27 Feb The Best Smartphones for 2021
We fully test every phone we can get our hands on here at Digital Trends, and after conducting hundreds of reviews, we’re confident in recommending whether a particular phone is a good buy for you.
After much debate and soul searching, we landed on the Apple iPhone 12 Pro as our top pick for the best phone available right now. Though one phone doesn’t fit everyone’s needs, so we have plenty of other great picks depending on what you’re looking for. Android fans will love the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and those looking to save money, or get a smaller phone, have lots of choices as well. You’ll notice that most of these phones have 5G, but not all — if that’s a requirement, you can see our refined list of the best 5G phones available.
Here’s why the iPhone 12 Pro ultimately triumphed, and our picks for other smartphone categories.
Best smartphones at a glance
Best overall smartphone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro
Why you should buy this: It’s a complete package, with excellent hardware, great cameras, and consistent software.
Who it’s for: Those who prefer iPhones, and will pay to step up to the next level above the base iPhone 12.
Why we picked the iPhone 12 Pro:
Apple’s iPhone lineup keeps growing, but the best option in the group is the iPhone 12 Pro — and that makes it the best overall smartphone you can buy today. A fresh angular design for the 12 series is taken to the next level with a steel frame and excellent finishes, in some subtle but powerful colors. It’s punctuated by a great display, now with smaller bezels, that’s great in all conditions — even though it doesn’t have a 120 Hz refresh rate like the competition.
The iPhone 12 Pro also has Apple’s best-ever camera system, focusing on improvements in low-light performance. The main camera lets in dramatically more light, and the results show it: Photos are brighter and crisper than before. The new A14 Bionic chip lets all cameras use Night Mode now, and using the Pro-only LiDAR camera you can take Portrait Mode shots with Night Mode.
The rest rounds out exactly as you’d expect. The specs can run iOS 14 without a hiccup no matter what you throw at it, and it’s easily prepared for the next three major iOS updates too. Battery life isn’t quite the standout feature it has been in years past, but the 12 Pro easily gets you through a day of heavy usage. And that even includes using 5G, which is supported on every carrier.
Of course there are always caveats here, with the fact that the iPhone 12 is less expensive for the same core experience, and the 12 Pro Max offers a huge battery and improved camera quality. But they also come with their own compromises — and that makes the iPhone 12 Pro still the clear choice for a wider range of people.
Apple iPhone 12 Pro review
Runner-up: Apple iPhone 12
For everything the iPhone 12 Pro has to offer, there’s one glaring issue: It isn’t dramatically better than the base iPhone 12. For just $799 you get almost the same experience as the 12 Pro, which is incredible. You miss out on the stainless steel frame, getting aluminum instead, the specs are slightly diminished, and you miss out on the telephoto camera and LiDAR sensor. But otherwise, the day-to-day experience is the same, including great main camera photos, good battery life, 5G, and the new MagSafe accessory system.
If you don’t know from the start that you need to have a Pro, you’re probably best served by getting a base iPhone 12. Just consider spending an extra $50 to bump up to 128GB of storage, which is what the 12 Pro offers by default.
Best Android phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Why you should buy this: It’s the best of the best, with a huge and beautiful screen, good software, tons of features, and a great multi-lens camera. Plus, great battery life.
Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a single phone that can handle productivity, gaming, video, and every bit of day-to-day use, all with strong battery life.
Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:
For a top-end flagship experience, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the king of the heap in Android. Samsung went well beyond the stumbles of the S20 Ultra, and even improved on the Note 20 Ultra from late 2020. The S21 Ultra brings you Samsung’s typically excellent build quality, with a sleek new matte glass back that doesn’t accumulate fingerprints like prior models. Inside is a top-end spec sheet, with a Snapdragon 888, plus 12 or 16GB of RAM and 128 to 512GB of storage.
The experience is really anchored in the incredible display, which stretches out to 6.8 inches and runs at up to 120Hz even at its maximum QHD resolution. It gets incredibly bright, and is simply the best display on a phone today. And it’s interrupted only in the slightest bit by a single hole punch camera. A new in-display fingerprint sensor is faster than before, and finally competitive.
The new quad camera array has really upped Samsung’s game, too. The 108-megapixel main sensor is better than even the Note 20 Ultra’s, and it now has two dedicated zoom cameras: 3X and 10X, both with OIS (optical image stabilization). Together with new processing and stabilization software, you can get fantastic zoom shots at 10X, and even at 30X in the right lighting. The 100X zoom is still a bit of a gimmick, sadly.
All of this comes before you see any additional features, like a wireless DeX mode that links your phone to a TV or monitor for a desktop-like experience, to the absolutely stunning display, and reverse wireless charging. On top of the standard features of a great hardware build quality, water resistance, fast wireless charging, and so much more.
Downsides? Well, the size is an issue. It’s heavier than even the S20 Ultra, and it’s so big it’s tough to use one-handed. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is also $1200, but you really are getting the best Android phone available right now. Want an alternative? The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is worth looking at, but you get more for your money with the S21 Ultra.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
Runner-up: Google Pixel 5
The Pixel range continues to be the only Android option that can fully compete with Apple’s iPhone in several key areas, including security, timely software updates, and software design. But it goes further with meaningful artificial intelligence features anyone can appreciate. Google manages the Android operating system, and so with the Pixel series, it’s able to optimize the hardware and the software — similar to what Apple does with the iPhone.
