Buying a new phone can be a chore, but we’ve done the work for you
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In 2021, buying the best phone means looking for something that should last you a few years. Smartphones’ upgrade cycles are slowing down for a reason: even at lower prices, it’s getting harder and harder to buy a lemon. In other words, you don’t have to spend a huge amount to get something great, as a bunch of great smartphones are available for around $800. It’s harder than ever to decide between everything in that range, but for most people, our pick for the best phone is the Apple iPhone 12.
Luckily, if you’re looking for a no-compromise smartphone at any price, the choices over a thousand dollars are much clearer. If you like Android, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is incredibly good. And if you want to get the best smartphone on a budget, you can find something really good for under $500 or even under $400. For those recommendations, you can check out our guide to budget smartphones.
A great smartphone will last you for several years (at least), have a great camera, a nice screen, long battery life, and be fast enough to do all the work, social networking, and gaming you want to pack into a day. Believe it or not, all of those things are easier than ever to find in a phone — so picking the best one is often a matter of degrees or preferences.
The flagship model in the Galaxy S21 line includes a 6.8-inch 3200 x 1440 OLED display, support for the S Pen Stylus, 12GB of RAM, and five image sensors, including a 108-megapixel sensor.
Best iPhone to buy in 2021
Apple has released four different variations of the iPhone 12, more than it ever has at one time. Despite all of those choices, the traditional, regular model is still a good pick. The regular iPhone 12, which starts at around $830 for a 64GB model, is the best smartphone for most people.
The 12 has the same overall design, the same processor, the same wireless charging, the same Face ID system, the same 5G support, the same front camera, and the same main and wide-angle rear cameras as the pricier 12 Pro but for hundreds of dollars less. On top of all that, it comes in five colors, one more than you can choose from in the Pro models.
Compared to the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 has a noticeably roomier display and a bigger battery — two things that are important to many people. At 6.1 inches, it’s big enough to make watching video and reading text comfortable and engaging, but it isn’t so big that it’s terribly hard to use in one hand or fit in your pocket. Battery life is also very good; you can reliably expect this phone to last all day without needing to charge up before bed.
The 12 gives up the telephoto camera that’s available on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, but that’s something not everyone will miss. The iPhone 12’s camera system is the best you can get in this price range and is excellent at most anything you’d use it for. It also has the ability to shoot Dolby Vision HDR for brighter and more dynamic video.
Since the 12 has Apple’s latest smartphone processor, the A14 Bionic, it has extremely fast performance and fluid animations. It also has a sleeker, more modern design than the previous iPhone 11 or iPhone XR, which feel frumpy in comparison.
The base iPhone 12 comes with 64GB of storage, but as usual with an iPhone, it’s not expandable, so we recommend buying the 128GB model for only $50 more.
In all, the iPhone 12 is an easy choice for most people: it offers top-level performance, design, and camera features, while providing reliable battery life for less money than other options on the market.
Best Android phone to buy in 2021
If neither size nor price is a concern, the best Android phone you can buy right now is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. With a big 6.8-inch screen and the best cameras you can get on an Android phone, it’s the no-compromise pick. In some cases, its cameras can even best the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with the latest and best specs you can get on Android. It has the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, which is the fastest you can get on Android. It features support for S Pen styluses if you prefer to use a pen with your phone, although it’s sold separately. The screen has a high refresh rate, which makes scrolling much smoother. It also has a huge battery that will last two days without much effort.
Samsung updated the design of the S21 Ultra, with a metal rail that curves naturally into the camera bump on the back. It is the best-looking big phone you can get right now. However, we can’t say we like Samsung’s software as much, which at the moment is a bit cluttered and features ads in places like the weather app. For a sleeker experience the OnePlus 9 Pro would be a good choice; the Ultra beats it on screen and camera quality, but it’s a good device all-around and offers a more grown-up take on Android OS.
That camera bump houses four cameras: a regular wide-angle with a 108-megapixel sensor, an ultrawide, and two different telephoto lenses. This makes it an incredibly versatile camera system that also has a ton of advanced video features like Pro modes and 8K recording.
Starting at $1,199.99, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a very expensive phone. Thankfully, Samsung phones are discounted early and often. If you are in the market for one, it’s worth looking around for a deal before buying.
