Best Smartphones of 2021
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G$1,299 up frontUnbeatable display, camera, and processorCosts over $1,000
Best Overall Value
Apple iPhone 12$899 up frontBeautiful design, quality cameras, and seamless performanceOnly 64 GB of base storage
Best Budget Android
Google Pixel 4a$379 up frontAffordable phone with premium featuresSmaller 3,140 mAh battery
Best Budget iPhone
Apple iPhone SE (2020)$399 up frontCheap iPhone with top-tier processorBattery life could be better
Best Phone with Stylus
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G$1,299 up front6.9-inch 120 Hz display and and powerful processorCosts over $1,200
We compared smartphones in terms of price, performance, cameras, operating system, and user experience, and we came up with a list of eight of smartphones to meet the needs of every kind of user and budget.
- Best smartphone performance: If you want the best of the best (and you’re willing to pay for it), the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is the smartphone for you. It has everything you could want, from a best-in-class camera to an absolutely unbeatable display. Not ready for the latest? We still love the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus.
- Best overall smartphone value: The iPhone 12 is a solid, reliable, and highly functional device that will seamlessly perform every task. It’s cheaper than the S21 Ultra smartphone, but still packs a punch (and it looks good, too). But don’t sleep on the iPhone 11 Pro, either.
- Best budget Android smartphone: Many people don’t want to pay more than $500 for a new phone. Luckily, there’s the Google Pixel 4a. This device sells for about $350, but it still offers some serious premium-level features. If you really want to maximize your bang for your smartphone buck, check out the Google Pixel 3a too.
- Best budget iPhone: The iPhone SE (2020) marries the processing power of far more expensive iPhones with a smaller form factor and a much smaller price. This iPhone SE may be from 2020, but it’s a mobile phone that will receive support from Apple for years to come, so it’s a perfect smartphone for those who want their device investment to last.
- Best smartphone with stylus: The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the perfect smartphone for artists, writers, gamers, and anyone who wants a big powerhouse of a phone. This huge phone has it all, including a beautifully designed and highly functional S Pen.
How to choose a smartphone
Before we jump into our review of the best smartphones, let’s talk about the fundamentals:
There are a few criteria that you might want to consider.
Android vs. iPhone: Both operating systems have their advantages. Android gives you more options for customization and more devices support the operating system. Meanwhile, iPhones offer unparalleled quality and design, and will pair seamlessly with any other Apple devices you have. If you’re worried about changing between the two operating systems, don’t be. Switching is easier than ever.
Camera: Pretty much every phone on the market has a camera these days, but the quality ranges from very low to basically professional grade. If you’re an aspiring influencer or a serious birder who likes to capture wildlife in all its glory, then you might want to opt for the better (and pricier) cameras.
Carrier: Most phones (with the exception of T-Mobile’s TCL lineup) are compatible with every phone carrier. But your existing carrier may have some awesome deals on new devices, so be sure to check out the best new deals before you make your decision.
Size, stylus, and other features: Smartphones just seem to get bigger and bigger. You’ll want to think about whether you want to lug around a 7-inch brick all day or if you’d prefer to opt for something smaller. You may also want to consider other features, like flip technology and stylus pens.
Price: Last, but not least, you’ll want to think about your wallet. Some phones cost well over a grand. But the difference between a $500 phone and an $1,100 phone may be less important than you think.
Best performance: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
The 5G-ready Galaxy S21 Ultra gives you best-in-class cameras and performance
- 5 powerful cameras
- 6.8-inch 120 Hz QHD display
- 5G capable
- Good battery life
- Price starts at $1,199
- Clunky design
What we like about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
Last year when the Samsung Galaxy S20 dropped we were pretty impressed. But somehow this year’s S21 model raises the bar even further. It’s got a new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, an incredible display, top-notch cameras, and more.
If you rely on your phone for work, serious gaming, or professional photography, then this is the device for you. Let’s get into the details.
5 powerful cameras
When camera phones first hit the market they were a fun novelty, but nothing that a real photographer would ever use. You could take a grainy selfie that made you look as pixelated as the Super Nintendo version of Mario and that was about it.
