We all know this year wasn’t great as many things went from bad to worse. The mobile industry suffered from supply shortages that caused cancelled launches and premature discontinuations.
But the year 2021 still gave us some incredibly good smartphones, beacons across a sea of incremental upgrades (or even downgrades). I have reviewed, helped review, or just used, a lot of phones this year and there are certainly a few that left their mark and became an instant recommendation to give to friends and family.
Those are not necessarily flagships; they are just good smartphones for various reasons and that’s why they made my list here. I won’t be choosing the phone of the year in this article but will share with you the best phones I came across this year. So, in no particular order, these are my favorites.
Honestly, the Poco F3 is one of the first models that pops in my mind when someone asks me for a good phone. The F3 is an outstanding offer because its price is absurdly low for the many premium features it packs.
The Poco F3, being true to its Poco roots, employs one of the fastest chips on the market – the Snapdragon 870 5G. It drives an excellent 120Hz AMOLED and atop of a large 4,520mAh battery with fast charging. The F3 also impresses with stereo speakers and 128GB UFS3.1 base storage.
The F3 is not a flagship though, evident by its basic IP53 splash protection and average triple camera on the back with no zoom capabilities.
But the Poco F3 launched at €349 and quickly dropped to €299 or lower. Because of its incredible bang for the buck, it quickly became the safest smartphone recommendation I could give to a person. That, and its Poco aura, made it one of the best phones this year.
Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra is the phone Santa puts under your Christmas tree when you wish for a smartphone that has everything.
The Mi 11 Ultra, unlike one of my 2020’s favorites – the Mi 10 Ultra – enjoyed worldwide availability. Unfortunately, the Mi 11 Ultra seems to have been affected from the supply shortages and once its initial stock was gone, it was gone for good.
So, the Mi 11 Ultra is the Swiss knife of the 2021 flagships with the best screen, best chipset, best camera, and best charging capabilities. It is one of the few fully waterproofed Xiaomi phones, too.
In addition to that Dolby Vision 1440p 120Hz AMOLED, the phone also has a rear OLED, making its best camera setup also the best selfie kit. And speaking about the cameras – the Mi 11 Ultra offers an impressive configuration with a 50MP main camera, a 48MP ultrawide shooter, and a 48MP 5x tele snapper – all of them with outstanding photo and video quality.
The Mi 11 Ultra is the best cameraphone according to our Buyer’s Guide and I second that. And it is also one of the best phones this year, even if a bit bulky. And because of its greatness it has found a spot on my list.
OnePlus Nord 2 5G
The OnePlus Nord 2 is my favorite OnePlus this year, sorry Series 9. It’s a great all-rounder sold at a reasonable price, but that’s not the reason why it’s here.
The OnePlus Nord 2 is good at everything with its fluid AMOLED screen, flagship-like performance, a reliable camera setup, dependable battery life and fast charging. But the most important ingredient is the OxygenOS that binds everything together and makes the Nord 2 runs like clockwork.
OxygenOS is magical under any Fluid AMOLED and that is the case with the Nord 2 too. Then add all the cool traits I’ve already mentioned, and the attractive price, and the wide availability and the Nord 2 is a winner.
I found the OnePlus Nord 2 easy to recommend, just like the Poco F3, and it became one of my favorites this year for its smooth experience, all-round package and affordable price. I’ve used the Nord 2 as a daily driver, and it was great. I also recommended this phone to quite a few friends and they are all happy with it. It is often at the top of my head when talking phones and I believe no 2021 highlights list is complete without it.
Asus Zenfone 8
I love compact phones and when I saw the Asus Zenfone 8 – it was love at first sight. It is a small (by 2021 standards) phone with no-nonsense water-proofed glass design.
The Zenfone 8 is a full-fledged flagship with a 5.9″ 120Hz AMOLED and the Snapdragon 888 5G chipset. It has one of the best stereo speakers I’ve heard this year and excels in the camera department on both sides.
Other good peculiarities about this Zenfone 8 – it has many features that are popular but not common anymore – a 3.5mm audio jack, FM radio (outside EU), and even a notification LED light.
Overall, the Zenfone 8 was one of the very few compact smartphones this year, an incredibly powerful at that. And for these – it’s one of my top picks this year.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro
The last phone I liked a lot this year is the Apple iPhone 13 Pro.
The Apple iPhone 13 Pro is not a massive upgrade over the iPhone 12 Pro, notch reduction or not. But it is what the iPhone 12 Pro should have been from the start – a phone without avoidable, screaming omissions.
Of course, I am talking about the high refresh rate display, the autofocus for the ultrawide camera, the longer zoom. With these, let’s say fixes, the iPhone 13 Pro finally became an up-to-date flagship that’s not all about speed and design, but also a modern display and a truly versatile camera usable day and night.
And with all wrongs being righted with the iPhone 13 Pro, I believe it to be one of the best smartphones this year. Because Apple finally caught up with the competition with some must-have and long overdue upgrades. It always comes to iOS vs. Android, but once that’s solved, the iPhone 13 Pro is a great smartphone to have in your pocket.
Honorable mention – Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 5G
I’d like to make one honorable mention as the phone just wasn’t there when my real-life experience is concerned, but is still a great in many ways. I am talking about the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3. I’ve used this one for a while and I truly loved its form factor, fordable screen, and even its external display for clock and selfie purposes.
The Flip3 took me nearly 20 years back to my first flip phone – the Samsung T100. The feeling of opening and closing the Flip3 is a massive nostalgia tickler and an instant love, at least for me. I was ready to buy this phone – what’s not to like – it has great design (water resistant, which as you’ve probably caught by now is important to me), excellent screen, flagship hardware, and Samsung-grade cameras. But…
Soon, I found out the Flip3 has terrible battery life. I charged the phone twice a day, rather slowly at that. I’ve had many phones over the years and all of them gave me at least a full day of battery life. Not the Flip3 though – I took off at 40% around 8am and couldn’t last until noon. What?!
And then – the main camera is not good for indoor shots – you know, the ones we mostly take during pandemic. 9 out of 10 times I ended up with blurry shots of both people and pets. It felt like I was shooting with a basic Redmi camera, and it was an big turn off.
Still, Samsung made one very memorable device – the Flip3 not only earns nostalgia points, but because of its water protection, great screens and good interface – it left a mark, and I am looking forward to the Flip4. I do hope Samsung fixes the battery life and the camera performance next year.
The disappointment of the year – Apple iPad mini 6
You know, I bought the Apple iPad mini 6 – its shape with the flat frame, the cool purple color, the larger screen (in the same body), the recent chipset, and the properly positioned stereo speaker won me as a customer right away. And I was looking for a tablet this size.
But Apple screwed up big time with this tablet.
First – I was disappointed that the screen was not HDR, its capabilities max out at wide color support. But hey, I can live with that, I don’t use the tablet for Netflix and Amazon that much, but more for browsing and reading stuff. And this is where the new iPad mini utterly failed me.
You’ve probably heard about the jelly effect when scrolling in portrait mode – the left part of the screen scrolls a bit faster than the right side making for this wavy or jelly-like effect. And it eventually became so annoying – as I used the iPad in mostly portrait orientation – that I had to get rid of the tablet.
I cannot imagine making such a good device and then its key upgrade to become its undoing. But hey, it obviously had happened!
Maybe Apple will fix the screen in a year or two when the next iPad mini arrives, but the bitter memories will remain.
And that’s the end of my year 2021 highlights. I hope you enjoyed reading this and if you were on the fence about buying a device that I mentioned, I hope it helped you decide. Cheers!