That approach, plus a simple “less is more” philosophy, makes the phone a joy to use. It has the best software experience on a phone, and it performs fluidly. And the Google Pixel 5’s spotlight feature is its dual-lens camera, which is one of the best around — yes, at any price.
Google Pixel 5 review
Best cheap smartphone: Motorola Moto G Power
Why you should buy this: Motorola gives you all of the basics in a good size with a few nice-to-have features.
Who it’s for: Budget-minded buyers that still want a big phone with great core features.
Why we picked the Moto G Power:
When you need a solid phone for an exceptional price, you turn to Motorola. It just has this formula perfected at this point, and the latest version is the Moto G Power. For $250, you’re getting a huge 6.6-inch display, 4GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 600-series chipset, and a healthy 64GB of storage. And here’s the big bonus: A massive 5000 mAh battery, which can easily go two days on a charge no matter what you throw at it.
Elsewhere, Motorola continues to show it can make consistent and helpful software. Its take on Android is simple and helpful, with just a few adjustments and apps to enhance the overall experience. You get quick gestures to perform daily tasks like launching the camera or turning on the flashlight, and Moto Display is the best way to quickly manage notifications as they come in.
Obviously for this money you miss out on a lot of high-end features. The body is plastic, the screen isn’t great, and the cameras simply get the job done. You also don’t get a full water resistance rating or other hardware extras like wireless charging. But really, those aren’t fundamental parts of the experience. You can easily do everything you need to do on a smartphone with the Moto G Power, for a highly affordable price.
Motorola Moto G Power (2021) review
Best value: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
Why you should buy this: The core flagship Samsung experience is available at a fantastic price.
Who it’s for: Anyone who lusts after a high-end Android, but wants to keep the price reasonable without major compromises.
Why we picked the Galaxy S20 FE:
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 series was an easy pick throughout 2020, but late in the year it outdid itself with a special edition: The Galaxy S20 FE. This $700-ish price segment got incredibly crowded in 2020, with particular pressure from the Google Pixel 5 and OnePlus 8T, but for most people the S20 FE is the pick of the group.
The biggest thing the Galaxy S20 FE has going for it is that it’s a Galaxy S20 device at its core. You get great specs, a big beautiful screen with a high refresh rate, a great multi-camera system, 5G, IP68 water resistance, and fast charging. Samsung cut corners in some strategic places, namely with the plastic back, lower display resolution, and a few tiny spec adjustments.
But those aren’t things that directly change how you use the phone. For most people, you’d be hard-pressed to find a difference in daily use between the $700 Galaxy S20 FE and its $1200 Galaxy S20+ counterpart. That’s not necessarily great for Samsung’s bottom line, but it’s wonderful if you want a flagship Android phone experience without the incredible price tag.
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review
Best small smartphone: Google Pixel 4a
Google Pixel 4a Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Why you should buy this: Google’s approach to smartphones fits perfectly with a small, simple, and price-friendly phone.
Who it’s for: Those who are done stretching their hands (and pockets) to use huge modern smartphones.
Why we picked the Google Pixel 4a:
It’s near-impossible to find a truly small phone today, as phones at all price points just get bigger and bigger. But the Pixel 4a is properly small, one of the smallest phones you can get today, with a 5.8-inch display surrounded by small bezels.
Beyond just its size, the Pixel 4a has so much going for it. Google’s simple and helpful software runs very well on this lower-end hardware, and doubles up on the value with strong battery life for the size of the phone. Yes the screen is rather average, and the specs will feel a little tired in a couple years, but that comes with the territory.
You also get Google’s legendary camera, even in this small and inexpensive device, with a 12-megapixel sensor that can capture photos that rival phones that cost three times as much. There’s no secondary camera, and the selfie camera is just above average, but frankly we’re just picking nits — this is the best camera in the price bracket.
Better yet, you get all of this for an incredible price: The Google Pixel 4a is just $349. So not only will you stop stretching your hands, you won’t have to stretch your wallet to get it.
Google Pixel 4a review
Best foldable smartphone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends
Why you should buy this: Foldables are the future of smartphones, and the Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is the best of the bunch.
Who it’s for: If you have a big budget for a phone purchase and want to stand out from the crowd, this is a phone to consider.
Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G:
Foldables haven’t cemented themselves in the conversation as the best overall phones, particularly at the current prices, but it’s undeniable that folding screens have a big place in the future of smartphones. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is a perfect example of why.
You get a relatively normal-looking smartphone shape when it’s closed, with an external screen you can use for basic tasks, and then it opens up to a huge mini-tablet screen on demand. No exposed hinge or bezels to deal with, just an expansive screen where you can use multiple apps, or expand your content for comfortable reading. And when you’re done, it folds up and is protected from damage.
