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Best iPhones in 2021: Which iPhone should you buy?

Included in this guide:

best iphones include the iPhone 13 Pro Max and iPhone 13
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Finding the best iPhone is important any time of year, but especially so when looking for holiday gifts. To truly get the most value for your purchase, you need to make sure you're buying the right Apple phone for your needs, and that's what we're here to help you do.

You certainly have plenty of choices, thanks to the iPhone 13 lineup, highlighted by the 6.7-inch iPhone 13 Pro Max — clearly the best phone Apple's ever made and currently the best phone overall. But other iPhone 13 models are in impressive in their own right. These days, the biggest change isn't finding a great iPhone, it's checking current iPhone 13 stock to make sure your favorite model is available.

Any iPhone 13 would be a great handset to have, but your best iPhone choice isn't limited to the latest models. Apple has kept some of its older iPhones around at reduced prices, making them better values than before.

Here's how we rank the best iPhones currently available.

What are the best iPhones?

Now that we've reviewed the four new iPhone 13 models, we can say that the iPhone 13 Pro Max is the best iPhone you can buy — a nearly perfect phone thanks to its stellar cameras, adaptive display and long battery life. Pick up this $1,099 phone (the same price Apple charged for last year's champ, the iPhone 12 Pro Max), and you won't be disappointed.

Want something a little less expensive? At $799, the iPhone 13 is the best iPhone for most people. While it lacks the dynamically adjusting displays of the iPhone 13 Pro models, its cameras are powerful enough in their own right. Throw in an improved battery, brighter display and that powerful A15 chip, and Apple's got another great choice in its iPhone 13 lineup. The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 mini have their own distinct appeal.

Apple's kept around two members of last year's iPhone 12 family. You can buy either the iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 mini for $100 less than their iPhone 13 counterparts. The iPhone 12 mini, in particular, stands out as a great value, as it now costs less than $600. The iPhone 11 ($499) and iPhone SE ($399) prove that some of the best iPhones don't cost a lot.

The best iPhones you can buy right now

The iPhone 13 Pro Max is the best iPhone you can buytom's guide top pick

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1. iPhone 13 Pro Max

The best iPhone you can buy

Specifications
Screen Size: 6.7-inch OLED (2778 x 1284; 120Hz)
Processor: A15 Bionic
Cameras: 12MP main (ƒ/1.5), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/1.8) 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.8) with 3x optical zoom, LiDAR / 12MP front (ƒ/2.2)
RAM/Storage: Unknown/128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
Reasons to buy
+Best cameras in a phone+Superior performance+Excellent battery life+Brighter display with dynamic refresh rate
Reasons to avoid
-Could use faster charging

There’s no topping the iPhone 13 Pro Max, the best iPhone Apple currently offers and a near-perfect device. Pick a category, and the iPhone 13 Pro likely dominates it. The phone adds an adaptive display that can automatically scale its refresh rate from 10Hz to 120Hz depending on what task you’re performing. That, combined with a larger battery and efficient AT 15 Bionic processor, help the iPhone 13 Pro Max last more than 12 hours on our battery test — an outstanding time.

Those features are all impressive, but the truly great thing about the iPhone 13 Pro Max may be its cameras. The setup is the same as before, with three rear lenses, but Apple has turned to bigger sensors to let in more light, with the ultrawide angle shooter particularly adept at teasing color and detail out of the dark areas of shots. The telephoto lens is better too, with the iPhone 13 Pro Max now supporting a 3x optical zoom.

You’d have to search pretty hard to find many flaws with this phone, and they’re mostly about thing we wish Apple would have added like some form of Touch ID. But the iPhone 13 Pro Max features that are there impress and reaffirm Apple’s place as the industry-leading phone maker.

Read our full iPhone 13 Pro Max review.

iphone 13 is the best iphone for most peopleEditor's Choice

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2. iPhone 13

The best iPhone for most people

Specifications
Screen Size: 6.1-inch OLED (2532 x 1170)
Processor: A15 Bionic
Cameras: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) / 12MP front (ƒ/2.2)
RAM/Storage: Unknown/64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Reasons to buy
+Brighter display+Great cameras+Class-leading performance
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks 120Hz display-Slower charging than rivals

The best iPhone for most people will be the $799 iPhone 13, which properly balances a more affordable price with some stellar features. By skipping the more expensive Pro line, you won’t get the fast-refreshing displays, but there are enough great features here to make the iPhone 13 a worthy upgrade from any past iPhone.

