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9 best 5G phones for next-generation speeds

Netflix addict? Love gaming on the go? Get futureproofed with handsets from Apple, Samsung and more

Alex Lee
Tuesday 17 August 2021 16:33 BST
<p>We tested models with superfast connections at every price point  </p>

We tested models with superfast connections at every price point

Once used as a market differentiator, nearly every flagship phone available in the UK now has 5G connectivity: the Samsung Galaxy, Google pixel, Huawei’s P40, the Sony xperia, and – the most recent addition – Apple’s iPhone. They all come with 5G modems embedded into their slim, metal bodies.

5G is the next-generation mobile internet network technology and is said to be up to 20 times faster than 4G. You’ll get faster download and upload speeds when you’re out and about, streaming content won’t be an absolute pain, and the quality of phone and video calls will be significantly higher.

It’s an exciting development, but just because a phone has 5G connectivity, doesn’t actually mean that the phone is any good. You might end up buying a 5G-capable phone, only to realise that every other feature is sub-par. So we’ve used our expert knowledge to compile this list, and ensure you don’t end up with a dud.

While we’ve included a handful of budget options, 5G phones are generally on the pricier side of the spectrum, although the cost of them is slowly coming down with the development of new chipsets. We do, of course, have a round-up of the best budget phones if that takes your fancy.

How we tested

We’ve tested a bunch of handsets, looking at their ease of use; how well the cameras and speakers perform when snapping pics and watching Netflix; their battery life; and the overall design and performance of the phones. We also considered what you’re most likely to be using 5G for, and whether the phones’ features align with those tasks.

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The best 5G phones for 2021 are:

  • Best 5G iPhone – iPhone 12 pro max: From £1,099,
  • Best display for streaming – Sony xperia 1 II: £1,099.99,
  • Best design – Oppo find X3 pro: £1,099.99,
  • Best stock Android 5G phone – Google pixel 4a 5G: £491,
  • Best designed mid-range 5G phone – TCL 20 pro 5G: £499,
  • Best mid-range 5G phone – OnePlus nord 2: From £399,
  • Best mid-range Samsung 5G phone – Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: £699,
  • Best camera – Huawei mate 40 pro: From £1,099.99,
  • Best budget 5G phone – Motorola moto G 5G plus: From £229.99,

iPhone 12 pro max

Best: 5G iPhone

Rating: 9/10 

  • Dimensions: 160.8mm x 78.1mm x 7.4mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1,284 x 2,778px, 458ppi
  • Storage capacity: 128GB/256GB/512GB
  • Screen technology: Super retina XDR OLED, HDR10, Dolby vision
  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 12MP
  • Weight: 228g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • OS: iOS  
  • Battery: 3,687mAh
  • Water resistance: IP68 (4m up to 30 minutes)

When Apple introduced the iPhone 12 pro on stage in late 2020, acting as if it had heralded in the new era of 5G, we did bawk a little. But with the iPhone 12 pro max in our hands, we’ve found it easy to forgive the bravado.

For those of you looking for a big, beautiful and powerful iPhone, the high-end 12 pro max is the release you’ve been waiting for. For starters, it looks absolutely stunning. As with the rest of the iPhone 12 line-up, the pro max has that same flat-edge design, with a stunning stainless steel border and a matte-glass rear, making it look as premium as its price tag would suggest. Its gorgeous 6.7in super retina XDR OLED ceramic shield display – 0.2in bigger than the 11 pro max – is also great for watching content over your speedy 5G connection, helped along by Apple’s new A14 Bionic chip.

The iPhone 12 pro max’s camera array really steals the show. It’s got a telephoto lens with a 2.5x optical zoom. The main camera has a 12MP resolution, but the sensor is bigger, capturing 87 per cent more light in shots. Photos are detailed, they’re brighter, and photography in Apple’s new ProRAW format is a dream.        

The battery life is also the best we’ve seen on an iPhone, lasting us well into a second day of use without needing plugged in or snapping onto a MagSafe puck. We were able to charge the phone to 50 per cent in just half an hour with a 20W USB-C adaptor. Charging just with the MagSafe took significantly longer, however, but the convenience is there if you need it. 

Of course, this iPhone may be a little too big for some hands and even some pockets, but the battery life and the stellar camera array more than make up for it. If you still think it’s too big, the smaller iPhone 12 pro is just as good – although the battery might not last as long. You can get both the 12 pro and 12 pro max in “Pacific” blue, graphite, gold and silver. For what it’s worth, it’s the best iPhone Apple has ever made.         

