10 Mar Best smartphones 2021 rated: The top phones available to buy
(Pocket-lint) – The smartphone is the heart of the modern world, it’s not only essential for communication, it’s your entertainment, smart home control devices and your constant companion.
We continually update our best smartphone guide to reflect recent launches and recognise price changes. All of these top flagship phones have also been fully reviewed by us – we don’t just include stuff we think sounds good.
Our pick of the best smartphones to buy today
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung’s 2021 version of the Ultra adapts to address problems with the previous phone. The result is a device that’s clearly a flagship choice. Samsung has raised this device over the other S21 models, with a more premium build, more capable cameras and a better display.
It’s a big device, but the screen really delivers. It’s also a great looking phone – especially in black – while the adjustments to the cameras make that zoom really work. As a package, there’s a lot to love, with good battery life, plenty of power – while also supporting the S Pen too.
OnePlus 8 Pro
OnePlus has shifted itself from budget manufacturer to competing with top-tier brands. Top quality internal components deliver awesome Android speeds, with 5G for those looking for next-gen connectivity too.
But on the software front, OnePlus wins over some rivals in offering a cleaner take on Android, avoiding bloat and clutter while keeping its phones running fast and smooth. While the camera has been a weakness for OnePlus in the past, the 8 Pro is a lot more complete, with useful cameras giving a competitive showing for themselves. This is backed up with fast charging, great battery life and a great display.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro
The 2020 iPhone 12 Pro introduces a fresh new design, boosting screen protection and enhancing the cameras on the rear of the handset. The addition of a LiDAR sensor is designed to boost depth perception, while the camera gets boosts to night mode, offering more skills across all the cameras.
With powerful innards and the introduction of 5G, this is a phone that’s designed to be future proof.
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE takes the best parts of its flagship phones, replaces the back with plastic, flattens the display and drops the price. The result? A flagship experience that’s easier on the pocket, with no real disadvantages.
The cameras are great, avoiding the gimmicks, while the 5G version – the one you want – has loads of power. There’s great speakers, a 120Hz display for smooth gaming and the option to expand the storage via microSD. What’s not to like?
Oppo Find X2 Pro
Oppo has been progressively improving its devices and adding appeal, with the Find X2 Pro being the most accomplished so far. There’s loads of power and a really great display, topped off with a great camera experience. It’s the zoom that really appeals, but supported by a strong showing in other areas too, although it’s not the best in low light.
It’s a little on the expensive side, however, considering the OnePlus 8 Pro is similar and cheaper, and the software experience offered by ColorOS isn’t as widely appreciated as OnePlus or Samsung’s offering. Still, there’s a lot that this Pro handset has to offer.
Xiaomi Mi 11
Xiaomi’s new entrant for 2021 packs in Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 power into a meaningful phone that avoids the gimmicks. A good display and quailty design support a main camera that’s really good – although the lack of a telephoto lens makes this slightly less competitive.
As a flagship though, the more affordable price needs to be set in context of the lack of waterproofing and the inevitability that Xiaomi will have a better phone in the Mi 11 Pro. Software remains a slight problem for Xiaomi: it’s just not as refined as some other Android options.
Apple iPhone 12
The iPhone 12 takes a slight step-up above the iPhone 11, adding 5G into the mix for next-gen connectivity, while also moving the display to an OLED panel – the same as the iPhone 12 Pro.
The main camera is joined by an ultra-wide lens, which means that while it doesn’t have the zoom functions of the 12 Pro, it offers much the same experience. With all this crammed into a new design, it’s a great phone.
The OnePlus 8T swings in to update OnePlus’ regular flagship model, here really pushing value for money, while still delivering a flagship experience. It has a good display with 120Hz refresh rate and loads of power.
The cameras aren’t the best, with a little more crammed in than you’ll bother to use – but with a big battery and really, really, fast charging, there’s no worries about battery life.
Sony Xperia 5 II
The Sony Xperia 5 II is Sony’s most accomplished recent phone, offering a compact flagship phone, with plenty of power and appeal.
There’s a great display, with 21:9 aspect, offering 120Hz, and good balanced performance, excellent sound quality and capable cameras. It’s a great compact entertainment phone.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20
The Samsung Galaxy Note has always been the phone for those who want a stylus. In 2020 there are two versions, the Ultra and the slightly more understated regular Note 20. And it’s this regular version that we prefer.
As far as stylus devices go, there’s nothing that can match the Galaxy Note, but paired with powerful hardware, 4G or 5G options, a great display and the slickness of Samsung’s One UI, it’s a great phone.
Apple iPhone 11
The advantage of choosing a slightly older iPhone model is the reduction in price. The iPhone 11 offer pretty much everything you get in the iPhone 12, but it’s cheaper. That’s party because it misses out on 5G – which might not worry you – which it has a less capable dispaly and slightly older hardware than the 12.
But you still get a great phone, with the advantage of still having access to the vast majority of Apple’s features. For those hunting for the latest phone this isn’t for you, but if you want an iPhone without spending too much, it could be ideal.
