The pandemic might’ve slowed and stopped many things in 2020, but it didn’t prevent the tech world from pumping out a bunch of really stellar smartphones.
That trend looks to continue unabated into 2021, with the Samsung Galaxy S21 and OnePlus 9 already old news, plus leaks and rumours pointing to big new phones from all of the other major makers. We’re sure to see 5G support in nearly every noteworthy release, including in more and more phones further down the price scale. We hope to see some really distinctive designs in the mix as well.
If you’re plotting an upgrade sometime this year, here’s a look at all of the big phones that are rumoured or leaked for this year so far. And stay tuned, as we’ll be updating this list with new entries and info over the course of the year, as well as with links to our reviews of released phones.
(Pixel 6 concept render via Front Page Tech)
Google Pixel 6 + 6 Pro
If last year’s dull Pixel 5 design pushed you off of Google’s handsets, then maybe they’ll win you back with the Pixel 6. These concept renders based on leaked specs come from noted leaker Jon Prosser, and they show a much more distinctive look with a red top panel above the horizontal edge-to-edge camera module. It’s very unique.
Prosser suggests both Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro models in the works, as Google shifts away from last year’s mid-range Pixel 5 approach. Both phones are expected to use brand new Google-made processors instead of the usual Snapdragon offering, so we’ll have to wait and see how they stack up.
These Android 12-packing phones are expected to have large OLED screens - 6.4in and 6.71in respectively - plus new camera setups, including a 50-megapixel main sensor on both. Prosser says to expect five years of software updates with these new phones, too, which sees Google providing Apple-like support.
Google's Pixel Stand also looks set to receive an upgrade. A leak from a US retailer's inventory system shows an entry for a 'Google Pixel 23W WL Stand'. The number in that product label suggests the new Pixel phones will support speedy 23W wireless charging – at least when used with Google's official accessory. While this wouldn't be the fastest out there (the OnePlus Warp Charge offers up to 50W), it would certainly trump Apple and Samsung's 15W efforts.
If these leaks prove true, it could be a good year to be a Pixel fan. Expect these phones later this year, perhaps in October. Google even accidentally teased the Pixel 6 and so-called Pixel 6 XL (or Pro) in a survey form in July, but quickly removed the references.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
Following months of rumours, leaks and concept renders, Samsung’s latest handsets finally arrived at its Unpacked event on 11 August. And most of the predictions proved pretty spot on. Topping the bill was the Galaxy Z Fold 3, a refreshed folding flagship that’s slimmer, lighter and sturdier than before. Display dimensions remain the same as Z Fold 2, but reinforcements make the main screen 80% tougher (enough for 200,000 folds) – and both panels support 120Hz refresh rates.
Camera hardware is unchanged, but software updates should enhance the shooting experience. Interface tweaks also promise to improve multi-tasking, while the arrival of long-predicted S Pen support means creatives can finally make the most of all that screen real estate.
The Z Fold 3 is set to ship on 27 August, with prices starting at £1599 for the 256GB version, rising to £1699 for 512GB – both of which come with 5G connectivity. Our in-depth assessment is in the works; until then, you can get our first impressions here. And while you wait, you can also check out our full review of its more affordable sibling, the equally bendy Z Flip 3.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
Leaks from both Blass and China’s TENAA agency have given us a pretty clear idea of what to expect from the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE, the sequel to last year’s stellar affordable flagship. This one pulls some design influence from the S21, but the jewel-like camera module is much less defined on the budget model: it just looks like part of the plastic backing panel.
Otherwise, it should come pretty close to matching the standard S21 on specs, including a 120Hz 1080p screen, an Exynos 2100 or Snapdragon 888 processor depending on region, and stellar cameras. Expect it to cost a little bit less than the Galaxy S21.
Many thought the S21 FE would appear at Samsung's Galaxy Unpacked event on 11 August. It didn't, which leaves the launch calendar open to speculation – although the consensus still points towards a release before the year is out. September or October are the most likely candidates, giving the handset time to gain momentum before those all-important Christmas sales.
Huawei P50 and P50 Pro
Huawei’s latest powerhouse smartphones broke cover on July 29, proving most of the rumours true. Launched alongside the P50, the P50 Pro features an eye-popping camera module seen in leaked renders, with two extra-large circles – a ‘dual-matrix’ – housing a quartet of lenses.
A party for smartphone photographers, the P50 Pro packs a 50MP colour lens, a 40MP monochrome lens, a 13MP ultra-wide angle lens and a 64MP telephoto lens – plus a 13MP wide-angle selfie camera.
