The best smartphones are constantly evolving, and our top spot is rarely secured by a single manufacturer for long. At the moment it’s an ongoing battle between Samsung and Apple for smartphone supremacy, but there are also some excellent choices from other companies including Google and OnePlus out there too.
But what makes the best smartphones tick in 2021? While they’re always packing powerful processors and other hardware, it’s the other features that make the headlines. 5G was the big talking point of last year, offering faster download speeds than ever before. The camera array is another huge focus for many smartphone shoppers, as we use them for snapping pics more often than making phone calls these days. We’ve also had huge boosts in battery life and fast charging technology that means you should never find yourself with a dead battery.
Different smartphones specialize in different things, so the best smartphone for you really depends on what you value the most. If you want the best smartphone camera then Samsung is the way to go, whilst Apple makes the most stylish and powerful hardware.
As we creep tentatively further into 2021, we can start to think about what the latest round of smartphones will offer. Last year was more iterative than innovative looking back, so we’re hoping to see some surprises from the rumored iPhone 13 (hopefully not unlucky for Apple) and Samsung Galaxy S22.
Once you’ve chosen the smartphone that you want, you’ll also need to choose the best cell phone provider to take out your plan with. If you’re curious about each provider’s coverage in your area, check out our cell phone coverage maps guide.
1. iPhone 12 Pro: Best smartphone overall
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 iPhone12 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.
- Read our full iPhone 12 Pro review
2. Samsung Galaxy S21: Best Android smartphone
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.
- Read the Samsung Galaxy S21 review.
3. OnePlus 8T - Best value Android smartphone
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.
- Read our full OnePlus 8T review.
4. iPhone 12: Best all-rounder
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.
- Read our full iPhone 12 review
5. iPhone SE: Best budget iPhone
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.
- Read our full iPhone SE review.
6. Google Pixel 3a: Best budget android smartphone
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.
- Read our full Google Pixel 3a review.
7. Samsung Galaxy S20 : Best Samsung smartphone
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.
- Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 review.
8. Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus: Best for artists
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.
- Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus review
9. Google Pixel 4 XL: Best design
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.
- Read our full Google Pixel 4 XL review
10. Huawei P30 Pro: Best for battery life
There are some concerns around Huawei phones at the moment due to the company’s ongoing battles with the U.S. government. You can't actually buy one in the USA as things stand, but it's easy enough to import one. We’re not going to dive into that mess, but what we can say is that the Huawei P30 Pro is an excellent handset that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best smartphones out there today, especially when it comes to the camera and battery life.
Seriously, what’s going on with the battery in the Huawei P30 Pro? Our best guess is that Huawei has powered this thing with the heart of a dying star, because it offers astronomical battery life. With normal use, you’ll struggle to even get the Huawei P30 Pro down to half battery by the end of the day.
The screen lags behind Samsung’s best handsets and doesn’t quite reach QHD with a 2360 x 1080 resolution on its 6.47-inch OLED screen, but it’s still no slouch. The camera set-up is excellent though, with four rear facing lenses including a 40 megapixel wide angle lens and a 5 x optical zoom telephoto lens. It even has a 32 megapixel selfie camera, which blows most of the competition out of the water.
- Read our full Huawei P30 Pro review
10. Honor 9X Pro: Best for budget gaming
People use their smartphones for all sorts of things, from snapping pictures to watching movies. If you’re looking for a great value smartphone that has its sights set squarely on gaming, then the Honor 9X Pro might be the one for you.
Coming in at around $400, the Honor 9X Pro has a flagship-worthy Kirin 810 chipset and 6GB of RAM along with liquid cooling to let you know that it’s serious about gaming performance. It also looks and feels the part of a premium smartphone too with a glass cover and flashy color options.
So what’s the catch? Well it’s an Honor phone, which is a subsidiary of Huawei. Due to Huawei’s current issues with the US government, there’s no Google Mobile Services on the Honor 9X Pro (unless you install it yourself). This means no Play Store, no Google Maps etc. It has its own store, but most of the apps we rely on are missing, especially when it comes to social media and gaming.
If you’re willing to risk installing Google Play Store on here yourself, we think the Honor 9X Pro is a great smartphone, but otherwise maybe steer clear.
- Read our full Honor 9X Pro review.
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
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.