Best smartphones of 2021 | CNN Underscored



CNN
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Smartphones are at the center of our digital lives. And since you’ll likely use your phone more than any other gadget you own, picking the right one to last you through years of use is crucial.

Fortunately, we’ve tested all of the top smartphones released in 2021 to help you make the right call. Here are the ones we found to be the best:

Best smartphone overall

Apple’s iPhone 12 has a gorgeous build with a vibrant display, two main cameras that capture rich images in any lighting conditions and performance that is second to none. The iPhone 12 beat out Apple’s other phones as well as all other non-Apple phones we tested.

Runner-up

With a large display, sleek build and terrific triple-camera system on the back, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the ultimate Android phone. Plus, it sports the S Pen for note-taking, drawing and navigation on the go.

Budget pick

Google’s Pixel 5a with 5G is a budget phone that feels like a high-end model, with performance that beats out everything else in its price range. A capable camera system and sharp display let you capture and view detailed images, plus a clean Android installation, long battery life and guaranteed updates for three years make it an even more solid buy.

Jacob Krol/CNN

While other phones continue to balloon in size, the iPhone 12 kept the same 6.1-inch screen size as its predecessor. It’s still plenty of real estate, but it isn’t an unwieldy screen size that necessitates two-handed use like some other smartphones on the market.

The display is also an OLED that delivers vibrant colors, high levels of detail and deep blacks. The result is a display that’s immersive for movies and sharing photos, but equally helpful to showcase important info in an email. Apple’s OLED is a bit less saturated than the Note 20 Ultra’s and doesn’t skew as cool as the Pixel’s. Even so, colors pop when playing games or taking in a movie. Notably, the Avengers: Endgame climatic ending looks very well balanced on the iPhone 12. It’s comparable to an OLED television in that the vibrancy of Captain Marvel’s glow bursts off the display and highlights the surrounding environment — all while not obscuring other aspects of what’s on the screen.

When dark mode is engaged and you’re reading an email, the brighter tones of text pop off the display. In everyday use, you’ll also find that the OLED doesn’t cause extra eye strain as an LCD might.

The iPhone 12’s display doesn’t have a 120 Hz refresh rate, but we found that if you haven’t used a speedy refresh rate on a smartphone, 60 Hz will do for now. With the Note 20 Ultra’s 120 Hz display, there’s a certain smoothness when swiping or watching content that makes it feel more instant that the iPhone can’t currently meet. When scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, the iPhone has a bit of hesitation that’s noticeable after using a 120 Hz device like a Note 20 Ultra.

The iPhone 12 still keeps a notch at the top that houses a True Depth Sensor, which enables Face ID for unlocking and authenticating. It was the fastest way to unlock the phone, but it’s 2020, and the wearing of masks obviously renders Face ID moot for the most part. The iPhone’s front camera also delivers a rich photograph even with selfies. Apple doesn’t oversaturate or skew into fantasyland auto-smoothing your skin, as some other smartphones tend to do.

The A14 Bionic chip powers the entire iPhone 12, including the cameras. Smart HDR 3 can figure out an image — identifying the shot, direction of lights and the subjects — in just microseconds. Nine times out of 10 you can just point and shoot to get a great image. In our testing, it was able to focus and capture the image within a half second of us hitting the shutter. The Note 20 Ultra takes a bit longer at closer to a full second, depending on the shot. We also found that the viewfinder is precisely the same as the end result — colors were balanced and lighting was correct.

Night Mode is extremely impressive here. Yes, it takes a bit longer to capture your shot, but you have full control over how long the exposure is. In about two seconds after the image has been shot, the iPhone 12 will process the photo and deliver a balanced result. It adds back in light and detail that at times feels seemingly impossible. It also doesn’t skew overtly warm or overtly cool with these shots. That meant, in our testing, no overexposed shots with a bright flash or pitch-black photos with no detail.

Everyday tasks like email, messaging, calls, web browsing and basic games happened without a hitch. We could easily leave several apps open in the background, play a round of Numberzilla and take a FaceTime call without a hiccup. The experience was on par with the Note 20 Ultra and blazed past the Pixel 4a 5G and other phones we tested.

It won’t just be fast for the first few months, either; we’re three months down the line and have noticed any slowdowns. It should last for many years to come, especially when you look at how previous Apple chips have performed.

