The best smartphones you can buy in 2023, like the iPhone 14 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, pack amazing specs, incredible cameras and potent processors, but they also come with huge prices of $1,000 or more. Even more budget-focused Android phones like Google's Pixel 7 can still set you back big bucks, so if you're shopping on a tight budget your options might seem limited. But buying a used phone can be a great option -- even a few hundred bucks can get you a phone that'll easily handle all your everyday needs, with plenty of additional cool features thrown in.
But what's the best use of your money: buying a used flagship phone from a couple of years ago or spending the same money on a brand-new budget phone? Will the performance be as good? Can they handle the same tasks? And are they both safe to use?
Read more: Best Phone to Buy in 2023
To find out, I pitted two phones against each other. One is the Samsung Galaxy S20, a phone that launched in early 2020 and received a very positive review from CNET when we first got our hands on it. I picked it up preowned in the UK in mid-2022 for only £243 (about $290). Available new for around that price is the OnePlus Nord CE 2 Lite, a phone with solid specs and a price of only £279 (that converts to around $333, but this phone is not available in the US).
The point here is not to compare two random phones and tell you which of them to buy. Instead I'm using these phones simply as examples of what you can get with this kind of budget, both for new and used phones, and hopefully to provide some guidance on how you can get the most for your money. So let's dive in.
Cheap used phone, cheap new phone
The Galaxy S20 was a powerhouse of its day, packing potent specs, 5G connectivity and a multiple camera setup on the back that can take gorgeous photos. It first went on sale for £899 ($999) so the price I got it for as a used model is a huge saving. But then the cheaper OnePlus also has 5G and also has multiple rear cameras and its processor is capable of handling everything from Instagramming to gaming.
The Galaxy S20 has a much more powerful processor and its rear camera setup takes better images and includes a superwide angle option not found on the Nord. Its flagship design makes it feel like the more premium device as well. It also offers waterproofing and wireless charging, neither of which are offered on the budget Nord CE 2 Lite. But the Nord has one major thing on its side; its age.
New phones get regular security updates from manufacturers, making sure that cybercriminals can't exploit any holes in your phone's defenses that could compromise your privacy. As phones age they eventually get cut off from this support, usually after a few years. A phone that no longer gets security updates is vulnerable to attack as those holes in your defense are no longer being patched. Once a hole is found, it's open for any attacker to take advantage of for as long as you use the phone.
As a result, it's simply not safe to use a phone outside of its support period. OnePlus has promised that the Nord CE 2 Lite will receive three years of security updates from when it launched, which means it will be safe to use until at least April 2025. Samsung announced it will support its phones for longer than it's previously done, giving the S20 5G four years of security updates -- and some of its more recent handsets will get updates for even longer. But the S20 is already three years old, so it'll still only get updates until February 2024 -- at least a year less than the OnePlus.
Read more: That Used or Refurbished Android Phone Might Be Unsafe
So while used flagships like the S20 5G offer a more premium experience overall, their usable lifespan is likely to be shorter. But two years is still a good amount of time, particularly if you're looking for a cheaper phone simply to tide you over for a year or so. Buying a used flagship that's a year or two old can be a superb way of putting great tech in your pocket on the cheap. You can buy newer models for more money that will be supported for longer, or you can buy much older ones for low prices -- but these may be out of support and so should not be on your shopping list.
Only you can decide what's more important to you; longer support, higher-end performance or price. Buying used or new means balancing those three elements, but neither option is necessarily 'better' than the other. It's just down to what makes sense for your needs or budget. For my money with these phones, I'd opt for the S20 5G. It's still got plenty of support time left and its overall performance -- especially from its cameras -- would make it more usable for me on a day-to-day basis. But read on to see more details on how the S20 5G and the Nord CE 2 Lite compare.
Processor performance: Galaxy S20 beats Nord CE 2 Lite
My S20 5G runs an Exynos 990 processor -- Samsung's top processor at the phone's launch -- with 12GB of RAM, while the Nord CE 2 Lite uses a lower-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 695 chip with 8GB of RAM.
In our suite of benchmark tests, the Galaxy S20 was the clear winner, with better performance observed for both multicore processing and graphics. You can see the full breakdown of score on the bar graph below, but the takeaway here is that despite being an older phone, its potent specs still make it a strong performer today.
But while there might be a difference on benchmark tests, in everyday use that difference isn't especially noticeable. General navigation around each phone is swift and free of any annoying lag, opening apps feels instant and opening the camera is maybe a half second faster on the S20. Video streaming is handled just fine on both phones, as is gaming in demanding games like Asphalt 9: Legends, even with the settings set to maximum.
Sure, the older S20 5G is the more powerful handset on paper, but today's budget phones still pack a punch and aren't likely to let you down when you put them through their paces.
Winner: The S20's superior performance does technically outshine the Nord's, but in everyday use you're unlikely to notice much difference. With today's budget phones offering enough power for most tasks, most people won't need the extra power offered by older flagships.
