Best Smartphones for any budget in 2021

 These are the best smartphones for any budget in 2021

We Recommend the best smartphones whether you're into phone photography, flashy features or a power user who just needs the battery life.

What can you expect from a new phone in 2021? There are three real areas of improvement if you have a good amount of money to spend.

5G is now the standard for most of the best smartphones around, with Apple and, even, budget phones now releasing devices with the tech on board. The infrastructure has a way to go but it’s becoming a future-proofing necessity. Phone cameras continue to improve, with even better low-light images. And there are now more phones that offer quality zoom for great photos at 5x and 10x magnification.

This has been a good year for Apple in the performance stakes, bringing speed that wipes the floor with Androids in many cases. Its strengths are also arguably more in line with what people actually care about. iPhones now last longer between charges and there are great options for those who don’t want to spend the big bucks, with the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone SE.

You won’t get much of this tech if you have $234.40 to spend but there are some great options at this price point and the mid-range that make clever compromises. A cheap phone will often last a lot longer between charges as there is less pressure to make them super-slim, and some of their components drain less power. While Google’s Pixel devices regularly feature some of the best cameras around, without requiring upwards of $937.

We Recommend perennial Huawei is out of the running as its top phones no longer have Google apps. But read on to find strong alternatives from fellow Chinese manufacturers like Xiaomi, Oppo and OnePlus.

In particular, this leaves the Android fight down to Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and OnePlus 9 Pro, in a punch-up for the most technologically accomplished Android phone – with the Oppo Find X3 Pro just falling short of this list. Samsung wins for camera quality, but OnePlus is all over the rest and is cheaper. Those out to spend less should consider the Pixel 5 and the standard Samsung Galaxy S21, both of which offer 90% of the substance of the most expensive models at a lower price.

What is the best smartphone in 2021?

The Apple iPhone 12 ($795.79) is the We Recommended best smartphone you can buy right now. It’s a true step up for Apple’s popular smartphone range. A new design, boosted performance from the new 5nm A14 Bionic and OLED displays across the whole range make for an iPhone that is truly worth ditching your old one.

View the Apple iPhone 12  on Amazon

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra ($1049.99) is our pick for the best Android phone around and it’s premium Android bliss. 

Screen: 6.2in 2400 x 1080 AMOLED | Processor: Exynos 2100 | Battery: 4000mAh | Camera: 12MP, 64MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide | OS: Android 11 | Weight: 169g | Charging: 25W wired, 15W wireless

The new Galaxy S21  marks a shift in Samsung’s thinking for how it positions its flagship phone. The new S21 is closer to the paired back Galaxy S20 FE of last year rather than its predecessor – but, ultimately, that’s no bad thing.

While the front of the Samsung Galaxy S21 looks much the same as last year, including the selfie camera position, the 2021 Galaxy S range has had one of its more significant shake-ups around the back. Samsung led the way in the curved glass-sandwich trend, leading to many Android devices having a similar look. With the S21, you now get a “glasstic” back – which does basically feel like plastic – along with a camera module design that gently merges into the side of the phone.

Some may baulk at the lack of a glass back when they are forking out upwards of $700 but, from not really damaging it in the looks department to doing a better job of batting away fingerprints, it’s not a bad thing. Samsung has also gone a tad more extravagant with the colours this year and, while they can look a bit garish on online images, our Phantom Violet model is eye-catching in all the right ways.

You won’t run into any performance hurdles with the Galaxy S21 either, tackling almost anything you can throw at Android with no sign of wavering. You can bounce around from social media app to watching videos and taking pics in a flash. While the performance speed is best-in-class, the software experience is still less clean and snappy than the likes of the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5.

Nevertheless, the apparent speed gets a further bump due to the 120Hz refresh rate of the display, making scrolling gloriously smooth. The AMOLED panel also brings a 2400 x 1080 resolution to the table, offering bright and crisp images across all your day-to-day apps and videos that look extremely vivid. The only performance-related hiccup you’ll notice on a regular basis is the rear of the phone getting a tad warm when you push this device a bit – it’s not concerning or uncomfortable but it is noticeable.

As a point and shoot phone, the Galaxy S21 does an amazing job – it will make the average user produce snaps far better than what you might expect. It really gets the basics right, even if Samsung’s signature saturated look still lingers so personal taste will be a factor here. Move up a layer of complexity and the results remain impressive, portrait mode accurately finds its subject – providing blurs and enhanced sharpness in all the right places – while night mode nails it too, upping the brightness and not losing too much detail.

Ultimately, it’s a camera experience that offers a tad more tinkering than the iPhone or simpler interfaces like the Pixel 5’s, if that’s your sort of thing. However, while providing good results, the camera upgrades this year are minimal – this, combined with some just okay new features like Single Take and a camera app UI that isn’t the most fluid, means it doesn’t offer a huge reason to upgrade.