Apple also added 5G support to the iPhone 12, which supports the two main standards here in the United States: mmWave and Sub-6 GHz. That’s a standard all of our top picks support. Right now, Sub-6 GHz is the most available, but it doesn’t deliver the super-fast speeds you’ve been promised. We noticed marginally faster speeds over 4G LTE, but the big advantage was more capacity. This way if several 5G devices are around one another, it won’t create a slowdown. MmWave is the true 5G vision we were promised, but it’s very hard to track down right now. You need to have visibility to the cell site, and your phone needs a clear line of sight to it. With mmWave, you’ll get much faster speeds, which in our testing meant 2,000 Mbps down and up. That beats out 4G LTE several times over. So if you’re in a city with 5G right now, you’ll see faster speeds, but for many it’s simply about future-proofing.

Battery life is really strong on the iPhone 12, as we averaged 11 hours of screen-on time. That’s more than enough to get through a full day. In our battery test, it clocked in at 12 hours and 30 minutes.

At just $799, the image and video capturing chops along with the other features of the iPhone 12 make it our best overall pick for a smartphone. We have no doubts it will last for years to come.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The Galaxy Note has long been the most powerful and more experimental phone from Samsung historically. And in 2020, Samsung built upon that further, equipping the Note 20 Ultra with a wild 50x Zoom on the main camera, a sharp 6.9-inch Super AMOLED display and an all-around speedy experience.

For many, the screen size might be too large, though. At 6.9 inches, it trumps the iPhone 12’s screen size, perhaps inching into unwieldy territory. Aiding in the ability to manage the larger size is a smooth matte finish on the rear and an overall thin build. It also looks very nice, mixing aluminum with glass for a high-end look.

The Note 20 Ultra is capable of capturing some great shots. It has a versatile trio of lenses: a 16-megapixel ultrawide, 108-megapixel wide and 12-megapixel telephoto lens. And when you’re shooting images, the auto mode generally delivers good results that you’ll be happy to share on Instagram. In our testing, we especially liked how it handled overtly bright shots by not increasing vibrancy or dropping the white balance. That means you don’t get an overexposed mess, but a properly shot photo that doesn’t lose the details. It’s nearly on par with Apple’s Smart HDR and Google’s processes but misses a bit more details in complex shots with multiple light sources and a large number of subjects.

Samsung does raise the bar a bit by combining optical and digital zoom. Its 50x Space Zoom feature is still a gimmick in most cases, but it does what it sets out to do. While testing the camera, we could zoom in on the NYC skyline from across the Hudson River in New Jersey to make out minute details, such as the spire of the Freedom Tower. Though a bit blurry, it’s not totally unusable.

The phone’s display is simply terrific. We enjoyed taking in films like Captain Marvel on the expansive 6.9-inch screen. The true highlight for us was the 120 Hz display, which made the experience buttery smooth. It’s most noticeable when there’s a lot of motion on the display — think Real Racing and the car moving alongside the street. No streaking or blurriness to be found here; it’s more lifelike than any other phone. Even scrolling through Twitter was enjoyable, as there were no lags or jumps no matter how fast we thumbed the screen.

For the most part, the Note 20 Ultra is the Android equivalent to the iPhone 12. It runs Android 11 with a Samsung user interface on top. It’s capable of playing Fortnite without slowdowns while having upward of 20 applications open in the background. We had difficulty trying to get the Note 20 Ultra to slow down, and it’s thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor and 12GB of RAM. You won’t notice slowdowns when swiping through screens or browsing through large PDFs or files as well. Along with your fingers you can use the S Pen (it still docks into the Note 20 Ultra) to navigate the software and to quickly jot down notes.

The massive 4,500mAh battery inside provides enough juice to get through even a packed day — we were able to get upward of 10 to 12 hours filled with all types of use. You can charge the Note 20 Ultra with a USB-C cable and wireless charging. Better yet, place a pair of Galaxy Buds Live or another Qi-enabled device on the back to charge it.

It’s a perfected smartphone with a ton of features that you may never use — and it’s all that for $1,299. It’s regularly seeing discounts, but that price makes it a very expensive phone with the features we needed to see. And yes, it’s still the best Android phone. Maybe with a lower price tag it would have been more competitive against the iPhone 12.

Jacob Krol/CNN

For $449.99, the Pixel 5a with 5G is the best midrange Android device available. The camera performance is on par with $999 phones and clean Android is a *chef’s kiss* here with some great Pixel-exclusive features and ultra-long battery life.

The Pixel 5a is much the same device as the 4a with 5G and 5 that came before it; the new model adds a little bit more screen real estate (6.34 inches to the older phone’s 6.2 inches) and a bigger battery, and drops a few features here and there, yet it’s priced at $50 cheaper. It’s a budget take on the Pixel concept that doesn’t really feel like a budget phone.

