Best smartphones in 2021

Best smartphones in 2021

The best smartphones cover a wide range of prices and priorities today with excellent options at every level. While affordable phones for under $500 deliver features on par with flagships of just a year or two ago, today’s flagships offer fantastical features like cameras with 50x zoom or more, folding screens, laptop-like performance and other fantastical features that justify their higher price points.

We took value into account when compiling this list, but that’s just one of the metrics that we looked at and how you order this list will absolutely depend on your priorities. It could be that the most important thing to you is productivity, photography, gaming, social media, videography or battery life. No matter which of these is your biggest focus one of our best smartphones will be a perfect fit for you.

We’ve spent hundreds of hours reviewing and researching all of the best smartphones available today with an eye for performance, cameras, build quality, battery life, display quality and value and narrowed it down to this collection that represents the best of the best.

What is the best smartphone? 

Currently, the iPhone 12 is the best smartphone on the market for most people. It delivers an excellent balance of features for the price starting at $799. Thanks to Apple’s reliable software updates, it could easily last you 3 to 5 years without a problem.

Apple’s A14 Bionic processor in the iPhone 12 is far and away the most powerful mobile processor out there and will help keep the smartphone running smoothly for years to come. The dual-cameras on the back of the iPhone 12 produce excellent photos and give you flexibility with a wide and ultrawide lens to make sure you can get everyone or everything into your photos.

If you prefer Android, depending on your budget there are a number of other fantastic options as well right now. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the pinnacle of Android hardware at the moment with a Snapdragon 888 processor and a quad-camera array that allows you to get fantastic photos near or far with up to a 100x zoom. Support for an S Pen and Samsung’s desktop-like DeX interface can turn your smartphone into a laptop replacement in a pinch.

On the other end of the price spectrum is Google’s own Pixel 4a, which at $349, is a virtually unbeatable value. The specs won’t blow you away, but Google continues to prove its software chops with photos from the Pixel 4a beating the results from smartphones that cost hundreds more. Pixels are the one Android smartphone you can guarantee will receive updates immediately and Google has committed to 3 years of updates for the Pixel 4a. If you’re interested in other affordable smartphones you may want to check out our best budget phones.

That’s a quick look at some of our top picks, but here’s a rundown of all the best smartphones available today.

The best smartphones you can buy today 

iPhone 12 on a leafy background

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

1. iPhone 12

Best smartphone for most people

Display: 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED (2532 x 1170) | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 64GB,128GB, 256GB | Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) | Front camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best iPhone 12 deals

Excellent photos and video

Fantastic value

Beautiful new design

Strong software support

Powerful A14 Bionic CPU

Base storage is too low

60Hz display

No charger in the box

The iPhone 12 takes the mantle from its predecessor as the best overall smartphone for most users. There’s an argument to be made for the iPhone 12 mini in this spot as well, it features identical specs save for the smaller 5.4-inch display and smaller battery, so this is largely a question of how big of a phone you want and whether battery life is a big concern for you. 

We would recommend paying the extra $50 to get 128GB of storage, unless you don’t take many photos or videos. Otherwise, the 64GB base model is going to fill up fast, which can be irritating to manage and can ultimately impact your performance later on if your phone is nearly out of storage. While you lose out on the telephoto of the Pro models, the wide and ultra-wide lens on the iPhone 12 are identical to those featured on the Pros and produce excellent photos and like their pricier siblings produce better video than any of the other best smartphones on this list.

There’s simply no beating Apple’s software support with iOS as you’ll have consistent and reliable updates coming to the iPhone 12 for about five years. And if you care about the color of your smartphone, an added bonus with the iPhone 12 is that you get double the color choices of the iPhone 12 Pro and in a much more fun palette.

See our full iPhone 12 review

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra close-up on rear cameras

(Image credit: Future)

2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Best premium Android phone for most people

Display: 6.8-inch Super AMOLED (3200×1400; 120Hz) | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12, 16GB | Storage: 128, 256, 512GB | Rear cameras: 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (ƒ/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, ƒ/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, ƒ/4.9) | Front camera: 40MP (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best Galaxy S21 Ultra deals

Unmatched optical zoom

Gorgeous adaptive QHD+ AMOLED screen

Excellent battery life

S Pen support

No charger included

No microSD storage

Samsung may have made some cuts to bring the pricing down on the Galaxy S devices this year, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra ($1,199) is still hands-down the most impressive premium Android phone on the market. While the subtle redesign means it doesn’t look drastically different from last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, there are a few substantial updates.

