In 2021, buying the best phone means looking for something that should last you a few years. Smartphonesâ€™ upgrade cycles are slowing down for a reason: even at lower prices, itâ€™s getting harder and harder to buy a lemon. In other words, you donâ€™t have to spend a huge amount to get something great, as a bunch of great smartphones are available for around $800. Itâ€™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 youâ€™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 â€” so picking the best one is often a matter of degrees or preferences.
Apple iPhone 12
Starting at $799, the iPhone 12 comes in three different storage configurations: 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB. Available in black, blue, green, red, and white.
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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Unlocked)
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.
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The best phones 2021
1. Apple iPhone 12
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.
The iPhone 12 balances a big screen with manageable size well
Compared to the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 has a noticeably roomier display and a bigger battery â€” two things that are important to many people. At 6.1 inches, itâ€™s big enough to make watching video and reading text comfortable and engaging, but it isnâ€™t so big that itâ€™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 thatâ€™s available on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, but thatâ€™s something not everyone will miss. The iPhone 12â€™s camera system is the best you can get in this price range and is excellent at most anything youâ€™d use it for. It also has the ability to shoot Dolby Vision HDR for brighter and more dynamic video.
Since the 12 has Appleâ€™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, itâ€™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.
2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
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, itâ€™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 itâ€™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 canâ€™t say we like Samsungâ€™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 itâ€™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, itâ€™s worth looking around for a deal before buying.
3. Samsung Galaxy S21 / S21 Plus
Best Android phone to find a deal for
Although the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus donâ€™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. Weâ€™ve reviewed the regular Galaxy S21 and found it to be a very competent phone even though you could argue itâ€™s a minor refresh over last yearâ€™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.
Samsung Galaxy S21 (128GB, unlocked)
- 25% off
The most affordable model in the S21 line has a 6.2-inch 1080p screen and refresh rates up to 120Hz.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus (128GB, unlocked)
- 21% off
The Galaxy S21 Plus includes a 6.7-inch 1080p screen with storage configurations of 128GB and 256GB.
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4. Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
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 â€” standard wide, ultrawide, and telephoto â€” combine with Appleâ€™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 isnâ€™t the best iPhone for most people. Itâ€™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 iPhone 12 Pro Max
Appleâ€™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.
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5. Apple iPhone 12 mini
Best small smartphone in 2021
Thereâ€™s really only one reason to buy an iPhone 12 mini, but itâ€™s an important one: if you want a phone thatâ€™s easier to use in one hand or put into a small pocket. The iPhone 12 mini is one of very few small phones on the market with top-tier features and specs; you donâ€™t have to compromise in performance, build quality, or cameras with this one.
Though itâ€™s much smaller in size than the other iPhones released this year, the miniâ€™s 5.4-inch screen is still big enough for text messaging, email, web browsing, apps, video, and games, and if youâ€™re coming from an iPhone 6 / 7 / 8, it will feel quite spacious. But itâ€™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 wonâ€™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. Itâ€™s just smaller and has a smaller price tag, at about $100 less.
If you prefer Android, the Asus Zenfone 8 is a good alternative. Itâ€™s a little bigger than the 12 mini with a 5.9-inch screen, and it doesnâ€™t work on Verizon, but itâ€™s otherwise a very similar proposition: great build quality, top-notch processor, and high-end features like a 120Hz screen all tucked into a pocket-friendly device.
Apple iPhone 12 Mini
The iPhone 12 Mini is the smallest phone in Appleâ€™s lineup and the best small phone you can get.
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6. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
If you want a stylus built into your phone
If youâ€™re looking for the best phone to go from morning to night with heavy use and last through it all, Samsungâ€™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 Samsungâ€™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 isnâ€™t built into the phone as it is here on the Note 20 Ultra. Depending on Samsungâ€™s plans, this may be the last â€śUltraâ€ť version of the Note, too â€” though rumors have been conflicting on that front.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
- 27% off
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is one of Samsungâ€™s top-tier non-folding phones, and it has excellent battery life.
