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Best phone to buy in 2021

While it's easy to find a great smartphone these days, ZDNet mobile expert Matt Miller hand-picks the top 10 models worthy of your consideration -- and all support 5G.

The deployment of 5G is continuing to expand across the US, and with the coronavirus pandemic leaving many of us stuck in our homes sharing limited Wi-Fi bandwidth, fast wireless technology is critical. That's why our top phone picks all support 5G technology, and it's great to finally see Apple join the party.

We tested new phones from Google, Samsung, Apple, OnePlus, and LG in 2020 -- with more coming in early 2021. The rumored Samsung Galaxy S21 is likely launching in January, with more rumors of phones from Google and LG, too. Apple has a standard annual launch, so we won't see new iPhones coming until after the summer 2021.

It's easy to find a great phone these days; phones are so good you really don't need to be replacing them on an annual basis, but carrier and manufacturer upgrade programs make that fairly painless. With smartphones serving as critical tools for conducting business, a monthly lease or payment option is a justifiable expense.

These 10 phones are the best of the best.

Best overall phone

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

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Display: 6.7-inch OLED (2,778 x 1,284-pixel resolution) at 458 ppi | CPU: Apple A14 Bionic chip | RAM: 6GB | Internal Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB | Rear cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide (120-degree field of view), 12MP telephoto (2.5x optical zoom) | Front camera: 12MP | Weight: 228g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


After buying the iPhone 12 Pro Max and using it for a couple of weeks, I sold my Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 to pay for it. It's clearly the best overall smartphone that succeeds in nearly every area.

Apple's new iPhone 12 lineup includes four models, all sporting support for 5G networks. New Apple processors, improved camera performance, and a more square-shaped design (similar to the iPhone 4 and iPad Pro) are found on all four models. 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the largest iPhone with a 6.7-inch display. This year, Apple also has the iPhone 12 Pro Max with slightly better cameras when compared to the iPhone 12 Pro. 

See the full review: iPhone 12 Pro Max full review

Pricing for the new iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1,099 for the 128GB model and ranges up to $1,399 for the 512GB storage capacity. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is available in graphite, silver, gold, and pacific blue.

$1,099 at Amazon $1,100 at Best Buy $1,099 at Apple

Best foldable phone

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G

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Main Display: 7.6 inches (2,208 x 1,768-pixel resolution) Dynamic 120Hz AMOLED | Cover Display: 6.2 inches (720 x 1680-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus | RAM: 12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 256GB, 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 camera on the main display and 10MP camera on the cover display | Weight: 282g


While I fell in love with the Samsung Galaxy Fold last year, I didn't include it in my 10 best phones list because it seemed like an extravagant purchase. However, given the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 is the third iteration of Samsung's folding phone and has been significantly improved, it deserves to not only be on this list but to be near the top.

I spent a couple of weeks with a review unit, and after just a couple of days with that evaluation device, I ordered my own. I exercised patience and ordered a black phone with a metallic red hinge, and it is lovely. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 is priced at $2,000, but if you use your device as much as I do daily to get work done, then the price can be justified.

The Galaxy Z Fold 2 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, while the large 7.6-inch main display is stunning with a 120Hz refresh rate and Samsung's lovely AMOLED technology.

See the full review: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 review

You get the fastest RAM and internal storage speeds available, triple rear cameras, two other 10MP cameras, and much more. The 4,500mAh battery easily gets you through a full day, even when using the large main screen.

$2,000 at Best Buy $2,000 at Best Buy

Best iPhone for most people

Apple iPhone 12

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Display: 6.1-inch (2,532 x 1,170-pixel resolution ) OLED | CPU: Apple A14 Bionic | Internal Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB | Rear cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide (120-degree field of view) | Front camera: 12MP | Weight: 164g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


While the iPhone 12 Pro Max is clearly the best iPhone 12 model available, it is also a large phone with a hefty price tag. For most people, the iPhone 12 is the clear winner, with a starting price of $799 and five color options.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro have the same 6.1-inch display, and, this year, that also means the exact same OLED panel. The only differences between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are the additional telephoto camera, LiDAR support, and more RAM found on the iPhone 12 Pro model for the $120 difference in price.

See the full review: Apple iPhone 12 review

The iPhone 12 has an awesome camera and size that should please most people. With Apple, you can also trust that updates are provided in a timely fashion and for years to come.

$829 at Amazon $800 at Best Buy $829 at Apple

Best Samsung Galaxy phone for most people

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

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Display: 6.5 inches (3x200 x 1x440-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 phones 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.

$599 at Amazon $600 at Best Buy $599 at Abt Electronics

Best phone with a stylus

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G

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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


Samsung announced the Galaxy Note 20 series last fall, and it is clear the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is one of the best phones 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.

