Best phones 2021: iPhone, Samsung and Huawei smartphones reviewed

Your search for a new device with great battery life, camera and facial recognition is over

David Phelan@davidphelan2009,Steve Hogarty
Thursday 10 June 2021 16:02
<p>We’ve assessed ease of use, quality of elements like the cameras and speaker, and, of course, battery life</p>

We’ve assessed ease of use, quality of elements like the cameras and speaker, and, of course, battery life

These days, our phones do a lot more than make calls and send texts. This means that when it comes to choosing a smartphone, you want something that is fast enough to load web pages instantly, and big enough to make video playback viable, with enough pixels for the screen to be immersive.

It also needs to have a camera or multiple cameras, so you can safely leave your standalone snapper at home. Plus, it should handle your payments (especially in our increasingly cashless society) and play your music and games. All with a battery that lasts at least a full day so that you’re not filled with charge anxiety.

Most high-end phones are now all screen affairs, meaning there are no areas of non-screen space at the top and bottom of the display. The move to maximising phones’ screen-to-body ratios has meant that the selfie camera sometimes now sits in a peephole or notch at one end of the screen.

Similarly, the fingerprint sensor you will want to unlock the phone and authenticate payments is now found buried under the display itself, on the side edge or, on more affordable phones, on the back. Of the phones here, only the iPhones have facial recognition that’s good enough for payment authentication.

Something else that’s mostly relegated to budget phones is the 3.5mm headphone jack. Of the phones here, it’s only the Sony’s xperia 1 II that stands out for including the traditional socket.

Read more:

There are two major operating systems for smartphones: Apple’s iOS, on Apple’s devices only, and Google’s Android, which is on almost everything else.

In the last few months, a new element to consider has appeared. Thanks to the American government’s restrictions on Huawei dealing with US companies such as Google, the Chinese phone brand has been forced to switch to the open-source core Android operating system on its devices, instead of the version with full Google mobile services, which other manufacturers use.

Google mobile service is what allows apps like Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube and Google Play Store to work. Even so, Huawei’s stunning phone hardware and growing app store, called AppGallery, makes the brand definitely worth considering.

We’ve tested for ease of use, the quality of elements like the cameras and speaker, and, of course, battery life. Additionally, many models now have fast-charge options so that even if the phone runs out at a bad time, it may only take minutes to charge it to half full again. Some phones have wireless charging coils inside so if you have a wireless charging pad you can just conveniently place it on that to recharge, though this is routinely slower than charging with a cable.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

The best phones in 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Apple iPhone 12 pro max: £1,049, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best display – Sony xperia 1 II: £1,099, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best Huawei phone – Huawei P40 pro+: £799.99, Huawei.com
  • Best mid-range Android – Oppo find X2 pro 5G: £798, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best for business – Samsung Galaxy note 20 ultra 5G: £980.98, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best mid-range Apple phone – Apple iPhone 12: £874, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best Samsung phone – Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra: £995, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best folding phone – Samsung Galaxy Z flip: £1,025, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best Android phone under £800 – OnePlus 9 pro: £792.78, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best budget phone – Google pixel 5: £599, Google.com

Apple iPhone 12 pro max

Best: Overall

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1284 x 2778 pixels, 458ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB
  • Expandable storage? No
  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 12MP
  • Dimensions: 160.8mm x 78.1mm x 7.4mm
  • Weight: 228g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

The top-end model of Apple’s newest iPhone is, naturally, the best phone the company has yet engineered. At 6.7in it’s an enormous device, and sports the same neat, flat-edge design seen in the rest of the iPhone 12 range. The back is frosted glass, and the edge-to-edge OLED display is interrupted only by the distinctive notch containing the front-facing camera and Face ID sensors. Apple’s facial recognition system allows you to unlock the device and authenticate payments simply by looking at it.

Read more: iPhone 12 pro vs iPhone 12

The iPhone 12 pro max boasts the best battery life of an iPhone in generations, with a single charge lasting two days. 5G capability offers superfast internet speeds, so long as you’re in a 5G-enabled area. The improved camera performs excellently in low light conditions and can snap detailed portrait shots in night mode.

The iPhone 12 pro max is a hefty slab – people with smaller hands might prefer the leaner form factor of iPhone 12 pro – but it’s the best choice for those looking for a true powerhouse smartphone from Apple.

