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Goodbye, iPhone: My new $180 Android is good enough

Could a model that's less than one-fourth the price of an iPhone possibly deliver the same mobile experience? I decided to find out.

iphone-6s-plus-and-nokia-6

The aluminum, $180 Nokia 6 (right) looks and feels as solid as the $800 iPhone 6s Plus.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

I've been an iPhone user since the beginning. Occasionally I've dabbled in Android, but my brain just likes iOS better.

My wallet, however, is increasingly frustrated. Although I've been perfectly happy with my iPhone 6S Plus, which I purchased nearly two years ago, the $849 price tag caused me considerable pain. Today's equivalent -- the 7 Plus with 128GB -- would run me $869

So when the time comes for a new phone, can I really justify that kind of expense again? Especially when there are countless Android-based phones that cost considerably less? The widely praised OnePlus 5, for example, starts at $479, while the similarly well-regarded Motorola Moto G5 Plus comes in at just $230.

Of course, phones like these couldn't possibly match an $800-plus iPhone, could they?

I decided to find out.

The $180 experiment

For one week, I put away my iPhone 6S Plus and switched to something comparable -- at least in terms of size. I definitely prefer a big screen, so I wanted to stay with a 5.5-inch display. (Actually, I think I'd be fine with 5.2 inches, which would afford even more choices on the Android side, but for now: apples to, er, Apples.) That ruled out an iPhone SE, which starts at $399 and has a mere 4-inch screen.

I also crossed out the aforementioned Moto and OnePlus, along with other pricier models, simply because I wanted to see "how low I could go" and still stay in the ballpark, performance-wise.

Ultimately I chose the new Nokia 6, which Amazon sells for $180 (with lockscreen ads and offers). It features a 5.5-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel screen, 32GB of expandable storage, the latest version of Android (7.1) and a fingerprint sensor. It also sports a metal frame, making this "cheap" phone feel like, well, my iPhone.

It has all the same core capabilities as well. It may not be as fast or have the same advanced cameras, but as long as I could make calls, send text messages, update Facebook, read ebooks, listen to music, get driving directions, check the weather and so on, I wasn't too concerned.

Because I'm accustomed to Lightning ports, though, I was very tempted to choose a model with a USB-C connector -- and very disappointed the Nokia 6 doesn't have it. I don't need a week to know that Micro-USB is flat-out evil, as you have to do a close-up inspection every time you insert a charge cable. Alas, not many sub-$300 phones have USB-C yet, though two other Amazon Prime-exclusives do: the $100 Alcatel A50 and $200 Alcatel Idol 5S.

Now Playing: Watch this: Nokia 6 is pure Android Nougat in a sleek aluminium body
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Day 1: Yep, I still don't like Android

This was never supposed to be about comparing operating systems. I knew there would be both learning and usability curves in moving from iOS to Android, even though I already had some experience with the latter. I just wanted to see if the hardware was comparable.

But when you're so accustomed to doing things a certain way, even small changes can prove vexing. For example, Android still doesn't have icon badges that show how many unread email, text or voicemail messages you have? That's insane. (Thankfully, badges are finally coming in Android O.) The massive clutter of notification icons along the top? Not a better solution, in my opinion, though I suppose I'll get used to it. Another annoyance: In iOS, you can tap the top of the screen in most apps to immediately scroll back to the top, but Android lacks that convenience.

On the other hand, I have so wished for a swipe keyboard that also affords immediate access to the microphone. It's ridiculous that iOS doesn't allow that, but Android, of course, does. Ahhhhh. Similarly, I love that my password manager (Dashlane) can integrate directly with apps, which makes it infinitely easier to sign into all the services I use regularly.

Bottom line: Any iPhone who user who switches to Android is likely to experience a mix of frustration and happiness -- probably more of the former, at least at first, because it's a difficult transition. But, again, this is about the hardware, so I'm spending the rest of my time focused on that.

Day 2: The screen

Apple constantly crows about its high-resolution Retina displays. That's understandable: The screen is arguably the most important component in any phone, so you want something sharp and bright. On the iPhone 6S Plus, that's a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution on a 5.5-inch screen -- very nice.

iphone-6s-plus-and-nokia-6-2

Screen quality is subjective, but I find my eye drawn to the image on the right. That's the Nokia 6. Both phones were set to a brightness level of 75 percent.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

The Nokia 6? Same: 5.5 inches, 1,920x1,080. That's pretty surprising given the huge discrepancy in price, and I actually thought certain colors appeared more vibrant on the Nokia. That's a subjective opinion, of course, but, again, we're talking about a $180 phone versus an $800 phone. You'd think the latter would be vastly superior.

Furthermore, I was duly impressed at how good the Nokia's screen looked in direct sunlight -- something I didn't expect at this price point. Side-by-side with my iPhone, it was just as readable.

Bottom line: Phone displays have gotten really good, even the "cheap" ones. I expected the Nokia's screen to be inferior somehow, but to my eyes it was easily as good as the iPhone's. If there's a reason to spend more on screen alone, I haven't found it.

Day 3: The speed

A slow phone is a frustrating phone. I rarely had performance complaints with the iPhone 6S Plus, which incorporates Apple's ostensibly super-advanced A9 chip. The Nokia uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 430, by all accounts a slower processor. I honestly didn't think this would be a big deal; who cares if the Facebook app loads a half-second slower?

Indeed, here's how I gauge speed: Do web pages load quickly and scroll smoothly in the browser? Do videos play without any kind of stuttering? How long does it take for the camera app to start up?

