Best Android phone 2021: Top expert picks

In the past, there were several smartphone operating systems to choose from. Today’s world is limited to iOS and Android.

Google’s Android OS is clearly the dominant platform of choice, with companies like Samsung, OnePlus, Motorola, Google, TCL, Sony, and others making hardware powered by Android. Google’s Pixel hardware typically runs a ‘stock’ version of the Android OS, however, while others use overlays to offer a customized Android experience to their users.

For instance, Samsung has OneUI, OnePlus has Oxygen OS, and other companies tweak things to optimize the Android software powering its hardware. Whether you’re looking for pure Android or just the best device money can buy, here is a look at the top Android phones available right now.

You can read more phone buying tips and how we make our recommendations here.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G

Serves as a very capable smartphone and small tablet

samsung-galaxy-z-fold-3-s-pen.jpgsamsung-galaxy-z-fold-3-s-pen.jpg
Image: Samsung

Main display: 7.6 inches (2,208 x 1,768-pixel resolution) Dynamic 120Hz AMOLED | Cover display: 6.2 inches (720 x 1680-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus | RAM: 12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 256GB, UFS 3.1 | Rear cameras: 12MP rear f/2.4 telephoto, 12MP f/1.8 wide-angle, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide cameras (123-degree field-of-view) | Front cameras: 10MP f/2.2 camera on the main display and 10MP camera on the cover display | Weight: 282g


The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the best overall phone for my needs. The addition of S Pen support and an IPX8 water-resistant design makes the Z Fold 3 the perfect phone and mini tablet I could ask for and it is very well optimized for getting work done on the go.

I’m testing out a review unit, but already ordered my own in lovely Phantom Green. In addition to the hardware improvements, Samsung made the purchase a bit easier with a $200 price cut compared to the previous Z Fold 2. The company also offers pre-order specials and the ability to trade in up to four other devices in order to help cut the price down further.

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 serves as a very capable smartphone and small tablet, providing an extremely strong and fast 5G connection in both modes. The outside display offers a typical 6.2-inch smartphone experience with the addition this year of 120Hz refresh rate support. The large 7.6-inch main display is stunning with a 120Hz refresh rate, Samsung’s lovely AMOLED technology, and special S Pen support. What could be more perfect for a Note and foldable fan?

See the full review: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 review

You get the fastest RAM and internal storage speeds available, S Pen support, water resistance, triple rear cameras, a 10MP front-facing camera, a unique 4MP under-display camera, and much more. The 4,400mAh battery easily gets you through a full day, even when using the large main screen.

Pros:

  • Stunning engineering marvel
  • Incredible AMOLED displays
  • S Pen support
  • IPX8 water resistance
  • Software optimizations for foldable and large display usage

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • No S Pen support on cover screen
  • Not the best Samsung cameras on the back

One of the best phones for productivity

best-android-phone-galaxy-note-20-ultra-2-review.jpgbest-android-phone-galaxy-note-20-ultra-2-review.jpg

Display: 6.9 inches (3,088 x 1,440-pixel resolution) 120Hz Infinity-O AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus | RAM: 12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB storage (with microSD card) | Rear cameras: 12MP rear f/3.0 telephoto, 108MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 10MP f/2.2 camera | Weight: 208g | Dust/water resistanceIP68


This category may be a bit debatable now that Samsung has added S Pen support to the S21 Ultra and Z Fold 3, but there is no silo for the S Pen in either phone. It’s an extra accessory for these devices and the hassle of carrying one around makes it less convenient than the Note series. It’s not clear if we will see another Note from Samsung either.

Samsung announced the Galaxy Note 20 series last fall, and it is clear the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is one of the best smartphones for productivity and an easy recommendation for those who love the S Pen.        