The camera isn’t the only thing that will make owners of more recent Galaxy S and Note models less inclined to upgrade. The display, despite still being impressive, does have a reduced resolution from last year and the phone does feel less premium in the hand. Nevertheless, the shrewd phone buyer will appreciate some of the sacrifices the Galaxy S21 has made to offer a lower price and, in the performance and looks department, it more than holds up.

Pros: Impressive versatile camera; vivid 1080p display; reinvigorated design 

Cons: Gets warm on back; some reduced features from S20

Price: $1049.99 | Check price on Amazon

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

OnePlus 9 Pro

A superfast powerhouse with a gorgeous display

Screen: 6.7in 3216 x 1440 Fluid AMOLED | Processor: Snapdragon 888 | Battery: 4500mAh | Camera: 48MP main, 50MP ultra-wide, 8MP tele, 2MP mono | OS: OxygenOS (Android 11) | Weight: 197g | Charging: 65W wired, 50W wireless

Since growing beyond its original “flagship killer” moniker, OnePlus has become a reliable alternative to the big Android hitters – in particular, the best Samsung has to offer each year. The OnePlus 9 Pro (from $999.99) is no different – offering many of the top-tier flagship features you expect from an Android flagship at a price that undercuts tough competition like the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

If you’re at all familiar with recent flagships from OnePlus 9 Pro, you won’t need me to tell you that you’ll have few worries when it comes to performance. OxygenOS and upwards of 8GB RAM squeezes every drop of speed out of the Snapdragon 888.

These powerhouse capabilities are now presented on a stunning QHD Fluid AMOLED display – offering remarkable detail and vibrant colours. You also get a 120Hz variable refresh rate, meaning you get delightfully smooth browsing and gaming along with clever tech to stop these extra demands from draining your battery life.

The OnePlus 9 Pro isn’t just remarkably speedy but it’s also the manufacturer’s best-looking phone yet. Many OnePlus phones could be described as functional and, often, this provided a decent alternative to rivals. With the OnePlus 9 Pro, the new device does look more in line with what’s on offer from competitors like Samsung and Xiaomi but its’ take nails it. The camera module is coloured to blend in with the colour of the phone – a choice between Pine Green, Stellar Black and Morning Mist – while the layout of the lens themselves manage to add to the classy look of the rear of this device. It looks stunning.

Despite all those positives, much of the marketing of the OnePlus 9 Pro wasn’t focused on these. Instead, the big push was in relation to its partnership with camera veterans Hasselblad. Unfortunately, the results are negligible and awkward. For the most part, you’ll get decent results that are similar to the OnePlus 8 Pro – average zoom capabilities, plenty of details and fairly punchy colours. However, the 9 Pro has a strange tendency to offer up quite varied contrast – even in similar scenarios – and this can make your results an unknown quantity. But you should be able to get your shot right after a couple of tries.



Pros: Understated, stylish design; extremely fast charging; great display

Cons: Hasselblad partnership isn’t all that

Price: From $999.99 | Check price on Amazon |  

Google Pixel 5

A very agreeable mid-range phone


Screen: 6.0in 2340 x 1440 OLED | Processor: Snapdragon 765G | Battery: 4000mAh | Camera: 12.2MP main, 16MP ultrawide | OS: Android 11 | Weight: 151g | Charging: 18W wired, 12W wireless

Let’s be honest, the Pixel 4 wasn’t Google at its best. The Pixel 2 was revered and the Pixel 3 had plenty good to say about it too – however, a phone hamstrung by power battery life and some superfluous features followed. The Pixel 5 (£599) aims to correct these mistakes by paring things back.

If you’re considering a Pixel then you’re likely here to hear about its camera chops – having received praise for several years even on its cheaper devices like the Pixel 4a (below). With the Pixel 5, Google has finally taken the plunge and doubled up the lenses. Despite the added lens, there’s much the same to say about this Pixel’s camera abilities as year’s past – it’s remarkably easy-to-use while its colour accuracy and level of detail is premium flagship standard. In truth, the ultra-wide camera is a tad disappointing given Google’s camera prowess, falling well below the standard of the iPhone 12, S21 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro. Still, it does an amazing job at the basics.

The software experience is another recurring feather in the Pixel range’s cap and it mostly returns here. The interface remains delightfully simple. The Google-averse might feel a bit overwhelmed by the focus on its own apps like Docs, Sheets, Drive and more but their appearance won’t surprise anyone picking up this Google flagship phone.


While the performance is generally speedy, the Snapdragon 765G isn’t up to what you get from last year’s Snapdragon 865 or this year’s new 888 and Apple A14 Bionic. The average user won’t be perturbed by milliseconds added to app loading times but those tempted by a phone that’s cheaper than Samsung and Apple’s latest flagships may want to reconsider if they are still hoping for premium flagship performance.

