Best phones of 2021 – buyer’s guide (US market)

[ad_1]

Last updated: December 16, 2021 (Changelog)

Seeing how popular our Buyer’s guide is, we decided to do one specifically for the US market because it is pretty different from the other parts of the world.

One important difference is that the major Chinese brands are almost absent. Not all of them (there is OnePlus), but the vast majority of popular Chinese brands of smartphones such as Xiaomi, Realme, Oppo, vivo, etc., are only available as gray imports.

In addition, the traditional brands with a presence in the US market offer a more limited selection of their smartphones. For instance, the high-end Nords from OnePlus are not available, Motorola’s Edge family is small, while Samsung’s Galaxy A series has been reduced to just a couple of phones.

The absence of strong competition from the Chinese brands also gives a fighting chance to some OEMs that wouldn’t normally take a big cut of the total shipments. Motorola is just one example.

A few things to keep in mind, we didn’t include any phones, which are considered gray imports. For once, you won’t be getting after-market support and warranty in most cases, and secondly, it’s hard to find a phone that would work with US carriers unless it’s specifically made for the US market. That’s why we try to keep things as official and retail in our selection as possible, and you will find most, if not all, of the handsets below available through the manufacturers’ official stores or via the major retailers and the carriers themselves.

So, without further ado, here’s our comprehensive list of devices, which are worthy of your attention and hard-earned cash in descending order.


Best phones above $1000


Editors’ choice above $1000

  • ‘Best iPhone ever’
  • Robust build , IP68 rating
  • Most potent chipset on the market
  • Large 120Hz Dolby Vision OLED
  • Flagship 12MP cameras, LiDAR scanner
  • Top-notch battery life
  • Class-leading speaker quality
  • At least 5 years of firmware updates

  • No charger, no headphones in the box
  • Not the fastest to charge

  • Truly innovative form factor, smaller hinge gap, S-Pen support
  • Waterproof!
  • Hardware offers unique usability potential, the software is there to unlock it
  • Great 120Hz AMOLED screens
  • Outstanding speakers
  • Under-display camera
  • Solid all-round camera system, complete with unique selfie capabilities

  • Gap is still present and even the new tougher display protector is still soft and susceptible to damage
  • The Snapdragon 888 chipset is a bit thermally-constrained and underperforms slightly
  • Disappointing battery life, ships without a charger
  • Not quite flagship-grade camera quality

The new waterproofed Galaxy Z Fold3 is a handset you can get if a regular bar doesn’t cut it anymore. It has an improved hinge and offers ingress protection, plus it introduces an under-display selfie camera. Truly innovative, some may say.

Samsung’s third generation of phone-turns-into-tablet foldable comes with an improved build, chipset, cameras. On the software side, OneUI is there to help if you’re wondering what to do with the form factor, but multi-tasking and selfie-taking are two areas elevated to a whole different level.

The camera system isn’t half bad, but it’s not quite a match for Samsung’s non-folding top-end models – a periscope is missing, the others aren’t state-of-the-art either. The Z Fold3 battery life is quite uninspiring, though, and there is no charger inside the box. The stereo speakers are still as wonderful. Overall, Samsung’s way past the proof of concept stage with this one, so it’s worth a look if you’re shopping with an unlimited budget.

Read full review

  • The best OLED screen, 1000+nits, 1440p, 120Hz, HDR10+, S-Pen support
  • Outstanding battery life, fast to top-up the 5,000mAh battery
  • Overall great camera performance across the board, long zoom capability

  • Somewhat bulky and slippery, rear camera bump can be an eye sore
  • Scant retail package
  • Regional chipset divide could bother some, lack of microSD slot too

The Galaxy S21 Ultra gathers all the cutting-edge tech Samsung can offer to the public so far, short of a foldable screen. It’s only natural that it has a superb display with all the bells and whistles, this time including S Pen support. Battery life is excellent, the latest-gen fingerprint reader is great, the stereo speakers are loud and clear.

Then there are the cameras. A quad setup means you have two teles on this Galaxy Ultra going all the way up to 10x natively. On the ultrawide end, there are developments, too – the addition of autofocus has left us with one less thing to complain about and made it competitive for a change. And the main unit is a new and improved take on the 108MP Nonapixel concept with advancements in HDR, low light and autofocus performance. The selfie camera continues along the same lines, delivering praise-worthy results.