One of the best things about this new model is its storage — Apple finally includes 128GB with the base model, so you don’t necessarily have to jump to the next storage tier just to fit everything on your phone. The A15 processor — the same one found in the iPhone 13 Pro models — continues to set the pace for mobile processors, allowing the iPhone 13 to outperform any Android device.

As with any iPhone 13 model, the real story here is the cameras. The iPhone 13 still features two rear lenses, but they have bigger sensors which should translate to improved low-light photography. What’s more, Apple includes a number of computational-powered features like Cinematic mode to automatically shift focus when you’re shooting video. It’s an impressive array of features in a phone that’s affordable priced.

Read our full iPhone 13 review.

iphone 13 pro is the best iphone alternative to iphone 13 pro maxEditor's Choice

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3. iPhone 13 Pro

All the best features of the iPhone 13 Pro Max

Specifications
Screen Size: 6.1-inch OLED (2352 x 1170; 120Hz)
Processor: A15 Bionic
Cameras: 12MP main (ƒ/1.5), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/1.8) 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.8) with 3x optical zoom, LiDAR / 12MP front (ƒ/2.2)
RAM/Storage: Unknown/128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
Reasons to buy
+Gorgeous and bright 120Hz display+Spectacular cameras+Vastly improved battery life from the iPhone 12 Pro
Reasons to avoid
-Fast charging limited to 20W-No mask-friendly face authentication

The iPhone 13 Pro is every bit the great phone that the iPhone 13 Pro Max is, only slightly smaller and $100 less expensive. Unlike in past years, where the larger Pro Max was the clear superior phone, there’s little separating the two iPhone 13 Pro models. So you’re free to get the size you prefer, and for many, that will be the 6.1-inch Pro option with its $999 price.

For that money, you get the dynamically refreshing display found on the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Like its bigger sibling, the iPhone 13 Pro also features a larger battery — how big Apple hasn’t said, but it translates to more than 11.5 hours of battery life in our test. The iPhone 13 Pro Max’s camera improvements are on hand in the iPhone 13 Pro, too, including powerful software features like Cinematic mode.

Get the iPhone 13 Pro if you want the best features Apple offers in a smartphone, but in a more slender package than the massive iPhone 13 Pro Max model.

Read our full iPhone 13 Pro review.

the iphone 13 mini is the best compact iPhone

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4. iPhone 13 mini

The best compact iPhone

Specifications
Screen Size: 5.4-inch OLED (2340 x 1080)
Processor: A15 Bionic
Cameras: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) / 12MP front (ƒ/2.2)
RAM/Storage: Unknown/64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Reasons to buy
+Improved cameras+Better battery life+Base model has 128GB of storage
Reasons to avoid
-No mask-friendly authentication-Fast charging limited to 20W

The iPhone 13 mini is the most powerful compact phone Apple’s ever made, thanks to that A15 Bionic chip that powers all the iPhone 13 models. That means the best performance in a smartphone can also be found in Apple’s 5.4-inch model, which also happens to be the least expensive entry in the iPhone 13 lineup.

Compact phones aren’t for everyone, and you won’t find the dynamically refreshing displays featured with the iPhone 13 Pro models, but the iPhone 13 mini has plenty to recommend it. It’s got the same camera setup as the iPhone 13, with larger sensors that let in more light than before. The display is also brighter than the iPhone 12 mini’s screen, and battery life is improved, if ever so slightly.

This may be the last mini phone Apple makes if rumors about future iPhone plans are ture. If so, the iPhone 13 mini goes out with style.

Read our full iPhone 13 mini review.

The iPhone 12 mini from a year ago remains available, and its lower price makes it one of the best iPhones

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5. iPhone 12 mini

Still a good compact iPhone

Specifications
Screen Size: 5.4-inch OLED (2340x1080)
Processor: A14 Bionic
Cameras: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) rear / 12MP front (ƒ/2.2)
RAM/Storage: 4GB/64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Reasons to buy
+Perfect for small phone lovers+Capable dual cameras+Reasonable starting price
Reasons to avoid
-Only 64GB storage to start-Shortest battery life of all iPhone 12 models

The iPhone 13 mini may be a great compact phone, but for something a little bit cheaper, try the iPhone 12 mini. It may be a year older, but the iPhone 12 mini doesn’t skimp on features. You get the same A14 processor found in the other iPhone 12 models, and the rear cameras on the iPhone 12 mini are every bit as impressive as the ones found on the larger iPhone 12. Even better, it's now $100 cheaper, as it makes way for the iPhone 13 mini.

