The Top 5 smartphones you can buy in 2021 – The ultimate performers and affordable but powerful devices
Smartphones continue to improve performance, cameras, and add new features that make our life easier. While that’s exciting, it also creates confusion. As a potential buyer, you have so much choice that it’s hard to make the right one. The other critical factor is the price, as the flagship models are more expensive than ever. The top of the line products are often above $1000, so you have to make sure you really need them before spending so much money. While I’ll showcase these premium models, I’ll also mention more affordable ones. Although they are considerably cheaper, they still offer excellent performance and may even be better in some segments.
|Image||Name||Display||Camera||Chipset & RAM||Rating||Price|
|iPhone 12||6.1″||12 MP (rear)|
12 MP (front)
|Apple A14 Bionic|
4 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|OnePlus 9||6.55″||48 MP (rear)|
16 MP (front)
|Snapdragon 888 5G|
8/12 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Samsung Galaxy 21||6.8″||108 MP (rear)|
40 MP (front)
|Snapdragon 888 5G|
12/16 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Asus Rog Phone 5||6.78″||64 MP (rear)|
24 MP (front)
|Snapdragon 888 5G|
8/12/16 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Google Pixel 4a||5.81″||12.2 MP (rear)|
8 MP (front)
6 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|iPhone 12||SEE ON AMAZON|
|OnePlus 9||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Samsung Galaxy 21||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Asus Rog Phone 5||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Google Pixel 4a||SEE ON AMAZON|
What is expected from the best smartphones in 2021?
When buying a smartphone in 2021, you have to consider various factors. Even if, for example, you don’t care much about the camera, you still need a decent one as there will be moments when you’ll want to use it. So these are the minimum requirements when buying a new smartphone in 2021. Of course, all phones I recommend satisfy the criteria below.
Check how old is it – Buying an Android device introduced in 2019 is not the best choice you can make, as there is a high chance it won’t get any more system software updates. Apple devices are supported for longer, but I still wouldn’t recommend something older than two years.
Display – Your eyesight will be so thankful if you choose the screen that won’t be hard to look at. Consider the type of display, resolution, and size.
Camera quality – It’s not all about megapixels! Aperture, pixel size, and lenses are just some of the factors that make or break the quality of videos and photos.
Memory – By this, I mean both RAM and storage space. Nothing below 4 GB RAM is worth considering, and 128 GB storage is now a standard option.
Performance – Maybe you don’t want to play the latest games, but smooth web browsing and app usage are a must.
Battery – Even the most powerful smartphone is useless if its battery capacity won’t survive a day.
The best overall smartphone in 2021 offers the ultimate performance
iPhone 12 specifications:
- Display: 6.1 inches OLED, 1170×2532
- Chipset & RAM: Apple A14 Bionic, 4 GB RAM
- Camera: 12 MP, f/1.6/ (rear), 12 MP, f/2.2 (front)
More compact than iPhone 11
Standard charger not included
Let me be clear – the iPhone 12 is not revolutionary, as there are no massive improvements over its predecessor. However, this is still a well-rounded device that is a new benchmark for the best smartphone on the market in 2021. As you can expect, the build quality is impressive, so you know you’re looking at something special. Apple also claims that iPhone 12 is more resistant to damage than iPhone 11, but hopefully, you won’t need to test that. Thanks to reduced bezels, it’s slightly smaller than the iPhone 11, going well with the company philosophy that is all about elegant and compact devices.
iPhone 12 comes in four different versions (Regular, Mini, Pro, Pro Max), but I’ve chosen the regular because the more powerful ones aren’t worth the price difference for most of us. As expected, iPhone 12 comes in versions with 64, 128, and 256 GB memory. The 128 GB edition is the best buy, and you should really skip the 64 GB as, of course, you can’t expand the storage later. Finally, you can choose between six colors, including light green or purple, next to more traditional black or white.
