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Best iPhones 2021: the best budget and premium iPhones

Included in this guide:

Best iPhones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best iPhones you can buy in 2021.

Apple's iPhone was a revelation when it launched back in 2007. Back then, the word 'smartphone' meant a stuffy interface, fiddly stylus and tiny screen.

Fast forward 14 years and although a lot has changed in terms of consumer technology, in many circles, the iPhone is still the best handset on the planet. Especially now that the iPhone 13 family has landed.

The Apple iPhone range covers lots of different screen sizes and prices, but which is the best iPhone for you? Do you want an entry-level handset to handle the basic tasks of making calls, web browsing and taking the occasional picture? Or do you want something more powerful in a premium package with flagship tech and a massive screen? Either way, Apple has an iPhone for you and they all run its iOS operating system, which is a doddle to use.

Screen size is also important. A smaller size is more pocketable, but a bigger screen will be better suited for films, games and TV shows. So think about how you'll use it before you buy. Apple's iPhones use LCD or OLED displays, depending on the model – the iPhone 12 range comprises all OLED models, while the older ranges' cheaper models use LCD.

Then there's the camera. The more expensive iPhones have incredible cameras, but it's worth investigating the cheaper models too. If all you need it for is pointing and shooting, without delving into all the various shooting modes available, chances are they'll more than suffice.

In our experience, iPhones tend to be some of the best-sounding smartphones, while the quality of their screens is always up there with the very best at the money. The only extra bit of kit you might want to factor in is a pair of headphones – either Lightning or wireless, depending on your personal preference. The Apple AirPods and AirPods Pro are good headphones, but their sound quality can be bettered. And while the AirPods Max are superb, they certainly cost a pretty penny.

But we digress. Read on for our list of the best iPhones on the market.

Best iPhones 2021: Apple iPhone 13

(Image credit: Apple)

1. iPhone 13

Not a reinvention, but an improvement in key areas.

Specifications
Screen: 6.1in OLED
Resolution: 2532 x 1170
Features: Siri assistant, 12MP wide and ultra-wide lenses
Battery: 3227mAh
Operating system: iOS 15
Dimensions: (hwd) 14.7 x 7.2 x 0.7cm
Weight: 173g
Reasons to buy
+Excellent build+Slick operating system+Excellent picture and sound
Reasons to avoid
-No charger in the box-No headphones in the box

The iPhone 13 might be closer to an iPhone 12S than a full reinvention of the iPhone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it was enough to earn it a 2021 What Hi-Fi? Award

For starters, it's actually slightly cheaper (in the UK at least) than the iPhone 12 was at launch. It has the same winning design as the 12, and feels suitably premium. And it comes in five colours.

So what's new? The A15 Bionic chip enables new iOS features and boots the phone up much quicker. The screen is 28 per cent brighter than the 12, though it sticks at a 60Hz refresh rate (120Hz is reserved for the Pro variants). And the camera is all change – there's a new diagonal arrangement, new sensor that lets in 47 per cent more light, and same optical image stabilisation tech from the iPhone 12 Pro Max. All of which make for better quality snaps.

The battery also lasts 2.5 hours longer.

So, not a radical departure from the iPhone 12, but an improvement all the same. It's the best, but better. And who wouldn't want that?

Read the full iPhone 13 review

Best iPhones 2021: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Apple)

2. Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

The biggest and best iPhone in the 12 range.

Specifications
Screen: 6.7in OLED
Resolution: 2778 x 1284
Features: Siri assistant, 12MP wide, ultra-wide and telephoto lenses
Battery: 3687mAh
Operating system: iOS 14
Dimensions: (hwd) 16.8 x 7.8 x 0.7cm
Weight: 226g
Reasons to buy
+Huge, beautiful screen+Surprisingly capable speakers+Excellent sound via headphones
Reasons to avoid
-Marginal gains over iPhone 12-No bundled charger

This is top dog in the iPhone 12 family – it has the biggest and best screen (the largest ever seen in an iPhone, in fact), the best camera and the longest-lasting battery.

Like the others in the range, it's a dream to look at and hold, and its OLED screen is notably brighter than the standard iPhone 12's. The Pro and Pro Max have telephoto lenses (which the standard iPhone 12 doesn't), and the Max's has a larger aperture than the standard Pro's, allowing it to capture more light. It takes superb photos, but you’ll have to be a camera enthusiast to get the most out of it.

Films look strikingly cinematic on the Pro Max's big screen, with deep blacks, super-crisp edges and oodles of detail. And for listening out loud, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is simply one of the best phones there has ever been. A cheap but good Bluetooth speaker will still beat it, of course, but the openness of the soundfield is particularly impressive when watching a film, and effects extend surprisingly far to the left and right of the screen. 

