Here`s the best phones for 2021!
We fully test every phone we get our hands on at Digital Trends, and after conducting hundreds of reviews, we can confidently recommend the best of the best phones.
After much debate and comparison, we’ve settled on the Apple iPhone 12 Pro as the best phone currently available. However, one phone can’t meet everyone’s needs, so we have many other great options depending on what you’re looking for. Android fans will love the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and those who want to save money or buy a smaller phone also have plenty of great options. You’ll notice that most of these phones have 5G, but not all – if that’s a must, you can check out our refined list of the best phones with 5G.
Here’s why the iPhone 12 Pro ultimately won, as well as our picks in other phone categories.
Best phones at a glance
- Best phone overall: Apple iPhone 12 Pro
- Best Android phone: the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Best cheap phone: Motorola Moto G Power (2021)
- Best cheap phone: Samsung Galaxy S21
- Best small phone: Google Pixel 4a
- Best foldable phone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G
Best overall phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro
Why you should buy it: It’s a complete package, with great hardware, great cameras, and consistent software.
Who it’s for: Those who prefer the iPhone and are willing to pay to take it to the next level over the basic iPhone 12.
Why we chose the iPhone 12 Pro:
Apple’s iPhone lineup continues to expand, but the best option in this group is the iPhone 12 Pro – and that makes it the best overall smartphone you can buy today. The fresh, angular design of the 12 Series is taken to a new level with its steel frame and gorgeous finish in subtle but beautiful colors. It’s highlighted by a gorgeous display, now with reduced bezels, that performs well in all environments – even despite the lack of 120Hz refresh rates like its Android competitors.
The iPhone 12 Pro also features Apple’s best-ever camera system, focused on improving low-light performance. The main camera lets in significantly more light, and it shows in the results: Photos are brighter and clearer than before. The new A14 Bionic chip allows all cameras to now use night mode, and with the Pro-only LiDAR camera you can take pictures in portrait mode with night mode.
The rest is as you’d expect. The specs can run iOS 14 without a hitch, no matter what you throw at it, and it’s easily ready for the next three major iOS updates. Battery life isn’t as outstanding a feature as in years past, but the 12 Pro can easily handle a day of heavy use. And that’s even with 5G, which is supported by all carriers.
Of course, there are always caveats here: the iPhone 12 costs less for the same basic specs, and the 12 Pro Max offers a huge battery and improved camera quality. But they also come with their own compromises — and that makes the iPhone 12 Pro still the obvious choice for a wider range of people.
Second Place: Apple iPhone 12
For all the advantages of the iPhone 12 Pro, there’s one drawback: It’s not much better than the base iPhone 12. For just $799, you get virtually the same features as the 12 Pro, which is incredible. You lose the stainless steel frame, which is replaced by aluminum, the specs are slightly reduced, and you lose the TV camera and LiDAR sensor. But otherwise, the everyday experience is the same, including great photos from the main camera, good battery life, 5G and the new MagSafe accessory system.
If you don’t know right from the start that you need a Pro, you’re probably better off getting a basic iPhone 12. Just think about spending the extra $50 to increase the storage capacity to 128GB, which the 12 Pro offers by default.
The best Android phone: the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Why you should buy it: It’s the best of the best, with a huge and beautiful screen, good software, tons of features and a great multi-lens camera. Also, great battery life.
Who it’s for: Anyone who wants one phone that can handle productivity, games, video, and all the daily functions, and still have great battery life.
Why we chose the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:
For a high-end flagship, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the king of the heap in Android. Samsung went further than the S20 Ultra and even improved on the late 2020 Note 20 Ultra. The S21 Ultra delivers Samsung’s typically excellent build quality, with a new sleek matte glass back panel that doesn’t accumulate fingerprints like previous models. Inside is the top specs: a Snapdragon 888, 12 or 16 GB of RAM and 128 to 512 GB of storage.
