How To: The Best Budget Phones for Watching Movies & TV Shows

The Best Budget Phones for Watching Movies & TV Shows

Thanks to better processors and improved LTE coverage, it's easy to binge-watch your favorite shows almost anywhere. However, not all of us can afford expensive flagship phones with all the latest top-tier specs. With a max budget of $400, though, you can still find solid phones that provide a great viewing experience.

Each year, we continue to find new examples of cheap phones getting better. If you focus on factors that address a specific need (like watching videos), you can easily find phones that have enough power to accomplish your goal. For watching videos, this means a large screen, sound processor, and great battery life. There are a number of phones that meet these criteria, and after review, here are the top four.

Table of Contents

Comparison Chart

Image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

Key Comparison Points

  • SoC: The system-on-a-chip (or processor) is what powers the device. This hardware component dictates the overall performance of the phone, even impacting video streaming services. All but the Moto G6 have midrange processors with more than enough power for media consumption.
  • Modem: The hardware component that's responsible for managing your LTE cellular data connection. Modems are measured in categories, with higher numbers indicating faster theoretical max speeds. With a better modem, there's less chance videos will buffer or lose quality.
  • Screen Size: Probably the most critical criteria on our list, the size of the display on the smartphone. When it comes to consumption of videos, a larger screen is preferred.
  • Resolution: Almost as important, resolution is the maximum number of pixels displayed on the screen. 1080p is the standard, as most movies and TV shows output at that resolution. Although 4K does exist, there aren't many streaming sources which support videos at that resolution.
  • Aspect Ratio: The ratio of the width of a display compared to its height. This number comes into play when watching movies, as the aspect ratio of films is displayed differently depending on the aspect ratio of your screen. When compared to 16:9 screens, 18:9 screens won't show horizontal black bars for 1.85:1 videos (which is typical of older movies such as The Godfather), and black bars will be smaller with 2.39:1 videos (found on newer movies such as Netflix's The Cloverfield Paradox).
  • Screen-to-Body Ratio: The ratio of the display compared the front face of the phone. The higher the percentage, the smaller the forehead and chin, resulting in a more immersive viewing experience.
  • Screen Type : The type of screen technology used. For smartphones, there are only two options: OLED or LCD. You usually won't find OLED on phones at this price range, which is why every phone on our list uses LCD.
  • Color Temperature: The "warmness" or "coolness" of a screen's color calibration. A perfect representation of white is 6,500 K, so the closer to this number, the better. A higher number indicates that whites will be "cooler" or more blue, while a number lower than 6,500 K indicates whites will appear "warm" or slightly orange. Data was sourced from Phone Arena.
  • Maximum Brightness: The maximum level of brightness achievable by the display. This number is measured in nits, with a higher number indicating a brighter display. Brighter screens are needed when viewing your phone in direct sunlight. Data was sourced from Phone Arena.
  • Minimum Brightness: The minimum level of brightness achievable by the display. Lower brightness levels help during late night viewing, and can reduce battery drain, which is important when binge-watching your favorite shows. Data was sourced from Phone Arena.
  • Battery Size: The capacity of the battery. A larger capacity typically indicates better battery life.
  • Battery Life: The battery life of the phone when a video is watched at 50% screen brightness. We used data from GSM Arena, who ran a fully charged battery down to 10% while looping a standard definition video with airplane mode turned on.
  • Expandable Storage: While the internal storage of smartphones has gotten much larger as of late, it's always nice to have microSD support. Not only does this offer a significant amount of storage for a low price, but it will help greatly if the video streaming service you're using lets you download videos to watch them without an internet connection.
  • OS Version: What version of the Android operating system the phone is running. Every phone is running Android 8.0 Oreo except for the Nokia 6.1, which is currently running the latest version of Android, 8.1 Oreo.
  • Multitasking Capabilities: The ability to perform another task while watching a video. Unlike iOS, Android allows you to split the screen, housing the video to one side of the screen and another app on the opposite side. With split screen, you can search IMDb, takes notes, read articles, or perform work while enjoying your favorite movie or TV show.
  • Notification Interference: Whether incoming notifications interrupt the playback of video. This isn't a problem for any of the phones in this list, as each is running Android.
  • Picture-in-Picture Mode in Netflix: While Android 8.0 Oreo added picture-in-picture mode for most apps, Netflix is different. The streaming service requires the latest version, Android 8.1 Oreo, to work, so only one device on our list has access to this feature.
  • Speaker Placement: The location of the loudspeaker on the device. When watching videos without headphones, the speaker's placement will play a large role in how easy it is to hear. Ideally, you want speakers facing toward you.
  • Speaker Loudness: How loud the speakers can get. Measured in decibels, higher numbers are better, as it's easier to hear your content in loud environments. This data was sourced from Phone Arena.
  • Headphone Jack: Whether the phone includes the elusive 3.5 mm headphone jack. Since we enjoy movies on the go, having this port will provide the best listening experience.