A stunning night mode and the arrival of OLED
If you wanted OLED on your iPhone 11, you had to buy the Pro version. However, the technology is now available on the regular iPhone 12. As the superior choice, OLED brings more life-like colors and a massive contrast, thanks to its perfect black levels. In practice, you’ll notice the difference mostly when watching videos, especially if it supports HDR. The 6.1-inch is not the largest on the test, nor is the 2532×1170 the best resolution. Still, the picture quality is superb, and the brightness is only slightly below the Pro model. The biggest drawback here is that iPhones are still locked at 60Hz.
The iPhone 12 is a fantastic performer, thanks to its A14 Bionic chipset. Even more expensive Android devices can’t keep up with it, which won’t change for a while. Here lies one reason why I recommend this model instead of Pro, as it performs pretty much the same. The 4 GB of RAM doesn’t sound like much, but only if you’re coming from Android. iOS is still better optimized, so this is plenty for instant loading and smooth use of your favorite app. Note that the iPhone uses magnetic technology as an elegant charging solution, especially as you don’t need to remove your case. Of course, the standard charger is still faster, but you’ll have to buy it separately.
The camera here is only a slight improvement over the iPhone 11, which is still excellent by today’s standards. The biggest plus is visibly enhanced Night Mode, which is integrated into wide and ultrawide sensors. You’ll have to wait up to 15 seconds to let the camera make the necessary adjustment, but even the photos made in pitch black conditions will look impressive. As for the video, you can enable Dolby Vision, but it’s limited to [email protected] fps.
iPhone 12 is a fantastic phone, offering the top performance, a large OLED screen, and an improved camera. While a 5G network is still unsatisfactory, even in the biggest cities, things will only improve. This makes it a future-proof device that you can stick with for four or five years!
An excellent premium Android alternative for less
OnePlus 9 specifications:
- Display: 6.55 inches AMOLED, 1080×2400, 120Hz
- Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 888 5G, 8/12 GB RAM
- Camera: 48 MP, f/1.8/ (rear), 16 MP, f/2.4 (front)
Water and dust resistant
Much improved camera
RAW format support
The frame is made of plastic
No storage expansion options
For years, Samsung phones were the best alternative for iPhones, but their price is higher than ever. Luckily, there are other options, including the OnePlus 9, which, while much cheaper, will satisfy everyone but the most demanding users. Despite the lower price than many of its rivals, the OnePlus 9 is still a premium phone, as it has glass on the front and the back of the device, although the frame is plastic. Still, it’s sturdy and water and dust-resistant. While it looks almost the same as OnePlus 8T, that’s not a bad thing.
One Plus 9 comes in two variants, so you can choose between 8 GB RAM/128 GB and 12 GB RAM/256 GB. Both are great choices, as the better edition is only $100 more. While 128 GB is plenty of space, keep in mind that the device doesn’t support microSD cards. One thing to notice is that the OnePlus 9 also has a Pro variant that is really not worth it. It offers only slight improvements while being much more expensive. Finally, you can choose between several colors, including Arctic Sky (matte), Winter Sky (gradient), and Astral Black (glossy).
Massively improved camera
OnePlus sticks with the true and tested AMOLED display, so the colors and brightness are nothing to worry about. The 6.55 inch is massive, and it combines well with 1080×2400 resolution. Bezels are thin, and the uniformity is broken only by a small punch-hole for the front camera. Unlike iPhone 12, the display supports 120Hz for an extremely smooth overall experience. However, unlike on the OnePlus 9 Pro, you’ll have to manually adjust the refresh rate if you want to save battery.
While no Android can match iPhone 12’s power, this doesn’t mean that the OnePlus 9 is slow. As a new chipset, Snapdragon 888 has plenty of oomph, so the performances are the same as on Samsung S21. Battery life is above average, so you shouldn’t worry if it will last for the whole day. The charging speed is less impressive, as going from 0 to 100% takes about 90 minutes.
The one reason preventing OnePlus from competing in the flagship category was always its camera. Even their best couldn’t compare with what was offered by Google or Samsung. However, thanks to the collaboration with the highly-regarded Hasselblad, the improvements are easy to spot. The first thing you’ll notice is realistic colors, but there’s also an impressive macro mode. With tons of manual settings and RAW format support, this is a dream phone for photo enthusiasts on a limited budget. Finally, you can even shoot [email protected] fps videos!