See the full review: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G review   

The Galaxy Note 20 devices bring everything we saw on the Galaxy S20 series along with some improvements in the cameras. Of course, the S Pen is a staple of the Note series, and with the Note 20, we see more Air Actions that are actually proving to be quite useful and reliable this year. While LG has solid support for stylus use, nothing beats the functionality and capability of the S Pen. It is also housed inside of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G, making it easily accessible for use all day long.

Pros:

  • Complete S Pen support with silo on the device
  • Incredible AMOLED displays
  • IP68 dust and water resistance
  • High quality cameras

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Big phone

One of the best overall smartphones today

best-android-phone-samsung-galaxy-s21-review.jpgbest-android-phone-samsung-galaxy-s21-review.jpg

Display: 6.8 inches (3,200 x 1,440-pixel resolution) 120Hz Infinity-O AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12GB/16GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Rear cameras: 10MP rear f/4.9 telephoto with 10x optical zoom and second 10MP f/2.4 telephoto with 3x optical zoom, 108MP wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 40MP f/2.2 camera | Weight: 229g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is one of the best overall smartphones today and the best that Samsung has to offer for camera performance. With a $200 price cut at launch, compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the phone is also one of the more affordable high-end flagship offerings.

In addition to the latest and greatest specifications, the S21 Ultra 5G provides support for Samsung’s S Pen so you are no longer limited to just the Note line if you want stylus support.

See the full review: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review

If your job requires you to zoom into subjects from far away, no other phone beats the S21 Ultra in terms of telephoto capability and quality. Zooming up to 30x provides good quality images, but even beyond this level of zoom, there are practical reasons to see details of the subjects you are shooting.

Pros:

  • High quality and capable quad-camera system
  • Best telephoto shooter available
  • S Pen support
  • Incredible AMOLED displays
  • More affordable than S20 series

Cons:

  • Large size phone

Where are the compromises? There really aren’t any

best-cheap-phone-galaxy-s20-fe-review.jpgbest-cheap-phone-galaxy-s20-fe-review.jpg

Display: 6.5 inches (3×200 x 1×440-pixel resolution) 120Hz Infinity-O AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 | RAM: 6GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB storage (with microSD card) | Rear cameras: 8MP rear f/2.4 telephoto, 12MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (123-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 32MP f/2.2 camera | Weight: 190g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


While the Samsung Galaxy S20 series that launched in early 2020 provide compelling options, they are flagship smartphones priced in the $1,000-and-higher range. In order to offer customers another alternative, Samsung released the Galaxy S20 FE (Fan Edition) 5G phone. The S20 FE is available in six lovely colors to suit your style.

See the full review: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE (Fan Edition) review CNET

Where are the compromises? Exactly, there really aren’t any, and yet the $700 price is where we see phones in the upper mid-range with less capable specs appear. The Galaxy S20 FE challenges Google’s new Pixel 5 and the iPhone 12. I’ve recommended this phone to family members who have used older Samsung phones, and they love the Galaxy S20 FE. Look for more options like this from Samsung in the future.

Pros:

  • Full Samsung experience
  • Affordable and colorful
  • High level of dust/water resistance
  • Good quality cameras

Cons:

  • Limited RAM

Get 5G with Google’s software and regular updates

best-android-phone-pixel-5-just-black-review.jpgbest-android-phone-pixel-5-just-black-review.jpg

Display: 6 inches (2,340 x 1,080-pixel resolution) flexible OLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 8GB | Internal Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 12.2MP rear f/1.7, and 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide (107-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 8MP f/2.0 | Weight: 151g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


Google’s Pixel 5 is the first 5G smartphone available from Google and appears to check the boxes needed for a competitive smartphone. Unlike past Pixel phones, it is not designed to compete with the high-end flagships from Apple, Samsung, and others, but it provides the essentials along with Google’s software chops.

Google’s past Pixel phones always lacked some features and couldn’t compete with Apple and Samsung flagships — so this approach makes much more sense. Priced at $699, the Pixel 5 is a great option for getting 5G into your hands with Google’s software and reliance on regular updates for years.