Camera: Older flagship takes better photos
Although it was the Galaxy S20 Ultra that packed the most impressive camera setup, the base S20 that I'm using here still has a great set of lenses on the back, including a standard view, an ultrawide and a 3x optical zoom. The OnePlus Nord CE 2 Lite has a standard view and a 2x optical zoom. Immediately then, those of you looking for grand, sweeping wide-angle landscapes will be better suited with the triple camera array of the S20.
And it's the better camera in everyday use, too, with better, more accurate colors, more pleasing contrast and sharper details.
Winner: The Galaxy S20's triple rear camera takes shots with better exposure, colors and contrast. Its zoom is longer and its additional wide-angle lens lets you capture images that the Nord CE 2 Lite simply can't manage. As a flagship of its day, the S20 was equipped with a stellar camera system and it's clear that it's still a great photography tool today.
Battery, display, design and extras
The S20 packs a 4,000-mAh battery that's smaller than the 5,000-mAh cell inside the Nord CE 2 Lite. I expected stronger battery life from the Nord as a result, but after 1 hour of YouTube streaming, both phones had dropped from full to 92% and after a further hour the Nord was at 82% while the S20 was at 83%. In general use, both phones seem to offer roughly similar battery performance, which I found surprising.
Batteries in phones do age over time, even if they're not heavily used. I even had to replace a battery myself on an iPhone 6 as it had aged so much. Two years might not be a huge amount of time, but I did expect to see poorer performance from the S20 here and it's certainly a mark in its favor that it put up such a fight. Do keep in mind though that older phone batteries might have aged and it's still generally a smart move to charge your phone every night, whether it's used or brand-new.
The S20's display is smaller (6.2 inches versus 6.59 inches) but it's got a higher resolution and its AMOLED tech makes it brighter and more vibrant than the Nord's, so watching videos or playing colorful games is a generally nicer experience on the S20. Physically the S20 feels like a proper flagship phone with a glass and metal construction that feels a lot more luxurious than the quite plasticky Nord CE 2 Lite.
You'll also find additional features on the S20 like an in-screen fingerprint scanner (rather than a side-mounted one on the Nord) and an IP68 rating to keep water at bay. The Nord does let you expand its 128GB of storage, however, whereas the S20 does not. The Nord also has a 3.5mm headphone jack that will be helpful to those of you still using wired headphones.
Winner: The S20's premium design, more vibrant display, water resistance rating and comparable battery life will make this phone more enjoyable to use on a daily basis and they're great reasons to consider a recent, used flagship phone over a new budget handset.
Security: The Nord CE 2 Lite gives peace of mind for a bit longer
Because any phone that doesn't have the latest security patches is extremely vulnerable to being hacked, software security on an older handset is an even bigger deal than it normally is. Most Android manufacturers tend to support their phones for two to three years, then effectively cut them loose as it becomes too time-consuming to keep updating older models.
With the Nord being a brand-new phone and OnePlus promising to support its phones with security updates for three years, it's safe to assume the Nord CE 2 Lite will still be safe to use in April 2025. The S20 5G will likely lose security support around Feb 2024. That's a whole year less usable time than the Nord but it's still at least a full year of good use from now, which is the minimum you should consider.
Personally I'd consider one to two years to be enough time to justify going with the older flagship -- as long as the price reflected the phone's age -- but if it were an even older model like the Galaxy S9 that was already -- or about to be -- cut off then I wouldn't even entertain the idea. Using a phone outside of its support period simply isn't safe. If you're keen to squeeze every month of usable life out of this purchase then the new budget phone may be the better option, but make sure to check when each phone is likely to lose support. Companies offer different support periods, particularly with more recent models, so you may find the difference isn't all that much.
Winner: When your phone receives an update also depends on your carrier, but as the newer phone, the win technically goes to the OnePlus Nord CE 2 Lite. However, the S20 still has at least a full year of life ahead of it, which makes it still worth considering.
Which should you buy?
I first wrote this article in 2020 based on a three-year-old phone that was right on the cusp of being cut off from its security support. Then, the choice was clear: The old flagship would soon be unsafe to use, so it was much smarter to opt for the new budget phone. Having updated the article with a new comparison, though, the S20 5G I've tested still has at least a year of usable life ahead of it, which makes it worth considering -- especially when buying used means keeping another phone out of landfill.
And that time spent with an older flagship like the S20 will likely be more enjoyable than buying a new budget phone, thanks to its better cameras, its nicer screen and its more luxurious design, build and features like waterproofing. It's a great device that offers a hell of a lot considering the low price I paid for it on the used market.
So do consider buying used -- it's a great way of putting awesome tech in your pocket, not overstretching your budget and rescuing an otherwise great phone from landfill. But it's important to shop smart: Buy from a trusted source (I used MusicMagpie in the UK, but Gazelle performs an identical service in the US) and make sure it's recent enough that it'll still receive security updates for at least a year or two.