In the past, there were several smartphone operating systems to choose from. Today’s world is limited to iOS and Android, with some custom operating systems also in development in some parts of the world.
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 smartphone 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.
Main display: 7.6 inches (2,208 x 1,768-pixel resolution) Dynamic 120Hz AMOLED | Cover display: 6.2 inches (2268 x 832-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 256GB/512GB, 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 on the cover display and 4MP under display camera on the main display | Weight: 271g
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.
Given the excellent pre-launch offers and trade-in deals, I purchased a 512GB model to serve as my daily driver. 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 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 of 120Hz refresh rate support this year. 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.
- Stunning engineering marvel
- Incredible AMOLED displays
- S Pen support
- IPX8 water resistance
- Software optimizations for foldable and large display usage
- No S Pen support on cover screen
- Not the best Samsung cameras on the back
Display: 6.7 inches (3,120 x 1,440-pixel resolution) LTPO OLED | CPU: Google Tensor with Titan M2 security coprocessor | RAM: 12GB | Internal Storage: 128/256/512GB | Rear cameras: 50MP rear f/1.85 wide, 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide (114-degree field-of-view), and 48MP telephoto with 4x optical | Front camera: 11.1MP f/2.2 | Weight: 210g | Dust/water resistance: IP68
Google’s Pixel 6 Pro is the best smartphone currently available from Google. The Pixel 6 has many of the same specifications, with one less camera on the back and a slightly smaller display. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro sport Google’s new Tensor processor.
The Pixel 6 Pro is a flagship competitor and starts at $899 for the 128GB model with the 512GB model priced at $1,099. You can purchase one in Stormy Black, Cloudy White, or Sorta Sunny with some limitations on storage capacity with the different color options.
The cameras are clearly the focus of the Pixel 6 Pro with Google’s amazing software, combined with leading hardware, to create arguably the best smartphone camera experience available today.
See the full review: Google Pixel 6 Pro review.
In addition to the camera prowess, the phone is assured of receiving regular and timely software and firmware updates for years, similar to what Apple offers to iPhone owners. The phone is also powered by Android 12 with several optimizations for a personalized experience.
- Fantastic camera experiences
- Optimized Android 12 interface
- Timely updates and support for years
- Unique hardware design
- Average battery life
- RF performance not as good as Samsung
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 resistance: IP68
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.
- Complete S Pen support with silo on the device
- Incredible AMOLED displays
- IP68 dust and water resistance
- High-quality cameras
- Big phone
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 zoom level, there are practical reasons to see details of the subjects you are shooting.
- High quality and capable quad-camera system
- Best telephoto shooter available
- S Pen support
- Incredible AMOLED displays
- More affordable than the S20 series
- Large size phone
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.
- Full Samsung experience
- Affordable and colorful
- High level of dust/water resistance
- Good quality cameras
- Limited RAM
Display: 6.34 inches (2,400 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 (118.7-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 8MP f/2.0 | Weight: 183g | Dust/water resistance: IP67
Google’s Pixel 5a with 5G checks 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 just $449 ($399 currently for Black Friday), the Pixel 5a is a great option for getting 5G into your hands with Google’s software and reliance on regular updates for years.
See the full review: Google Pixel 5a review.
It is available only in black color with one storage capacity option. The back is aluminum, and we also see the return of a rear fingerprint sensor, which is a fan favorite.
- A very affordable mid-range smartphone
- Timely updates and support for years
- High level of water resistance
- Outstanding camera performance, largely due to Google software
- Mid-range processor
Displays: Two-5.8 inch (1,892 x 1,344-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8GB | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Cameras: 12MP f/21.7 wide, 12MP f/2.4 telephoto with 2x optical, and 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide (110-degrees field-of-view). 12MP f/2.0 front-facing camera | Weight: 284g
The original Surface Duo suffered from old and missing basic specifications while launching a unique form factor that was much more than just a smartphone. Microsoft listened to feedback and offers significant improvements in the specifications this year so that the Surface Duo 2 matches other flagship smartphones in 2021.
However, the focus on this phone is still on productivity, and it is perfect for those who multi-task and need to use two apps at the same time. The issue for Microsoft is whether or not there is a sustainable market for a device fit for these specific customers.
See the full review: Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review.
The story is not about just the improved hardware, though, and this smartphone’s capability rests in the software enhancements offered by Microsoft. There were a few updates for the original Duo, but that device still runs Android 10, with Android 12 now present on the newest smartphones. The $1,500 starting price is tough to swallow, but maybe we will soon see fire sales on this second generation as we saw with the first generation.
- High-quality hardware
- Capable software for multi-tasking experiences
- Intuitive gestures
- Stylus support
- A poor history of software updates
- Average camera performance
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 at 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 understands 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.
- Lovely, high-quality design
- Ultra-fast wireless and wired charging capability
- Outstanding specifications
- Capable cameras
- Hasselblad partnership in its infancy
- Water-resistance level not certified
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.
- High quality and capable camera system
- 4K display
- IP68 dust/water resistant
- Audio port and microSD card
- Focused on advanced photographers
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.
- Gorgeous design and color options
- Lovely, vivid AMOLED display
- Affordable $500 price
- Ample storage and microSD card support
- Wireless charging
- 3.5mm audio port
- Limited US carrier support
- Single speaker
How did we choose these smartphones?
The process to make our smartphone selections includes testing the phones for weeks, reading reviews from other websites and publications, researching reviewer guides and manufacturer websites, talking with colleagues and other users who have hands-on experience with the smartphones, and then selecting the best from all of the available choices.
Over the past year, we tested new phones from Google, Samsung, OnePlus, Sony, TCL, and several others. We won’t see new phones launched until the 2022 season begins in February or March.
Which Android phone is right for you?
All of these phones run the same base operating system, but the user interface ranges from stock Android to more elaborate options so you first need to figure out which fits your needs best.
Camera performance across the board is solid from just about every phone in the list, but some are better than others so if you plan to capture photos as your primary function then you should look to Google, Samsung, Sony, or OnePlus.
If you plan to spend $1,000 or more then you may also want your phone to last for at least a couple of years so then you should consider companies with a good track record of regular updates, notably Google and Samsung.
What’s your daily driver and why?
After testing out many phones over the past couple of years, my daily driver remains the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 because it is a productivity workhorse that has cameras that provide what I need even if they are not the best cameras available. The big main display, support for the S Pen, reliable side fingerprint sensor, software optimized for multi-tasking, flawless performance, and amazing engineering convince me daily that the Z Fold 3 is the perfect device for me.
It’s a big phone so I don’t run with it, but thankfully wearables have evolved over time so I can still run with something like my Galaxy Watch 4 with LTE and stay connected while I am away from my phone.
I tried the Google Pixel 6 Pro, but sent it back after two weeks of testing and it’s just not the phone for me despite its camera prowess.