Tom’s Guide Awards 2021: Our favorite phones of the year

Tom’s Guide Awards 2021: Our favorite phones of the year
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The past year has been one of contrasts for phone makers. On the one hand, the companies that make smartphones continue to find ways to innovate, whether it’s dynamically refreshing displays, AI-powered camera improvements or fast-charging batteries. On the other, the Samsung-Apple dominance of the mobile market has become so pronounced that some phone makers, such as LG, have decided to throw in the towel.

Certainly, the latest iPhone and Galaxy flagships continue to be standouts — just look at who’s taking home some of our top awards. But phones from the not-so-usual suspects made a mark, too, whether it was packing premium features into more reasonably priced handset or bringing 5G connectivity to more people.

Best phone overall: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone 12 series introduced 5G to Apple’s smartphone lineup. More than that, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best phone we’ve ever reviewed. It scored high marks with its 6.7-inch OLED display, versatile cameras and powerful performance. But the iPhone 12 Pro Max really stands out with its long battery life, as it lasted nearly 11 hours on our web surfing test. It’s the longest-lasting iPhone 12 model by far and our favorite phone from the last year.

Highly Recommended: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung knocked it out of the park with the Galaxy S21 Ultra with its huge display, five cameras a scary powerful zoom zoom, and S Pen support. It’s the ultimate Android phone.

Highly Recommended: OnePlus 9 Pro
An affordable flagship, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a powerful device with a stellar display, very fast charging and very capable cameras.

Best phone value: Google Pixel 4a

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: Google Pixel 4a

(Image credit: Future)

Google’s affordable Pixel 4a is our pick for the best phone value. For just $349, the camera punches well above its weight thanks to Google’s computational photography prowess. The Pixel 4a is a compact handset with a nice display for the money and 128GB of storage. In practically every other way, Google’s baby Pixel is a fantastically well-rounded handset that everyone who is looking for a cheap phone should consider, with the best photography for the money.

Highly Recommended: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE offers top-tier flagship specs and performance for $700, including an excellent display, 120Hz display and powerful cameras.

Highly Recommended: OnePlus Nord N200 5G
The OnePlus Nord N200 5G’s value comes down to the fact that it offers 5G and a 90Hz display for just $240. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best 5G value period.

Best phone battery life: Motorola Moto G Power (2021)

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: Moto G Power (2021)

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The successor to the phone with the best battery life we’ve ever tested, the Moto G Power (2021) is still a long-lasting phone. Its 5,000 mAh battery lasted for over 14 hours in our web surfing battery life test, which means that it can easily go for two days of regular use before needing a charge. It’s also a very affordable phone, making it all the more appealing.

Highly Recommended: Nubia RedMagic 6
The Nubia RedMagic 6 from ZTE’s mobile gaming brand wowed us with its performance and long-lasting battery, going for over 13 hours in our testing.

Highly Recommended: Asus ROG Phone 5
Asus released the ROG Phone 5 series earlier in 2021, offering killer performance and a big battery. It lasted for over 12 hours in our testing, which is great for a 5G phone.

Best phone design: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The king of the Galaxy S21 series, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a big and beautiful phone. It sports the best-looking design that Samsung’s ever produced, straddling the line between the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series in terms of looks. The camera hump blends seamlessly into the frame, the display takes up almost the entire front of the phone, and the phone overall looks amazing.

Highly Recommended: Apple iPhone 12
The iPhone 12 delivers a premium look and feel with its squared off design; it packs a touch Ceramic Shield display; and  it comes in a wide variety of colors (including a pretty purple) to suit any preference.

Highly Recommended: Oppo Find X3 Pro
The Find X3 Pro is a beautiful phone, showing the best that Oppo has to offer. The camera hump rises smoothly from the body and the black and blue color options are gorgeous.

Best foldable phone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

(Image credit: Future)

Samsung’s top-tier foldable impressed with significant improvements over its predecessor. A stronger hinge and better glass improve the Fold 2’s durability. The phone also has a larger front display, improved multitasking features and great cameras. We can’t wait to see how Samsung evolves the foldable.

Highly Recommended: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5G
The clamshell alternative to the Galaxy Z Fold 2, the Galaxy Z Flip 5G is a great example of what you can do with a more compact design and handy Flex mode. 

