Cheap Phones Ranked: The 4 Most Durable Budget Phones for Clumsy People

The 4 Most Durable Budget Phones for Clumsy People

Clumsiness is the great equalizer when it comes to smartphones — it makes no distinction between the most expensive flagship handset and cheaper mid-range models. A hard drop onto pavement will usually result in a shattered screen, regardless of how pricey your device is. And with a smartphone breaking every two seconds, we're truly our own handset's ultimate nemesis.

Thankfully, more and more manufacturers are realizing this unfortunate fact, so they've started using premium materials such as Gorilla Glass and aluminum frames even when their phones don't cost an arm and a leg. Not only does this give mid-tier handsets a more flagship feel, but it also improves their overall durability.

With a huge variety of budget handsets available, we wanted to see which ones were more rugged and resistant to clumsiness. So we tested the most popular mid-range handsets and came up with a list of the four phones that were all but klutz-proof. After quite a bit of research and experimentation, here are our picks.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

Key Comparison Points

Our primary goal was to determine which of the most popular current-generation handsets available in the US are ideally suited for people with clumsy tendencies. In order to do this, we came up with the following comparison points.

  • Chassis: To strike that fine balance between aesthetics and durability, a phone must be well-made using quality materials to make this list. Handsets like the Nokia 6 that are clad in an aluminum unibody shell are ideal in this regard, as it offers maximum protection against drops, while giving the device a premium feeling on par with more expensive flagship phones.
  • Glass Panel: Smartphones use different types of glass panels to protect their displays. These panels have varying degrees of anti-shatter and anti-scratch technologies, and the best protection available right now is Gorilla Glass 5. While we don't expect mid-level devices to sport the latest Gorilla Glass 5, we made sure to choose handsets that come standard with Gorilla Glass 3 or equivalent at a minimum.
  • Fingerprint Sensor: The use of high-end materials on smaller components like the fingerprint sensor not only lends to a phone's premium feel, but also adds to the overall sturdiness of the handset. A scratched or cracked sensor can hinder a phone's ability to read fingerprints.
  • Camera Lens: A scratched camera lens can affect a phone's photo quality, and a cracked lens can do the same, in addition to compromising a handset's resistance to water and other contaminants. A sapphire crystal lens is harder than glass, which makes this component more durable.
  • Water Resistance: Unfortunately, today's mid-level handsets don't offer any official IP ratings for water and dirt resistance, mainly to keep their prices as low as possible. The Moto G5 Plus has a leg up over its competition in this regard, as it's coated with a water-repellent finish that offers some degree of protection against the elements.
  • Removable Battery: Batteries will need to be replaced sooner or later, so devices with removable batteries (such as the US variant of the Galaxy J7 Prime) hold an advantage over the rest of the phones in this list. Apart from that, handsets with removable batteries are significantly safer and easier to perform repairs on, so you usually won't pay as much when you need something fixed.
  • Screen Replacement: Shattered screens are the most common reason a phone comes in for repairs, so it's important to know how easy it is to replace a phone's screen assembly. The easier it is to replace a screen, the less risk there will be in breaking other components while performing the repair. To gauge this repair's overall difficulty, we determined which handsets required the fewest steps to safely replace a screen assembly.
  • Charging Port Replacement: The charging port is another major component that's likely to break due to wear and tear from its constant cycle of plugging and unplugging. Thankfully, more and more handsets, regardless of price, are taking the modular approach in terms of engineering, making repairs on smaller parts such as charging ports easier to perform.
  • Screen Assembly Price: Affordable spare parts translate to cheaper repairs, giving the user more incentive to repair his or her shattered device. Data for parts was sourced from Parts4Repair and Mobile Defenders. Screen assemblies (made up of the LCD display and protective glass panel) were given as primary examples, since these parts represent a majority of mobile repairs. Please note that prices listed are only for the part alone and subject to change.
  • Drop Tests: Drop tests are usually done in varying heights, starting from about three feet, and they help us see how well a handset will hold up if it takes a tumble. The data listed here was sourced from various YouTube channels. As we found no drop tests done on the stateside variant of the J7 Prime, we decided to analyze tests done on the international version of the J7, paying very close attention to front-facing drops due to their similarity.
  • Water Immersion Test: These tests involve immersing a device in a bowl of water, usually lasting about a minute, to determine how well it's protected against liquid damage. The data here was also sourced from various YouTube channels. As we found no water immersion tests done on the stateside variant of the J7 Prime, we decided to analyze tests done on the international version of the J7 as they are similarly built, apart from the metal construction and non-removable battery found on the latter.
  • Ergonomics: Ease of use is a vital feature that every great smartphone has. A phone that is easy to manipulate with one hand has fewer chances of accidental slips and falls. Key factors in determining a handset's ergonomics are how easy it is to grip, and the ease with which we can reach all corners of the screen and external keys with one hand.
  • Slip Resistance: A smartphone's overall texture goes hand in hand with its ergonomics. To get this data, we used the same tilting rig we devised to determine the four best premium phones for clumsy people, which measured the angle (in degrees) where each phone started to slip on multiple surfaces, then averaged the numbers out.

