The Best Smartphone to buy in July 2021: Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, and more!

The Best Smartphone to buy in July 2021: Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Xiaomi, and more!

This has been a great year for smartphones so far — conventional slab phones are all extremely polished, and foldables are coming onto their own. So if you’re looking to upgrade your phone, now is as good a time as any. 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 budget or need!

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Best Overall Smartphone: Apple iPhone 12

 

iPhone 12 laying flat.

The Apple iPhone 12 is not the most capable smartphone on the market right now — heck, it’s not even the most capable iPhone right now — but it tops the list here because it’s the best purchase option for most people. Yeah, it can’t capture zoom photos as well as an iPhone 12 Pro, and the 60Hz screen with a notch cutout definitely don’t look as immersive as the 120Hz nearly uninterrupted screens of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, but for the average consumer, those extra bells and whistles are not worth paying an additional several hundred dollars.

The iPhone 12 is also just the right size, it’s not as wide and unwieldy as the iPhone 12 Pro Max but its screen is not as cramped as the iPhone 12 Mini either. Throw in the fact it has 5G support in every part of the world with 5G rollout (you don’t have to worry about bands like with Androids) and that Apple has the most complete eco-system with the widest selection of third-party accessories around, and you have a phone that holds the most appeal to most people. It’s the phone the average Joe looking for a new phone should consider first.

    iPhone 12
    The iPhone 12 is the best overall phone for most people -- it's not too expensive, is guaranteed to work in all parts of the world, and has the most complete eco-system to boot

If you want to look at just the Android ecosystem, here are the best Android smartphones.

Best Affordable Premium Smartphone: OnePlus 9 Pro

The 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 category is for people who follow the smartphone scene closely and want a phone that offers the best combination of specs, features and value. 

There were a lot of worthy contenders but the OnePlus 9 Pro is our choice in this spot. 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. So ask yourself, do you want sharp 10x photos or save $250?

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 — it’s worth remembering these are cutting-edge personal computers — and the OnePlus 9 Pro offers almost everything those four-digit phones do without crossing that mark.

    OnePlus 9 Pro
    The OnePlus 9 Pro is one of the best Android phones of the year and the overall best value for phone fans.

Best Foldable Smartphone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 review

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.

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is coming soon, but even today, the Galaxy Z Fold 2 is an excellent option. This is the phone that convinced reviewers foldables are here to stay.

    Galaxy Z Fold 2
    If you want to have the best foldable you can buy right now, look no further than the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Royole and others definitely offer competition, but the Galaxy Z Fold 2 sets the benchmark that all foldable devices have to follow.

Best Smartphone Camera: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Navy Blue

 

Now that Samsung has confirmed there is no new Galaxy Note phone this year, this means the Galaxy S21 Ultra will remain Samsung’s absolute apex slab top dog and best camera offering until possibly 2022. That’s okay, because the Galaxy S21 Ultra is that good a phone. Other than objective opinions like “it’s too big” or nitpicky things like a split-second shutter lag, this is a phone that doesn’t have a weakness. It’s the apex slab smartphone.

It has the most versatile camera system around: four strong cameras that cover focal lengths from 13mm to 240mm (not even factoring in digital zoom). 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, one of the longest-lasting battery life in a flagship.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
    If you care about smartphone photography, the S21 Ultra is for you.

Samsung makes a lot of different phones aimed at different markets. 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

iPhone 12 Pro Max in the hand

There are many Android phones with 6.7-inch screens, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max‘s 6.7-inches feels 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.

    iPhone 12 Pro Max
    If you want your phone unapologetically big, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the phablet of the year.

Best Small Phone: Apple iPhone 12 Mini

The iPhone 12 Mini

The iPhone 12 Mini isn’t just small — it’s tiny. It’s a phone that most 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.

    iPhone 12 Mini
    The iPhone 12 Mini is the smallest flagship in years. Despite its petite size, it packs arguably the most powerful SoC in a smartphone right now, along with one of the very best cameras.

Second-Best Small Smartphone: ASUS Zenfone 8

Obsidian Black ASUS ZenFone 8 on transparent background

With dimensions of 148mm x 68.5mm x 8.9mm and a weight of 169g, the ASUS Zenfone 8 isn’t quite as petite as the iPhone 12 Mini, but in the Android space, it is still a breath of fresh air. Most adults should be able to use the phone one-handed with relative ease, as the 5.9-inch OLED screen doesn’t stretch too high up.

Despite the small size, the phone packs Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888 SoC with a 4,000 mAh cell and copious amount of RAM. You also have a 64MP main camera, a 12MP ultra-wide, and a headphone jack! If you are tired of big Android phones, this is the one to get.

    ASUS Zenfone 8
    The ASUS Zenfone 8 is the rare Android flagship with a screen under 6-inches and weight under 180g.

Best Affordable Almost-Flagship: Google Pixel 5

Google Pixel 5

The Google Pixel 5  may not have the most powerful SoC or a zoom lens, but it’s still a great option because of that awesome Google software-powered camera with the best computational photography algorithms in the game. It’s also a very comfortable phone to hold — its 6-inch OLED screen is neither too big nor too small — and will be among the very first phones to get Android 12 updates. We’re also fond of the Pixel 5’s understated, minimalistic looks.

If you want a very good phone at an affordable price, this one is hard to beat.

    Google Pixel 5
    The Google Pixel 5 is an almost-flagship phone at mid-tier prices.

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.

    Galaxy S20 FE at Samsung
    The Galaxy S20 FE is a near-flagship quality Samsung phone at a good price. You get a lot of premium features seen on more expensive phones, at a much lower budget. For some users, the polycarbonate body is also a plus.

Best Unconventional Smartphone: LG Wing

The LG Wing in swivel mode showing two screens.

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, with the 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.

    LG Wing
    The LG Wing is special not just because of its dual screen T-shaped design, but also because it's the last LG phone for the foreseeable future.

Best Gaming Phone: ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate

ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate review

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.

    ASUS ROG Phone Ultimate
    ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate is, as the name implies, the ultimate gaming phone with up to 18GB of RAM.

Best Budget Smartphone: OnePlus Nord N10

oneplus nord n10 5g product image

Retailing for $299, it’s hard to find a phone at this price point (in the US) 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.

    OnePlus Nord N10
    The OnePlus Nord N10 is the most affordable 5G-ready, high-refresh screen phone available in the US

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 Smartphone not sold in the US: Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra's camera module

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, chunks of Europe, and Southeast Asia and will soon be available in India, so importing one shouldn’t be difficult — if you’re ready to pay the Samsung/Apple-level four-digit price.

    Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
    The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra is a culmination of the company's best hardware in a smartphone yet, featuring a great display, a great camera setup, great performance, and more.

Second-Best Smartphone not sold in the US: OPPO Find X3 Pro

OPPO Find X3 Pro camera system

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.

    OPPO Find X3 Pro
    OPPO's latest is a highly polished smartphone with a true 10-bit display that allows it to display over one billion colors.

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!

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.