Best Smartphone Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best phones you can buy in 2021.
A smartphone has many uses but, for us, it's about great music and video. So, right here are the very best phones with with incredible screens and amazing audio circuitry. HDR-compatibility, super-high pixel counts and next generation panel technologies can make for a kick-ass display that will have you enjoying your commute so much that you'll be taking a longer route on purpose.
Just as crucially, some phones simply sound better than others and it's important to know which they are so that you can spend your hard earned on a mobile that's going to make your portable music life the best it can possibly be.
We know you can do a whole heap of things with even the best cheap phones nowadays, but for our reviews we focus first and foremost on sound quality and picture performance. So, while we thoroughly test a phone's battery, camera, usability, design and features, we will give extra weight to handsets that deliver great audio and video.
No matter if you're Android or iOS loyal, whether you're eyeing up a flagship phone such as the iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S21, Sony Xperia 1 III, Google Pixel 5 or OnePlus 9 Pro, or more affordable options like the iPhone 12 Mini or iPhone SE, we've got you covered with the very best smartphones on the market.
How we choose the best smartphones
Here at What Hi-Fi? we review hundreds of products every year, a handful of which are smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, LG, OnePlus and Huawei. So how do we come to our review verdicts? And why can you trust them?
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London and Bath, where our team of expert reviewers do all our in-house testing. This gives us complete control over the review process, ensuring consistency.
We spend time with the phones; we live with them, testing every feature and spec exhaustively, from screens to cameras, sound quality to battery life. We focus particularly on audio and video performance, so if you spend a lot of time listening to music or watching videos, you should read on before making that all-important buying decision.
All products are tested in comparison with rival products in the same category, and all review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than a single reviewer, again helping to ensure consistency and avoid individual subjectivity.
The What Hi-Fi? team has more than 100 years experience of reviewing, testing and writing about consumer electronics.
From all of our reviews, we choose the products to feature in our Best Buys, such as this one. That's why if you take the plunge and buy one of the products recommended below, or on any other Best Buy pages, you can rest assured you're getting a What Hi-Fi?-approved product.
How do you improve on a What Hi-Fi? Award-winning flagship smartphone? By not messing with it too much. That's very much the approach for Sony's latest and best digital Swiss Army Knife.
The design has had a tiny, glass-toughening tweak, the battery boosted, the 4K display now has a 120Hz refresh rate, and there’s an upgraded chipset and GPU. Photography fans will be pleased by the inclusion of a periscope lens too.
But crucially for us, Sony has eked out yet more performance from the Xperia 1 III screen and 3.5mm headphone jack which gives us even more reason to recommend it.
The sonic performance manages to deliver a little more punch and a little more detail compared to its predecessor. Bass notes sound a little tighter, meaning more control and agility, plus there's the kind of dynamics to rival any phone on the market and plenty of dedicated hi-res players too.
Read the full Sony Xperia III review
Another iPhone, another five-star review, there's nothing too surprising in that.
The iPhone 13 looks and feels very similar to its predecessor. Build quality is, of course, superb and the only noticeable outer differences are a reshuffle of the buttons and a different camera layout on the rear.
Inside is a new SoC, the A15 Bionic. It's made up of a new six-core CPU with a GPU that is reportedly 30 per cent faster than rivals. They help power new iOS 15 features such as Live Text in Camera and a new 3D Maps navigation feature as well as provide a typically slick and speedy user experience.
Apple claims that it has hiked up the maximum brightness of the 6.1 OLED display by 28 percent to a claimed 800 nits for SDR and 1200 nits for HDR content. That brings a little more punch without sacrificing detail in whiter elements of the picture. OLED’s inherent strengths help here too, obviously, with deep, rich blacks and amazing clarity that just draws you in.
On the audio side, you won’t be surprised to learn that it sounds just as good as its predecessor. Throw any genre its way and the iPhone just makes it interesting to listen to. It sounds exciting and dynamic, while maintaining an excellent handle on timing, sticking to the rhythm of a track. Bolstered by a terrific sense of weight, drive and power, it remains a force to be reckoned with.
Read the full Apple iPhone 13 review
The iPhone SE is back and the idea is pretty much the same – give the user an authentic iPhone experience without the huge price tags of the upper-tier handsets. And it's just as much of a success as the original SE model Apple launched in 2016.
With a punchy, colourful screen, musical sound and a solid point-and-shoot 12MP snapper, the Apple iPhone SE (2020) does what it sets out to achieve. It's not perfect – we'd like better slightly battery life and nighttime photography results – but it will appeal to those looking for their first affordable iPhone, as well as those who might be a few iPhone generations behind but don’t want to spend a fortune on a new smartphone.
Safe to say it's among the best budget smartphones on the market at the moment.
Read the full iPhone SE (2020) review
While the Xperia 1 series (in top spot on this page) delivers a level of video and audio performance above that of other flagship Android phones, the Sony Xperia 5 range is smaller, cheaper and has similar specs, so what’s not to like?