How We Picked These Phones

We had to set some ground rules to determine which handsets would make the cut. First, the handsets had to be current-generation mid-tier devices with prices ranging between $200 and $400, and they had to be available for purchase in the US at the time of this writing.

Another important consideration in our final selection was overall build quality. A handset with a glass enclosure will naturally be more susceptible to shattering during a fall or a bad bend, so we had to rule out devices with glass backs, along with any phones that used a display panel made of Gorilla Glass 2 or less.

Finally, we ruled out phones that needed to be completely disassembled in order to perform a screen repair. The likelihood of doing further damage to a phone with a cracked screen increases with every extra step, especially if you intend on doing any repairs yourself.

As a result, we disqualified these potential contenders for not meeting our criteria:

  • Alcatel Idol 5s (glass enclosure, parts hard to find)
  • Apple iPhone 5s (discontinued)
  • Asus Zenfone 3 Zoom (complete disassembly for screen repair)
  • Huawei Honor 6x (front glass not scratch resistant, failed durability test)
  • Huawei Honor 8 (glass enclosure, complete disassembly for screen repair)
  • Sony Xperia XA Ultra (plastic lens, complete disassembly for screen repair)
  • ZTE Axon 7 Mini (complete disassembly for screen repair, parts hard to find)
  • ZTE ZMax Pro (poor ergonomics, complete disassembly for screen repair)

You don't have to be an expert to know how fluid the mobile industry is nowadays. In a never-ending bid to outdo each other, major companies like Samsung are constantly releasing ever more advanced smartphones that will inevitably render some handsets on this list obsolete. That said, we'll be sure to update this article as soon as upcoming devices like the IP68-rated Moto X4 and aluminum-clad Samsung Galaxy C7 touch down stateside for us to analyze and review.

Phone 1. iPhone SE

Released back in March 2016, the iPhone SE still continues to be Apple's sole entry-level smartphone for budget-minded consumers. The iPhone SE is basically an iPhone 6s crammed into a 5s frame, and despite its age, it's undoubtedly the most popular budget handset out there. Thanks to its 64-bit architecture and modern internals, the SE will be supported by Apple well into the future, including the upcoming iOS 11 and subsequent incremental updates. With a starting price of $399, though, the SE is the most expensive smartphone to make our list.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

The SE sports premium materials such as an almost-all aluminum unibody frame and high quality ion-strengthened glass that's equivalent to at least Gorilla Glass 3 in terms of resistance to cracks and scratches. The iPhone SE is the only handset in this list that uses sapphire crystal for its camera lens, albeit impure. According to JerryRigEveryting, the camera lens in an iPhone SE is actually a mixture of sapphire crystal and glass, and contains trace amounts of carbon and silicon that make it less resistant to cracks and scratches.

