Best smartphones in 2021 | Laptop Mag

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The best smartphones are a much more expansive collection of devices than just a few years ago. While there are certainly predictable options, there are a number of new options including many in the $500-$750 range. Now you aren’t going to get a folding screen or a 50x zoom at that price unless you bump up to the full $1,000 and up flagships, but those features don’t matter to everyone.

True flagships still have their place, they push the boundaries of what’s possible in a smartphone form factor, but some of the best smartphones can do everything most need them to do for far less. Whether you want the latest and greatest or just the best smartphone for your specific needs, it’s a great time to be in the market for a new phone.

We’ve spent hundreds of hours reviewing and researching all of the best smartphones available today and whether you value productivity, photography, gaming, social media, videography, or battery life, these phones are the best of the best.

What is the best smartphone?

Currently, the iPhone 13 Pro is the best smartphone on the market for most people. Starting at $999 it’s not cheap, but the dramatically improved cameras, stellar battery life and unmatched software support make it a smartphone investment worth making.

Apple’s A15 Bionic processor in the iPhone 13 Pro once again tops the charts as the most powerful mobile processor on the planet and coupled with the aforementioned software support guarantees years of smooth operation. The triple-cameras on the back of the iPhone 13 Pro produce excellent photos and the best video of any phone on the market and this year matches the specs of the iPhone 13 Pro Max identically.

For Android fans, 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. For pure performance consider the OnePlus 9 Pro, which is currently the fastest Android phone we’ve tested, overtaking last year’s iPhone 12 in some tests and blowing away every other mainstream phone with its 65W fast charging.

On the other end of the price spectrum is Google’s Pixel 5a, which at $449, is an excellent value. The specs won’t blow you away, but Google continues to prove its software chops with photos from the Pixel 5a 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 5a. 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

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Best smartphone for most people


Display: 6.1-inch Super Retina 120Hz ProMotion XDR OLED (2532 x 1170)

CPU: A15 Bionic


Storage: 128/256/512GB or 1TB

Rear camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.5); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP telephoto (f/2.8)

Front camera: 12MP wide (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best Apple iPhone 13 Pro deals

Reasons to buy

+Bright 120Hz display+Excellent camera performance+Unmatched software support+Outstanding battery life+Untouchable performance

Reasons to avoid

-Slow charging-Telephoto needs more reach-Notch needs to go

The iPhone 13 Pro claims the spot as the best overall smartphone for most users away from the iPhone 12. While the iPhone 13 certainly still has strong appeal at its more affordable $799 price point, there are far more compromises by going with the non-Pro models this year including weaker cameras, lack of 120Hz displays and a considerable drop in battery life.

The iPhone 13 Pro fixes all of our concerns with last year’s model and with the exception of screen size it puts the iPhone 13 Pro on equal footing with the iPhone 13 Pro Max. This includes the incredible new triple camera system with unbelievable low-light performance when using either the wide-angle or ultra-wide lens thanks to new sensors and sensor-shift image stabilization.

While the A15 Bionic may be needlessly fast today, you’ll appreciate it in a few years when your phone is still running circles around most of the competition and is getting day and date updates to the latest version of iOS likely through 2027. The $999 starting price may be daunting, but the iPhone 13 Pro is worth it.

See our full iPhone 13 Pro review

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

Reasons to buy

+Unmatched optical zoom+Gorgeous adaptive QHD+ AMOLED screen+Excellent battery life+S Pen support

Reasons to avoid

-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 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.

See our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

3. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Best Android smartphone for productivity


Display: 6.9-inch Super AMOLED (3088×1440), 120Hz

CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus


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

Reasons to buy

+Powerful Snapdragon 865+ processor+Strong camera and video features+Long battery life+Unique S Pen+Beautiful Super AMOLED 120Hz display

Reasons to avoid


At its launch price of $1,299 the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra was a bit pricey for a lot of people, but now often available for under $999 it is still a lot of smartphone and perhaps the last Note we may ever see. 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

4. iPhone SE (2020)

Best budget iOS smartphone


Display: 4.7-inch LCD (1334×750)

CPU: A13 Bionic


Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB

Rear camera: 12MP (ƒ/1.8)

Front camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best iPhone SE 2020 deals

Reasons to buy

+Flagship A13 Bionic CPU+Excellent value+Supports wireless charging+Stellar software support

Reasons to avoid

-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.

Best affordable Android smartphone


Display: 6.34-inch OLED (2340×1080)

CPU: Snapdragon 765G


Storage: 128GB

Rear camera: 12.2MP wide-angle (ƒ/1.7); 16MP ultra-wide (f/2.2)

Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)

Today’s best Google Pixel 5a deals

Reasons to buy

+Strong battery life+Bundled fast charger+Excellent camera performance+3.5mm headphone jack+Water-resistant

Reasons to avoid

-Disappointing performance-Outdated design-60Hz display

The Pixel 5a isn’t the extreme budget option that the Pixel 4a was and is, but considering it delivers almost all of the features of last year’s “flagship” Pixels for $449, it is still the best affordable Android phone.

Performance is the biggest critique of the phone, but that’s common in this price range and with Google’s three years of software support you are at least guaranteed to see improvements as time goes on, which is rare in the sub-$500 smartphone realm. The camera performance remains outstanding and completely unmatched by anything in the budget market, while the Pixel 6 should up Google’s photo game, the Pixel 5a stands as the equal of anything Google has put out so far.

