The Best Phones You Can Buy Right Now

Illustration for article titled The Best Phones You Can Buy Right Now
Photo: Sam Rutherford

If you’re looking for a new phone but aren’t sure which one to get, don’t worry, we’ve got your back.

Instead of drowning you with a list that has way too many choices, our list of the best smartphones you can buy right now is divided into a handful of straightforward categories with just two picks for each—from budget handsets that cost $350 or less, all the way up to super fancy premium phones. So if you want to cut out the nonsense, scroll down to check out Gizmodo’s top picks.

Buying forecast for spring 2021: With Mobile World Congress having been pushed back to later this summer, we’re not seeing quite the same number of new phone launches in early 2021 as we have in previous years. So aside from a handful of refreshed Moto phones, the biggest new arrival is Samsung’s Galaxy S21 lineup, which includes the new $800 Galaxy S21, the slightly larger $1,000 Galaxy S21+, and the high-end $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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If you’re not enamored with Samsung’s latest phones, we’re expecting Asus to release a new entry to its line of ROG gaming phones later this spring along with a new handset from OnePlus, with many more releases set for later this summer.

The Best All-Around Phone

Illustration for article titled The Best Phones You Can Buy Right Now
Photo: Sam Rutherford

Our Pick: Samsung Galaxy S21 ($800)

For 2021, Samsung learned a smart lesson from Apple by lowering the price of the standard Galaxy S21 down to just $800, while packing in even better tech. In addition to a gorgeous 6.2-inch OLED display, the S21 now features a 120HZ VRR screen that can dynamically change its refresh rate to best suit whatever is on the screen. On top of that, Samsung added a new in-screen fingerprint sensor which is 1.7 times larger than before (and noticeably faster), while also offering full 5G connectivity. And while an equivalent iPhone 12 only has two rear cameras, the S21 comes with three, including a 12-MP main cam, a 12-MP ultra-wide cam, and a 64-MP telephoto cam with a 3x optical zoom.

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It’s important to note that there a couple things you won’t get with a new S21, including support for microSD expandability and a bundled power brick. However, considering the laundry list of other high-end features you get with the S21, such as wireless and reverse wireless charging, Bluetooth 5.2, Wi-Fi 6E, and IP 68 water resistance, the $800 S21 offers the best value of any Galaxy phone in recent history.

Also Consider: iPhone 12 Pro ($1,000)

The iPhone 12 Pro is practically the perfect iPhone. That’s because even though it looks almost identical to the standard iPhone 12 and has the same 6.1-inch OLED screen, the iPhone 12 Pro features a number of other upgrades including a more durable stainless steel frame, an extra 2GB of RAM (4GB vs 6GB) for better multitasking, and double the base storage. However, the iPhone 12 Pro’s most important enhancements are on the back thanks to a built-in LiDAR sensor that delivers better focus in low light and the use of Night Mode for portrait shots along with a 2x telephoto zoom lens. And while the iPhone 12 Pro’s 2x zoom is just a touch shorter than what you get on the iPhone 12 Pro Max (which has a 2.5x optical zoom), that’s OK, because the iPhone 12 Pro delivers the best blend of power, performance, and price.

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The Best Mid-Range Phone

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Photo: Sam Rutherford
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Our Pick: Pixel 4a 5G ($500)

When it comes to a $500 phone, the Pixel 4a 5G has practically everything you could need or want. Its 6.2-inch screen is a good size without becoming unwieldy, while its OLED display boasts better brightness and richer colors than what you’d normally find on a phone in this price range. The Pixel 4a 5G also doesn’t fuss around with unnecessary extras, which means instead of a fancy in-screen fingerprint reader you get a good ‘ole fingerprint sensor around back where it’s easy to reach. The Pixel 4a 5G also sports a 12.2-MP main cam and a 16-MP ultra-wide cam, and, as its name implies, it has support for 5G (sub-6Ghz on standard models and both sub-6GHz and mmWave on the more expensive Verizon branded models). And like other Pixels, the Pixel 4a 5G has one of the best software experiences you can get on any phone thanks to day one Android updates and handy software features like the Pixel Recorder, Duplex, and more. The only other thing we wish Google had included was a third telephoto cam.

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Also Consider: Galaxy S20 FE ($700)

If you’re looking for a reasonably priced phone but want something a bit more advanced and have some wiggle room in your budget, the Galaxy S20 is a fantastic pick. The Galaxy S20 FE $700 price tag make it more affordable than its flagship Galaxy siblings, and it can be found on sale for hundreds less, making it an even better deal. The S20 FE sports a 120HZ refresh rate, a large OLED screen, and triple rear cameras, and despite its lower price tag, the only major sacrifices Samsung made were a lower resolution screen (just FHD+ instead of 4K) and swapping out the traditional glass back panel for plastic. So even though we still don’t get why this phone is called the FE (Fan Edition), the S20 FE is a great pick for anyone who wants a premium-feeling phone that’s also a good value.

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The best budget phone

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Photo: Sam Rutherford
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Our pick: Pixel 4a ($350)

After breaking into the affordable phone world with the Pixel 3a, Google has once again returned to show what a really good budget phone looks like with the Pixel 4a. It’s simple, straightforward, and compared to all of its rivals, the Pixel 4a features a display and camera quality that most phones twice its price can’t match. And while its performance isn’t exactly screaming, the Pixel 4a’s Snapdragon 730 still manages to deliver a lag-free experience, and like the larger Pixel 4a 5G, it has a headphone jack too. When people talk about just wanting a no-frills phone that does all the basics really well, the Pixel 4a is the first thing that comes to mind.