OnePlus 9 offers excellent performance, detailed camera options, and a huge 120Hz screen. This is the best affordable premium phone overall, as it can compare to many models costing almost twice as much.
The best camera phone with an impressive zoom
Samsung Galaxy 21 Ultra specifications:
- Display: 6.8 inches AMOLED, 1440×3200, 120Hz
- Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 888 5G, 12/16 GB RAM
- Camera: 108 MP, f/1.8/ (rear), 40 MP, f/2.2 (front)
Night mode is better on the iPhone 12
Traditionally, Samsung phones are considered the cream of the crop when it comes to Android devices, and I can say the same for the entire S21 line. However, that’s especially the case with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This premium phone looks slick, and it’s actually smaller than its predecessor. However, this is one of the heaviest devices on the market as 8.08 ounces is slightly above the iPhone 12 Pro Max. That isn’t a huge surprise, as Samsung wanted to showcase everything they got. Of course, such a valuable device is also water-resistant.
The S21 Ultra comes in three versions, including 128 GB/12 GB RAM, 256 GB/12 GB RAM, and 512 GB/16 GB. There’s no memory card slot, but even 128 GB is still plenty of space. As expected, S21 also has more affordable editions, including the regular S21 and S21+. As for the colors, you can choose between subtle variants of black, silver, titanium, navy, or brown.
Zoom like you’ve never seen before
Samsung sticks with AMOLED technology which is still impressive with its 120Hz refresh rate and 1500 nits peak brightness. The massive 6.8-inch screen is indeed remarkable, and the 1440×3200 resolution guarantees a sharp image. I love the ability to drop down the resolution to 1080p to save the battery, but there’s no option to manually adjust the refresh rate. Instead, the device does that automatically for you, going way down to 10Hz when needed.
Like some other phones on the test, the Galaxy S21 Ultra uses Snapdragon 888 5G chipset. This puts it among the fastest Android performers, as it only trails behind Asus ROG Phone 5 by a small margin. Still, the improvement over the previous generation is about 10-15%, so it’s not easy to see the difference. All that power needs a large battery, and the one in Ultra has a 5000mAh capacity. That’s enough to get you through the day in all but extreme cases, such as prolonged gaming or 5G sessions. The S21 Ultra fully recharges in only 70 minutes, but you’ll have to invest in a charger, as it doesn’t come in the package.
But where this phone shines is its camera. While the 108MP sounds impressive, the focus sensor is the real star. This produces a much sharper image than on the previous Galaxy generation. Night mode is also very impressive, although slightly behind what Apple’s flagship offers. On the other hand, where Ultra dominates the iPhone is the contrast and the impressive 10x zoom. Finally, you can record video at [email protected] fps or [email protected] fps, all while using 10x zoom.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is not very affordable, but there has been a significant price drop since it was released in January 2021. So, if you want the best possible camera, you’ll enjoy what it has to offer. Combine that with generally exceptional performance and a giant screen, and it’s easy to fall in love with this model.
The best gaming phone offers stunning performance and control
Asus Rog Phone 5 specifications:
- Display: 6.78 inches OLED, 1080×2448
- Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 888 5G, 8/12/16 GB RAM
- Camera: 64 MP, f/1.8/ (rear), 24 MP, f/2.5 (front)
Faster even than Samsung Galaxy S21
Minimal input lag
Performance mode drains the battery quickly
No memory card slot
Phones have been respectable gaming platforms for a while now, and even Nintendo can’t ignore them anymore. As one of the best PC gaming brands, Asus used this experience on its ROG Phone series to establish it as the top choice. Even by looking at it, you see that it’s a unique, mean-looking device that should handle even the most demanding titles. You also have a dot-matrix-style ROG logo on the back, which looks pretty cool.
This smartphone comes in three standard versions, including 8 GB RAM/128 GB, 12 GB RAM/256 GB, and 16 GB RAM/256 GB version. Also, keep in mind that the device doesn’t have card slots for storage expansion. Asus is also offering Pro and Ultimate, which both have insane 512 GB internal storage. However, the chipset is identical to the regular version, with only a limited Ultimate edition offering unnecessary 18 GB RAM. Finally, the phone is available in two colors, named Storm White and Phantom Black.