The most visible change is to the rear camera array, not just the physical redesign, but the addition of a fourth camera lens. The wide, ultra-wide and 3x telephoto lens from last year are now joined by a 10x optical telephoto, turning last year’s somewhat comical 100x Space Zoom into a usable photographic tool. Critically it has also picked up the laser autofocus from the Note 20 Ultra that corrects the focusing problems seen in last year’s model. There can be an argument about which of the best smartphones takes the best photos, but nothing can compare to the versatility of the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

That’s far from all, the brand new Snapdragon 888 is one of the biggest leaps that Qualcomm has made in recent years, particularly in machine learning performance. Galaxy Note fans may finally give the Ultra line a look too with support for the S Pen and dedicated cases to make carrying it a breeze. All of this and a $200 price drop from last year make the Galaxy S21 Ultra the best all-around premium Android phone available today.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra on a chopping block

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

3. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Best Android smartphone for productivity

Display: 6.9-inch Super AMOLED (3088×1440), 120Hz | CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus | RAM: 12GB | Storage: 128, 512GB | Rear camera: 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP telephoto (5x zoom, ƒ/3.0); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best Galaxy Note 20 Ultra deals

Powerful Snapdragon 865+ processor

Strong camera and video features

Long battery life

Unique S Pen

Beautiful Super AMOLED 120Hz display


Let’s get this out of the way. $1,299 is a lot to spend on a smartphone, but to be fair, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a lot of smartphone. The 6.9-inch display isn’t just massive, it’s one of the best on the market with a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate that makes navigating Android look so much smoother and the Super AMOLED 2x display makes HDR content pop off the screen.

The Snapdragon 865+ can’t quite match the new Snapdragon 888, but it delivers plenty of power to make the Note 20 Ultra a mobile gaming beast. And for the more productivity-minded, the large display and 12GB of RAM make multitasking a breeze. If you need more than that, you can use DeX mode wirelessly with any Miracast TV to give yourself a desktop experience powered by the Note 20 Ultra.

The S Pen that earns the Galaxy Note line its name got a big upgrade with a 9-millisecond response time that makes lag nearly imperceptible. New air gestures might not be for everyone, but triggering your camera remotely is neat and quite useful for group shots. Speaking of cameras, the 108MP primary sensor lets you capture an entire scene then crop into any detail later or you can use the up to 50x zoom to get up close. It’s not quite as versatile as the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but its camera still stacks up against any of the other best smartphones in this regard.

Windows 10 users get to enjoy robust integration with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra thanks to Link to Windows, which will let you control your smartphone entirely from your laptop including apps, calls, texts, photos and easy drag and drop file transfers. And while the price is a bit shocking at first, the capabilities of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra manage to make it worth the cost of admission.

See our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review

(Image credit: Apple)

4. iPhone SE (2020)

Best budget iOS smartphone

Display: 4.7-inch LCD (1334×750) | CPU: A13 Bionic | RAM: 3GB | Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB | Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8) | Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best iPhone SE 2020 deals

Flagship A13 Bionic CPU

Excellent value

Supports wireless charging

Stellar software support

Dated design

Weaker camera performance

When the iPhone SE (2020) was released last year, it amazed reviewers as it offered the same A13 Bionic processor found in the iPhone 11 lineup but for just $399. While there are obviously hardware tradeoffs that we’ll address, this means the phone offers nearly identical performance to Apple’s previous flagships and will see updates right alongside them for the next five years. 

The single rear camera is fine, but not up to the standards of the iPhone 11 or Google’s cheaper Pixel 4a for that matter. Apple did give it some other traditionally premium specs though with support for wireless charging and water resistance ( only the flagship Pixel options enjoy waterproofing). From a value standpoint, it would be hard to argue that any of the other best smartphones hold a candle to the iPhone SE considering the projected longevity of this phone.

(Image credit: Google)

5. Google Pixel 4a

Best budget Android smartphone

Display: 5.8-inch OLED (2340×1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 730G | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear camera: 12.2MP (ƒ/1.7) | Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)

Today’s best Google Pixel 4a deals

Astounding value

Unmatched camera at this price

Solid OLED display

Weak battery life

Low-end CPU

While the Galaxy S21 Ultra may reflect the pinnacle of Android hardware achievement, the Pixel 4a is a strong contender for the pinnacle of Android software achievement. For $349, the Pixel 4a hardware is quite good; it features a 5.8-inch OLED display, a solid mid-range processor and the same 12MP rear camera found in the $700 Pixel 5.