The barebones retail package is not our favorite trend, even if it’s being marketed as environmentally friendly. The disappearance of the microSD slot for this generation is hardly ideal either. Ultimately though, these are small enough as to be largely immaterial, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the best flagships and the best Android smartphone.

Bear in mind that it’s an ongoing model that’s due to be replaced in February 2022 if rumors are to be believed.

Read full review

Best phones up to $1000


Editors’ choice up to $1000

  • Outstanding sturdy and water-proof desgin
  • Still rather compact
  • Brightest OLED screen, 120Hz
  • Loud stereo speakers
  • Unmatched performance, 5G
  • Great photo and video quality all-around

  • Compact as it may be, the ‘small’ 13 Pro weighs a lot
  • The chipset is prone to heavy throttling under max load
  • The fast charging isn’t very fast

  • Onr of best displays on the market
  • Surprisingly good battery life for the display/battery combo
  • S Pen is a joy to use, wireless DeX is a nice addition
  • Incredibly versatile and well-performing camera system

  • The camera bump could be unsightly depending on who you ask
  • Performance divide between versions, Exynos variant isn’t up to the same standard
  • Charging speed is not competitive
  • Either 120Hz or 1440p, why not both? Also Adaptive refresh rate mode has a questionable effectiveness

  • AirTigger 5 touch sensors for gaming
  • Awesome stereo speaker performance
  • Superb 144HHz OLED screen
  • Great battery life, fast 65W charging
  • Snapdragon 888 SoC, excellent thermals
  • Good software with plenty of tweaks
  • Great camera performance all-around
  • Very good video quality and EIS

  • No water or dust resistance
  • No microSD
  • Rather basic camera setup, compared to typical 2021 flagships

A rather niche choice here, so if you are not looking for a gaming phone, it might not be the right one for you. However, the Asus ROG Phone 5s is polished through and through, so if you don’t mind the gaming aesthetics, you can still use it as a standard daily driver.

Our review findings of the Asus ROG Phone 5 and 5s Pro can easily apply to the regular 5s as well. This means you will be getting superb OLED, 144Hz display, excellent battery life, capable cameras on the front and back, unrivaled sound quality and loudness from the stereo speakers and possibly the best gaming experience on a smartphone. This leads us to our next selling point of the ROG Phone 5s.

If by any chance you are actually looking for a gaming smartphone, the ROG Phone 5s is pretty much your only option in the US. And that’s without even getting into the rich ecosystem of gaming accessories that Asus provides.

We can certainly go on to praise Asus’ excellent handling of the fast 144Hz refresh rate on the ROG Phone 5s’ OLED panel or the in-depth control mapping and customization offered by Armory Crate, with control schemes often bordering on unfair advantage.

However, to be fair, the ROG Phone 5s would not be our top pick if you can still find the ROG Phone 5 (better thermals) or even the ROG Phone 3 (more compatible accessories). Unfortunately, both of these devices have been discontinued already.


Best phones up to $900


Editors’ choice up to $900

  • Beautiful new design, IP68, GG Victus
  • Google’s own Tensor chip
  • Large 120Hz OLED, HDR10+, bright
  • Three flagship cameras with top-notch photo and video quality
  • Class-leading speaker quality
  • Fast firmware updates

  • No charger and not the fastest to charge
  • Average battery life
  • HDR+ is overly aggressive, color inconsistencies
  • Limited availability

  • Great display performance
  • Relatively clean software and great UI performance
  • Powerful loudspeakers
  • Good performance from the main wide and ultra-wide cameras
  • Excellent 4K 120fps mode
  • Fast charging

  • Rear camera performance still behind the competition
  • Outdated front camera
  • Worse battery life performance than previous models
  • Most games still locked to 60fps

OnePlus is having a field trip in the US with its balanced offerings there. The OnePlus 9 Pro is the company’s top smartphone for 2021, and it’s an easy recommendation in the US market with all the bells and whistles. A proper flagship for just under $900.

The handset packs one of the best displays around (LTPO AMOLED at 120Hz), blazing-fast charging and a versatile and capable camera setup. Sure, it’s not on par with the flagship-level competition in this regard, but it gets the job just fine.