Best Android phone to find a deal for
Although the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus don’t post the big numbers the S21 Ultra does, they are still our picks right now for best Android phones under a thousand bucks. The regular Galaxy S21 with a 6.2-inch screen starts at $800 while the Plus version with a 6.7-inch screen starts at $1,000. However, both are frequently discounted with either price drops or bundles, so these are great candidates for hunting down sales.
The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus are essentially identical phones with three differences: screen size, battery size, and materials. We’ve reviewed the regular Galaxy S21 and found it to be a very competent phone even though you could argue it’s a minor refresh over last year’s Galaxy S20.
However, Samsung refreshed the important part: the processor is the same Snapdragon 888 as the Ultra. That means the Galaxy S21 is super fast and should last more than a couple of years without slowing down.
There are likely more great Android phones coming soon but right now, the Android phone that strikes the best balance of features and price is the S21.
Best phone for photography and video in 2021
The iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best camera system you can currently get on a smartphone. Its three rear cameras — standard wide, ultrawide, and telephoto — combine with Apple’s image processing to produce stunning images, even in poor lighting. If camera quality is your most important factor when buying a phone, the 12 Pro Max is where you should be spending your money.
The big difference between the 12 Pro Max and the other iPhone 12 models is found in its main camera sensor. The 12 Pro Max has a physically larger camera sensor that allows it to gather more light and produce better-quality images when in dark or challenging lighting conditions. In addition, the 12 Pro Max has an improved image stabilization system that helps keep your images sharp as light levels drop.
But unless camera quality is all you care about, the 12 Pro Max isn’t the best iPhone for most people. It’s enormous, and the squared sides make it feel even bigger than its spec sheet implies. Most people will be happier with the smaller but still large-screened iPhone 12.
Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone 12 Pro Max has a better camera system than you can get in the other iPhone models this year.
Best small smartphone in 2021
There’s really only one reason to buy an iPhone 12 mini, but it’s an important one: if you want a phone that’s easier to use in one hand or put into a small pocket. The iPhone 12 mini is the only small phone on the market with top-tier features and specs; you don’t have to compromise in performance, build quality, or cameras with this one.
Though it’s much smaller in size than the other iPhones released this year, the mini’s 5.4-inch screen is still big enough for text messaging, email, web browsing, apps, video, and games, and if you’re coming from an iPhone 6 / 7 / 8, it will feel quite spacious. But it’s also small enough that most adults, even those with small hands, will be able to comfortably reach all of the screen with their thumb. You won’t need a PopSocket on this one.
Otherwise, the mini is the same phone as the iPhone 12: it has the same design, processor, cameras, 5G support, and build quality as the larger model. It’s just smaller and has a smaller price tag, at about $100 less.
The iPhone 12 mini is the smallest phone in Apple’s lineup and the best small phone you can get in 2020.
If you want a stylus built into your phone
If you’re looking for the best phone to go from morning to night with heavy use and last through it all, Samsung’s top-of-the-line Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the one to get. It has a massive 4,500mAh battery that keeps its enormous 6.9-inch screen going as long as you need it to.
The Note 20 Ultra is also a high-end phone in every other respect. Its giant screen supports a 120Hz refresh rate for smooth interactions; its triple rear camera system is one of the most advanced you can get; and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus processor and 12GB of RAM allow it to perform without a hiccup. In addition, it supports Samsung’s S Pen for stylus input, allowing you to write or doodle on the screen with a pen instead of your finger.
Although you can now use a stylus with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, it isn’t built into the phone as it is here on the Note 20 Ultra. Depending on Samsung’s plans, this may be the last “Ultra” version of the Note, too — though rumors have been conflicting on that front.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s top-tier non-folding phone in 2020, and it has excellent battery life.
If you want an excellent ultrawide camera
The OnePlus 9 is the step-down model from the OnePlus 9 Pro, which is itself an excellent phone. But you don’t give up too much by opting for the 9, and you save a ton of money. Like the 9 Pro, it offers great performance with a Snapdragon 888 processor, fast 65W wired charging, and something that will appeal especially to the landscape photographers out there: a great ultrawide camera.
The sensor behind the OnePlus 9’s ultrawide camera is physically larger than most and offers a healthy 50-megapixel resolution. A unique lens design corrects distortion without introducing the funhouse mirror-type stretching you’ll often see in the corners of ultrawide images. And if super-wide photography isn’t your thing, know that the main camera turns in solid image quality, too. Images are well-exposed, and colors look pleasantly vibrant. OnePlus makes a big deal of the Hasselblad color science at work here, which does a fine job but isn’t as mind-blowingly good as the company suggests.