But these days some of the most powerful innovations in camera technology are being driven by phone manufacturers, like Samsung. And the Galaxy S21 Ultra has taken things to the next level. It sports five (yes, five!) cameras:
- One 108 MP wide-angle camera: This incredible camera offers unparalleled colors, pristine night mode tech, 8K video capture, and so much more.
- One 12 MP ultra wide camera: You’ll get a 120° field of view with this camera which is perfect for epic-looking photographs of the natural world (or your fancy dinner).
- Two 10 MP telephoto cameras: These two telephoto lenses will give you zoom capabilities all the way up to 100x (it does get a bit grainy at that point)!
- One 40 MP selfie camera: This high-end selfie camera is more advanced than other phones’ main cameras. So you can show off without worrying about bad lighting.
6.8-inch 120Hz QHD display
This display is pushing the edge of existing technology. It’s equipped with 120Hz quad HD Dynamic AMOLED 2X technology. What does that mean in plain English?
It means that you’ll basically have a mini-IMAX screen in your pocket. It means you’ll have better image quality than most computers and televisions, allowing you to take your gaming or watching to the next level.
A 120 Hz refresh rate means that even the most action-packed images will look as seamless and beautiful as real life. This display is, in short, as good as it gets.
Good battery life
What good is a pricey, premium device if it dies after just a couple hours of use? That’s right, it’s no good at all.
Luckily, the S21 Ultra has a huge 5,000 mAh battery that you can charge wirelessly. That’s the same battery that the S20 had, but this one should last even longer because the processor inside of it is more efficient. Exactly how long your battery lasts will depend on how you use your S21, but even the heaviest users should get pretty far with a full charge.
When your battery does start to creep into the single digits, you’ll be able to juice back up quickly. Samsung claims that you can get a 50% charge in 30 minutes.
There’s been a lot of hype about 5G technology for years now. But it’s finally here for real. Well, at least in some places. But in order to get access to super-fast 5G speeds you’ll need a 5G capable device, like the S21 Ultra.
What we don’t like about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t have any major flaws, except maybe one: the price. That, and the somewhat clunky design, may be deal breakers for some customers. Let’s take a closer look.
If you want to buy the S21 Ultra straight up from the factory it will cost you at least $1,199! That’s a serious amount of cash for most people, especially during a time of economic uncertainty.
The S21 Ultra has definitely improved on the blocky design of the S20 Ultra. The corners have been smoothed out a little bit and the camera module has been flattened for an overall more sleek look. But, still, this thing is just huge.
At 6.8 inches, the S21 Ultra won’t easily fit inside your pocket. It’s so large that it’s verging on tablet sized. If you want a similar phone that’s smaller check out the standard S21, or maybe even consider the iPhone 12 Mini.
Runner-up: iPhone 12 Pro Max
Speaking of the iPhone: we’re declaring the iPhone 12 Pro Max as the runner up in the Best Performance category. Like the S21 Ultra, this phone ticks off all the boxes: gorgeous display, super-fast processor, top-shelf camera technology, and, of course, a pretty hefty price tag.
In fact, one of the main reasons that this phone is in the runner up category is that it actually costs more than the S21 Ultra.
Speaking of the iPhone: we’re declaring the iPhone 12 Pro Max as the runner up in the “Best Performance” category. Like the S21 Ultra, this phone ticks off all the boxes: gorgeous display, super-fast processor, top-shelf camera technology, and, of course, a pretty hefty price tag.
In fact, one of the main reasons that this phone is in the runner up category is that it actually costs more than the S21 Ultra. Of course, the standard iPhone 12 is much more affordable (more on that below).
Last year’s best performance: Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus
Last year’s model is still worth the investment
- Super-fast performance
- 120 Hz display
- 5G capable
- Good camera
- Blocky design
What we like about the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus
The Galaxy S20 Plus is setting the new standard when it comes to flagship devices. This phone pushes the boundaries of performance with its 120-hertz display, incredibly fast processing speeds, and nice trio of camera lenses for different kinds of photos.
