If you want to buy one of the very best smartphones on the market these days, it’s going to cost you a lot more than it used to.
Just take a look at our pick for the best gaming smartphone on the market, the iPhone 7 Plus. Its price starts from a cool £719 / $ 769. Ouch.
Of course, buying an Android phone is always cheaper, isn’t it? Er no. Not really. If you want to buy Google’s latest flagship phone, the Google Pixel XL, it starts from exactly the same price as the iPhone 7 Plus, while the new Samsung Galaxy S8 will set you back £689 for the entry-level model.
Fortunately, the market has reacted to this not-so-subtle price hike, and there’s a new tier of ‘almost-flagship’ phones – and a smattering of last year’s top dogs – offering competitive specs for £400 or less. Here are some of the best at the moment (prices accurate at time of writing, blah blah blah).
OnePlus 3T – Top pick
We last updated this piece in November 2016, when our top pick was the OnePlus 3T. Five months on, it’s still the best all-round phone you can get for £400.
There’s just so much to admire here. Okay, so a robust all-metal design is no longer a unique selling point – there are £200 phones that offer such a thing.
So how about the fact that the OnePlus 3T comes with a faster-clocked version of the Snapdragon 821 CPU that’s in the Google Pixel? That’s backed by a quite ridiculous 6GB of RAM, which is completely unnecessary, but at least ensures that this one’s going to be a slick gaming machine for years to come.
Then there’s an accomplished 5.5-inch AMOLED display. Sure, it’s ‘only’ 1080p, but let’s face it – QHD is only really useful for VR. If that’s your thing, fair enough, but you don’t need such a pixel-dense screen 99.9% of the time.
It doesn’t end there: the OnePlus 3T’s 16MP camera is extremely accomplished, its 64GB of storage belongs in the box marked ‘ample’, it’s large 3400 mAh battery charges extremely quickly through USB-C, it’s got a very responsive and well-positioned fingerprint sensor, and its OxygenOS is the rare custom Android effort that doesn’t suck.
In fact, the only drawback that we can see is the looming spectre of the OnePlus 4 (or 5 – whatever it’s called), which will probably hit shops over the next month or two.
Motorola Moto Z – ‘Something different’ pick
While Motorola (now owned by Lenovo) is one of the strongest players in the budget smartphone market, it’s struggled to gain a seat at the top flagship table in recent years.
Last year’s Moto Z has sold modestly well, but has been rather pushed into the shade by the likes of the Galaxy S7 and the Google Pixel. That’s probably why you can pick one up for around £400 if you shop around online.
That’s a shame, because this is a very strong and distinctive smartphone – something that’s not so easy to be these days. It’s extremely thin, which is related to its unique modular gimmick. This lets you stick on various rear plates that extend the phone’s functionality, whether that’s an enhanced camera component or a punchier speaker.
Whether you take to the concept or not though, the Moto Z has a lot going for it as a stand-alone smartphone. It’s got a strong 5.5-inch QHD OLED display, a speedy Snapdragon 820 CPU with 4GB of RAM (so it’s great for games), a decent camera, and – crucially – a near-stock version of Android (which is now at version 7.0 Nougat).
On the downside, its battery is a little small and there’s no headphone socket. Yep, Motorola ‘did an Apple’.
iPhone SE – ‘All about the games’ pick
We’ve long stuck to the line that the best gaming phone is an iPhone. This isn’t through some misplaced platform loyalty. It’s not even a matter of personal hardware or OS preference.
Rather, we tend to recommend iPhones because the App Store is comfortably the best source of mobile games – and we always go where the games are.
Of course, iPhones typically cost a good deal more than £400. Even the company’s previous model, the iPhone 6S, will still cost you £500 brand new.
There is an iPhone on the market that will cost you less than £400, however. The iPhone SE launched a little over a year ago as a provision for all those Apple customers who didn’t like how smartphones had gotten so big.
It’s basically an iPhone 5S, but with the processor and camera of the iPhone 6S. This means that it’s still more than capable of running the very latest games at a fair old lick.
Of course, you’ll have to play those games on a tiny 4-inch display, which is a definite sacrifice these days. But if you don’t care about that, it’s got a better library of available games than any other phone on this list.
ZTE Axon 7 – ‘Audio-visual extravaganza’ pick
Take a look at how much most of last year’s flagship phones are still selling for, and you’ll realise the extent that margins are getting squeezed for hardware manufacturers.
That makes the ZTE Axon 7 all the more impressive. It’s every inch the 2016 flagship phone at less than £400, what is currently around £100 less than the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10.
It’s also a phone largely free of compromises, with a Snapdragon 820 CPU, a 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, and an all-metal build.
The Axon 7 is also compatible with Google’s Daydream VR, and it has a stellar set of forward-facing stereo speakers – which is a rare feature and a great match for advanced games.
LG G5 – ‘Unloved bargain’ pick
The LG G5 is a curious addition to this list. Even more so than the Moto Z above, it’s here because it wasn’t one of the big flagship success stories of 2016. Quite the opposite in fact.
If anything, though, the LG G5 is a sign of how uniformly strong the smartphone field is these days, because it’s far from a bad phone.
Indeed, it ticks all of the boxes with a strong processor (Snapdragon 820), all-metal design, capable camera (16MP dual-lens), and accomplished display (5.3-inch QHD LCD).
Okay, so it has a ropey modular concept that never even got off the ground. But this can be ignored, and it also means you can go old school and carry a spare battery around with you. Travel fans take note.
Whatever its quality, the LG G5 flopped hard, prompting LG to ditch the ill-conceived modular idea and set off in a completely different direction for the LG G6. The result, though, is that you can pick up a capable (if slightly weird) high-end phone online for less than £300 without looking hard.