The remarkable battery life also helps alleviate some of the frustration regarding the Snapdragon performance, and the addition of water resistance is much appreciated. Both are quality-of-life upgrades and peace of mind for an affordable mid-range device costing $449.

See our full Pixel 5a review.

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

Reasons to buy

+Top-of-the-line performance+Vivid 120Hz adaptive display+Unmatched wired and wireless charging

Reasons to avoid

-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.

7. Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Best Android smartphone value


Display: 6.5-inch OLED (2400×1080), 120Hz

CPU: Snapdragon 865


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

Reasons to buy

+Incredible value+Large 120Hz OLED display+Excellent performance+Fantastic photo and video

Reasons to avoid

-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

Best big screen iOS smartphone


Display: 6.7-inch Super Retina 120Hz ProMotion XDR OLED with

CPU: A15 Bionic


Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB

Rear camera: 12MP wide (f/1.5), 12MP ultra-wide (f/1.8), 12MP telephoto (f/2.8)

Front camera: 12MP TrueDepth (ƒ/2.2)

Today’s best Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max deals

Reasons to buy

+Beautiful, premium chassis+Excellent performance+Great battery life+Gorgeous display with 120Hz refresh rate+Stellar cameras

Reasons to avoid

-Really expensive no matter the config

The iPhone 13 Pro Max is overpowered, gorgeous and expensive. You don’t want to go with the 128GB base model, but you can probably get away with 256 or 512GB of storage, which still means you are looking at a starting price of $1,199. If that’s too rich for your blood then take a hard look at the iPhone 13 Pro or even the iPhone 13.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max is a multitasking/gaming/photography machine without question. And it lasted over 12 hours on our battery test. But like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the iPhone Pro Max 13 is really for heavy-duty users, not those of us who are just watching videos, trawling social media, reading books and texting,

So who do I recommend the iPhone 13 Pro Max to? Content creators, with a focus on photographers and videographers who maybe can’t afford something like the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema 6K camera. It’s also for people who love opulence, power and endurance and the iPhone Pro Max 13 has that in spades.

See our full iPhone 13 Pro Max review

Best foldable phone you should actually consider buying


Display: 6.7-inch FHD+ (2,640 x 1080) 120Hz Super AMOLED

CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888


Storage: 128GB or 256GB

Rear cameras: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultra-wide (f/2.2)

Front camera: 10MP (f/2.4)

Today’s best Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 deals

Reasons to buy

+Unique and stunning design+Bright, vivid 120Hz display+Excellent camera performance+IPX8 water resistance+Affordably priced

Reasons to avoid

-Terrible battery life-Lacks telephoto

The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 should be the phone that takes foldables mainstream. While the battery life will undoubtedly present problems for some users, it isn’t an insurmountable issue and is worth the trade-off if you want a full flagship experience that can fit in any pocket.

The Galaxy Z Flip 3 delivers what most people seemed to want from the iPhone 12 mini, an ultra-compact phone that doesn’t compromise on the flagship experience. The 6.7-inch, 120Hz display on the Galaxy Z Flip 3 is second to none; the cameras produce fantastic photos and videos; and the Snapdragon 888 chip should be fast enough to comfortably last you through the four years of security updates you get with the phone.

We haven’t reached the point where there are no sacrifices when opting for the foldable form factor, but the Galaxy Z Flip 3 gets very close. If you are willing to work around the short battery life, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 delivers a flagship phone experience unlike any other.

See our full Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 review

10. Moto G Power

Best budget battery life smartphone


Display: 6.4-inch LCD (2300×1080)

CPU: Snapdragon 665


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

Reasons to buy

+Unmatched battery life+Awesome sub $250 price+Better than average camera +Large and bright display

Reasons to avoid

-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.

Best smartphone under $750


Display: 6.55-inch, 2400 x 1080 AMOLED (120Hz)

CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888

RAM: 8GB, 12GB

Storage: 128GB, 256GB

Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 50MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2); 2MP monochrome

Front camera: 16MP (f/2.4)

Today’s best OnePlus 9 deals

Reasons to buy

+Fantastic performance+Long battery life+Insane charging speeds+Vivid and bright 120Hz display+Decent photo and video quality

Reasons to avoid

-Plastic frame-No OIS (blurry night shots)-Lacks expandable storage-5G not supported on all carriers

The OnePlus 9 is a compelling option for Android users looking for a sub-$1,000 phone that doesn’t sacrifice too many features available in pricier flagships. It even punches above its weight class in certain areas, outperforming every Android phone on the market besides its “Pro” relative and enduring for about 11 hours on a charge. It’s also worth spotlighting the fast charging feature, which gets you from dead to 100% in about 30 minutes.

While the OnePlus 9 Pro might grab all the headlines, you aren’t trading much stepping down to the OnePlus 9. Yes, the telephoto lens is missing, but you can get comparable shots using the primary camera. The other notable downgrade is an FHD screen instead of QHD, but the panel on the OnePlus 9 is so sharp, you won’t be disappointed. Two factors that may sway you toward the pricier model are the plastic frame around the OnePlus 9 and the lack of OIS on any of the cameras — those are tougher pills to swallow and corners cut that prevent the OnePlus 9 from being a 5-star product.

If those two shortcomings don’t bother you, the OnePlus 9 is an excellent phone and a strong alternative to the Samsung Galaxy S21.

See our full OnePlus 9 review.

Best gaming-focused Android phone


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

Reasons to buy

+Excellent battery life+Beautiful responsive 144Hz display+Headphone jack with Quad DAC+Extensive software optimization

Reasons to avoid

-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.

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.

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.

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