If you’re willing to drop top dollar for a phone that will make your friends jealous, the S20 Plus is the way to go.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus is the ideal phone for gamers, influencers, photographers, and everyone who relies on their phone for essential tasks. With its Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor and an amazing 12 GB of RAM, this phone is fast.
You won’t have any issues with lag or latency in the middle of a PUBG Mobile game, and you won’t have to worry about losing your work from an app shutting down unexpectedly (unless the app itself has issues). Teamed up with AT&T‘s or Verizon‘s super fast data speeds, this phone is unstoppable.
To put it simply, this phone probably has more processing power than your home computer. And when you combine this speed with the S20’s 120-hertz display, some real magic happens.
120 Hz display
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus’s 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED display is about as good as it gets. With 3200×1440 resolution and a 20:9 aspect ratio, it’s kind of like having a mini-IMAX screen in your hand.
Let’s talk about those numbers a bit more: your laptop probably has a resolution of 1280×1024 or less, meaning that this phone packs twice the image quality into a 6.7-inch display. You’ll have no issues watching videos in HD, 4K, or any other fancy high definition resolutions that come out.
While some might prefer a slightly smaller device, the S20 Plus shouldn’t feel clunky for most people. It’s definitely more nimble than the gargantuan S20 Ultra model.
While the standard Galaxy S20 is technically “5G capable,” it won’t actually connect to every form of 5G, leaving many users stuck with 4G speeds. But the S20 Plus can connect to both the broad-coverage sub-6 GHz 5G signal and the mmWave network as well.
While the S20 Plus’s phone doesn’t quite match the iPhone 11 Pro’s, it shouldn’t be dismissed. Its three cameras (two 12megapixel and one 64-megapixel cameras) can take photos with wide and ultra-wide angles for stellar selfies and panoramic shots. The 64-megapixel telephoto lens can zoom up to 30x!
What we don’t like about the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus
The S20 Plus is a superbly well-rounded phone that will please most every user. But there are a couple of drawbacks to consider before purchasing it.
If you’re looking to buy the S20 Plus outright, it will cost you well over a grand. Shelling out $1,200 for a phone is a luxury most of us can’t afford.
There are plenty of ways to pay for the phone in installments when you sign up for a phone plan, but most options still end up around $100 a month.
Samsung has never been able to match the sleek and simple design of Apple. And while the S20 Plus does have a beautiful display that takes up the whole front of the phone, the back leaves something to be desired.
Many have complained about the blocky style and boring color choices for the S20’s back cover piece.
Image source: Samsung
This clunkier design can make this Galaxy phone feel a bit less premium.
One other issue with the phone’s design is that there’s no headphone jack. The headphone jack seems to be going the way of those tricolored AV cables you used to plug your N64 into the TV, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
Best overall value: Apple iPhone 12
A well-rounded device that perfectly balances performance, price, and convenience
- Pay less for premium features
- Gorgeous design
- Long battery life
- 5G capable
- Only 64 GB of storage on base model
- Lacks basic accessories
What we like about the Apple iPhone 12
Apple releases a new iPhone every year. So what’s the big deal? Could the iPhone 12 really be much better than the iPhone 11. Well, yes. While the phone isn’t significantly different than its predecessor, a few small tweaks and upgrades (and a couple of cosmetic changes) have really rounded out Apple’s flagship offering.
Let’s discuss the main features of the device that offers the best overall value on the market.
Pay less for premium features
The iPhone 12 has so many powerful features that it can be hard to keep track of. But here are a few of the most important ones:
- A super-fast and efficient A14 Bionic chip means seamless performance on any app.
- A beautiful OLED display gives you a perfect picture whether you’re streaming, gaming, or taking photos.
- The phone is more durable with Apple’s new Ceramic Shield installed.
- 3 powerful 12-megapixel cameras: one wide angle, another ultra-wide angle, and, of course, a front-facing selfie camera.
You’ll get all of that and more on the iPhone 12 for about $800. While that’s certainly not the cheapest phone on the market, it’s significantly cheaper than the S21 Ultra or iPhone 12 Pro Max while still offering tons of premium features.