And because it’s a high-end Samsung phone, you get a generally good experience beyond the fold. Strong cameras, good battery life, great software, and exceptional build quality — just like you’d expect for the money. The problem is, it’s still too expensive to recommend to most people: The Galaxy Z Fold 2 is $2000.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G review
If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, then we also have ideas about the best rugged phones, best phones for kids, and the best gaming phones.
Research and buying tips
What is an unlocked smartphone?
A locked smartphone is tied to a specific carrier’s network, so if your phone is locked to Verizon, for example, you can only use it with a Verizon SIM and service plan. An unlocked smartphone can be used on any network. If you’ve paid in full for your phone, then it should be free to unlock. We have a guide that will show you how to unlock a phone on every carrier. You can also buy some great unlocked phones that will work with any carrier straight out of the box.
Can smartphones get viruses?
While it is possible to get viruses on iPhones or Android phones, what most people mean when they say “virus” is malware. Technically, the term virus means software that infects a host, inserting itself into an existing program, and then spreads that infection by self-replicating. They are a very small percentage of malware and extremely rare on smartphones, but malware isn’t. You should definitely think about how to protect your smartphone from hackers because a little common sense can save you from having to work out how to remove malware from your phone.
What should I do with my old smartphone?
The most obvious thing to do with your old smartphone is to pass it on to someone else. If you want to gift it, then make sure to wipe it first; we have guides on how to wipe your Android phone and how to factory reset an iPhone. You may also want to turn that old phone into cash, in which case you’ll want to read up on how to sell your smartphone. You may decide to keep it as a spare in case your new smartphone breaks, but you could also repurpose it with the right apps. It’s better to pass it on to someone who can use it or find another use for it than let it languish in a drawer. If you can’t think of a good way to reuse your smartphone then consider donating it or recycling it.
How long should a smartphone last?
Realistically, you should expect to get two to three years out of your smartphone. You can extend the life of any smartphone by taking proper care of it and it’s always worth shopping for good protective cases. There are also loads of good waterproof phones to choose from nowadays. The problem with many Android phones is that the manufacturers and carriers are slow to push out software updates, so the software can become dated and even insecure over time. Buy a phone from Apple or Google and you won’t have that problem.
Do phones cause cancer?
The question of whether cell phone radiation is dangerous is still hotly contested in some quarters. It is technically classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” but that puts it in the same category as coffee, gasoline, and nickel. There have been many studies, but we still lack any scientific evidence to provide a definite answer to the question one way or the other. Most official bodies, including the Federal Communications Commission, Center for Disease Control, and National Cancer Institute agree there’s no proven link right now, but also acknowledge that we need more research.
How do prepaid phones work?
Prepaid cell phones work just like any other phone, but they come without a monthly contract or long-term commitment. You usually pay for service in advance. When you buy a prepaid phone they tend to come with a fixed number of minutes, text messages, and possibly a fixed amount of mobile data. This removes the chance of any overage charges. When you run out, you simply top up by buying more minutes, texts, and data in chunks.
Which operating system is best for you?
This is where things get personal. Picking a smartphone operating system is a huge deal. You’re buying into an entire ecosystem of apps and compatible products when you choose between Android and iOS.
Apple’s iOS is beautiful, simple, and easy to use, and the App Store offers the best app selection imaginable. Every aspect of iOS is curated by Apple, and it shows. Android is more open and it has fewer rules, which means more customization options, but it also means that manufacturers and app makers can willfully ignore Google’s Material design language and do whatever they want, sometimes rendering Android unrecognizable and cluttered. Android is gorgeous, as seen on Google’s Pixel 4 and 4 XL, but you don’t always see it like that.
Since Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, it also has complete control over software updates. As such, iPhone owners always get the most recent and best iOS experience possible. Android users don’t have that luxury. Unless you own a Pixel device — and very few Android users do — you may have to wait months to get software updates.
Software updates contain security fixes, which keep your phone safe from malware, viruses, and hackers. Android is the most heavily targeted mobile operating system, because it’s far and away the largest, so this is something you have to keep in mind when considering phones from companies that have a less-than-stellar track record of releasing updates.
In contrast, Apple can patch security flaws and send the updated software to all iPhone users immediately. Since most users update their software when prompted, most iOS users are protected from these very real threats. Apple’s iOS also offers full encryption with no compromises.
How we test
A phone is so much more than its spec sheet. Your entire life is stored on it, from your photos and contacts to your music and your favorite apps. For that reason, we take great care when we review phones to recommend only the absolute best out there.
We use each phone we review as our daily driver for an extended period to test out all the features. We do benchmarks, play games, take photos, plunge them in water, and use them until their batteries expire. Then we charge ’em up and do it all over again. We test devices like real people use devices. We’re not in some stuffy lab performing obscure tests. We’re running around the cities we live in using these phones just like you use your phones. Then we think about each phone in comparison with its competitors to come to a decision: Should you buy this phone or something else? If the answer is “something else,” we tell you what to buy instead.
Smartphone innovation has peaked, and the number of radical new features that come out each year is shrinking. As such, when you’re buying a phone, you’re buying a device that will be with you 24/7 for several years. It’s a big choice, and things like apps, a product ecosystem, customer support, and security should be important factors in your buying decision.