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.
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.
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 — especially from OnePlus — but right now, the Android phone that strikes the best balance of features and price is the S21.
Best small phone 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.
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.
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.
Best budget 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.
Best midrange Android phone
Last year’s Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is a Goldilocks phone. It is much more capable and powerful than budget phones like the Pixel 4A 5G, but it still costs significantly less than the newest flagship phones. Even though it came out in October 2020, it still is a completely competent device with an excellent screen, good cameras, and fairly good battery life.
The “FE” in the name stands for “Fan Edition,” but the reality is that this is a phone for anybody, not just Samsung fans. To bring the price down from its flagships, Samsung changed the screen resolution to 1080p and simplified the build materials — it has a plastic back. Don’t let that last detail throw you, though, as the plastic back feels quite good.
The successor to the S20 FE really is the “flagship” Galaxy S21, which has essentially the same camera system as this phone. As we’ve noted with most Samsung phones, the whole game is whether or not you can find a good deal. If the S21 and S20 FE are about the same price, go with the S21. If you can find a great price on the S20 FE, it’ll do right by you as a very solid Android phone.
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).
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.
But the biggest compromise is its cost: at $2,000, the Fold 2 is literally twice as expensive as other high-end phones. You’re 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.