Let’s be honest: one of the reasons we all love Apple products is that they look like Apple products. Those signature colors, the sleek yet understated designs. There’s a certain Apple Je ne sais quoi that’s just impossible to replicate.
The new iPhone design doesn’t fail to deliver, even if it does rock the boat a bit. The main thing you’ll probably notice when looking at this device is that the edges are flat, rather than curved. It looks more like an iPhone 4 than an iPhone 11. But it works. The phone looks classier than its competitors, while still looking (and feeling) durable.
Of course if you really want a phone that will wow your buddies, you should probably be the first to pick up one of Samsung’s new flip phones …
Long battery life
Apple keeps the exact size of its batteries under wraps. But the company claims that the iPhone 12 can handle a whopping 15 hours of video playback on a full charge. That means you can binge a whole season of Stranger Things in one sitting, without having to plug in (we won’t judge).
Yep, you’ll get that sweet, sweet 5G speed with this phone (where available).
What we don’t like about the Apple iPhone 12
The iPhone 12 is a well-balanced phone overall, but here are the ways in which the iPhone 12 falls a bit short.
Only 64 GB of storage on base model
Like its predecessors, the iPhone 12’s baseline model (the cheapest version) comes with just 64 GB of local storage. A decade ago that might have been a lot for a phone. But these days the standard is usually closer to 128 GB.
What’s going on here Apple? Upping the local storage isn’t an issue of physical space in the device. It also wouldn’t cost the company much to do. It’s hard to feel like this is anything but a plan to get people to buy the more expensive models.
Lacks basic accessories
iPhones used to come with a full charger and a pair of headphones. It was like getting relish and ketchup with your hotdog. You just came to expect these essential accessories with your purchase. But not anymore.
The new iPhone 12 is shipping out with just a single Lightning-to-USB-C cable. You have to provide your own iPhone accessories like a USB-C wall charger to plug it into (or your own MagSafe charger). While most folks will have one of these lying around somewhere, it may be a big inconvenience for some.
Apple’s excuse for cutting the charger and headphones is that it saves on packaging and is more green. While we commend this thinking, it’s hard to fully believe that their heart is in the right place, given Apple’s history of charging tons of money for extra cables and accessories.
Runner-up: OnePlus 8 5G
You may not have heard of OnePlus, but it is quickly becoming one of the major phone manufacturers in the industry. The OnePlus 8 5G is a powerful device that is ready for the fastest networks. It has a fantastic display, camera, processor, and more local storage than the iPhone 12.
If you’re looking to make a break with Apple, but still want a quality, well-rounded device, then we suggest you check out the OnePlus 8.
Last year’s best overall value: Apple iPhone 11 Pro
For those not ready to shell out for the iPhone 12
- Triple 12 MP ultra wide, wide, and telephoto cameras
- Great overall performance
- Sleek design
- Not cheap
- Baseline storage is just 64 GB
What we like about the Apple iPhone 11 Pro
There’s a lot to like about the iPhone 11 Pro. It sports a 5.8-inch OLED HDR display, a powerful A13 Bionic chip, and a battery that supports up to 18 hours of video playback. It is, quite simply, the best iPhone ever made.
But what we really want to focus on here are the iPhone 11 Pro’s incredible cameras. The phone’s trio of cameras have ultra-wide, wide, and telephoto lenses for all kinds of shots. Even the front facing camera can record 4K video and boasts a full 12 megapixels for stellar selfies.
Here’s a deep dive into some of our favorite camera features on the iPhone 11 Pro.
Unlike the regular iPhone 11, the 11 Pro comes with an ultra-wide camera. (if you want to learn more about why the 11 Pro is better than the standard iPhone 11, check out Tshaka’s video).
The ultra-wide lens is perfect for those “larger than life” shots. This will be your go-to lens you want to capture the epic size of the landscape or the obscure beauty of a tiny alleyway. It’s also great for taking artistic pictures of, well, anything at all.
