Great cameras, brilliant displays, a long battery life and blazing fast processing speed — the newest smartphones really have it all.
Although there was a time when you had to spend $800 or more for a decent camera, speedy downloads and a lag-free connection, that’s no longer the case.
Now, whether you prefer Apple or Android, you can find excellent options — with high-performing cameras to boot — at every price point, from $300 to up to $1,800.
Smartphone buying guide
While you can find great smartphones in any price range, there are a few things to consider before you take the plunge.
• Display size and technology. Most smartphones’ screens are around 6”. This is a size that fits most people’s hands, while still being large enough for easy reading and video streaming.
Some brands’ flagship models, however, usually feature much larger screens, like the iPhone 12 Pro Max (6.7”) and the Galaxy S21 Ultra (6.8”) do. The larger frame on these usually houses the best smartphone technology you can find — but it makes them heavier and sometimes awkward to hold, especially for those with smaller hands.
The technology behind these screens is also something to consider. While LCD screens used to be the norm in smartphones, OLED and AMOLED screens are becoming increasingly popular. These types of displays tend to have the advantage over older LCD models as they offer richer color contrast, deeper blacks and, more importantly, a longer battery life.
• Cameras. In the past, megapixels (MP) — which are often used to indicate a camera’s resolution — varied widely between smartphones. Nowadays most phones are offering at least 12MP, while some go as high as 108MP. These numbers, however, don’t mean that one camera automatically takes vastly superior photos to another.
Take, for example, smartphones with ultra-high resolution cameras touting more than 100MPs. In practice, these phones — like our pick for best Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — will only use that resolution in bright daylight. In dimmer lighting conditions, they’ll use a technique called pixel binning instead, which takes several closely placed pixels and fuses them into a single larger one. The end result is comparable to 12MP.
Having said that, the S21 and similar phones do take incredible photos, but that’s also due to other factors, including how much light the camera is able to capture, the quality and aperture of the lens, firmware features, the phone’s processing speed and even the size of each pixel.
So, while a large MP number by itself doesn’t ensure high-quality pictures, when paired with other essential features, it can give you stunning detail, and the flexibility to crop or print them in bigger sizes without sacrificing quality.
This means that if you want the absolute best camera — the kind that even pros love to use when they don’t have their point-and-shoot around — go for those with improved autofocus sensors, image stabilization, night mode or artificial intelligence that combines several shots to optimize quality.
More importantly, look for powerful light sensors (such as those in our Best Overall pick, the iPhone 12 Pro Max), which let you make the most out of any lighting situation, translating to richly detailed, brilliant photos.
Do note that, if this is what you want, you can expect to pay $1,000 or more. If you want great image quality, but don’t need near-perfect night photography or incredible zooming ability, you can find solid options for $800 or less. Additionally, many affordable models – those closer to $400, for example — feature pretty good cameras that can take beautiful photos in favorable lighting conditions.
• Battery life. Higher milliamp-hour (mAh) ratings generally means a longer-lasting battery, but ultimately, how you use your smartphone will have the biggest impact. Casually scrolling through Facebook won’t drain your battery like watching a show on Netflix or playing games will.
So, if you want to see if your new smartphone will last the entire day given how you typically use it, check the company’s website and see if the advertised battery life was measured while gaming, streaming videos or just browsing.
Generally, the latest models can last 11 hours or more of general web browsing, while constant video streaming can bring it down to 10 hours or less.
• Storage capacity. Storage on the newest smartphones ranges between 64GB to up to 512GB. Normally, each model offers two or three different storage options, each costing about $50 or $100 more as the size increases.
How much storage you need depends on how you’re planning to use it. If you take a lot of pictures and videos, or are an avid app downloader, it’s a good idea to spend the extra money on 128GB or more of storage. You could also subscribe to a number of cloud storage services for a monthly fee.
• Locked or unlocked. Many people chose to buy their new smartphone directly from their wireless provider. However, there’s another option when it comes to upgrading your device: unlocked smartphones.
When you buy a smartphone from a carrier like AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, that smartphone is tied to the company’s network. This means that, if you switch carriers, you won’t be able to use your device with a new provider. An unlocked phone, on the other hand, can be used with a number of networks — as long as you pay for their service, of course.
Unlocked phones are completely legal, are available online and typically cost the same as a locked phone; however, while wireless providers typically offer monthly payment plans or discounts for trade-ins, you’ll have to pay for an unlocked phone upfront and in full.
1. Best overall: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Weight: 7.96 oz | Dimensions: 2.39” x 3.07” x 0.29” | Screen: 6.7” OLED | Resolution: 1284×2778 | Processor: A14 Bionic | Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Battery: 3,687mAh | Rear cameras: 12MP (wide, ultra-wide and telephoto with 2.5x optical zoom) | Front camera: 12MP | Dust/water resistance: IP68
The iPhone 12 series includes four of the best-performing smartphones in the market, all featuring 5G-connectivity and the A14 Bionic chip — the fastest CPU on any iPhone. Apple’s flagship phone, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, leads this impressive pack, with a longer battery life than its siblings and Apple’s best camera to date.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max was designed for photography lovers, whether amateur or pro. In addition to its front-facing camera, it has three rear ones — a standard wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto. Each of the four cameras benefits from a sensor that’s 47% larger than the iPhone 12 Pro’s. The larger sensor gathers more light to deliver stunning pictures even in low-light conditions.
