The best phone to buy in 2021
AppleRead moreExcellent cameraNo longer feels like a compromise
Zippy interfaceNearly two days battery life
SamsungRead reviewExcellent displayPerformance can be sluggish
AppleRead reviewHigh-end features at a good priceNo Night Mode
SamsungRead reviewAn almost affordable foldableStill too expensive
Most years, the best smartphones are just about what you’d expect. Apple, Samsung and in more recent years, Google, almost always dominate the conversation. The sort of big-name smartphones you’ll find on a plan with every major telco. Huawei was a strong contender for a while there too, particularly in the smartphone camera space, before having its wings clipped in the West.
This year’s a little different, though. The economic nightmare of 2020 led some of the biggest smartphone manufacturers to yield ever so slightly on increasing smartphone costs while some new players swooped in on the mid-range and Android space and while there’s still a long way to go, foldable phones edged closer towards a more affordable and reliable future. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best smartphones we’ve reviewed over the last year.
1. iPhone 12
Best iPhone to buy in 2021
If you had asked us which flagship iPhone to choose back in 2019, it would have been hard not to recommend the superior iPhone 11 Pro but this year, it’s not so simple. Both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are outstanding smartphones, where the only real issue is just okay battery life in both.
For most, the iPhone 12 will be the more sensible pick. It’s not only one of the more reasonably priced flagship handsets on offer, but it doesn’t feel like a compromise like the iPhone 11 did. With the iPhone 12, Apple has elevated the baseline iPhone experience. You’re getting just as much iPhone as someone who buys an iPhone 12 Pro just without a few extra bells and whistles that most casual smartphone users can do without.
Next best iPhone to buy in 2021
If you’re not the average smartphone user and only want the best from your smartphone camera, then it might be worth considering upgrading to the iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The extra zoom lens in the 12 Pro comes in handy, and LiDAR dramatically elevates low-light portrait shots. Serious photographers also get all the advanced editing options that ProRAW allows for. In our opinion, these features are worth the $350 extra if you’re serious about your smartphone snaps. But if you are considering an iPhone 12 Pro for camera reasons, it becomes a question of whether the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a better pick.
Of course, not everyone wants a giant phone. But if you do, and you don’t mind spending more again for the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s superior wide and telephoto cameras, then you’ll be stretched to find a smartphone camera that’s better at low-light photography.
Best Android phone to buy in 2021
As the price of smartphones increased over the past couple of years, have you stopped to wonder what exactly we’re paying for? It seems the team at Google have given this some thought, and the Pixel 5 is the answer. This is a phone with everything you need and an absence of the parts that make phones expensive, like 4K quality screens and 120Hz refresh rates.
What Google brings to the table is the strongest argument to date for advanced software over more powerful (and costly) hardware. The Pixel 5 is all killer, no filler.
Value for money will always be our top priority when weighing up a phone’s worth, and the Google Pixel 5 manages to keep its outright cost below $1,000 without making any significant compromises for most. Some might miss the convenience of facial recognition, sure, but acclimatising back to touch ID isn’t as cumbersome as you might imagine
Even though Google still hasn’t figured out how to get on top of overheating issues in its range of smartphones, the Pixel 5 is still our top pick for Android smartphones in 2021.
Next best Android phone to buy in 2021
We love a pleasant surprise and there was none so pleasant this year as the stand-up performance of the ASUS ROG Phone 3. Decades of N-Gages and Sony Xperia Plays have conditioned us to tread carefully when a company dabbles in gaming phones, but the ASUS ROG Phone 3 isn’t just a great device for mobile gaming, it’s straight-up one of the best Android smartphones currently available.
While primarily targeted at smartphone gamers, the ASUS ROG Phone 3 has plenty of other reasons for non-gamers to consider buying it. There’s a huge battery with speedy charging. A gorgeous 1080p+ screen with a high refresh rate. Plus, a custom take on Android 10 and connectivity future-proofing in WiFi 6 and 5G.
Similar to the Google Pixel 5, the ASUS ROG Phone 3 has a tendency to run a little hot. The difference is, ASUS has packed in a compact AeroActive Cooler 3, essentially an external heatsink accessory that attaches to the phone to cool it down.
Pricing varies wildly depending on where you find it, but the ASUS ROG Phone 3 can cost anywhere between $977 (Kogan) and $1,399 (JB HI-FI) so be sure to suss out the best price before you make the jump.
Unfortunately, the ASUS ROG Phone 3 isn’t available on a mobile plan in Australia, so your only option is to find a deal on it outright and hop on a SIM-only plan.
Best mid-range phone to buy in 2021
While Samsung’s popularity in the premium range has wavered, its mid-range and budget Galaxy handsets have gone from strength to strength in the last few years. So strong in fact, Reviews.org’s Joe Hanlon questioned whether the Samsung Galaxy A71 was actually the best Samsung smartphone of 2020 in his review.
Sure, the performance of the Galaxy A71 can be a little sluggish if you push it. That’s mostly down to the significant downgrade in RAM (6GB compared to the S20’s 12GB) and the Galaxy-wide issues with unreliable biometrics (Face ID and fingerprint scanning) extend to the mid-range too. Still, the Galaxy A71’s two-day battery life, quad-lens camera array and stunning Super AMOLED display are worth more than their sub-$700 price tag would have you think.
Good news for wired audio purists too because the mid-range Galaxy A71 range still sports a trusty 3.5mm audio jack, whereas the premium Galaxy S range has followed the current trend of going jack-less.
