With the year nearly at its end and the launches of several devices behind us, some of which laid a lasting impression and others that we can deem forgettable, but 2021 for smartphones has been a decent year.
Foldables have become available at the $1000 mark, Apple’s smartphones are marginally thicker and offer even better battery life, and Google is back with a flagship phone and new camera hardware. While OnePlus, which has been targeting the premium market segment, came up with a device that offers the price to performance from the time of its humble beginnings. So without further ado, let’s get into Pocketnow Awards – Best Smartphones of 2021.
Best Budget Phone: OnePlus Nord N200 5G
Last year’s Best Budget Phone for Pocketnow was the original OnePlus Nord; unfortunately, the phone never made it to the United States. But since then, OnePlus has added several devices to its Nord lineup, three of which are available here in North America. And from that lineup, the Nord N200 5G is our winner for this category.
For $239, the phone offers a suitable combination of hardware. Powering it is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 5G packaged with 4GB of RAM and 64GB on internal storage — which is expandable via microSD. On the front, it features a 6.49-inch FHD+ display with a 90Hz refresh rate, and with OxygenOS in tow, the phone offers one of the best user experiences. And to make sure this phone could handle a whole day of use, you have access to its 5000mAh battery and 18W fast charging, the former a great spec to have, and the latter is acceptable.
We saw a ton of offerings from Samsung and Motorola that did make this list pretty packed, but no phone did a better job than the OnePlus Nord N200. It has the best design of the bunch and decent specifications. We are sure in other regions there might be other options, but in the US, we don’t know of any other phone that provides such a package for less than $250.
OnePlus Nord N200 5G
OnePlus Nord N200 5G offers a suitable combination of hardware, making a device that’s perfect if you don’t want to splash too much money but still have a satisfactory user experience.
Samsung Galaxy A32 5G
The Galaxy A32 5G is a budget package that packs in MediaTek’s Dimensity 720 and will serve as a good option for those who prefer Samsung’s flavor of Android. Its large 5000mAh battery also ensures great endurance. For storage, they’ve bundled 64GB of capacity with microSD expansion.
Motorola One 5G Ace
If you’re on the hunt for a larger phone, the Motorola One 5G Ace features a 6.7-inch FHD screen and is powered by the Snapdragon 750G 5G, meaning it offers the best performance amongst our shortlist. It’s also backed by a 5000 mAh battery and has a triple camera array headlined by a 48MP sensor.
Best Camera: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
For a device that you carry around in a pocket, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra features a camera setup that commands a very capable variety of lenses. Headlining it is a 108MP wide-angle lens that promises images rich with detail — although pixel binning is implemented — following which is a 12MP ultra-wide, and two telephoto lenses, both 10MP but with varying apertures and focal length.
This was a tough category to define a winner for because the camera is a major factor to consider when looking at flagships. We’ve seen companies like Samsung and Xiaomi with their Ultra devices, Vivo going Pro+, and the Pixel making a flagship comeback. Yet, they’re all great for photos and don’t get video as well as an iPhone.
Nevertheless, it was a tough pick, but we think the company that struck the best balance of everything is Samsung with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. From the capabilities of all its sensors, a night mode that rarely disappoints, the ability to capture the moon in its full glory, and even getting the camera hump under control.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra features a robust set of cameras and a variety of special modes that leave in your hands the ability to capture moments in more than one way.
Pixel 6 Pro
If you’re someone who prefers the smartphone to remove complexity from a shot and give you the best possible result, the Pixel 6 Pro features a camera configuration suited to do just that. It uses a triple camera array of a 50MP wide-angle lens, a 12MP ultra-wide, and a 48MP telephoto camera.
iPhone 13 Pro
With the iPhone 13 Pro, users can expect perfect captures for playing with in post. Meaning the cameras on this device will offer a great experience for those who love editing their images back at home or in the office to make them look how they love their images. But the 12MP cameras on the iPhone ought to catch up with its competitors’ higher pixel sensors that provide more room to experiment. Although, Photographic Styles were a nice addition this year.
Best Conventional Flagship: Apple iPhone 13 Pro
According to Pocketnow, with a powerful processor, a display that can reach 1000 nits during typical use — while refreshing at 120Hz — and a camera array that won’t disappoint in almost every condition, the iPhone 13 Pro is the best conventional flagship one can buy in 2021. The phone even has a slightly thicker chassis to fit a larger battery inside, meaning your iPhone will keep going throughout the day without you having to worry about a charger.
Last year we had the best flagship category, but the maturity of foldables and their integration into the world of smartphones would make it a one-sided competition. And we know some of you would still like to know about the best option in the most traditional sense, and for that, we think there are very few companies that did a job better than Apple with its iPhone 13 Pro.