Sony xperia 1 II

Best: Display for streaming

Rating: 9/10

  • Dimensions: 165.1mm x 71.1mm x 7.6mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.5in, 1,644 x 3,840px, 643ppi
  • Storage capacity: 256GB
  • Screen technology: 4K OLED, HDR BT.2020
  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 8MP
  • Weight: 181.4g
  • Headphone jack? Yes
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • OS: Android 11 
  • Battery: 4,000mAh
  • Water resistance: IP68 (1.5m up to 30 minutes)

The Sony xperia 1 II is a lanky chap. It’s tall, narrow and looks a little awkward when sat next to the rest of the phones on this list. But these dimensions actually work massively in the 2020 flagship device’s favour. That big, black slab of 6.5in phone, with its interesting 21:9 aspect ratio and 4K resolution display (unseen on any other flagship smartphone), makes it the best for watching videos, playing games and streaming content. If you find a film with a 21:9 aspect ratio (many modern-day movies are), there will be no black bars around the content.

It’s Sony’s first 5G phone and it is powered by the state-of-the-art Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset, making it nice and snappy. The camera features are also designed with pro photographers in mind, with a physical shutter button and dedicated Photo Pro and Cinema Pro apps allowing you to adjust everything from the autofocus and metering to exposure compensation and white balance.

Battery life is also pretty impressive, lasting around the entire day with average use in our tests, plus it has wireless charging and can also fast charge up to 50 per cent in 30 minutes. There’s a fingerprint sensor on the side and even a 3.5mm headphone jack – remember those? 

It’s not for everyone, though – some people might not enjoy the squared-off design, and it is a little bit slippery and unwieldy to hold without a phone case, plus it’s almost impossible to reach the top of the screen one-handed (although there is a nifty split screen feature). The phone comes in black, purple and white in the UK.

Oppo find X3 pro 5G

Best: Design

Rating: 9/10

  • Dimensions: 163.6mm x 74mm x 8.3mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1,440 x 3,216px, 525ppi
  • Storage capacity: 256GB
  • Screen technology: AMOLED
  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 13MP telephoto, 50MP ultra-wide, 3MP microscope
  • Camera (front): 32MP
  • Weight: 193g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • OS: Android 11, ColorOS 11.2 
  • Battery: 4500mAh
  • Water resistance: IP68 (1.5m for 30 minutes)

The Oppo find X3 pro is one of the most powerful 5G phones of 2021. With that premium build quality comes an eye-wateringly high premium price tag, rivalling that of the iPhone 12 pro max and Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra. But while Oppo might not have the same name recognition as the power players above, don’t write its flagship model off.

Released in March, the find X3 pro is a beast of a smartphone and it’s hard to find fault with it. It looks sleek on the front, but once you turn it over, it’s postively stunning. You get an almost cyberpunk-esque mirrored finish, with an elevated glass panel back that curves up to meet the camera module. It’s a fine-looking phone indeed.

It has a 6.7in curved AMOLED display with a QHD+ (3,216 x 1,440px) resolution with a variable refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz, which switches depending on what you’re doing on the phone, plus colours are splendidly accurate, thanks to its 1 billion-colour display.

Although Color OS (the platform the find X3 pro runs on) is a little clunky and cluttered, it’s not slow by any means thanks to its top-of-the-range Snapdragon 888 processor. And Oppo really should be praised for daring to do something new with its camera array – there’s a 50MP Sony IMX 766 sensor for the ultra-wide camera and the same on the main wide lens, as well as a neat micro lens camera on the rear for extreme close up photography – it’s basically a legitimate microscope. 

The phone contains a 4,500mAh battery, which lasted us roughly a day and a half while using 5G, but battery shouldn’t be an issue, considering you can charge to 40 per cent in just 10 minutes thanks to the 65W charger. Plus, the 30W wireless charging system can fully juice up your phone in 80 minutes.   

Google pixel 4a 5G

Best: Stock Android 5G phone

Rating: 8/10

  • Dimensions: 153.9mm x 74mm x 8.2mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.2in, 1,080 x 2,340px, 413ppi
  • Storage capacity: 128GB
  • Screen technology: OLED, HDR
  • Camera (rear): 12.2MP wide, 16MP ultrawide
  • Camera (front): 8MP
  • Weight: 168g
  • Headphone jack? Yes
  • Wireless chargeable? No
  • OS: Android 11
  • Battery: 3,885mAh
  • Water resistance: No, IP52

If you aren’t a fan of overly-skinned Android devices, take a look at the Google pixel 4a, which is our pick for the best stock Android 5G phone, mixing together what we love about the flagship pixel 5 together with what we love about the original pixel 4a.

