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The best iPhone to buy in 2021: Which should you buy on Cyber Monday?

You’re spoiled for choice if you’re about to buy a new iPhone, as Apple’s iPhone 13 range is incredibly varied, with four different models to choose from currently. Which one is right for you? Our top pick is the iPhone 13 Pro, which is also currently at the top of our overall list of the best smartphones. This fact alone should give you a good idea of how highly we’ve rated Apple’s latest Pro phone.

Once you’re ready to pick up your new iPhone, take a good look at our list of iPhone deals to see if you can save some money, and also check all our latest smartphone deals, too. Want to see what Android has to offer? Here are the best Android phones you can buy for comparison.

Before you start looking, keep in mind that Black Friday is over and Cyber Monday is around the corner. Supply issues mean that iPhone deals might not be as big as usual this year, and stock may be even more limited than usual, so make sure you grab deals as soon as they pop up or you may miss out. Check out our list of the best Cyber Monday deals, specifically the best iPhone Cyber Monday deals, to make sure you don’t miss out on the biggest savings of the year.

Best iPhone at a glance

Best overall: iPhone 13 Pro

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 13 Pro contains the newest Apple chip and the best camera system, but it’s still reasonably priced.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the best Apple phone currently available.

With each passing generation, the iPhone provides more advancements. The iPhone 13 offers Apple’s A15 Bionic chip, with a 5-core GPU in the Pro model for up to 50% faster graphics. In layman’s terms, that means the iPhone 13 Pro is an exceptionally powerful beast indeed, and it’ll run anything you throw at it — and run it smoothly. Speaking of smoothness, the iPhone 13 Pro also has a new feature called ProMotion that allows for an adaptive refresh rate of up to 120Hz. That means the screen can refresh twice as fast as it used to, making your use feel silky smooth. The 6.1-inch screen has a high screen resolution, so it looks clean and crisp.

In addition to being faster and more powerful, the iPhone 13 Pro also has exemplary battery life. In our review, it showed it had the capability to stretch to two days, eradicating battery anxiety. The iPhone 13 Pro’s design isn’t all that different when compared to the previous model in the series, though it has some subtle differences. The camera bump is larger and the notch is smaller, and the phone also comes in a Sierra Blue color option in addition to graphite, gold, and silver.

One of the standout features of the iPhone 12 Pro was the camera system, which took exceptional low-light photos. The iPhone 13 Pro improves on this already-phenomenal camera system, with even better low-light capabilities, better apertures, and new features to produce more professional-looking shots.

Overall, the iPhone 13 Pro takes things up a level in several areas — performance, photos, battery, and features. You’re getting a better phone all around, making the iPhone 13 Pro the iPhone to buy.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro review

Runner-up: Apple iPhone 12 Pro

The verso of an iPhone 12 Pro showing camera array and Apple logo.
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 12 Pro brought the latest and greatest technology Apple had to offer at the time.

Who it’s for: Those who want a tried-and-true Apple phone that has one of the best camera systems available.

Why we picked the iPhone 12 Pro:

With a flat, slab-sided design that’s very attractive in person and a polished stainless steel frame that gives it both class and durability, the iPhone 12 Pro looks phenomenal when you choose a bright color like Pacific Blue. For the 12 Pro model, Apple increased the size of its Super Retina XDR OLED screen to 6.1 inches, compared to the 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro. It’s one of the best screens you’ll find on a smartphone today, with beautiful contrast and colors, a natural palette and tone, and features like HDR and Apple’s True Tone, which adapts the display’s look based on environmental lighting conditions.

The entire camera system was improved through the use of software and some subtle hardware changes. Low-light photography was enhanced by a wider aperture, a LiDAR sensor, and Apple’s Night mode on all of the cameras. The 12-megapixel standard, wide-angle, and 2x optical zoom telephoto cameras consistently take excellent photos in most situations without over-processing, simply by pressing the shutter button. The iPhone 12 Pro makes taking great photos very easy.

Battery life is strong, with the iPhone 12 Pro lasting two days easily with moderate to heavy use, plus there’s wired and wireless charging. The Face ID secure unlocking system is fast and extremely reliable, and Apple’s A14 Bionic processor is a monster. The iPhone 12 Pro never feels anything but immensely powerful. All the apps you could want are available from the App Store, Apple Pay works seamlessly, and the sensibly-sized phone fits neatly in your hand or pocket and has an IP68 water resistance rating too.

Two of the all-new additions on the iPhone 12 Pro were 5G connectivity and MagSafe, which both hold promise for the future. You want to have 5G if you plan to have your phone for another two (or more) years, but right now, you may not see it very often. MagSafe is a new way to think about cases, mounts, and chargers, and we’ve found a pair of good home and in-car mounts from Belkin that work well, but the true potential of MagSafe has yet to be realized.

