We all covet those little rectangles in our pockets. Smartphones play a massive part in our day-to-day lives, but buying the perfect smartphone can be an arduous task. However, don’t fret – we’re here to help you buy the best smartphone for you.
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We’ve painstakingly put every smartphone to the test, with the best coverage in the UK, so we can help you make a buying decision. Our best smartphone 2021 roundup is always kept up to date, so be sure to check back often.
Best smartphone: At a glance
How to buy the best smartphone for you
Finding the right smartphone for your budget can be tricky, especially when there are so many expensive contracts to sift through. To make things easier, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about buying your perfect smartphone, as well as what you need to know about picking out a contract.
Should I buy a smartphone on contract or SIM-free?
Generally speaking, buying a phone unlocked and SIM-free is the best option, as you can use any SIM you like and sell the phone when you want to upgrade, but you do have to have the money upfront. If you can’t stomach the upfront cost, go with a contract, but work out the total cost of it over the period to make sure you aren’t getting ripped off: if you can afford a bit more upfront, you’ll most likely save over the contract’s length.
Which smartphone operating system do I need?
There are two smartphone operating systems to decide from in 2021: iOS and Android.
You’ll only find iOS on Apple’s own smartphones. Typically, iOS gets apps first and is a wonderfully slick OS. It isn’t as customisable as Android, but there’s no doubt that it’s incredibly easy to use.
Android has a much wider reach than its Apple counterpart and is found on the majority of smartphones on the market. There are many different versions of Google’s operating system available, though. Generally speaking, you’ll want a phone running Android 9 or higher, as older versions will now be outdated. Manufacturers often customise their own versions of Android, which means that the experience can differ between handsets.
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What should I look for in a smartphone display?
As most smartphones are controlled entirely with their touchscreens, the size and quality of a handset’s display are very important. A larger screen will make everything easier to read and is particularly useful for web browsing, but a big display makes for a big phone that you may find harder to carry around.
A screen’s pixel density, measured in pixels per inch (ppi), will give you an idea of how clear and sharp text will appear on a screen – a smaller number of pixels stretched across a huge screen, for example, will lead to jagged edges. Screen technology can also be very important, with AMOLED screens and IPS being the two main technologies, each with their own pros and cons.
What about performance and battery life?
Most smartphones are powered by octa-core processors these days. As a general rule, the clock speed of a processor (measured in GHz) shows how fast the phone is and will give you a rough indication of how fluid the operating system feels, as well as how the phone copes with running apps and games.
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Alternatively, lengthy battery life is one of the biggest things you need to look for when picking up a new phone. Our battery tests help you make the right decision about the handset that’s right for you, but generally speaking the bigger the phone’s battery capacity (measured in mAh), the longer it will last on a single charge.
How much smartphone storage do I need?
Generally speaking, a minimum of 16GB of onboard storage is fine if there’s a microSD slot, but you’ll soon find the internal storage filling up quickly. With more of an emphasis on smartphone cameras in recent years, it’s likely that your Instagram snaps will be the main culprit in using up your storage so we recommend at least 32GB to get you started.
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The best smartphones to buy in 2021
1. Samsung Galaxy S21/S21 Plus: The best smartphone of 2021 (so far)
Price: From £710 | Buy now from Amazon
The Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus are phones of rare distinction. The most complete smartphone duo the company has produced to date, they might cost you a bit more than other handsets on this list, but the S21 and S21 Plus are the very best Android smartphones currently on the market.
Samsung’s latest big-screened beauty has received a bit of a facelift this year, with a new ‘Contour Cut’ rear camera array and matte finish. Major internal upgrades to Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 processor makes this one of the most powerful smartphones we’ve ever tested, too. Likewise, the Galaxy S21’s cameras continue to impress, with new shooting modes including virtual lighting options for portrait mode. 8K video recording continues to be only available on Samsung’s Galaxy phones, too, and the 120Hz screen is equally impressive.
If you’re after the very best that Android can muster, then make no mistake, it doesn’t get much better than the Galaxy S21.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Octa-core 2.9GHz Samsung Exynos 2100; Screen: 6.2in, 2,400 x 1,080; Camera: 12MP, 64MP (zoom) and 12MP (wide); Storage: 128GB; Operating system: Android 11
2. Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T: The best budget buy
Price: £169 | Buy now from Amazon
Smartphone flagships are getting better and better, but with these top-notch innovations comes an increased cost. Paying almost four figures for the latest top-end smartphone simply isn’t doable for most consumers, but thankfully Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 9T provides a flagship experience at a vastly reduced cost. And it even supports the 5G network in the UK, too.
