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13 best phones for 2021: Apple, Samsung and Google handsets reviewed

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We’ve checked out features, security, proficiency of the cameras and of course battery use  (The Independent)
We’ve checked out features, security, proficiency of the cameras and of course battery use (The Independent)

For years now, the phone has been the essential, can’t-do-without gadget, and the advance of the smartphone has merely confirmed this. Now, you can check your calendar, send an email, play a videogame with console-quality graphics, call an Uber, pay a bill, take photos better than your camera can and watch Netflix. Some people even occasionally use them to make a call or send a text, apparently.

The big design change in the last few years has been the move to all-screen phones – where the button that used to adorn every screen’s front, causing blank space at the bottom, for instance – has been moved by being swapped to a side button, buried in the display itself or changed for facial recognition. At the same time, the 3.5mm headphone jack has been removed from almost all high-end phones (Sony is the notable exception here).

There are three main operating systems, all incompatible with each other: iOS, found only on the iPhone, HarmonyOS on Huawei phones, and Android, which is basically on everything else. Huawei was forced to create its own system when it fell out with the US government, and it has fewer apps than the other two, though it is growing fast. And some of its own apps such as Petal Maps, are impressive and just as easy to use as the big-name alternatives.

But if you’re in the market for an upgrade, which option is right for you? We’ve put all of the latest handsets from Apple, Samsung, Google and more to the test to find out.

How we tested

We’ve tested for ease of use, build quality, how quickly the phone opens apps, responds to your touch and so on. We’ve checked out features, security, proficiency of the cameras (a major consideration for smartphones these days) and, just as importantly, battery life. The best smartphone on the planet wouldn’t feature in this guide if it ran out of juice after a few hours.

Read more:

The best smartphones for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Apple iPhone 13 pro max: £1,049, Apple.com

  • Best for design – Oppo find x3 pro 5g: £999, Oppostore.co.uk

  • Best display – Sony xperia 1 III: £1,199, Sony.co.uk

  • Best camera phone – Huawei mate 40 pro: £1,099, Huawei.com

  • Best Android phone – Google Pixel 6 pro: £849, Google.com

  • Best value smartphone – OnePlus 9 pro: £929, Oneplus.com

  • Best for fast charging – Xiaomi 11t pro: £649, Mi.com

  • Best folding phone – Samsung Galaxy z flip 3: £949, Samsung.com

  • Best mid-range Apple phone – Apple iPhone 13: £779, Apple.com

  • Best rugged phone – Nokia xr20: £399, Nokia.com

  • Best small smartphone – Apple iPhone 13 mini: £679, Apple.com

  • Best video camera phone – Vivo x60 pro: £748, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best Android phone for software – Google Pixel 6: £599, Google.com

Apple iPhone 13 pro max

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1,284 x 2,778 pixels, 458 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB/1TB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide, 12MP telephoto

  • Camera (front): 12MP

  • Dimensions: 160.8 x 78.1 7.7mm

  • Weight: 240g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

The new Apple iPhone 13 comes in four versions, iPhone 13, iPhone 13 mini, iPhone 13 pro and iPhone 13 pro max. The max is the biggest of the group but is identical to the iPhone 13 pro in every way except size, battery size and price. So, if the 6.7in display here means the phone is too big for your hands, then the iPhone 13 pro is the one for you.

Where the iPhone 13 and mini have two cameras, the pro versions have a third, a telephoto lens. The cameras are one of the standouts on this phone. They are great in low light, have improved sensors and for the first time on an iPhone, a telephoto lens that’s the equivalent of a 3x zoom of the main camera. That main camera has a very cool macro mode: as you get right up close to your subject, the iPhone switches to the ultra-wide lens for a close-up shot that’s sharply focused. There’s also cinematic mode, a cool video feature that brilliantly, and automatically, blurs the background to put your subject in focus. It can even pull focus to favour whoever’s facing the camera.

The design of this year’s iPhones is nearly identical to last year’s iPhone 12 series, with flat edges. It also uses something called a Ceramic Shield, a front covering that’s toughened to withstand being dropped. Battery life has increased this year, with the iPhone 13 pro max boasting the longest battery life of any iPhone.

