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The best smartphones in 2021

Best smartphones: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
(Image credit: Samsung)
Best smartphones: Top 5

With such a huge variety of phones on offer today, finding the best smartphones in 2021 can be a daunting undertaking. Are you going to go for old faithful and pick up an Apple iPhone 12? Perhaps you'd rather snap up Samsung's latest Note 20 Ultra, complete with its innovative screen tech and S Pen stylus? Or you could brave a challenger brand like Huawei, who has blown minds with the Mate 40 Pro’s incredible camera. 

There's so much to choose from – so we've done the research and tested hundreds of Android and iOS devices to bring you our best smartphones list.

The first thing you need to ask yourself is – what’s your priority? If you’re after a champion camera phone, then you’ll want to check out our round up of the best camera phones. If you need a creative toolbox, then you’re in the right place, with the Samsung Galaxy Note 20Plus taking the crown, thanks to its S Pen. Alternatively, there are other better value options from the likes of OnePlus if all you want is premium hardware across-the-board, and even Apple’s dropped a value champion this year – the iPhone SE (2020).

Before picking up any phone, remember to check that the best iPhone apps and Android apps for creatives are available. If you’re jumping from an iPhone to and Android, for example, the stellar Good Notes won’t be an option on Google’s mobile OS. 

Once you’ve cross-checked your must-have apps and know which OS you need, our list of top-ten creative phones should help you figure out which is the right device for your personal life, productivity, work and everything in between.

The best smartphones available now

(Image credit: Samsung)

01. Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

The best smartphone for creative superstars

Weight: 208g | Dimensions: 164.8mm x 77.2mm x 8.1mm | OS: Android 10 | Screen size: 6.9-inch | Resolution: 1440 x 3088 | CPU: Snapdragon 865+ | RAM: 12GB | Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Battery: 4,500mAh | Rear camera: 108MP + 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 10MP

Superb camera
Incredible screen
Slower charging

The Note 20 Ultra is without a doubt the best smartphone money can buy for creative people looking to scribble, draw, make notes and be productive on the move. Aside from its great camera setup and gorgeous large AMOLED display, its party trick – the removable S Pen stylus – offers tons of flexibility.

From handwriting notes (which can be straightened and converted to text) to creating fancy drawings with improved pressure sensitivity, Samsung’s stylus takes an already great phone and makes it truly amazing. 

With a stunning build, super-powerful specs, and a versatile camera setup capable of shooting 8K video, it’s one of the best phones money can buy, particularly if you make use of its swanky stylus.

Best smartphone: iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Apple)

02. iPhone 12 Pro Max

The best iPhone ever

Weight: 228g | Dimensions: 160.8mm x 78.1mm x 7.4mm | OS: iOS 14 | Screen size: 6.7-inch | Resolution: 1284 x 2778 | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Battery: 3,687mAh | Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 12MP

Superb camera
Great battery life
Very expensive

It’s eye-wateringly expensive, but there’s no denying that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best, most feature-packed iPhone Apple has ever made. 

If you can handle the size of its 6.7in screen, you’ll be treated to an incredibly powerful A14 Bionic processor, 6GB RAM, one of the best smartphone cameras in the world, and all with incredible battery life to boot.

All of this is wrapped up in Apple’s tried and tested minimal design, powered by the smooth and slick iOS 14. If you can handle its larger size (and larger price tag) then you’ll be more than content with Apple’s latest and greatest handset.

(Image credit: Samsung)

03. Samsung Galaxy S20 (& Plus)

Excellent across the board

Release: February 2020 | Screen size: 6.2-inches | Screen type: AMOLED | Resolution: 1440 x 3200 pixels | Sharpness: 563 pixels-per-inch | Certification: HDR10+, Gorilla Glass 6, 120Hz | Dimensions: 151.7 x 69.1 x 7.9 mm | Weight: 163g | Rear camera: 12MP (wide + OIS) + 64MP (telephoto) + 12MP (ultra-wide) + ToF sensor (on Plus only) | Front camera: 10MP (wide) | Maximum video resolution: 8K, 30fps | Storage: 128GB | Memory card slot: Yes | Battery: 4000mAh

Amazing screen
Brilliant camera
Busy interface
Dull design

The Samsung Galaxy S20 might not be the best equipped of the S20-series, but it's still one of the most popular. Why? Because it packs an impressive set of features and a sharp, crisp screen into a super-manageable size. Plus, it costs a heck of a lot less than its bigger sibling, the S20 Ultra. 

The device comes complete with three rear cameras, which includes a 64MP 3x zoom telephoto camera to help you capture shots from an impressive distance. The main camera is lower resolution at 12MP, but its nighttime performance is a big step up when compared to last year’s Galaxy S10. Combined with an ultra-wide camera and up to 8K video recording, the Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus cover all bases without breaking the bank like the S20 Ultra does. 