We can call its design an iteration, and while, Apple hasn’t been first at the most of this phone’s list of features, the reputation it has built of being late but better continues.
It’s hard to argue with the elegance of this design, the beauty of this display, the performance of this A15 Bionic, and everything these cameras can do. It’s also shocking that for today’s social media, iPhones continue to do it better. To have all that on a phone you can handle with one hand is hard to beat, and especially when you now have battery life that can back that up.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro
The iPhone 13 Pro is the best smartphone to get if you want your experience to be one that works. The display gets bright, perfect for outdoor use; the A15 Bionic will easily handle any task, the cameras will capture good images, and the battery will ensure you can remain at it throughout the day.
Samsung Galaxy S21+
The Galaxy S21+ features a list of specifications that makes it the perfect phone to get if you don’t wish to have the bells and whistles of the S21 Ultra and need a phone with great performance in terms of camera and multitasking. Its 5000mAh battery is also a great specification that aids all-day use.
Google Pixel 6 Pro
The Google Pixel 6 Pro as mentioned earlier, is the phone that can remove complexity from a photo session, but what it is also good at is removing complexity from your daily life. It has the Google Tensor which can handle apps with ease and the supporting hardware to ensure it lasts a whole day of use.
Best Design: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3
The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 is the first foldable, which we can say is genuinely an option for mainstream users, enticed by the new form factor. It features an improved design, where the paltry front display has been replaced with one that is larger a lot more functional. Its two-tone colorway with the black glass around the front display with color-matched glass and aluminum railings also adds a great dynamic.
We live in a time where consumers look for « more in less » and the Z Flip 3 embodies this perfectly. It’s gorgeous not only because of its elegant approach to design but because of how it just feels right. phone isn’t just gorgeous thanks to its elegant approach to design, but it just feels so right. The concept of being offered a large screen when using the phone and having access to an easy pocketable device when folded in one worth of appreciation.
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3
Powered by the Snapdragon 888, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 is a no-holdback foldable flagship that features a good 120Hz OLED panel that gets bright enough for outdoor use and a camera system that can produce acceptable results, all while managing to look great on the outside.
Vivo X70 Pro+
The X70 Pro+ is one of those smartphones that not many people notice due to the lack of awareness it commands, but this device from Vivo has by far one of the best looking back panels with a design element in the giant black camera hump. But turn to its front and the phone has a gorgeous curved display that seamlessly melts into the frame.
OnePlus 9 Pro
The OnePlus 9 Pro is a device that makes its way onto this list of the best-designed phones due to its display that has almost uniform bezels across all four sides and curvature that’s not functionally an obstruction. Its unique colorways also add an element that aids its argument.
Best Mid-range Smartphone: OnePlus Nord 2
The OnePlus Nord 2 arrived in the European and Indian markets with a lot of fervor due to its successor classification and its promise to give users a taste of the OnePlus of old, where devices always had a value proposition. The device features a design similar to the OnePlus 9 Series, more so like the cheaper OnePlus 9. But on the inside, it’s pretty different as at its heart is MediaTek’s Dimensity 1200, which honestly has held its own.
The primary sensor on the back can capture some great shots, and the ultra-wide can be worked with at times. Finally, powering it is a respectable 4500mAh cell with 65W Warp Charging, so running out of juice is a problem not many will ever face.
Sometimes you just want a phone that has enough of everything, and the OnePlus Nord 2 is just that!
OnePlus Nord 2
The OnePlus Nord 2 features a value proposition hard to match by several devices. The MediaTek Dimensity 1200 processor can handle games and multitask with ease, while its camera setup can capture images that will leave you satisfied.
The Galaxy A52 is a device with mid-range specs that won’t blow anyone away but if you’re looking for an experience that remains steady, this phone is the one to get. The device’s key features are its great display, above-average battery life, and a build that’s hard to dislike.
The Motorola Edge is a mid-range device that you may not notice masquerading as a premium one due to the design it implements. On the performance front, it packs a Snapdragon 765G which can handle most tasks with relative ease, and when coupled with the 4500mAh battery it results in an experience that’ll comfortably get you through a day of use.
Best Value: Google Pixel 6
The Google Pixel 6 is an all-in-one package that we believe checks a lot of boxes. While it may not have the best-looking display design-wise, it still does have a respectable 6.4-inch panel with FHD+ resolution and a 90Hz refresh rate. And Google’s very-own Tensor processor, which powers this phone, has proven that it’s capable of handling tasks thrown at it with relative ease. As for the optics, we all know Google and its software magic make for a great experience, one that’s competitive or better than most options in this price bracket.