Anyone who's ever owned Apple's 5s series handsets will feel right at home with the iPhone SE, as they share the same dimensions. Coming in at 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 inches in size, the iPhone SE is hands down the most ergonomic phone in our list. Button placement is also intuitive, with very minimal hand movement required to reach out for its external keys.

When it comes to overall repairability, the iPhone SE reigns supreme over the handsets in this list. The SE is very easy to disassemble — simply unscrew the bottom screws, then pry the screen assembly off the housing while being careful not to tear the home button cable located on the bottom. From there, simply unscrew the reinforcement plate and unplug the connectors to separate the screen assembly from the housing.

iPhone SE opened up, with the LCD assembly connector plate removed. Image by JerryRigEverything/YouTube

Screen assemblies for the iPhone SE are incredibly easy to find, and with an average price of $25, it's the cheapest to repair out of all the phones in the list. Just note that small components, such as the home button and earpiece/proximity sensor assembly, will need to be transplanted onto the new assembly, so care must be taken when performing this repair.

Because of how easy it is to open the SE up, repairs on other parts, such as the battery and charging port, are also simple when compared to the other phones in this list. The parts are modular, and replacing a broken charging ports is just a matter of removing screws that hold the part in place.

The iPhone SE performed very well in drop tests, as shown by EverythingApplePro. The device survived drops ranging from about three feet to six feet onto pavement, with the screen finally succumbing from about a 10-foot drop. The housing also bent under the strain of multiple drops from about 10 feet, which also caused the top of the housing to separate from the beating it took.

Bent housing on an SE after a drop from 10 feet. Image by EverythingApplePro/YouTube

A durability test by JerryRigEverything on the iPhone SE showed the handset bending under strain, exposing the weak spots in the SE's aluminum frame, namely the thin areas around the volume keys and the SIM card tray. Though the SE is easy enough to bend back into shape in the event of an accident, the areas mentioned will remain deformed, so we recommend not keeping your iPhone SE in you rear pocket and sitting on it.

Image by JerryRigEverything/YouTube

The iPhone SE has no official IP ratings for water and dirt resistance, so appropriate care must be taken whenever you're near water. Due to its tight tolerances, the SE should offer some degree of protection against unforeseen occurrences like getting caught in the rain, though more severe exposure to liquid such as an accidental drop in the sink will lead to severe damage of the device.

Phone 2. Nokia 6

Finland-based HMD Global secured the rights to manufacture phones under the legendary Nokia brand in 2016, then released their first Android device shortly after in January 2017. The Nokia 6 definitely didn't disappoint — it sold out in one minute when the first batch became available. Starting out at an incredibly reasonable $229 (almost half the price of an iPhone SE), you get a powerful smartphone with external specs on par with flagship models.

The Nokia 6 runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat out the box, and there's a promised update to 8.0 Oreo on the way. So while HMD doesn't have much of a track record yet when it comes to updating phones, it appears the Nokia 6 is the most future-proof device in this list in terms of software, which is a huge bonus given that there's no successor to the Nokia 6 on the horizon yet.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

The Nokia 6 stands out for its build quality and materials used. Its main housing is milled from a single block of aluminum, which gives it strength and rigidity when compared to phones that use a pressed aluminum housing.

The Nokia 6 is the largest handset in our list, measuring 6.06 x 2.98 x 0.31 in inches. Despite its size, the 6 is relatively easy to use with one hand thanks to its design. Its width is greatly offset by a gently sloping back, making it comfortable to grip. The texture on the housing has a subtle grit to it that's apparent when held, giving the user a very secure feeling when holding the handset.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

The beautifully engineered Nokia 6 gets high marks for overall durability. The use of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 and high quality aluminum gives it superb protection against drops, dings, and bending. One notable durability test performed by JerryRigEverything showed the Nokia 6's incredible resistance to bending, leaving the YouTuber to declare the device as a "definite contender for the most durable phone of 2017."