The Pro Max also features a LiDAR sensor, which uses laser pulses to map out the distance of objects or people, improving the smartphone’s autofocus. In the meantime, its new image-stabilization system means shaky hands won’t be much of a problem when recording long videos.
Aside from its top-notch camera, the 12 Pro Max offers a brilliant OLED display that, at 6.7”, is large enough for comfortable reading, movie-watching and gaming. (This size does have its drawbacks, however, as many reviewers have found it awkward and a little slippery to hold.)
It also has an incredibly long battery life with up to 12 hours of video streaming and 80 hours of audio playback, along with a durable ceramic-coated display that prevents the screen from cracking when dropped.
The Pro Max does have a couple of drawbacks, and its high price is chief among them. The base model retails for over $1,000 and, in what was a controversial decision by Apple, doesn’t include the charger. However, if you want a powerhouse phone that takes gorgeous photos and can double as a workstation, the Pro Max should be first on your list.
2. Editor’s pick: Apple iPhone 12
Weight: 5.78 oz | Dimensions: 5.78” x 2.81” x 0.29” | Screen: 6.1” OLED | Resolution: 2532×1170 | Processor: A14 Bionic | Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB | Battery: 2,815 mAh | Rear cameras: 12MP (wide, ultra-wide) | Front camera: 12MP | Dust/water resistance: IP68
If the 12 Pro Max’s price is a deal-breaker —or if you just don’t need the huge screen and all the bells and whistles — you really can’t go wrong with the iPhone 12.
Retailing for around $800 (that’s about $200 lower than the Pro Max’s base model), the iPhone 12 is 5G-ready and powered by the same speedy A14 Bionic processor the 12 Pro Max is. Although its camera is not as advanced, the iPhone 12 is still capable of taking beautiful, detailed photos in all light conditions. In fact, many people might not notice significant differences (or any at all) between the two, especially in daylight.
Two of the biggest differences between the models is the lack of a telephoto lens on the iPhone 12 and a smaller camera sensor which reduces the amount of light it captures at night. However, the Night Mode on the iPhone 12 is still terrific, capturing colorful and sharp images in low light.
Like the entire 12 series, iPhone 12 is able to adapt to network conditions, switching from 5G to 4G when necessary in order to save battery. Its battery life, however, isn’t as long as the Pro Max — third-party testing found it to withstand a little over eight hours of typical usage at 5G, and ten hours at 4G.
Another potential drawback is the base model’s low storage capacity. Starting at 64GB — which will be quickly wiped out by high-resolution photos and videos — you’re almost certain to want to subscribe to Apple’s iCloud service, an added expense of anywhere from $0.99 to $9.99 per month.
Having said that, the iPhone 12 is one of the best smartphones on the market, offering lightning-fast processing speed, a responsive and easy-to-use interface, sleek design and a fantastic camera — for a very competitive price.
3. Best for low prices: Apple iPhone SE
Weight: 5.22 oz | Dimensions: 5.45” x 2.65” x 0.29” | Screen: 4.7” Retina | Resolution: 1,334×750 | Processor: A13 Bionic | Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB | Battery: 1,821 mAh | Rear cameras: Single 12MP | Front camera: 12MP | Dust/water resistance: IP67
Most reviewers agree — iPhones are great, but expensive, phones.
So, what if you could get Apple’s fast, streamlined interface and sleek design for only $400? You can; and no, you don’t have to buy a four-year old iPhone model.
The iPhone SE was released in April 2020 and is the perfect balance between performance and affordability. It’s pocket-friendly (4.7” display) and resembles the previous, classic iPhone design with borders on the top and bottom of the screen and a fingerprint scanning home button. The camera design is also similar to older models with a single rear lens instead of the dual and triple lens systems that prevail now.
Of course, don’t expect to get the same camera quality, graphics performance and power-efficiency as the iPhone 12 models. While the SE was released the same year as the iPhone 12 lineup, it has a A13 Bionic chip instead of the latest A14. The A13, however, is still plenty powerful, delivering processing speeds not found on any other smartphone in this price range. In fact, the iPhone XR, which costs around $100 more than the SE, features the older A12 chip.
4. Best Android smartphone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Weight: 8.08 oz | Dimensions: 6.5” x 2.97” x 0.35” | Screen: 6.8” Dynamic AMOLED | Resolution: 3200 x 1440 | Processor: Snapdragon 888 | Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB | Battery: 5000mAh | Rear cameras: 12MP ultra-wide, 108MP wide, 10MP telephoto (3x zoom) 10MP telephoto (10x zoom) | Front camera: 40MP | Dust/water resistance: IP68
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra might just be the best Android smartphone around, with a four-lens camera system and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, the fastest you can get on an Android.
