Our editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, ZDNet may earn a commission.

Best Samsung phone 2021: Which one should you buy?

Samsung offers a range of smartphones with the Fold, Flip, A-series, S-series, and Note line. In 2021, Samsung has been launching flagships with a significant $200 price cut from previous launches, making even flagships worth consideration as we use our mobiles to get work done.

Samsung continues to battle Huawei and Apple for the crown of best smartphone, and to help sales, we find the company releasing more mid-range phones that are extremely capable while also offering innovative folding devices. Samsung also cut $200 across the board on its 2021 releases, another move designed to attract customers in these uncertain times.

Samsung's latest foldable, the Galaxy Z Fold 3, is a stunning feat of engineering and will be in our hands soon for testing. The Galaxy S21 series and the compelling A-Series offer more traditional smartphone designs with features that challenge the best available phones.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

Third time is the charm

samsung-galaxy-z-fold-3-s-pen.jpg
Image: Samsung
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 
  • Main Display: 7.6-inches, 2208x1768 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 6.2-inches, 832x2268 pixels
  • RAM/Storage: 12GB/256GB 
  • Cameras: Three rear 12MP, 10MP cover screen, 4MP under main display
  • Battery: 4,400mAh 
  • Price: $1,799.99 

The 2020 Galaxy Z Fold 2 set the bar for foldable devices that also serve as mini tablets. At first glance, the Z Fold 3 may appear to be just a minor update to the Z Fold 2, but at a starting price $200 less Samsung provides S Pen support and IPX8 water resistance. These were two features many have asked for and Samsung delivered once again.

In addition to a couple of new features, the cover display resolution and refresh rate were updated so you get a high-resolution display with 120 Hz support constructed of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus. The main display has improved panels and a screen protector that provide an 80% increase in its durability. The three main cameras are basically the same, but the new under display camera is a step forward in mobile technology.

Pros:

  • An innovative engineering marvel
  • Armor Aluminum material for a lighter and sleeker phone
  • High IPX8 water resistance
  • S Pen support
  • Improved software optimized for foldables

Cons:

  • Still expensive, but $200 less than last year
  • S Pen purchase separately

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G

First to launch widely with Snapdragon 888 processor

samsung-galaxy-s21-ultra-4.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 
  • Display: 6.8-inches, 3200x1440 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 12GB/128GB 
  • Cameras: 10MP with 10x optical, 10MP with 3x optical, 108MP, and 12MP ultra wide. 40MP front-facing camera
  • Battery: 5,000mAh 
  • Price: $1,199.99 

Samsung's first flagship phone of 2021 was released as the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. One of the most unique features of this phone is the dual telephoto cameras that make this the one to get for optimal telephoto experiences.

The Galaxy S21 phones were the first to launch widely with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor inside and 5G support for Sub6, mid-band, and mmWave, so buyers are covered across the 5G spectrum with any of the three S21 models available from Samsung. We see improvements across the board in the display, cameras, software, and more. In addition, the S21 Ultra 5G supports the S Pen and just about everything we see in the Note series.

Pros:

  • Amazing quad rear camera system
  • S Pen support
  • Fantastic 5G and RF performance
  • High capacity battery

Cons:

  • S Pen purchase separately

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G

Offers a flat display that looks amazing

galaxy-s21-2.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 
  • Display: 6.2-inches, 2400x1080 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 8GB/128GB 
  • Cameras: 64MP with 3x optical, 12MP, and 12MP ultra wide. 10MP front-facing camera 
  • Battery: 4,000mAh 
  • Price: $799.99 

If you want support for the S Pen, the S21 Ultra 5G is the model to purchase. However, if you like a smaller phone that is also extremely capable, then the S21 5G may satisfy your needs.

The only differences between the high-end S21 Ultra 5G and the S21 5G are the display size and resolution, camera specifications, RAM/storage options, S Pen functionality, and battery capacity. The display and battery are driven by the size of the device, so you are getting a lot of phone for $400 less.

Some people also do not like curved glass displays, but the S21 5G offers a flat display that looks amazing. It's a pocketable phone with some lovely color options available too.

Pros:

  • Smaller size in a sea of large slabs
  • Matte finish back
  • Highly capable cameras
  • Competitive pricing

Cons:

  • No charger in the box

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G

Very capable smartphone and small tablet

galaxy-z-fold-2-2.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus 
  • Display(Main): 7.6-inches, 2208x1768 pixels 
  • Display(Cover): 6.2-inches, 720x1680 pixels
  • RAM/Storage: 12GB/256GB
  • Cameras: Three rear 12MP cameras, 10MP front, and 10MP selfie 
  • Battery: 4,500mAh
  • Price: $1,799.99 

The 2019 Galaxy Fold captured my heart, but back then I didn't include it in my 10 best smartphones list because it seemed like an extravagant purchase. However, after using and buying the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, it proved to not only be on this list but to be at the top.

The 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.

You get the fastest RAM and internal storage speeds available today, triple rear cameras, two other 10MP cameras, and much more. The 4500mAh battery easily gets you through a full day, even when using the large main screen.

