Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

The best smartphones for 2021: Which should you buy?

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 13 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 Note 20 Ultra, and those looking to save money, or get a smaller phone, have lots of choices as well. Here’s why the iPhone 13 Pro ultimately triumphed, and our picks for other smartphone categories.

Of course, picking the best smartphone is only part of the battle — once you’ve decided which one is for you, you also need to buy it.

Best smartphones at a glance

Best overall smartphone: Apple iPhone 13 Pro

iPhone 13 Pro in the hand showing home screen.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: It’s the best smartphone around, with zippy performance, a great camera suite, and some gorgeous good looks.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the best smartphone money can buy.

Why we picked the iPhone 13 Pro:

If you’ve got the money, then the iPhone 13 Pro is absolutely the best smartphone around, and the device you should buy. Apple has pulled off another huge task, one-upping last year’s iPhone 12 Pro and upsetting a legion of other smartphone manufacturers. With top-tier flagship power, a stunning display, an extremely long-lasting battery life, and one of the best cameras around, the iPhone 13 Pro is a triumph and the best smartphone you can buy.

We’ll start with the design because not much has changed here. The iPhone 12 Pro’s angular sides are still here, as is the stainless steel frame and range of gorgeous finishes. The notch is the largest design change made, though it’s still subtle. The new notch is slightly smaller, but also extends slightly deeper into the display, so doesn’t actually change much. Thankfully, the display it settles into is a stunner. The 6.1-inch Super Retina panel is clear and bright and finally uses the 120Hz ProMotion tech from the iPad Pro, making the performance seem even smoother and zippier.

It’s not just the display that makes the phone seem fast, because it is fast. Apple’s new A15 Bionic processor is extremely powerful and capable of handling anything you’ll throw at it. It’ll stay that way for years to come as well, thanks to Apple’s extremely solid update record, and with storage options starting at 128GB, you’ll have room for plenty of snaps and apps. The battery is excellent too, lasting for well over a day, with the possibility of lasting into a second day on light use.

The camera systems are, as we’ve come to expect, also excellent. The rear suite is comprised of three 12-megapixel lenses: A main wide-angle lens, a telephoto lens, and an ultrawide-angle lens. This trio is powerful and capable, providing strong color accuracy and plenty of detail. The telephoto lens also has a macro mode, which kicks in automatically, and shoots surprisingly good images.

The Apple iPhone 13 Pro is perhaps the best all-around smartphone you’ll find, though it doesn’t come cheap. Prices start from $999, but you can also find it on every major U.S. carrier, and from a big range of retailers too. 5G is also included, making this a strong future-proof option. Truly, the iPhone 13 Pro is the best smartphone you can buy right now.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro review

Runner-up: Apple iPhone 13

If the iPhone 13 Pro has one weakness, it might be that it isn’t as good a value prospect as the iPhone 13. While the iPhone 13 Pro is excellent, it isn’t actually that much better than its lower-priced sibling. At $799, the iPhone 13 offers much the same experience as the Pro version, with the same powerful A15 Bionic processor, 5G, a strong battery, and the latest iOS 15. It does miss out in a few areas, obviously. The frame is aluminum, rather than steel, and you’ll miss out on the telephoto lens and 120Hz as well. But if those features don’t tickle your fancy, then the chance to save $200 is one that’s hard to turn down.

Apple iPhone 13 review

Best Android phone: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in rose gold color showing camera suite on verso.
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, an S Pen stylus.

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 Note 20 Ultra:

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra lives up to its name and the legacy of Note phones. It’s the biggest in the series, and certainly an “ultra” phone, with a massive 6.9-inch AMOLED screen and seriously heavy 208-gram weight. But get past the overall size, and you’ve got one of the most powerful and capable phones available today. It’s also probably one of the last Galaxy Note phones to exist, so savor it while you can.

It has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 Plus chipset and a whopping 12GB of RAM, plus a sizable 4,500mAh battery that can last a full day of very hard use — plus, it has 5G connectivity for the future. The S Pen stylus defines the Note, and it’s better than ever with a low 9-millisecond response time and uses that go beyond just drawing — this is a productivity tool, too.

The oversized camera module on the back has a great 108-megapixel main camera, plus a 12MP optical zoom camera, and an extra 12MP ultra-wide camera, and a laser focusing system that fixed the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s issues. It can take 5X optical zoom photos with no detail loss, and reach out from there. Plus it handles 8K video and has lots of fun shooting modes like Single Take mode. The camera is one of Samsung’s best yet.

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 wireless reverse charging. On top of the standard features of a great hardware build quality, water resistance, wireless charging, and so much more.

