The best smartphones you can buy in 2021 – The ultimate performers and affordable but powerful devices
Smartphones continue to improve performance, cameras, and display while adding new features that make our lives 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 need them before spending that 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 13||6.1″||12 MP (rear)|
12 MP (front)
|Apple A15 Bionic|
4 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Samsung Galaxy 21 Ultra||6.8″||108 MP (rear)|
40 MP (front)
|Snapdragon 888 5G|
12/16 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|Google Pixel 6||6.4″||50 MP (rear)|
12 MP (front)
|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|
|Samsung A52s 5G||6.5″||64 MP (rear)|
32 MP (front)
|Snapdragon 778 5G|
6/8 GB RAM
|SEE ON AMAZON|
|iPhone 13||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Samsung Galaxy 21 Ultra||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Google Pixel 6||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Asus Rog Phone 5||SEE ON AMAZON|
|Samsung A52s 5G||SEE ON AMAZON|
What to expect 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. Of course, all phones I recommend satisfy the criteria below.
The release date – Buying an Android device introduced in 2019 is not the best choice you can make, as there is a high chance it won’t receive any more system software updates. Apple device support lasts 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, size, and brightness.
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 on Android is worth considering, and 128 GB storage is now a standard option.
Performance – You may not 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 unmatched performance and cameras
iPhone 13 specifications:
- Display: 6.1 inches OLED, 1170×2532
- Chipset & RAM: Apple A15 Bionic, 4 GB RAM
- Camera: 12 MP, f/1.6/ (rear), 12 MP, f/2.2 (front)
Significantly improved performance over iPhone 12
Prolonged battery life
Still 60Hz screen
Standard charger not included
Frankly, the regular iPhone 12 will still be an excellent device in 2022. This is because it’s still way faster than the best Android smartphones while offering terrific camera performance. Yet, it’s imperative for Apple to stay on top, as the iPhone 13 line delivers some meaningful updates. From the outside, the device looks almost identical to the last generation, like it’s telling us that we shouldn’t expect a revolution. Yet, it still feels modern, elegant, and minimalistic, as you can expect. Furthermore, there’s nothing to say against the build quality – it’s all about aluminum and glass. The damage protection is the same as on iPhone 12, which improved it significantly over iPhone 11. Finally, the IP 68 standard makes it dust and water-resistant.
As per usual, the iPhone 13 comes in four versions – Mini, Regular, Pro, and Pro Max. The regular version is the best buy for most of us, as Pro and Pro Max are geared toward people with specific needs. Thankfully, the internal storage options are doubled over iPhone 12, so even the most affordable version comes with 128 GB. The other choices include 256 and 512 GB of memory. The 256 GB version costs only $100 more, so it’s worth considering if you make tons of 4K videos. This is a critical decision as the iPhone 13 doesn’t support storage expansion. Yes, this will surprise nobody, but I need to say it. Apple offers this product in five colors -starlight, midnight, blue, pink, and red.
A speed that no Android can match
Even the biggest Apple fanatics will tell you that they are not happy about the notch size on their iPhone 12. Yet, the company is still keeping it for their latest model. However, at least it’s 20% smaller, although I hoped for more. Yet, the OLED screen is brilliant as it provides infinite contrast, perfect black levels, and impressive 1200 nits peak brightness. Of course, you also get HDR10 and Dolby Vision support. The 6.1-inch screen shares the size with the iPhone 12, and the resolution is also identical. Unfortunately, the refresh rate is still locked at 60Hz, as the 120Hz display is reserved for the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max.
The iPhone 13 introduces the A15 Bionic chipset, about 20 percent faster than A14 in iPhone 12. Of course, no Android phone comes even close to it, which won’t change in 2022. Apple is still the king of optimization, as iPhone 13 has only 4 GB of RAM, and yet it’s still impossible to notice any slowdowns on the new iOS 15. This also makes it a terrific gaming phone, as even the most demanding software will perform better than on other mobile platforms. Despite the improved performance, battery life is also better, so 3240 mAh is enough to get to survive a day, even with heavy usage. Nevertheless, you’ll have to get a 25W charger, as the iPhone 13 doesn’t come with one. Of course, you have the wireless MagSafe option, limited to 15W.
While Apple keeps the best camera features for the Pro Max model, the standard iPhone 13 still offers more than you probably need. The sensor-shift stabilization from iPhone 12 Pro Max is welcome, but the Cinematic Mode sounds more interesting. Essentially, it does a lot of real-time processing, including Dolby Vision and blurring the background objects. As a consequence, it’s limited to 1080p and 30 frames per second. Overall, it’s an exciting feature but with questionable use-value.
