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Best smartphones 2021

Best smartphones 2021
(Image credit: Samsung)

The best smartphones are becoming tougher to narrow down as a wider range of brands offer ever-improving handsets at lower prices. But it's still a battle for the top spot on our list between Apple and Samsung, with Google and OnePlus nipping at their heels. In your hunt for a good smartphone, it's worth thinking about what you need. Are the latest features that important to you, like 5G for the fastest network speeds? 

Or is a standout camera, like that found on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, with its 100x zoom 108MP snapper, more relevant to your smartphone needs? Perhaps it's pure design and ease of use that Apple offers in the iPhone 12? Or are you simply after the best smartphone with a massive battery that will last more than a day of use and recharge wirelessly? We have you covered for all of those and more.

The best smartphone should be something that serves you well but does it without costing you the earth. Yes, the top-rated smartphones aren't cheap, but spread the cost on a monthly plan and you may find it's more manageable. That said, there are more affordable handsets than ever now and they're all packing in some impressive features that will do the job for most needs. So it's worth considering what you need, what you want and what you're prepared to spend before you splash out on a shiny new smartphone.

You could find all the features you need right now, or perhaps you want to hold out for the rumored iPhone 13 and Samsung Galaxy S22? Either way you'll also want to find the best cell phone provider to get your plan with. For now, read on to find all the top smartphones you can buy right now.

1. iPhone 12 Pro: Best smartphone overall

Best smartphones: iPhone 12 Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

iPhone 12 Pro

The best iPhone in the world

Average price: $999 | Operating System: iOS | Screen size: 6.1" | Storage: 128GB, 256GB or 512GB | 5G ready: Yes | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: Lightning by USB-C | Also consider: iPhone 12

Exceptional camera
Classic, timeless design
OLED display is stunning
Software innovation is lacking

Apple has been the kings of the smartphone market for years and while Samsung may be stealing that crown from it today, the iPhone 12 Pro is still one of the best smartphones you can buy thanks to its exceptional camera and iconic design. It’s not cheap, but if you’re willing to pay the big bucks, you’ll be rewarded.

The iPhone 12 Pro is a premium product and the design reflects this perfectly. The front of the handset is covered with textured matte glass, while the rear of the phone has a stainless steel finish that comes in a variety of color options to suit you. The battery life isn’t the best, but the iPhone 12 Pro supports wireless charging and fast charging via a USB-C cable, so you should be able to keep it juiced up throughout the day.

Compared with the standard iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 Pro has a much better screen and great sound quality which makes it perfect for watching movies on. The camera is outstanding too, with three rear-facing lenses and Night sight mode ensuring that you can take great photos in low light conditions. If you’re looking for the best iPhone, look no further than the iPhone 12 Pro.


2. Samsung Galaxy S21: Best Android smartphone

Best smartphones: Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S21

The best Android smartphone out there.

Average price: $799 | Operating System: Android | Screen size: 6.2" | Storage: 128/256GB | 5G ready?: Yes | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: Fast charging via USB-C

120Hz AMOLED display
Excellent camera array
Good price
Not really a step up from the S20

The Samsung Galaxy S21 took a different approach than we’re used to from Samsung’s flagship handsets, striking a balance between affordability and performance instead of going all out. As a result, it might feel like a step down to existing S20 owners, but it’s a fantastic smartphone in its own right, especially considering the price.

You get the same impressive camera array that was found in the S20, along with a stunning 120Hz AMOLED HD display which combines together for an excellent photo taking and viewing experience. And while the cameras themselves are the same as last year’s model, there have been a ton of software improvements under the hood. Speaking of under the hood, the S21 is powered by the Snapdragon 888 and has 8GB of RAM, so it can easily handle mobile gaming too.

The addition of 5G capabilities and the high-refresh rate on the screen have dented the battery life a bit, but you still get admirable performance here, and with fast charge technology, you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of juice either.

Overall, we’re super impressed with the Samsung Galaxy S21, which seems like a phone designed for the times, rather than just to see what cool tech you can jam into a phone. It’s sleek, powerful, and much more affordable than its predecessor.


3. OnePlus 8T - Best value Android smartphone

Best smartphones: OnePlus 8T

(Image credit: OnePlus)

OnePlus 8T

Ludicrous charging speed headlines this excellent Android smartphone

Average price: $750 | Operating System: Android | Screen size: 6.5" | Storage: 128GB or 256GB | 5G ready: Yes | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: USB-C | Also consider: Huawei P30 Pro

Gorgeous 120Hz display
Improved Warp Charge
Affordable
Poor camera zoom

OnePlus already wow’d us earlier this year with the fantastic OnePlus 8, but now it has come along with a mid-generation refresh with a hell of a party piece. At first glance, there isn’t much difference between the OnePlus 8T and its predecessor - it has the same internal CPU, RAM, and storage options, and the camera array is only slightly modified with the addition of a monochrome lens. So, what gives?