How We Chose These Phones

We only chose phones that have passed Google's Compatibility Test Suite — without this certification, you'd lose access to apps on the Google Play Store, including Netflix. Many phones from several Chinese manufacturers were eliminated as a result of this requirement.

We deemed screen size to be one of the most important components when it comes to enjoying video playback. Therefore, we looked strictly at phones with a display of at least 5.5 inches.

Finally, we made sure each phone is currently available at or below the $400 price point. Only one phone on our list comes close, with each other option much cheaper. For many, $400 is right the cut-off point for a budget phone.

Phone 1: Xperia XA2 Ultra

If you care a lot about aesthetics, you might look past the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra. Its boxy design prompted one of our writers to dub it one of the ugliest phones he had seen in 2018 — but hey, beauty's only skin deep. When you focus on the specs and internals, the XA2 Ultra is an excellent budget phone that can compete with any device in this price range. And when it comes to watching movies and TV shows on Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video, you won't find a better option at this price.

By far the biggest selling point for the XA2 Ultra is its 6.0" display. This gives it the largest screen on our list, providing a better viewing experience. It also sports a 1080p resolution, allowing you to enjoy high-quality video on the go. And, it houses this large display in the second-highest screen-to-body ratio.

Image by Android Authority/YouTube

Sony also equipped the Xperia XA2 Ultra with one of the better displays at this price point. The XA2 Ultra has the brightest screen and the second-best color temperature on this list. Its minimum brightness level is the second-lowest, which will help during late night viewing or when looking to conserve battery.

Speaking of battery, the XA2 Ultra includes the largest battery in this list at 3,580 mAh. Combined with the powerful but efficient SoC and IPS LCD panel, the XA2 Ultra has an all-day battery. In real-world testing, it blows all of the other phones out of the water with a battery that lasts three hours more than the second place phone.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 630 processor is a relatively new SoC (first announced in May 2017) which offers midrange performance without sacrificing battery life. While more graphically-intense games such as PUBG Mobile can push its limits, it can more than handle watching videos, whether it's local files or streaming online.

However, when it comes to streaming videos, the integrated modem is the real star. The X12 modem provides up to Cat 12 download speeds (600 Mbit/s) and Cat 13 upload speeds (150 Mbps). While you will never achieve 600 Mbit/s download speed in the real world, having a modem capable of higher theoretical speeds allows it to achieve faster speed on slower connections.

Image by Android Authority/YouTube

There isn't much to dislike when it comes to the Xperia XA2 Ultra. While it's easily the most expensive phone on our list (a mere one penny from our cutoff point), it does offer a sizable advantage over the less expensive phones. Fantastic battery life, a solid midrange processor, and a large screen — you can't go wrong with the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra.

Phone 2: Nokia 6.1

The Nokia 6.1 is simply an excellent budget phone. Excellent build quality, sharp screen, and an overall great feel in the hand. It's in the Android One program, so updates are frequent and quick (mere days after Google's first release), which is incredibly rare at this price point. While it might easily be ignored because of its smaller screen, you won't find a better overall phone at this price that also happens to be great for watching videos.

For the Nokia 6.1, it all starts with the Android One program. With this, the 6.1's software updates are handled by Google rather than HMD (Nokia's developers), which is why it's the only phone on our list with the latest version of Android. OEMs typically abandon software support for budget devices shortly after release, as the profit margins don't justify keeping a team of software developers on hand. The Nokia 6.1, however, will always be up-to-date, and gain access to any new enhancements Android bakes into the operating system.

As a result of having Android 8.1 Oreo, the Nokia 6.1 is the only phone on our list which supports picture-in-picture mode for Netflix. Netflix requires Android 8.1 to access this feature, despite the fact that 8.0 introduced native support.

Image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

The Nokia 6.1 uses the same SoC as the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra, and despite being tied for the smallest battery size, it has the second-highest battery life. The smaller battery also assists with its thin design, which is a mere 0.32 inches.

The Nokia 6.1 also has the loudest speaker of all the phones on our list at 81 dB. Audio does become a bit distorted at maximum volume, but sounds fine at normal listening ranges. There is also a 3.5 mm headphone jack for watching videos on the go.

