Best smartphone 2021

What is the best smartphone you can buy?

There are so many good phones to choose from right now but which one is the king of the castle? Is there even a winner? In truth, there’s no one perfect choice for everyone, so bear in mind that the best phone for you might not be number one in our chart.

Phones come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Here, we have ranked and reviewed the ten best phones money can buy.

While you’re going to find established brands like Apple and Samsung in this list, you might not be familiar with every phone-maker we’ve recommended. With that said, trust us – these phones are all top-notch and if you want to know more, you can simply hop into each phone’s full review.

Best smartphone 2021

1. iPhone 12 – Best all-rounder

Apple iPhone 12

The iPhone 12 represents a leap forward for the iPhone, offering not only an improved design reminiscent of the beloved iPhone 5 and iPad Pro, but the same 6.1in Super Retina XDR display as the Pro model – something Apple hasn’t offered on the standard model in the past. 

Once you look past the design and improved display, it’s the heart of the iPhone 12 that’s most impressive. Featuring the A14 Bionic, Apple’s new chipset beats just about everything else available at the moment, and that’s without the extra RAM available on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max.

There’s also an improved camera setup with better low-light photography and smart tech to help reduce the warp of photos taken on the ultra-wide lens. There’s even Dolby Vision video recording, albeit capped at [email protected] 

Simply put, the 5G-enabled iPhone 12 is all the iPhone you’ll need. It’s harder than ever to justify the expensive leap to the iPhone 12 Pro, with the same design, display and processor, and a similar camera setup too. 

Read our full Apple iPhone 12 review

2. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – Best performance

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

After 2020’s disappointing Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung has finally earned the name with a follow-up that delivers almost everything you could want from an Android flagship – admittedly at a price that only a few can afford, and in a form factor that will simply be too big for some.

The camera stands unrivalled – in terms of versatility – with a 108Mp main shooter backed up by an ultrawide and two telephoto lenses at different zoom levels (3x and 10x).

The expansive 6.8in display delivers both high WQHD+ resolution and an adaptive refresh rate up to 120Hz, making it great for gaming and with new S-pen stylus support, it fills the productivity niche of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra too.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

3. Oppo Find X3 Pro – Superb camera

Oppo Find X3 Pro

The Find X3 Pro is Oppo’s all-singing, all-dancing flagship device, and it earns its spot at the top of this chart.

Yes, it’s expensive, and there’s no denying that. But you get the latest Snapdragon 888 chipset, 12GB RAM and 256GB storage, and 65W wired charging together with 30W wireless.

The main and ultrawide cameras both pack the same 50Mp sensor, and offer almost exactly the same quality shots, with punchy colours, oodles of detail, and great dynamic range. There’s ‘only’ a 2x zoom camera – no periscopic lens here, sadly – but you also get a novel new microlens camera, capable of taking super-closeup shots.

Those cameras are capable of outputting images in 10-bit colour, and in fact the phone supports true 10-bit storage and encryption too, right through to the 10-bit, 120Hz, WQHD+ display – possibly the best in any phone right now.

This is not just Oppo’s best phone, but one of the best flagships on the market from any company.

Read our full Oppo Find X3 Pro review

4. Samsung Galaxy S21 – Best for ease of use

Samsung Galaxy S21

The baby of 2021’s Galaxy S lineup, the Galaxy S21 doesn’t push the envelope in any one area but at the same time addresses the S20’s bland design with some new aesthetic and colour choices.

What’s more, it also offers up better battery life and the new 5nm chipset at its heart (the Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100, depending on where you pick one up) is some undeniably powerful silicon, granting the phone great long-term performance and integrated 5G.

Add to that the latest Android 11 (dressed in Samsung’s own One UI 3.1, at launch) and a lower starting price than even the 4G version of last year’s Galaxy S20 and the S21 is a difficult handset to overlook.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review

5. Xiaomi Mi 11 – Great performance

Xiaomi Mi 11

Xiaomi’s current flagship (at least until the Mi 11 Pro and Ultra arrive in China and globally, respectively) serves as the perfect foil to Samsung’s base Galaxy S21.

It may not have the most capable camera system of any Android phone currently out there but there’s no denying that the 108Mp 1/1.33in sensor that leads its photographic setup is undeniably strong.

Similarly to the S21, it also boasts top-tier performance – powered by a Snapdragon 888 processor – and a host of other highlights, including stereo speakers, 50W fast charging, and an expansive 6.81in WQHD+ 120Hz AMOLED display.

Read our full Xiaomi Mi 11 review

6. OnePlus 8 Pro – Best user experience

OnePlus 8 Pro

The OnePlus 8 Pro is arguably the company’s first full flagship, finally incorporating long-requested features like wireless charging and an IP68 waterproof rating to make it a genuine contender with the likes of Samsung’s finest of 2020.

Even the base model is no slouch, at 8GB RAM and 128GB storage; representing serious value by flagship standards, even a year on from release.

The 8 Pro’s camera is a great step forward for the company and while it still lags behind rivals, OnePlus’ imaging engineers have clearly worked hard to narrow the gap considerably. Throw in 5G, a great design and the best Android skin around and the OnePlus 8 Pro is easy to recommend.