The user experience is really anchored by the incredible display, which stretches up to 6.7 inches and runs at up to 120 Hz, even at maximum QHD resolution. It gets incredibly bright, and it’s simply the best display on a phone to date. And only in the slightest degree is it hindered by the single camera with holes. The new in-display fingerprint sensor is faster than before, and it’s finally competitive.
The new four-camera array has also really upped Samsung’s game. The 108-megapixel main sensor is better than even the Note 20 Ultra, and it now has two dedicated zoom cameras: 3X and 10X, both with OIS (optical image stabilization). Thanks to new processing and stabilization software, you can get fantastic pictures with 10X and even 30X zoom in the right light. Unfortunately, the 100x zoom is still a bit of a gimmick.
This all comes before you see additional features like the DeX wireless mode, which connects your phone to a TV or monitor to give the impression of a desktop computer, an absolutely stunning display, and reverse wireless charging. In addition to the standard features: great build quality, waterproof, fast wireless charging, and more.
The downsides? Well, size is an issue. It’s heavier than even the S20 Ultra, and it’s so big that it’s hard to use with one hand. The Galaxy S21 Ultra also costs $1200 (not including the latest discounts), but you do get the best Android phone currently available. Want an alternative? The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is worth considering, but you’ll get more for your money with the S21 Ultra.
Winner: OnePlus 9 Pro
OnePlus continues to up its game in the flagship phone market, creating truly competitive phones that can compete with the best of the best. The OnePlus 9 Pro is its top specimen, which is already close to dislodging our top picks. It offers incredible specs, high-end hardware and a huge, high-quality display. All of this runs the excellent OxygenOS software, which is fast, simple and very useful – without the frills Samsung offers. In addition, its Warp Charge fast charging is incredibly convenient for daily use.
There are only two flaws that keep the OnePlus 9 Pro from taking second place. The camera is again a step behind Samsung, with inconsistencies between the lenses and a zoom performance that just falls short of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. And, of course, it’s hard to settle for such a compromise when the price for the top-of-the-line model is over $1,000 — about the same as you’d pay for the S21 Ultra, and that’s not an easy sell.
Best cheap phone: the Motorola Moto G Power (2021)
Why you should buy it: Motorola offers you all the basic features in a good size and a few nice little things.
Who it’s for: Budget buyers who still want a great phone with great basic features.
Why we chose the Moto G Power:
When you want a reliable phone at an exceptional price point, you turn to Motorola. At this point, that formula has been perfected, and the latest version is the Moto G Power. For $250, you get a huge 6.6-inch display, 4GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 600-series chipset and a healthy 64GB of storage. And here’s the big bonus: a massive 5,000 mAh battery that can easily last two days without recharging, no matter what you charge it with.
Otherwise, Motorola continues to demonstrate that it can create consistent and useful software. Its approach to Android is simple and useful, with just a few tweaks and apps to improve the overall experience. You get quick gestures for everyday tasks like starting the camera or turning on the flashlight, and Moto Display is the best way to quickly manage notifications as they come in.
Obviously, for that money, you’re missing out on a lot of high-end features. The body is plastic, the screen isn’t great, and the cameras just do their job. You also don’t get full waterproofing or other hardware add-ons like wireless charging. But really, those aren’t fundamental parts of the experience. You can easily do everything you need to do on your Moto G Power smartphone at a very affordable price.
Best price: Samsung Galaxy S21
Why you should buy it: A basic Samsung flagship phone at a great price.
Who it’s for: Anyone who dreams of a high-end Android, but wants to keep the price reasonable without making serious compromises.
Why we chose the Galaxy S21:
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is our top Android choice, but its price is out of reach for many people. That makes you look for a lower-end model, the Galaxy S21 — and while it doesn’t have the same camera system and glass build, its great price makes it a fantastic value.
You get the same internal features and performance capabilities thanks to a top-of-the-line processor, and exactly the same software with all the features that make Samsung phones desirable. Samsung’s displays are the best you can get today, even if it’s “only” a 1080p screen – the important thing is that it’s very bright and colorful, and has a 120 Hz refresh rate for smooth animation. And while the Galaxy S21 can’t be called a small phone, with its 6.2-inch display, it’s not as massive as the S21 Ultra. If you think today’s flagship phones reach too far for you, this phone will be a nice respite.