As with all 5G phones, 5G is a mixed bag dependent on what networks are rolled out in your vicinity. The Pixel 5a with 5G supports Sub-6 networks, one of the two main 5G network types in the United States. This network won’t deliver super-fast speeds but does offer more bandwidth for connected devices. In our testing, we averaged about 200 to 300 Mbps on AT&T and Verizon’s 5G networks. That’s on par with other phones we’ve tested on Sub-6 networks. However, mmWave support is missing here, and it’s odd considering it was in the 4a with 5G — it’s also the faster standard that’s being rolled out less quickly in the United States. This makes the Pixel 5a with 5G a little less future-proof than some rivals like the 4a with 5G or OnePlus Nord N200.

The dual rear camera made up of 12-megapixel wide and 16-megapixel lenses, along with the processor inside, are the same setup as the Pixel 4a with 5G and Pixel 5. The missing piece? That would be a separate autofocus sensor, though it doesn’t impact the experience all that much here. Even though none of this is new, over several weeks of testing, the 5a has become a crucial part of our photographic arsenal. The camera gave us great details and colors, as we have seen with previous Pixel devices. Google’s software works to make images shine, from making images more natural overall to removing fish-eye distortion from ultrawide shots. The Pixel 5a also packs Google’s Night Sight mode, which turns a pitch-dark scene into a well-lit shot. As we’ve noticed on previous Pixels, it’s skewed a little to a cooler scale than Apple’s Night Mode or Samsung’s equivalent, but it makes for a great shot.

The front-facing camera (with an 8-megapixel sensor) is handy for recording TikToks, taking selfies and video chatting with a service like Google Duo. Fair warning, though — the Pixel 5a can take a second or two to process an image, and it’s most noticeable with Night Sight, coming in at three to five seconds on average in our testing. It’s not a deal breaker at $449, but it’s good to know. It is longer than image processing times on the 4a with 5G, 5 or other picks. The key reason for the slowdown is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor inside. It’s not a slouch, but it’s not the latest midrange processor and is the same one found inside the 4a with 5G and Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5a’s somewhat dated processor also shows its age when it comes to overall performance, but since it’s running clean Android 11, it doesn’t have a significant amount of overhead or an extensive user interface to worry about. We encountered some hiccups with more intense tasks, like playing multiplayer games or working on photo edits. But the Pixel 5a works just fine for everyday tasks, both work and personal uses, including Twitter, Slack, mail, messages, Instagram, Afterlight, Snapseed, Call of Duty: Mobile and YouTube, among others. Google also promises three years of updates along with security updates. You also get Pixel-exclusive features like Call Waiting, which lets the Google Assistant wait for a representative when you’re calling for tech support or making a dinner reservation, along with an impressive Recorder app that transcribes recorded conversations in real time.

The 6.34-inch OLED screen is pretty darn good. Colors are vibrant and blacks are deep; the only thing missing is a high refresh rate, but as a budget-oriented device, 60 Hz is just fine. We only really noticed when we swapped from a device that has a higher rate. And the pretty efficient display is paired with the largest battery ever placed in a Pixel — the 4,680mAh inside keeps going and lasted for over 13 hours on our battery test. Google also includes a USB-C to USB-C cable in the box along with a power brick. The Pixel 5a with 5G is only missing wireless charging, which in our opinion isn’t a deal breaker.

It doesn’t have the latest processor — and it might be a little slower after a few years than a high-end phone you’d buy today — but at $449 it’s still a great value.

Foldable smartphones are picking up steam. It’s currently a niche market, but the folding future of phones is exciting. The new form factor allows for breakthroughs to happen in engineering and creates new experiences for us to use. A single device might be able to tackle your communication needs and be a tablet. From a lifestyle perspective, a compact device like the Z Flip can make your use of technology more intentional.

If we were to pick one for 2020 it would the Z Flip 3 5G. We’ve called it the best foldable on the market, and it’s relatively affordable, especially with a trade-in. It goes from compact with a tiny 1.1-inch screen to a large 6.7-inch screen when unfolded. It also launched at $999, which is still pricey but much cheaper than the $1,799 Galaxy Z Fold 3. The hinge feels great and has extra features to ensure debris or materials won’t get caught under the display. The phone features a dependable set of cameras, specifically a wide and ultrawide lens, with all of the modes you could want.

We’re excited about the future of foldables and expect that next year we’ll be calling one a top pick.

