The best phone to buy for 2021
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2020, CNET’s gift picks with expert advice, reviews and recommendations for the latest tech gifts for you and your family.
Phone makers are innovating and evolving faster than ever, and the past year has been one of the most interesting ones for phones. Not only have we seen more devices with flexible screens and handsets with 5G connectivity, but there’s been an influx of phones that tout premium specs and affordable price tags. Some things though, remain the same — like the fact that Apple and Samsung still dominate the market. Their newest flagships, the iPhone 12 and Galaxy Note 20, respectively, offer powerful processors, fantastic rear multicamera setups and 5G.
But despite Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy lines being the top choice for many, other companies like OnePlus and Motorola sell great phones too. The sheer amount of solid competition gives consumers excellent options to choose from at a range of prices.
To help you figure out the best of the best, we gathered our favorite phones to buy in 2021. Every phone on this list has been thoroughly reviewed and tested, from their batteries to camera performance. We’ve linked to the unlocked version of each phone, and they should run on most of the big four US wireless carriers, unless specified otherwise. We update this list regularly to ensure the best phone is always represented.
And for more info, read our guide to help find the best phone for your needs and take a look at our tips on how to buy a new cell phone.
The iPhone 12 (and its higher-end iPhone 12 Pro counterpart) received one of our highest scores ever. The smartphone features the powerful and fast A14 Bionic processor, dual rear cameras, 5G and a magnetic “MagSafe” feature that allows it to connect to other mobile accessories.
If you want a 5G phone that doesn’t cost too much, the Pixel 4A 5G is one of our top picks. The handset has a solid battery life, fantastic dual rear cameras and robust software support from Google. There’s also the Pixel 5, which has a great 90Hz display, but it costs more at $699 (£599, AU$999).
OnePlus released a lot of phones in 2020, including the OnePlus 8 Pro and the 8T, but our favorite this year is the OnePlus 8 due mostly because of its price. At launch the smartphone cost $699 (£599, AU$1,180 converted) and has since been discounted. The phone features a 6.55-inch AMOLED screen, a 90Hz display, a water resistant design and 5G.
The Motorola Edge Plus has pretty much everything you’d hope for in a premium 5G mobile phone: A Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset, a giant battery, an OLED screen with a high refresh rate and multiple rear cameras with heavy-duty specs. Motorola took features found on other top-of-the-line Android phones, put its own Moto spin on them and built them all into one of our favorite Android phones of the year.
Starting at only $399, the 2020 version of the iPhone SE is the best budget phone you can find right now. With an A13 processor (the same as the iPhone 11) and an amazing camera, the iPhone SE is way more powerful than it has any right to be. Old-school iPhone fans will also appreciate the return of TouchID and the home button.
The Note 20 Ultra, along with its smaller counterpart the Note 20, is a pricey, ultrapremium Android phone with an expansive screen size, an embedded S Pen stylus and 5G. The Note 20 Ultra also has a triple-rear camera array, the high-powered Snapdragon 865 Plus processor and reverse wireless charging. It comes with either 128GB or 512GB of internal storage.
Pixel phones have a loyal following and with good reason. Without considering its price, Google’s Pixel 4A has a top-notch camera that takes brilliant photos. But it’s even better that the phone costs $349 (£349, AU$599). The 5.81-inch handset also features a headphone jack, 128GB of storage out of the box and a better battery life than last year’s Pixel 4.
In addition to its main Galaxy S flagship phones, Samsung has a more cost-conscious A series line of phones. This year it launched the Galaxy A51 and it’s another Samsung phone that costs $399 (£329, AU$599) — though there is a 5G variant that costs $499. The Android device has four cameras, an in-screen fingerprint reader and expandable storage.