By The Verge
In 2021, buying the best phone means looking for something that should last you a few years. Smartphones’ upgrade cycles are slowing down for a reason: even at lower prices, it’s getting harder and harder to buy a lemon. In other words, you don’t have to spend a huge amount to get something great, as a bunch of great smartphones are available for around $800. It’s harder than ever to decide between everything in that range, but for most people, our pick for the best phone is the Apple iPhone 12.
Luckily, if you’re looking for a no-compromise smartphone at any price, the choices over a thousand dollars are much clearer. If you like Android, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is incredibly good. And if you want to get the best smartphone on a budget, you can find something really good for under $500 or even under $400. For those recommendations, you can check out our guide to budget smartphones.
A great smartphone will last you for several years (at least), have a great camera, a nice screen, long battery life, and be fast enough to do all the work, social networking, and gaming you want to pack into a day. Believe it or not, all of those things are easier than ever to find in a phone — so picking the best one is often a matter of degrees or preferences.
1. APPLE IPHONE 12
BEST IPHONE TO BUY IN 2021
Apple has released four different variations of the iPhone 12, more than it ever has at one time. Despite all of those choices, the traditional, regular model is still a good pick. The regular iPhone 12, which starts at around $830 for a 64GB model, is the best smartphone for most people.
The 12 has the same overall design, the same processor, the same wireless charging, the same Face ID system, the same 5G support, the same front camera, and the same main and wide-angle rear cameras as the pricier 12 Pro but for hundreds of dollars less. On top of all that, it comes in five colors, one more than you can choose from in the Pro models.
THE IPHONE 12 BALANCES A BIG SCREEN WITH MANAGEABLE SIZE WELL
Compared to the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 has a noticeably roomier display and a bigger battery — two things that are important to many people. At 6.1 inches, it’s big enough to make watching video and reading text comfortable and engaging, but it isn’t so big that it’s terribly hard to use in one hand or fit in your pocket. Battery life is also very good; you can reliably expect this phone to last all day without needing to charge up before bed.
The 12 gives up the telephoto camera that’s available on the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, but that’s something not everyone will miss. The iPhone 12’s camera system is the best you can get in this price range and is excellent at most anything you’d use it for. It also has the ability to shoot Dolby Vision HDR for brighter and more dynamic video.
Since the 12 has Apple’s latest smartphone processor, the A14 Bionic, it has extremely fast performance and fluid animations. It also has a sleeker, more modern design than the previous iPhone 11 or iPhone XR, which feel frumpy in comparison.
The base iPhone 12 comes with 64GB of storage, but as usual with an iPhone, it’s not expandable, so we recommend buying the 128GB model for only $50 more.
In all, the iPhone 12 is an easy choice for most people: it offers top-level performance, design, and camera features, while providing reliable battery life for less money than other options on the market.
2. SAMSUNG GALAXY S21 ULTRA
BEST ANDROID PHONE TO BUY IN 2021
If neither size nor price is a concern, the best Android phone you can buy right now is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. With a big 6.8-inch screen and the best cameras you can get on an Android phone, it’s the no-compromise pick. In some cases, its cameras can even best the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with the latest and best specs you can get on Android. It has the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, which is the fastest you can get on Android. It features support for S Pen styluses if you prefer to use a pen with your phone, although it’s sold separately. The screen has a high refresh rate, which makes scrolling much smoother. It also has a huge battery that will last two days without much effort.
Samsung updated the design of the S21 Ultra, with a metal rail that curves naturally into the camera bump on the back. It is the best-looking big phone you can get right now. However, we can’t say we like Samsung’s software as much, which at the moment is a bit cluttered and features ads in places like the weather app. For a sleeker experience the OnePlus 9 Pro would be a good choice; the Ultra beats it on screen and camera quality, but it’s a good device all-around and offers a more grown-up take on Android OS.
That camera bump houses four cameras: a regular wide-angle with a 108-megapixel sensor, an ultrawide, and two different telephoto lenses. This makes it an incredibly versatile camera system that also has a ton of advanced video features like Pro modes and 8K recording.
Starting at $1,199.99, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a very expensive phone. Thankfully, Samsung phones are discounted early and often. If you are in the market for one, it’s worth looking around for a deal before buying.
3. SAMSUNG GALAXY S21 / S21 PLUS
BEST ANDROID PHONE TO FIND A DEAL FOR
Although the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus don’t post the big numbers the S21 Ultra does, they are still our picks right now for best Android phones under a thousand bucks. The regular Galaxy S21 with a 6.2-inch screen starts at $800 while the Plus version with a 6.7-inch screen starts at $1,000. However, both are frequently discounted with either price drops or bundles, so these are great candidates for hunting down sales.
The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus are essentially identical phones with three differences: screen size, battery size, and materials. We’ve reviewed the regular Galaxy S21 and found it to be a very competent phone even though you could argue it’s a minor refresh over last year’s Galaxy S20.
However, Samsung refreshed the important part: the processor is the same Snapdragon 888 as the Ultra. That means the Galaxy S21 is super fast and should last more than a couple of years without slowing down.
There are likely more great Android phones coming soon but right now, the Android phone that strikes the best balance of features and price is the S21.