The iPhone 12 Pro is the best iPhone for the majority of people based on size, ability, and features. The complete package is extremely compelling, and you won’t be disappointed if you choose one.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro review

Best large screen: iPhone 13 Pro Max

iPhone 13 Pro Max in box.
Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Why you should buy this: It provides more screen real estate thanks to the larger display.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a large screen and an exceptional battery life.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max is similar to the 13 Pro in many ways. The design is the same, it has the same three camera lenses on the back, and the internal specs are also the same. The main differences are that the screen size is larger (6.7 inches), the battery is larger, and the price is higher.

If having a bigger battery and a larger screen size are important to you, the iPhone 13 Pro Max might be the way to go. However, keep in mind that the difference in screen size might feel quite a bit different in your hands if you’re used to a smaller screen. That extra half-inch can make the phone feel unnatural if you’re used to a 6.1-inch screen. But, if you’re already used to the 6.7-inch size and you want that extra battery time, the iPhone 13 Pro Max is one of the best large phones available.

Best value: iPhone 13

iPhone 13 lying on table.
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 13 has the latest and greatest technology Apple has to offer, all in a package that’s relatively affordable and manageable in one hand.

Who it’s for: Those who want the latest Apple phone, but don’t care as much about camera extras or add-ons.

Although it’s technically the base model in the series, there’s nothing basic about the iPhone 13. The iPhone 13 is a powerhouse, with the same A15 Bionic chip as the iPhone 13 Pro, so it’s just as stupidly powerful. However, while the iPhone 13 has the same sized display as the Pro model, it lacks ProMotion technology, so it won’t feel as smooth. Aside from that, though, it’s an extremely similar experience where specs are concerned.

The camera system on the iPhone 13 is not as sophisticated as that of the iPhone 13 Pro, though. But while the dual camera system on the iPhone 13 might not be as advanced as the camera system on the Pro, it still takes phenomenal photos, and you’re unlikely to come away disappointed with the shots it takes.

Runner-up, best value: Apple iPhone 12

A blue iPhone 12 on a metal bench.
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 12 offers most of the 12 Pro experience, minus a few edge features.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the core iPhone features, but has an eye on the budget.

Why we picked the iPhone 12:

The best thing about the $799 iPhone 12 is that it’s mostly the same as the 12 Pro, but starts at $200 less. For that money, you get the same design as the 12 Pro, albeit in lighter aluminum rather than stainless steel and in the same size down to the point where cases are interchangeable. That means the OLED screen is the same size, 6.1 inches, and it’s brilliant.

The front and rear cameras are almost the same, with the telephoto camera and LiDAR sensor being the biggest omissions. This means low-light photography won’t be as good as it is on the iPhone 12 Pro, and you’ll miss out on taking high-quality optical zoom shots, which can diminish versatility a little. However, Apple’s top software features like Night Mode, Deep Fusion, and Smart HDR are all here, along with excellent overall performance, making it a fantastic array of cameras in a relatively affordable phone.

You also still get the same 5G and MagSafe experience, if you had those on your list. Elsewhere, the day-to-day experience of using an iPhone 12 is basically the same as the 12 Pro. Battery life, performance, and software features are all the same. That makes the iPhone 12 an incredible value.

Just one last thing to consider is the $699 iPhone 12 Mini. It’s smaller than the iPhone 12 with a 5.4-inch screen, but the battery life suffers, which is why we recommend paying the $100 extra to get the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 unless you absolutely must have the smaller body.

Apple iPhone 12 review

Best small screen: iPhone 13 Mini

Person holding out the iPhone 13 Mini.
John Appleseed/Unsplash

Why you should buy this: It can fit in your pocket, but it’s more powerful than many modern flagship phones.

Who it’s for: Those who want a capable yet small phone that can fit in one hand.

If you’re looking for advanced iPhone 13 technology, but you want a smaller screen size, you might want to look at the iPhone 13 Mini. The 5.4-inch display makes the phone small enough to hold in a single hand, while the screen is still large enough to view from a distance. The Mini version of the iPhone 13 comes in all of the same color options as the regular version, and with a 2340 x 1080 resolution, the Mini actually has a crisper screen than the regular iPhone 13.

The iPhone 13 Mini is a phone for those who want the latest and greatest iPhone but don’t value screen real estate, camera advancements, or feature upgrades so much that they are willing to pay more.

Best budget iPhone: Apple iPhone SE (2020)

A Product Red iPhone SE.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Why you should buy this: If the iPhone 12 is financially out of reach, the iPhone SE (2020) is the cheapest way to buy a brand new iPhone from Apple.

Who it’s for: You want an iPhone, but you need to save some money

Why we picked the Phone SE (2020):

Apple’s iPhone SE 2020 starts at $400, making it the cheapest brand new iPhone you can buy at the moment. The good news is it’s a great little smartphone, provided you understand its limitations. The phone takes the iPhone 8’s design, which has stayed surprisingly fresh-looking from the back, and puts the new A13 Bionic processor inside. This gives it up-to-date performance and tweaks to the camera’s ability too.