Downsides? Size aside, the in-display fingerprint sensor isn’t great … but that’s about it. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is expensive though and you’ll pay at least $1,299 to own one, but you really are getting the best Android phone available right now. Want an alternative? The Galaxy S21 Ultra is worth looking at, particularly if you don’t need the S Pen, but you get more for your money with the Note 20 Ultra.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review

Runner-up: Google Pixel 6 Pro

Google is the only other major manufacturer that can exist in a similar space to Apple by offering smartphones intimately keyed into its operating system. That’s because Google creates and manages Android, so the Pixel series is always going to be the first device range to get access to the latest builds and updates of Android. But that’s not the only thing going for the Pixel 6 Pro. It’s exceptionally powerful, and — thanks to Google’s new Tensor chip — it boasts even stronger A.I. capabilities.

A great display and long software support are amongst its other advantages, but its strongest feature is its exceptional camera suite. The best camera phone around, the Pixel 6 Pro’s triple-lens camera suite takes some of the best stills we’ve ever seen, and it’s gone up against both the Apple iPhone 13 Pro and the Galaxy S21 Ultra in a camera shootout and beat both. While the Note 20 Ultra has it down in terms of the pure number of features, the Pixel 6 Pro is an extremely good Android smartphone, and a worthy runner-up.

Google Pixel 6 Pro review

Best cheap smartphone: Motorola Moto G Power

Moto G Power and G Stylus side by side.

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 well under $250, you’re getting a huge 6.4-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.

Best value: Google Pixel 6

Google Pixel 6 in Seafoam color.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: It’s a flagship-level smartphone with an incredible camera, at an unbeatable price.

Who it’s for: Someone who wants a powerful phone with a lot of update potential, for almost half the cost of a flagship phone.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 6:

We’ve highlighted the Pixel 6 Pro above as an excellent Android smartphone, but it’s the Google Pixel 6 that’s easily the best value for money you’ll find in a smartphone at the moment. The Pixel 6 shares the Pro model’s stunning new design, exciting new hardware, a long-lasting battery, and a similarly excellent camera that won’t let you down.

The glass and metal body feels great to hold, and thanks to those materials, it feels substantial and weighty too. It is definitely on the larger side though, and so this definitely isn’t the phone for you if you want something smaller (check below for one of those). The 6.4-inch display has a 2400 x 1080 resolution and a 90Hz refresh rate, so it’ll feel smoother than a regular 60Hz display. The Pixel 6 Pro’s stutter is missing, which is good, and the fingerprint scanner is better too.

Google’s Tensor processor provides strong performance, and you’ll find a lot of strong A.I.-powered features, like Assistant Typing, as well as the newly upgraded Android 12, which brings the new Material You design to Android smartphones. It has 128GB of storage as standard, 5G connectivity, an IP68 rating for water and dust resistance, and years of Android updates.

The real jewel in the crown, though, is the camera. Like the Pixel 6 Pro, the Pixel 6 uses Google’s excellent software to tune the pictures you take and turn them into something truly special. Night mode shots are excellent, and Google’s enhanced digital zoom is good too. It’s not good enough to fully replace the missing telephoto lens from the Pixel 6 Pro, but it certainly helps. It’s not the best camera phone around, but it is very good, and great if you’re looking for a great phone with a great camera for everyday snaps.

So you get all of these top features, but how much for? There’s the really good part — the Google Pixel 6 starts from just $599. That’s almost half the price of the iPhone 13 Pro, and with almost all of the same features, power, and photographic prowess.

Google Pixel 6 review

Best small smartphone: Google Pixel 4a

Google Pixel 4a Back on a desk.
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 of 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 3

The split screen keyboard on the Galaxy Z Fold 3.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Folding phones are finally ready for the big time, and the Z Fold 3 is the biggest and the best folding phone around.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants to sample the future, and wants a great smartphone to boot.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3:

Love the idea of carrying a tablet around in your pocket? Have we got the phone for you. It has taken until the third generation of foldables for Samsung to really crack it, but it really got it right this time. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 isn’t just a great folding phone, it’s a great smartphone in its own right, and one we have no hesitation in recommending if you want a foldable phone.

Let’s cover the biggest reason you’ll want one first — the two screens. The outer display is a 6.2-inch AMOLED screen, and it’s very much like using and handling a normal phone, except for the additional thickness. But open it up and you’re treated to a massive 7.6-inch display that’s roughly the same size as that of a Kindle Paperwhite. It’s a veritable tablet screen hiding within your smartphone, and it’s really, really cool.

Really, if you’re looking for a big folding phone, this is about all you need to hear. But there is more. It’s now IPX8-rated for water resistance, so it can take a short dunking, and there’s an improved hinge system to stop dust and particles from causing damage to the mechanism. It’s powered by the Snapdragon 888, has 12GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage as standard. It’s a real powerhouse, and it wants you to use that extra screen real estate to get some serious work done. Or just watch cat videos and play Pokémon Unite, whatever you prefer.

Of course, the future doesn’t come cheap and you’re looking at a major investment to get your hands on a Galaxy Z Fold 3. The starting price is $1,800. That’s three times the cost of a Pixel 6, just to give some more context. That’s a lot of dollars, but if your heart is set on getting a hold of the future, then it doesn’t come better than the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 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, inserts 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.

Editors' Recommendations