One notable issue that people had with previous iPhones was the lackluster low-light photo quality. The iPhone 11 Pro remedies this with an incredibly effective Night Mode.
Night Mode can reduce the “noise” that you get in your photos at night. It can also brighten them up a surprising amount. And it does this automatically, meaning you don’t have to mess around with a bunch of settings. Just open the app and snap away, no matter what time of day.
Deep Fusion and Smart HDR
We’ll try not to get too technical here, but these are complicated technologies that will make your pictures look like they were taken by a professional photographer.
Basically, with Smart HDR and Deep Fusion the iPhone 11 Pro actually takes several photos in very rapid succession and then blends them together. In that blending process, the phone’s super-smart chip looks for common things like faces and hair and sharpens the detail in those parts of the image.
This means you’ll end up with less static in the background of your images, more detail and focus on faces, and better lighting ratios. The net effect will be that your images look more natural, not less.
The iPhone 11 Pro’s awesome cameras can do more than just photos. They can shoot video in 4K quality. That’s an incredible feat for a slim little phone. You could pay several hundred dollars (or even several thousand) for a standalone 4K video recorder.
What we don’t like about the Apple iPhone 11 Pro
We really don’t have many complaints about the iPhone 11 Pro, but the storage limitations mights be too much for some.
Only 64 GB of baseline storage
As we’ve seen with other iPhones, if you go with the cheapest version of the iPhone 11 Pro, you’ll only get 64 GB of local storage. That will be used up mighty fast if you’re shooting a bunch of 4K video with that incredible camera.
We expect more local storage from a premium device like this. Sure, you can shell out some extra money to get 256 or 512 GB models, but you shouldn’t have to pay extra for such a basic feature.
Best budget Android smartphone: Google Pixel 4a
Get everything you want, including a low price, with this device
- Great camera
- Good performance and display
- 5G-capable model available
- Headphone jack
- Less-than-stellar battery life
- No water resistance
What we like about the Google Pixel 4a
There’s a lot to like about the Google Pixel 4a. Tshaka Armstrong, our lead phone reviewer, even called it his favorite phone of 2020. That’s because it’s an entry-level phone with flagship-level features.
Here are the things we love most about the Pixel 4a.
Smartphones are smarter than ever before. They’re basically mini personal computers. Unfortunately, many of them cost as much as a laptop, too. But not the Google Pixel 4a. You can pick up one of these devices new, from the factory, for less than $400.
Google’s phones are known for their impeccable cameras. These cameras rival those on the much more expensive iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21.
The 4a comes equipped with a 12.2-megapixel camera with a powerful night mode feature. If you opt for the pricier Pixel 4a 5G model, you’ll also get an ultra-wide camera on your phone for those dramatic Instagram photos.
Good performance and display
While the 4a’s processor might not be as powerful as Apple’s A14 bionic chip or the Galaxy’s Snapdragon 888, it does the trick. You shouldn’t experience any major issues when running your favorite apps.
When it comes to the display on the 4a, you’ll get more than you’d expect for the price. As Tshaka says, the display on the Pixel 4a “rivals much pricier displays for image brightness and quality.”
5G-capable model available
One issue with the standard Pixel 4a is that it’s not 5G capable. That means you’ll miss out on the next generation of cellular technology (super-fast data speeds). But there is a 5G version of the phone that costs about $120 more.
But this version of the 4a doesn’t just give you 5G connectivity. It also has an extra camera, an upgraded processor (the same one that’s in the Pixel 5), and a larger display.
Of all the great things the 4a has to offer, I have a personal favorite: the headphone jack. Yes, the headphone jack.
There’s been this recent trend among premium cell phone manufacturers to do away with the headphone jack, rendering all of your favorite wired headphones (and aux cords) useless, unless you buy an adapter (which makes it so that you can’t charge your phone while you listen). Why have they done this? My theory is that it’s just a ploy to force us all to buy expensive wireless AirBuds.
So, when I learned that the Pixel 4a was bringing back the jack I was stoked. It may seem like a small feature, but those who are buying a cheaper phone like this one really appreciate being able to use their existing headphones.