Although the pixel 4a 5G has a beefy (but dashing) full HD 6.2in AMOLED screen, it’s not heavy or uncomfortable to hold because it’s housed in a nice lightweight polycarbonate plastic body. You’ve still got that headphone jack on the top, and there’s still a well-placed fingerprint sensor on the rear.

And despite Google’s flagship pixel 5 phone costing a whole £100 more than the pixel 4a 5G, it’s got the exact same brilliant 12MP main lens and 16MP ultra-wide camera system on the rear and a solid 8MP camera on the front. Photos are bright, colourful and sharp thanks to its dual-pixel autofocus feature.

Battery life is also pretty impressive. It lasted longer than the original pixel 4a, thanks to a bigger 3,855mAh capacity. There’s also an extreme battery saver mode, which essentially extends your battery so that it will last up to two days – could be handy if you ever get lost while you’re out wild camping. There’s no wireless charging, though, so that might be a dealbreaker for some.

With the pixel 4a, you get all the benefits of Google’s flagship pixel 5 without the lofty price tag. What you lose is a faster refresh rate on the display, a little more RAM, and a more premium build. It’s a splendid pixel 5G phone for what you’re paying.

TCL 20 pro 5G

Best: Designed mid-range 5G phone

Rating: 8/10

  • Dimensions: 164.2mm x 73mm x 8.8 mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.67in, 1,080 x 2,400px, 395ppi
  • Storage capacity: 256GB with expandable storage
  • Screen technology: AMOLED, HDR10
  • Camera (rear): 48MP wide, 16MP ultra-wide, 2MP macro, 2MP depth
  • Camera (front): 32MP
  • Weight: 190g
  • Headphone jack? Yes
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • OS: Android 11, TCL UI
  • Battery: 4,500mAh
  • Water resistance: No, IP52

Chinese manufacturer TCL isn’t very well-known for its smartphones, having initially made a name for itself in the TV space and then largely using the Alcatel brand name on its handsets. But in the past few years, it has begun using the TCL brand more readily.

The TCL 20 pro 5G is the company’s most premium smartphone to date and is one of the best-looking mid-range phones we’ve encountered. It not only looks incredibly stylish, but it won’t have you breaking the bank either. It has a big 6.7in AMOLED display which curves downwards on the sides – an unusual feature for a mid-range device – plus there’s no camera bump on the rear, meaning the four cameras lie flush with the phone’s glass body. This is another welcome peculiarity that’s missing on most flagship devices.

While the display only has a 60Hz refresh rate, colours pop and contrast well thanks to the AMOLED technology. TCL also borrows tech from its range of TVs, upscaling content so that you’re always viewing it at its best and brightest. No notches here either, just unfettered screen with a small hole for the camera at the top. And it’s even got a pretty snappy in-built fingerprint sensor, two SIM slots for your 5G enjoyment, an infrared blaster and a headphone jack especially for you retro listeners.      

The cameras sound like they’d be pretty good in theory, with the TCL boasting a 48MP f/1.7 main camera, a 16MP f/2.4 ultra-wide, a 5MP f/2.2 macro and a 2MP f/2.4 depth-sensing camera, but the pictures fell a little flat. They didn’t pop and colours felt somewhat dim. That said, the 32MP f/2.45 front-facing camera is a surprising bright spot, with portrait pictures coming out sharp and clear.

It runs on a fairly typical mid-range Snapdragon 750G, which is used on a lot of mid-range devices. While it’s not top of the range, we didn’t notice any issues with lag or performance, something probably helped along by the 6GB of RAM. Some would call this phone a little style over substance, with it looking great on the outside but middling on the inside since it’s chock full of bloatware. But for the price, it’s still an excellent mid-range 5G phone.

OnePlus nord 2

Best: Mid-range 5G phone

Rating: 7/10 

  • Dimensions: 158.9mm x 73.2mm x 8.3mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.43in, 1,080 x 2,400px, 409ppi
  • Storage capacity: 128GB/256GB
  • Screen technology: AMOLED, HDR 10+
  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 8MP ultra-wide, 2MP monochrome
  • Camera (front): 32MP
  • Weight: 189g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? No
  • OS: Android 11, OxygenOS 11.3
  • Battery: 4,500mAh
  • Water resistance: No IP rating

The new OnePlus nord 2 is kind of like the antithesis to the TCL 20 pro 5G. While the TCL 20 pro has its sleek edges and flush, premium-looking back, the latest nord 2 is a little, eh, uninspiring, largely thanks to its plasticky exterior shell. It feels nicer to hold than it does to look at, though.