The screen measures 4.7 inches and has a 1334 x 750-pixel resolution, while the single-lens camera on the back has 12MP. It operates on the latest version of Apple’s iOS software and is very slim, light, and pocketable. The camera performs well in good light and has a portrait mode, while the screen is great for general browsing, some video, and a little gaming. The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is very reliable, but the phone does not have Face ID.

Where the iPhone SE (2020) suffers is when you watch a lot of videos or play a lot of games. The small battery struggles to keep up and may not last a full day if you hit it hard. The camera isn’t great in low light, either. Otherwise, if you want all the desirable Apple benefits, from great software to Apple Pay, there’s no cheaper way to get them than with the iPhone SE (2020).

However, don’t forget about the iPhone XR, even when considering the iPhone SE (2020). We called it the best iPhone of the year when we reviewed it at the end of 2018 and said it represented great value at the $750 it cost then. Now it costs $600, and despite being more than a year old, it still has a similar look to the modern iPhone 11, unlike the iPhone SE (2020).

Best used/refurbished/old stock iPhone: Apple iPhone XS

And iPhone XS displaying the time.
Apple iPhone XS Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The XS may be a couple of generations old, but it still feels pretty new — and can be had at a steep discount.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a cheap full-size iPhone for a family member, or someone who wants to get started with an Apple phone without spending much.

Why we picked the iPhone XS:

The iPhone XS launched at the end of 2018, which means it’s in a sweet spot of being old enough to be deeply discounted but still new enough to run the latest iOS software and feel like a modern phone. It has a 5.8-inch OLED screen with Face ID face unlocking, and the phone is new enough to still receive Apple’s software updates for a couple more years as well. On the back is a dual-lens camera, taking 12MP images along with 2x optical zoom shots.

It’s not as advanced as the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro’s cameras, and it doesn’t have the high performance of those phones overall. Apple’s A12 Bionic processor is no slouch, it has a battery that will last all day, and it supports wireless charging.

But here’s the great part: So many people bought the XS new and have now upgraded in the subsequent years that there is an incredible number available on the refurbished market. When it was new, the iPhone X started at $1,000, so how much can you get one for today?

Apple often sells refurbished iPhone XS models through its own store, with prices around $549 up. If you search online stores like Amazon’s refurbished store and Walmart, the iPhone XS can often be picked up for $500 or less, sometimes down below $400, which represents very good value. Local retail stores specializing in refurbished phones may also have good deals, as could eBay. While this may sound expensive for a phone released in 2018, remember that iPhones hold their value, which helps you when the time comes to trade it in.

Apple iPhone XS review

Things to remember when buying an iPhone

Buying an iPhone is a shrewd purchasing decision. Not only are you getting a well-made smartphone that will serve you well for several years, but it will be supported with software updates from Apple for up to five years after its launch date. This means even if you buy an iPhone X now, it should still receive the latest software until 2022.

Additionally, regardless of which model you choose, the trade-in value of an Apple phone is usually higher than any other brand. Prices vary depending on where you sell it, its condition, whether it’s an unlocked device or not, and the age and memory capacity of the model. When you decide to upgrade to a new phone, the extra return from your old iPhone is a considerable benefit.

If you’re coming to an iPhone from an Android phone, remember that some data may not easily transfer over, and you will have to get used to a new software operating system. For example, data saved in some messaging apps (WhatsApp, for example) can be difficult to export or import, so you may start with a clean slate. While iOS is logical and easy to use, it will feel different, so expect a learning curve before it feels like home.

Another aspect newcomers may not realize straight away is that Apple iPhones do not have expandable storage. When you buy a 64GB, 256GB, or 512GB iPhone, that’s all the storage space you get. Some Android phones have a MicroSD card slot, but not an iPhone. Instead, you can use the included iCloud online storage as an additional space; but bear in mind you only get 5GB free. To increase this, you have to pay a monthly subscription starting at $1 per month for 50GB. This is why we recommend paying extra for larger capacity iPhone models when you buy one.

Finally, once you’re inside the Apple ecosystem, it can be difficult to escape. Many accessories are Apple-only, apps you purchase can’t be swapped to Android or vice versa, and if you buy an Apple Watch Series 6 or Apple Watch SE — which we recommend if you want a smartwatch — then it only works with an iPhone. Provided you understand the commitment you’ll be making for the next two years minimum, an iPhone will serve you so well, you may not want to switch to another brand at all.

How we test

Why should you pay attention to our recommendations? We have reviewed iPhone models since the very beginning, along with almost every major Android smartphone too. When we try out a phone we live with it every day, mostly as our only smartphone, to see how it performs doing the tasks we all need it to on a daily basis. This way, we get to see where it excels, and also where it may fail. Then we tell you all about it.

For that reason, we can make educated recommendations on which phones are worth it. Buying one of these is not just a lot of money, it’s committing to one phone for up to two years, should you buy it with a contract through a carrier. You need to make sure the decision is the right one, and being as informed as possible ahead of laying down your money is sensible.

We’re confident buying an iPhone is one of the best decisions you can make in the smartphone market, based on our experience, and the models above are the ones that deserve your attention.

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