$1,100 at Amazon $1,100 at Best Buy $1,397 at Sam's Club

Best affordable 5G phone

Google Pixel 4A 5G

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Display: 6.2 inches (2,340 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 (107-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 8MP f/2.0 | Weight: 168g


If you want an Android phone that will always have the latest firmware and security updates, while also offering a fairly stock experience with 5G support, then take a look at the affordable Google Pixel 4A 5G. At $499, it's one of the most affordable 5G phones we have seen released.

In addition to the software being a focus for Google, the camera is another reason to buy the Pixel 4A 5G over other, better smartphone hardware. However, while others have three or four rear cameras, Google provides just one so there are some limits on its capability as a daily shooter.

See the full review: Google Pixel 4A 5G review

Android 11 powers the phone, and it will receive OS upgrades for three years. Monthly Android security updates are the most important software support for the enterprise, given major firmware updates tend to break things and be less stable immediately after release.

$499 at Amazon $550 at Walmart $500 at Best Buy

Best Google phone

Google Pixel 5

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Display: 6 inches (2,340 x 1,080-pixel resolution) flexible OLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 8GB | Internal Storage: 128GB | Rear cameras: 12.2MP rear f/1.7, and 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide (107-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 8MP f/2.0 | Weight: 151g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


Google's Pixel 5 is the first 5G smartphone available from Google and appears to check 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 $699, the Pixel 5 is a great option for getting 5G into your hands with Google's software and reliance on regular updates for years.

You can pick one up in black or an interesting green color (Sorta Sage). The back is aluminum, and we also see the return of a rear fingerprint sensor.

See the full review: Google Pixel 5 review

Google's Pixel 5 also has the best smartphone camera for still photos, thanks primarily to Google's advanced algorithms and software. The iPhone 12 lineup takes the cake for video creation, but Google and Apple go head-to-head on smartphone camera software.

$700 at Amazon $700 at Walmart $700 at Best Buy

Best Samsung flagship

Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus

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Display: 6.7 inches (3,200 x 1,440-pixel resolution) 120Hz Infinity-O AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 | RAM: 12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Rear cameras: 64MP rear f/2.0 telephoto, 12MP 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: 186g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


While I spent a few months with the flagship Samsung Galaxy 20 Ultra 5G, I agree with ZDNet's Jason Cipriani that the Galaxy S20 Plus is the best Samsung flagship phone until we see what the Galaxy S21 offers.

See the full review: Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus review

The focus on the S20 line in 2020 was the universal 5G and improved camera experiences. The Galaxy S20 FE offers much of what we saw in the S20 Plus at a more competitive price, so it will be interesting to see how the Galaxy S21 fits into the Galaxy lineup.

$1,100 at Amazon $1,100 at Best Buy $1,397 at Sam's Club

Best 5G flagship phone

OnePlus 8 Pro

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Display: 6.78 inches (3,168 x 1,440-pixel resolution) 120Hz AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 | RAM: 8GB/12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB | Rear cameras: 8MP rear f/2.44 telephoto, 48MP f/1.78 wide-angle camera, and 48MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120-degree field-of-view), 5MP color filter | Front camera: 16MP f/2.45 camera | Weight: 199g


At $799, the OnePlus 8 Pro is the most affordable 5G flagship phone you can buy. OnePlus rolled out its 2020 phones with the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro, both compatible with 5G networks. T-Mobile carries the OnePlus 8, while Verizon has a unique version with 5G mmWave support.

The phones are lovely, with Ultramarine Blue, Glacial Green, and Onyx Black color options available. There are a couple of different RAM and internal storage options for each phone. With the size and battery capacity differences between the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, we also find some differences in cameras, display refresh rate, and wireless charging functionality.

See the full review: OnePlus 8 Pro review

The OnePlus phones now have Android 11 and are very responsive. They still lack an IP rating so be careful using them outside as inclement weather season approaches.

$999 at OnePlus

Best Microsoft phone

Microsoft Surface Duo

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Displays: Two 5.6 inches (1,800 x 1,350-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 | RAM: 6GB | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB | Camera: 11MP f/2.0 | Weight: 250g


There seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it feeling with the Microsoft Surface Duo, and even though I found it very productive, I ended up returning mine in favor of the Galaxy Z Fold 2. While the Surface Duo has 2019 specs and bold bezels, in the right hands, it is a productivity workhorse.

The Surface Duo does not support 5G networks and is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. The camera is pretty terrible and oddly positioned for anything other than video conferences.

See the full review: Microsoft Surface Duo review

The story is not about the hardware, though, and its capability rests in the software enhancements offered by Microsoft. There have been a couple of updates to improve the experience, and this first generation is a good first attempt. The $1,400 starting price is tough to swallow, but we look forward to seeing what the second generation looks like in 2021.

$1,400 at Amazon $1,350 at Walmart $1,400 at Best Buy