The Best Smartphone to buy in May 2021: Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, and more!
On the market for a new smartphone and overwhelmed with options? Don’t worry — we here at XDA test almost every smartphone on earth, so here’s our expert guide on the best smartphone — covering both the best Android and best iPhone — for you depending on your need or budget!
Navigate this article:
- Best Overall Smartphone: Apple iPhone 12
- Best Affordable Premium Smartphone: OnePlus 9 Pro
- Best Foldable: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
- Best Smartphone Camera: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Best Big Phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
- Best Small Phone: Apple iPhone 12 Mini
- Best Affordable Almost-Flagship: Google Pixel 5
- Best Mid-Tier Smartphone: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
- Best Non-Conventional Smartphone: LG Wing
- Best Gaming Phone: ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate
- Best Budget Smartphone: OnePlus Nord N10
- Best Phone not sold in the USA: Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
- Second-Best Affordable Premium Smartphone not sold in the USA: OPPO Find X3 Pro
Best Overall Smartphone: Apple iPhone 12
The Apple iPhone 12 is not the most capable smartphone right now — heck, it’s not even the most capable iPhone right now — but it tops this list because it’s the best purchase option for most people. Of course, phone enthusiasts would prefer the iPhone 12 Pro for its superior zooming capabilities or something like a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for that bleeding-edge 120Hz display and a much longer list of features. But for the average consumer, those extras likely do not justify paying an extra several hundred dollars.
The standard iPhone 12 is also neither too big nor too small, has 5G support in every part of the world with 5G rollout, and is backed by a more developed and commonly-used ecosystem. It’s the safest choice for someone who just wants a phone that works. Of course, the phone itself is not lacking in performance, featuring the Apple A14 Bionic, and a primary camera that captures superb still photos and videos. And Apple’s eco-system, including the new AirTags, is probably the most immersive in consumer tech right now.
If you want to look at just the Android ecosystem, here are the best Android smartphones.
Best Affordable Premium Smartphone: OnePlus 9 Pro
This category is different from the above “best overall” category in that this is no longer looking at it from an average consumer perspective. This is for people who want more specs, more bells and whistles, but don’t want to pay the four-digit asking price of the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The OnePlus 9 Pro is our choice here. It’s got a brilliant 120Hz OLED display that’s almost as good as the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s (it falls short in peak brightness by a hair), premium build quality, excellent haptics, and a really strong main and ultra-wide camera. In fact, the only area in which the Galaxy S21 Ultra clearly beats the OnePlus 9 Pro is in zooming prowess. But then the OnePlus 9 Pro charges much faster, and costs $250 less.
There may be readers who will push back at the idea of a $900-ish phone being called “affordable”, but four-digit pricing for top tier flagships have been a reality in the smartphone space for several years now, and the OnePlus 9 Pro offers virtually everything those phones do without crossing that mark.
Best Foldable: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 takes this category almost by default, as the other viable contenders — the Huawei Mate X2 and Xiaomi Mi MIX Fold — are China-only products, and the flip-phone style foldables (Motorola Razr and Galaxy Z Flip) are not powerful enough to compete. But just because Galaxy Z Fold 2 earned a token victory doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent foldable phone. It’s still a stunning piece of hardware with two gorgeous screens, a very sturdy and solid hinge, and a capable Snapdragon 865+ SoC.
There are things we would like to see improved in the next generation with the Galaxy Z Fold 3, but as of right now, the Galaxy Z Fold 2 is still the biggest proof that foldables are here to stay.
Best Smartphone Camera: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
With four strong cameras that cover focal lengths from 13mm to 240mm (not even factoring in digital zoom), the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the most versatile camera system around. The main 108MP sensor captures razor-sharp photos during the day, and at night can make do without night mode trickery due to its large sensor size. The ultra-wide is not the best ultra-wide around, but it’s still very good in terms of maintaining the sharpness and keeping consistent color science. The two zoom lenses are the best the industry has to offer right now, especially the Periscope lens that can capture 10x optical zoom photos. In fact, even up to 20x digital zoom, photos remain very usable for social media.
The rest of the phone is top-notch too: the best display in the industry, the best SoC in Android, the longest-lasting battery life in a flagship. The only minor gripes are the relatively high price and large overall size.
Samsung makes a lot of different phones, and they all have different USPs. If you want to take a look at a narrower list, here are all the best Samsung Galaxy phones.
Best Big Phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
There are many Android phones with 6.7-inch screens, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max‘s 6.7-inches is bigger because Apple uses a wider aspect ratio and the screen is completely flat. It’s an unapologetically big phone, with hard stainless steel sides and the weight to boot.
In addition to the large screen, you also get the best battery life in an iPhone in years, a slightly superior camera system with superior OIS than the other iPhone 12s, and a 2.5x optical telephoto lens (65mm equivalent) that makes the iPhone 12 Pro Max the best phone for portraits.
