As 2021 has now arrived, we can look back on the previous year at the best smartphones of the year, while also looking ahead at what’s to come. From Apple to OnePlus, Samsung and still Sony putting up a fight, it was more of an iterative year, where improvements were met with enthusiasm, and every manufacturer upped their game in the camera-space.
Of course, 5G was the main talking point of the best smartphones last year, touting even faster speeds than before, allowing someone to download a 100GB movie in just eight seconds, as long as you were connected to the ‘right’ type of 5G service.
Budget-smartphones also shone through too. Apple’s second-generation iPhone SE was introduced, offering great specs and a fantastic camera at much lower prices than we’re used to. Our senior citizens are well covered too, with the best smartphones for seniors being better than ever.
While we decided that the Samsung Galaxy S20 is the best smartphone for 2021, there’s plenty of other smartphones in the field that may suit you better for the year ahead.
Once you've chosen the best smartphone for your, you also need to choose which of the best cell phone providers you want to take out a plan with. To see how good each provider’s coverage is in your area, check out our cell phone coverage maps guide.
1. Samsung Galaxy S20 : Best smartphone overall
If you’re looking for the best smartphone on the market and you’re willing to pay the big bucks, then the Samsung Galaxy S20 is the obvious choice. 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 topping our list.
- Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 review.
2. iPhone 11 Pro: Best iPhone
Apple has been the kings of the smartphone market for years and while Samsung may be stealing that crown from it today, the iPhone 11 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 iPhone11 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 11 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 11, the iPhone 11 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 11 Pro.
- Read our full iPhone 11 Pro 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 11: Best all-rounder
If you’re looking for the phone that does it all, then you can’t go wrong with Apple’s iPhone 11. It’s not quite as big as the iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max, but it offers almost everything that they do at a fraction of the price. You can currently snag an iPhone 11 for $699, which is an absolute bargain when you consider what they’ve managed to cram into this thing.
There are two 12 megapixel lens cameras on the back, and another on the front for taking selfies. One of the rear lenses is for taking ultrawide shots, so you can get the whole family into your pictures. There’s also some cool stuff happening behind the scenes to improve your picture quality too, with Night mode for taking shots in the dark and Deep Fusion mode, which sounds like it belongs in a nuclear reactor, but actually fuses multiple pictures into one image.
It’s beautifully designed too, with only a tiny bezel on the outside edge and huge range of colors to choose from. There have been some sacrifices to keep the cost down though. The 6.1 screen isn’t quite HD and it’s only LCD, rather than OLED so the images it shows won’t be as vibrant as the Google Pixel 4 XL, or even the Google Pixel 3a. It’s not the best at anything, but the iPhone 11 is the best jack of all trades on the market.
- Read our full iPhone 11 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 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
8. 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
9. 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.