The fastest Android on the market
A gaming phone needs a colossal screen, and ROG Phone 5 delivers with 6.78 inches. This ranks it among the largest smartphone screens and 0.6 inches bigger than the Nintendo Switch display. The AMOLED screen here is something special, but not because of its 1080×2448 resolution. What is way more impressive is the 144Hz refresh rate, like on top-of-the-line gaming monitors. At 800 nits, the brightness is excellent, so gaming is enjoyable even in broad daylight. Also, the 24ms input lag is the lowest so far.
However, with ROG Phone 5, everything is about performance. Snapdragon 888 5G is a chipset already seen in standard Samsung Galaxy S21 and OnePlus 9, but here you have complete control over the performance, like gaming laptops. In practice, even the most demanding games like Call of Duty or Genshin Impact run buttery smooth, but they will drain 6000 mAh pretty quickly! Alternatively, you can double this time if you choose the ultra-durable mode. However, the performance will also drop down drastically in that case. Charging is the best on the test, as going from zero to 100 takes only an hour! I must mention the phenomenal sound, whether you are using built-in speakers or a headphone jack, not present in the previous model.
The camera here isn’t among the best on the market, but it’s adequate. In the daylight, the pictures are very similar to those on iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S21. Still, the quality drops significantly in night settings. If an excellent camera is essential to you, you’ll be disappointed.
The Asus ROG Phone 5 is an excellent gaming device, but it should attract anyone who loves big displays and the excellent sound quality. However, it would be a shame getting it and not at least occasionally using its impressive gaming features.
The best budget phones makes compromises you might not even notice
Google Pixel 4a specifications:
- Display: 5.81 inches OLED, 1080×2340
- Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 730G, 6 GB RAM
- Camera: 12.2 MP, f/1.7/ (rear), 8 MP, f/2.0 (front)
Only a single model available
Not water resistant
Google Pixel series has always been incredibly popular, and at $350, Pixel 4a sounds very attractive. Still, as this is a budget phone, it’s impossible not to think about all the compromises made to reach such an attractive price. For one thing, the phone lacks glass and metal components, but the build quality is still impressive. The design is very conservative, but thinner bezels than on Pixel 3a make it visually appealing. The simplicity is broken only by the camera patch on the back, as it’s impossible to ignore its size.
One way for Google to make the phone more affordable was to produce a single model, so the 128 GB internal memory is your only choice. While this is still a lot of space and the standard option on many premium phones, keep in mind that there’s no memory card slot. Finally, the color choice is also minimal. Just Black is the widely available option, while Barely Blue is a choice only if you purchase it from Google.
Impressively bright screen and camera
At 5.81 inches, you can’t call this a small screen, even though every other model listed here beats it when it comes to size. Nevertheless, Google 4a surprises with an OLED screen, which is still a rarity in this class. There’s no catch here, as the 1080×2340 is impressive, as is the 681 nits brightness. While the refresh rate stays fixed at 60Hz, even iPhone 12 sticks to it. It would be lovely to have more, but this shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for anyone.
This device uses a pretty respectable Snapdragon 730G combined with 6 GB RAM to ensure smooth performance in typical daily usage. However, even gamers will be happy to play all the latest games, despite reducing the level of details in some cases. While iPhone SE (2020) is considerably faster, no other budget Android can match its performance. The 3140mAh should get you through the day, and charging speed is pretty impressive as it takes only 30 minutes to reach 50% from zero.
Google Pixel 4a won’t impress you with its megapixel count, but in practice, it’s more important that the quality sensor creates beautiful pictures. The biggest surprise is the Night Mode which produces magnificent results, as long as you can keep your hands steady. Otherwise, recording options are standard, with [email protected] being the maximum.
While iPhone SE (2020) is a better performer, Pixel 4a beats it at everything else, and it represents the best value at the moment. Apart from the lack of glass and metal, the worst thing I can say is that it lacks 5G, which is still far from going mainstream. However, for $100, you can buy Pixel 4a 5G model, which also has a bit better performance, camera, and a larger screen.
FAQ – The best smartphone in 2021
Why is it essential to buy an unlocked phone?