What we don’t like about the Google Pixel 4a
You don’t get a phone that’s this cheap without cutting a few corners. So, what has been left out of the Pixel 4a?
The Google Pixel 4a comes with a 3,140 mAh battery. That’s about standard for a mid-range phone, but we’d still like to see more. With a battery of this size, you should get around 8 hours of continuous use on a charge. That will be enough for most people, but heavy users will be disappointed.
No water resistance
The 4a has a plastic chassis that seems durable enough, even if it doesn’t feel as nice as holding an iPhone. But there’s way one thing that the Pixel 4a won’t be able to weather as well as other phones: water.
Phones are usually given an “IP” (Ingress Protection) rating to demonstrate how waterproof they are. For instance, the iPhone twelve has a rating of IP68, meaning that it can withstand water at a depth of up to 6 meters for 30 minutes. That’s pretty impressive.
But the 4a doesn’t have an IP rating at all, meaning that if you drop it in the sink you’ll be pretty much out of luck. This might not be the phone for your if you’ve got butterfingers!
Runner-up: iPhone SE (2020)
There’s really only one other phone in this price range that can compete with the Pixel 4a, and that’s the iPhone SE (2020). This discount version of Apple’s famous phone offers all-around quality, including cutting edge processor technology and a powerful camera. We cover the iPhone SE (2020) below, but if you can jump over to the full review here.
However, the new iPhone SE went ahead and ditched the headphone jack (yes, we take it personally), so it only earned the runner-up spot on our list.
Last year’s best budget Android smartphone: Google Pixel 3a
This reworked Pixel 3 gives the 4a a run for its (your) money
- Powerful overall performance
- Great camera
- Decent battery life
- Baseline model only has 64 GB of local storage
- No wireless charging
What we like about the Google Pixel 3a
Who says you can’t have a high-performing phone with a great camera, good battery life, and an affordable price tag? Seriously, whoever is saying that needs to stop because the Google Pixel 3a is here, and we love it. It’s definitely the best Android device on the market for under $500.
Let’s dive into the best features of this device.
Powerful overall performance
This may be a midtier phone, but you can expect to get basically top-tier performance from the Pixel 3a. With a Snapdragon 670 processor and an Adreno 615 GPU, you should breeze through almost any basic task, from posting to Instagram to editing video.
This performance is good news for those who want to play AdventureQuest 3D without shelling out for a flagship device (just make sure your phone’s network is fast enough to keep your game from lagging).
Speaking of gaming, you’ll enjoy watching your avatar (or anything else) on the Pixel 3a’s 5.6-inch OLED display with 2220×1080 resolution. That’s better resolution than the standard iPhone 11.
A lot has been said about the high quality cameras in the Google Pixel lineup. The Pixel 3a is no exception.
While most companies will nix expensive technology for their budget devices, Google is still equipping the 3a with a rear 12.2-megapixel camera and an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. These cameras can utilize plenty of great features, like Night Sight and slow motion.
The Google Pixel 3a sells for about the quarter of the cost of phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. While the exact price fluctuates, it usually hovers between $300 and $400. That’s an incredible deal for such a powerful device.
Decent battery life
With a 3,000 mAh capacity, the Pixel 3a’s battery should last the entire day without needing a charge.
The exception to this would be those who really like to take advantage of their unlimited data plan by watching five or more hours of video a day. Those folks might want to consider the Pixel 3a XL, which comes with a larger battery.
The 3a comes with a standard 18-watt fast charger that should help you get back up to full battery in no time.
What we don’t like about the Google Pixel 3a
The Pixel 3a is a phenomenal phone, especially when you consider its price. But there are a couple of features that we still find frustrating about the device.
Only 64 GB of storage
If you get the most basic model of this budget phone then you’ll only get 64 GB of local storage. A few hours of HD video and a few hundred songs will easily fill that space up. For a lot of folks that’s simply not enough.
While this minimal storage capacity is less offensive on a budget phone like the 3a than it is on the iPhone 11 Pro, it’s still an annoyance.