6. Realme 7 Pro
Next best mid-range phone to buy in 2021
If you’re after a budget or mid-range smartphone with all the smarts and polish of premium, you’ll want to check out what relative newcomer Realme is bringing to the market. At the premium end of its affordable range, you’ll find the Realme 7 Pro, a sub-$600 smartphone with a 64MP Sony quad-lens camera, 65W SuperDart charging and a Super AMOLED display.
Reviews.org’s Georgia Dixon called the Realme 7 Pro a “pleasure to use, with a gorgeous display, great camera and the ability to charge from 0 to 100% battery in just over half an hour.”
Despite having a positively powerful camera array for the price, video recording and selfie snaps leave something to be desired. The results aren’t significant enough to be deal-breakers, but there are always concessions with a smartphone that costs up to a third of the price of Samsung and Apple’s pricey flagship phones.
The Realme 7 Pro isn’t available on a plan but you can pick it up outright on Catch.com.au from $478 or Kogan from $599. Just be sure to pick up a suitable SIM plan while you’re at it. Here are some of the week’s most popular SIM-only plans in Australia.
Best mid-range iPhone to buy in 2021
There’s no such thing as a budget iPhone. Most smartphone models steadily depreciate with age but even Apple’s older models manage to fetch an eye-watering price. Still, 2020’s more affordable iPhone SE could be considered Apple’s attempt at a “budget smartphone”.
The 2020 iPhone SE starts at $679 for the 64GB model (which should be enough for most) but even the high-end 256GB model costs less than the cheapest iPhone 12 at $929.
As you would expect, there are some concessions to be made when opting for the wallet-friendly iPhone SE. Most notable is the trimmed back camera array. Where Apple’s premium range is busy jamming in as many cameras as possible, the iPhone SE only has one 12MP shooter that supports 4K video recording in up to 60fps (slo-mo at 1080p and up to 240fps).
In many ways, the iPhone SE is a step back in time but that’s not always a bad thing. For example, it’s the only current-gen iPhone that uses Touch ID, the fingerprint scanner we all used before Face ID became a thing. A lot of people prefer Touch ID and if you’re one of those people, you could comfortably switch to the iPhone SE without making too many compromises on specs, camera and battery life.
Best mid-range runner-up to buy in 2021
We’ve already covered our picks for the best Android smartphones up top. The Google Pixel 5 made all the right choices after the rather underwhelming Pixel 4, and the ASUS ROG Phone 3 might be the best Android most people haven’t heard of. Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a special mention to the Oppo Find X2 Pro.
The typically budget-minded Oppo released its fully-fledged premium Find X2 Pro 5G in 2020, giving the bigger brands a real run for their money.
The Oppo Find X2 Pro sports an outstanding triple-lens camera (two 48MP Sony image sensors for wide and ultra-wide shots and one 13MP periscope and telephoto lens), a crisp 6.7-inch OLED display (with a 120Hz refresh rate) and solid everyday performance.
The battery could be better sure, but that’s true of most feature-packed handsets (especially 5G handsets like the Find X2 Pro).
Best mid-range runner-up to buy in 2021
We were a little let down by 2019’s Google Pixel 4 but if there’s one area you can always depend on Google in, it’s the mid-range and the Pixel 4a is no exception. It inherited a few of the Pixel 4’s problems (e.g. middling battery life) but it was easier to forgive in a sub-$600 smartphone. After all, it also inherited some of the Pixel 4’s best features too including Google’s intelligent post-processing software, which really elevates the Pixel 4a’s photography game past expectations set by the mid-range market.
It’s no longer our first choice in the mid-range but it’s still a solid little smartphone if you’re a fan of the Google Pixel family.
10. Galaxy Z Flip
Best foldable phone to buy in 2021
The clamshell design isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a foldable smartphone, but Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip is a pleasant surprise. It’s not going to give you the phone-tablet hybrid experience of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold line but there’s still something to be said for its compact form factor. As evidenced by what Samsung calls the “hideaway hinge”, a lot of lessons were learned from the original Galaxy Fold’s rough launch. So while we’d still consider the foldable market an enthusiast’s game, the Galaxy Z Flip is the closest thing we’ve got to a foldable the masses can rely on to get the job done.
Most importantly, it’s the most affordable way to dip your toes in the foldable end of the pool if you’ve been itching to get your hands on the latest trend in smartphone design.
Best Samsung phone to buy in 2021
While it might not be our first choice for Android, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is still a great phone. It’s the right size for all hands (even large mitts), packs plenty of powerful performance, and adaptive refresh rate offers a great mix of smoothness and battery preservation.
It’s just a shame that once key things have been left out: there’s no charger in the box, no MicroSD port for storage expansion, and the headphone jack is still MIA. There’s an environmental argument to be made for ditching the charger, and Samsung isn’t the only one doing away with headphone jacks, but removing the MicroSD card slot is sure to frustrate many loyal Samsung fans who always had that to hold on to in the great Apple vs Samsung debate.
Still, we appreciate Samsung pressing pause on the year-on-year increase in smartphone pricing. You can still spend big if you go with the premium Ultra model but at that price, we’d argue your money is better spent elsewhere anyway.
How we review smartphones
Here at Reviews.org, we don’t do long, exhausting technical spec lists and benchmarks. Our rankings are pulled from a five-star rating decided by the writer of each review. Our editors might share different, unique opinions on the best smartphones available. But we all believe that, for the everyday consumer, the most important factors are value for money and user experience.