7. OnePlus 9
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 donâ€™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 9â€™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 youâ€™ll often see in the corners of ultrawide images. And if super-wide photography isnâ€™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 isnâ€™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 isnâ€™t included on the 9, and is useful for its ability to keep subjects looking sharp in lower light conditions. Thereâ€™s also no telephoto lens â€” just digital zoom, which isnâ€™t as good as the 9 Proâ€™s optical zoom.
The OnePlus 9 also doesnâ€™t work on AT&Tâ€™s 5G network. (It works on both T-Mobile and Verizonâ€™s 5G networks, however.) Thatâ€™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.
- 11% off
The OnePlus 9 is one of the best options in the premium midrange class.
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8. Samsung Galaxy A52 5G
Best cheap phone with high-end features
The Galaxy A52 5G is our current pick for the best Android phone under $500, but itâ€™s also worth highlighting here for its combination of features usually reserved for premium devices and a reasonable price. You wonâ€™t get all the bells and whistles of the S21 series phones, of course, but the A52 5G includes a 6.5-inch screen with fast 120Hz refresh rate, an IP67 water resistance rating, and (for now, at least) access to monthly bug fixes and security updates.
The A52 5G delivers on the basics too. Its Snapdragon 750G processor isnâ€™t the fastest in the game but it keeps up well with day-to-day tasks. Its 4,500mAh battery delivers well over a day of moderate to heavy use. And the phone supports sub-6GHz 5G, which will allow it to take advantage of improving 5G networks in the US over the next few years.
Then thereâ€™s the typically Samsung-y stuff, including a UI thatâ€™s currently trending toward over-cluttered with the occasional unwelcome ad. The phoneâ€™s camera hardware is good, though photos tend to look a little oversaturated, which may or may not suit your taste.
One of the phoneâ€™s best features is Samsungâ€™s commitment to providing four years of security updates. Overall, itâ€™s a relatively affordable device with a solid feature set that should keep up for years to come.
Samsung Galaxy A52 5G
The Galaxy A52 5G offers a great screen, healthy battery life, and a generous timeline for security updates that should ensure youâ€™ll get many years out of your investment.
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9. Google Pixel 4A
Best Android phone under $400
If youâ€™re on a budget and prefer Android, then the Google Pixel 4A is the obvious choice. It doesnâ€™t have the largest screen or the fastest processor, but it does have a clean version of Android thatâ€™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 4Aâ€™s main claim to fame is its camera, which can go head-to-head with smartphones that cost $1,500 or more. Thatâ€™s because Google does so much of the image processing in software â€” 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 canâ€™t hang with the iPhone SE for video but beats it for photos every time.
The rest of the Pixel 4Aâ€™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. Thereâ€™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 doesnâ€™t even offer any IP water resistance ratings (but a splash of water is probably fine).
Google Pixel 4A
A very inexpensive smartphone with one of the best cameras for photography you can get on any smartphone at any price.
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But for all that, the Pixel 4A is probably the safest bet if you want to get an Android phone for less than $400. Youâ€™ll get better software support and a better camera for $350. Not a bad deal.
10. Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
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, thereâ€™s really only one model worth considering: Samsungâ€™s Galaxy Z Fold 2.
The Fold 2 is Samsungâ€™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 youâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 youâ€™re probably used to. It is also delicate; thereâ€™s no rated dust or water resistance, and its inner screen is more likely to get damaged if you poke it too hard.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
If youâ€™re buying a folding phone and are willing to pay the cost to get one, you should buy the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2.
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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, itâ€™s been permanently marked down by $200, but youâ€™re still paying a lot for the ability to fold a tablet screen in half.
If youâ€™re willing to put up with those compromises for an experience thatâ€™s unlike anything else, though, the Fold 2 delivers.