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Also consider: Moto G Power ($250)

When it comes to $250 phones, we’re not looking for much: a solid build, smooth performance, and passable camera. And with the Moto G Power, Motorola has delivered all of those along with one real highlight characteristic: some of the best battery life we’ve seen on any phone this year, regardless of price. We’re talking upwards of 16 hours of life on a single charge, which when combined with everything, means the Moto G Power deserves a solid look for anyone thinking about buying a $250 phone.

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Note: There’s a new model of the Moto G Power for 2021 that we’re looking to review soon, so check back for updates.

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The Best Super-Premium Phone

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Our Pick: Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ($1,100)

Aside from the exorbitantly priced Galaxy Z Fold 2, if you’re looking for a phone that’s stuffed with fancy features wherever you look, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is it. Not only does it have a huge 6.9-inch OLED screen, but the Note 20 Ultra also boasts a display with a 120Hz variable refresh rate that adjusts dynamically depending on whatever you’re looking at, so you get the best performance when you need it while increasing battery life when you don’t. On the back, the Note 20 Ultra sports three rear cameras, including a telephoto cam with a 5x optical zoom. Meanwhile, thanks to a Snapdragon 865+ chip and a big 4,500 mAh battery, you won’t be hurting for speed or battery life. But the real icing on the cake is, of course, the Note 20 Ultra’s built-in S-Pen, which is something no other phone can really match. You can find the Note 20 Ultra for less than its high launch price tag these days, and trust us: This is the phone equivalent of mashing up a super car and an SUV into the same device. It’s worth it.

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Alternatively, if you want something even newer, consider the S21 Ultra, because even though it doesn’t come with an included S Pen, it does support official add-on styluses from Samsung. Not only do you get fantastic new features like the S21 Ultra’s excellent 10x optical zoom, you still get all the same drawing and note-taking features you’d expect from a Galaxy Note, just with a little added chunkiness.

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The iPhone Most People Should Buy

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Our Pick: iPhone 12 ($800)

For those who aren’t sold on the iPhone 12 Pro’s extra features (or simply don’t want to spend the extra money), the standard iPhone 12 remains an excellent choice. It’s got the same core features as its more expensive siblings, including a 6.1-inch OLED display, Face ID, the powerful A14 Bionic chip, 5G connectivity, and more. And while it doesn’t have a dedicated telephoto cam, its 12-MP main cam and 12-MP ultra-wide cam boast even better image quality than before. And with color options including black, white, red, green and blue, the standard iPhone 12 is arguably available in a better selection of hues too.

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Also Consider: iPhone SE or iPhone 12 Mini ($400 or $700)

Choosing between the iPhone 12 Mini and the iPhone SE will depend greatly on your budget and how you feel about the traditional Touch ID home button. Starting at just $400, the iPhone SE is the cheapest new iPhone you can buy, and the only one that still has a traditional fingerprint sensor. However, its performance and camera just doesn’t match what you get from an iPhone 12 Mini, which is basically a normal iPhone 12 with a smaller 4.7-inch screen. The iPhone 12 Mini also supports 5G, which will be an important factor as carriers continue to expand their next-gen cell networks, though you will have to watch out for less-than-stellar battery life, as the a smaller body comes a smaller battery.

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What about 5G?

While a number of manufacturers including Apple, Samsung, Google, OnePlus, LG, and others have released 5G phones, our position that is that for most people, it still doesn’t make sense to upgrade solely for the purpose of connecting to 5G networks. Right now, 5G should be fifth or sixth down on the list of important features (or more) after things like design, performance, battery, cameras, and software. Instead, you should consider 5G as a bonus that will help unlock faster mobile data speeds as carriers build out their 5G networks. Until they do, 5G just isn’t important enough to justify upgrading on its own.

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How has this list changed? Read back through our update history:

2/16/21: Updated the page with new picks including the Galaxy S21 as our best overall phone.

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11/17/20: Overhauled the entire page with update picks and info for the holiday 2020 season.

6/29/20: Updated the list with a new intro and buying forecast. Also added new entries for the iPhone SE, and Galaxy S20 Ultra, along with a note about upcoming coverage for budget phones.

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3/31/20: Removed the LG G8X and Galaxy S10, added the Galaxy S20 as the best phone overall and updated the section regarding 5G phones.

11/18/19: Added the Pixel 4 to our best overall phone recommendations and the G8X Dual Screen to the best super premium list. 

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10/8/19: Updated the list for fall 2019 with new picks for the Best Mid-Range, Budget, and iPhone sections. Also updated and renamed the Hyper Phone category to Super Premium Phone, and added a section discussing 5G phones.  

5/17/19: Revamped the list to reflect all the big Spring 2019 phone releases. Replaced the Pixel 3 with the OnePlus 7 Pro as the second-best phone overall. Awarded Pixel 3a “Best Mid-Range Phone” and moved the OnePlus 6T to second choice. Replaced the Moto G6 with the Moto G7 as “Best Budget Phone” and also updated the Best Hyper Phone with the Huawei P30 Pro.

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3/11/20: Added the Samsung Galaxy S10 as the best phone overall. Moved the Pixel 3 to “Also Consider.”

6/20/20: Added new picks following recent spring phone launches.

11/18/20: Overhauled the entire guide with updated info on pricing for 2020 holiday season.

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Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

Still using the Galaxy S8 over here, and it will probably be the first phone I actually keep for more than the two years it takes to pay it off. Usually around this time there’s so much slowdown and battery degradation that I’m ready for a new phone, but I honestly can’t tell any difference in this phone’s performance after almost two years (though my memory is terrible, so who knows).

I’m gonna pay it off a bit early. It’s gonna be nice to have a decent phone and have a lower phone bill.