Listen through headphones, and the results are exceptionally musical.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is well worth stretching to if you’re a keen photographer or videographer (Apple no longer sells it, but you'll find it elsewhere). But if you're on a slightly stricter budget, the standard iPhone 12 will prove more than enough phone for all but the most demanding of users.

Read the full iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Best iPhones 2021: Apple iPhone 12

(Image credit: Apple)

3. Apple iPhone 12

Apple takes the standard iPhone to another level.

Specifications
Screen: 6.1in OLED
Resolution: 2532 x 1170
Features: Siri assistant, 12MP wide and ultra-wide lenses
Battery: 2815mAh
Operating system: iOS 14
Dimensions: (hwd) 14.7 x 7.2 x 0.7cm
Weight: 164g
Reasons to buy
+Impressive OLED display+Musical sound+Slick and speedy interface
Reasons to avoid
-No charger in the box-Pricier than before

There's plenty new about the iPhone 12: a new design, new screen, new processor, and, for the first time, 5G. But it's also lost a couple of things from its box – namely a charger and pair of EarPods – and is pricier, to boot. 

Despite this, it's another win for Apple. It looks and feels reassuringly premium, the OLED screen is a big step up on the iPhone 11's LCD panel, and it's more durable. The A14 Bionic chip keeps things moving admirably, and it takes better snaps in low light.

Apple has got into the habit of producing some of the best-sounding smartphones on the market and the iPhone 12 picks up where the iPhone 11 left off. It’s a case of more of the same with the smartphone delivering enthusiasm and musicality in spades. The iPhone works well across multiple genres and keeps you entertained right to the last second of every track.

Dolby Atmos and Apple’s own spatial audio processing are available to enjoy through the AirPods Pro and the pricier AirPods Max.

Despite its higher price, the iPhone 12 is the best value handset in a very strong iPhone line-up. A highly tempting and typically Apple package.

Read the full iPhone 12 review

Best iPhones 2021: Apple iPhone 12 Mini

(Image credit: Apple)

4. Apple iPhone 12 Mini

Apple’s mini iPhone packs a mighty AV punch.

Specifications
Screen: 5.4in OLED
Resolution: 2340 x 1080
Features: Siri assistant, 12MP wide and ultra-wide lenses
Battery: 2227mAh
Operating system: iOS 14
Dimensions: (hwd) 13.2 x 6.4 x 0.7cm13.2 x 6.4 x 0.7cm
Weight: 133g
Reasons to buy
+Excellent OLED picture+Entertaining sound+iOS as slick as ever
Reasons to avoid
-Battery life not outstanding-No charger supplied

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

Best iPhones 2021: Apple iPhone 11

(Image credit: Future)

5. Apple iPhone 11

One of the best iPhones when you take into account both performance and cost.

Specifications
Screen: 6.1in LCD
Resolution: 1972 x 828
Features: Siri assistant, 12MP wide and ultra-wide lenses
Battery: 3969mAh
Operating system: iOS 13
Dimensions: (hwd) 15.1 x 7.6 x 0.8cm
Weight: 194g
Reasons to buy
+Cheaper than high-end models+Great audio and video+Ace camera
Reasons to avoid
-No new design-Not an OLED screen

Although the iPhone 11 lacks some of the headline features of its two Pro siblings you're not really comparing like with like: the iPhone 11 costs a lot less and offers stunning all-round performance.

The camera is a highlight: it's powerful enough to give great results and simple enough to point and shoot. Its screen might not be OLED but it still produces a great picture, and the audio quality is nothing short of superb. Oh, and it runs on the same processor as the Pro and Pro Max, so you shouldn't notice any difference in performance.

If you need a big screen and/or a more advanced camera, consider the more expensive models. But for the vast majority of us, the iPhone 11 is the best value iPhone from Apple's 2019 range.

Read the full Apple iPhone 11 review

Best iPhones 2021: iPhone SE (2020)

(Image credit: Apple)

6. iPhone SE (2020)

Apple’s cheapest iPhone is a serious bargain.

Specifications
Screen: 4.7in LCD
Resolution: 1334 x 750
Features: Siri assistant, 12MP main camera, 7MP front camera
Battery: 1821mAh
Operating system: iOS 14
Dimensions: (hwd) 13.8 x 6.7 x 0.7cm
Weight: 148g
Reasons to buy
+Excellent build quality+Colourful, detailed screen+Musical sound
Reasons to avoid
-Camera struggles in low light-Battery life could be better

Apple's second iPhone SE follows in the footsteps of 2016's original, with improvements across the board. While the original was basically an iPhone 6S in an iPhone 5S's casing, the 2020 SE takes an iPhone 8 shell and crams in slightly improved innards. Namely: the newer A13 Bionic processor, more advanced camera shooting (with portrait mode and better HDR) and the option of 256GB of storage.