That description would fit dozens of budget Android devices, but Google manages to eke every bit of performance out of this hardware and turn the Pixel 4a into one of the best smartphones available today. The photos are easily the equal of numerous devices that cost twice as much. It doesn’t have multiple lenses, but Google’s Super Res Zoom does an impressive job of delivering digital zoom without sacrificing too much quality. And Night Sight is as impressive as ever on the Pixel 4a, turning barely-there lighting conditions into photos that you’d be happy to share.

The two complaints that can be levied against the Pixel 4a is that it has relatively weak battery life and its processor is well behind other mid-tier Android devices and its budget iOS competitor, the iPhone SE (2020). The battery life may be a problem for those that can’t easily top off their smartphone throughout the day, but unless you are looking to game on your smartphone, the processor isn’t an issue for day-to-day use.

OnePlus 9 Pro review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

6. OnePlus 9 Pro

Best flagship smartphone value

Display: 6.7-inch QHD AMOLED (3,216 x 1,440), 120Hz | CPU: Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8GB or 12GB | Storage: 128GB or 256GB | Front camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 50MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2); 8MP 3.3X telephoto (ƒ/2.0); 2MP monochrome | Rear camera: 16MP (ƒ/2.4)

Today’s best OnePlus 9 Pro deals

Top-of-the-line performance

Vivid 120Hz adaptive display

Unmatched wired and wireless charging

Lacks a periscope zoom lens

Weaker on software updates

The OnePlus 9 Pro isn’t quite the bargain it was last year when compared to the best from Samsung, but it still undercuts its main rival the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus by $30. The combination of its Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, 6.7-inch OLED QHD+ display with adaptive 120Hz refresh rate, and its incredible 65W fast charging keep it a value at $969 compared to numerous phones available for $999 and beyond. 

While in years past the camera was the stumbling block for OnePlus, that isn’t really the case with the OnePlus 9 Pro. While from a pure specs standpoint it still falls why of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or the iPhone 12 Pro models, the results are far closer. Low-light photos and telephoto range are the two areas that still come up a bit short, but the list is winnowing down. Like the Galaxy S21 line, the OnePlus 9 Pro has an adaptive 120Hz display that will adjust the refresh rate to the content on the screen, which also gives it excellent battery life despite the QHD 120Hz panel.

If you are looking to save a little more money or aren’t a fan of the waterfall edge display then consider the OnePlus 9, it features a flat edge display and a lesser rear camera array starting at $729. 

See our full OnePlus 9 Pro review.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE smartphone

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

7. Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Best Android smartphone value

Display: 6.5-inch OLED (2400×1080), 120Hz | CPU: Snapdragon 865 | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear camera: 12MP main (ƒ/1.8), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2), 8MP telephoto with 3x zoom (ƒ/2.4) | Front camera: 32MP (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G deals

Incredible value

Large 120Hz OLED display

Excellent performance

Fantastic photo and video

Plastic build

People might be inclined to forget about last year’s Samsung Galaxy S20 FE or Fan Edition in favor of the Galaxy S21. That would be a mistake as this is still an intriguing option for those who are looking to save some money without giving up too many high-end features. It takes most of the highlight features from the Galaxy S20 line and rolls them into a new and cheaper package starting at $699 (although it can frequently be found for $599 or less). 

Flagship specs like a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, a 120Hz display, a triple camera array and 5G are all present in this affordable smartphone. And just like the iPhone 11, it comes in a much broader and more fun spectrum of colors than its pricier siblings. With some of the cuts that Samsung made to bring the pricing down on the Galaxy S21, with the exception of the Snapdragon 888 processor the Galaxy S20 FE is still very much a solid match against the new models.

The cameras take a hit in terms of overall resolution. You don’t get the massive megapixel count on a primary lens for that 50-100x Space Zoom, but it offers you a wide, ultra-wide and 3x zoom that can deliver up to 30x zoom digitally. The other concession for the price point is a plastic back rather than glass or metal, but we saw the same for the standard Galaxy S21, so again if you find it at the right price this phone is still an awesome value.

See our full Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review

iPhone 12 Pro Max review

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

8. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Best high-end iOS smartphone

Display: 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB | Rear camera: 12MP wide (f/1.6), 12MP ultra-wide (f/2.4), 12MP telephoto (f/2.2) | Front camera: 12MP TrueDepth (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max deals

Top-end A14 Bionic CPU

Fantastic battery life

Vivid and bright OLED display

Extensive 5G support

Solid photos and unmatched video quality

Expensive starting price

60Hz display

Charger not included

If money is no object there’s no question that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best smartphone available right now. Like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, this is a pricey phone, but the feature set largely justifies that cost. The most notable feature has to be Apple’s A14 Bionic which just blows away everything else available right now.