After three days with the Nokia, I have mixed feelings about its performance. Web pages loaded quickly and scrolled smoothly, and video playback was always fine. But it definitely feels a bit slower than the iPhone, and at times there was behavior I'd describe as "laggy." The camera app, for example, definitely takes a few seconds to start -- annoying when there's a shot you're trying to grab right now. My iPhone's camera is at the ready much more quickly.

Bottom line: An inexpensive phone will have a lower-end processor, and if you're used to something faster, this may prove frustrating at times. But how quick does a phone really need to be? If I had to describe the Nokia 6's overall performance, I'd say "fast enough."

Day 4: The camera

I'm kind of terrible at photography; I rely heavily on my phone to make my shots look passable, and the 6S Plus usually does a decent job of that. It ought to, based on the amount of gushing Apple Senior VP Phil Schiller did during the phone's launch in 2015.

The Nokia 6 sports a 16-megapixel rear camera (to the iPhone's 12-megapixel), but as we all know, megapixels don't tell the full story. Here's the full story: The Nokia's cameras have wider-angle lenses, which I liked, but its sensors often produced blown-out highlights and washed-out colors -- at least in some environments. I shot a random sampling of photos, both indoor and out, with the front and rear cameras. Verdict: The same photos snapped with my iPhone looked a lot better.

Ah, but were they good enough? That's a tougher question to answer. This is a subjective area, so I'm hesitant to say the Nokia 6's cameras are subpar. But I'll definitely say the iPhone 6S Plus produces consistently better photos, at least to my eye.

Bottom line: When you spend $800 on a phone, or even $400 to $500, you're likely to get much better camera sensors than you'll find at the lower end. If you want the best possible photos, this is where it pays to pay extra.

Days 5 and 6: Everything else

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Free app Gravity Screen solves one Nokia 6 shortcoming: no support for raise-to-wake.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

After a challenging few days, I'm now feeling much more comfortable with the phone. I like the solid aluminum build, but don't particularly care for the sharp corners. I missed my iPhone's raise-to-wake feature, but then remembered free app Gravity Screen. (That's a great example of how much customization is available to Android users.)

Battery life seems to be quite good, meaning I can easily get through a day of heavy usage without having to find a charger. However, the Nokia 6 takes forever to charge. I honestly didn't realize how quick my iPhone was in comparison.

Neither the Nokia 6 nor iPhone 6S Plus supports wireless charging, and it's not something I'd expect from a cheap phone anyhow. The Galaxy S8 has it, though, and it's rumored that the iPhone 8 will get it, too. As convenient as that would be, fast(er) charging is more important -- and I'd definitely consider paying extra for quick-charge technology.

The Nokia 6 comes with 32GB of internal storage, and I've quickly burned through about half of it. No matter: I can triple the available space via a $30 microSD card. That's always been a big Android plus; I wouldn't buy a model that didn't have an expansion slot. (iPhones, of course, have no such option. Your only choice is less-convenient external storage.)

An unexpected perk: The Nokia worked better in my car. Although my iPhone could connect with my aftermarket stereo, it simply wouldn't respond to the latter's play/pause control. The Nokia does. And Android already has the text-message auto-responder (via the Android Auto app) that I've long wanted in iOS. It's finally coming in iOS 11 -- but not for a couple months yet.

Speaking of iOS 11: That update will arrive instantly and globally on compatible iPhones once available. Outside of Nexus and Pixel phones, however, Android updates generally take months, after being vetted by manufacturers and carriers. Nokia's hardware licensee, HMD Global, has apparently committed to just two years of updates. But it's also pledged monthly security updates and timely OS upgrades, too. (HMD didn't respond to our request for comment.) Will I get Android O within one month of its release? Time will tell.

But now I'm veering back to OS issues; for me, these concerns have little to do with $180 hardware versus $849 hardware, though of course they're worth considering.

Bottom line: Don't expect a low-end phone to offer some of the nicer perks afforded at the high end. To put it in automotive terms, you won't get heated seats, but you can still count on reliable transportation.

Day 7: The verdict

So. Can a $180 phone take the place of an $849 phone? Absolutely. Can it do so without compromise? Honestly, it gets pretty damn close.

Because I tested just one phone for this experiment, it's hard to make a blanket statement about this. For $50 more, would I have been better off with Motorola's Moto G5 Plus, which CNET dubbed "simply the best budget phone"? For $80 less, could I have managed just as well with the aforementioned Alcatel A50? I can't say.

I definitely found myself missing the responsiveness of my iPhone 6S Plus, to say nothing of its better cameras. But here's the question: Are those things worth the extra $670?

Of course not. Absolutely not. And there's no question that if I spend a bit more money on an Android phone, I can get a faster processor and better camera. Much as I've loved the iPhone over the years, it's no longer possible to justify such a hefty premium. (The same goes for Samsung's similarly overpriced Galaxy phones, by the way.) Android may lack some of the polish of iOS, but when it comes to hardware, a budget phone can definitely get the job done. Maybe I'll have a change of heart once the iPhone 8 (or even 9) rolls around, assuming it has a seriously killer feature, but for now I'm pretty confident my next phone will be a very affordable Android model.

Now let's hear your feelings on the subject. Hit the comments and tell me all the things I missed, the facts I got wrong, the reasons I'm an idiot and so on. Mostly, I'm eager for feedback from my fellow iPhone lovers: Is it still possible to justify spending that much money when there are significantly cheaper Android alternatives?