(Pocket-lint) - If you're trying to figure out which is the best smartphone to buy right now, you've arrived at your destination.
Below, we've ranked and rated the top performers from our extensive phone reviews into one definitive list. Whether you typically prefer Apple's iPhone, want to check out the latest Samsung flagship or fancy something different from the Android realm, we have the answer to which phone should be at the top of your wishlist.
If you already know which phone operating system you'll be going with, you may find it easier to zoom in on our best Android phone or best iPhone guides. And if the prices of the picks below are a little steep, you may want to consider checking out a mid-range smartphone.
For those just getting to grips with what's out there, though, we should note that it's a great time to invest in a new phone. We've recently seen the launch of the iPhone 13 and the Google Pixel 6 ranges, which added to Samsung's Galaxy S21 series, and the OnePlus 9 family that arrived earlier in 2021.
No matter which you eventually opt for, you'll likely need a reminder of the most important things to consider when buying a new smartphone, as well. That's why we've included a section below our picks with some FAQs.
As with every buyer's guide, the picks below are the result of countless hours of testing by the Pocket-lint team. However, a phone's performance isn't the only thing that we consider when putting together these rankings; we place a strong emphasis on the price tag and overall value of a device, too.
Our picks change regularly, given that new phones launch all the time, but below you can find the latest rankings.
What is the best smartphone to buy right now? Currently, the Google Pixel 6 Pro is at the top of our list. However, we also recommend checking out the Apple iPhone 13 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, OnePlus 9 and Apple iPhone 13.
Our Top Pick: Best Smartphone
Google Pixel 6 Pro
- Top-tier camera performance
- Bold design
- Slightly chunky
- Not especially fast charging
We've seen plenty of Pixel phones enter the market over the years, but none have quite managed to live up to typical expectations of a flagship device. That's completely changed with the Pixel 6 Pro.
As ever, Google has provided a camera and computational photography system that is, in our view, best in class. However, the stakes have been raised here primarily due to the asking price, which is low enough, we expect, to make a lot of competitors second guess themselves.
With the 6 Pro, there's a real sense of confidence and completeness. The design is bold, the display is crisp, the speakers are excellent and Google's Tensor chip has Android 12 running very smoothly.
It is very much on the chunky side, which won't be for everyone, and the charging speeds let it down slightly, but this is an outstanding choice for those who want an Android device.
Smartphones we also recommend
For now, the Google Pixel 6 Pro is our pick for the top smartphone available to buy. However, we understand that it may not be one that every user likes the look of - or, indeed, the price tag that comes with it. Here are the other options we currently recommend checking out.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro
- Finally offers a 120Hz display
- Improved battery life
- Camera is simply brilliant
- No big leaps from iPhone 12 Pro
- Heavy users may still challenge the battery
If the 'standard' iPhone 13 is the right device for most people seeking an iOS device, the iPhone 13 Pro is the model for those who care just that bit more about their phone's performance. If you want a true flagship experience from Apple, this is it.
That's not to say it does a great different to last year's equivalent - it doesn't - but it does still refine enough aspects to make it a compelling upgrade for those with a model that's at least a couple of years old.
Battery life is improved, giving you around 90 minutes more than iPhone 12 Pro, and Apple's ProMotion adaptive refresh rates provide much smoother scrolling. The notch is still there, of course, but its reduction does also makes the overall experience feel just that bit better than last year.
We'd suggest power users will still be able to drain down this battery fairly quickly (like pretty much every other device, iPhone 13 Pro does struggle under pressure), but, generally, this is the most refined iOS experience you can buy. Naturally, all of this also applies to the Pro Max variant, too, since they are essentially the same experience in a different shell.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Superb build and display
- Camera performance is elite
- Battery life slightly lets it down
Though we enjoyed our time testing all of the Galaxy S21 models, the Ultra is comfortably the most complete, flagship offering from Samsung. It addresses the lack of identity with last year's equivalent, boasting a more premium build, improved cameras and a better display.
Providing you can stomach the lofty price tag, there's just no denying this phone's brilliance. Speed and performance are second to none, the display is one of our favourites among the flagship contenders and the camera performance comes closest to Google's offering.