Read the full iPhone 13 pro max review

Buy now £1049.00, Apple.com

Oppo find x3 pro 5g

Best: For design

Rating: 9/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1,440 x 3,216 pixels, 525 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 256/512GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 13MP telephoto, 50MP ultrawide, 3MP micro

  • Camera (front): 32MP

  • Dimensions: 163.6 x 74 x 8.3mm

  • Weight: 193g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

The design on the Oppo find x3 pro is stunning: the glass back is sculpted so the camera panel rises organically out of the back. Those cameras are very effective, capable of really strong results. There’s also a micro camera which is a remarkable novelty: you can get really close microscope-like shots, just a matter of millimetres from your subject for very cool images. This has the equivalent of 60x zoom compared to the main camera.

The display is another standout: high-resolution, with fast refresh rate for a smooth experience. Battery life is also good, well over a day, and the supplied charging plug recharges the phone very quickly: from flat to full in less than 40 minutes.

Buy now £999.00, Oppostore.co.uk

Sony xperia 1 III

Best: Display

Rating: 9/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.5in, 1,644 x 3,840 pixels, 643 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 256/512GB

  • Expandable storage? Yes

  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP telephoto

  • Camera (front): 8MP

  • Dimensions: 165 x 71 x 8.2mm

  • Weight: 186g

  • Headphone jack? Yes

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

Sony’s latest flagship phone looks tremendous, especially when you look at the display: it has 4K resolution. Sony’s the only company making phones with a display as high-resolution as a full-size TV and it looks spectacular. This is not a small phone, though the longer aspect ratio helps to keep it slim enough for most hands to find comfortable. It’s a little thicker than previous Sony flagships but the good news is that it means it can accommodate a bigger battery and battery life is strong, lasting a full day with ease.

Sony favours a fingerprint sensor mounted on the side of the phone rather than under the display as with some here, and this works very well. Cameras are the best yet on a Sony phone, with much better results using the default settings, though there are useful advanced features, too.

Buy now £1199.00, Sony.co.uk

Huawei mate 40 pro

Best: Cameraphone

Rating: 7/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.76in, 1,344 x 2,772 pixels, 456 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB

  • Expandable storage? Yes

  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 12MP telephoto, 20MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 13MP

  • Dimensions: 162.9 x 75.5 x 9.1mm

  • Weight: 212g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

A few years back, Huawei introduced high-resolution camera sensors, remarkable low-light capabilities and smart zoom features to its phones, and quickly became the cameraphone to beat. Though rivals have mostly caught up now – and the iPhone is regularly ahead for video capabilities – this is still a fearsomely good snapper. This Huawei phone uses Android, but does not have Google Mobile Services such as Google Maps, Gmail or, crucially, Google Play Store. As such the Harmony AppGallery, though growing fast, lacks a number of the biggest apps. Still, there’s Petal Maps, designed in conjunction with TomTom, which is very good.

Buy now £1099.00, Huawei.com

Google Pixel 6 pro

Best: Android phone

Rating: 8/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1,440 x 3,120 pixels, 512 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 48MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 11MP

  • Dimensions: 163.9 x 75.9 x 8.9mm

  • Weight: 210g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

The new phones from Google (there’s also the Pixel 6 below) have a distinctive design in the form of a camera panel, which stretches the width of the phone’s back. It has three cameras (two on the Pixel 6) and, this being Google, uses software to boost the image quality. This includes neat features like “magic eraser”, which can remove unwanted elements automatically or with a couple of taps. It’s pretty good, though no match for Photoshop. The main camera has a 50MP sensor and this phone is outstanding at low-light or night photography.

It also comes in cute colours, even if the names are questionable: “stormy black”, “cloudy white” and “sorta sunny”, each with two slightly different colours for the panels above and below the cameras. Like the iPhone 13 pro, it has a display with adaptive frame rates going up to 120Hz for the smoothest user experience.

With this phone, and the Pixel 6, Google has switched to using its own processor. For users who want the purest version of Android (which Google also makes), with extra features onboard, this is the best phone, and it comes at a noticeably lower price than comparable flagships.

