking at new offerings, so older flagship models at clearance prices are excluded.
OPPO R7 [$499]
At just one dollar below the price ceiling, the R7 is among the beefier devices here.
It sports a Qualcomm 1.5GHz Octa Core CPU backed by a generous 3GB of RAM. Among the different configurations listed here, this appears to be the most balanced and efficient. It maintains the great power-savings of the other Octa Core offerings, while being VERY noticeably snappier.
Given its configuration, battery life seems to be a wasted opportunity for the R7. Its irremovable 2320mAh battery is the smallest of the lot. However, it does tout 2 hours of talk time with just a 5 minute charge.
The R7’s 5-inch 1080p display churns out a whopping 445ppi. With crisp lines and vibrant colours, it easily sports the best screen of the bunch. It also supports gloved and wet touches, which worked well in our tests.
With many manufacturers removing SD card expansion from even flagship models, it was refreshing to see it on the R7. This leaves plenty of room for photos/videos taken with its 13MP f2.2 camera. Its 8MP front camera is the highlight though; its beauty shot feature takes PERFECT selfies.
Xiaomi Mi 4i 32GB [$299]
The second Chinese-made Octa Core smart phone on this list comes in at a whole $200 cheaper. While it does not perform as well as the R7, the Mi 4i is the definition of “value for money”.
With just 2GB of RAM tied to its 1.7GHz Octa Core CPU, it lags noticeably with the most intense multitasking. With Performance Mode toggled on, you can squeeze out a little more performance BUT the phone will overheat with prolonged use. It is still very much decent for its price point.
Battery life is where the Mi 4i shines. Its insane 3120mAh battery and power-saving configuration lasted more than a day with heavy use. We were watching YouTube videos from 10am to 6pm and it still had 30% charge remaining.
With a 5-inch Sharp 1080p display producing 441ppi, images and text on screen appear well… sharp. However, colours seem a little lackluster when compared to others on this list.
The Mi 4i comes with 32GB of in-built storage. Its 13MP Sony f2.0 rear camera takes remarkably good pictures owing to solid image processing. It slightly edges above all its more expensive competitors. Like the R7, its 5MP front camera comes with a Beauty Lens feature which makes you look great in every selfie.
One Plus X [$438]
One Plus prides itself on offering flagship quality smartphones at a fraction of the price. While the X is its lower end model currently being offered, it is no pushover. It sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU clocked at 2.3GHz and 3GB of RAM. This snappy phone will not fail you performance wise. While not as efficient, this phone punches harder than the rest.
The One Plus X’s battery life is nothing impressive due to its power hungry configuration paired with a 2525mAh battery. It will still get you through the day with moderate use though.
Its 5-inch 1080p display is pretty much a carbon copy of the Mi 4i. Playing YouTube videos side by side in a pitch black room, you could swear they were the same phone.
With 16GB of on board storage and a microSD expansion slot, you won’t find yourself short of storage for your media and apps. Speaking of media, its 13MP rear camera and 8MP get the job done. Compared to the R7 and Mi 4i however, you would feel that the One Plus X’s image processing could be better, particularly in selfies. Once you’ve had a taste of Beauty Shots, you probably won’t be impressed by a regular 8MP wide angle lens anymore. It’s not always about the hardware.
That said, the One Plus X runs the company’s proprietary OxygenOS which offers a near-stock Android experience with unparalleled customization options. This could be a major selling point for hardcore Android aficionados.
Asus Zenfone 2 [$388]
The ASUS Zenfone 2 sets itself apart by offering Intel CPUs and GPUs rather than the Qualcomm chips prevalent in the market. The model we reviewed came equipped with the Intel Atom 2.3GHz Quad Core CPU and a generous 4GB of RAM.
At least on paper, the Qualcomm chips seem to be superior to Intel’s current offerings. However, you can hardly feel the difference. Not with the configuration on the Zenfone 2 anyway. It runs smooth as butter.
Battery life is average even with its 3000mAh battery. Where the Zenfone 2 really disappoints though is media. The 5.5-inch 1080p screen only pumps out 401ppi and appears dim and lifeless even in ideal lighting. Where sound quality was not noteworthy in all the phones on this list, it was remarkably bad on the Zenfone 2. Whether you’re listening to the stock media player or Spotify on speaker or earphones, you will find yourself underwhelmed. We’re not sure if it was just the model we tested or if it’s a problem in all Zenfone 2s, but given the price point, we can’t really complain.
The Zenfone 2 comes with 32GB of on board storage and a microSD expansion slot. While OPPO and Xiaomi got it right with image processing, the Zenfone 2’s 13MP shooter suffers from possibly too much software intervention. Pictures appear “cartoony” with gratuitous artificial sharpening and color saturation. Still, better too much than too little, and the multitude of shooting modes and features sort of makes up for it.
Samsung Galaxy A5 LTE 2016 [$490]
Our only entry that does not hail from China/Taiwan is Samsung’s mid-range offering in its Galaxy series. Its specs are almost identical to Xiaomi’s Mi 4i, except that its Octa Core CPU is clocked to a slower 1.5Ghz
Consequently, the performance and battery life of the Galaxy A5 are similar to the Mi 4i, with the latter being slightly quicker. This could be due to differences in software optimization between the minimalist MIUI and Samsung’s noisier Touchwiz interface.
The Galaxy A5 sets itself apart with its 5.2-inch Super AMOLED display. While its pixel density is passable at 424ppi, its colours are vibrant in basically any lighting and presents clearer playback in dark scenes.
Pushing it ahead of the Mi 4i however, is the presence of a microSD expansion slot. Camera performances on both the 13MP rear and 5MP shooters are what you can expect from Samsung: A great balance of hardware performance and software processing.
Overall, this is exactly what one should expect from Samsung at this point, a good quality product. It even has bells and whistles absent on most phones at this price point such as a fingerprint reader. That said, the Mi 4i offers almost the exact same performance at almost half the price. We wonder if the difference is worth the price in the long run.
We initially wanted to create this list without comparing/ranking them in order of performance, price, etc. However, when you place products in a similar price range side-by-side, you really can’t help but notice the pros and cons of each model. Therefore…
Best Performance: OPPO R7
Best Value: Xiaomi Mi 4i 32GB