The clean-ish Android experience and 3-year-long software support are a breath of fresh air in the Android segment in the US. Although OnePlus’ recent direction change when it comes to software is rather polarizing and that’s definitely something worth considering by the pure Android fans. In any case, the good price/performance ratio remains a staple of OnePlus’ phones in the US.

Read full review

Best phones up to $800


Editors’ choice up to $800

  • Outstanding design – sturdy and water-proofed
  • Bright OLED screen, HDR10, Dolby Vision
  • Dependable battery life
  • Loud stereo speakers, excellent output
  • Unmatched performance, 5G
  • Great all-round photo and video quality across all three cameras

  • Minor upgrade over iPhone 12
  • No 120Hz refresh rate
  • The notch is still an eyesore even if smaller
  • The fast charging can be handled better

  • IP68 rating, Gorilla Glass Victus, metal frame, 169g
  • Superb 120Hz AMOLED display
  • Versatile triple camera that goes from ultra wide to 3x zoom (if in its own special way) with excellent performance across the board
  • Stereo speakers

  • Plastic back
  • The bitter taste in your mouth from calling the 64MP camera telephoto

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is one of the most compact Android flagships available, and the small size didn’t come at the cost of cut features. Well, if we don’t count the lower screen resolution across the non-Ultra S21 models, that is.

The new Galaxy S21 comes with a 1080p 120Hz AMOLED and flagship hardware. It has the same camera system as the S20 that’s fully capable for stills and video, day and night, and goes from ultrawide to tele – sort of losslessly up to 3x.

The smallest Galaxy S21 offers a decent battery life and sustained performance even if it scores a bit lower than the rest of the series, probably due to thermal constraints. Still, it is one of the most compact droids available right now and an easy enough recommendation.

Read full review

Best phones up to $700


Editors’ choice up to $700

  • Attractive design with exquisite fit and finish
  • Excellent OLED screen
  • Loud stereo speakers, superb audio quality
  • Good photo quality across the board, day and night
  • 5 years of guaranteed major updates

  • No charger or headphones in the box
  • No high refresh rate screen
  • Battery life is shorter than iPhone 11
  • We miss TouchID as FaceID does not work with a mask on

  • Good display performance
  • Relatively clean software and great UI performance
  • Powerful loudspeakers
  • Good performance from the main wide and ultra-wide cameras
  • Fast charging

  • Plastic frame
  • No official IP rating
  • No dedicated telephoto camera
  • Outdated front camera
  • Worse battery life performance than previous models

  • IP68-rated, GG Victus, metal frame, grippy, lightweight
  • Excellent 120Hz OLED screen
  • Class-leading performance and reliable sustained performance
  • Class-leading speaker quality
  • Has a 3.5mm jack
  • Outstanding photo and video quality across the board
  • €599 launch price

  • Gets hot, but does not throttle much
  • No wireless charging

The Asus Zenfone 8 is probably the best compact Android flagship you can get today and if weren’t for the iPhone 12, it would have been our top pick for this category. Now, let’s say it’s the runner up.

The Zenfone 8 has commendable qualities across the board. Its built is as flagship as it gets – IP68 rating, GG Victus front, metal frame, GG3 back. There is the latest Snapdragon 888 5G chip with great sustained performance even when the phone gets hot. The camera quality turned out brilliant, no matter day or night, photo or video, or the type of camera you are using.

That’s not all. The Zenfone 8 impressed us with its speakers quality, the excellent OLED, and rich connectivity options, including a 3.5mm jack.

Finally, the Zenfone 8 may be a flagship, but its price of €699 is more in the upper mid-range territory.

Read full review

  • Tiny OLED, high-res, bright
  • Iconic design with ceramic shield, aluminum frame, IP68
  • The latest Apple A15Bionic chip with 5G
  • The cameras take some great photos and videos
  • Night Mode and Dolby Vision available
  • Loud stereo speakers
  • Improved battery life over 12 mini

  • Potential throttling under certain conditions
  • No charger, no headphones

The new Apple iPhone 13 mini is a smaller version of the iPhone 13, and it’s lost nothing. The most important updates over the 12 mini are the larger battery capacity, the smaller screen notch, and the doubled base storage. We sure don’t think iPhone 12 mini owners should update, but we do consider the 13 mini as the best compact phone there is right now!