Like the rest of the iPhone 12 lineup, the iPhone 12 mini offers 5G connectivity, supporting all flavors of the faster networking standard. That includes mmWave 5G, which is particularly impressive given the number of antennas Apple had to fit inside such a compact phone. And the mini has the most attractive price of any new iPhone, now starting at just $599. 

Overall, the iPhone 12 mini is one of the best iPhones yet because its design is so refreshing. And the addition of a purple option to the original five colors gives you yet another way to get an iPhone that matches your particular tastes.

Read our full iPhone 12 mini review.

the best iphones include the iPhone 12, which now costs $100 lessEditor's Choice

(Image credit: Future)

6. iPhone 12

Top iPhone features for a lower price

Specifications
Screen Size: 6.1-inch OLED (2532 x 1170)
Processor: A14 Bionic
Cameras: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.6), 16MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4) rear / 12MP front (ƒ/2.2)
RAM/Storage: 4GB/64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Reasons to buy
+Attractive new design+Impressive cameras+Comprehensive 5G coverage
Reasons to avoid
-Only 64GB of storage in base model-No charger in the box

The iPhone 12 features many of the best aspects of the iPhone 12 Pro, but for less money — this model now starts at $300 less than Apple’s Pro handset after a price cut triggered by the iPhone 13 launch. But you’re not making too many compromises to get this more affordable iPhone.

After all, the iPhone 12 has the same A14 Bionic processor and comprehensive 5G connectivity as the more expensive Pro model. You only get two rear cameras on the iPhone 12, but they perform better than ever, thanks to software improvements Apple made. A new 7-element lens on the main camera combined with a wider aperture than before means better photos in low-light and sharper images overall.

The LCD panel Apple used on the iPhone 12’s predecessor is gone, replaced by an OLED screen that offers the same 6.1 inches of display real estate as before. You’re still confined to 64GB of storage in the base model and there’s no charger included with the phone, but otherwise, this is a stellar addition to the iPhone lineup. And Apple recently shook things up by adding a purple color to the five other color options for the iPhone 12. (Check our our purple iPhone 12 hands-on for a look at this new color.)

Read our full iPhone 12 review.

the iphone 11 now costs $499 making it one of the best iphones even though it's two years oldEditor's Choice

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7. iPhone 11

The best iPhone bargain

Specifications
Screen Size: 6.1-inch LCD (1792 x 828)
Processor: A13 Bionic
Cameras: Dual 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8) and ultra wide (ƒ/2.4)/ 12MP front (ƒ/2.2)
RAM/Storage: 4GB/64GB, 256GB, 512GB
Reasons to buy
+Affordable price+Great battery life+Faster A13 processor
Reasons to avoid
-64GB of storage in base model-No fast charger included

The iPhone 11 has long since stopped being the new kid in town, with Apple releasing two subsequent generations of phones after this device's 2019 debut. But it's still available and it's the least expensive it's ever been at $499. That price, combined with the fact that the A13 Bionic processor is still more powerful than contemporary Android phones, makes this a good buy.

As with the iPhone 12, you are giving up a dedicated telephoto lens, as the iPhone 11 features a 12-MP wide angle and ultra wide angle shooters. But it’s capable of the same camera effects as the rest of the iPhone 11 family, including portrait shots, ultra wide angle selfies and Night Mode for better low-light photos. You can also expect more than 11 hours of battery life from the iPhone 11, though you’ll have to spring for a separately-sold fast-charging adapter to juice back up at the quickest speeds.

See our full iPhone 11 review.

the iPhone SE is the best iPhone to get if you like compact phonesEditor's Choice

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8. iPhone SE 2020

The least expensive new iPhone

Specifications
Screen Size: 4.7-inch Retina HD (1334 x 750)
Processor: A13 Bionic
Cameras: 12MP (f/1.8)/12MP front (f/2.2)
RAM/Storage: Unknown/64GB, 128GB, 512GB
Reasons to buy
+Affordable price+Top-of-the-line A13 processor+Compact design
Reasons to avoid
-No Night mode on camera-Big bezels

You can't keep a good iPhone down, which is why Apple revived the iPhone SE four years after launching the original low-cost, compact iPhone. The iPhone SE 2020 is a little larger than before — adopting the 4.7-inch screen and form factor of the discontinued iPhone 8 — but it's kept a low price that will appeal to iPhone fans looking for the best bargain around.