Indeed, if you value music and video performance highly, you really should consider one of these latest Sony phones. It backs up its impressive AV performance with decent features elsewhere, too – 3.5mm headphone jack, 4000mAh battery, Android 10, and the combination of 12MP f/1.7 wide lens, 12MP f/2.4 telephoto lens and 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide camera lenses.
While the pricier sibling still edges this Xperia 5 II for 4K video performance and ultimate sound quality, the more compact and affordable Sony Xperia 5 II remains a terrific choice.
2020's Galaxy S20 line-up marked a thorough overhaul, bringing in 5G support and 120Hz refresh rate displays for the first time, plus significant camera upgrades. But for the S21 range, the gains are more marginal – the camera software has been enhanced, the design is arguably better and it packs the company’s most advanced processor yet.
Of the three-strong, 5G-supporting Galaxy S21 range, you’ll want to consider the two more premium models, the S21+ S21 Ultra, if you’re after a large screen or a top-spec camera (offered by the S21 Ultra). But the standard S21 variant here is solid for the money and offers an excellent balance between performance and value. It has a great camera, very nice screen and is as speedy and reliable to use as you'd expect.
Either of the Sony Xperias are better bets for those who place greater importance on music listening, so that’s one area we would hope Samsung advances for the next generation of Galaxy S phone. For now, though, the line’s reputation as one of the market’s best all-rounders remains intact.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S21 review.
With a glorious 4K resolution screen, Sony’s sonic expertise and cutting-edge audio features, plus a great camera complete with plenty of pro features, the Xperia 1 II is a brilliant smartphone for music and movie lovers.
Our focus has always been on audio and video performance, so we’re thrilled to find a smartphone that does the same. The Sony delivers a new level of performance for smartphone video and audio, and the rest of the phone completes the task, delivering an excellent camera, fast performance and decent battery life. If you’re serious about enjoying your mobile entertainment, this is the phone for you.
Read the full Sony Xperia 1 II review
The iPhone 12 is another model we can add to a successful line of phones from Apple. Although some new Apple products are undoubtedly more evolution than revolution, the current iPhone 12 sports a brand-new design, a new screen, is powered by a new processor, and is capable of performing some new party tricks over its predecessor (below) – including, for the first time, 5G support.
The addition of an excellent 6.1in OLED Super Retina XDR display (complete with HDR10, Dolby Vision and HLG support) has elevated picture performance to another level and helps justify the slight price hike over its predecessor. As a daytime snapper, there isn’t much to grumble about, with the dual-camera producing nicely balanced pictures with even colours and a fine sense of realism. Sound quality is as good as it’s ever been, too. All these positives combined make for a highly tempting and typically Apple package.
Read the full iPhone 12 review.
If you have big hands, big pockets and a ‘bigger is better’ outlook on life, then the iPhone 12 Mini probably isn’t for you. This is a smartphone for those who prefer a more subtle and discreet design, where pocket space is at a premium and you’d rather not pull a thumb muscle every time you attempt to write and send a text one-handed. And it's a very good one indeed for Apple fans.
It gets the same flat-edged design as its bigger siblings, meaning it feels premium in the hand; its 12MP dual-lens set-up on the back is perfect for those who want to point and shoot high good quality pictures with minimal fuss in both decent and sub-optimal lighting conditions; and it offers perfectly listenable sound quality by smartphone standards.
Essentially, it offers all the top features of the iPhone 12, but in a smaller, more pocket-friendly package. It is smooth and speedy to use, camera quality is great and picture and sound performance are both excellent for the money. The battery life takes a small hit – there's a drop in both video playback (15 hours versus 17 hours) and audio playback (50 hours versus 65 hours) compared with the iPhone 12 – but that doesn’t really detract from this hugely talented tiny iPhone.
Read the full iPhone 12 Mini review.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best phone that Apple has ever made, with the biggest screen, the best speakers, the best camera and the biggest battery. Want the cream of the crop? This is it.
That said, if you're looking for the best value iPhone package, know that many of its upgrades over the iPhone 12 are minimal, and the fact that the standard iPhone now has an OLED display is another reason not to spend the extra. The standard iPhone 12 is without a doubt the performance-per-pound pick of the current range, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max is well worth stretching to if you’re a keen photographer or videographer, or simply someone who likes a massive screen.
Read the full Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review.
Samsung's 2020 S20 series is here, and the Korean giant has kept the upgrade simple to ensure it's another success.
It looks familiar, feels familiar and has a largely predictable list of specifications and features. But we’re in the business of marginal gains, and another year has brought just enough of those to ensure the Galaxy S20 remains a great smartphone for most people, particularly if you’re in the market for a premium phone (and certainly if you want an Android handset).
A superb screen in a manageable size, good smartphone audio, neat new features such as 5G and a 120Hz refresh rate, a smooth, fast interface and a good battery. Sometimes you just need to beat the competition, not blow them away, and the Galaxy S20 has certainly done that for now.
Read the full Samsung Galaxy S20 review
The 10th anniversary of the Samsung Galaxy range was marked with the launch of not one, but three, new Samsung Galaxy S10 phones.
The Galaxy S10+ is the biggest, most powerful and the most expensive. It comes complete with a 6.4in screen, a new "Infinity-O" OLED display, HDR10+ video support, Dolby Atmos audio, an Ultrasonic Fingerprint sensor underneath the front of the screen, a triple rear camera lens, a hefty 4100 mAh battery, the option of a 1TB memory, a microSD card slot – and even a trusty 3.5mm headphone jack.
It’s not perfect – the biometric sensor, edge design and that Bixby button all need some fine-tuning – but if you’re in the market for a flagship Android phone with a slim but big-screen design, and value audio and video quality, this really should be at the top of your wishlist. Unless, that is, you can afford the successors to the S10 series, the Samsung S20 and Samsung S21 phones.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S10+ review.
The Google Pixel 5 launched with a cheaper asking price compared to previous flagship Pixel phones, so how does it fare in its less premium pastures?
Unsurprisingly, Google’s repositioning of its Pixel line comes with some compromises. The Pixel 5 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G processor, (rather than the more advanced Snapdragon 865 chip); its OLED screen ‘only’ has a 1080 x 2340 resolution and 90Hz refresh rate; and, perhaps most disappointingly for some, the dual-camera system for the Pixel 5 comes without a telephoto lens.
But this is a cheaper phone, and despite some losses, there are also gains. There's now 5G network support and the Pixel 4's 2800mAh battery has been replaced by a much more acceptable 4080mAh juice pack for the Pixel 5. It's Qi-certified for wireless charging, too. Ultimately though, while the Pixel 5 is a rather different proposition from Google, its strengths and weaknesses are in the same areas as its predecessors – its superb screen quality and so-so sound performance respectively.
Read our full Google Pixel 5 review.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is, without doubt, Samsung’s headline-grabber for 2020. So, should you be grabbing one? And can you even get your hands around it?
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra delivers on the Ultra promise. It’s big and rather expensive, but in return, you can enjoy a great 6.9in 3088 x 1440 120Hz screen, a feature-packed triple-camera and decent, Dolby Atmos-supporting sound.
In an ultra-competitive market, with a huge choice of phones (simply from Samsung alone), it can be hard for every handset to stand apart. But thanks to the S Pen and ‘power user’ specs, not to mention that crazy zoom on the camera, it’s clear to see that Samsung has managed that with the Note 20 Ultra.
That said, if you’re prepared to pay for best-in-class audio and video performance, it’s beaten by the Sony Xperia 1 II (at the top of this list), making it a four-star phone in our book.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review
A substantially improved camera and small upgrades across the board all add up to a better phone than Google has produced in previous years, albeit it one that won't necessarily cause Pixel 3 owners to rush out and upgrade.
A truly excellent, market-competitive camera carries it through, strengthening Google’s reputation for producing some of the best camera phones out there. And for some, the new air-based gestures will only enhance what’s always been a seamless, Android experience. Indeed, this is the phone for Android purists. Just beware that it isn't hugely competitive in the audio or battery departments.
Read our full Google Pixel 4 review
Read our full Google Pixel 4 XL review
A premium-build Android smartphone with the best technology and no trade-offs, all at a lower price than other flagship mobiles – that’s the promise of the OnePlus 9 Pro. It certainly looks to be the part: it's a 5G phone fitted with a big, bold 6.7in AMOLED display ready to whip up HDR video on the go. And its cameras were designed with help from Swedish photographic giant Hasselblad.
The screen has a high refresh rate (120Hz), which works a treat for games and sports. Like a TV, it also has preset modes like Vivid and Natural, but you can also tweak its settings to your own spec if you prefer.
You’ll struggle to find a mobile phone at this price, with this size screen, that can do HDR better. It does well with SDR content, too.
On the audio front, there’s no wanting for file format support, but its performance isn't as thrilling as we had hoped. It's a reasonable listen, but compared to the best devices in this field, it's some way behind sonically.
Still, as a package, it's less pricey than most flagships, yet boasts many of the same specs and a very similar performance. Definitely one of the phones of the year.
Read the full OnePlus 9 Pro review.
The OnePlus 8 Pro is a big moment for OnePlus. Since it began in 2013, the Chinese phone brand has embraced its ‘flagship killer’ ambition with lower-priced handsets (such as the 7T above) than those offered by premium phone manufacturers such as Samsung and Apple.
The 8 Pro is its most expensive handset to date – and also its best. It’s a 5G phone and has the most advanced camera system, the biggest battery and the biggest screen of any OnePlus phone before it.
Its screen is lovely, and new wireless charging support rounds off an impressive, flagship-worthy spec sheet. Its sound quality isn’t quite as good as some of its rivals, though, and it is a touch below Samsung standards in camera and screen performance too.
Read the full OnePlus 8 Pro review.