No wireless charging
Wireless charging is a relatively new feature on smartphones, but it’s quickly becoming a standard. Unfortunately, you’ll still be stuck to a cord with the Pixel 3a.
Best budget iPhone: Apple iPhone SE (2020)
Everything you love about the iPhone, but cheaper
- Seamless overall performance
- Great price
- Good camera
- Battery is a bit weak
- No headphone jack
What we like about the Apple iPhone SE (2020)
Ever since it hit the market in 2007 the iPhone has set the bar for smartphone performance. But the phones have never been particularly affordable. Until now.
The iPhone SE 2020 gives you all of the great design, functionality, and features of an iPhone for less than $400. It’s a great gift to go along with your teenager’s phone plan.
Let’s get into the details.
Seamless overall performance
At the heart of the iPhone SE is the same processing technology as the iPhone 11 Pro. The A13 Bionic chip will keep everything running smoothly, from your games to your video recording. It’s a powerful system for a budget device.
The SE 2020’s 4.8-inch LCD liquid retina display is a step down from the iPhone 11 Pro’s OLED Super Retina XDR display, but most users will hardly notice the difference in the quality. Meanwhile, the re-introduction of the home button (and touch ID) will be a welcome change for many.
Aluminum casing and custom glass make this phone durable for everyday use and resistant to water.
Our smartphone expert tested the iPhone SE (2020) and loved it
If you want to go deep on the iPhone SE (2020), just watch this video from our hands-on tester, Tshaka Armstrong. He’ll show you everything you need to know about the phone before making a purchase.
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of having a truly affordable, brand new iPhone on the market. This phone sells for less than a new iPhone 8, which was released in 2017 and runs on less advanced hardware. In many cases, it’s also cheaper than alternative midtier phones from Samsung and OnePlus.
This Apple device rocks a 12-megapixel camera plus a 7-megapixel front-facing camera. While that’s pretty impressive in its own right, these cameras are also equipped with some advanced image processing that’s similar to the iPhone 11 Pro’s.
Most people will have a hard time seeing any difference between pictures taken on this phone and those taken by phones that cost three times as much. The major exceptions are shots taken at night. The SE 2020 does not come with Apple’s great Night Mode feature. It also lacks the amazing wide-angle lens of the iPhone 11 Pro.
What we don’t like about the Apple iPhone SE (2020)
No phone this cheap can have everything. The iPhone SE 2020 has had to cut some corners to make a product this affordable. In most cases, they cut fat in places that won’t bother most casual phone users. However, there are a couple of issues that are harder to swallow.
Battery isn’t the best
The iPhone SE 2020 has fine battery life. Most people will be able to get through the day without needing a charge. But a few hours of heavy use or a night without a charge will definitely leave you battery starved.
Thankfully, you can charge this phone wirelessly, so it shouldn’t be too much trouble to give it a power boost in the middle of the day.
No headphone jack
While all of the flagship phones out there seem to be ditching the headphone jack, we’d like to see it stay for cheaper devices like this. Those who are buying budget phones don’t want to shell out $100+ for a pair of AirPods. They want to use the perfectly good headphones they bought three years ago.
Best phone with stylus: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
A powerhouse phone that’s perfect for artists and gamers
- 6.9-inch 120 Hz display
- Incredible camera
- Smooth S Pen performance
- Stream Xbox games
- Costs over $1,200
- Large and blocky design
What we like about the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
The stylus pens were all the rage back at the turn of the century. Many popular devices incorporate the pens for a few years. Then they seemed to go away. But the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still keeping the stylus alive, and with good reason.
These pens are great for those who like to make art, take notes, or play games on their phones. They also tend to come along with large devices (and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is nothing if not large). So if you want a big, powerful device to help fuel your creativity, this is it.
6.9-inch 120 Hz display
With a 6.9-inch display, this is the biggest phone on our list (and one of the biggest phones on the market). Some even call it a phablet. “It’s a beast of a machine,” as our reviewer Tshaka says. And it’s a high-quality beast.