The answer comes from two key upgrades: the screen and the battery. The screen on the OnePlus 8T has been buffed up to a spritely 120Hz refresh rate, meaning that videos and games look buttery smooth in motion. As for the battery, it’s now a dual-cell which is required for the upgraded Warp Charge 65. This thing goes from 0-58% battery in 15 minutes - that’s staggering speed.

The only real blemish on the OnePlus 8T’s scorecard comes from the lack of a telephoto lens in the camera set up, which means that you’re relying on digital zoom, which is never as good as optical zoom. Despite that, this is a mighty impressive smartphone at a very reasonable price.


4. iPhone 12: Best all-rounder

Best smartphones: Apple iPhone 12

(Image credit: Apple)

iPhone 12

Jack of all trades

Average price: $699 | Operating System: iOS | Screen size: 5.4" or 6.1" | Storage: 64GB, 128GB or 256GB | 5G ready: No | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: Lightning by USB-C | Also consider: OnePlus 7T Pro

Fantastic camera
Great battery life
LCD display
Still no headphone jack

While the iPhone 12 might be our top choice, it's smaller cousin is still an exceptional smartphone if you want something a tiny bit cheaper but still crave that premium Apple experience. And in this case, you can go even smaller than normal thanks to the addition of the iPhone 12 Mini.

The iPhone 12 has a lot of the same features that make the iPhone 12 Pro our top pick at the moment. It's powered by the epic A14 Bionic chipset so it has plenty of power for watching movies, playing games, and running apps. It also has a great dual lens camera for snapping pics. It won't compete with the high end Samsungs or the Pro models, but it'll snap some gorgeous shots for you.

You still get that stunning OLED display here too, which makes colors pop and really brings your photos to life, not to mention movies when you're watching Netflix on your iPhone. And lets not forget the real reason you're buying an iPhone - the styling. It looks and feels every bit as special as you'd expect an iPhone to. Whether you go for the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Mini, you're in for a treat.


5. iPhone SE: Best budget iPhone

Best smartphones: iPhone SE 2020

(Image credit: Apple)

iPhone SE

iPhone skills, but without iPhone bills

Average price: $399 | Operating System: iOS | Screen size: 4.7" | Storage: 64GB/128GB/256GB | 5G ready: No | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: Lightning by USB-C | Also consider: Google Pixel 3a

Unbeatable value
Powerful hardware
Small and light
Older design

Magic. It’s magic, or someone sold their soul to the devil. That’s the only explanation we can come up with for the iPhone SE, Apple’s latest budget smartphone. This thing is built with the same A13 Bionic chipset that powers that flagship phones like the iPhone 11, but it costs a fraction of the price.

So how has Apple managed this feat of engineering? By taking things back to an older, cheaper to build design that reminds us of earlier models of iPhone like the iPhone 8. That means the home button is back, which now doubles as the fingerprint sensor. It’s made from aluminum and glass and still has a premium feel to it, but it’s not the completely glass shelled look that the newer models have gone for.

The camera isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s a decent little shooter, especially when you consider that it’s packed into a $400 phone that makes very few other sacrifices. You get great performance, a stylish design and most of the luxuries that you’d expect from a top-end smartphone like fast charging. If you want iPhone quality, but not the price then this is the phone for you.


6. Google Pixel 3a: Best budget android smartphone

Best smartphones: Google Pixel 3a

(Image credit: Google)

Google Pixel 3a

The cheapest OLED screen phone out there

Average price: $399 | Operating System: Android | Screen size: 5.6" | Storage: 64GB | 5G ready: No | Headphone jack: Yes | Charging type: USB-C | Also consider: iPhone 8

Excellent camera
OLED screen at bargain price
Plastic shell feels tacky
Speakers aren’t great and no headphones

If you’re looking for a budget android smartphone that still packs some serious punch, then the Google Pixel 3a has answered your call. Much like the iPhone 8, this budget smartphone comes with a 12.2 megapixel single rear camera that takes beautiful photographs - it might not be the high-end multi-lens affair you see in flagship models like the Google Pixel 4 XL, but this little camera can still outperform some of the heavy hitters.

You also get an OLED screen with the Google Pixel 3a, which means better image quality and more vibrant colors when viewing photographs and movies. This is the cheapest smartphone on the market to feature an OLED screen and we adore the sheer decadence of it.

There are a few drawbacks to the Google Pixel 3a though. The plastic shell feels tacky compared to most high-end smartphones and the audio quality isn’t fantastic when using the speakers at high volume. But if that’s the price we have to pay to get a smartphone this good for under $400, then we pay it gladly.


7. Samsung Galaxy S20 : Best Samsung smartphone

Best smartphones: Samsung Galaxy S20

(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S20

The best of the best.

Average price: $999 | Operating System: Android | Screen size: 6.2" | Storage: 128GB | 5G ready: Yes | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: USB-C | Also consider: OnePlus 8

Superb edgeless screen
Powerful, high-end specs
Excellent camera
It is expensive

It might be the older model now, but the Samsung Galaxy S20 is still a fantastic smartphone, especially if you can find it on offer. In many ways, it's actually better than the S21 that it was replaced by. This handset really does have it all. The 6.2-inch QHD AMOLED screen is a thing of beauty and thanks to the 120 Hz refresh rate, it’s buttery smooth in motion whether you’re scrolling through Instagram or watching movies on Netflix.

