It’s been a wild ride when it comes to new phones this year. Samsung gave up on its Galaxy Note line but doubled down on foldables with the Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Z Fold 3, Apple made a strong showing with the new iPhone 13 line, and even though the end result left a lot to be desired, Microsoft pushed out a sequel to its ambitious dual-screen Surface Duo.
However, the company that made the biggest splash this fall was Google, whose new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro not only feature some of the best smartphone cameras we’ve ever tested, they also pack Google’s new Tensor chip, which unlocks much more sophisticated AI-powered features than we’ve seen on any phones in the past.
So if you’re wondering which phone is right for you, keep reading: We’ve got recommendations for people on both sides of the iOS/Android divide, along with some picks for people looking for more affordable fare.
Buying forecast for winter 2021/2022: We’re not expecting to see any new flagship phones for the rest of the year, but we’re already getting ready for 2022. Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra has already leaked, and we have some questions about the camera. Meanwhile, Google is reportedly working on a foldable Pixel to challenge Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3. And, of course, iPhone 14 rumors have emerged. But if you’re more interested in buying a phone today, then we’ve got you covered below.
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Our Picks: Pixel 6 Pro ($900) and iPhone 13 Pro ($1,000)
If you just want the best overall phones on the market, you can’t really go wrong with the Pixel 6 Pro or iPhone 13 Pro. With the $900 Pixel 6 Pro, not only do you get a slick new package wrapped around a big 6.71-inch OLED display with a 120Hz variable refresh rate, you also get the best cameras on a phone, including a 4x optical zoom.
But it’s not just the Pixel 6 Pro hardware that impresses. By designing its new Tensor chip to support more powerful and more power-efficient AI and machine learning performance, the Pixel 6 Pro boasts data center-level voice recognition that supports new features like live translation and real-time HDR video recording. Google’s Pixel phones are also the first Android devices to support Android 12's dynamic color experience with Material You.
On the iOS side of things, the iPhone 13 Pro ($1,000) feels like Apple has tweaked and polished every feature on its flagship phone to a mirror finish. The Pro’s new macro mode adds a completely new dimension to smartphone photography, while its 6.1-inch OLED display also gets a similar 120Hz refresh rate to what’s available on the Pixel 6 Pro.
But the good stuff doesn’t stop there: The iPhone 13 Pro boasts better battery life than its predecessors, while its new A15 Bionic chip provides faster overall performance than anything over in Android land. Heck, Apple even shrunk the size of the iPhone 13's notch. And new for 2021, there’s even a 1TB storage option for the iPhone 13 Pro, so digital hoarders should have plenty of room for apps and media.
You don’t need to spend almost $1,000 to get a great phone: The standard Pixel 6 is probably the best bang for your buck. It gets the same 50-MP and 12-MP ultra-wide cams as the Pixel 6 Pro, along with Google’s new Tensor chip and an in-screen fingerprint sensor. In short, the Pixel 6 is a full flagship phone for barely more than most mid-range handsets. The cheapest $600 model doesn’t support mmWave 5G, so if you care a lot about super fast 5G connectivity, you’ll have to pay for the slightly more expensive $700 variant offered through carriers such as AT&T and Verizon.
Also Consider: TCL 20 Pro 5G ($500)
The TCL 20 Pro is like a budget version of Samsung’s Galaxy S20, but in the best way possible. Like the S20, the 20 Pro 5G features a brilliant AMOLED display with curvy edges, an in-screen fingerprint sensor, wireless charging, and triple rear cams. TCL has also leveraged its expertise with TVs to help boost and improve video content from all sort of apps and streaming services. And unlike a lot of other phones on this list, the 20 Pro 5G offers a dedicated headphone jack, microSD card expansion, and even a built-in IR blaster. For just $500, the TCL 20 Pro 5G has easily one of the most well-rounded feature sets on a smartphone today.
Our Pick: Moto G Power 2021 ($200)
If you want something even more affordable, the $200 Moto G Power (2021) covers all the bases while sporting some of the best battery life we’ve seen a phone—regardless of price. Though if you can spare the extra cash, we’d recommend going with the $250 model which comes with an extra gigabyte of RAM (4GB) and an extra 32GB of storage (64GB total).
Also Consider: Pixel 5a 5G ($449)
However, if you just want a simple, straightforward phone and don’t mind spending a bit more, you can’t really do any better than the Pixel 5a 5G. For just $449, you get a big 6.34-inch AMOLED display, support for 5G connectivity, a rear fingerprint sensor, dual rear cameras, and a big 4,620 mAh battery. And thanks to a clean build of Android (with three years of support) and all of Google’s nifty Pixel-only features, you get a phone with excellent software too.
Our Pick: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra ($1,300)
While Samsung didn’t make a new Galaxy Note this year, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is an excellent stand-in. Despite launching back in early 2021, the S21 Ultra still has the best-looking display of any phone this year and a still unmatche 10x optical zoom. And while the S21 Ultra doesn’t have a storage slot for stashing an S-Pen, it does have full stylus support so you can draw to your heart’s content, or use some of Samsung’s S Pen apps to make your own gifs, create Live Messages, and more. Sure, it’s expensive, but if you want the most powerful and most featured-packed phone that’s doesn’t have dual screens or a flexible display, the S21 Ultra is it.
Our Pick: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 ($1,800)
It’s not cheap and it certainly ain’t small, but for people who want a powerful hybrid device that can multitask better than any other mobile device on the market, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is it. With its huge 7.6-inch foldable main screen, you get a tablet-sized display in a phone that can still fit in your pocket, and thanks to new support for Samsung’s S-Pen, you can use the Z Fold 3 for drawing and sketching too. Just remember, the S-Pen for the Z Fold 3 is sold separately.
The Z Fold 3's exterior Cover Screen has been upgraded with a 120Hz refresh rate, and Samsung made the entire phone more durable with IPX8 water-resistance good down to depths of five feet. And while its zoom camera isn’t quite as good as the one on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Z Fold 3's triple rear cams ensure you have a wide selection of lenses and special camera modes for practically any situation. If you consider yourself a hardcore smartphone power user, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 has to be at the top of your list. But if you want a foldable that’s way less expensive and big on style, there’s also the very good Galaxy Z Flip 3.
This list is updated regularly with new recommendations and product forecasts. It was last updated on Nov. 8.