Are you considering a new mobile phone but don’t want to pay $600 to $1200? This may be a golden age for your golden years – at least as far as phones are concerned.

While seniors usually don’t live on their phones like their children or grandchildren, we’re starting to find more uses for our phones. But we don’t want to break the bank or feel like we’re forced to pay more than we want for a new one.

The phone providers may have picked up our vibe. The $400 phone market is white hot competitively. In the past year, Google released its Pixel 3a, and Apple followed up with the iPhone SE2020 just a few months ago. As we prepared this article, word leaked that Google’s Pixel 4a may be on sale by the time you read this.

The choices are amazing and overwhelming, but we think you’ll be a winner no matter which phone you buy – today or in the next three to six weeks. Before you head to off to an online search to do your homework, you should ask yourself a couple of questions:

  1. What am I using my phone for?
  2. Where should I buy it?

There is no argument that a flip phone or very basic smart phone fits the need for many seniors.

The flip phone lets you talk to people with the same service and quality as the latest and greatest offerings from those who specialize in delivering more bells and whistles than many can imagine. But what may really ring your bell is price. If that’s the case, you can find phones from $100 to $150. You’ll even be able to send and receive text messages, and a basic smartphone will even let you use email and browse websites.

The caveat is you get what you pay for. With a flip phone, windows are small, so you’ll either need to receive only short messages (as SMS technology was first designed) or prepare to scroll to read texts, and the system for sending them on a numeric keypad is cumbersome. Forget about email, the internet and taking or viewing photos.

The basic smartphone will handle email and let you access the internet, and it should have a camera for photos and videos. But the screens will be small, and image quality will be poor, especially if your eyesight isn’t what used to be.

The $400 Bargain

By stepping up to $400 for a mobile phone, you’ll essentially open the same doors (or internet windows) as those with much more expensive phones. And you’ll sacrifice very little, if anything, by getting a phone in this price range. Even Apple is in on this trend with one of the two phones that are generally top-rated for the money.

Apple’s iPhone SE and Google’s Pixel 3a were at the top of the class as we wrote this. We have every confidence the Pixel 4a and any iPhone that comes along will remain at the top. They let you do everything your grandkids can do at a price you and your kids will like.

If this is your first venture into a smartphone, the key difference is their operating systems. The iPhone SE uses the Apple iOS, and the Google Pixel 3a uses Google’s Android OS, which it shares with basically every phone that’s not an Apple.

Our purpose is not to get into the details of how each phone works or tell you which one is better. I personally like Google phones for their combination of price, quality and features, while others prefer Apple for their quality and features. Apple has always been more expensive, but the $400 price tag seems to have leveled this playing field.

So, what makes the iPhone SE special? We think it’s the combination of old and new. The “old” part is that it has the look and feel of the iPhone 8, the last iPhone with the home button, and with its 4.7-inch screen, it’s roughly the same size. The “new” part is on the inside. It shares the processor of iPhone 11, giving you speed and quality graphics, both of which are critical as you find yourself using your phone for more than a few basics.

You also get the same battery-life expectations and wireless charging as well as 64 or 128 GB of storage for handling more photo and video files and mobile applications. You won’t get the same camera as the latest iPhone, but the SE’s camera is more than adequate for most people. If you want a better camera, step up the iPhone XR for another $200.

If you’re replacing an older iPhone, having Apple’s latest OS means you should have a phone that will last more than just a few years. That’s because you’ll get bug and security updates and some feature upgrades even as Apple goes to one or two new OS generations.

The Google Pixel 3a, my personal favorite, shares a lot of the technology from Google’s top-of-the-line phones. It has a high-quality processor, more than capable of meeting the graphics needs of even video gamers, which you could use to surprise your grandchildren. It’s been around a little longer than the iPhone SE, which means it’s due for an upgrade to push Apple.

For the same price, the Google 3a has a larger screen than the iPhone SE (almost 1 inch bigger when measured diagonally), but unlike the Apple, it has the top-of-the-line camera.

Its smart features include Now Playing, which recognizes music playing in your vicinity; Call Screen, which filters out incoming spam calls; and Active Edge, which allows you to launch Google Assistant. You also get 64 GB of storage and free unlimited high-quality photo storage with Google Photos. It also has an audio jack and a fast charger that gives you seven hours of battery life in just 15 minutes.

There’s also NFC support for Google Pay, which means you can leave your credit card in your wallet or at home. For another $80, you can get the Pixel 3a XL with a larger screen.

Upping the Ante

The Pixel 4a should raise the stakes based on what we’ve seen in all the prerelease speculation. It looks like Google will hold the $400 price (which means the 3a price will drop) and keep the same $80 upcharge for the larger display in the XL.

In summary, the new features in the Pixel 4a include a slightly larger screen with higher resolution for better viewing – and a better camera to match. It will retain the headphone jack, which many will appreciate because they won’t need to invest in wireless earbuds.

From the side-by-side comparisons we’ve seen, the specs for the Google Pixel 4a and iPhone SE2020 are essentially the same. If you’re an Apple fan or Pixel fan, you will be happy with either choice.

The Android OS for mobile phones gives you more flexibility in choosing the phone’s manufacturer. We’ve seen a lot of good reviews for the Nokia 7.2, which is $50 cheaper than the Pixel 3a and has a larger screen. It runs Android One, which has its pros and cons. Its more stripped-down code helps the phone operate faster, and it will get fast version updates for two years and security updates for three years. But it may not give you may not get all the bells and whistles you’ll find on other phones.

If you want to drop down below $400, you can consider the Moto G7 from Motorola, which has a good camera, and Samsung’s Galaxy A50, which also has a good camera and fast-charge capability.

Once you decide on what phone to buy, you’ll need to decide where to buy it. In broad general terms, you can get your phone from a carrier (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.), online, from a manufacturer’s store or website or from a retailer.

Buying from a carrier can get you a huge discount on the phone, but you get a “locked” phone. This means you’re generally locked into a phone will only work on that carrier’s network and a contract. If the phone and carrier have a good combination of features, you can do OK. but in our experience, buying the phone from your carrier is limiting.

The other options give you an “unlocked” phone, which makes you a free agent for choosing your carrier and switching carriers. You will need to pay for the phone up front (carriers build the cost into a monthly lease), but you’ll get more flexibility.

If you buy your phone online, you’ll need to set it up yourself or get help from a third-party, such as a family member, friend, or IT consultant. Setup involves transferring all your data (contacts, email, photos, etc.) to the cloud by backing up your old phone. Then, you can complete the setup by transferring it all from the cloud to your new phone.

It’s similar to the process of setting up a new computer. As long as you’re comfortable with doing this or having someone do it for you, the online market can net you the best purchase price, although manufacturers’ stores and retailers can match the price you find.

Going to a store lets you compare the look and feel of several phones. Of course, at the Apple Store, you’ll only compare Apple phones, but you can see if the Apple SE or another model is to your liking. If you go to a manufacturer’s store, you’ll get more hands-on help with transferring data from your old phone to your new one.

Going to a retailer, such as Best Buy, Walmart or Target, will let you compare several models from multiple manufacturers. Depending on the retailer and the people on hand to serve you, the quality of the information and level of help will vary.

In the end, the phone you buy and where you buy it depends on the phone you want, the carrier you want, and your comfort level with the people you buy it from.

Gene Rubel

Gene Rubel is a tech consultant and writer based in Sandy Springs.