While the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro have since launched, they generally left us underwhelmed, so you get more for your money with 2020’s OnePlus 8 Pro.

Read our full OnePlus 8 Pro review

7. Google Pixel 5 – Most compact

Google Pixel 5

Google’s first 5G flagship walks a different path to its predecessors, showcasing Android 11 to the best of its abilities but also shedding the more experimental features of previous generations and opting for more conservative hardware at the same time.

Its clean design and user experience are supported by a set of superb – and now more feature-rich – cameras, as well as an incredibly compact design and battery life that’s actually usable.

Read our full Google Pixel 5 review

8. iPhone 12 Pro Max – Best for multimedia

iPhone 12 Pro Max

The iPhone 12 Pro Max may not utilise its expansive display as effectively as the Note 20 Ultra does – especially when it comes to matters of productivity – but it’s an undeniably superb large-screened phone all the same.

It boasts some of the best performance on the market, 5G (for the first time on an iPhone), a stunning 6.7in OLED display, great battery life, support for MagSafe for iPhone accessories and totes one of the most capable smartphone cameras money can buy – complete with sensor-shift OIS (optical image stabilisation), something we’ve never seen on a smartphone before.

Provided you’re comfortable with its sizeable proportions, you’ll just have to grapple with its equally demanding high price tag.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review

9. OnePlus 8T – Best for fast charging

OnePlus 8T

Bigger numbers in all things except price render the OnePlus 8T a great buy. It’s cheaper than the OnePlus 8’s original RRP and yet sports a smoother 120Hz refresh rate display; it’s also the first of the company’s phones to integrate blisteringly-fast 65W fast charging.

As with the 8 Pro, while the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro have since launched, for the time being the OnePlus 8T offers up greater value for money.

Read our full OnePlus 8T review

10. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – Great for productivity

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Samsung’s top 2020 Note is still an absolute powerhouse. Provided you’re comfortable with the sheer size of it and the high asking price, there’s little this phone can’t do.

Better yet, Samsung’s addressed the camera issues found on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, making the system on the Note 20 Ultra far more capable and competitive.

The S Pen gains a few new remote gestures called Anywhere Actions, Samsung Notes is now far more powerful and the phone’s display sits among the best of 2020.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review

Your buying guide for the best phones in 2021

When choosing a phone you should consider these things: build quality and design, ease of use, features, performance, and value. 

Generally speaking, a flagship phone in 2021 will start at around £700 but can cost over £1,000 in some cases. On contract, you’re looking at between £30 and £50-per-month on average but you can spend a lot more if you want an expensive phone and lots of mobile data.

We also have charts for mid-range and budget phones if you’re looking for something still excellent, but also more affordable.

Buying a phone outright will usually give you the best value, but we appreciate finances in the real world don’t always accommodate such big one-off purchases. If you can, you’ll obviously need a SIM card and plan, as well as the phone. If you don’t already have one, check out our best SIM-only deals.

Should you buy an iPhone or Android phone?

There’s more than one mobile operating system, but really only two worth talking about: Android and iOS.

The vast majority of phones today run Android; 11 being the latest publicly-released version. Apple’s iOS platform, meanwhile, may have a lower market share but developers almost always release their apps on iOS first. As a result of this approach, it has one of the best app stores you can find.

If you have an Android phone or an iPhone and want to move to a phone running the other OS (operating system), it’s fairly easy to transfer your contacts and other select data from one to the other. What you can’t move are paid-for apps and certain app data (like WhatsApp backups), so keep this in mind if you’re considering a change of platform – and research any specific concerns you may have about the process.

Why you should buy an unlocked phone

An unlocked phone is one which is not tied to any particular mobile operator, such as Vodafone or EE. Buying ‘unlocked’ usually means buying the phone outright without a SIM card or contract attached.

The most important point is that an unlocked phone is almost always a better deal than buying a phone on contract – if you can afford it.

The only real exception to this is Apple’s iPhones – because of their traditional popularity, operators often subsidise the cost of buying an iPhone in order to lock you into a lucrative long-term deal.

Generally speaking, if you can afford the upfront cost of the handset, you will pay less over the life of your phone by buying unlocked.

More importantly, you are not locked into a lengthy contract. If you want a new handset at any time, you can buy one without having to up-purchase your way out of said contract or commit to another two years. 

Just be sure to make certain the phone you’re getting is not locked to a certain network.

The right SIM

One other thing to consider is the size and shape of the SIM required for your phone. Make sure you get a nano-SIM if a nano-SIM is what your phone requires.

For the record, every phone in our top ten takes a nano-SIM.

If you get that wrong it is easily solvable – every network will gladly send over a different-sized SIM. SIM cards tend to come in all three sizes – you simply pop out the one you need.

But that’s assuming you are getting a new SIM, and if you’re looking for a SIM-free phone or unlocked phone you probably already have one.

More important is to make sure that if you want 5G you get a 5G-enabled phone and SIM.

Related: How we test smartphones

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