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Best phone 2021: The top 10 smartphones available

ZDNet's mobile expert Matt Miller hand-picks the 10 best smartphone phone models worthy of your consideration. Whatever your priority -- from 5G or camera to speed or display -- there's a phone here to meet your every need.

Today's smartphones provide incredible mobile computing experiences to help you get work done away from the office, in the field, and wherever your remote location may be. Certainly, people have different mobile needs, but every smartphone on this list is more than capable of providing all the essential functions that most users could ever want in a mobile device.

Some smartphones excel at photography, some phones can serve as a small tablet, and still others are rugged enough to withstand a drop in the field. The term "best" may be specific to your needs, but there are some truly standout smartphones that are better than others.

These are the top 10 smartphones that we currently recommend as the best of the best.

Best overall smartphone

Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max

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Image: Apple

Display: 6.7-inch OLED (2,778 x 1,284-pixel resolution) at 458 ppi | CPU: Apple A15 Bionic chip | RAM: TBD | Internal Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB | Rear cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide (120-degree field of view), 12MP telephoto (6x optical zoom) | Front camera: 12MP | Weight: 240g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


Apple's biggest and most feature-rich iPhone is a mouthful, the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Apple listened to customers, and while the phone looks just about the same as last year's 12 Pro Max, it is a tad thicker with a larger capacity battery and longer battery life.

The display now supports a refresh rate up to 120 Hz while optical zoom on the telephoto camera is improved to 6x. Macro photography and cinematic video modes are new features in the camera system that are sure to please photographers and videographers alike.

Apple continues to actively improve iOS 15 while also offering 1TB of internal storage so you can capture content to your heart's delight.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max price starts at $1,099 for the 128GB model and ranges up to $1,599 for the 1TB storage capacity. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is available in graphite, silver, gold, and sierra blue.

Pros:

  • High quality ceramic glass and stainless steel materials
  • Best video recording performance
  • High-quality cameras
  • Stable and well supported by Apple

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Wide and heavy

Best foldable phone

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G

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Image: Samsung

Main display: 7.6 inches (2,208 x 1,768-pixel resolution) Dynamic 120Hz AMOLED | Cover display: 6.2 inches (832 x 2,268-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 256GB/512GB, 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 cover display and 4MP camera under the main display | Weight: 271g


While I put the iPhone 12 Pro Max as the best overall phone, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the best overall phone for my needs. The addition of S Pen support and an IPX8 water-resistant design makes the Z Fold 3 the perfect phone and mini tablet I could ask for, and it is very well optimized for getting work done on the go.

Given the excellent pre-launch offers and trade-in deals, I purchased a 512GB model to serve as my daily driver. In addition to the hardware improvements, Samsung made the purchase a bit easier with a $200 price cut compared to the previous Z Fold 2.

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 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 with the addition of 120Hz refresh rate support this year. The large 7.6-inch main display is stunning with a 120Hz refresh rate, Samsung's lovely AMOLED technology, and special S Pen support. What could be more perfect for a Note and foldable fan?


See the full review: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 review.


You get the fastest RAM and internal storage speeds available, S Pen support, water resistance, triple rear cameras, a 10MP front-facing camera, a unique 4MP under-display camera, and much more. The 4,400mAh battery easily gets you through a full day, even when using the large main screen.

Pros:

  • Stunning engineering marvel
  • Incredible AMOLED displays
  • S Pen support
  • IPX8 water resistance
  • Software optimizations for foldable and large display usage

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • No S Pen support on cover screen
  • Not the best Samsung cameras on the back

Best Google phone

Google Pixel 6 Pro

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Google

Display: 6.7-inch LTPO OLED (3,120 x 1,440-pixel resolution) | CPU: Google Tensor | RAM: 12GB | Internal Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB | Rear cameras: 50MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide (114-degree field of view), 48MP telephoto (4x optical zoom) | Front camera: 11.1MP | Weight: 210g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


Google's Pixel 6 Pro is the best smartphone currently available from Google. The Pixel 6 has many of the same specifications, with one less camera on the back and a slightly smaller display: the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro sport Google's new Tensor processor.

The Pixel 6 Pro is a flagship competitor and starts at $899 for the 128GB model, with the 512GB model priced at $1,099. You can purchase one in Stormy Black, Cloudy White, or Sorta Sunny with some limitations on storage capacity with the different color options.

The cameras are clearly the focus of the Pixel 6 Pro with Google's amazing software, combined with leading hardware, to create arguably the best smartphone camera experience available today.


See the full review: Google Pixel 6 Pro review.


In addition to the camera prowess, the phone is assured of receiving regular and timely software and firmware updates for years, similar to what Apple offers to iPhone owners. The phone is also powered by Android 12 with several optimizations for a personalized experience.