The only major difference in feel between the S21 and the larger S21 Ultra is in the camera settings. In the former, it’s a pretty major change — you lose the S21 Ultra’s 108-megapixel camera, settling for a simpler camera, similar to the S20’s camera. It’s good, but it’s not great. You also lose out on the incredible zoom capabilities, and the quality really drops off after the 3x zoom.
If you’re willing to splurge for a good phone but don’t want to go all the way to the top, the Galaxy S21 is a great choice. It offers tremendous value.
The best small phone: the Google Pixel 4a
Why you should buy it: Google’s approach to smartphones fits perfectly with a small, simple and affordable phone.
Who it’s for: Those who are tired of stretching their arms (and pockets) to use huge, modern smartphones.
Why we chose the Google Pixel 4a:
It’s almost impossible to find a truly small phone today, as phones of all price ranges are getting bigger and bigger. But the Pixel 4a is truly small, one of the smallest phones you can buy today, with a 5.8-inch display surrounded by small bezels.
Beyond size, the Pixel 4a has many advantages. Google’s simple and useful software works very well on this low-end hardware, and it also doubles the value with its long battery life for a phone of this size. Yes, the screen is pretty average, and the specs will seem a little tired in a couple of years, but that’s inevitable.
You also get Google’s legendary camera, even in such a small and inexpensive device, with a 12-megapixel sensor that can take photos that rival phones that cost three times as much. There’s no secondary camera, and the selfie camera is just above average, but honestly, we’re just being picky — it’s the best camera in this price range.
What’s more, you get it all for an incredible price: the Google Pixel 4a is only $349. So not only do you not have to stretch your arms, but you don’t have to stretch your wallet to buy it.
Best foldable phone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G
Why you should buy it: Foldable phones are the future of phones, and the Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is the best of them.
Who it’s for: If you have a big budget to buy a phone and want to stand out from the crowd, then you should look into this phone.
Why we chose the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G:
Folding phones haven’t yet established themselves in the conversation as the best phones overall, especially at current prices, but it’s undeniable that folding screens have a big place in the future of smartphones. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is a perfect example of why.
When closed, the smartphone has a relatively normal shape, the outer screen can be used for basic tasks, and then it unfolds to a huge mini tablet screen at will. No exposed hinges or bezels, just a wide screen on which you can use multiple apps or unfold content for comfortable reading. And when you’re done, it folds up and is protected from damage.
And because it’s a high-end Samsung phone, you get a generally good experience even after folding. Strong cameras, good battery life, great software and exceptional build quality are all as expected for the money. The problem is that it’s still too expensive to recommend to most people: the Galaxy Z Fold 2 costs $2,000.
If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, we also have ideas about the best rugged phones, the best phones for kids and the best gaming phones.
Research and buying tips
- What is an unlocked phone?
- Can smartphones get viruses?
- What to do with an old phone?
- How long should a phone last?
- Do phones cause cancer?
- How do prepaid phones work?
- What’s the best OS for you?
- What is an unlocked phone?
A locked smartphone is tied to a specific carrier’s network, so if your phone is locked to Verizon, for example, you can only use it with a Verizon SIM card and service plan. An unlocked smartphone can be used on any network. If you paid for your phone in full, unlocking it should be free. We have a guide that will show you how to unlock your phone on any carrier. You can also buy some great unlocked phones that will work with any carrier right out of the box.
Can smartphones get viruses?
Although viruses on iPhones and Android phones are possible, most people mean malware when they say “virus.” Technically, the term “virus” refers to software that infects a carrier by inserting itself into an existing program and then spreading that infection through self-replication. They make up a very small percentage of malware and are extremely rare on smartphones, but they are not malware. You should definitely think about how to protect your smartphone from hackers, because a little common sense can save you from having to deal with how to remove malware from your phone.