You can pick one up in black or an interesting green color (Sorta Sage). The back is aluminum, and we also see the return of a rear fingerprint sensor.

See the full review: Google Pixel 5 review

Google’s Pixel 5 also has the best smartphone camera for still photos, thanks primarily to Google’s advanced algorithms and software. The iPhone 12 lineup takes the cake for video creation, but Google and Apple go head-to-head on smartphone camera software.

Pros:

  • Timely updates and support for years
  • Affordable for a flagship
  • Outstanding camera performance, largely due to Google software

Cons:

  • Mid-range processor
  • RF performance not as good as Samsung

One of the most affordable 5G phones

best-android-phone-pixel-4a-5g-review.pngbest-android-phone-pixel-4a-5g-review.png

Display: 6.2 inches (2,340 x 1,080-pixel resolution) OLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 6GB | Internal Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 12.2MP rear f/1.7 and 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide (107-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 8MP f/2.0 | Weight: 168g


If you want an Android smartphone that will always have the latest firmware and security updates, while also offering a fairly stock experience with 5G support, then take a look at the affordable Google Pixel 4A 5G. At $499, it’s one of the most affordable 5G phones we have seen released.

In addition to the software being a focus for Google, the camera is another reason to buy the Pixel 4A 5G over other, better smartphone hardware. However, while others have three or four rear cameras, Google provides just two so there are some limits on its capability as a daily shooter.

See the full review: Google Pixel 4A 5G review

Android 11 powers the phone, and it will receive OS upgrades for three years. Monthly Android security updates are the most important software support for the enterprise, given major firmware updates tend to break things and be less stable immediately after release.

Pros:

  • Google Pixel camera is fantastic
  • 5G support
  • Affordable
  • Timely updates and years of support

Cons:

  • Limited RAM and storage
  • No telephoto camera

In the right hands, it is a productivity workhorse

best-android-phone-microsoft-surface-duo-review.pngbest-android-phone-microsoft-surface-duo-review.png

Displays: Two 5.6 inches (1,800 x 1,350-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 | RAM: 6GB | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB | Camera: 11MP f/2.0 | Weight: 250g


There seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it feeling with the Microsoft Surface Duo, and even though I found it very productive, I ended up returning mine in favor of the Galaxy Z Fold 2. While the Surface Duo has 2019 specs and bold bezels, in the right hands, it is a productivity workhorse.

The Surface Duo does not support 5G networks and is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. The camera is pretty terrible and oddly positioned for anything other than video conferences. There are rumors that a Surface Pro Duo 2 may be coming later in 2021 so the potential is there for Microsoft to launch one of the best enterprise mobile devices.

See the full review: Microsoft Surface Duo review

The story is not about the hardware, though, and this smartphone’s capability rests in the software enhancements offered by Microsoft. There have been a couple of updates to improve the experience, and this first generation is a good first attempt. The $1,400 starting price is tough to swallow, but we look forward to seeing what the second generation looks like in 2021.

Pros:

  • High-quality hardware
  • Capable software for multi-tasking experiences
  • Intuitive gestures
  • Stylus support

Cons:

  • Outdated specifications
  • Terrible single-camera performance

OnePlus 9 Pro

Higher-priced flagship challenging Samsung

best-android-phone-oneplus-9-pro-review.jpgbest-android-phone-oneplus-9-pro-review.jpg

Display: 6.7 inches (3,216 x 1,440-pixel resolution) 120Hz AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8GB/12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB | Rear cameras: 8MP rear f/2.4 telephoto, 48MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 50MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera, 2MP monochrome camera | Front camera: 16MP f/2.4 camera | Weight: 197g


OnePlus used to be the “flagship killer” brand, but has since evolved into higher-priced flagships directly challenging the likes of Samsung and Apple. Compared to Samsung, OnePlus offers an experience that is free from ads and bloatware while also now providing some interesting features such as reverse wireless charging and adaptive 120Hz displays.