Water and dust resistant, like the iPhone 11 Pro, the S20 also supports wireless charging. Unlike its Apple rival though, you can add storage via an SD card. No doubt about it, one of the best smartphones money can buy right now. 

(Image credit: Future)

Best smartphones in 2020: Sony Experia II

(Image credit: Sony)

04. Sony Xperia 1 II

Best smartphone for videographers

Release date: February 2020 | Weight: 181.4g | Dimensions: 165.1 x 71.1 x 7.6 mm | OS: Android 10 | Screen size: 6.5-inch | Resolution: 1644x3840 | CPU: Snapdragon 855 | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 256GB | Battery: 4,000mAh | Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP + 12MP | Front camera: 8MP

Extensive manual camera tools
Gorgeous 4K screen
Very expensive
Occasional camera slowdown

Despite making the camera sensors on most smartphones around today, iPhones included, Sony hasn’t managed to achieve best-in-class status with its own smartphones to date. The Sony Xperia 1 II hopes to change that, borrowing from the brands alpha camera line, with eye-tracking and pro-grade video and photography software baked in.

The phone’s specs are flagship across-the-board with a flagship Snapdragon 855 chipset matched with 8GB RAM, and with that ultra-tall 4K screen, protected by Gorilla Glass 6, sandwiching a metal frame, the Xperia 1 II is premium on the outside too.

Loaded up with three 12MP cameras: a wide, ultra-wide and 3x zoom camera and a Time of Flight sensor, on-paper, the Xperia 1 II is nothing special when compared to many flagships like the OnePlus 8 Pro. Combined with the Zeiss optics, eye-tracking and a new Photo Pro app, which gives photography enthusiasts more control over photos, though, dive in and the Xperia 1 II starts to stand out.

There’s also full IP68 water and dust resistance here, as well as a few other flourishes including a creator mode, which guarantees accurate colours in compatible apps, including Netflix, and a 3.5mm headphone jack, not to mention stereo speakers.

Best smartphone: iPhone 12

(Image credit: Apple)

05. iPhone 12 & iPhone 12 mini

Best bang for buck iPhones

Weight: 164g / 135g | Dimensions: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4mm / 131.5 x 64.2 x 7.4mm | OS: iOS 14 | Screen size: 6.1-inch / 5.4-inch | Resolution: 1170 x 2532 / 1080 x 2340 | CPU: A14 Bionic | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Battery: 2,815mAh / 2,227mAh | Rear camera: 12MP+12MP | Front camera: 12MP

Beautiful display
Solid camera
Battery life could be better
Base storage too low

The iPhone 12 and 12 mini are essentially the same handset, with the latter having a smaller, 5.4in display for those that prefer more compact screens, along with slower wireless charging.

Those factors aside, both handsets have the same 5G support as Apple’s other new iPhones, along with very good (but not the absolute best) camera performance. The OLED screens are a joy to behold, and the new MagSafe feature is an intriguing addition to Apple’s arsenal.

While the more expensive Pro models have swankier cameras, they’re notivably pricier, making the 12 and 12 mini the best bang for buck options in the latest iPhone range lineup. Be prepared for no included charger to avoid a shock when unboxing, and you’ll have years of happy use ahead of you.

(Image credit: Apple)

06. iPhone SE (2020)

Best smartphone for Apple fans on a budget

Release date: April 2020 | Weight: 148g | Dimensions: 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm | OS: iOS 13 | Screen size: 4.7-inch | Resolution: 750x1334 | CPU: Apple A13 Bionic | RAM: 3GB | Storage: 64GB | Battery: 1,821mAh | Rear camera: 12MP | Front camera: MP

Flagship power
Best value iPhone
No telephoto camera
No expandable storage

Apple isn’t usually known for its value for money, but the new iPhone SE bucks the trend, delivering flagship features like water-resistance and wireless charging as well as flagship power from just £409 (at time of writing).

If the new iPhone SE’s design’s familiar, that’s because this 2020 phone comes in the body of a 2017 flagship, the iPhone 8. Bringing back Touch ID and a notch-free, bezel-heavy screen, the SE definitely isn’t the most futuristic looking phone you can pick up at its price, but it is a perfect compromise for Apple fans on a budget.

The ample power inside will blast through everything from the latest 3D games to creative software, and CAD viewers through to 4K video editors like iMovie. Despite only sporting one 12MP camera around the back, thanks to smart software, the iPhone SE can still grab Portrait Mode photos, and with availability in three colours - black, white and Product Red, its classic design is matched with classic finishes.

When it comes to storage, with a starting capacity of 64GB, be sure to pick up the right iPhone for your needs - 128GB should be enough for most. Other than that disclaimer, the iPhone SE is a guaranteed win for anyone who doesn’t want to stump up for an iPhone 11 or 11 Pro.

