Modern flagship phones can easily tip the $1,000 price point, and it’s easy to get sold on features you might not even need. Instead of spending close to a grand on a smartphone, I think it makes more sense to pick up a full “mobile kit” including a budget phone, a set of true wireless earbuds, and a smartwatch—and still walk away with money in your pocket.
So, here’s the thing: Modern “budget” phones are killer. Like, killer—90 percent of what flagships can do for less than half the price. You can take the extra money you save and pick up an excellent smartwatch and a great set of budget true wireless earbuds. We’re going to try to keep the total dollar amount under $800 (USD) here.
Let’s talk about your options.
The Phone: Pixel 4a or iPhone SE
This should come as absolutely no surprise, but depending on which platform you’re looking at, there are two runaway winners in the budget phone market: the Pixel 4a ($350) for Android usersm and the iPhone SE ($400-$550) for iOS users. These are the best budget-friendly phones on the market for their respective OSes.
Pixel 4a: The Android Budget Champion
The Pixel 4a features modern midrange specs, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor, 6 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of Storage. It has a 5.8-inch 1080×2340 OLED display (443 PPI), USB-C charging, and a headphone jack. And, of course, the fantastic camera that Pixel phones are known for. This is the only variant of the device available because it’s the only one it really needs. For $350, this phone is as good as many phones twice its cost—in fact, we gave it a 10/10 in our review.
iPhone SE: Apple’s Most-Affordable iPhone Ever
The iPhone SE is a little more nuanced in terms of versions. It comes in white, black, or red, and 64, 128, or 256 GB storage varieties. It starts at $400 for 64 GB, then jumps to $450 for 128 GB and $550 for 256 GB (regardless of color), and all versions have a 4.7-inch display. If you don’t need much storage, the 64 GB version is the way to go, but I think most users would benefit from the cushion provided by the 128 GB model for an extra $50. It seems to be the sweet spot.
Outside of that, the SE also includes wireless charging and an IP67 rating, neither of which the Pixel 4a have. But that’s not even the biggest selling point—that belongs to the A13 Bionic processor. This is the same beastly chip found in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, so it’ll stay absolutely blazing fast for years to come. The SE is a great investment if you want the most bang for your buck out of a phone—Apple will keep it updated for at least five more years, which is a full two years longer than Google promises to update the Pixel 4a.
But I digress—this isn’t about comparing the 4a to the SE. (We already did that.) Odds are you’re already well-established in your platform of choice and have no intention of changing. All I’m saying is that you can get a damn good experience without breaking the bank on a smartphone—something that couldn’t be as plainly stated just a couple of short years ago.
But what are you going to do with that extra money? Get yourself some accessories, baby.
The Smartwatch: Fitbit Versa 3, Galaxy Watch Active 2, or Apple Watch Series 3
Depending on your needs or wants, you have a few different options when it comes to smartwatches. There’s something for everyone out there, but this is probably the hardest decision to make out of the three-piece mobile setup. Why? Because there’s a lot to love about all three of our picks in the smartwatch category.
Fitbit Versa 3: The Smartwatch for Fitness Enthusiasts
Let’s start with the newest: the Fitbit Versa 3 ($230). This thing is hot off the presses—in fact, it’s not even available yet (but you can preorder it now)—making it the newest device on the list by a pretty significant margin. Fitbit really stepped its game up with the Versa 3, adding excellent features like Google Assistant (as well as Amazon Alexa) and onboard GPS over last year’s Versa 2. It also has a speaker for voice calls and is truly platform agnostic, so it will work well with both iOS and Android.
Of course, the real selling point of any Fitbit is fitness tracking. The Versa 3 can track all sorts of workouts, sleep, steps, and more. If you’re into fitness (or looking to get into fitness!), the Versa 3 can help you get there. I’ve been wearing the original Versa for years, and it’s still my favorite smartwatch because it just fits my lifestyle the best. And while the Versa 3 improves the overall smartwatch prowess over both of its predecessors, I’ll readily admit that it’s still not the best at, you know, being a smartwatch.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: The Best Overall Smartwatch for Android
If you’re in the market for a better smartwatch but not quite as nuanced a fitness tracker, the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 ($220-$250) is the best choice. It’ll work on both iOS and Android, though it’s more limited on the former than the latter, and for that reason I really only recommend it for Android users. But it is a powerful smartwatch that works exceptionally well for all of its intended purposes.