Last year the crown went to the S20 FE, but this time, no phone deserves it more than the Google Pixel 6. In our opinion, its got better looks than the Pixel 6 Pro, packs the same processor, nearly the same cameras, and the whole set of perks owning a Pixel is known to offer.
At this price, even Samsung’s A series doesn’t look as attractive, and the iPhone 13 is expensive when you remove the subsidies that don’t always apply. It’s an option that offers really get value especially when other competing devices are at least $250 more.
Googe Pixel 6
The Google Pixel 6 is the device to get if you’re looking for something that will provide a reliable Android user experience with most of the bells and whistles found in premium Android flagships.
The Google Pixel 5a is an alternative to the Pixel 6 that’s perfect to get if your budget doesn’t extend any further. It grants access to the competitive Google camera algorithm and efficient plus reliable performance due to its Snapdragon 765G.
The Galaxy A52 is another phone that offers great value due to the feeling it can evoke in an owner. While it doesn’t have the most powerful processor inside, when combined with the camera hardware and robust build, it’s one of the best devices money can get for its cost.
Best Compact Phone: Apple iPhone 13 mini
Small phones are difficult. At least making them is, especially while ensuring that the performance they provide doesn’t hamper anybody’s usage experience. With the iPhone 12 mini, battery life was a qualm that Apple wasn’t able to answer for every type of user, but with the 13 mini, that isn’t really an issue.
This new compact phone packs in the same powerful A15 Bionic present in the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro Series (minus the extra GPU core) and has an 800 nits display but is able to match the battery life of last year’s iPhone 12, meaning using this tiny phone for a whole day is easy for even those who tend to push their devices.
In-body stabilization on such a tiny camera system is also a huge bonus, we believe these capabilities make it pretty irresistible for anyone who wants real one-handed use. We also recommend you jump on to a opportunity to purchase it as quickly as possible because rumors have it that this is the last year we’re getting a mini iPhone.
iPhone 13 mini
The iPhone 13 mini is the compact phone of the year due to its impeccable performance and battery life. Its camera system is also one that doesn’t fall short of any of its competitors.
Galaxy Z Flip 3
The Galaxy Z Flip 3 is an honorable mention on our list of compact phones due to its foldable nature that makes it easy to pocket. The increased usability of the outside screen also plays a huge role in it getting this position.
Asus Zenfone 8
In the realm of Android phones, getting a compact device with all the highest-end processor packed into it is not easy. And the Zenfone 8 fills that gap with its clean UI and design that makes it comfortable to hold and use.
Best All-Rounder: OPPO Find X3 Pro
The OPPO Find X3 has been earlier defined by Pocketnow as the most mature of the Find X Series — which has often tested features with a factor of innovation –, and as Jaime mentions in his review, this model is one that’s more of a refinement.
The QHD+ AMOLED panel on this phone gets extremely bright at 1300 nits and also supports an adaptive refresh rate ranging from 5Hz to 120Hz. The glass and aluminum construction sports a look that, while termed as reminiscent of the iPhone, does make its own mark with the unique smooth blend of the camera bump into the back panel.
This phone receives the All-Rounder Award because of its implementation of every one of its features. Its the perfect workhorse as it gets the essentials right. The concept of having the exact same sensor on two focal lengths was genius, as we feel it is still the best night mode out of an ultra-wide. The display is also exceptional due to its added contrast ratio, and Color OS is also more mature than ever before.
OPPO Find X3 Pro
The OPPO Find X3 Pro is a device to buy if you’re looking for a device with a stunning design and performance that’s satisfactory on all fronts.
The Galaxy S21 finds itself on our list of all-round devices of the year because of its hardware choices which make it a great deal for interested buyers. The camera system on this device is no letdown while the display panel is one of the best available in the market.
The iPhone 13 is the defacto device for iOS users upgrading from older generations. It packs the latest technology that Apple has to offer and maintains a high standard of build quality that leads to a great in-hand feel. The power provided by its A15 Bionic processor also makes it second to none.
Best of the Best: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 receives the Best of the Best award from Pocketnow because not only is the device less expensive than its predecessors, but it features refinements and improvements that make it the version that’s a valid recommendation for everyone. The main reason we had to separate the conventional flagship category is because in 2021 there is such a thing as a phone that’s so much more.
The foldable features 120Hz capable panels on both sides, with each reaching a level of brightness that’s legible when outdoors, while Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 and Samsung’s multitasking features ensure any task is easy to perform and handled with ease. It also addresses the missing water resistance rating, and feature a solid build, with a screen protector that you don’t want to peel off immediately.
