The Best iPhones to buy in Fall 2021: Apple has an iPhone for every budget!

The Best iPhones to buy in Fall 2021: Apple has an iPhone for every budget!

Apple’s new iPhone 13 series is here and as usual, they bring some exciting new features. But if you want to save a little, there are older or other iPhone options that are still very capable. Apple has a myriad of options, from the gigantic iPhone 13 Pro Max to the petite iPhone SE or Mini series. And thanks to Apple’s best-in-industry software updates, you can buy an older phone and still get the latest Apple experience.

If you’re looking for more options, we have recommendations on the best Android phones, and a combined recommendation list for the best phones.

Navigate this article:

Best iPhone for most people: iPhone 12

iPhone 12 in white

You may be wondering why we kept the iPhone 12 on this list when the iPhone 13 exists. Well, it’s because this category isn’t necessarily about the absolute most powerful or newest phone that money can buy, but rather the best option for the average consumer after taking into account all the features and price. It’s about recommending the most practical and value-oriented option, without being majorly outdated or having any deal-breaking flaws.

The iPhone 12 stays in this spot because, while the iPhone 13 is better, it’s not so much better that it’s a no-brainer purchase option for more money. For example, the much larger image sensors and 120Hz refresh rate Apple introduced this year are exclusive to the iPhone 13 Pro models only, so the standard iPhone 13 doesn’t see these improvements. And sure, there are iPhones cheaper than the iPhone 12 available (they’re further down the list), but those are significantly less powerful or use an outdated thick-bezelled design. Nothing wrong with that if you are on a budget, by the way! But if you have some expendable income and you do want a nicer phone, the iPhone 12 is still the happy medium. It’s in between “all the way premium expensive flagship” and “cheaper but noticeably outdated iPhone.”

The iPhone 12, as if you need a reminder, offers a 5nm A14 Bionic SoC (that still outperforms the Snapdragon 888+ in benchmarks); a 6.1 inch OLED display; and a still very capable camera system consisting of a 12MP main camera and a 12MP ultra-wide camera, as well as a 12MP selfie camera. The main camera can produce excellent photos in most lighting conditions, and while the ultra-wide is a bit weak by 2021 standards, you’d only really notice if you are picky and shoot in low-light scenes. Where the iPhone 12 still excels is in video recording — 4K footage look smooth and stable, with excellent balance and contrast all around. You do miss out on the very fun Cinematic Mode that’s available on the iPhone 13, however.

Crafted out of an aluminum body with “Ceramic Shield,” the iPhone 12 is relatively comfortable to hold compared to the heavier Pro iPhones or the huge Pro Max iPhones. We here at XDA have a fondness for the white model in particular.

As we said earlier, the iPhone 13 is better — a new SoC, a larger main camera sensor — but it’s not that much better. You’d have to be a power user to really notice the difference. The iPhone 12, at its price of $699 and likely to drop, is the best value iPhone right now.

    iPhone 12
    The standard iPhone, as the name suggests, is the right iPhone for most people. The omissions of a telephoto zoom lens or stainless steel frame won't matter to most people who would rather save a couple hundred dollars.

Best flagship iPhone: iPhone 13 Pro Max

iPhone 13 Pro Max

If you want the absolute latest and biggest from Apple, then the iPhone 13 Pro Max is your de-facto choice. While it doesn’t look too different from the iPhone 12 Pro Max, there are worthy upgrades once you put the phone to the test. The screen refreshes at twice the speed, for example (120Hz, which Apple calls ProMotion), the main and ultra-wide camera sensors are larger, and the latter got a faster aperture to boot. What this means is the iPhone 13 Pro Max is noticeably better than the iPhone 12 Pro Max in low-light photography. Where last year’s iPhones need to resort to night mode, the iPhone 13 Pro Max can just grab the shot straight up.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max also sees an improved telephoto camera that can produce 3x optical zoom shots, and maximum zoom up to 15x. While long zooms (10x and up), the iPhone 13 Pro Max still falls short of what the top Android phones can do, we think the iPhone 13 Pro Max may have the best 3x zoom lens on the market right now. We also think 3x is a more ideal short zoom length than 2x or 4x (the latter used in the Pixel 6 Pro).

