Cheap phone reccomendations for quality iNaturalist observations

I have a very inexpensive phone, but I can’t realistically use it to make iNaturalist observations. Thus all my observations are made via camera and a lot of extra work. I’m considering greatly increasing my observation pace by buying a phone specifically to make observations with. But I don’t have a huge budget and don’t know anything about smartphones.

Can anyone recommend what I should look for in a phone and perhaps some good options? I’m mostly concerned with the fairly easy mid-range pictures - I can still use my camera for the tough shots. I figure the main questions are:

  1. Camera quality
  2. Accurate GPS location
  3. Sufficient processing power to run the app with lots of observations.

Anything else I should know?

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This isn’t a recommendation so much as possible strategy. I’ve always liked iPhones, but there are so many good alternatives, too. One way to get a good affordable phone is to go with a an older model. Often, places like ATT stores will offer a quite good deal on an older model. When one of us upgraded a phone last year, ATT offered us a 2nd iPhone 8 for really cheap ($75?) and family plan pricing for service. If you know someone who is ready to upgrade, you might be able to get a similar deal.

FWIW, I also have a bias against mixing Apple and Windows products. This goes way back to the days when the respective support centers would not help you with cross-platform issues. The situation may be better now, but I would still try to stay in the same world.

I think you should buy a new phone that will help you in life in general, and not just for iNat observations, since it will be something you will use virtually every minute of your waking life.

Speaking from experience, I have an iPhone 7 for over 4 years now, and so far it has done well for my inatting. I am able to take clear enough pictures, and it saves the metadata (date, time, location) for me so I dont have to manually input it. Though my workflow is take pictures and then at the end of the day sort them to upload.


I’ve been happy with the Pixel series - I usually get refurbished phones on eBay at a fraction of the original price. Plus then you have the iNaturalist Android app, which has more features than iOS.

I’ve never heard of GPS quality varying between phones (it’s not commonly part of reviews that I’ve read), but with whichever phone you get, if you are out iNatting, you should run a separate “GPS trail” app that is tracking your GPS constantly so that it has a steady signal to attach that data to your photos. It’s when you open the camera and only very briefly connect to the satellites for location, or don’t wait for the iNat app to hone in on your location, that the main GPS issues occur.


ha, you live life very differently from me. My phone often sits untouched for a day or more. In fact, until 1.5 years ago I didn’t own a smartphone at all and before I had a kid I got along quite well without a mobile phone for years at a time.


Fair point on considering the lifestyle of the user. I have had my phone for longer than I have inat so before I saw it as this cool and convenient thing in my pocket, and then when I discovered iNat I realized its use for making observations, so I suppose I speak more from an overall convenience point of view.

Though to summarize my answers of your 3 main questions: For the iPhone 7, I can guarantee camera quality “good enough for inat” and maybe even better pics, and accurate GPS location. If the battery is relatively new it should be able to handle running the app with loads of observations no problem. Downsides are of course price (since apple, lol, though I think its becoming obsolete so a cheaper second-hand may be an option), and like every other electronic the battery will degrade over time and is prone to overheating if you are under the sun for a while.

The new iPhone SE is $399 new, same chip as the top of the line 11. I got it a month or so ago after I fell on my other phone. It takes great photos. Almost any of the new/recent smart phones on the market have decent cameras…LG, Samsung, iPhone are some of the better ones available.

Xiaomi has not the most expensive phones and their cameras are pretty good, I’m using mi9 and it has 3 cameras, one x2 that is good for small objects and one x0.6 that helps with wide angles for plants or just scenes.

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I’m currently using a Huwaei P30. The macro camera is great, and the zoom helps a lot too! The quality of zoomed photos might not be the best, you can definitely tell bird species apart!

Examples of zoomed photos:

Examples of macro photos:

Note: invertebrate species here are poorly known, so it’s hard to ID them.


Consider IP rating as the field can be harsh on a phone. Eg water resistant doesn’t mean waterproof, and even just pocket abrasion to a lens can seriously degrade its performance over time.

Some phones have magnetometers, which mean they can be used as a compass for navigation. Being able to set waypoints using iNat obs coords can make it very easy to find your way back for follow-up observations!

I’ve been very impressed by the Moto series, but haven’t used it for observations since I killed the camera dropping it in water. I thought it was waterproof, turns out it’s just water-resistant (my previous model was water-proof), and by the time I realised the problem I was only able to dry it out enough to save everything but the sim and camera. I replaced the sim and now it’s only good for forum and IDs!