Like the Pixel’s photo-taking, the display favours accuracy over much else. The lifelike colour of this 90Hz FHD+ OLED is quite impressive and, ultimately, refreshing compared to Samsung and OnePlus flagships which can feel like they opt for eye-catching over accurate imagery. The Pixel 5 display does flatter to deceive when it comes to brightness – you might struggle to view this display in direct or, even, middling levels of sunlight – a problem that’s a thing of the past for the iPhone 12, Galaxy S21 series and other Android flagships.

Sure the Pixel 5 doesn't match an iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S21. What it does feel like, though, is a phone that provides a safe haven from higher flagship prices – whether it’s budget phone fans looking to step up or premium phone owners who don’t want to shell out top dollar again. Admittedly, a reduction in flagship prices in early 2021 has hurt the case for a Pixel 5. However, a more manageable size and top-performing camera might still be enough to grab plenty of attention.

Pros: Great for one-handed use; easy-to-use camera with stunning results; a breezy OS experience 

Cons: Price runs close to more premium rivals; sub-flagship performance

Price: £599 | Check price on Argos | Currys | Google

Apple iPhone SE 2020

Our pick for a budget small phone

Screen: 4.7in 1334 x 750 IPS LCD | Processor: A13 Bionic | Battery: 1821mAh | Camera: 12MP | OS: iOS | Weight: 148g | Charging: 5W, supports 18W

Apple’s smaller iPhone is back. One of the specs of this phone sounds copy-pasted from five years ago. A 4.7-inch screen phone released in 2020? That’s right.

The iPhone SE 2020 (£398) is a small-screen phone with a 16:9 aspect ratio, a shape you no longer see in Androids. It makes the phone look dated, but the display size is larger than you might guess, with a width similar to a 5.5-6-inch Android. Anyone suggesting you can’t comfortably play games or watch YouTube videos at this size has not tried an iPhone SE.

Other parts of the phone are excellent at the price. The iPhone SE is no less well-made than the iPhone 11, with aluminium sides and glass panels on front and back.

Its camera is excellent too. The iPhone SE has just one 12-megapixel sensor on the rear, but as it shares its hardware with the other 2020 iPhones, image quality is excellent across the board. Google’s Pixel 3a and 3a XL are the only obvious phones that can compete with it for low-light image quality at this level. And both of those Androids are plastic.

The iPhone SE’s power can only be underestimated too, as it has the same Apple A13 Bionic SoC as the iPhone 11 Pro Max. This phone may look like it belongs in 2015, but it will stay fresh in other respects for years.

It is also a reminder of how great the Touch ID sensor was. And is. This fingerprint scanner, the precursor to Apple’s face unlock, has a lovely haptic click and works every time.


You can argue the iPhone SE is for people who don’t care much about the tech inside, but it’s also a surprisingly good buy for those who do. There’s one other weakness: the iPhone SE battery life is not as good as the iPhone 11’s.

Pros: Speedy performance; timeless Apple design; great camera 

Cons: Battery life isn’t great

 | Check price on Amazon

Google Pixel 4a

Photography on a budget

Best Smartphone 2021 12 best phones to buy

Screen: 5.8in 2340 x 1080 OLED | Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G | Battery: 3140mAh | Camera: 12MP | OS: Android 11 | Weight: 143g | Charging: 18W

The Pixel 4 was Google phones at their worst – a high price and smatterings of iPhone mimicry that just didn’t deliver. Thankfully, Google drew on the excellent Pixel 3a for its next phone. Google Pixel 4a (£319) is a budget phone that absolutely nails a fluid software experience while offering remarkable photography performance for this low price.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Pixel 4a is that it isn’t as imposing as many current phones, it isn’t as miniature as smaller iPhones like the SE and 12 mini but it’ll still be a refreshing change for many. The budget market is rife with phones that seem to compensate for their lesser features by slapping on a huge display. Instead, the Pixel 4a is smaller but still a decent 5.8-inches and its extremely crisp, using OLED tech and offering Full HD resolution.

Above all, the Pixel 4a is the budget phone to consider if you’re a frequent picture taker. Google’s honing of its camera software means it can achieve stunning results with just one lens – front camera and back. The 12.2MP camera offers both electrical image stabilisation (EIS) and optical image stabilisation (OIS) as well as phase detection autofocus. While these features are handy for a speedy point-and-shoot experience, the quality of the images speaks for itself too – providing detailed and vibrant snaps.

The no-frills approach to the camera extends to the rest of the device too but, for some, it may not be for the best. The basic design is refreshing and certainly won’t offend anyone but the plastic finish is a tad underwhelming. Then, there’s a lack of certain features like wireless charging, an IP rating for waterproofing and the ditching of the Pixel 4’s motion-sensing tech – maybe that last one is for the best.

