Here's the thing about finding the right smartphone. It often comes down to compromise. The question you have to answer is what's the most important thing--price, features, design? Regardless of what you choose, you know that you're giving up something.
But if price is your most important consideration, the options can seem rather, well, limiting. Mobile device makers have been packing their newest models with high-end features that come with high-end prices. Fortunately, there are a couple of choices worth considering.
I've been using a Google Pixel 3a as a second device for the past few months, and I'm comparing it to Apple's only low-cost option, the iPhone 7. In some ways, the fight isn't really fair, since the iPhone 7 is an almost three-year-old device, but it surprisingly still has just enough fight left to make things interesting.
Here's what you need to know to if you're trying to decide between the Google Pixel 3a and the iPhone 7:
Google Pixel 3a
Honestly, both the Pixel 3a and its larger sibling the 3aXL are impressive, but not just because of their specs. The Pixel 3a, which is basically a slightly lower-powered version of the Pixel 3, includes the same camera technology as the Pixel 3, which is known for its AI-based image processing. Let's just say it up front, if you're choosing based only on the camera, pick the Pixel 3a.
If you're an Android fan, the choice is obvious. The Pixel 3a includes a pure version of Android 9, and since it's made by Google, it's a pretty safe bet it'll be compatible with future versions for the foreseeable future.
It's thinner and feels lighter in your hand than the iPhone, but that probably also has to do with the fact that its back is plastic.
Like the iPhone 7, it has a fingerprint ID sensor, though it's located on the back. That's a pretty convenient place when you're unlocking your device or holding it in your hand--it happens to be where your pointer finger naturally rests.
I do prefer the iPhone's placement, especially for things like authentication or authorizing purchases since it's easier to access when the phone is laying on your desk or a table. Then again, the iPhone has a nice fat chin, whereas the Pixel 3a is closer to a full-screen front (though not quite).
It also has a headphone jack, which hasn't existed on an iPhone (or the Pixel 3 for that matter) for a while.
Since Apple discontinued the iPhone SE, the iPhone 7 has really been the only viable low-cost option the company offers. You can pick one up new for $449 on most carriers, but in reality, it was never meant to be a low-cost phone, it's just still sold at a discount since it's an old model.
Sure, you can probably find an iPhone 6 hanging around somewhere, but Apple has already announced that with iOS 13 it'll be considered "obsolete" meaning it won't be supported by the OS, and the company will no longer provide service for it.
Still, the iPhone 7 is the most affordable option if you want iOS on a mobile phone. It does include a 4.7" Retina display, and the A10 Fusion processor, which, despite being a few years old, is no slouch. It also powers last year's iPads and is capable of running any of the software you'd want on your phone, including augmented reality apps.
(It's also my favorite for purely vain reasons.)
The 12-megapixel camera is the same resolution as current models, though it uses an older sensor. Still, it's a perfectly capable shooter and records video in 4K at 30 frames per second.
The best low-cost smartphone for most people.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should say that I'm about as big a fan of Apple as it gets. The thought of switching from an iPhone, to basically anything else, is actually painful. I'd honestly go back to my 15-year-old StarTac flip-phone first.
The iPhone 7 is probably the best option if you care about the Apple ecosystem (or privacy for that matter). The downside is that it's likely to be obsolete in a year or two.
That's why, if I'm completely honest, for most people the Google Pixel 3a is probably a better buy right now if you're primarily interested in overall performance and price. Sure, it's not cutting-edge by any definition, but it's far closer to current generation technology than the iPhone 7.