Xiaomi’s cheapo handset has seriously reset the benchmark of what to expect from a smartphone in 2021. Equipped with a speedy MediaTek Dimensity 800U processor, the Redmi Note 9T outperforms phones that cost twice the price, and then some. Its triple-camera array is also excellent for the price, as is the large 6.53in FHD+ screen.
In fact, the Redmi Note 9T doesn’t really fail in any area, especially when you consider how little it costs. If you’re in the market for a new phone in 2021 and don’t have a huge amount to spend, then the redmi Note 9T is absolutely where your wallet should be headed.
Read our full Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Octa-core 2.4GHz MediaTek Dimensity 800U; Screen: 6.53in, 2,340 x 1,080; Camera: 48MP, 2MP (macro) and 2MP (depth); Storage: 64GB, 128GB; Operating system: Android 10
3. Google Pixel 4a: Pixel perfect
Price: £349 l Buy now from Amazon
A cheaper variant than its pricier flagship counterparts, the Pixel 4a is excellent in their own right, but it’s the camera that really sets this Android smartphone apart from the competition. The 12.2MP sensor on its rear is superior to the camera on the iPhone and it’s capable of taking some truly stunning pictures in low-light, thanks to the Night Sight shooting mode. It doesn’t have any extra lenses like the S20 or OnePlus phones, but if you’re an avid photography fan, the Pixel 4a certainly won’t disappoint – especially considering how little it costs.
Read our full Google Pixel 4a review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Octa-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 730; Screen: 5.81in, 2,340 x 1,080; Camera: 12.2MP; Storage: 128GB; Operating system: Android 10
4. Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro: A masterclass in affordability
Price: £249 l Buy now from Amazon
The same price as the Redmi Note 9T (featured above), the slightly newer Redmi Note 10 Pro is also astonishing value for money. With a super speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon 732G processor, 6.67in AMOLED screen, 108MP camera and Android 11 out of the box, you’d think this phone should be priced a lot higher, but instead it’s significantly cheaper than its high-end specifications might initially suggest.
The only reason it isn’t placed higher, though, is that it doesn’t come with 5G. The Redmi Note 9T supports the 5G network (and is the cheapest phone with 5G connectivity in fact). Regardless, if you don’t live in a 5G area, and the new network isn’t expected to arrive nearby anytime soon, then the Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro is still an astonishing smartphone that punches well above its weight.
Read our full Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Octa-core 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 732G; Screen: 6.67in, 2,400 x 1,080; Camera: 108MP, 8MP (wide), 5MP (macro), 2MP (depth); Storage: 64GB; Operating system: Android 11
5. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Bigger and better (but more expensive)
Price: £999 | Buy now from Amazon
Samsung’s venerable phablet is back, and this time it’s more feature-rich than ever before. Equipped with all sorts of niceties first introduced in the Galaxy S20 range, such as the 108MP rear camera, 120Hz screen and Samsung’s speediest flagship processor yet, the Exynos 990, the Note 20 Ultra is a significant upgrade.
Being a Note device, Samsung’s terrific S Pen also returns with a handful of new features, along with deeper integration with Windows as well as a handful of other work-friendly improvements. It looks better than ever, too, and the only major stumbling block is the price: the Note 20 Ultra costs £179 more than the Note 10 Plus did last year. However, if you’re one of the lucky few that can afford the lofty £1,179 starting price, then the Note 20 Ultra will serve you well as one of the best Android flagships on the market – and likely for quite some time, too.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Octa-core 2.73GHz Samsung Exynos 990; Screen: 6.9in, 3,088 x 1,440; Camera: 108MP, 12MP (zoom), 12MP (wide); Storage: 128GB, 512GB; Operating system: Android 10
6. Nokia 1.4: The best smartphone under £100
Price: £90 | Buy now from Amazon
The Nokia 1.4 is a perfect example of not judging a phone based solely on how much (or in this case, how little) it costs. For less than £100, the Nokia 1.4 does everything any other smartphone is capable of doing, and you can buy almost ten of these for the price of just one Samsung Galaxy S21. Naturally, there are a handful of drawbacks; performance is rather slow and it only charges via Micro-USB but for the most part, the Nokia 1.4 is a solid budget pick for those that don’t fancy spending triple figures.
You might be able to find better low-priced handsets if you’re willing to spend just a little bit more, but if your budget is limited, you can’t do much better than the Nokia 1.4 when it comes down to sheer affordability.