Spare parts are available and relatively easy to source online, though they aren't as widespread compared to the iPhone SE and J7 Prime. With an average screen price of $67, the cost of repairing a Nokia 6 with a shattered screen is quite reasonable and won't put too much of a dent in your wallet.

As far as overall repairability is concerned, the Nokia 6 is a double-edged sword. As JerryRigEverything's video clearly shows, replacing a damaged screen assembly on a Nokia 6 is incredibly easy — simply heat up and remove the display assembly, unscrew a locking plate and unplug the connector, then install the new screen. From a repair technician's perspective, you couldn't ask for anything more!

The Nokia 6 with the screen assembly off. Image by JerryRigEverything/YouTube

However, replacing a charging port or another damaged internal component can be problematic, as the display assembly is very thin and fragile. This means it can easily be damaged during removal, which is necessary to access the rest of the phone. Though parts are modular and very easy to replace once inside, we would highly recommend letting an experienced technician repair broken charging ports or replace batteries due to the high risk of breaking the display.

The lack of any water resistance rating against liquids and dirt means care must be taken when using your Nokia 6 when around water. Unlike higher end flagships like the upcoming Nokia 8, we highly recommend not taking the 6 to the shower with you to listen to music.

Phone 3. Moto G5 Plus

The Moto G5 Plus may not be at the top of this list, but don't let that fool you into thinking that it's somehow less durable than the iPhone SE or Nokia 6. In many respects, the Moto G5 Plus outshines both phones in terms of overall durability. A relatively new device that touched down in April 2017, the Moto G5 Plus can be purchased at around $230.

It lags behind when it comes to software and future-proofing with an already-outdated Android 7.0 Nougat as its OS. And Motorola's new parent company Lenovo has demonstrated that they're not capable of handling updates well. But since this list is mostly about hardware, the Moto G5 Plus is still a great choice if you're looking for a beautifully built and sturdy handset on a budget. Those who value online security, however, may want to look to the Nokia 6 or iPhone SE due to their updated and secure software.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

The G5 Plus has a thoughtful design that utilizes a plastic frame with a metallic finish, which is accentuated by an aluminum rear plate and buttons. So it's no surprise that the handset performed the best overall on drop tests. A notable series of tests done by Wit Rigs showed the device surviving drops from heights ranging from three to more than six feet onto stone tiles and pavement, all without so much as a crack in the display.

The plastic frame acts as a shock absorber that prevents energy from transferring over to the glass panel in a fall, particularly in in corner drops, which helps protect the screen from shattering upon impact. Despite sporting a plastic frame, the Moto G5 Plus is highly resistant to bending, thanks to two metal plates — one in the rear, and another situated between the motherboard and display assembly — that greatly aid in the handset's overall structural rigidity.

Note the plate covering the motherboard, which keeps the Moto G5 Plus resistant to bending. Image by Fixez/YouTube

The Moto G5 Plus is also the only handset in this list that offers some form of protection against water and dirt. Though it doesn't bear an official IP rating against the elements, the handset is finished with a water repellent nano-coating to help defend against light splashes. Though the Moto G5 Plus was the only handset in this list to survive a water immersion test of about one minute without any instant or visible damage, we would still caution against careless use when around water or other liquids.

In terms of screen repair, the Moto G5 Plus is comparable to the Nokia 6, with one notable difference. Like the Nokia 6, disassembly starts by the separating the display from its housing through careful heating and prying. The key difference is that the Moto G5 Plus's display connectors lie underneath the metal reinforcement plating, which will then need to be removed in order to safely unplug the display and sensor connectors to completely separate the two assemblies.

This extra step makes replacing the screen a little bit trickier compared to the Nokia 6. Though the average screen price is quite reasonable at around $45, the extra labor involved will probably bring the repair price up to around the same cost as that of the Nokia 6.

Another key weakness becomes apparent once the G5 Plus is fully disassembled: A complete lack of modularity. Unlike the Nokia 6 and iPhone SE, the G5 Plus comes with its Micro USB port soldered directly onto the motherboard. If the charging port ever fails, it'll need to be taken to a technician that specializes in solder reworking.