The OLED display is bright and vibrant, the one knock against it is that it still lacks the 120Hz refresh rate found on many Android smartphones and Apple’s own iPad Pros. Video quality on the iPhone 12 Pro Max is untouched by anything Android has to offer including support for Dolby Vision recording and playback, which literally no other device, let alone a smartphone, can do. While I still have a personal preference for the photos from Google’s Pixel line, the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers a greater range with its telephoto and Apple’s investments in computational photography are likely going to only improve the results from these cameras over time.

Battery life is fantastic on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, more notable than on previous versions as the other iPhone 12 models didn’t fare as well as they have in the past. Finally, the software support is unmatched with roughly 5 years of updates guaranteed to arrive for your phone on the day and date of each new software release.

See our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Pixel 4a 5G on side table with candle

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

9. Pixel 4a 5G

Best Android phone for most people

Display: 6.2-inch FHD OLED (1080 x 2340) | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 12.2MP wide (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2) | Front camera: 8MP wide (ƒ/2.0)

Flagship tier camera

Solid display

Support for 5G

Great value

Middling performance

For $499, the Pixel 4a 5G is more of a Pixel 5 light than an upgraded Pixel 4a. It delivers the same second rear ultra-wide 16MP camera; the same Snapdragon 765G CPU; an expanded 6.2-inch FHD display; and of course 5G support.

The Pixel 4a was lauded for its use of software and hardware to produce fantastic results from a single 12.2MP camera, and the 4a 5G isn’t resting on its laurels, having further improved your ability to capture the moment. The newer model now matches the flagship Pixel camera features with Night Sight, HDR+, and the ability to adjust lighting post-snap. This results in flagship-level photography from a device at a fraction of the price.

While the Pixel 4a remains an excellent value, the future-proofing of 5G along with the improved camera and processor in the Pixel 4a 5G make it well worth the $150 premium if you can afford it.

See our full Pixel 4a 5G review

(Image credit: Motorola)

10. Moto G Power

Best budget battery life smartphone

Display: 6.4-inch LCD (2300×1080) | CPU: Snapdragon 665 | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 64GB | Rear camera: 16MP (f/1.7) main, 2MP (f/2.2) macro, 8MP (f/2.2) ultra wide angle | Front camera: 16MP (ƒ/2.0)

Today’s best Motorola Moto G Power deals

Unmatched battery life

Awesome sub $250 price

Better than average camera 

Large and bright display

Dull display

At $249 or less when it is on sale, the Moto G Power is firmly in the budget smartphone category. And while it won’t hold up to any of the other smartphones here in most specs, the battery life is incredible. 

Pairing a 5,000 mAh battery with a less powerful Snapdragon 665 processor and a 1080p display, the Moto G Power should last through even the longest days of work or play. Our sister site, Tom’s Guide, saw it achieve over 16 hours in its battery rundown test, 4 hours more than the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Nothing else on the Moto G Power is going to wow you, but it does offer a very competent camera experience with a wide, ultra-wide and macro lens available on the back and its 6.4-inch display is large and bright. If budget and battery life are the two top factors on your smartphone buying list then  the Moto G Power is an easy recommendation.

Asus ROG Phone 5 resting on Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 with Xbox Series X controller

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

11. ROG Phone 5

Best Android smartphone for gaming

Display: 6.78-inch FHD+ AMOLED (2,448×1,080) | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8/12/16GB | Storage: 128/256GB | Rear camera: 64MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 13MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4); 5MP macro (ƒ/2.0) | Front camera: 24MP (f/2.5)

Today’s best ROG Phone 5 deals

Excellent battery life

Beautiful responsive 144Hz display

Headphone jack with Quad DAC

Extensive software optimization

No wireless charging

Weak camera performance

Poor software support track record

The ROG Phone 5 comes with some definite caveats that you don’t get with the other $1,000+ flagship phones found on this list, but it also offers some unique features that you just don’t get from any other flagship phone.

Let’s focus on the positive first. The ROG Phone 5 is a gaming phone first and foremost and from the design, to its software, it will not let you forget this. The phone borrows heavily from the ROG Zephyrus line of laptops all the way down to an RGB light on the back of the base model (this is swapped out from a PMOLED display on the ROG Phone 5 Pro and ROG Phone 5 Ultimate). 

