The best mid-range smartphones of 2013

Middle of the road is a term which is commonly used to describe something that is a bit bland, a bit boring – but that’s not the case with smartphones. Oh no, not at all. In fact, mid-range handsets can be quite superb things.

You aren’t going to get the all-guns-blazing features you see at the high-end, but you break away from the serious constraints budget handsets have to contend with, and the results can be surprising. Makers can sometimes push one single feature hard – Huawei’s Ascend P6 is the thinnest phone you’ll find at any price. Or they can combine features to give superb value for money as Google does with its Nexus 5.

The first trick when looking at mid-range handsets is to work out where in the middle you sit. The £300 or so range in the price bracket leaves makers a lot of leeway when picking components, and your task as a buyer can be difficult because of that. The second trick is to decide what you want the most. Screen quality and size? Sheer oomph? A good all round balance?

Sort those two concerns out in your mind and you’ll find that while mid-range handsets can’t do everything, they can do some things really well.

Google Nexus 5 (£299)

Google’s Nexus range of handsets has consistently won plaudits for offering superb value for money, and the Nexus 5 continues that run. It isn’t quite perfect, but it is a jolly fine phone nonetheless.

The let downs come in the shape of its disappointing battery life and the lack of microSD card support. Fans of good quality sound from their phone might also be disappointed by the on-board speaker, and the chassis design won’t win any prizes.

But the plusses are many and varied. This is a 4G supporting handset with NFC built in. And, most importantly for anyone who likes Android, the Nexus is the only phone you can buy that runs Android 4.4 (KitKat). This is because the Nexus is made by Google, and of course Google looks after its own first.

The screen is absolutely superb. At just a shade under 5in and with a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution it is a stunner. The processor is a doozy too – a 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800. This phone is fast and whatever you’re doing, from reading web pages to watching video, the Nexus 5 does not disappoint in performance terms.

As far as mid-range Android handsets are concerned, the Google Nexus 5 is a really hard act to beat at £299.

HTC One mini (£350)

The HTC One was an extremely popular handset, and so inevitably there have been follow-up phones. The One mini is, as you will probably surmise, a smaller handset than the One, and takes a lot of design cues from its namesake.

One of these cues is an aluminium backplate that lends a real air of quality to this phone. Another is a pair of speaker grilles at the top and bottom of the chassis. These do make the One mini a bit tall, but they’re outlets for twin speakers which deliver great quality sound. The 4.3in screen is about the smallest size you can get away with for video watching and web browsing these days, and it is a pleasure to use.

This is a 4G supporting phone, but there’s no NFC here. There’s no memory expansion either, but the One mini does have 16GB of internal storage (of which 11GB is available to the user, or at least that was the case with my review handset). HTC has built its news and social app BlinkFeed into the One mini, and also includes Zoe, its “life in a day” image app. They’re both standard for HTC these days.

The HTC One mini isn’t quite as stunning as the HTC One, but there are some great features here.

Blackberry Z30 (£438)

We all know BlackBerry is having a tough time at the moment, and the company has some work to do if it is to regain the prominence it once had – to put it mildly. But if you are a fan of the BlackBerry 10 OS and like large-sized handsets, then the BlackBerry Z30 could be a good choice.

BlackBerry OS 10 has had an update since it first appeared, and you get the latest version here with some enhancements to the way a key feature of the OS – the Hub – works to help reduce any sense of information overload.

The screen is not phablet sized – it’s 5in – but this is still the biggest BlackBerry to date and at that size web browsing and video watching are handled nicely. And if you want to share what’s on the screen with a larger display there’s a microHDMI port that allows you to do just that.

While the processor is dual rather than quad-core, it is fast enough, and the 11GB of available storage can be boosted with a microSD card. This is a 4G handset, too.

Of all the phones in this mid-range group the BlackBerry Z30 has the most solid build quality. It feels like something of real substance in the hand.

Nokia Lumia 720 (£270)

There are many phones in the Lumia range, and they aren’t all of the same quality, but the Lumia 720 is a good mid-range handset. It’s nicely built if a little chunky, and has a rubbery finish which facilitates an easy grip and is extremely rigid. If you are a butterfingers this handset might appeal as it’s a very solid piece of hardware.

The screen is veering towards the small side at just 4.3in, but of course that helps make this a relatively pocket-friendly handset. And, as with other smartphones in the Lumia range, you can use the screen while wearing gloves.

On board memory is limited to 8GB but you can add to that with a microSD card. Because you can’t remove the back of this phone the card – and your Sim – go in slots on the edges. This isn’t a 4G handset, so you can forget super-fast mobile surfing.

When it comes to the performance of this handset, there are slight elements of lag, probably because the dual-core processor only has 512MB of RAM to back it up. This isn’t a big issue, but it’s perhaps something to take note of. There’s nothing that especially stands out about the Lumia 720, but on the other hand it is a very solid mid-range Lumia, and it’s nicely priced – in fact it’s the cheapest phone here going by current prices.

Huawei Ascend P6 (£315)

I’ve got a serious soft spot for the Huawei Ascend P6 which was the world’s thinnest smartphone when it launched at 6.18mm. It retains that accolade and unless you’ve held one in your hands you may find it hard to believe how thin that really is. To complement the thinness the overall chassis design is pretty neat and tidy, and includes a brushed metal backplate which looks and feels great.

This isn’t a 4G handset, nor does it have NFC built in, but it still manages to appeal. The screen is superb, and at 4.7in it’s large enough for video watching while leaving the phone itself compact enough to slip into smaller pockets.

It is nice to see a quad-core processor in use, and there’s plenty of RAM – 2GB – to help keep things moving along nicely. Huawei is one of those companies that likes to put a fairly complex skin over Android, and that includes some useful features like a carousel-style profile switcher as well as an enormous themes gallery.

All these add-ons mean a reduction in the headline 8GB of free storage to just 4GB, but there’s a microSD card slot for storage expansion if you need it.