And because the iPhone 13 Pro Max is huge, Apple managed to throw in a sizable battery too, and the result is the best battery life in a flagship phone we’ve tested all year. The iPhone 13 Pro Max, even with ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate, can last a full 12-hour day out and come home with like 40-50% battery. This is the first iPhone to not give some of us at XDA battery anxiety in years.

Another benefit of getting the largest iPhone is you also get the most screen. The 6.7-inch display here is stunning to look at, with superb viewing angles and maximum brightness. Pair that with awesome stereo speakers and this is a phone you can binge NetFlix on without issues. Some of us here at XDA, unfortunately, also find this model a bit hard to use with one hand. But if you have large hands or don’t mind two-handing a phone regularly, the iPhone 13 Pro Max is the biggest and the baddest.

    iPhone 13 Pro Max
    The iPhone 13 Pro Max is the biggest and baddest iPhone ever, getting you all the features and the most battery life in an iPhone ever.

Best iPhone for power users who don’t like big screens: iPhone 13 Pro

iPhone 13 in Sierra Blue

Last year’s iPhone 12 Pro lacked some of the new camera hardware that its bigger brother 12 Pro Max got, so power users had to get the bigger sibling. This year, Apple is playing more fairly. The iPhone 13 Pro is exactly the same as the iPhone 13 Pro Max other than its physical size (including battery). This means that if you want the absolute best that Apple has to offer in a smaller package — then look no further.

The iPhone 13 Pro runs on Apple’s newest all-powerful A15 Bionic SoC and has cameras with larger image sensors across the board. Our favorite feature though is “Cinematic mode,” which is like “Portrait Mode,” but for video. The default background blur right after filming usually looks a bit too strong (fake) for our taste, but the good news is you can just jump into the iPhone’s own photo app and tweak the strength of bokeh right there. Dial it down a bit, and Cinematic Footage can look really good.

For still photography, the iPhone 13 Pro’s much larger image sensor does a great job of pulling in light. This is a phone that doesn’t have to resort to night mode nearly as often as the last two iPhones. The ultra-wide camera sees major improvements too, with improved image sharpness and light intake compared to the same lens in the iPhone 12 Pro.

Another strong point for the iPhone 13 Pro is selfies. Apple’s TrueDepth camera can really get an idea of your face and apply realistic portrait lighting and convincing digital bokeh. The iPhone 13 Pro does a good job with keeping skin tones realistic too, unlike some Android brands which can make our skin look plasticky. The iPhone 13 Pro is very well constructed, with a stainless steel frame and Ceramic Shield glass on the front and back. While we find the sharp edges of the phone slightly less comfortable to hold, it is a stunner of a device to look at. Another strong point in the iPhone 13 Pro is battery life. Despite the 120Hz screen, this is a phone that can last you an entire day out on a single charge.

Last year, there wasn’t much that differentiated the iPhone 12 Pro from the 12. This year, the iPhone 13 Pro is noticeably better than the iPhone 13. So if you want a powerhouse iPhone without the gigantic size, then this is the one to get.

    iPhone 13 Pro
    The iPhone1 3 Pro may not be the biggest iPhone, but its the right choice for those who dislike the Pro Max's size but still want all of its features.

Best affordable iPhone for most people: iPhone 11

iPhone 11 in yellow

If saving money is a priority, it’s worth buying an older iPhone, and the iPhone 11 is one of the best value options around in the Apple ecosystem. Sure, it may be two generations old now, but that 7nm A13 Bionic chip still holds up very well today. The cameras also mostly keep up too — that 12MP main camera can still capture some very punchy and lively shots during the day. When the sun sets or if you step inside a dimly lit room, that’s when the iPhone 11 starts to show its age, as it will have to resort to night mode a lot more often than the phones above. Still, night mode does do a good job for the main camera. Unfortunately, night mode is not available for the ultra-wide sensor — that feature wouldn’t be available until the iPhone 12 series.

Video performance with the iPhone 11 is still very good today, provided you shoot during the day. Expect excellent stabilization and seamless switching between lenses mid-filming. Android brands have caught up to Apple in many regards, but in video performance, the iPhone is still king.

One area in which the iPhone 11 may be better than the iPhone 12 and 13 is that it still uses the rounded sides design instead of the boxy, flat side design. We acknowledge the latter design looks more professional and mature, but it also makes the phone harder to hold. The iPhone 11, when compared to the iPhone 12 and 13, feels very curvaceous.

