The best smartphones of 2021 (so far)

Did your favourite make the list?

If you didn’t see much reason to upgrade your phone during the heart of the pandemic, we don’t blame you for holding out. Now you have a bounty of fresh hardware to consider.

We’re only six months into the year, but already we’ve seen a wealth of excellent smartphones from the likes of OnePlus, Oppo, Samsung, and more, along with some seriously impressive budget handsets to balance out the high-end heavyweights.

Our ever-updated Top 10 Smartphones list is always the best place to start if you’re looking for the best of the best on the market right now. But if you want something that’s just been released so far in 2021, here are our picks for the best phones out so far this year.

10) Realme GT

If you place performance and cost above most other considerations when picking a new phone, then it’s hard to go wrong with the Realme GT. This Android packs the top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor at about half the price of some other premium handsets out this year, plus it has a beautiful 120Hz screen to match. There are caveats, of course: these aren’t the best cameras around, and the battery life could be a little bit better. But the Realme GT still punches well above its weight when it comes to power for price.

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9) Motorola Moto G50

We could’ve gone with the Moto G30 here amidst a barrage of recent Motorola releases, but the Moto G50 found an even sweeter sweet spot for the budget line thanks to the addition of 5G. For a mere £200, you get a solidly capable handset with a smooth 90Hz display and extensive battery life via the 5,000mAh pack too. It’s no powerhouse, though, and the cameras aren’t great. Still, phones like the Moto G50 are redefining how much you can get out of a cheap phone, and it’s arguably the best around right now at this price.

8) Samsung Galaxy S21

The Galaxy S21 might be Samsung’s most stylish handset to date, packing an almost jewel-like camera module that looks a bit like a status symbol. Of course, being the latest Samsung Galaxy S flagship, you can safely expect impressive power, fantastic cameras, a dazzling screen and top-level allure throughout. But there are a couple of caveats that keep the Galaxy S21 from landing higher on this list, especially considering what we just wrote above: the battery life is underwhelming and it doesn’t charge as fast as some rivals, plus the plastic backing scuffs easily and takes something away from the luxurious glow.

7) Huawei Mate X2

There are some very big and glaring reasons why you shouldn’t buy the Huawei Mate X2: namely the incredible import price of around £2,000 and the fact that it doesn't run Google apps. All that said, the Mate X2 finally proves out the ambitious folding smartphone concept that both Huawei and Samsung have been chasing in recent years, with a fantastic design that unfolds from a great smartphone into a great tablet. There’s plenty of power, stellar cameras, and a welcome kickstand case in the box too. It’s a true object of tech desire.

6) OnePlus 9

The classic OnePlus budget “flagship killer” moniker has been tougher to justify in recent years as the price point of its core offering steadily climbs. Still, as you’ll see by the rankings on this list, there’s still enough of the formula intact to put the OnePlus 9 ahead of the pricier standard Galaxy S21. The OnePlus 9 makes its own cost-cutting plastic downgrade (the frame) but otherwise delivers perks aplenty, with a beautiful 120Hz screen, top-end power, and insanely fast charging speeds. Even the cameras are improved here, nearly trimming away perhaps the most common complaint about the OnePlus line over the years.

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5) Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G

When Samsung says “Ultra” they really mean it. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a burger with the works, packing in all sorts of features and capabilities to justify both the name and the price. The biggest standout feature comes with the cameras, most notably a 10x optical zoom that captures shockingly good detail from a distance plus even greater hybrid zoom options. You’ll see things from far away that you never thought you could with a smartphone. The S21 Ultra delivers pretty much across the board too, although battery life could be better and the lack of a packed-in charging brick feels cheap for an £1,149+ handset. C’mon now.

4) Sony Xperia 1 III

If the £1,199 price tag didn’t give it away, the Sony Xperia 1 III is clearly targeted towards die-hard media enthusiasts and creative types. It’s not as flashy as some rival handsets, but its uncompromising vision for a top-end pocket device delivers on nearly all fronts. The stunning, ultra-tall 21:9 display dominates the minimal, monolithic design, backed by considerable power and pretty reliable battery life. The speedy cameras are built for serious shooters too, thanks to pro modes and a new periscope zoom lens. It’s not as novice-friendly as a Samsung, perhaps, but the Xperia 1 III is packed to the gills with cutting-edge tech.

3) Asus ROG Phone 5

Much like gaming laptops, gaming-centric phones have been a niche curio: typically bulky, expensive, and unnecessary for much of the smartphone-buying public. The Asus ROG Phone 5 is the most convincing concoction to date on that front, however, delivering one of the best performance-for-price ratios you’ll find. It’s a beast thanks to the Snapdragon 888 chip and up to 16GB RAM, plus an immense 6,000mAh battery pack. Granted, it’s also heavy like a brick, so there are trade-offs. But for £799, this really does feel like a phone maximised for mobile gaming enthusiasts, if that’s how you spend most of your time on your handset.

2) OnePlus 9 Pro

The OnePlus 9 is just fine, but the OnePlus 9 Pro is even better. OnePlus impresses again with its higher-end offering, packing an absolutely stunning 120Hz QHD+ screen, plenty of power, incredibly fast charging speeds, and great cameras at a price more than £300 less than the Galaxy S21 Ultra. True, you miss out on the S21 Ultra’s insane zooming capabilities here, but otherwise it’s pretty comparable at a sizable discount. If you want an amazing, super-premium phone without spending four figures, make it this one.

1) Oppo Find X3 Pro

On the other hand, if you don’t mind spending more than £1,000 on a serious slab of top-tier smartphone, the Oppo Find X3 Pro is our current favourite. It’s an unexpected entrant, kind of like the head-turning Huawei phones of a few years back (before the Google ban), but it wowed us in nearly every way. The distinctive backing design pairs well with top-end everything, while the charging speeds are incredible and the microlens camera is a neat twist. It’s not cheap at £1,099 certainly, but the Find X3 Pro is worth the investment if you can spare it.