As I previously mentioned, I believe the Nokia 6.1 is the best phone on our list that also happens to be really good for watching videos. While it does offer the smallest screen on our list, it manages to provide amazing battery life and runs the latest version of Android. Even if streaming isn't your thing, it includes 64 GB of storage which is expandable via microSD.

Image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

Phone 3: Honor 7X

For $199.99, you wouldn't expect a smartphone to excel at anything, especially watching videos. However, the Honor 7X is different. It is easily the best $200 you can spend on a smartphone, and it's a great smartphone for binge-watching TV shows. Except for the modem, there really isn't much you can complain about with this phone regarding its ability to play videos.

First off, let's talk about the modem — it's the Achilles heel of this device. The integrated modem of the Kirin 659 SoC offers half the max download speed of the X12 modem found in the Snapdragon 630. The Honor 7X will always have lower LTE download speeds than the rest of the phones on our list when on the same network, which could lead to buffering and lower resolution movies.

However, that is the only major complaint with the Honor 7X. At 5.93", it has the second-largest display, and unlike the Sony Xperia XA2, it uses an 18:9 aspect ratio. At this aspect ratio, say bye-bye to horizontal black bars in older movies, such as The Godfather and Back to the Future. For newer movies that use a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, the horizontal black bars will be smaller than they'd be with a 16:9 display.

Image by Android Police/YouTube

The Honor 7X has the highest screen-to-body ratio at 77%. For context, last year's Pixel 2 XL has 76.4%. The Honor 7X also has the best color temperature calibration. Unfortunately, the screen has the second-lowest maximum brightness level, so watching in direct sunlight will be a problem.

While the battery is the second-largest at 3,340 mAh, the battery life doesn't reflect its size. The Honor 7x has the lowest battery life on our list, managing lower battery life than other phones on our list using smaller batteries.

Image by Android Police/YouTube

The Honor 7X has a lot of offer. Even if Honor decided to increase its price by $50, it would still compete well against the other phones on our list. However, its poor battery life and slower modem hurt its recommendation over the other two options, and as a result, forced us to place it at number three on our list.

Phone 4: Moto G6

The Moto G6 is one of the stranger entries on our list. The choices made by Lenovo, the owners of the Motorola smartphone brand, leave us with some questions. For each step forward, it appears the Moto G6 takes a step back, and as a result, must be ranked last on our list.

Let's start with the processor. Lenovo decided to use an entry-level chipset, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 450. It is easily the slowest SoC on our list in both performance and power efficiency. While it can handle streaming video (as the modem is strong enough to handle 1080p videos), the CPU can hinder video playback. So especially with locally stored videos, performance might be hindered when playing back videos.

The Moto G6 uses a 5.7" IPS LCD screen. Similar to others on our list, it has a resolution of 1080p. Additionally, it uses the same 18:9 aspect ratio found on the Honor 7X, which generally reduces the bezels on a smartphone. However, because of the inclusion of a front-facing fingerprint scanner, the Moto G6 has the second-lowest screen-to-body ratio.

Image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

Another interesting choice is the battery size. We assume Lenovo wanted to get the thickness to a minimum and take advantage of the lower power consumption of the 400 series Qualcomm chipset. While they were able to achieve the former, they failed at the latter with the second-worst battery life on our list.

As for audio, the Moto G6 has the only front-firing speaker on our list. They achieved this using the earpiece as a speaker. Additionally, the sound is optimized using Dolby Audio. Just a tip: Don't turn off Dolby Audio. When it's disabled, the audio is significantly reduced, producing a sound barely audible from a couple feet away.

The Moto G6 would be easier to recommend if its price tag were a bit less. At $249.99, it's $50 more than the Honor 7X, which is a better budget phone for video consumption. And for $20 more dollars, you can get the Nokia 6.1 which offers a better experience, whether you are watching videos or doing anything else. However, if front-firing speakers are must, this is your only option, and a solid choice that is better than many others which didn't make our list.

Conclusion

When you think of budget phones, you frequently think about compromising. Because of your tight budget, you are simply getting the "least sucky" phone. However, as you can see with our list, you can get true value under $400. No longer do you need to spend $600+ to enjoy your favorite movies and TV shows. With each of our choices, you can enjoy your favorite movie or binge your favorite shows, wherever you travel.

If $400 is your max, there is no better choice than the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra. It has the largest screen on our list, a midrange SoC with a fast modem, high screen-to-body ratio, and fantastic battery life. No other phones at this price tag will offer you a better experience. If you want to keep it under $300, the Nokia 6.1 is your best bet, as it's simply a cut above the rest of the phones in its price range.

Cover image by Jon Knight/Gadget Hacks

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