The G5 Plus' motherboard — note the soldered-on charging port on the right-hand side. Image by Fixez/YouTube

Phone 4. Galaxy J7 Prime

With the Note 8 and Galaxy S8 garnering all the acclaim and attention, it's easy to overlook the other great smartphones Samsung offers. In fact, we often forget that Samsung has plenty of entry-level and mid-range smartphones that feature decent specs that will surely meet the needs of the average consumer.

Not to be confused with the international model of the same name, the US version of the Galaxy J7 Prime (also known as the Galaxy J7 V or Galaxy J7 2017) was released back in March 2017 and runs Android 7.0.1. Despite its relative weakness in terms of future-proofing due to a lack of OS and security updates, the $275 phone still gives budget-oriented users plenty of bang for their buck. That said, users who value online security may be better suited with the Nokia 6 or iPhone SE.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

Featuring a plastic shell enclosure, the Galaxy J7 Prime doesn't feel as premium as the other phones in this list, but this is somewhat offset by a Gorilla Glass 4 display panel that gives it a greater degree of protection against screen cracks. And despite having a plastic shell, the J7 Prime is still fairly rigid and offers decent protection against bending, thanks to a thick inner frame that houses the motherboard.

As there were no drop tests available for the U.S. version of the J7 Prime, we had to turn to drop tests done on its closest relative, the metal-bodied J7 Prime Duos, paying close attention to front-facing drop tests as they would apply to the stateside J7 variant. In drop tests done by XeeTechCare, the J7 Prime's screen survived intact from a front-facing drop at a height of at least 4 feet.

The J7 Prime is also the only handset in this list that features a removable battery, which gives you a lot more flexibility in terms of battery swaps due wear and tear, or having spares to switch batteries to get the most out of your device. This feature also makes the J7 Prime the safest in this list to disassemble with regards to minimizing accidental electrical shortage, which can cause irreparable damage to the phone.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

Like the Nokia 6, the J7 Prime's overall repairability has its shares of up and downs. In terms of screen replacement, the the J7 Prime tops the list due to its design. With a careful balance of heating and prying to loosen adhesive, the screen assembly will pop out, then it can be replaced after simply unplugging the ribbon connector and fastener. As easy as screen replacements are, however, the J7 Prime has the most expensive screen assembly on this list. With an average display assembly price of $135, expect to pay a premium on screen repairs.

The J7 Prime also shares the same inherent risks as the Nokia 6 and Moto G5 Plus as far as repairing a broken charging port or other parts due to its design. The paint underneath the glass panel can be easily scratched off, especially if using a metal pry tool. To complicate matters further, the charging port on a J7 Prime is directly soldered into the motherboard similar to the Moto G5 Plus. Therefore, we highly recommend taking the J7 Prime to an experienced technician for repairs performed under the hood.

The J7 Prime's charging port is soldered onto the motherboard. Image by Jose Morales/YouTube

Unlike its more famous flagship models, Samsung doesn't have an official IP rating for the J7 Prime in terms of water and dust resistance. The J7 Prime has looser tolerances as far as build quality is concerned, most notably around its rear housing due to its removable battery. An accidental drop in the toilet bowl will not only be gross, but will most likely translate to severe damage to the J7 Prime, so extreme caution must be taken when using the handset around water.

Conclusion

Though the iPhone SE won out in the end according to our research, it was by no means decisive. The Nokia 6 bested it in terms of structural integrity thanks to its rigid main housing, while the Motorola Moto G5 Plus proved to be the most resistant to screen damage. The J7 Prime is arguably safer to repair than the others thanks to its removable battery.

Honestly, any of the phones in this list would make a perfect digital companion for folks who find themselves frequently dropping their phones. Not only should they all hold up to the daily grind, but even if they do end up breaking, repairs shouldn't cost an arm and a leg.

Which mid-range smartphone would you recommend to your clumsy loved ones? As always, feel free to comment below and share your thoughts.

Cover image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

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