As you’d expect, when testing a smartphone, we physically switch over to that device for a period of time. It becomes our daily driver, with our SIM card inside, the apps we use and our contacts. That’s our real-world testing — using it for phone calls, texting with friends, capturing memories, playing games, chilling out with music, reading the news and taking in content.

Additionally, we pay close attention to four specific areas. When evaluating a phone’s build, we analyze and test the design. Does it feel good in the hand? Is it easy to hold, or is it a slippery mess? We also factor in what types of ports a phone has and, of course, check for a headphone jack. As phones have been getting larger and larger, size is taken into account.

Performance covers a lot — from the display to software and even connectivity, with more in between. To standardize the performance, we used benchmarks on each smartphone, and these are the same tests we run on devices in individual reviews. A proprietary battery test and Geekbench 5 are the callouts. With connectivity, we tested both cellular and Wi-Fi in a variety of situations.

With cameras, we tried to use them as you would. Capturing family at night and during the day, testing the all-important Portrait Modes and just general shooting. We shook our hands to test stabilization, tracked shutter times and saw how long it took to capture a photo.

Battery life was a category of its own to identify full run times, charging times and just how much use each phone could provide. The CNN Underscored battery test consists of a 4K video on a loop that runs until the device powers off. We ensure the brightness is set to 50% and turn off connectivity via airplane mode.

iPhone SE ($399; amazon.com)

While the iPhone SE didn’t get our budget pick, it’s a close second. At $399 with the A13 Bionic chip inside, it runs iOS 14 like a champ and is mostly on par with the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. It feels classic, with a 4.7-inch screen and the home button with Touch ID on the bottom.

iPhone 12 Mini ($729; amazon.com)

The iPhone 12 and 12 Mini are identical except for the screen size, and that’s really good news. With a 5.42-inch screen, the iPhone 12 Mini is the compact phone with no compromises. It has the same camera setup as the 12, and that means terrific photos no matter the shooting conditions. It runs iOS 14 just as well and really is a great choice for people with smaller hands.

iPhone 12 Pro ($999; amazon.com)

As we noted above, for most people, the iPhone 12 will be just fine. But if you want a classier stainless steel design and an extra camera on the back, the 12 Pro is worth the $200 increase. Notably, the telephoto is really handy for portraits as well as being another view for shooting a photo. We also really liked the LiDAR sensor, which further improved focusing times and Night Mode.

iPhone 12 Pro Max ($1,199; amazon.com)

For some, the iPhone 12 Pro Max might be the right choice, but for many, it’s just too big. It has the biggest screen of any iPhone, coming in at 6.7 inches, and it offers a nearly identical experience to the iPhone 12 Pro. The camera sensors are physically larger and can capture a bit more details, but unless you’re a professional photographer it will be hard to notice the improvements.

Galaxy S20 FE ($699; samsung.com)

Arriving nine months after the original S20, the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition got almost everything right. A $699 mash-up of Samsung technologies held together in a polycarbonate plastic build, it delivers a triple-camera setup on the back with support for Space Zoom. It can take good photos and capture smooth video, but it takes a little more work than our best overall pick. The 6.5-inch Super AMOLED display on the front delivers a 120 Hz refresh rate. We wish all phones, including the iPhone 12, offered the faster refresh rate. Ultimately, though, the iPhone 12 is just $100 more, and the Pixel 4a 5G is much cheaper.

Galaxy S20 ($999; samsung.com)

Much of the Galaxy S20 is the same no matter the model. The entry-level S20 unfortunately didn’t follow the S10E with the same feature set. The S20 features a 6.2-inch Quad HD AMOLED display with a 120 Hz refresh rate and a triple-lens main camera system with a 30x Space Zoom. It’s powered by the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ with 12GB of RAM as the S20 and S20+.

Galaxy S20+ ($1,199; samsung.com)

The Galaxy S20+ is just another size of the S20 with a 6.7-inch display. It’s still an AMOLED display with 120 Hz, three cameras on the back and a zippy Snapdragon 865+ processor. Samsung is big on releasing multiple models, and the S20+ is just another size option.

Galaxy S20 Ultra ($1,399; samsung.com)

We proclaimed this $1,399 smartphone to be the kitchen sink phone, and it still lives up to that name. It features a 100x zoom on a camera with a massive AMOLED display, plus support for the core 5G bands and a super-zippy processor that lasts for many years to come. It’s just a very expensive phone, and the camera really isn’t the best. You’re better off with the Note 20 Ultra.