It's not just the price that makes the iPhone SE so appealing. The phone runs on the same A13 processor you'll find in the iPhone 11, so the iPhone SE will remain a top-performing phone for years into the future, especially as regular iOS updates add new features. You'll just get one rear camera with this phone, but it's a good one, augmented by the A13's Neural Engine to augment your photos with computational photography.

This isn't the longest-lasting iPhone by any stretch of the imagination, as our iPhone SE 2020 battery tests found, and we wish that camera would support Apple's Night mode for better low-light photography. But if you want some premium power in a phone that fits comfortably in one hand, the iPhone SE was built with you in mind.

The newer Pixel 5a outshines the iPhone SE in some key areas, suggesting the need for an update. We're not expecting a new iPhone until the spring of next year.

Read our full iPhone SE 2020 review.

How to choose the best iPhone for you

The best way to determine the iPhone you should buy is to take stock of the features and capabilities that matter most to you. If battery life is especially important, seek out a larger iPhone, as they tend to have bigger batteries to match their screen size. What's more, because iOS is known to be generally efficient in terms of energy consumption, even the smaller models tend to last longer than average on a charge.

If you're basing your next iPhone purchase off camera quality, the top-tier Pro variants are easy recommendations, thanks to triple-lens designs that allow you to capture multiple different perspectives, from zoomed-out ultra wide-angle images to shallow depth-of-field portraits. They're also remarkably good in challenging lighting scenarios, like when shooting in a dimly-lit indoor space, or outdoors at night.

All that said, if price is king, and saving the absolute most on your next smartphone purchase is your top priority, you should have no reservations about nabbing an iPhone SE 2020 or iPhone 11. These may be on the cheaper side of Apple's range, but they're still made of flagship-quality materials, with enough power and performance to sustain years of use.

However, be mindful of storage. The $499 iPhone 11 and $599 iPhone 12 mini only come with 64GB of space at those prices; if you want more capacity, be prepared for that price tag to go up. The iPhone 13 addresses that problem by bumping base storage to 128GB.

If you buy your iPhone through Apple, you may be able to save money by trading in your current phone. Apple's trade-in rebates promise anywhere from $100 up to $700 off if you have an iPhone 8 or newer. (The trade-in value increases for newer models.) We also track special offers from carriers and retailers to find the best iPhone deals by model:

When Apple releases new iPhones, it cuts the price on the models it keeps around. That's why you'll pay less for the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 11 now that the iPhone 13 models are here. (The iPhone XR is no longer part of Apple's lineup.) 

Apple's current lineup is expected to stay in place for some time. The iPhone 14 likely won't debut until the fall of 2022. There is a possibility that we could see the iPhone SE 3 earlier in the year, though — this model's expected to add 5G to Apple's cheapest iPhone.

All of the iPhones mentioned here can run iOS 15. In the case of the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 models, you'll need to download iOS 15 to upgrade to the new software. Read our full iOS 15 review to see what we think of the update and all the features it brings to Apple's phones.

How we test iPhones

As with any smartphone we test at Tom's Guide, we evaluate iPhones for days in real-world use cases. We also benchmark Apple's phones using a gamut of performance-measuring apps that allow us to compare iPhone performance to what Android devices are capable of. In addition to synthetic benchmarks, we also run real-world tests, including a video transcoding test in Adobe Premiere Rush that compares the iPhone's processing speed with other devices.

In our lab, we use a light meter to ascertain display quality data, like brightness and color accuracy to help us evaluate the display of the best iPhones. Our proprietary battery test determines longevity on a charge by endlessly streaming webpages over an LTE network; we then recharge the iPhones to see how quickly they charge in 15-minute intervals.

To compare cameras, we take any iPhone we review out and shoot photos in a variety of settings. We also bring along a comparable smartphone to see how the iPhone's photographic output measures up.

We explore Apple's iOS improvements, test gaming performance and evaluate the phone's speakers — and each of these factors play a part in our final verdict.

Philip Michaels
Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.