What to do with an old phone?
The most obvious thing to do with an old smartphone is to give it to someone else. If you want to donate it, be sure to wipe it first; we have guides on how to wipe an Android phone and how to reset an iPhone to factory settings. You may also want to turn your old phone into cash, in which case you should read about how to sell your smartphone. You might decide to keep it as a spare in case your new smartphone breaks, but you can also use it for its intended purpose with the right apps. It’s better to give it to someone who can use it or find another use for it than to let it languish in a desk drawer. If you can’t think of a way to use your smartphone, consider donating it or recycling it.
How long should a phone last?
Realistically, you can expect a smartphone to last two to three years. You can extend the life of any smartphone by taking proper care of it, and it always pays to buy a good protective case. There are many good waterproof phones to choose from these days. The problem with many Android phones is that manufacturers and carriers are slow to release software updates, so over time it can become outdated and even unsafe. Buy an Apple or Google phone and you won’t have this problem.
Do phones cause cancer?
The question of whether cell phone radiation is dangerous is still hotly debated in some circles. Technically, it is classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” but that puts it in the same category as coffee, gasoline and nickel. Many studies have been done, but we still don’t have any scientific evidence to give a definite answer to this question one way or the other. Most official bodies, including the Federal Communications Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute, agree that there is no proven link at this point, but also acknowledge that we need more research.
How do prepaid phones work?
Prepaid phones work just like any other phone, but they come without a monthly contract or long-term commitment. You usually pay for the service up front. When you buy a prepaid phone, it usually comes with a fixed number of minutes, text messages, and possibly a fixed amount of mobile data. This eliminates the possibility of overspending. When they run out, you simply top up by buying more minutes, text messages and data in installments.
Which operating system is best for you?
This is where it gets more personal. Choosing an operating system for your smartphone is a very important consideration. When you choose between Android and iOS, you are buying an entire ecosystem of apps and compatible products.
Apple’s iOS is beautiful, simple and easy to use, and the App Store offers the best app selection imaginable. Every aspect of iOS is curated by Apple, and it’s noticeable. Android is more open and has fewer rules, which means more options for customization, but it also means that makers and app creators can deliberately ignore Google’s Material design language and do whatever they want, which sometimes makes Android look unrecognizable and cluttered. Android is great, as seen on Google’s Pixel 4 and 4 XL, but you don’t always see it that way.
Because Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, it also has complete control over software updates. So iPhone owners always get the latest and greatest iOS. Android users don’t have that luxury. If you don’t have a Pixel device – and there are very few such users – you may have to wait months for software updates.
Software updates contain security patches that protect your phone from malware, viruses, and hackers. Android is the most attack-prone mobile operating system because it’s far from the biggest, so this is something to keep in mind when considering phones from companies that don’t have the best reputation for releasing updates.
In contrast, Apple is able to fix security flaws and send updated software to all iPhone users immediately. Since most users update their software when prompted, most iOS users are protected from these very real threats. Apple’s iOS also offers full encryption without compromise.
How we test
A phone is so much more than its specifications. It holds your entire life, from photos and contacts to music and favorite apps. For this reason, we take a careful approach to testing phones and recommend only the best ones.
We use each phone we review as an everyday machine for an extended period of time to test all of its features. We do comparison tests, play games, take pictures, dip them in water, and use them until the battery runs out. Then we charge them up and do it all over again. We test the devices the way real people use them. We don’t sit in stuffy labs doing incomprehensible tests. We run around the cities we live in, using these phones the same way you use your phones. Then we look at each phone compared to its competitors to decide: Should you buy this phone or something else? If the answer is “something else,” we tell you what to buy instead.
Smartphone innovation is at its peak, and the number of radical new features coming out every year is dwindling. So when you buy a phone, you’re buying a device that will be with you around the clock for years to come. It’s a big choice, and things like apps, the product ecosystem, customer support and security should be important factors in your purchasing decision.