Galaxy Z Flip 5G ($1,449; samsung.com)

As we note above, if we were to give a foldable a top pick it would be the Galaxy Z Flip 5G. With a trade-in, it’s relatively affordable in comparison to our other picks, and it’s a great smartphone. With its compact build, we still think it’s the best foldable on the market. It can easily fit in a shirt pocket, and there’s even a tiny screen on the front. You’ll unfold to a 6.7-inch Infinity Flex display that’s a mixture of materials, glass and plastic included. The hinge is designed to ensure materials don’t get under the screen, and you can stop the fold at almost any angle.

Galaxy Z Fold 2 ($1,999; samsung.com)

Samsung’s second-generation flagship foldable is seriously impressive. The hinge and design are vastly improved over the original — that’s crucial for a foldable device. It’s still a niche market for this type of phone, but the Z Fold 2 is still in the upper echelon at nearly $2,000. For that price, you can go from a traditional smartphone to a 7.6-inch Dynamic AMOLED Infinity Flex display. That’s massive and gives you plenty of room for entertainment, productivity and even games. We just need developers to update applications for the extra-large screen.

Google Pixel 4a ($349; amazon.com)

The first Pixel of 2020 struck a really nice chord. At $349, it delivers a really solid experience with an OLED screen, a fingerprint sensor on the back and one camera lens on the back. It’s a great 4G LTE-capable phone for its price, but in 2020 we’re also focused on longevity, and for a little bit more the Pixel 4a 5G gets you a more future-proof device.

Google Pixel 5 ($699; amazon.com)

The Pixel 5, at just $699, is the high-end Pixel for 2020. But it doesn’t really impress more than the Pixel 4a 5G — it has a slightly more refined design and supports reverse wireless charging. Unless you’re a Pixel die-hard who wants a fun color, the differences are minimal and the 4a 5G is the way to go.

Motorola Edge ($499.39, originally $699; amazon.com)

Motorola’s reentry into the flagship space was a mixed one. The more expensive Edge+ is a Verizon exclusive, and that’s just no fun. The Motorola Edge is a modest flagship with a display that stretches to the very edge (get the name now?), literally spanning the right and left sides. It didn’t add much actual use cases, though, and at $699 your money is better spent on our budget pick: the Pixel 4a 5G.

Motorola Razr 5G ($1,399; amazon.com)

Our experience with the first generation of the Razr was nostalgia-fueled but ultimately not a good foldable experience. The second gen keeps the iconic design and a hinge that you can physically feel. But the fact that it feels more durable doesn’t get away from feeling the display fold and hearing it creak. We do like the larger display on the front over that of the tiny one on the Z Flip, though. And Motorola making it available unlocked, instead of locked to Verizon, is a great move.

OnePlus 8T ($749; oneplus.com)

OnePlus is known for providing flagship specs and features at a price that undercuts its competitors, and the $749 OnePlus 8T is no different. It includes the latest Qualcomm processor, the Snapdragon 865, 5G connectivity, a big battery and four rear-facing cameras, including a macro lens for those photos where you need to get really close to your subject. All OnePlus phones are powered by Android and run OnePlus’ proprietary Oxygen OS on top of it. The 6.55-inch display even has a 120 Hz refresh rate, but ultimately the OnePlus 8T fell short from one of our top picks due to unreliable camera performance. Oh, and the fact that Samsung undercut OnePlus by releasing the Galaxy S20 FE that nearly matches its specs but costs $50 less.

OnePlus 8 Pro ($799; oneplus.com)

The OnePlus 8 Pro was released in early 2020 and remains in the OnePlus lineup as a higher-end option for OnePlus fans. It’s normally priced at $899, which is uncharted territory for a company known for its low-end prices on high-end phones. We reviewed the 8 Pro shortly after it launched and found it to be a fantastic Android phone, with a stellar display and strong performance with long-lasting battery life. The unlocked OnePlus 8 Pro lacks support for mmWave 5G networks, certain to be a drawback for some. The cameras are good but not on the same level as the iPhone 12, and at this price it needs to be as good or better to get a top pick.

Microsoft Surface Duo ($1,399; microsoft.com)

Microsoft’s reentry into the smartphone space was a unique one. The $1,299 Surface Duo doesn’t have a folding screen, but rather two separate screens that are connected by a stellar hinge. The design purposely doesn’t feature any screen on the front, and it’s meant to help you use your phone with intention. And while the hardware is good, the software experience left us wanting a lot more. Android as a whole isn’t ready for the two-screen revolution, and it was really buggy when it came to sending applications to the proper sides of the display. Still, we have high hopes for version two.