That gorgeous screen is also perfect for checking out the amazing shots you can take with the Samsung Galaxy S20’s phenomenal three lens camera array. The main lens is a 12MP camera, but it’s the 64MP telephoto lens that most impresses us, offering 3x lossless zoom and 30x digital zoom.

All of this is backed up by powerful internal hardware and encased in a beautiful design. It’s nothing groundbreaking - if you’re used to Samsung phones then this will feel very familiar to you, but the design is a classic at this point. Oh, and it’s 5G enabled too, so you don’t need to worry about future proofing. 

The price of all this power and performance is, well the price. You’re paying extra cash for that Samsung name printed on the back, and you can certainly find high end smartphones for cheaper, but that doesn’t stop the S20 from being a great choice.


8. Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus: Best for artists

Best smartphones: Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus

(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus

Supersize me

Average price: $1099.99 | Operating System: Android | Screen size: 6.8" | Storage: 256GB | 5G ready: 5G version available | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: USB-C | Also consider: iPhone 11 Pro

Truly gorgeous display
Great battery life
Bixby is still disappointing
Not the best low-light camera

We like big phones and we cannot lie, and the Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus is the largest phone that we tested in our search for the best smartphones. The screen is a 6.8-inch QUAD HD+ display - if it was any bigger you could lay it flat and use it as an aircraft carrier. With the edge-to-edge screen, there are no bezels either so there’s no wasted space.

Samsung’s proprietary stylus, the S-pen also comes with the Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus to let you make full use of that enormous screen. We found that it worked great for writing and even drawing, so it’s perfect for high-tech artists or students who need to take quick notes and don’t want to carry a laptop or tablet around with them.

Thanks to the extra size of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus, there was more room for cameras. So Samsung casually threw four rear-facing lenses into the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+. There’s an ultrawide lens for wide shots, a telephoto lens for zoomed in pics and a VGA depth lens that lets you do some funky stuff with Live Focus. There are also two front-facing lenses for snapping selfies.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus is a great choice for creative people who want to draw, take notes and snap amazing pictures on the go. It’s also the perfect choice for people who just want the biggest phone they can get their hands around.


9. Google Pixel 4 XL: Best design

Best smartphones: Google Pixel 4 XL

(Image credit: Top Ten Reviews)

Google Pixel 4 XL

Hey Google, you're so fine

Average price: $899.99 | Operating System: Android | Screen size: 6.3" | Storage: 64GB or 128GB | 5G ready: No | Headphone jack: No | Charging type: USB-C | Also consider: Samsung Galaxy S10+

Beautiful screen for video
Deafening speakers
No headphones included
Gimmicky extras

When it comes to styling, most of the best smartphones all kind of look the same. That’s why we were so impressed with the design of the Google Pixel 4 XL, which features a ceramic-like outer shell that gives it a truly premium feel. We also loved the defined shape and black outline around the edge of the phone that provides a striking visual, even at a distance.

The Google Pixel 4 XL isn’t just about good looks though, it’s got it where it counts too. With a 6.3-inch QHD OLED screen and deafeningly loud speakers, it’s great for watching TV and movies. You’ll need to buy your own headphones if you want to listen in private though, as it doesn’t come with any.

The camera set-up is a bit of a beast too, with two rear-facing lenses that work in tandem with some impressive software behind the scenes to give you incredible images. Then there’s Google’s Night Sight mode which lets you take incredible images of the night sky, or just snap pictures in low light conditions. 

Some of the extra features on the Google Pixel 4 XL did seem a little gimmicky to us, but it’s still a fantastic phone that ticks all the boxes.


Why Trust Us

We combine thorough research with hands-on testing to compare all the features, functions, and flaws of the top smartphones so we can recommend only the best of the best.

By now, it’s pretty standard for flagship phones to boast features such as water-resistance, long battery life, great cameras, fast speeds, gorgeous displays and airtight security. We leverage our own extremely high expectations for our smartphones in our evaluations, so you can be confident in your phone purchase.

How we tested the best smartphones

Our smartphone evaluations combine thorough research with extensive testing. We start by gathering and arranging available information about every smartphone to narrow down the top choices. We get our hands on the best smartphones on the market and then compare the items you see above, including battery capacity, screen quality, camera specs, and internal components. 

After we compile our data, our team spends time with each device. We conduct a variety of benchmark tests to assess features such as battery life, CPU processing power, graphic card performance, data read and write speeds, display quality and overall performance, and we factor these results into our overall evaluation.

Of course, a smartphone is more than the sum of its parts. To gauge how smoothly all the functions and features work together in day-to-day use, we take each phone for a spin for a few days. We play games, watch videos, check our social media, take photos and make phone calls to feel what it’s like to use the phone.