World’s fastest phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

Apple’s top-tier iPhone wins the award for the fastest phone. The A14 Bionic processor wowed us with its synthetic and real-world benchmarks, and it's a powerhouse in daily tasks. Even the most intensive games don’t phase it. The iPhone 12 Pro Max commands top dollar, but it offers the best performance of any smartphone.

Highly Recommended: OnePlus 9 Pro
The most powerful Android phone to date is the OnePlus 9 Pro with its Snapdragon 888 processor and up to 12GB of RAM. 

Highly Recommended: Asus ROG Phone 5
The Asus ROG Phone 5 offers high-end gaming performance and is one of fastest Android phones.

Best camera phone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

Apple wins again with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which offers the best cameras on a smartphone. The triple lens setup covers most of the bases, including the 2.5x telephoto lens. The Night Mode is fantastic, and Live Photos can be truly useful for capturing key moments. 

Highly Recommended: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
The Galaxy S21 Ultra offers the most impressive zoom capabilities of any smartphone, full stop.

Highly Recommended: Google Pixel 5
The Pixel 5 is, in many circumstances, one of the best camera phones, especially with its Night Sight and astrophotography modes.

Fastest charging phone: OnePlus 9 Pro

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: OnePlus 9 Pro

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OnePlus has built a reputation for providing the fastest charging speeds on a phone. With the OnePlus 9 Pro, the company packed in support for 65W wired and 50W wireless charging. The phone can fully recharge in just 30 minutes, making it easy to prolong the phone’s 4,500 mAh battery.

Highly Recommended: Asus ROG Phone 5
The ROG Phone 5 has a 6,000mAh battery and 65W charging to get it back to full fast.

Highly Recommended: Oppo Find X3 Pro
Oppo’s VOOC charging tech is basically the same as OnePlus’ Dash Charging, so the Find X3 Pro can charge almost as quickly as the OnePlus 9 Pro.

Best iPhone app: Wakeout

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: Wakeout

(Image credit: Wakeout)

Many people sit at a desk for hours on end, whether for work or for play. It can be sometimes difficult to remember to stand up for a bit and move around, especially for people who tend to get wrapped up in their work. Wakeout offers over 1,500 little exercises that can be done sitting down at a desk, standing in the kitchen, or anywhere in the house or office. There’s a mini workout for anyone in Wakeout.

Highly Recommended: Endel
Endel offers personalized soundscapes to assist in relaxation and focus, curating itself based on your circadian rhythm, current activity, and the weather.

Highly Recommended: Drafts
Writers will love Drafts, which offers plenty of writing tools for capturing notes, ideas, and tasks.

Best Android app: Niagara Launcher

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: Niagara Launcher

(Image credit: Niagara Launcher)

One of the beauties of Android is the ability to customize much of the OS, including installing a third-party launcher. Niagara is Tom’s Guide’s pick for the best Android app, offering a clean and minimal user interface, plenty of customizability and excellent support. It’s a non-traditional launcher, focusing on favorite apps brought front and center with the app drawer becoming a single-tier alphabetical list. Navigating Niagara is a breeze.

Highly Recommended: Plexamp
Plexamp is an audio-only app for Plex Media Server. It’s a slick app perfect for listening to owned music, audiobooks and podcast subscriptions.

Highly Recommended: Dolby On
Dolby On is a powerful recording app for Android, with automatic effects like noise reduction, EQ, spatial audio and a lot more.

Best wireless carrier: T-Mobile

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: T-Mobile

(Image credit: T-Mobile)

Wireless carriers don’t agree on much, but there’s no disputing who has the farthest reaching 5G network. T-Mobile 5G now reaches 300 million people, giving it the largest network by far. And while other carriers can claim to have faster speeds, T-Mobile’s Ultra 5G service is growing as well, improving the carrier’s overall performance. Even after the completion of its Sprint merger, T-Mobile continues to offer some of the best cell phone plans around, from its $70 unlimited data package to a super-cheap $15/month option that still gives you 2.5GB of data plus 5G service. T-Mobile is still setting the standard for other big carriers to follow.

Highly Recommended: Visible
Verizon-owned Visible improved its Party Pay package for multiple lines by letting you add an unlimited number of lines to your account; the discount carrier now offers 5G coverage, too.

Highly Recommended: Mint Mobile
Mint continues to be a top choice for bargain hunters, with astonishingly low monthly rates for people willing to pay for a year of smartphone service in advance.

Tom's Guide Staff

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