Pros:

  • Stunning achievement in engineering
  • High-quality materials, fit, and finish
  • Excellent 5G and RF performance
  • Large main display serves as capable tablet
  • Optimized foldable software

Cons:

  • No dust/water resistance
  • Expensive

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Challenges Google's Pixel 5 and other phones

galaxy-s20-fe-all-colors-2.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • Display: 6.5-inches, 3200x1440 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 6GB/128GB 
  • Cameras: 8MP telephoto, 12MP wide, and 12MP ultra wide. 32MP front-facing camera 
  • Battery: 4,500mAh 
  • Price: $699.99 

While the Galaxy S21 series provide compelling options, they are flagship phones priced in the $800 and higher range. In order to offer customers another alternative, Samsung released the. Galaxy S20 FE (Fan Edition) 5G phones. The S20 FE is available in six lovely colors to suit your style.

Priced at $699.99, you may think Samsung compromised a lot to offer a powerful 5G phone. However, we see a 6.5-inch Infinity-O display with 120Hz dynamic refresh rate, high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, large capacity 4500mAh battery, 6GB of RAM, 128GB storage with a microSD card slot, IP68 dust/water resistance, three rear cameras (one with 3X optical and 30x super-resolution zoom), and a high resolution 32MP front camera.

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 S20 FE challenges Google's new Pixel 5 and other phones.

Pros:

  • Reasonable price
  • Lovely color options
  • 120 Hz high-refresh rate display
  • Capable cameras

Cons:

  • 6GB of RAM
  • Limited to 128GB internal storage

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G

Possibly the last and best Note series

galaxy-note-20-ultra-2-copy.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus 
  • Display: 6.9-inches, 3088x1440 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 12GB/128GB 
  • Cameras: 12MP telephoto, 108MP wide, and 12MP ultra wide. 10MP front-facing camera 
  • Battery: 4,500mAh 
  • Price: $1,199.99 

The Note 20 Ultra 5G launched in the fall of 2020, but since then we have seen the S20 Ultra 5G and Z Fold 3 launch with S Pen support. Rumors indicate a fall 2021 Note device may not appear and the Note 20 Ultra 5G may indeed be the last in the Note series.

If you are a fan of the stylus and want one that has an embedded silo to carry the S Pen at all times, then this is the phone for you. There are some great trade-in offers for the phone, but the regular price remains at $1,199.99.

Pros:

  • Improved latency in the S Pen
  • Fantastic 5G and RF performance
  • Stunning, 120Hz high-refresh rate display
  • Solid battery life

Cons:

  • Large rear camera module

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 5G

More of a fashion statement than a business phone

galaxy-z-flip-3.jpg
Image: Samsung
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 
  • Main Display: 6.7-inches, 1080x2640 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 1.9-inches, 260x512 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 8GB/128GB 
  • Cameras: Two rear 12MP, 10MP selfie 
  • Battery: 3,300mAh 
  • Price: $999.99 

Like the Z Fold 3, the Z Flip 3 is the third generation Flip device from Samsung. One significant improvement is the increased size of the cover screen display from 1.1 to 1.9 inches. The other major change is the IPX8 water resistance that gives you peace of mind when you are flipping open and closed out in the weather.

The $200 price drop on the Z Flip 3 means you can now join the foldable sector for $1000, which is competitive to other flagship smartphones and gives the Z Flip 3 the potential to seriously challenge other manufacturers while expanding the adoption of foldable devices.

Battery life was a concern with the last generation model so we'll have to see how the processor, Android 11, and Samsung software enhancements impact the battery life on the Z Flip 3.

Pros:

  • High-quality materials, fit, and finish
  • IPX8 water resistance
  • High refresh rate main display
  • Affordable price for a foldable
  • Folds into a pocketable form factor

Cons:

  • No telephoto camera

Samsung Galaxy A series

5G isn't available in these phones

a52-1.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm and MediaTek mid-level 
  • Main Display: 6.5-inches or 6.6-inches 
  • RAM: 4GB or 6GB 
  • Storage: 64GB or 128GB 
  • Cameras: Three or four rear cameras and 13MP or 32MP selfie camera 
  • Battery: 4,500mAh or 5,000mAh 
  • Price: Starting from $279.99 to $399.99 

Samsung offers three options in the A-Series lineup with the A52 5G, A42 5G, and A32 5G. As noted by the name, this year's A-Series phones all support 5G networks and are solid options for first time smartphone owners or those looking for an affordable phone.

One distinguishing element of the A-Series is the high capacity battery that is sure to get you through a day or two. We also find water resistance, high refresh rate displays, and other core Samsung features in these affordable phones.

Pros:

  • High capacity battery
  • Capable cameras
  • microSD for expandable storage
  • Affordable price

Cons:

  • Limited RAM

How did we choose these Samsung phones?

We try to spend time with every phone in our best list and if we don't get that opportunity then we look to trusted reviewers in the mobile space. We only include phones that are still readily available since Samsung tends to clear the queue when new models are launched.

While we personally spend most of our time with higher-end models that help us get our work done most efficiently, there are mid-range phones worth consideration so we include them as well.

Which Samsung phone is best for you?

It was much easier to choose a Samsung phone option in the past when just the S and Note series were available, along with some low-range basic phones. Samsung has significantly expanded its offerings with the A Series, Fold, and Flip options so now the first thing to consider is your desired form factor. If you want a Fold or a Flip form factor then your choice is 50/50.

If you choose a standard form factor, then price is the next factor to consider. With Samsung's new strategy you have phones priced from under $300 to over $1,200 so your maximum price quickly helps you figure out a phone for you.