It has fitness tracking and syncs with the Samsung Health app, though it’s not quite as feature-rich as the Versa when it comes to this area. It also has a built-in mic and speaker, so you can take calls from it (please don’t take calls from it unless you absolutely have to), though it doesn’t have access to Google Assistant without doing a bit of extra work. Bixby (lol) is the default smart assistant here.
Apple Watch Series 3: The Best Choice for iPhones
Finally, there’s the outlier: the Apple Watch Series 3 ($170-$200). This is the go-to pick for Apple users, but be aware that it’s a couple of generations old at this point. Normally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending an almost-three-generation-old product, but the waters muddy when you’re 1) shopping in this price bracket, and 2) consider it’s an Apple product. There are several versions of the Series 3 available at varying prices (all the way up to $1,350), but for our purpose here we’re talking about the entry-level model.
The Series 3 is still great for nearly all smartwatch stuff, with the biggest omission over the Series 4 being the ECG app and all that fun stuff. (But honestly, if that’s important to you, the Versa 3 may be a better choice.)
But this is still Apple’s “budget” Watch—the Series 5 replaced the Series 4, and the Series 3 dropped in price as a result. So if you’re looking to pick up an Apple Watch and will accept no other substitutes but need to stay within a budget, the Series 3 is it. It’s still a great smartwatch, even if it is a little older at this point.
The Earbuds: Skullcandy Indy Evo or Creative Outlier Air
A good set of true wireless earbuds will finalize your little mobile suite of necessities. Again, looking towards the budget end of the spectrum here, there are two standout picks: the Skullcanday Indy Evo ($80), or the Creative Outlier Air ($60). Let’s talk about the Skullcandys first.
Skullcandy Indy Evo: The Best Bang for Your Buck
When it comes down to it, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better, more comfortable set of earbuds for $80 than the Skullcandy Indy Evo. This stick-style set of earbuds sound great and stay in place better than any other stick bud I’ve personally tried, thanks to the wings that “lock” the buds in your ear. It’s great.
The case is well-made, albeit slightly bulky (compared to something like AirPods Pro, anyway), and they ship with multiple tips and wings so you can nail the perfect fit for each of your ears. The sound quality is more balanced that one might expect for Skullcandys, and they’re also IP55 rated for sweat, water, and dust resistance. They’ll pretty much take almost anything you can throw at them.
It’s also worth mentioning that you can get the Indy Fuel—a version of the Indy Evo with a wireless charging case—for $20 more. If you want to splurge and already have wireless chargers lying around, it’s worth the extra money. But otherwise, there’s no difference between these and the Indy Evo.
Creative Outlier Air: Comfortable with Killer Audio
It took a long time for me to find a set of earbuds that I thought offered better value than the Outlier Air (that set turned out to be the Indy Evo/Fuel), but these are still well-worth buying today—especially if you can catch them on sale.
The Outlier Air isn’t a stick-style set, which makes it a good choice for anyone who can’t stand the look of the stick. They’re solid little buds that are comfortable to wear for hours and sound killer. The case is a little dated looking at this point (it’s pretty big), but you get 30 hours of battery life out of them because of it.
The biggest downside that I found with the Outlier Air is the buttons. They’re very stiff, so it feels like your cramming the ‘bud deep into your ear to get them to click. When I was testing them, I found it easier to just use my phone.
It’s also worth mentioning the Outlier Gold ($80), which features the company’s Super X-Fi audio processing. Super X-Fi is super immersive, as it creates an unparalleled 3D soundscape for the listener and is great for TV and movies. But it’s also not for everyone, so I recommend finding somewhere to check it out before you commit.
Conclusion: There’s Money to Be Saved, so Save It
These recommendations are just what I’ve found to be the best value in each respective category, of course. You can easily flex the budget a little more to get something different—like subbing in the $220 AirPods Pro for the earbuds. You’ll pay a bit more overall, but if you pair them with an iPhone SE and Apple Watch Series 3, you’re still getting a killer mobile setup for a good price.
But that also goes the other way. You can theoretically bring this budget down to under $400 if you want. You could easily pair something like the BLU G90 Pro ($200) with Creative Outlier Air ($60) and Fitbit Inspire 2 ($99) or Movoi TicWatch GTX ($60). That’s a full mobile kit for less than the cost of an iPhone SE!
Ultimately, the goal is to end up with a great phone and accessories that can enhance your life without breaking the bank. And if you’re willing to make a few minor compromises, that’s a pretty easy task.