By risking to be called Captain Obvious, I’ll say that an unlocked phone is a phone that’s not tied to any mobile operator. Honestly, I’ve never had anything but an unlocked phone and haven’t ever been tempted to choose otherwise. It’s like a state of mind where you don’t even think that there’s an alternative.
Joking aside, buying an unlocked device means that you have to make a more significant initial investment, but ultimately, it will cost you less than paying it over the contract. Of course, if you can’t afford to shell out so much cash, the only option you have is the contract. However, if you love the iPhone, forget about what I just said. As they are so incredibly popular, operators will often offer attractive arrangements if you’re willing to stay with them for years. While that might sound tempting, you should still think about it. If you want to buy out your contract later, that won’t be cheap.
For how long will my phone receive updates?
One of the best reasons to buy an iPhone is that Apple will keep updating the software for at least five years on average! It’s mind-blowing that the 2015 iPhone 6s is still supported in 2021, and it will be dropped only when iOS 15 is released. On the other hand, the situation with Android phones is not only worse but also chaotic! The thing is, every manufacturer has a different policy, so in some cases, phones like Moto G Power will get a single system update! If the software is your priority, know that Google phones receive the most extended support.
Do I need a 5G phone in 2021?
Despite the controversy, there’s no doubt that 5G will become a standard. However, the real question is if you need it right now? Considering everything, having a 5G phone in 2021 won’t give you a considerable advantage, and even in 2022, 4G will stay dominant. This means that choosing a phone based on if it supports 5G is something you probably shouldn’t do. I would rather have a 4G phone with a terrific screen and performance than losing it for the same-priced 5G phone.
How important is the 120Hz refresh rate on a smartphone?
Having a screen with the best possible refresh rate is all the rage these days! While 60Hz is still the most common sight, you can find 120Hz or even 144Hz phones. Everything is pretty simple, as the higher refresh rate means smoother scrolling and faster response, critical for online gaming. The difference between 60 and 120Hz is not drastic, but it’s pretty apparent, and it benefits the experience.
However, there are many reasons why you may not need a 120Hz phone. The first one is that such a high refresh rate means that the battery will deplete much sooner. The second thing is, 120Hz screens are still not mainstream and are reserved for phones that are all but affordable. As you can find 90Hz phones even in the budget category now, it’s just a matter of time when 120Hz will become the standard option. Hopefully, the battery life will be significantly improved by then.
What are important factors for a great camera on the phone?
The apparent mistake you can make is to think that megapixels are the most important factor when judging the quality of the camera on the phone. While they determine the maximum resolution, that still doesn’t mean much if the camera struggles with color reproduction or night mode. Also, while the 108MP camera sounds stunning, you really don’t need it unless you want to print massive posters. Even an 8 or 16MP camera will satisfy anyone but professionals. Focus more on sensor quality, pixel size (the bigger is better), aperture (smaller is better), image stabilization, and lenses. Also, check if the camera supports RAW format, as it’s both unedited and uncompressed. It’s your choice if you’ll use it, but it’s great to have the option.
What’s the perfect screen size for my phone in 2021?
Do you even remember the time when Apple refused to make phones with screens bigger than four inches? However, everyone eventually figured out that people love big screens, so anything below five inches is considered small. Yet, most phones are getting close to seven inches, almost becoming small tablets. While there are no official rules, anything above 6.5 inches is now considered large. Also, know that you can find cheap phones with massive screens – it’s just that they probably use more cost-effective LED technology and a 60Hz refresh rate.
If you use your phone for business, like to read a lot, watch videos, and play many games, you need a screen as large as possible. Phones with smaller screens are a great choice if you need a compact device that you’ll occasionally use, as you don’t have to stare at it for long (lucky you!). Still, as I said, even the most miniature displays are now close to five inches, which a few years ago would be considered massive!
How much RAM and storage memory do I need on my phone?