Sony xperia 1 II

Best: Display

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.5in, 1644 x 3840 pixels, 643ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 256GB
  • Expandable storage? Yes
  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 8MP
  • Dimensions: 165.1mm x 71.1mm x 7.6mm
  • Weight: 181.4g
  • Headphone jack? Yes
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

The xperia 1 II is distinctive looking thanks to a much longer, slightly narrower display. It means that though it’s a 6.5in-display phone, smaller hands can grip it with ease. Reaching to the very top is a little more of a challenge, but there’s a special one-handed use mode that shrinks the usable screen to make it easier.

There’s also a useful split-screen effect where you can have two live apps occupying half the screen at once. The display is 4K resolution, the same as high-end, full-size TVs, and looks glorious. The xperia is pretty much alone among the premium handsets in the fact it features a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The fingerprint sensor, mounted on the side of the phone, is fast and reliable. Sony had input from its camera division and there’s a hardware camera shutter button on the edge, too. It has advanced photography and video apps to make the most of these. The cameras are great with a superbly fast autofocus, extensive burst mode and more. It especially rewards those photographers prepared to take time to choose the right settings. Also boasting a strong battery life, this is a great device.

Huawei P40 pro+

Best: Huawei phone

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.58in, 1200 x 2640 pixels, 441ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 512GB
  • Expandable storage? Yes
  • Camera (rear): 50MP wide, 8MP telephoto, 8MP periscope telephoto, 40MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 32MP
  • Dimensions: 158.2mm x 72.6mm x 9mm
  • Weight: 226g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

When it comes to photography, this phone has the best camera hardware by a country mile – one of the lenses is a periscope camera. No, sadly that doesn’t mean it pops up out of the phone’s body. Rather, mirrors reflect the light along the inside of the phone to offer the equivalent of a 10x the optical zoom compared to the main sensor – something that's not possible without this periscope system.

There’s also sophisticated artificial intelligence, which can spot whether you’re taking a picture of a cat or a dog and adjust accordingly. This truly is a remarkable photo powerhouse.

The P40 pro+ also has a dazzling design with a screen that slopes down at the edges and has a handsome ceramic finish. But it has one problem: it uses basic Android instead of the version with Google mobile services that are used by other manufacturers. This means there’s no Gmail, Google Maps or Google Play Store. Huawei’s equivalent AppGallery, however, is growing fast and has 81,000 apps. These include Here WeGo Maps, which is in some ways better than Google’s version, for instance, but some key options are not there.

Oppo find X2 pro 5G

Best: Mid-range Android

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1440 x 3168 pixels, 513ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 256/512GB
  • Expandable storage? No
  • Camera (rear): 48MP wide, 13MP periscope telephoto, 48MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 32MP
  • Dimensions: 16.2mm x 74.4mm x 8.8mm
  • Weight: 217g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? No
  • 5G? Yes

Oppo’s phones are innovative and attractive. This one looks and feels high end and is a pleasure to use. It comes in two versions, one with a ceramic back and the other with a faux-leather finish. Like the Samsung Galaxy note 20 ultra, it has a display which can change its refresh rate to make sure it looks great at all times.

Similarly to the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 pro, this display can adjust its colour and brightness to suit the ambient light around it. In short, it always looks great. The camera peeps through the display at the top-left while the fingerprint sensor, like some others here, is buried under the screen. It’s classy and elegant, but pricier than previous Oppo phones.

Samsung Galaxy note 20 ultra 5G

Best: For business

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.9in, 1440 x 3088 pixels, 496ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB
  • Expandable storage? Yes
  • Camera (rear): 108MP wide, 12MP periscope telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 10MP
  • Dimensions: 164.8mm x 77.2mm x 8.1mm
  • Weight: 208g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

The note series from Samsung is known for big screens and a special extra: a stylus that tucks away into the phone’s body. This means you can take notes on the display or draw on it. There’s even a subtle sound effect which makes it sound like a pen scraping across paper when you do.

This is a super-fast phone with lots going for it. The display has a variable refresh rate, which means it can make everything look butter smooth, whether that’s watching videos or scrolling through lists. It can also save battery life by reducing the refresh rate when it doesn’t need to be fast.

The only downside to the phone’s elegant and business-like design is that the camera unit on the back of the phone is enormous and really sticks out. It has three cameras on the back including one with a 108MP sensor, which is able to pick up more light, more quickly. The results are impressive, even though you probably won’t use the maximum zoom level, which is 50x.

Apple iPhone 12

Best: Mid-range Apple phone

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.1in, 1170 x 2532 pixels, 460ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 64/128/256GB
  • Expandable storage? No
  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 12MP
  • Dimensions: 146.7mm x 71.5mm x 7.4 mm
  • Weight: 164g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

Whereas the standard iPhone 11 had a lower-quality LED screen compared to the bigger iPhone 11 pro model, the iPhone 12 boasts the very same OLED display as its larger sibling. That makes it an enticing proposition for anyone who wants the best iPhone possible in a more convenient size.