Pros:

  • Fantastic camera experiences
  • Optimized Android 12 interface
  • Timely updates and support for years
  • Unique hardware design

Cons:

  • Average battery life
  • RF performance is not as good as Samsung

Best iPhone for most people

Apple iPhone 13

apple-iphone-13-colors.jpg
Image: Apple

Display: 6.1-inch (2,532 x 1,170-pixel resolution ) OLED | CPU: Apple A15 Bionic | Internal Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB | Rear cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide (120-degree field of view) | Front camera: 12MP | Weight: 174g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


While the iPhone 13 Pro Max is clearly the best iPhone 12 model available, it is also a large smartphone with a hefty price tag. The iPhone 13 is the clear winner for most people, with a starting price of $799 and six color options.

The Apple iPhone 13 is an interesting device since it has the exact same 6.1-inch display seen on the iPhone 13 Pro, so size and battery capacity are not differentiators here. There is one less rear camera on the iPhone 13, and there is no support for the LiDAR scanner. If the telephoto capability is not important to you, then you can save some money with the iPhone 13, and it does support 2x optical with the existing cameras.

It's great to finally see Apple start with a 128GB base model rather than charging people for a reasonable level of internal storage when there is such a focus on the camera capability. The phone also supports Apple's new Cinematic mode for video recording.

The iPhone 13 is 0.25mm thicker and 10 grams heavier than the iPhone 12, but users are sure to appreciate the improved battery life that comes with a bit more depth.

Pros:

  • Fast, reliable, and well supported
  • Good quality cameras
  • Attractive and fun color options
  • Tons of accessories, including MagSafe

Cons:

  • No high refresh rate display as seen on Pro models
  • No dedicated telephoto camera

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 smartphones 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.

Pros:

  • Full Samsung experience
  • Affordable and colorful
  • High level of dust/water resistance
  • Good quality cameras

Cons:

  • Limited RAM

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


This category may be a bit debatable now that Samsung has added S Pen support to the S21 Ultra and Z Fold 3, but there is no silo for the S Pen in either phone. It's an extra accessory for these devices, and the hassle of carrying one around makes it less convenient than the Note series. It's not clear if we will see another Note from Samsung either.

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

Pros:

  • Complete S Pen support with silo on the device
  • Incredible AMOLED displays
  • IP68 dust and water resistance
  • High quality cameras

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Big phone

Best affordable 5G phone

Google Pixel 5A with 5G

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Display: 6.34 inches (2,400 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


The Google Pixel 4A 5G was a great 5G phone, but in 2021 Google replaced it with the 5A 5G that offers more and has a price of $50 less. At $449, it's one of the most affordable 5G phones we have seen released, and it includes some upper-level features such as IP67 dust/water resistance and a metal unibody design.

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

Android 11 powers the phone, but Android 12 is coming very soon. The phone 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.

Pros:

  • Google Pixel camera is fantastic
  • 5G support
  • Affordable
  • Long battery life
  • Timely updates and years of support

Cons:

  • Limited RAM and storage
  • Reports of overheating with extended camera use

Best Samsung camera phone

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G

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Display: 6.8 inches (3,200 x 1,440-pixel resolution) 120Hz Infinity-O AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 12GB/16GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Rear cameras: 10MP rear f/4.9 telephoto with 10x optical zoom and second 10MP f/2.4 telephoto with 3x optical zoom, 108MP wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120-degree field-of-view) | Front camera: 40MP f/2.2 camera | Weight: 229g | Dust/water resistance: IP68


Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is one of the best overall smartphones today and the best that Samsung has to offer for camera performance. With a $200 price cut at launch, compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the phone is also one of the more affordable high-end flagship offerings.

In addition to the latest and greatest specifications, the S21 Ultra 5G provides support for Samsung's S Pen, so you are no longer limited to just the Note line if you want stylus support.


See the full review: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review.


If your job requires you to zoom into subjects from far away, no other phone beats the S21 Ultra in terms of telephoto capability and quality. Zooming up to 30x provides good quality images, but even beyond this level of zoom, there are practical reasons to see details of the subjects you are shooting.

Pros:

  • High quality and capable quad-camera system
  • Best telephoto shooter available
  • S Pen support
  • Incredible AMOLED displays
  • More affordable than the S20 series

Cons:

  • Large size phone

Best OnePlus flagship

OnePlus 9 Pro

best-phone-oneplus9pro-review.jpg

Display: 6.7 inches (3,216 x 1,440-pixel resolution) 120Hz AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8GB/12GB LPDDR5 | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB | Rear cameras: 8MP rear f/2.4 telephoto, 48MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 50MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera, 2MP monochrome camera | Front camera: 16MP f/2.4 camera | Weight: 197g


OnePlus used to be the "flagship killer" brand but has since evolved into higher-priced flagships directly challenging the likes of Samsung and Apple. Compared to Samsung, OnePlus offers an experience that is free from ads and bloatware while also now providing some interesting features such as reverse wireless charging and adaptive 120Hz displays.