Read our full Nokia 1.4 review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Quad-core 1.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 215; Screen: 6.52in, 1,600 x 720; Camera: 8MP, 2MP (macro); Storage: 32GB; Operating system: Android 10 Go
7. Apple iPhone 12: Excessive excellence
Price: £724 | Buy now from Amazon
What’s so special about Apple’s latest flagship? Well, aside from its wallet-scaring configuration options, the iPhone 12 represents a bucketload of improvements for Apple. It’s the culmination of 13 years of smartphone development: it’s the first iPhone with 5G connectivity and it also has Dolby Vision video recording.
What’s more, the iPhone 12 is also the fastest iPhone we’ve ever tested, even surpassing the mighty performance of Snapdragon 865-equipped handsets. If you’re an Apple devotee, it simply doesn’t get any better this – the only thing to decide is whether to buy the iPhone 12, pocket-sized iPhone 12 mini or splurge on the larger iPhone (and arguably more feature-rich) 12 Pro Max. Whatever you decide, you won’t be disappointed.
Read our full iPhone 12 review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Hexa-core 3.1GHz Apple A14 Bionic; Screen: 6.1in, 2,532 x 1,170; Camera: 12MP, 12MP (wide); Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB; Operating system: Apple iOS 14
8. OnePlus Nord CE: Simply superb value
Price: £299 l Buy now from Amazon
Despite OnePlus continuing to move away from its flagship-killing roots in recent releases, the Taiwanese phone firm has yet again shifted its focus slightly and now offers a cut-price handset in the form of the OnePlus Nord CE. It’s not as feature-rich as the OnePlus 9 Pro, but for less than half the price, the OnePlus Nord CE is astonishing value for money.
In most areas, the OnePlus Nord CE is just as good, if not better in some cases. It has 5G support (which for less than £300 is still a bit of a marvel), has a lovely 90Hz AMOLED display, and its 24-hour battery life is frankly rather exceptional as well. There are a few downsides, of course, such as the lack of any official water and dust protection, but the OnePlus Nord CE is a capable value phone, with decent performance and a set of cameras that deliver crisp, well-exposed photos in most circumstances.
It does everything so spectacularly, in fact, that little else comes close at this price. If you can’t stretch your bank balance past £400, then the OnePlus Nord CE is a very good value alternative.
Read our full OnePlus Nord CE review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Octa-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G; Screen: 6.43in, 2,400 x 1,080; Camera: 64MP, 8MP (telephoto), 8MP (wide) and 2MP (depth); Storage: 128GB/256GB; Operating system: Android 11
9. Xiaomi Mi 11: A flagship-killing powerhouse
Price: £749 l Buy now from Amazon
If the price of the latest and greatest flagships have you quaking in your boots, then the Xiaomi Mi 11 is the perfect alternative for the cost-savvy. Fitted with all the usual bells and whistles we tend to see in handsets that cost a heck of a lot more, the Xiaomi Mi 11 is stupendously good value, so long as you don’t mind looking away from the usual big-name flagships.
The Xiaomi Mi 11 uses the newest top-end Qualcomm processor, the Snapdragon 888, and it smashed through our usual lineup of processing benchmarks. It also uses the same 108MP camera as the four-figured Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and its large 1,440P AMOLED display is pretty much unmatched when it comes to colour accuracy. Do your wallet a favour and save a chunk of cash by picking up the Xiaomi Mi 11 instead, you won’t be disappointed.
Read our full Xiaomi Mi 11 review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Octa-core 2.84GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 888; Screen: 6.81in, 3,200 x 1,440; Camera: 108MP, 13MP (wide), 5MP (macro) Storage: 128GB, 256GB; Operating system: Android 10
10. iPhone SE (2020): The best-value iPhone
Price: £399 | Buy now from Amazon
With the new iPhone SE (2020), you’re getting a heck of a lot of smartphone for not too much money. It might look like a bit of a relic – it shares the same design as the 2017 iPhone 8 – but the iPhone SE is Apple’s best-value handset yet. Why? Well, it’s all about what’s inside: the iPhone SE (2020) uses the A13 Bionic chipset, which is the same processor shared by the pricier iPhone 11.
That means you get the same levels of performance achieved by those four-figured flagships, at just a fraction of the cost. Likewise, the single 12MP camera might seem unassuming at first but actually manages to go toe-to-toe with the iPhone 11 in terms of sheer detail capture, especially when it comes to low-light photography.
The only fly in the ointment is that the iPhone SE’s battery life is quite poor by modern standards. However, if you this amount to spend and you’d rather not use a big-screened handset, then the iPhone SE (2020) is a worthy choice. It may be the cheapest iPhone, but it’s still mightily impressive.
Read our full iPhone SE (2020) review for more details
Key specs – Processor: Hexa-core 2.65GHz Apple A13 Bionic; Screen: 4.7in, 1,334 x 750; Camera: 12MP; Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB; Operating system: iOS 13