The OnePlus 9 Pro is priced about $200 less than Samsung’s S21 Ultra, which is significant given that Samsung’s price is also $200 less than its launch price in 2020. For less than $1,000 the OnePlus 9 Pro is a serious flagship smartphone to consider.

See the full review: OnePlus 9 Pro review

The Hasselblad camera partnership was a major area that was presented and covered at the launch event, but understand that only software enhancements are present in this first device with the Hasselblad branding on it. That said, camera performance has been great and clearly improved over what OnePlus provided in the past.

One area that OnePlus leads the pack in is the charging capability of its phones. Warp Charge 65T support and Warp Charge Wireless 50 support are provided in the OnePlus 9 Pro. This means you can charge up your phone from 1% to 100% in just 29 minutes. The wireless charging even achieves this charging performance in 43 minutes, which is faster than wired charging of most other phones.

Pros:

  • Lovely, high quality design
  • Ultra fast wireless and wired charging capability
  • Outstanding specifications
  • Capable cameras

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Hasselblad partnership in its infancy
  • Water-resistance level not certified

Stunning Android with advanced manual camera performance

sony-xperia-1-iii-verdict-2.jpgsony-xperia-1-iii-verdict-2.jpg
Image: Sony

Display: 6.5 inches (3,840 x 1,644-pixel resolution) 120Hz AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 256GB with microSD card slot | Rear cameras: 12MP rear f/1.7, 12MP dual focal length f/2.3 and f/2.8 telephoto, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (124-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 8MP f/2.0 camera | Weight: 187g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


The Sony Xperia 1 III, spoken as the “one mark three,” was recently announced by Sony and will be available in October for an MSRP of $1,299.99. It brings some features rarely seen in smartphones today, including a 3.5mm audio port and microSD card slot. It also has a dedicated camera shutter button, making this more of an advanced camera with phone parts.

The new Sony Xperia 1 III is focused on the media experience with a 3.5mm audio port, true front-facing stereo speakers, three rear cameras, and Sony gaming features.

Sony is providing this phone for those looking to explore the camera experience with three camera applications and many elements from the Sony Alpha camera series included in the phone. Zeiss optics are calibrated for the Xperia phone. It is not optimized for simple point and shoot with auto mode only but is sure to please the imaging fan with advanced software and a dedicated camera shutter hardware button just where you need it to capture content.

Pros:

  • High quality and capable camera system
  • 4K display
  • IP68 dust/water resistant
  • Audio port and microSD card

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Focused on advanced photographers

A lovely, affordable 5G phone

tcl-20-pro-5g-1.jpgtcl-20-pro-5g-1.jpg

Display: 6.67 inches (2400 x 1080-pixel resolution) | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G | RAM: 6GB LPDDR4 | Internal Storage: 256GB with microSD card slot | Rear cameras: 48MP rear f/1.7 main, 16MP f/2.4 ultra-wide camera, 5MP macro, and 2MP depth sensor | Front camera: 32MP camera | Weight: 190g


TCL has been making smartphones for years, including the last BlackBerry and Alcatel phones. TCL first launched its own branded smartphones in 2020 with the TCL 10 Pro and then released the 20 series in 2021. The TCL 20 Pro 5G is a fantastic mid-range Android phone available for just $500.

The phone supports wireless charging, has an IP52 dust/water resistant rating, provides a 3.5mm audio port, and even packs in an IR blaster. These are features found in $1,000 flagships or removed from phones today.

Given that we focus on the display the majority of the time spent with a smartphone, you will not be disappointed by what TCL offers in the TCL 20 Pro. The cameras perform well, especially with the 64MP lens offering pixel binning to capture great detail.

Pros:

  • Gorgeous design and color options
  • Lovely, vivid AMOLED display
  • Affordable $500 price
  • Ample storage and microSD card support
  • Wireless charging
  • 3.5mm audio port

Cons:

  • Limited US carrier support
  • Single speaker

ZDNet Recommends

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.