And because Apple gives the iPhones great software support, you can still run the latest version of iOS (15) even if you buy this older iPhone. New iOS features such as private relay and widgets on homescreen can be enjoyed on an iPhone 11 just as well as an iPhone 13.

The iPhone 11 also comes in livelier colors (like the yellow you see above) than the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 series, so that’s another bonus if you want your phone in bold colors.

    iPhone 11
    The iPhone 11 comes in a variety of colors and still offers a lot of processing power in 2021; it might be worth considering if you want to save a few hundred dollars.

Best small iPhone: iPhone 12 Mini

The iPhone 12 Mini is very small

The same reason we kept the iPhone 12 in the first category over the iPhone 13 is the same reason why we are keeping the iPhone 12 Mini here instead of the iPhone 13 Mini. There just aren’t enough upgrades on the 13 Mini to justify it over the 12 Mini.

The iPhone 12 Mini is not just small, but downright petite. Most people should be able to palm the entire device and reach all four corners of the screen with their thumb easily. Don’t be fooled by its dainty build, however. The iPhone 12 Mini still packs the same punch as the iPhone 12, so you’re still getting a 5nm powerful SoC, and very good main and ultra-wide cameras, as well as aluminum railings and Ceramic Shield protection for the display glass panel.

The camera system is identical to the iPhone 12, so this means you have a very capable dual-camera setup. Switch seamlessly between wide and ultra-wide cameras mid-filming, or point and shoot anywhere — even against harsh backlight — and get a properly exposed shot.

The battery here is a bit weak — this phone likely won’t last you an entire 13-hour day out of you have a busy Saturday, but on a typical workday in which you’re stationary at a desk, the iPhone 12 Mini’s endurance is fine.

On the software front, you can expect to be able to download and run the latest version of iOS within an hour of setting up the phone, and once set up, the iPhone 12 Mini’s software will behave as well as any new 2021 Android or iPhone. This is a phone that doesn’t skip a beat no matter what you throw at it.

The same logic we applied to the iPhone 12 a few paragraphs up applies here: the iPhone 13 Mini is a better device, but this one is a better value unless you really want that slightly larger image sensor more natural bokeh. For low light photos, the iPhone 12 Mini’s night mode will make up the difference in sensor size compared to the iPhone 13 Mini.

    iPhone 12 Mini
    The iPhone 12 Mini is the answer to everyone who laments the escalating size of phones. You'll be able to one-hand this phone easily; its relatively low price doesn't hurt either.

Best budget iPhone: iPhone SE (2020)

iPhone SE in red

If you want the absolute cheapest iPhone possible (that’s not used or several years old), the 2020 edition of the iPhone SE is the only sub-$400 iPhone around. It may lack the flashier all-screen design of the other iPhones listed here, but it comes in a petite size, and in this age of constant mask-wearing, having Touch ID instead of Face ID may actually be appealing to consumers.

With this model, you’re still getting the 7nm Apple A13 Bionic, IP67 water-and dust-resistance (rare for a sub-$500 phone), and a good single camera with OIS. As usual, video recording is a strong point with this device.

The smaller size has its appeal too, as before Apple introduced the iPhone 12 and 13 Mini, this was the phone people who really dislike big phones went for. At 148g, it’s a really easy carry in your hand or pocket.

The 4.7-inch, 750 x 1334 screen isn’t going to compete with other iPhones on this list, but it’s still a good LCD panel for its price, with Apple’s fine-tuning producing excellent colors and acceptable maximum brightness. You also get stereo speakers.

Battery life, however, is a bit lacking. This is a phone that you will have to top up mid-day if you want it to last from morning all the way until night.

    iPhone SE (2020)
    The iPhone SE (2020) is the absolute cheapest iPhone right now that you can buy brand new.

 


No matter which iPhone you choose, you’ll be well served

Even though we here at XDA have a soft spot for Android and all the customization the platform brings, we can concede that when it comes to providing software updates in a timely and long-term manner, Apple does a much better job with the iPhone. While we’re partial to the iPhone 13 Pro or iPhone 12, any of the devices on this list will serve you well.

About author

Ben Sin
Ben Sin

I'm a senior editor at XDA Developers. I have been a journalist for a decade, the last five years covering the mobile tech scene closely, reviewing just about every phone and attending trade shows and launches. I also run a gadget review channel on YouTube.