The standard P50 is a little less powerful camera-wise, with a 50MP colour lens, a 13MP ultra-wide lens and a 12MP telephoto camera.
How both flagships perform in action won’t be clear until we’re able to review them. And only after hands-on time will we know how well HarmonyOS – the company’s new in-house software – actually operates. What is clear is that the P50 won’t feature Google’s apps and services, nor thanks to US hardware restrictions will it offer 5G connectivity. In fact, a question mark remains as to when or if the P50 Pro will be seen outside of China...
Google Pixel 5a
Between the Pixel 4a, the Pixel 4a 5G and the Pixel 5, things all got a bit confusing in Google’s line-up at the latter end of last year. And the arrival of the new Pixel 5a 5G doesn’t exactly clear things up.
Google has now confirmed the specs for the refreshed mid-range mobile. Rather than totally overhauling the 4a before it, the Pixel 5a introduces a slew of small but significant improvements. There’s a speedier Snapdragon 765G chip at its core, plus a substantially larger 4680mAh battery – which Google claims could be good for up to 48 hours on a single charge.
Physically, Google’s added IP67 water-resistance to make the Pixel 5a more durable, while its OLED display is half-an-inch bigger at 6.34in. All of which should make it a more complete Android package. And the 5G handset will cost $50 less than its predecessor when it hits shelves on 26 August, with a price tag of $449.
But there’s bad news for UK buyers (and reviewers): Google seems to be sticking with its promise to only launch the Pixel 5a in Japan and the USA, at least for now. Whether it ever arrives in Europe will depend on global supply chains and chip availability.
Our 2021 phone reviews
Here’s a quick look at the 2021 phones we’ve already reviewed. Click the link on each to read the full, scored appraisal!
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3: The world's most affordable folding phone is beautifully made, delightfully quirky and a lot of fun to use.
Redmi Note 10 Pro: Budget smartphones don't get better than this. Provided you can live with a few interface gremlins, this is a 108MP value bonanza.
Motorola Edge 20 Pro: Want high-end specs for half the cash? This is one of the most affordable ways to get 5x zoom on a smartphone.
Sony Xperia 5 III: Not much of an improvement over last year's model, but still a feature-packed media machine.
OnePlus 9 Pro: OnePlus's best camera phone to date with top performance and style too, why only a 4,500 mAh battery, though!?
Oppo Find X3 Pro: Not the biggest brand, but this is a fantastic flagship with killer specs and a cool microlens perk.
ASUS ROG Phone 5: Do you need a gaming phone? Probably not, but if so, this is the best one you'll find right now.
Sony Xperia 1 III: This top-end stunner might not be for novices, but it really is brilliant.
OnePlus Nord 2: Another flagship killer from OnePlus, with a nice build, excellent main camera and powerful performance – as long as you don't need two-day battery life.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: A big, beastly phone with dazzling cameras - but more than you probably need.
Samsung Galaxy S21: The plastic backing is a downgrade, but this is a stylish, well-equipped handset.
OnePlus 9: Camera upgrades balance out a design downgrade, but still a phone that's easy to recommend to most.
Realme GT: A budget beast with huge power for the price, but iffy cameras.
Motorola Moto G50: A totally solid £200 5G phone for those on a budget.
OnePlus Nord CE 5G: Want an affordable, lightweight and elegant 5G phone? Bingo.
Asus Zenfone 8: A pleasingly compact and powerful phone with iffy battery life.
Xiaomi Mi 11: A slick flagship at a more palatable price, albeit with software and camera niggles.
Realme 8 Pro: A boldly-stylised budget flagship with a punchy screen and solid power. Great value!
Motorola Moto G30: Low on power, but an incredible value - with a 90Hz screen, too!
Vivo X60 Pro: Stunning gimbal-assisted video shooting, but with weaknesses elsewhere.
Motorola Moto G9 Plus: Not as cheap, but a smoother overall experience at a good price.
Motorola Moto G100: A proper mid-ranger from Moto, but only truly great if you plan to use the productivity accessories.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 5G: It's a cheap 5G phone with some notable issues.
Huawei Mate X2: An awesome foldable device, albeit one held back by the lack of Google services.
Motorola Moto G10: Shockingly cheap, but you should pay the £30 extra for the G30 instead.
Microsoft Surface Duo: Sleek hardware and clever ideas can't salvage this sluggish, buggy misfire.