Best Small Phone: Apple iPhone 12 Mini
The iPhone 12 Mini isn’t just small — it’s tiny. It’s a phone that a lot of people will be able to use with one hand with ease. Despite its small size, it is still among one of the most powerful phones around, thanks to that Apple A14 Bionic chip and well-optimized iOS. In fact, everything we said about the iPhone 12 a few paragraphs up applies here, as the iPhone 12 and 12 Mini are virtually the same phone, except for differences in screen and battery size. The latter however is the Mini’s downfall: it’s super small battery has struggled to last a full day for most reviewers. But if you can usually afford a midday quick top-up, that’s not going to be an issue. At $799, it’s also relatively cheap for an Apple product.
Best Affordable Almost-Flagship: Google Pixel 5
The Google Pixel 5‘s Snapdragon 765G chip isn’t quite a flagship processor, but it’s still powerful enough for most people. Otherwise, you’re getting a good 90Hz OLED display, fast performance due to its optimized pure Android experience, and still one of the best mobile cameras around thanks to Google’s software processing.
You’re also guaranteed to be among the first to get any new software updates from Google, which is always a plus in the Android space.
Best Mid-Tier Smartphone: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE was highly popular last year because it offered a flagship SoC and 120Hz Samsung AMOLED screen at a much lower price than the company’s top-tier Galaxy S and Note phones. In April 2021, the Galaxy S20 FE’s Snapdragon 865 can no longer be called flagship level, so this phone is now firmly a mid-ranger, which is a fitting place for this plasticky device anyway.
Still, that 120Hz screen is as vibrant as ever, and while the cameras here aren’t as groundbreaking as the S21 Ultra’s, it’s still very capable and versatile. If you want the Samsung flagship experience at a discount, this is worth a look.
Best Non-Conventional Smartphone: LG Wing
When LG released the weird Wing last year with its swivel design that revealed a second screen, it appeared to be a comeback of sorts for the South Korean tech company, whose mobile division had fallen on hard times.
Little did we all know, the LG Wing would be the last LG smartphone — at least for the foreseeable future, with the recent announcement that LG electronics is closing its mobile department. For a farewell product, the LG Wing is very noteworthy — it may not have the best cameras or processor, but it has a unique design that is not only a breath of fresh air in the sea of familiar slabs but also genuinely useful for people who frequently multitask.
LG promises continued software support for its already released products, so interested consumers have some assurance on that end.
Best Gaming Phone: ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate
If you do lots of mobile gaming and want a device that can keep up, then look no further than the ASUS ROG Phone 5. Between the blazingly fast and buttery smooth 144hz display, large 6,000 mAh battery, dual front-facing stereo speakers, up to 18GB of RAM, and touch-sensitive shoulder buttons, there isn’t a smartphone out there more equipped to handle mobile gaming.
Best Budget Smartphone: OnePlus Nord N10
Retailing for $299, it’s hard to find a phone at this price point (in the USA) that is more capable than the OnePlus Nord N10. For a quarter of the price of an iPhone 12 Pro Max or Galaxy S21 Ultra, you’re getting a 5G-ready handset with a 90Hz OLED display and a multi-camera system that offers a solid wide and ultra-wide camera.
One thing to note, even the very definition of “budget” differs from person to person, and a singular choice may not be able to properly appreciate the nuances of all individuals. If you’re looking for more options, here are some other great cheap Android phones for you to consider.
Best Phone not sold in the USA: Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Featuring a Snapdragon 888, 120Hz OLED display, a 50MP with the largest image sensor in the smartphone space, and a capable ultra-wide and Periscope zoom lens to boot, the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra may be the one slab phone that can challenge the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for slab phone supremacy.
If you’re into selfies, there’s also a second display located on the camera island module so you can take selfies with the main camera system (there’s still a selfie camera on the front side of the device if you prefer to shoot the traditional way).
The Mi 11 Ultra is not selling in North America, but is available in China and will soon be available in India, and chunks of Europe and Southeast Asia, so importing one shouldn’t be difficult — if you’re ready to pay the Samsung/Apple-level four-digit price.
Second-Best Affordable Premium Smartphone not sold in the USA: OPPO Find X3 Pro
In our review, we called the OPPO Find X3 Pro the phone with the best ultra-wide camera around, and that title still stands. That’s because OPPO uses the exact same Sony IMX 766 sensor for both the main and ultra-wide cameras. This also means there’s more consistency between photos captured by the main and ultra-wide camera.
Elsewhere, the Find X3 Pro has a brilliant 120Hz, WQHD+ 10-bit display panel that can display over a billion colors, and is powered by all the latest components like Snapdragon 888 and UFS 3.1. There is also a never-before-seen microscope camera that allows the phone to capture eerily close-up shots, like the ability to capture individual strands of fabric in your shirt. It does lose out to the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra in zooming capabilities, hence this runner-up spot.
There are a lot of good phones to choose from right now, and we hope this guide helped. We will update this guide every month as we test more phones, so be sure to check back often. Let us know which phone you’re using now and which one you’d consider as your next phone!