It's a doozy. While admittedly not quite as impressive as the iPhone 11 family or later, it still gives you that classic iPhone experience, and for a lot less money than the cheapest model of iPhone 11.

The LCD screen is decent, the audio impressive, and it has the best user interface and app selection available on any handset. If you want the best iPhone available, this isn't it. But if you want a taste of the full iPhone experience for a fraction of the price of Apple's newer handsets, this is the phone for you.

Read the full Apple iPhone SE (2020) review

Best iPhones 2021: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max

(Image credit: Apple)

7. Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max

A flagship iPhone with flagship specs and performance.

Specifications
Screen: 6.5in OLED
Resolution: 2688 x 1242
Features: Triple 12MP Ultra Wide, Wide and Telephoto
Battery: 3969mAh
Operating system: iOS 13
Dimensions: (hwd) 15.8 x 7.8 x 0.8cm
Weight: 226g
Reasons to buy
+Awesome camera+Massive screen+All-day battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive-Few will use camera to the full-Not as sharp screen as 11 Pro

The only real difference between the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max is the size: the Max has a bigger screen, at 6.5in compared to the Pro's 5.8in. That means the Max is a little bulkier: it's 14mm taller and 6mm wider than its sibling, but the depth measurement stays at a slim 8.1mm. So you won't notice the difference too much in your pocket or bag.

The extra screen acreage makes movies, TV shows and games more immersive – it's the best iPhone 11 for consuming content on the move.

Other than that, it shares a lot with the iPhone 11 Pro – i.e. the same camera, processor, operating system and features. Not that that's a bad thing – the 11 Pro is one of the best smartphones currently available.

Of course, the Pro Max is more expensive than the Pro. But if you want the extra screen real estate without stepping up to the 12 Pro Max, this is the best iPhone to buy.

Read the full Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max review

Best iPhones 2021: Apple iPhone 11 Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

8. Apple iPhone 11 Pro

A fantastic iPhone for music and movies alike.

Specifications
Screen: 5.8in OLED
Resolution: 2436 x 1125
Features: Siri assistant, Triple 12MP Ultra Wide, Wide and Telephoto
Battery: 3969mAh
Operating system: iOS 13
Dimensions: (hwd) 14.4 x 7.1 x 0.8cm
Weight: 188g
Reasons to buy
+Great camera+Superb picture and sound+Healthy battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Pricey-Few will use camera to the full

The iPhone 11 Pro's screen is actually a little smaller than the screen on the more affordable iPhone 11. Though at 5.8in, it's still big enough for most. It also uses an OLED panel, which produces fine colours and excellent contrast.

The camera is more advanced than the iPhone 11's, thanks to the addition of a telephoto lens. That gives it more zooming power, not only for getting up close and personal with your subjects, but also for zooming out and capturing more of the landscape.

But really, it's this phone's excellent handling of films and music that has us blown away. Detail levels are superb and the phone sounds as musical as any other member of the iPhone family.

For many, the iPhone 11 will be more than enough. But if you can afford it, and the 11 Pro Max is too big, this could be the best iPhone for you.

Read the full Apple iPhone 11 Pro review

Best iPhones 2021: iPhone XR

(Image credit: Apple)

9. iPhone XR

This older, cheaper iPhone still has a plenty to offer.

Specifications
Screen: 6.1in LCD
Resolution: 1972 x 828
Features: Siri assistant, 12MP wide-angle lens
Battery: 2942mAh
Operating system: iOS 12
Dimensions: (hwd) 15.1 x 7.6 x 0.8cm
Weight: 194g
Reasons to buy
+Entertaining audio+Natural images+Decent battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Not OLED-No headphone jack

This isn't the cheapest phone Apple makes – that honour goes to the iPhone SE 2020 – nor is it the newest, being a 2018 model. But the XR is still an affordable handset by iPhone standards and still worth considering.

The 6.1in LCD screen is large and produces a nicely rounded and natural picture. And although it uses an older processor, you won't be held back from carrying out basic tasks.

You still get Apple's world-beating iOS operating system with all the apps and features that entails. The audio and visual performance is great for the money and the camera is more than fine for snapping the odd pic or three. Still a bargain by iPhone standards.

Read the full iPhone XR review

Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.