The 6.43in AMOLED display with gorilla glass technology is framed by a near-bezel-less border, and it makes up slightly for the design faux pas, although the screen does only have a 90Hz refresh rate. It’s packed with all the display smarts you could ever need, like AI colour boost and AI resolution, which make content pop. We were particularly pleased with the stereo speakers, although we’re unsure how often we’re actually going to use them.    

On the inside though, it gets almost everything right. It’s powered by the MediaTek Dimensity 1200-AI, a custom processor made exclusively for OnePlus. It’s essentially a flagship CPU in a mid-range phone, and it feels noticeably smooth and snappy. It’s all helped along by OxygenOS, one of our favourite Android skins. It’s fast, clean and pretty to look at. You can get an 8GB RAM and 128GB storage version or have it packed with 12GB RAM and 256GB if you want that extra boost.  

It’s all change in the camera department as well, with OnePlus taking the rear snappers down from four to three, adding in an interesting monochrome lens and opting for just one single 32MP f/2.5 front-facing camera. The main lens is a 50MP IMX766 sensor – yep, the same one as on the excellent Oppo find X3 pro – and you also get (an admittedly less detailed) 8MP f/2.3 ultra-wide sensor.

You get a 4,500mAh battery, and the phone lasted us an entire day of casual use – even with Wi-Fi turned off and 5G on. Sadly, there’s no wireless charging with this handset, but you do get a 65W charger in the box, helping to juice the phone back up to 100 per cent in just 30 minutes.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Best: Mid-range Samsung 5G phone

Rating: 8/10

  • Dimensions: 159.8mm x 74.5mm x 8.4mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.5in, 1,080 x 2,400px, 407ppi
  • Storage capacity: 128GB/256GB with expandable storage
  • Screen technology: Super AMOLED, 120Hz, HDR10+
  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 8MP telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 32MP
  • Weight: 190g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • OS: Android 11, One UI 3.1
  • Battery: 4500mAh
  • Water resistance: IP68 (1.5m for 30 minutes)

The fan edition of the Samsung Galaxy S20 is essentially a flagship phone packaged up and sold at a mid-range price point. It’s the iPhone 12 for Samsung fans, and it’s splendid overall, despite not being the newest model around.

There’s no curvature to the S20 FE, like with many Samsung phones. Instead, it has a flat front and relaxed matte design on the sides and rear. There’s a large 6.5in (2,400 x 1,080px) 120Hz AMOLED display, providing you with ultra-smooth scrolling that’s ideal for mobile gaming. Plus it runs on Qualcomm’s speedy Snapdragon 865 processor and boasts 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage.

What about the cameras? Well, the triple-camera system on the rear takes some vivid (albeit a little high-contrast for some) photos. It’s got a 12MP f/1.8 main camera; a 12MP f/2.2 wide-angle camera and an 8MP f/2.4 3x telephoto lens. On the front, there’s a 32MP lens. It’s essentially the same as the flagship S20.   

On top of that, the 4,500mAh battery is absolutely massive, and will last you more than a day and a half of use, even with 5G turned on. Plus, it’s got wireless charging, reverse charging – so you can charge up your buds – and 22W fast charging. The handset also comes in a huge number of attractive colours including mint, lavender, orange, navy, mint, red and white.

Huawei mate 40 pro 5G

Best: Camera

Rating: 7/10

  • Dimensions: 162.9mm x 75.5mm x 9.1mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.76in, 1,344 x 2,772px, 456 ppi
  • Storage capacity: 128GB/256GB/512GB
  • Screen technology: OLED, 90Hz, HDR10
  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 12MP periscope telephoto, 20 MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 13MP ultrawide, TOF 3D, depth/biometric sensor
  • Weight: 212g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • OS: Android 10, EMUI 11, no Google Play Services
  • Battery: 4400mAh
  • Water resistance: IP68 (1.5m for 30 minutes)

The Huawei mate 40 pro is absolutely gorgeous and is one of the company’s best-designed phones to date. It features an all-glass body and a futuristic-looking camera module, which Huawei calls a space ring, like something that’s walked right out of the set of Black Mirror. The display curves down on the sides, making the bezels almost disappear. This does make them stick out a little on the top and bottom, however, plus the pill-shaped front-facing camera module really did get in the way sometimes.   

The phone has a 6.9in OLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate – it’s no 120Hz, of course, but it still looks pretty smooth. There’s also a speedy in-display fingerprint sensor and a 3D face scanner. While the camera bump is, well, a little unusually designed, the camera itself is mighty impressive. On the rear, you get a punchy 50MP, f/1.9 main camera, a 20MP ultra-wide lens and – our favourite – a 12MP 5x periscope zoom.