The iPhone 13 mini packs a 5.4″ OLED screen of 1080p resolution and the powerful Apple A15 chip with 5G connectivity! It has the same dual-camera as the regular iPhone 13, complete with sensor-shift stabilization, Night Mode and Dolby Vision video capturing. It also enjoys loud stereo speakers and improved battery life. The mini is one of the most durable phones to date as it has the same Ceramic Shield and IP68 waterproofing as the standard and Pro models.

You can also consider the Apple iPhone 12 mini as it is now cheaper, and the differences with the 13 mini aren’t exciting.

Read full review

Best phones up to $600


Editors’ choice up to $600

  • Standout rear design is unique to Pixel 6

  • Beautiful UI with fun and colorful elements; extended firmware update support; newly enabled Voice Typing and on-device voice to text processing
  • Google Tensor chip offers great all-around performance and excellent graphics performance
  • Great all-round photo and video quality across all three cameras

  • Camera bump prone to accumulating dust
  • The display maxes out at 90Hz, others do 120Hz
  • Charging can be faster
  • Tensor chip throttles under sustained peak load

Best phones up to $500


Editors’ choice up to $500

  • Excellent 120Hz AMOLED display
  • Dependable battery life, incredibly fast charging
  • Powerful speakers
  • Versatile camera, good day and night quality

  • No IP rating
  • No wireless charging
  • No memory expansion
  • Most games locked to 60Hz
  • The camera processing could benefit from some improvements

  • Water resistant design, glossy back
  • Bright screen
  • Excellent battery life
  • Stereo speakers with great quality
  • Great main camera performance
  • Amazing video quality and stabilization
  • Excellent selfie photo and video quality

  • Enormous notch and bezels
  • Low-res screen
  • Comes bundled with a 5W charger
  • No 3.5mm jack, limited NFC functionality
  • The camera photos come out bland
  • No AF and Night Mode for the ultrawide
  • No telephoto

Apple’s older iPhone 11 is not an easy recommendation given that it’s older than two years, but it’s one of the few devices that make sense in the category. Apple’s continuous software support for older devices and its compatibility with all US carriers help build a stronger case.

However, no high-end phone with any amount of self-respect can be seen with a 5W charger in the box, except the iPhone 11. It’s also on the bottom of the list when it comes to pixels on a screen per dollar spent, plus it’s one of the most expensive phones with an LCD. It’s not exactly a looker either, sporting a dated design made even less premium by the thickest of bezels.

Ah, but the iPhone 11 has a lot going for it if you look past all that. Obviously, it’s one of the most affordable of this year’s Apple crop, which means it’s a cheap way to get that beast of a chipset, industry-standard video recording, and Night mode, albeit with one camera short of the Pros. The superb battery life doesn’t hurt its case either.

Read full review

Best phones up to $400


Editors’ choice up to $400

  • Beautiful design, IP67-rated body
  • Great AMOLED screen of 120Hz refresh rate
  • Impressive battery life
  • Balanced stereo speakers, loud enough
  • Great all-round camera experience, photo and video
  • 5G, microSD, 3.5mm jack, Android 11, One UI 3.5

  • 15W bundled charger not maximizing charging potential
  • The GPU performance is uninspiring
  • The selfie experience could have been better

  • Large and super-bright OLED display
  • Excellent battery life
  • Solid still image performance
  • Stereo speakers
  • First in line for OS updates
  • IP67 water resistance

  • No support for high screen refresh rate
  • No mmWave variant for Verizon 5G UWB in the US

  • It’s an iPhone, and a ‘cheap’ one at that, as iPhones go
  • TouchID!
  • IP67 rating
  • The camera takes some great photos and videos
  • Stereo speakers

  • While technically ‘compact’, the massive bezels mean small usable screen area
  • Apple’s excellent Night mode is sorely missed here
  • Battery life is only so-so

Apple released a new SE in 2020, and it’s definitely among our top picks in this Compact chapter. It’s hardly perfect, though, but Apple has the iPhone 12 mini for those seeking perfection. So, the SE revived a form factor introduced 6 years ago and last touched up in 2017 and reuses a lot of that 2017 iPhone 8 bits. That means a single camera, a small battery, giant screen bezels and the return of an almost forgotten means of authentication – TouchID. Wait, that’s a good thing – we missed TouchID, in a way.