The OnePlus 9 Pro is priced at about $200 less than Samsung's S21 Ultra, which is significant given that Samsung's price is also $200 less than its launch price in 2020. For less than $1,000, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a serious flagship smartphone to consider.


See the full review: OnePlus 9 Pro review.


The Hasselblad camera partnership was a major area that was presented and covered at the launch event but understands that only software enhancements are present in this first device with the Hasselblad branding on it. That said, camera performance has been great and clearly improved over what OnePlus provided in the past.

One area that OnePlus leads the pack in is the charging capability of its phones. Warp Charge 65T support and Warp Charge Wireless 50 support are provided in the OnePlus 9 Pro. This means you can charge up your phone from 1% to 100% in just 29 minutes. The wireless charging even achieves this charging performance in 43 minutes, which is faster than wired charging of most other phones.

Pros:

  • Lovely, high-quality design
  • Ultra-fast wireless and wired charging capability
  • Outstanding specifications
  • Capable cameras

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Hasselblad partnership in its infancy
  • Water-resistance level not certified

Best Microsoft phone

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

thumbnail-8ef2e7aa44494d77bf13e6f316227024.jpg

Displays: Two 5.8 inch (1,892 x 1,344-pixel resolution) AMOLED | CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 | RAM: 8GB | Internal Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Cameras: 12MP f/21.7 wide, 12MP f/2.4 telephoto with 2x optical, and 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide (110-degrees field-of-view). 12MP f/2.0 front-facing camera | Weight: 284g


The original Surface Duo suffered from old and missing basic specifications while launching a unique form factor that was much more than just a smartphone. Microsoft listened to feedback and offers significant improvements in the specifications this year so that the Surface Duo 2 matches other flagship smartphones in 2021.

However, the focus on this phone is still on productivity, and it is perfect for those who multi-task and need to use two apps at the same time. The issue for Microsoft is whether or not there is a sustainable market for a device fit for these specific customers.


See the full review: Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review.


The story is not about just the improved hardware, though, and this smartphone's capability rests in the software enhancements offered by Microsoft. There were a few updates for the original Duo, but that device still runs Android 10, with Android 12 now present on the newest smartphones. The $1,500 starting price is tough to swallow, but maybe we will soon see fire sales on this second generation as we saw with the first generation.

Pros:

  • High-quality hardware
  • Capable software for multi-tasking experiences
  • Intuitive gestures
  • Stylus support

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • A poor history of software updates
  • Average camera performance

How did we choose these smartphones?

The process to make our smartphone selections includes testing the phones for weeks, reading reviews from other websites and publications, researching reviewer guides and manufacturer websites, talking with colleagues and other users who have hands-on experience with the smartphones, and then selecting the best from all of the available choices. 

Over the past year, we tested new phones from Google, Samsung, Apple, OnePlus, and several others. We likely will not see many new phones until the trade show and upgrade season starts up again in the spring of 2022, so enjoy the phone you have and discover all that it has to offer.

Which phones do ZDNet writers love?

While we went through an extensive process to review and evaluate these phones, you may want to consider the experiences of others, too. We recently asked ZDNet's team of editors and contributors about their favorite mobile devices. Nearly two dozen shared with us their reasons for selecting their current devices as well as their future purchase plans and fantasy phones. Sixteen of 22 contributors use some Apple iPhone model, so I feel fairly secure in making the iPhone 12 Pro Max my top overall pick for best phone.

Which smartphone is right for you?

Looking through all of the available smartphone options can be daunting, especially if you don't spend weeks and months trying out each phone for yourself. The very first question to answer is, "Do you have a preference or need for iOS or Android?"

Choosing your mobile operating system quickly helps filter your options. Considering that we used to also have Windows Phone, S60, Palm, and other mobile operating systems to pick from, this question is a lot easier to answer in 2021.

After selecting your preferred operating system, price is another good factor to consider. Options range from $400 all the way to $2,000 so price is a quick way to eliminate some options. 

Once you've used the operating system and price range, then you need to start thinking about a few key features that are most important to you. These can include:

  1. Camera performance
  2. Battery life
  3. Update frequency

Which phones are also worth considering?

We limited this list to 10 of the best smartphones available today. You may find other phones that are the best for you, especially after defining the price range you are looking for since many of these best phones are also naturally the highest-priced phones. To the right, you'll find our recommended smartphones in various categories.

Other phones we considered for this list include: