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We're inching closer to the fall, when it's likely Apple, Google and other phone companies will be updating their top models for 2021. But if you can't wait until the holiday for a new phone, flagship models like the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 boast amazing rear camera setups, powerful processors for lag-free gaming, wireless charging and 5G. But they're not the only phones to consider, with other rivals such as OnePlus, Motorola, Sony Xperia and Google's Pixel line all offering great specs at a range of prices. 

The sheer amount of solid competition gives you, the customer, great options to choose from at whatever price suits your budget, regardless of whether your biggest concern is high-speed data, an AMOLED display or a cracking camera. Opting for a more affordable handset doesn't mean compromising on usability, with even budget handsets offering big, vibrant displays and multiple main camera & rear cameras. We're even starting to see 5G connectivity on much lower-end handsets.

To help you figure out the best of the best, we gathered our best phone to buy in 2021. Every phone on this list has been thoroughly reviewed and tested, from their camera performance to their battery life. Each link is to an unlocked phone, and they should run on most of the big four US wireless carriers, unless specified otherwise. We update this list regularly to ensure the best phone is always represented.

And for more info, read our guide to help find the best phone for your needs and take a look at our tips on how to buy a new cell phone

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best phone Apple produces and it received a stellar score in our full review. The smartphone features the powerful and fast A14 Bionic processor, a professional-standard multiple rear camera setup, 5G and a magnetic "MagSafe" feature that allows it to connect to other mobile accessories. Add to that its glorious screen and sleek design and the 12 Pro Max comfortably ticks every box of a flagship phone in 2021. Read our iphone 12 mini review.

Read our Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's a lot to like about the Galaxy S21, but the best thing about this cell phone has got to be the price. Samsung's next-gen flagship smartphone lineup starts at $800, but you can pay as little as $250 with a qualifying trade in. Samsung made some trade-offs to get to that price point. Specifically, the phone has 4GB of RAM less than its predecessor, the Samsung Galaxy S20; the wall charger and headphones don't come in the box; and it doesn't have a microSD card slot for expanded storage. But even with those sacrifices, you're getting a lot for your money with this Android device, including a striking design, the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip and 5G connectivity. This is a 120Hz refresh rate display phone same as the Galaxy Z Fold with Samsung leading the pack followed by OnePlus 9 Pro.

Read our Samsung Galaxy S21 review.

 

Best phone for affordable 5G

Google Pixel 5A 5G

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you want a 5G phone that doesn't cost too much, the Pixel 5A 5G is one of our top picks with an OLED display. The handset has a solid battery life, this smartphone camera has got fantastic dual rear cameras and robust software support from Google. It doesn't have the bells and whistles -- or in-house Google processor -- that the upcoming flagship Pixel 6 has, but it's a solid option budget phone if you want 5G.

Read our Google Pixel 5A with 5G review.

 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With its supercharged processor, great battery life and solid rear camera setup, the OnePlus 9 is a superb all-round Android phone. Its $729 (£629) starting price makes this cell phone a much more affordable option than its Apple or Samsung rivals. We like its big, bold display too and its fast charging. It's our best pick if you want flagship performance with a more approachable price tag. Oneplus Nord (Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G) has got the same specs as the OnePlus 9( Qualcomm Snapdragon 888), they both differ in the battery capacity and 120hz refresh rate for one plus 9.

CNET

The Motorola Edge Plus has pretty much everything you'd hope for in a premium 5G mobile phone: A Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset, a giant battery, an OLED display with a high refresh rate and multiple rear cameras with heavy-duty specs. Motorola took features found on other top-of-the-line Android phones, put its own Moto spin on them and built them all into one of our favorite Android phones of the year. Keep in mind this smartphone has an option for only one sim card insertion.

Read our Motorola Edge Plus review.

 

Angela Lang/CNET

Starting at only $399, the 2020 version of the iPhone SE is the best budget phone you can find right now. With an A13 processor (the same as the iPhone 11) and an amazing camera, the iPhone SE is way more powerful than it has any right to be. Old-school iPhone fans will also appreciate the return of TouchID and the home button.

Read our Apple iPhone SE (2020) review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Galaxy S21 is a superb all-round flagship Android phone, but if you want the absolute best of the best, consider stepping up to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This Samsung phone has a bigger screen size display, bigger battery, more RAM and a more capable rear camera setup that includes an incredible 10x optical zoom lens that we absolutely love. If beautiful photography is top of your wishlist in a new phone, you can't go far wrong with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Read our Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review.

 

Angela Lang/CNET

Pixel phones have a loyal following and with good reason. Without considering its cheap phone price, Google's Pixel 4A has a top-notch camera that takes brilliant photos. The 5.81-inch handset also features a headphone jack, 128GB of storage out of the box and a better battery life than 2019's Pixel 4.

Read our Google Pixel 4A review.

 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Samsung's Galaxy S20 series had some great specs, but their high prices meant they were out of reach for many. Not so with the S20 FE, which is stuffed with great hardware but comes with a much more reasonable price -- and earned itself a coveted CNET Editors' Choice award in the process. We loved the Galaxy S20's vibrant screen, its powerful processor, decent camera quality and 5G connectivity but especially liked its $650 price. 

Read our Samsung Galaxy S20 Fan Edition review.

 

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