I’d second @kiwifergus’ recommendation. The Moto g-series phones are great phones on the more affordable end of the price range (e.g. Moto g7 play ~ $130 USD). Bonus is that the phone comes with a basic protective case & screen protector, which helps protect the phone a bit.

I would note that “GPS location” used by mobile phones is not just GPS, but a host of related signals, which for example can allow for indoor positioning whether by your device or by others tracking it/you. But outdoors, the accuracy might also rely on what cellular network your phone uses. My mobile device definitely isn’t as quick to get an accurate fix on my position when I’m away from a major population centre here in Canada.

as far as i can tell, camera quality in low end phones is really more or less the same in most of the cases. there might be a difference if one has multiple lenses, say one for zoom, one not. (a photo that is taken with optical zoom will generally have better detail than one that is taken with “digital zoom”.) there is also a little bit of a difference when it comes to the software / processing side of things. some phones have better stock phone apps than others, and more importantly, some phones do better HDR and other processing to provide better looking photos. the software processing that makes photos look better in some cases can make photos look worse in some cases though. so just make sure you know how to turn things like HDR off when, say, taking photos of things with really fine details like spider webs and such (or maybe shoot RAW instead and process yourself if that’s an option in those cases). more expensive phones will have things like TOF sensors that will help with photos in challenging situations and may have interesting future applications, but i don’t think those have made it to lower-end phones yet.

a consideration with photos is going to be how you’re going to manage them all. some phones will help to streamline the process of uploading them to a cloud share. (so, for example, if you’re tied to the Apple ecosystem, an Apple phone will probably do this the best.) others will provide things like removable SD cards that you could use to easily transfer files or increase storage, which can be nice if you plan to, say, take a lot of video or a lot of really high resolution or RAW photos. it may also be nice to see what kind of options (ex. USB C ports?) you have to physically connect your phone to your computer or, say, an external microphone or other devices. the downside of things like removable SD cards and USB ports is that they can reduce the water resistance of your device, since they provide places for water to enter. so tradeoffs.

maybe 5 years ago, some phones did struggle with locations, but i would be surprised if any recent phone – even a really cheap one – would struggle trying obtain a location. a phone with more processing power is likely to be able to handle processing of GPS locations a little more gracefully without heating up a lot and draining your battery though. so a phone with better processor specs or better battery is always going to be nice, i think, especially if you’re going to be heavy with your GPS usage.

i’m thinking that the processing power on even low-end phones – as long as they’re recent – should be enough to handle iNaturalist at the end of the day, though of course a more powerful one will get things done faster. i think the more important considerations that will make your experience a better one are things like a better screen (especially one, say, that you can see outside in bright sunlight). for me, an important consideration is the availability of updates. a lot of lower-end phones will be really slow with OS and security updates, if they provide them at all. so if that is important to you, then you should check on that before you buy. look for things like the durability of the screen, water resistance, and overall weather resistance, if you need that sort of thing, or else look for the availability of things like screen protectors and cases for the model you’re considering. finally, just make sure the phone is a good size for you.

the phone i have currently is a Pixel 3a, which i purchased new for US$299 during the holiday shopping season last year. at the time, the reviews seemed to indicate it had one of the best phone cameras available. (my opinion is that it’s fine and very easy to use, though my camera is much better for things like macro, long zoom, and fine details.) it handles GPS locations just fine, has a pretty good screen, and battery lasts me 3+ days for my use (very light, and i’m sure would be fine for a day’s worth of heavier use). because it’s Google-made, it’s updated frequently. in the US, one nice thing about the Pixel 3a is that it’s one of the less expensive phone that includes an eSIM, which in terms of cost means that i’m able to take advantage of the cheapest pre-paid voice/text and data plans that i’ve been able to find here ($0.09 per outgoing voice min or text, incoming is free, credit never expires, and additional $5 for 1GB data over 30 days). the only downside of the phone for me is that it’s only 64GB, all internal storage, though honestly, i haven’t used it enough to fill up the phone storage yet. it’s easy enough to connect the USB C to my computer to copy everything to an external drive though.

if i had not gone with Pixel, i would have probably gone with Moto G or Samsung A. Huawei and Xiaomi and even OnePlus aren’t necessarily viable options here in the US, unfortunately.

UPDATE: the Pixel 4a was officially announced the other day and is now available for pre-order at $349 USD. should be equal to or improve upon the Pixel 3a in just about every way (including price, since 3a is selling for $399).

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