The iPhone 12 is almost as good as the pro models. It has spectacular battery life and two of the pro’s three cameras (it lacks the telephoto). It’s also every bit as powerful as it has the same processor at its heart, so it can do all the standout things from the pro, such as the fast, effective face recognition.

Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra

Best: Samsung phone

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.8in, 1440 x 3200 pixels, 515ppi
  • Screen technology: AMOLED
  • Storage capacity: 128/256/512GB
  • Expandable storage? No
  • Camera (rear): 108MP wide, 10MP periscope telephoto, 10MP telephoto, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 40MP
  • Dimensions: 165mm x 75.6mm x 8.9mm
  • Weight: 227g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

This just might be the greatest phone ever made. The Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra crams every conceivable feature into a smartly designed, beautiful handset. The camera boasts no fewer than five lenses, two of which are telephoto. This enables 8K video recording and an incredible 10x optical zoom, which is capable of taking amazing close-ups of the moon, traditionally the smartphone camera’s most uncooperative subject.

The 6.8in 120Hz display features an in-screen fingerprint sensor for fast unlocking, and the edges curve away slightly with a striking effect. The camera bump is all relegated to one corner of the device too, a bold design choice that really stands out. If you can afford it, the Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra is a powerhouse that won’t disappoint.

Samsung Galaxy Z flip

Best: Folding phone

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1080 x 2636 pixels, 425ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 256GB
  • Expandable storage? No
  • Camera (rear): 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 10MP
  • Dimensions: 167.3mm x 73.6mm x 7.2mm
  • Weight: 183g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? No

Folding phones are the newest kind of smartphone, using flexible displays that fold in half. Most are phone-sized and fold out to become tablets, but this one is phone-sized until it folds in half to become especially pocketable.

The screen looks great – though there is a small, visible join between the two halves. Also, to keep the display safe, there’s a plastic cover on the screen. It’s taut enough that you can’t feel it except in the seam. For many, this will be the perfect phone. The only downside is that it feels like you need to treat it with kid gloves. Still, it comes with its own, rather cool, two-part case.

OnePlus 9 pro

Best: Android phone

  • Screen size and resolution: 6.7in, 1440 x 3216 pixels, 525ppi
  • Screen technology: AMOLED
  • Storage capacity: 128/256GB
  • Expandable storage? No
  • Camera (rear): 48MP wide, 8MP telephoto, 50MP ultra-wide, 2MP colour filter
  • Camera (front): 16MP
  • Dimensions: 163.2mm x 73.6mm x 8.7 mm
  • Weight: 197g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

OnePlus has seriously upped its photography game with the OnePlus 9 pro, partnering with Hasselblad to implement camera improvements that rival the cameras of the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S21. It’s a beautiful device too that’s elegantly designed with a punch-hole selfie camera and a silky smooth 120Hz display.

Some of the features that made earlier generations of the OnePlus really stand out from the crowd, such as superfast charging, have since been adopted by the brand’s mainstream rivals. But the OnePlus 9 is undoubtedly the best phone the company has yet made, offering premium performance, decent battery life and an outstanding camera.

Google pixel 5

Best: Budget phone

  • Screen size and resolution: 6in, 1080 x 2340 pixels, 432ppi
  • Screen technology: OLED
  • Storage capacity: 128GB
  • Expandable storage? No
  • Camera (rear): 12.2MP wide, 16MP ultrawide
  • Camera (front): 8MP
  • Dimensions: 144.7mm x 70.4mm x 8mm
  • Weight: 251g
  • Headphone jack? No
  • Wireless chargeable? Yes
  • 5G? Yes

An affordable Android phone from Google, the pixel 5 is the purest expression of the search giant’s own mobile operating system, offering users the best and latest Android features often before they’re available anywhere else.

The display is bright and clear, the bezels uniformly thin and the holepunch camera neatly positioned in the corner of the screen. It’s small enough to be used single-handed too, which is increasingly rare for a flagship device.

You don’t get the top-of-the-range camera features of the S21 or iPhone 12 here, but Google is all about the software this generation: what you get is a refined Android experience free from the weird pre-installed apps that plague phones at this price range.

The verdict: Smartphones

The Apple iPhone 12 pro max is the fastest phone on the market, so it never keeps you waiting and is a joy to use. The standout for photography is the Huawei P40 pro+, though the absence of Google apps will deter some. And for the best display, easiest fit in the hand and all-round usefulness, the Sony xperia 1 II is tremendous.

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