The S21’s camera is outstanding, with four rear cameras in addition to the front-facing one, rivaling the iPhone 12 Pro Max and even out-performing it in some aspects, specifically in zooming capacity. For example, while the 12 Pro Max has a single 2.5x telephoto lens, the Galaxy S21 Ultra features two telephoto lenses, one with 3x magnification and the other with 10x. And similar to the Apple model, the Galaxy’s night mode is also capable of detailed, sharp, well-lit photos in low-light settings.
Other impressive camera features include a “Vlogger” mode, which lets you record video using the front and rear cameras at the same time; it also has a “Director” mode where you can seamlessly switch between all five cameras in a single recording. In this mode, you’ll get a preview of each camera’s view at the bottom of your screen.
When it comes to display size, the S21 Ultra is slightly smaller — 6.8” compared to the S20 Ultra’s 6.9” display — but delivers brighter colors and better contrast while being more battery-efficient. Additionally, it supports Samsung’s stylus, the S Pen, giving you the ability to take notes easily on its sizable screen. Do note, however, that the stylus (and the charger, for that matter) are sold separately.
5. Best Android smartphone runner-up: OnePlus 9 Pro
Weight: 6.95 oz | Dimensions: 5.45” x 2.65” x 0.29” | Screen: 6.7” Fluid AMOLED | Resolution: 3216 x 1440 | Processor: Snapdragon 888 | Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB | Battery: 4500mAh | Rear cameras: 48MP main, 50MP ultra-wide, 8MP telephoto, 2MP Mono| Front camera: 16MP | Dust/water resistance: IP68
For $1,069, around $100 less than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a close runner-up. Both smartphones are powered with the same first-rate Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, which means both devices deliver exceptional lag-free performance when running multiple data-heavy apps at the same time.
While the camera on the S21 is better in low-light conditions and features a more advanced telephoto lens, the 9 Pro’s is still quite impressive. It was co-designed by Hasselblad, a premium photography equipment manufacturer, and offers well-balanced images, excellent exposure and rich, natural colors, with minimum distortion.
Both models have similar battery life at around 11 hours, but the 9 Pro’s charging technology makes it truly stands out. The 9 Pro supports 65-watt fast charging, which can provide a full charge in around 30 minutes — the S21 Ultra charges to around 50% in the same time span. The 9 Pro also comes with a 65W charger while the Samsung model doesn’t include a charger at all.
Wireless charging speeds are equally impressive with the 50-watt OnePlus wireless charger (which is sold separately) charging the phone fully in about 40 minutes.
6. Best Android smartphone for low prices: Google Pixel 4a
Weight: 5.04 oz | Dimensions: 5.7” x 2.7” x 0.3” | Screen: 5.81” OLED | Resolution: 2340×1080 | Processor: Snapdragon 730G | Storage: 128G| Battery: 3,140 mAh | Rear cameras: 12.2MP | Front camera: 8MP | Dust/water resistance: N/A
If you’re looking for an affordable Android smartphone that doesn’t sacrifice performance and camera quality, the Pixel 4a is an excellent choice.
For around $350, The Pixel 4a offers the best camera in its price range. It can snap excellent photos in all kinds of lighting, with colors that always look natural. At nighttime, using Google’s Night Sight mode greatly reduces noise and flare from light sources. Night Sight can also detect if the phone is moving to optimize and reduce blur.
The Google Pixel 4a delivers solid performance, quick response time and a bright 5.8” OLED display that delivers excellent range of color and a longer-lasting battery life than comparable LCD screens.
7. Best foldable smartphone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
Weight: 9.9 oz | Dimensions: 6.2” x 2.6” x 0.66” (closed); 6.2” x 5” x 0.27” (open) | Screen: 7.6” 120Hz | Resolution: 2208×1768 | Processor: Snapdragon 865 Plus | Storage: 256G| Battery: 4,500 mAh | Rear cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP telephoto (2x optical/10x digital zoom) | Front camera: 10MP (cover), 10MP (main display) | Dust/water resistance: N/A
The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 packs outstanding processing speed, an excellent camera and a battery life of around 10 hours. However, when it comes to its display, this device is nothing like an iPhone or even Samsung’s own Galaxy.
At first sight, the Z Fold 2 looks like any other classic smartphone — when closed that is. This smartphone opens up right in the middle, like a book, to reveal a 7.6” display that’s almost like a small tablet. The larger screen gives users extra workspace if they need to edit documents, photos or videos while on the go. You can also use each half of the display independently, which gives it incredible versatility. You can launch several apps at the same time and, since the display has a built-in hinge, it can also be folded to resemble a laptop.
The Galaxy Z Fold 2 is a perfect choice for those who need a mobile workstation; however, it’s one of the most expensive smartphones to date, selling for close to $1,800.
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