Speaking of good things, perhaps the best one is the chipset – the SE (2020) has the Apple A13 Bionic chip, which is just 10% less powerful than the A14. There is no 5G, though. The A13 chip is more powerful than even the beefiest Android, and it’ll remain capable for years to come, during which time it’ll keep getting software updates – the iOS way. It’s a very affordable entry into that iOS world, too – relatively, of course – the iPhone 12 mini is going at roughly a 75% premium.

Read full review

  • Big, 144Hz, HDR10-compliant LCD panel
  • Powerful Snapdragon 778G
  • Water-repellent design
  • 108MP main camera and ultrawide with AF
  • 5,000 mAh battery with 30W charging
  • Stereo speakers

  • Display not OLED
  • No microSD slot

The Motorola Edge (2021) is US-only smartphone that’s currently on discount and perfectly fits the $400 category. The device stands out with a fast 144Hz display, 108MP main camera and a powerful Snapdragon 778G SoC. Its clean Android experience remains the phone’s key selling point, though. To be honest, the device is rather hard to recommend in its original price bracket, but since it’s on discount (at the time of writing this guide), it’s easily one of the best sub-$400 solutions on the market.

It’s also one of the few handsets on the US market to feature the popular 108MP. Unfortunately, we haven’t reviewed the phone, and we don’t really know how it will perform, but we bet it’s going to be decent at the very least, judging by our previous experience with the said sensor.

Last, but not least, the Edge (2021) is a particularly sensible solution for anyone looking for a big-screen handset. At 6.8″, there’s hardly any alternative, and the best part is that Motorola didn’t cheap out with a panel. Sure, it’s LCD, but it does have that HDR10-compatibility and a higher than most 144Hz refresh rate. Games would look great, as long as you can find ones that utilize the display’s refresh rate. The 30W fast charging, a rare occurrence in Motorola’s mid-range portfolio, ensures that the big 5,000 mAh battery won’t take too long to charge.

Best phones up to $300


Editors’ choice up to $300

  • Big, HDR10-compliant screen
  • Water-repellent design
  • Powerful Snapdragon 750G behind the wheel
  • Very good photo quality, day and night
  • Clean Android experience

Motorola’s One 5G Ace handset is a recently discounted powerful smartphone with the same Snapdragon 750G SoC and a big 6.7-inch HDR10-compliant screen. It definitely gives these Samsungs a run for their money. In fact, this phone easily wins our Editor’s Choice award in the under $300 category. It has a powerful, unrivaled Snapdragon 750G chipset for the money, a big 6.7-inch display, HDR10 at that, and a solid 5,000 mAh battery to run all that.

The One 5G Ace uses the same camera setup as its rivals and doesn’t miss on the microSD card, NFC and 3.5mm audio jack. More importantly, in typical Motorola fashion, the company made it splash-resistant – a nice bonus to have when buying a budget handset these days. And in case you are wondering, yes, the One 5G Ace works with Verizon, you just have to get the UW Ace version of the phone. It’s the same phone but compatible with Verizon’s 5G network.

  • Bright Super AMOLED screen, small notch
  • Eye-catchy design
  • Outstanding battery life
  • Very good photo quality, day and night
  • Impressive 4K clips from the main cam

  • 720p screen
  • No stereo speakers
  • Slow to charge

  • Excellent battery life
  • The MediaTek 720 is a modern, efficient and well-equipped chipset, with decent performance for the price
  • Decent all-round camera performance, including useful Night mode and 4K@30fps video capture with the main cam

  • Body feels a bit hollow and there is no ingress protection.
  • Disappointing LCD display, just HD resolution, inaccurate colors and slow pixel response times
  • Ultrawide lacks 4K video recording and its 1080p video stabilization is poor

Best phones up to $200


Editors’ choice up to $200

  • Large screen, small notch
  • Adequate performance for 720p OS experience
  • Okay camera experience, ultrawide and macro
  • Android 11
  • NFC, microSD, 3.5mm jack, FM radio

  • Standout textured back, nice-feeling plastics
  • Excellent battery life
  • Relatively capable camera setup, ultra-wide is not all that common in the price range

  • Slow charging
  • Underpowered chipset
  • No night mode, no video stabilization

Most recent updates

Dec 16, 2021: Replaced the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G with the Motorola One 5G Ace as our Editor’s Choice in the sub-$300 category.

Best phones by category


[ad_2]

Source link