At a time when screen sizes are getting out of hand, this is the most creative way to achieve a tablet that can fit in your pocket and make exceptional use of accessories like the S Pen. It’s still expensive, but pretty irresistible with Samsung’s trade-in deals.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 features hardware that makes it the perfect device for a power user. Its displays and now added S Pen functionality add another level to its versatility.
Best Company: Samsung
Last year, when creating our awards, we had a focus on devices made available in the market in trying times and showed our appreciation for the companies behind them. Thus, this year, we decided we’d also take note of the variety of launches throughout the year and state which company we think did a great job. And topping the list this year is Samsung.
And a primary reason behind this is its push for advancements in foldable technology. The massive reduction in cost that the Z Flip 3 saw, the introduction of the budget tablets like the Tab S7 FE, and the Galaxy A Series, which has continually offered respectable hardware without demanding much of a premium.
While Samsung takes the cake for moving the world of smartphones forward by lowering costs in the realm of foldables, Apple finally brought 120Hz refresh rates to its iPhone displays and put forth an example of how optimization can lead to improvements in battery performance. Another reason they deserve appreciation is for making the right decisions for its MacBook Pro lineup by introducing models with new fast and powerful ARM chips and ports that it had taken away from past generations.
Google’s 2021, while full of leaks, has resulted in a series of devices that show it’s here and it means business. The aggressive pricing on the Pixel 6 Series and the hardware choices it has made have us excited for what the future of smartphones from Google holds. The introduction of Tensor, which pushes forth the machine learning-based narrative, also deserves praise for the effect it has had in voice recognition and features like Magic Eraser.
Best Innovation: ARM Chips
Since the introduction of the M1 Processor from Apple, ARM processors have continually been in the headlines. And this year, too, the M1 Pro and M1 Max have continued to show us why this technology is part of the future. The efficiency and power they afford companies have been nothing less of staggering, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.
Foldable Technology Maturity
Foldable Technology has been widely available in the market for three generations of devices now and compared to the fragile and different nature it presented back then; In 2021, it sure has come a long way. Folding phones, at least those from Samsung, now present IP ratings, a feature many of us take for granted on our brick-like phones, and costs for devices have reached the $1000 mark we’ve had to pay for flagships since 2017.
Smartphone Photography has continually grown due to the implementation of computational algorithms and this year, we believe it features some of the best innovations. This is headlined by the attempts Google has made to increase inclusivity by creating code that better deals with the various ethnicities of the world. And features like Magic Eraser which can help clean up artifacts, or people in shots is just a boon.
Biggest Letdown: Microsoft Surface Duo 2
The Surface Duo 2 has been described by Microsoft as the pinnacle of productivity and to that end features two 5.8-inch displays, that once put side by side, give access to an 8.3-inch canvas. And unlike last year’s first-generation Duo, this year’s model packs the latest hardware with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888, 8GB of RAM, and internal storage that starts at 128GB and goes up to 512GB. But regardless of how good the hardware is, the awkward wedge-like design this year and the incessant bugs on this model, unfortunately, have it rated as the biggest letdown here at Pocketnow.
Microsoft Surface Duo 2
Microsoft Surface Duo 2 offers a foldable experience like no other with its slim individual display panels and performance. If you’re someone who doesn’t mind treading rocky waters, this device might be worth checking out.
Sony Xperia Pro-I
The Sony Xperia Pro-I features camera hardware and software that open up a world of possibilities for those that know how to use one, but leave this hardware to its own, and the ineffective application of computational photography shows. This earns the Xperia Pro-I its position as a letdown because the phone has the sensors for great captures, but its requirement of specialized equipment or extra skill to make the most of it makes it a difficult recommendation.
OnePlus 9 Pro
The OnePlus 9 Pro is a true flagship from the Chinese phone maker, yes, it has a few shortcomings on the camera front and its Snapdragon 888 has earned some notoriety for heating, but it still provides a great user experience. Thus, the reason the phone finds its place here is due to its lack of value proposition, one that its predecessors used to maintain.
In memoriam: LG
LG is a company that was always ‘feature forward’, they never shied away from trying new things and were the first company to give us a phone with a useable ultrawide camera. For those who are familiar with the double-tap to wake gesture on Android phones, well, this feature is also courtesy of LG, who first introduced it as Knock On for their G2 back in 2013. Amongst other additions, LG is also one of the few manufacturers to feature a dedicated DAQ with the headphone jack on their phones.
But if we keep talking about what they’ve done, there will be many examples so we’d like to keep this short and appreciate them for all they’ve done with their unique perspective upon the world of smartphones.