Unfortunately, you do miss out on a couple of good camera features opting for the 9 rather than the 9 Pro. The main camera on the 9 Pro offers optical image stabilization, which isn’t included on the 9, and is useful for its ability to keep subjects looking sharp in lower light conditions. There’s also no telephoto lens — just digital zoom, which isn’t as good as the 9 Pro’s optical zoom.
The OnePlus 9 also doesn’t work on AT&T’s 5G network. (It works on both T-Mobile and Verizon’s 5G networks, however.) That’s no great loss right now (honestly, it might be for the better), but in a couple of years, this will probably become a downside. Bearing this in mind and a couple of camera feature omissions, the OnePlus 9 is an excellent device. It offers a flagship feel and performance for a bit less than the highest-end Android options and a seriously good ultrawide camera for wide-angle photo fans.
The OnePlus 9 is one of the best options in the premium midrange class.
Best cheap phone in 2021
Google’s Pixel 4A 5G starts at $500 and gets you access to several key features: a big-ish 6.2-inch screen, clean and uncluttered Android software, Google’s excellent Pixel camera, and of course 5G. Although buying a phone just to get 5G is a mistake, all things being equal, it’s worth getting 5G if you can in 2021.
Even though the Pixel camera isn’t the very best you can get anymore, it still is competitive with phones that cost hundreds of dollars more. No other phone at this $500 ($600 on Verizon) price point can match the Pixel’s camera quality.
The Pixel 4A 5G doesn’t have the fastest processor, but it does have a good-looking OLED screen. Just as importantly, it has the promise of getting timely software updates directly from Google. While other Android phones take forever to get the new versions of Android, Google’s get them right away.
Priced at $499, Google’s Pixel 4A 5G is a slightly bigger, 5G-ready version of the 4A.
Best Android phone under $500
If you’re on a budget and prefer Android, then the Google Pixel 4A is the obvious choice. It doesn’t have the largest screen or the fastest processor, but it does have a clean version of Android that’s guaranteed to get software updates for at least three years. It only comes in one version: black with 128GB of storage for $349.
The Pixel 4A’s main claim to fame is its camera, which can go head-to-head with smartphones that cost $1,500 or more. That’s because Google does so much of the image processing in software — the sensor itself is actually quite old and not very special. It means the Pixel 4A can take night photos, do astrophotography, and has a passable portrait mode. It can’t hang with the iPhone SE for video but beats it for photos every time.
The rest of the Pixel 4A’s specs are good but not great. It has a 5.8-inch screen, just enough RAM to keep apps from closing in the background, and a headphone jack. There’s no wireless charging, no fancy face unlock, and the body is made out of plastic instead of something more premium like glass. The Pixel 4A doesn’t even offer any IP water resistance ratings (but a splash of water is probably fine).
A very inexpensive smartphone with one of the best cameras for photography you can get on any smartphone at any price.
But for all that, the Pixel 4A is probably the safest bet if you want to get an Android phone for less than $500. You’ll get better software support and a better camera for $350. Not a bad deal.
Best folding phone in 2021
Folding phones have been around for less than two years and have already seen their share of controversies. But if you are interested in buying one and are willing to pay the hefty price required, there’s really only one model worth considering: Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2.
The Fold 2 is Samsung’s second-generation folding phone. Its main premise is this: it is sized like a normal smartphone that fits in your pocket, but it unfolds to reveal a tablet-sized 7.6-inch display on the inside. That inside screen makes everything from reading books to browsing the web to watching video to playing games more enjoyable and immersive. When you’re done using it, just fold it back up and stick it in your pocket just like any other phone.
That flexibility is unmatched by any other phone you can buy right now, but it doesn’t come without a significant list of compromises. The Fold 2 is twice as thick when closed compared to normal phones, and its outside screen is much smaller than what you’re probably used to. It is also delicate; there’s no rated dust or water resistance, and its inner screen is more likely to get damaged if you poke it too hard.
If you’re buying a folding phone in 2020 and are willing to pay the cost to get one, you should buy the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2.
But the biggest compromise is its cost: the Fold 2 is roughly twice as expensive as other high-end phones. Since it debuted for $2,000, it’s been permanently marked down by $200, but you’re still paying a lot for the ability to fold a tablet screen in half.
If you’re willing to put up with those compromises for an experience that’s unlike anything else, though, the Fold 2 delivers.
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