The software may actually sell the gamer focus on this phone more than the hardware with customization options for virtually every aspect of the phone. This includes the capacitive shoulder “buttons” on the phone that can be mapped to any on-screen buttons in your games. Audiophiles may be drawn to the ROG Phone 5 as well thanks to its Quad DAC and 3.5mm headphone jack, with LG leaving the smartphone business this is one of the only phones with ongoing support to offer that combo.

With all of that said you definitely need to be aware that you are giving up some things by going with the ROG Phone 5. Its cameras are nowhere near the quality of what you get from a flagship from OnePlus, Samsung or Apple and while the 144Hz panel is amazing, it lacks the adaptive refresh rate of some a OnePlus or Samsung flagship. Finally, long-term OS updates are going to be a pain point when compared to the rest, even OnePlus manages at least two years of updates, ROG Phone 5 will likely only see one major Android update.

See our full ROG Phone 5 review.

TCL 10 5G UW review photos

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

12. TCL 10 5G UW

Best affordable 5G smartphone

Display: 6.5-inch LCD (2,340×1,080) | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB | Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 8MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2); 5MP macro | Front camera: 16MP (f/2.4)

Today’s best TCL 10 5G deals

Amazing value

Gorgeous vivid display

Excellent battery life

Solid performance

Full Verizon 5G support

Runs Android 10 at launch

Inconsistent camera performance

Relatively dim display

The TCL 10 5G UW is a forgettable product name for a brilliant budget smartphone on Verizon that offers full 5G support for less than $400. That alone is impressive, but this smartphone also delivers one of the best displays I’ve seen on a budget smartphone, easily the equal of smartphones twice its price.

The battery life is another big win for the TCL 10 5G UW with a 5,000 mAh battery that can keep it going well into a second day or beyond depending on your usage. Performance is solid with the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G found in the much pricier Pixel 5 and paired with 6G of RAM and 128GB of storage.

My two knocks against the TCL 10 5G UW are that it runs Android 10 at launch, Android 11 is coming in 2021 and the cameras aren’t great with the exception of the front-facing camera. However, weighed against the cost of the device those seem like reasonable trade-offs to save yourself hundreds of dollars.

See our full TCL 10 5G UW review.

How to find the best smartphone 

There are dozens of smartphones released every year and it can be difficult to decide which is going to be the most suited to your needs. Here’s a good set of questions to ask yourself as you consider which of the best smartphones is right for you.

What’s your budget?

As you would probably expect, this is going to be a major deciding factor in your smartphone buying experience. There are three fairly distinct tiers in the smartphone market at the moment. Budget smartphones in the $250-$400 range can deliver a solid enough experience for many users, but will typically give up some camera quality, feature a weaker processor and offer reduced software support. Mid-tier smartphones in the $600-$750 range are enjoying a real resurgence at the moment with features that are just behind the flagships for hundreds less. True flagships start at around $999 and can go up to $1,400 and beyond, and as expected at this price, you should be getting a top-of-the-line processor, the ability to capture near DSLR quality photos and a fantastic display.

Android or iOS?

This could certainly be the first question you ask and will narrow your choices down considerably if you are set on one or the other. The truth is that the two operating systems are closer than ever in terms of overall functionality. Apple still delivers faster software updates, superior privacy and generally a better app experience. Android offers more customizability, a superior voice assistant, a wider variety of hardware and more user control.

iPhone 12 mini vs. iPhone 12

(Image credit: Future)

How much battery life do you need?

All the rest of its features won’t matter much if your smartphone is constantly dying before the end of the day for you. We conduct our own battery tests to see how long they will last on a single charge. And while your mileage will of course vary depending on your tasks, it will give you a general idea of how they stack up to one another.

Do you prefer a larger screen?

While the big-screen trend has largely eliminated the truly small smartphones from the market, there is still a spectrum of more compact options. Smaller phones at this point come in at or below 5.8-inches and the largest options are between 6.5-6.8 inches. For productivity and content consumption, a larger screen is definitely better, but there is certainly a portability trade-off so consider what you can carry comfortably.

How much do you value the camera?

The camera is one of the biggest differentiators as you move up the smartphone tiers. There are budget options that can capture excellent photos. However, they’ll lack some of the advanced telephoto and often high-end video capture capabilities that you will find in pricier smartphones. If, like most people, your smartphone is your only camera, then it’s worth considering whether the added reach or resolution of a high-end smartphone will allow you to capture photos and moments you otherwise might have missed.

Round up of today’s best deals