The iPhone 13 is another terrific product from Apple and represents a visible improvement over the previous model. The performance is excellent, and unless you are a professional, the included cameras will give you more than you’ll ever need. You can skip it if you have iPhone 12, but everyone else needs to consider it!
The best Android phone is packed with features
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 series
Traditionally, Samsung phones are the cream of the crop 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 smaller than its predecessor. However, this is one of the heaviest devices on the market at 8.08 ounces. 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 adjust the refresh rate manually. 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 the 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 spot 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. Hence, it 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, Ultra dominates the iPhone in contrast and the impressive 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 you’ll fall in love with it.
The best mid-range phone
Google Pixel 6 specifications:
- Display: 6.4 inches AMOLED, 1080×2400, 90 Hz
- Chipset & RAM: Google Tensor, 8 GB RAM
- Camera: 50 MP, f/1.9 (rear), 12 MP, f/2.2 (front)
Very bright display
Massively improved camera
Photo editing software
Average battery capacity
The Google Pixel series established itself among the best buys and even offered some excellent budget phones. Yet, while Pixel 6 has a reasonable price, it still offers features and performance closer to the top-performing Androids. It indeed looks premium with the latest Gorilla Glass technology and aluminum frame. There’s also IP68 dust and water resistance, although unlike iPhone 13, you shouldn’t go deeper than five feet. Yet, while the phone has that traditional, square look, it also sports an unusual camera strip on the back.Google Pixel 6 comes in a regular and Pro version that costs $200 more. The regular edition comes with 128 or 256 GB of internal memory, and the latter seems harder to find. You should think hard about which version to get, as the phone doesn’t support SD cards. The color options are limited to three – Sorta Seafoam, Kinda Coral, and Stormy Black.
Massively improved camera
At 6.4 inches, Google Pixel 6 screen is somewhere in the middle. The AMOLED technology provides excellent color accuracy and superb peak brightness at 843 nits, better than most premium phones. While Pixel 6 Pro boasts a 120Hz refresh rate, this one maxes at 90Hz. However, this is an adaptive display, so it goes back to 60Hz when there’s not much screen activity.
What’s exciting about the Google Pixel 6 series is that it uses Google’s new Tensor system-on-chip. This makes it close to the fastest Android chipset, although it’s no match for iPhone SE (2020). Such premium performance enables you to play the latest games while shining in more complex tasks, such as video compression. The 5G and 90Hz are a deadly combination, but the 4614 mAh battery will endure the day. Unfortunately, the charging speed is limited to 21W, so it will take more than 30 minutes to reach 50% on an empty phone.
This time, Google made massive improvements to the camera, as the wide-angle lens jumped from just a 12.2MP sensor to 50MP! While there’s no telephoto lens (available on the Pro model), you still have Super Res Zoom, which improves the standard digital zoom impressively. While the colors aren’t as good as on the much more expensive iPhone 13, Pixel 6 offers a better night mode with a visibly sharper image. Finally, there’s a lot of excellent tools helping you erase people from your photos or remove the unwanted blur.
Despite the average battery, Google Pixel 6 is an excellent phone. The performance is among the best Androids, and the camera is superior to previous models. Finally, this device packs tons of features, including 5G, and will continue to receive software updates longer than any other Android from 2021. While Pixel 6 Pro offers more, there’s no doubt that this model is a better value.
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 are respectable gaming platforms, 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 gazing at it, you’ll notice that it’s a unique, mean-looking device to handle even the most demanding titles. You also have a dot-matrix-style ROG logo on the back, which is pretty cool.
This smartphone comes in three standard editions, 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 variants, 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. The 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 it’s a gaming laptop. In practice, even the most demanding software like Call of Duty or Genshin Impact run buttery smooth, but they will drain 6000 mAh battery 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 to get it and not occasionally use its impressive gaming features.
The best budget phones makes compromises you might not even notice
Samsung A52s 5G specifications:
- Display: 6.5 inches AMOLED, 1080×2400, 120 Hz
- Chipset & RAM: Snapdragon 778 5G, 6/8 GB RAM
- Camera: 64 MP, f/1.8 (rear), 32 MP, f/2.2 (front)
Great main cam
120Hz refresh rate
Improved performance over A52 5G
25W charger not included in the package
Average wide-angle cam
In March 2021, Samsung released the excellent A52 and A52 5G, so it was a huge surprise when they introduced the A52s 5G only five months later! Even better is that this model replaces the A52 5G as it has the same suggested retail price while improving over it. As expected, the phone’s back is plastic, but in no way it looks cheap. Everything else is almost identical to the Galaxy S21 series, although the bezels are slightly thicker. The IP67 dust and water resistance is still rare at this price level, so it’s an exceptional bonus.