How to choose a flagship phone
When looking for a new flagship phone, there’s a lot to consider. The biggest decision will often be whether you buy an iPhone or get an Android phone.
A new iPhone?
While the iPhone has a number of models to choose from – the SE, mini, regular, Pro or Pro Max – the experience is pretty similar across all the devices. That’s true of older phones too, with strong support on the software front and consistent use of design for several generations of devices.
That means that if you buy the iPhone 12, for example, you know it’s going to be supported for many years. You also know that the hardware features on it aren’t going to change the next year, because Apple looks for consistency across its devices.
That also means that buying an older iPhone model remains a good option – it will save you money, but you won’t miss out on much.
Or a new Android phone?
Android’s big advantage over Apple is the wide variety of options. There’s a greater range of manufacturers, meaning many different price points and designs, but all with the familiarity of the underlying Android software, so there’s no real learning curve when it comes to using it.
Android manufacturers are often more aggressive with new technologies, pushing new camera features in advance of Apple, but often only keep a design for one year, before releasing a new model that’s different. Android also isn’t as consistent with software support.
Although most devices will get two or three versions of Android, the timescales are never as tight as they are for Apple – but prices do fall faster, so good deals on newer models are frequently available.
Displays and sizes
The display will define the size of the device you get. Larger displays are great for consuming content, ideal for watching TV or movies and often preferred by gamers.
But larger displays mean a bulkier phone – and you might find it’s just not as practical to use. Many manufacturers, however, make the biggest phone their best phone.
Not all flagship devices offer top resolutions of Quad HD or 4K, with some sticking to a resolution that’s ample, like 1080p. That’s fine, however, as you have to look really closely to see the difference in the detail – what’s more important is display quality.
With most flagship phones offering an OLED display, there aren’t huge differences, but some offer curved edges which can make a larger phone easier to use.
What’s emerged as a more attractive option more recently is refresh rate. Top phones are now pushing 120Hz in an attempt to make content look smoother. It’s not just about gaming, it’s about supporting scrolling in apps, for example.
Higher refresh rates are reserved for gaming phones, although there’s not huge support for those faster frame rates within apps or games.
Core hardware and storage
Flagship phones will have the latest hardware in them. While Apple offers its own hardware, Android chooses from a range of suppliers – but many offer Qualcomm. Samsung will use Exynos and Qualcomm, some might range into MediaTek – although this is usually reserved for mid-range or entry-level devices.
Storage is important. Low storage will bring the price down, but fewer and fewer manufacturers are offering microSD card expansion these days. That means you need to buy a device with enough storage – considering that to option of 4K and now 8K video is using up more storage than ever.
Of course cloud storage is a lot more integrated these days, but remember that nothing is free – if you want to store a lot of photos, at some point, you’ll have to pay for it.
Cameras are where phones can differ the most and often the camera is the most discussed aspect of any phone. Flagship devices have the best cameras. From Apple to ZTE, top phones have more or better cameras.
The most important thing to consider, however, is a good main camera. If the main camera takes good photos, that means most of your pictures will be good. If you can’t get a good normal photo from it, it’s no use having lots more cameras that also give you weak photos.
Ultra-wide angle is easy to use and creates great effects, telephoto lenses get you a lot closer – but the quality of telephoto cameras varies significantly.
Periscope lenses are becoming more common, meaning 5x and 10x zoom is now a great option on some models – although Apple doesn’t yet offer this option.
But also remember that megapixels don’t automatically make a better camera. Many mid-range phones use a high resolution main camera and result in poor photos. More important is how the images are processed, with AI and computational photography now able to make a huge difference over the core hardware.
There’s always a lot of gimmicks too – pro modes you’ll never use, capture options you’ll never bother with. The most important thing remains the point and shoot performance, because that’s what you’ll use most of the time.
Wireless charging is now also common, although not universally offered on all devices.
Flagship phones often aren’t the best performers when it comes to battery life. Designed for performance, the aim is to deliver the best experience, not to keep your phone alive for a week.
There will always be phones in the mid range that perform better – lower power, smaller display, lower resolution or lower brightness – along with a physically larger battery, to outlast flagship phones.
But faster charging means that with the right charger – which you might have to buy separately – that you can get your phone back to full charge in no time at all.
Is it the right phone for you?
Which so much choice, the important thing is to buy the phone that you want, the phone that’s going to deliver what you want.
Switching between Android brands is easy – as long as you’re backing up to Google – and switching between Apple and Android isn’t too hard either. Sure, there are some Apple services you can’t get on an Android phone, like iMessage, but on the whole, most apps are the same.
If you’re spending a lot of money in the Apple ecosystem you’ll likely be convinced to stay there, but it’s worth looking at where you save your data and what services you use, because third-party options make switching platforms a lot easier.
There are plenty of phones to choose from and plenty of price points – and of course, you can always read our full phone reviews to help you make your choice.
Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Dan Grabham.