Read the full Google Pixel 6 pro review

Buy now £849.00, Google.com

OnePlus 9 pro

Best: Value smartphone

Rating: 8/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1,440 x 3,216 pixels, 525 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 48MP wide, 8MP telephoto, 50MP ultrawide, 2MP monochrome

  • Camera (front): 16MP

  • Dimensions: 163.2 x 73.6 x 8.7mm

  • Weight: 197g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

OnePlus has formed a partnership with Hasselblad for its camera capabilities, and while this has been hit-and-miss on earlier phones, it’s very strong here. The display is great and OnePlus, long known for good design, has delivered its best look here with a gleaming, glossy finish. The OnePlus flagship charges fast – from flat to 100% in 29 minutes, OnePlus says, which seems about right.

It means that if you’re running low on juice, you can have plenty of power again in a matter of minutes. It even charges fast when you’re doing it wirelessly, which is good. Unlike Apple, OnePlus includes a charger in the box.

Buy now £929.00, Oneplus.com

Xiaomi 11t pro

Best: For fast charging

Rating: 8/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.67in, 2,400 x 1,080 pixels, 395 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 108MP wide, 5MP telephoto, 8MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 16MP

  • Dimensions: 164.1 x 76.9 x 8.8mm

  • Weight: 204g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? No

  • 5G? Yes

Xiaomi’s phones are routinely keenly priced and the 11t pro offers a lot for the money. It includes the same Qualcomm 888 chip found in much pricier phones, meaning this is a nimble and responsive handset. It has astonishingly fast charging: from 0 to full in a little more than 15 minutes, almost twice as fast as the already lightning-speed OnePlus 9 pro.

This is a big handset, so it’s worth trying it in your hand for size – it may be too big for some. The sensor for the main camera is 108MP. That’s a huge number but it’s designed so that the pixels work together in clusters of four as though they were much bigger, and more effective in lower light, the equivalent of a higher-quality 27MP photo.

Buy now £649.00, Mi.com

Samsung Galaxy z flip 3

Best: Folding phone

Rating: 8/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in (unfolded), 1,080 x 2,640 pixels, 426 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 10MP

  • Dimensions: 166 x 72.2 x 6.9 mm unfolded, 86.4 x 72.2 x 15.9-17.1 mm folded

  • Weight: 183g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

Folding phones come in two types: ones that are phone size and fold out to be mini tablets, and then this king, which folds in half from being a regular phone size to becoming amazingly pocketable. Where previous z flip phones seemed fragile, here, Samsung has got everything right: from the build to the processor to the screen quality.

There are neat extras: to take a self-portrait, press twice on the power button with the phone closed and the small external screen becomes a monitor to frame your shot so you can use the better, external cameras. The main display has a crease where it folds but, remarkably, when you’re watching a video on this screen, the crease is not evident. There’s a price premium for the convenience of a folding phone, but this is a very cool handset.

Read the full Samsung Galaxy z flip review

Buy now £949.00, Samsung.com

Apple iPhone 13

Best: Mid-range Apple phone

Rating: 8/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.1in, 1,170 x 2,532 pixels, 460 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 12MP

  • Dimensions: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.7mm

  • Weight: 174g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

Although the iPhone 13 pro is the most advanced iPhone yet, for many people the regular iPhone 13 is an appealing choice. It has a similar design to the pro, mostly different because there are two cameras, not three, positioned diagonally in the camera panel because they’re a lot bigger than last year’s. The other design differences are an aluminium frame and five different colours. These are midnight, pink, blue, product(red) and starlight, which is a cross between gold and silver.

The processor isn’t quite as powerful as on the pro but key features like the excellent cinematic mode for video are here and performance is strong. Battery life is also better than last year’s iPhone 12.

Read the full iPhone 13 review

Buy now £779.00, Apple.com

Nokia xr20

Best: Rugged phone

Rating: 7/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.67in, 1,080 x 2,400 pixels, 395 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: LCD

  • Storage capacity: 64/128GB

  • Expandable storage? Yes

  • Camera (rear): 48MP wide, 13MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 8MP

  • Dimensions: 171.6 x 81.5 x 10.6mm

  • Weight: 248g

  • Headphone jack? Yes

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

Rugged phones are great for the active, the sporty and the clumsy. Usually, they have less-potent specifications, so 5G connectivity as there is here, is a surprise. Nokia has made rugged phones in the past, but this is its best in years.