Battery life, as you'll also find with pretty much every phone, can suffer slightly when put under serious strain, but, aside from that, it's difficult to fault the overall experience. If you're requiring the best of what Samsung has to offer, you won't be disappointed.
Apple iPhone 13
- Great display and camera
- Battery life is improved over iPhone 12
- Misses out on some flagship features
The iPhone 13 lineup is once again made up of four phones - and, thankfully, each are still very defined for different types of user.
The 'standard' model brings everything you would expect from the latest iPhone release - and, in short, that means new integrations without wholesale changes that make it a must-upgrade.
The notch is still present, although it's now been shrunk down, and Apple has made the usual incremental (but still meaningful) improvements to battery life, display and camera performance.
You do miss out on typical 'flagship' features, such as Apple's adaptive refresh rate, ProMotion, and the presence of a telephoto zoom lens, which is a shame, but it obviously has a reduced price to reflect this.
Since the iPhone 13 is identical to the iPhone 13 mini in pretty much every way besides size, we'll also lump this in as part of this pick, too. While the iPhone 13 is the iPhone for almost every type of user looking for an Apple handset, though, only those who really crave a smaller device should look into the iPhone 13 mini.
- Flagship in disguise
- Superb wired charging speeds
- Finally gets wireless charging
- Not the most premium build
- No dust or water rating
Though OnePlus does have a Pro version to consider, it's actually the standard OnePlus 9 that we favour this year. You get flagship-grade hardware with a slight discount on the usual top-end price, and that's reason enough to consider it as one of the top smartphones to buy.
Some corners have been cut to bring that price down - chiefly, the plastic frame and chunky build - but, on balance, we feel that the compromise is worth it.
It features two flagship cameras on the rear, finally introduces wireless charging (with very fast wired charging that can provide a 0-100% charge in around 30 minutes) and offers speedy performance that we're not sure can be beat.
It doesn't quite have the sleek design of the Pro model, as we say, but it does stay consistent with the classic OnePlus experience of getting great value for your outlay.
Other products we considered
We know full well that the phones above may not be enough to cover each person's taste and budget, but we're also determined to keep this list as concise as possible so you can receive a snapshot of what we believe to be the very best phones available right now. Rest assured, there are plenty more great phones out there - and it's the reason why we have more phone buyer's guides that drill down onto specific areas - but we didn't want to just simply list them all.
In order to provide some context to our decision making and testing, as well as to give you more suggestions of smartphones in the same ballpark, below are the devices that haven't quite made it into our top picks.
- Oppo Find X3 Pro
- Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3
- iPhone 12 Pro
- Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
- Xiaomi Mi 11
- Apple iPhone 12
- Sony Xperia 5 III
- Samsung Galaxy Note 20
- Apple iPhone SE (2020)
How to choose a phone
When looking for a new flagship phone, there's a lot to consider. Below, then, we'll have some advice on what you should be looking for in each of the key hardware areas, as well as whether an iPhone or Android phone is right for you.
What is the latest iPhone?
The 2021 family of Apple's smartphone is the iPhone 13. Like in previous generations, the iPhone has a number of models to choose from - mini, standard, Pro or Pro Max - but the experience is fairly similar across all the devices. That's true of older iPhone models, too, with strong support on the software front and consistent use of design for several generations of devices.
That means that if you buy the iPhone 13, for example, you know it's going to be supported for many years. You also know that the hardware features on it aren't going to change drastically the next year, as Apple looks for consistency across its devices.
That also means that buying an older iPhone model remains a good option, and why we considered both the iPhone 12 and iPhone SE for this guide. Both will save you money and you won't miss out on many features compared to a newer equivalent.
Is Android better than iPhone and iOS?
Android's big advantage over Apple is the wide variety of options. There's a greater range of manufacturers, meaning many different price points and designs, but all with the familiarity of the underlying Android software, so there's no real learning curve when it comes to using it.
Android manufacturers are often more aggressive with new technologies, pushing new camera features in advance of Apple, but often only keep a design for one year, before releasing a new model that's different. Android also isn't as consistent with software support.
Although most devices will get two or three versions of Android, the timescales are never as tight as they are for Apple - but prices do fall faster, so good deals on newer models are frequently available.