With quad HD Plus technology and a 120 Hz refresh rate, you’ll see every art project, game, or streaming video in its full glory.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra actually comes with 4 incredible cameras: a 108-megapixel wide lens, two 12-megapixel lenses, and a front facing selfie camera. We won’t go much into the details of these cameras because they’re similar to the S21 Ultra cameras that we talked about above.
Smooth S Pen performance
You want a phone with a stylus so that you can draw, write, and game with it. But a poorly functioning stylus is worse than using the pad of your finger. So it’s good that the Note 20 Ultra’s S Pen feels as natural and seamless and putting pen to paper.
Play Xbox games
Yes, you can play over 50 different XBox games on your Note 20 Ultra. Purchase a MOGA XP5-X Plus Bluetooth Controller, hook it up to your phone, and you’re good to go. The incredible processing power of the Note 20 Ultra will keep you in the game as if you were playing on your regular set up.
Here’s what you need to know about Xbox Game Pass on your phone.
What we don’t like about the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
The Samsung Galaxy Note S20 Ultra is like a huge expensive SUV. It’s powerful, but it’s not right for everyone. Here are a few of the things that might be deal breakers for some customers.
Costs over $1,200
If you want this phone, you’ll have to spend at least $1,200 (hopefully you saved all your stimulus checks!).
That price tag may be standard for a top-of-the-line device like this one, but it will certainly make the phone prohibitively expensive for many people.
Large and blocky design
The last negative feature we’ll mention about this phone is the size. While some people may love the “phablet” vibe of the Note 20 Ultra, others will find it far too large and blocky for everyday use.
Recap: What’s the best smartphone for you?
That was a lot of information. So, let’s run through the highlights of the best smartphones one more time.
- Best performance: If you want the best, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is the phone for you. It has everything you could want, from a best-in-class camera to an absolutely unbeatable display. Looking for great performance at a lower price? The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus goes above and beyond when it comes to hardware performance and top-notch features.
- Best overall value: The iPhone 12 is a solid, well-designed device that will perform pretty much any task. It’s cheaper than the S21 Ultra, but still packs a punch (and it looks good, too). There’s a lot to love about Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro, but what makes the phone truly special is its cameras. These ultra-wide, wide, and telephoto lenses can capture every detail with crisp clarity. Apple’s amazing Deep Fusion and Smart HDR will help make every photo look like it was taken by a pro.
- Best budget Android phone: If you don’t want to pay more than $500 for a new phone, check out the Google Pixel 4a. This device sells for about $350, but it still manages to provide premium-level features. The Google Pixel 3a gives you premium performance for a budget price. You’ll get plenty of processing power for gaming, browsing, and editing the photos you take on the Pixel 3a’s fantastic camera.
- Best budget iPhone: The iPhone SE 2020 is a truly affordable phone from Apple that doesn’t skimp on the important stuff. It runs on the same processor as the iPhone 11 Pro but costs less than half as much.
- Best phone with a stylus: The Samsung Note 20 Ultra is the perfect machine for creatives and anybody else who covets a powerhouse of a phone. This big phone has it all, including a beautifully designed and highly functional S Pen.
These are the best phones on the market right now. For the best deals on these and other devices be sure to check our weekly deals page.
We compared over 200 flagship mobile phones from major brands like Apple, Samsung, and Google to determine the best smartphones available. We limited our selections to smartphones that are currently available with cellular carriers.
Our team of experts narrowed these down to determine which ones are the best for various lifestyles. We considered multiple criteria, including price, display, camera, battery life, and size. This research, combined with Tshaka Armstrong’s hands-on testing, helped us determine the winners of each category.
- How to Choose a Smartphone
- Best Performance: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
- Great Performance: Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus
- Best Overall Value: Apple iPhone 12
- Great Overall Value: Apple iPhone 11 Pro
- Best Budget Android Smartphone: Google Pixel 4a
- Great Budget Android Smartphone: Google Pixel 3a
- Best Budget iPhone: Apple iPhone SE (2020)
- Best Phone with Stylus: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
- Recap: What's the Best Smartphone for You?