Spec-wise, it’s frankly top of the range, boasting Huawei’s own Kirin 9,000 processor with 5G integration. It’s also got 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. But despite having a pretty hefty 4,400mAh battery, it only just about kissed the end of the day, although we’ve seen phones with similar-sized batteries last longer. You do get a “supercharge” 66W charging brick in the box though, which charges it fully in a rapid 47 minutes. There is a nice 5W reverse wireless charging feature on the rear as well. 

It’s got one major handicap though. Due to the legal wrangling with the US government, the mate 40 pro doesn’t contain any Google services – no YouTube, no Google Maps and, worst of all, no Google Play Store. It’s the third Huawei phone without Google services. It does run Android but has an EMUI 11 OS skin. We can’t fault the hardware, it’s just the software that lets this phone down.

Motorola moto G 5G plus

Best: Budget 5G phone

Rating: 7/10

  • Dimensions: 168.3mm x 74mm x 9.7mm
  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1,080 x 2,520px, 409 ppi
  • Storage capacity: 64GB/128GB with expandable storage
  • Screen technology: LCD, 90Hz, HDR10
  • Camera (rear): 48 MP wide, 8MP ultra-wide, 5MP macro, 2MP depth
  • Camera (front): 16MP normal, 8MP ultrawide
  • Weight: 207g
  • Headphone jack? Yes
  • Wireless chargeable? No
  • OS: Android 10
  • Battery: 5,000mAh
  • Water resistance: Water-repellent coating

While you might have forgotten all about Motorola since its heyday in the Noughties, the phone manufacturer, which is now owned by Lenovo, is continuing to bring handsets to the masses. 5G phones aren’t cheap, but with the moto G 5G plus, you’re getting a premium-sized phone with 5G capabilities for under £300.    

It doesn’t look the most appealing, with its thick, all-plastic design, plus it’s only got one speaker on the bottom, so it’s a little cumbersome to watch videos on. But the LED screen with its 90Hz refresh rate is bright and colourful, more than making up for the lacklustre design. There’s also a fingerprint sensor in the lock button, as well as a headphone jack at the bottom.  

It’s powered by the Snapdragon 765G chip. Although it’s not a top-of-the-range processor, we still found the moto G to be smooth despite some issues with the speed of switching between apps. It also comes with either 4GB or 6GB of RAM, which is decent for a budget device. Opt for the 6GB model if you fear you’ll run into memory issues while multitasking.

There are four cameras on the rear, but the only one worth writing home about is the main 48MP sensor, which has a f/1.7 lens. Pictures came out sharp and clear, despite shooting at 12MP by default. It’s also got an 8MP ultra-wide camera, a 5MP macro lens and a 2MP depth sensor. Like we said, nothing to write home about. On the front, you’ve got two cameras instead of one – a main 16MP f/2.0 camera and an 8MP f/2.2 ultra-wide option. We were pretty fond of the secondary camera, simply because it made taking group selfies much easier. The camera app did take a while to load at points, however. 

In terms of battery life, you’ve got a beefy 5,000mAh capacity – the largest on the list – meaning we had no problem getting through a couple of days of watching Netflix and browsing Twitter. It even sometimes kicked its way into a third day. It won’t blow your mind, but for a 5G phone at this price point, it can’t be beaten.

5G phone FAQs

Is 5G available in the uK?

It sure is. EE launched the UK’s first 5G service in May 2019. It initially covered London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Manchester. It now covers 160 towns and cities. All of the four major networks now provide 5G – now including Vodafone, Three and O2. The providers hope that by 2022, the whole of the UK should be able to access 5G.

How is 5G different from 4G?

5G is up to 10 times faster than 4G. That’s because 5G uses smaller wavelengths and much higher frequencies than its predecessor. 5G can support a larger number of simultaneous connections than 4G. If you’ve ever been at a busy concert or a football match and have been greeted with a “no service” message, it’s because the 4G mobile connection can’t cope with all those connected devices. 5G remedies this problem. 

Another difference is that 5G can transmit more data over a band of frequencies than 4G, meaning it’ll be easier to download a Netflix show, or watch it without buffering.

The verdict: 5G phones

If you want a 5G phone that ticks every box, you can’t go wrong with the iPhone 12 pro max. Apple’s premium smartphone is a great option that’s packed with a snappy processor, a splendid camera, a gorgeous design and display, and the latest MagSafe technology.

If you want something cheaper, but which doesn’t skimp on the smarts or the hardware, take a look at the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, or the slightly more budget OnePlus nord 2. And if you really, really want a 5G phone but can’t pay more than £300, let us introduce you to the moto G 5G plus. Any of the phones above are solid options, though, and they’ll all have you watching and browsing at flaming next-gen speeds.

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