The A52s 5G is available in four versions, with 6 or 8 GB RAM and 128 or 256 GB internal storage. The most affordable 6/128 version is my choice, as the price is below $450. Also, you’ll be pretty fine with the 128 GB, as there’s a card slot. I love the color options here, with mint as my favorite. There are also purple and more conservative black and white variants.
Massively improved performance
The regular A52 already had an impressive screen, but the S version goes a step further. While the resolution and the screen size are the same, the refresh rate improved to 120Hz. As you imagine, this is extremely rare for non-flagship devices. Yet, there’s a trade-off here as there’s no dynamic refresh rate. This means you’ll need to switch between 60 and 120Hz modes manually. Still, for this price, it’s hard to complain. The 700 nits peak brightness is excellent, with very accurate colors in the natural mode.
The regular A52 uses Snapdragon 720G, so there was plenty of room for improvement. The A52s boasts Snapdragon 750G chipset, which makes for a very smooth experience doing everyday tasks. However, you’ll also have a decent experience in the latest games, and the 120Hz makes the action incredibly fluid. The 4500 mAh battery is excellent, as even at a 120Hz refresh rate, you won’t have to recharge it during the day. The 15W charger is in the package, but you’ll need to invest in a 25W one to maximize performance.
This model has four cameras, which include a 5MP macro camera and one for the depth-of-field effects. The main cam is 64MP, but keep in mind that it’s set to 12MP mode by default. The results are outstanding, as the photos are bright and colorful. The ultrawide and selfie cam is average, but the macro cam is handy. Overall, the Samsung A52s isn’t among the best camera phones in the class, but it performs well, and even the night mode is decent.
The A52S 5G is currently the best buy Samsung model that will bedazzle you with its gorgeous screen and high refresh rate. Yet, you’ll also love the performance and its advanced features. While the camera isn’t the best in the class, the primary cam is excellent, and even the macro mode is very useful. Finally, the battery capacity is terrific, although I suggest investing in a faster charger.
FAQ – The best smartphone in 2021
Why is it essential to buy an unlocked phone?
By risking being 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 a contract. Of course, if you can’t afford to shell out so much cash, that remains the only option. 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 still received support in 2021, and it was dropped only when iOS 15 was released. On the other hand, the situation with Android phones is not only worse but also chaotic! 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 substantial 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 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 isn’t drastic, but it’s pretty apparent and benefits the experience.
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 significantly improve 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 critical factor when judging the quality of the camera on the phone. While they determine the maximum resolution, that 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 realized that people love big screens, so anything below five inches is considered small. Yet, most phones are getting close to seven inches, almost becoming tablets. 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 displays 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!).
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 a console vs. PC debate. As every PlayStation 5 is the same, the developers can easily create games that 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 more is available. 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’s 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 13 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 13 line, where the standard model is the best option. The A15 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 is the large OLED screen, despite being locked at 60 Hz.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra was very expensive when it showed up, but now it is a much more viable choice. Focusing and zooming options are better than anywhere else, and even the night mode produces results comparable to iPhone 13. The 120Hz screen is also the most advanced on the market, and the performances are among the best.
Yet, Google Pixel 6 is a more affordable alternative, and the custom Tensor chipset makes it one of the fastest Androids on the market. The big 90Hz display is also impressive, and the cameras come with excellent software to further enhance your photos. If you don’t mind the lack of extra zooming options, this is the ideal choice. Plus, Google phones have the best system software support!
Asus ROG 5 is proof that dedicated gaming phones have a 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.
I enjoy the Samsung A52, but the A52s 5G makes it obsolete. This revision adds a 120Hz screen and a considerably faster chipset. This will only help highlight the beautiful bright screen and vivid colors. The primary camera and night mode are also some highlights, although the selfies are rather average. Yet, the battery is excellent, so you won’t have to recharge it before the end of the day.
What is the best smartphone to buy in 2021?
Unless you’re not into the Apple ecosystem, the regular iPhone 13 is generally the best choice as the ultimate performer with a beautiful OLED screen and impressive night mode. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the ultimate Android alternative with superior zoom and comes packed with every feature imaginable.
If you want to save some money without sacrificing performance, the regular Google Pixel 6 is the ultimate solution. It’s fast and has massively improved cameras over the previous generation. Otherwise, if gaming is your passion, Asus ROG Phone 5 will run the latest titles better than anything you can find outside of the Apple ecosystem. Plus, it has a 144Hz screen.
Finally, the Samsung A52s is the best phone under $500 coming from Samsung in recent years. The 120Hz is only one of its selling points, together with an excellent screen and front camera.