At a price below £350, the Pixel 4a is an easy budget recommendation for users who care about their photos but don’t want to spend the earth. If you want more in terms of features, you’ll have to stump up for the Google Pixel 5 or look to other brands.

Pros: Amazing camera for the price; streamlined Google experience; comfortable to hold 

Cons: Missing some modern features

 Check price on Amazon 

Sony Xperia 1 III

An alternative pick for camera aficionados

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Screen: 6.5in 3840 x 1644 OLED | Processor: Snapdragon 888 | Battery: 4,500 mAh | Camera: 12MP/12MP wide/12MP tele | OS: Android 11 | Weight: 186g | Charging: 30W

For better or worse, there’s nothing else on the market like the Xperia 1 III (From £1,199). That means, for a small niche, this phone will have been what they’ve been waiting for. But, for most, it’ll be too expensive and out-of-the-box.



The Soney Xperia 1 III has the same tall and slim look as its predecessors, offering up that wide 4K display experience on a phone – about as cinematic as you can get on a portable device. Its flat metal sides predate the iPhone 12 and, combined with its luxurious matte back panel, provides one of the most stylish phones around right now – even if the top and bottom bezels do leave a bit to be desired. The inclusion of a 4K display is impressive and, while it looks great, a better battery via a QHD (1440p) display would’ve been perfectly fine. Admittedly, Sony likely wants you to be able to showcase all your 4K video recording right on the device, so it does have a leg to stand on there.

It is the camera that many will be coming to this phone for, going all in on making this a feature-rich device for photography lovers. The camera app of the Xperia 1 iii will let you tweak to your heart’s content ahead of a shot and then get things right in post. The standout camera hardware feature is the periscope variable optical zoom. The results you can get up to 12.5x zoom are impressive, providing enough detail to offer up decent shots. If you rein it in a tad, 5x zoom provides zoom shots that aren’t all that far behind regular snaps from this phone’s toughest competitors – like the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Sony offers up other neat touches for those looking to use this as a fully-fledged media and creation tool – with a headphone jack retained and microSD card slot (or room for a second sim). Unfortunately, the Xperia 1 III remains hamstrung by a price that doesn’t match up to rivals who offer better day-to-day performance and battery life.

Pros: A unique and luxurious look; camera features for days; best-in-class zoom

Cons: Screen gets warm to the touch; multi-window not intuitive; 4K is overkill

Price: $999.95 | Check price on Amazon

Android or iPhone – which is better?

For one such broad category and another product ecosystem that can demand (or encourage) such fierce loyalty, the choice between them has no easy answer. Android offers a remarkable range of prices, designs and feature sets. If you opt for Android, you’re opting for choice. On the Apple side of things, your hand is held a bit more – choices are made for you, but this can often being simplicity and reassurance.

However, these factors aren’t exclusive. For example, Samsung provides high-quality products of its own and works to provide its own version of an ecosystem with a wide range of products. On the other hand, Apple now produces cheaper devices in the form of the SE range. There’s a ton of factors to be weighed up, and phones should be taken on a case by case basis.

Do I need wireless charging?

For most phones right now, wireless charging is pretty slow and inefficient. So, it comes down to whether you want the convenience of just laying your phone down on a pad for a small boost or to leave overnight. If you want fast charging, stick to wired.

How much battery life do I need?

The amount of battery life you want on a phone really depends on what type of user you are and how much you value performance compared to battery life. In 2021, you can pick up phones that should last you well into a second day, but these will mostly be budget phones. While some top phones will just squeeze you into a second day, many will be flagging at nighttime or, if you’ve had an intense day browsing or gaming, will require charging in the late afternoon.

Taking all this into account, you should avoid phones that tout less than 8 hours of battery life. Then, you should go for the device with the most battery life possible within your other requirements – charging every night isn’t out of the question these days but anything more than that does feel like a hassle. Moreover, if you’re an intensive user on a day-to-day basis (5+ hours of screen on time or a couple hours of gaming), then battery life should definitely be of high priority or you will be reaching for a charger far too often.

How much storage do I need?

With iCloud, Google Drive/Photos, Samsung Cloud and more becoming more accessible, having on device storage does feel like less of a priority for buying a phone in 2021. Instead, it comes down to feeling like you are getting enough bang for your buck. The majority of flagship phones start with 64GB storage, which is the sweetspot for those who want a decent amount of room for plenty of apps and photos/videos on device. However, ultra-premium device, with their high-price tags – devices like Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max – start with 128GB storage. That starting amount seems fair given the price you are paying, so don’t accept less around $1172 and up. Where you can accept lower storage is at budget prices, especially if you aren’t someone who takes a tons of photos or needs many apps. While 64GB will give you comfortable headroom, users who want to spend less than £400 on a phone can get by with 32GB. No matter the device storage, always make sure to take advantage of cloud storage where its available to you, with many offering free space up to a point.     

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