Google Pixel 5

(Image credit: Google)

07. Google Pixel 5

Solid camera with great software and editing smarts

Release date: October 2020 | Weight: 151g | Dimensions: 144.7mm x 70.4mm x 8mm | OS: Android 11 | Screen size: 6-inch | Resolution: 2340 x 1080 | CPU: Snapdragon 765G | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB | Battery: 4000mAh | Rear camera: 16MP + 12MP | Front camera: 8MP

Fantastic camera software
Handsome, minimal design
No telephoto camera
Night shots could be better

The Google Pixel 5 isn’t a phone that blows you away with fancy multiple lenses. It keeps things simple with a 12.2MP main camera and a 16MP  ultra-wide one, with no dedicated zoom lens. 

Power-wise, things are middling too, with a Snapdragon 765G processor, and 8GB of RAM. On paper, then, the Pixel 5 isn’t up there with the most powerful, feature-packed phone in the word, but its price fairly reflects that. 

What it does do, is offer a pure up to date Android experience in a smart minimal package, with solid well-lit camera performance and powerful image editing tools for tweaking on the move, with a battery that will  comfortably last you through the day.

If you want to keep up with the latest Android features for the next few years and aren’t fussed about night or zoom photography, this could very well be the best handset for you.

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08. Honor Play

The best cheap smartphone for creatives

Release date: August 2018 | Weight: 176g | Dimensions: 157.9 x 74.3 x 7.5mm | OS: Android 8.1 | Screen size: 6.3-inch | Resolution: 1080 x 2340 | CPU: Hisilicon Kirin 970 | RAM: 6GB | Storage: 64GB | Battery: 3750mAh | Rear camera: Dual 16MP | Front camera: 16MP

High powered for the price
Huge display
Limited storage
Lacks features

A 6.3-inch smartphone for around the £200/$200-mark should ring alarm bells – it must be terribly slow to use, have awful cameras or at least be downright ugly, right? Wrong, actually, and the Honor Play is proof. Notionally intended for gamers, that massive Full HD+ display and HiSilicon Kirin 970 chipset mean that it comes close to matching some of the world's best smartphones in those areas. The 16Mp dual lens main camera is well up to the job for Instagram-friendly shots (although low light photography does start to become a struggle), while its svelte dimensions and full-metal unibody cover mean the Honor Play has the look and feel of a flagship phone, too. All this makes it easily our top recommendation if you're looking for a cheap smartphone.

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09. Sony Xperia XZ Premium

A more affordable smartphone for video than the Google Pixel 3XL

Release date: June 2017 | Weight: 195g | Dimensions: 156 x 77 x 7.9 mm | OS: Android 7.1 | Screen size: 5.46-inch | Resolution: 3840 x 2160 | CPU: Octa-core (4x2.45 GHz Kryo & 4x1.9 GHz Kryo) | RAM: 4GB | Storage: 64GB | Battery: 3230mAh | Rear camera: 19MP | Front camera: 13MP

4K display is stunning
Great camera
Not the best design out there
SIM tray is difficult to use

Sony has a rich heritage in camera tech, and the Motion Eye technology in the Sony Xperia XZ Premium is a continuation of that. For one, it features super-slow motion video – recording at 960 frames per second. Yes, 960! Next, there’s predictive capture, which basically starts buffering your shot a second before the shutter is pressed – and then gives you four images to pick from. Its 19-megapixel sensor also has intelligent exposure controls to automatically adjust light levels (there’s also manual focus controls), while 5-axis stabilisation should make for steady 4K videos. The other big selling point of the 2017 XZ Premium (its elder statesmanship means it's now a lot cheaper) is that it was the first smartphone to have a 4K HDR display, which means a delightful screen on which to play back your creations.

Best smartphone: Huawei Mate 40 Pro

(Image credit: Huawei)

10. Huawei Mate 40 Pro

An incredible package for photographers, bar one major app problem

Release date: November 2020 | Weight: 212g | Dimensions: 162.9 x 75.5 x 9.1 mm | OS: Android 10 | Screen size: 6.76-inch | Resolution: 1344 x 2772 | CPU: Kirin 9000 5G | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128/256GB | Battery: 4400mAh | Rear camera: 50MP + 12MP + 20MP | Front camera: 13MP

Stunning design
Superb all-round camera skills
Lack of apps

The Mate 40 Pro is one of the best smartphones ever made. It has a stunning design, thanks to a futuristic wrap-around display and pearlescent rear paint job. It’s rammed to the hilt with tech, including Huawei’s very own beastly Kirin 9000 processor, not to mention an array of cameras which, combined, make it one of, if not the absolute best, cameraphones in the world today.

It’s a shame then, that it’s crippled by the lack of Google Play Services, which ultimately means no Google Play Store. While Huawei’s own App Gallery has come a long way and continues to do so, there are still too many glaring omissions and apps that won’t work without that all-important Google framework. 

Still, if the absolute best photography experience is a must, and you’re not too tied into Google’s ecosystem, the Mate 40 Pro could very well still be worth a look, if you’ve got the deep pockets to spring for it.

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