RAM is crucial as if you don’t have it enough, it causes slowdowns which will only worsen. As we can’t upgrade the phone memory, this makes the decision extremely important. Generally, 4 GB RAM should be a minimum now, even on budget Android phones, with 6 GB as a standard option. Because iPhones are still more efficient, they work very well with only 3 or 4 GB RAM. However, the thing with Apple devices is that they never support storage upgrades via memory cards. In my opinion, choosing a model with less than 128 GB of space is very risky, even if you’re not often taking photos and recording videos.
Not all Android phones support storage expansion, but many of them still do, so even the 64 GB internal storage is manageable if you need to save money. However, 128 GB options are usually just about $50 more. Finally, keep in mind that you should buy fast memory cards so that they can handle 4K or even 8K video recording. Though, even the fastest ones are still slower than the internal memory.
iPhone or Android: Which is a better gaming platform in 2021?
Both Android and iPhone offer so many games to play that most people won’t even care which platform is better. However, the iPhone still has a considerable advantage. In practice, this means that games are coming first to iPhones, and some of them even stay as exclusives. The developers prefer the iPhone because the platform is so unified, unlike Android. Think of it as consoles vs. PC debate. As every PlayStation 5 is the same, the developers can easily create games that will use all of its potentials. On PC, they have to tackle different CPUs, GPUs, and various other factors.
Ultimately, this also means that iPhone games are better optimized like iPhone software generally is. On the other hand, Android titles are often cheaper (or free!), and there are more of them. This also means that there’s a lot of shovelware, so you have to dig to find something worthy. Generally, if you’re not much into gaming on phones, you won’t miss the iPhone advantages.
Buying guide for the best smartphones in 2021
What is the best smartphone for you in 2021?
Even if you can afford the most expensive smartphone, that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy with it. Instead, you should focus on the crucial elements, such as the display quality, camera or gaming performance, or even compactness. While the iPhone 12 is a brilliant device, this still doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect choice, or a choice at all, if you prefer Android.
Yet, there’s no denying that Apple is again the king with its iPhone 12 line, where the standard model is the best decision. The A14 Bionic chipset is the fastest on the market, so you’ll hopefully use your phone for something more than web browsing and social networks. Its cameras are also mighty impressive, as well as the large OLED screen, despite being locked at 60 Hz.
If you need to save money, the OnePlus 9 is a great alternative, especially if you insist on Android. While the OnePlus 9 Pro is more impressive, it’s also too expensive for the difference in performance. This more affordable model impresses with performance on par with Galaxy S21, and it even has a 120Hz screen. Finally, the camera is much improved over its predecessor.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra was very expensive when it showed up, but now it is a much more viable choice. Frankly, it’s the only choice if the best smartphone camera is what you need! Focusing and zooming options are better than anywhere else, and even the night mode produces results comparable to iPhone 12. The 120Hz screen is also the most advanced on the market, and the performances are among the best.
Asus ROG 5 is proof that dedicated gaming phones have their purpose. Its performance is better than on any Android phone, including the premium models such as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Additionally, you have unprecedented control over the hardware, as you can quickly increase the power for better performance. Plus, you still get a large 144Hz display, excellent sound engine, and decent camera.
At $350, Google Pixel 4a is by far the most affordable smartphone here and the best among budget phones. There’s so much to like here, including the terrific camera or the impressive OLED screen. While the performance can’t keep up with the similarly priced iPhone SE (2020), Snapdragon 730G is still perfectly capable of handling even the latest games. Plus, don’t forget that Google phones are the best when it comes to Android software support!
What is the best smartphone to buy in 2021?
Unless you’re not into the Apple ecosystem, the regular iPhone 12 is generally the best choice as the ultimate performer with a beautiful OLED screen and impressive night mode. OnePlus 9 is a much more affordable Android alternative with a 120Hz display, the fastest Snapdragon chipset, and plenty of versions to choose from.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the only smartphone you need if you want the best possible photos. It also has the most high-grade display and is among the fastest Androids. Otherwise, if gaming is your passion, Asus ROG Phone 5 will run the latest titles better than anything you can find outside of Apple. Plus, it has a 144Hz screen.
Despite being the most affordable option on the test, Google Pixel 4a is still not far behind in any segment and has no apparent weakness. It offers a smooth experience, a gorgeous OLED screen, and even a respectable camera. This is also a worthy choice for your backup phone.