Displays and sizes
The display will define the size of the device you get. Larger displays are great for consuming content, ideal for watching TV or movies and often preferred by gamers.
But larger displays mean a bulkier phone - and you might find it's just not as practical to use. Many manufacturers, however, make the biggest phone their best phone.
Not all flagship devices offer top resolutions of Quad HD or 4K, with some sticking to a resolution that's ample, like 1080p. That's fine, though, as you have to look really closely to see the difference in the detail. What's more important is display quality.
With most flagship phones offering an OLED display, there aren't huge differences, but some offer curved edges which can make a larger phone easier to use.
What's emerged as a more attractive option more recently is the refresh rate. Top phones are now pushing 120Hz in an attempt to make all content look smoother. It's not just about gaming, it's about supporting scrolling in apps and home screens, too.
Core hardware and storage
Flagship phones will typically have the latest hardware in them. While Apple offers its own hardware, Android chooses from a range of suppliers - but many offer Qualcomm. Samsung will use Exynos and Qualcomm, and some might range into MediaTek - although this is usually reserved for mid-range or entry-level devices.
Storage is important, too, obviously. Low storage will bring the price down, but fewer and fewer manufacturers are offering microSD card expansion these days. That means you need to buy a device with enough storage - considering that the option of 4K and now 8K video is using up more storage than ever.
Of course, cloud storage is a lot more integrated these days, but remember that nothing is free - if you want to store a lot of photos, you'll have to pay for it.
Cameras are where phones can differ the most, and, often, the camera is the most discussed aspect of any phone. Flagship devices have the best cameras. From Apple to ZTE, top phones have more or better cameras.
The most important thing to consider, however, is a good main camera. If the main camera takes good photos, that means most of your pictures will be good. If you can't get a good normal photo from it, it's no use having lots more cameras that also give you weak photos.
Ultra-wide angle is easy to use and creates great effects, telephoto lenses get you a lot closer - but the quality of telephoto cameras varies significantly.
Periscope lenses are becoming more common, meaning 5x and 10x zoom is now a great option on some models, as well.
But also remember that megapixels don't automatically make a better camera. Many mid-range phones use a high-resolution main camera and result in poor photos. More important is how the images are processed, with AI and computational photography now able to make a huge difference over the core hardware.
There's always a lot of gimmicks, too - pro modes you'll never use, capture options you'll never bother with. The most important thing remains the point-and-shoot performance, as that's what you'll use most of the time.
Flagship phones often aren't the best performers when it comes to battery life. Designed for performance, the aim is to deliver the best experience, not to keep your phone alive for a week.
There will always be phones in the mid-range that perform better - lower power, smaller display, lower resolution or lower brightness - along with a physically larger battery, to outlast flagship phones.
But faster charging means that, with the right charger (which you might have to buy separately), you can get your phone back to full charge in no time at all.
Is it easy to switch from iPhone to Android?
Switching between Android brands is easy - as long as you're backing up to Google - and switching between Apple and Android isn't too hard, either. Sure, there are some Apple services you can't get on an Android phone, like iMessage, but on the whole, most apps are the same.
If you're already embedded within the Apple ecosystem, you'll likely be convinced to stay there, but, it's worth looking at where you save your data and what services you use, as third-party options make switching platforms a lot easier.
More about this story
Every smartphone in this list has been tested extensively in real-world scenarios, just as you would use one in everyday life.
As part of our dedicated phone reviews - and also for these buyer's guides - we weigh up exactly how the current crop of devices stack up against each other, and have done so for more than a decade.
As we've hinted at already, there are myriad considerations when ranking different smartphones. Design, features, operating systems, privacy, camera performance and value are all incredibly important, and things we rate in each individual device.
Ultimately, it's impossible to deliver a list that works for every type of user, but we use these 'measurements' and the opinions of the experts on the Pocket-lint team in order to determine a select crop of phones to recommend.
What we always tend to avoid when compiling these picks are in-depth spec comparisons and marketing jargon; we just want to provide an easy to understand summary that gives you an idea of what each phone is like to use. Our verdicts are concise, but this is purely in the interest of brevity. Rest assured all the things on this list have been fully tested.