The front glass is tough and highly protective, and there’s also a free screen replacement offered in the first year. The back is textured plastic with thick rubber bumpers. It also has waterproofing. Even so, it doesn’t look as much like a ruggedised phone as you might expect. Like several phones here, there’s no charger included, though Nokia makes a donation to charity if one is bought separately.

Buy now £399.00, Nokia.com

Apple iPhone 13 mini

Best: Small smartphone

Rating: 8/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 5.4in, 1,080 x 2,340 pixels, 476 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 12MP

  • Dimensions: 131.5 x 64.2 x 7.7mm

  • Weight: 141g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

In the last decade or so, the size of phones has grown hugely, but our hands haven’t really evolved quite as quickly. In a world of big smartphones, one stands out as perfect for smaller mitts. The iPhone 13 mini is smaller than the entry-level iPhone se, but because it has an all-screen front, there’s a much bigger display – in fact, it’s the highest-resolution screen on any smartphone in terms of pixel density.

Last year’s iPhone 12 mini had decidedly average battery life but this year’s model has 90 minutes more per charge, enough to get through a day. It has a processor and cameras identical to the bigger iPhone 13, and a matching design, down to the tough front glass and chic design.

At first, when you pick it up, it’s such a contrast to other phones it almost seems like a toy, but the display is quickly immersive. It’s highly usable, though bigger fingers may find the small onscreen keyboard a little tight.

Buy now £679.00, Apple.com

Vivo x60 pro

Best: Video camera phone

Rating: 8/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.56in, 1,070 x 2,376 pixels, 398 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 256GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 48MP wide, 13MP telephoto, 13MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 32MP

  • Dimensions: 158.6 x 73.2 x 7.6mm

  • Weight: 179g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? No

  • 5G? Yes

Vivo’s well-priced flagship is stuffed with features, from the under-display fingerprint sensor and face recognition to its unique camera speciality: gimbal stabilisation. It means that however unsteady your camerawork is, because the camera module is floating in a system designed to counteract shaking, your shots will be sharp. This is especially useful when shooting video. The camera is great across the board, though the fact that the telephoto lens is only 2x that of the wide is less than some rivals.

The software is not far from the pure Android offered by Google, so it’s straightforward and effective. Battery life is good and more than a full day but it lacks the wireless charging found on most phones here.

Buy now £748.00, Amazon.co.uk

Google Pixel 6

Best: Android phone for software

Rating: 7/10

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.4in, 1,080 x 2,400 pixels, 411 pixels per inch

  • Screen technology: OLED

  • Storage capacity: 128/256GB

  • Expandable storage? No

  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 12MP ultrawide

  • Camera (front): 8MP

  • Dimensions: 158.6 x 74.8 x 8.9mm

  • Weight: 207g

  • Headphone jack? No

  • Wireless-chargeable? Yes

  • 5G? Yes

Google’s Pixel 6 pro, above, is a great phone. But if you prefer something smaller, then the Pixel 6 offers flagship capabilities at a very keen price. There are two cameras, not three, and the display isn’t as high-resolution, but the phone still looks good and is a fast performer.

Like the pro, the software here is pure Android, so it works seamlessly at all times. It also includes special extra apps like Recorder, which is perfect for taking the minutes of a meeting, for instance, because it records and transcribes voices in real time. The new Android 12 software is already on board here and has cute details, like icons that change colour to match the theme you’ve chosen.

Read the full Google Pixel 6 review

Buy now £599.00, Google.com

The verdict: Best smartphones

The current crop of smartphones includes some of the best ever made, with outstanding features, strong and original designs and blazing-fast performance. The Apple iPhone 13 pro max is the flagship to beat, but the great-value Google Pixel 6 pro runs it pretty close. The 4K screen on the Sony xperia 1 III looks amazing, and it is the best phone for audiophiles who want to connect their headphones through the 3.5mm jack.

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