Think you need the best phone when you head back to class? Premium handsets are designed to deliver everything you would want. Flagship smartphones are supposed to be the best a company can bring to market. It’s not just the specs, but also the design, functionality and user experience that help make them the elite models they’re supposed to be. Best screens, best processors, best cameras, and best software. But you don’t always have to go the flagship route if you don’t want or need to. There are great smartphone options, with the features you need and very good cameras, suitable for any back to school budget. This list is to help give you some context on what’s available and what to keep in mind before you make the call.

Apple iPhone 11

The iPhone 11 comes in three different models. You can go the flagship route with the iPhone 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max. The Max may be the biggest of them all, but the regular Pro is the more functional of the two. The primary reason? Comfort and operatibility, meaning it’s easier to use one-handed, fits in more pockets and is a of a similar size to the previous iPhone XS.

The iPhone 11 Pro has a 5.8-inch Super Retina XDR OLED display made of tougher glass framed by stainless steel edges. If you’re upgrading from an older iPhone, like the 7 or 8, don’t fret too much about losing the home button. You can use Face ID or a PIN code in lieu of a fingerprint sensor. By now, the gesture controls to navigate iOS are intuitive and easy to grasp.

Apple added a third ultra-wide lens to the rear camera array, making this the first iPhone to have that. A newer Night mode helps improve low-light photography, and there are plenty of third-party apps to shoot with.

With glass on the back supporting wireless charging, you can be flexible in how you choose to charge up the battery. A pad or dock can be handy when wires aren’t necessary. The base model has 128GB of storage, though you can also go with 256GB or 512GB instead.

No matter what you’re studying, the App Store likely has something to help make class and homework easier. And if you have a Mac or iPad, the integration is better than it was before.

iPhone SE

This is the best value you can find if an iPhone is what you’re looking for. The latest iPhone SE has the same A13 Bionic processor equipped in the iPhone 11 models, yet brings back the fingerprint sensor from past models. You can look at this like an iPhone 8 design with the guts of an iPhone 11.

The 4.7-inch Retina HD display is vibrant and includes a 12-megapixel rear camera to shoot photos that are on par with the iPhone 11. Wireless charging, fast wired charging and an IP67 waterproof rating round out what is one of the best mid-range phones available.

If you did want something with a bigger screen and a second rear camera lens, you could always go the way of the iPhone 11 itself. It sticks to the middle of the road within Apple’s phone lineup, offering a more affordable option outside of the Pro models.

Samsung Galaxy S20 and Note10

These two are different phones but they share a lot in common. Breaking them down even further, there are five different models between them: the Samsung S20, S20+, S20 Ultra, Note10 and Note10+. The S20 and S20+ are interesting options because they offer real value compared to the S20 Ultra are closer together in all aspects. You can read more about that here.

The Note10 and Note10+ are older, yet hold similarities to the S20 lineup. They essentially have the same cameras and One UI, the software overlay Samsung uses. The screens on all of them are gorgeous to look at. And with the S20 and Note10 (not the + models), it’s easier to use them with one hand.

The biggest difference between the two is the S Pen. The Note10 and Note10+ have it, the S20 models naturally don’t. Samsung built in more unique functions for the pen, like controlling the camera app without touching the phone. Jot down notes from a lecture or class and then turn them into text you can use in a Word document.

As alternatives to these, you wouldn’t go wrong with the Galaxy S10e/S10/S10+ or Galaxy A51 or Galaxy A71. Those are still more than capable and offer great features and performance. If the current models are too out of reach—and you want a Samsung device—those are worth a look.

Google Pixel 4a

Google continued its penchant for delivering a pure version of Android that also comes with three years of Android updates. While this phone is very similar to the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, it only comes in one size. It’s also neither water-resistant nor supports wireless charging. But it does come with 128GB of internal storage and 6GB of RAM, which is great for a mid-range affordable phone like this. There’s a better screen than the Pixel 3a, plus improved battery life over all other Pixel models.

The camera is the jewel of the Pixel 4a, capturing some of the best images in its class. While there is no second telephoto lens, the Super Res Zoom feature can step in to help get decent shots at 2x zoom. Portrait shots—both from the rear and front cameras—are superb. Night and low-light shots are outstanding, in most cases, while video often comes out looking good.

LG Velvet

How you use the LG Velvet is compatible with a separately sold dual screen attachment, but it is a standalone phone on its own. With a 6.8-inch screen, it is colourful on both sides. It’s a unique look for LG, which has mostly stuck to a familiar design philosophy the last few years.

Unlike most phones these days, there is a headphone jack here. The 128GB of internal storage is standard on the low-end now, as is the triple camera array in the rear. Image quality may not be the best of the bunch, but there’s room for creativity. Even battery life holds up well.

Really, though, if you get the dual screen, you have a multitasking device unparalleled by any other handset. It makes the phone considerably thicker and heavier, but it’s the kind of feature you may grow to love.

Finding the phone for you

The list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the other unique handsets available. If your budget is tighter, yet still want many of the goodies available in flagship Pixels, the Pixel 3a is worth a look. Take a look at the latest smartphones available now, as well as all the best back to school products you can find today.

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Editor Cellular/Mobile Technology
I’m a fortunate man in being able to do the fun job of following and reporting on one of the most exciting industries in the world today. In my time covering consumer tech, I’ve written for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Yahoo! Canada, CBC.ca, Canoe, Digital Trends, MobileSyrup, G4 Tech, PC World, Faze and AppStorm. I’ve also appeared on TV as a tech expert for Global, CTV and the Shopping Channel.

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