The Best iPhone to Buy in 2021

You’re spoiled for choice if you’re about to buy a new iPhone, as Apple’s iPhone 12 range is more varied than it has been before, with four different models to choose from this year. Add in a range of older iPhone models and even the iPhone SE 2020, and deciding which one to buy is a little more difficult than usual. Which one is right for you? Before we get into the details, we’re going to spoil which is our top pick, and it’s the iPhone 12 Pro.

Not only is the iPhone 12 Pro the best iPhone, but it’s also currently at the top of our overall list of best smartphones, which should give you a good idea of how highly we rate it. It’s the ideal combination of sleek styling with robust hardware, a stellar camera setup, and consistently great performance at a price that’s surprisingly reasonable when compared to some of the competition. Don’t dismiss the others completely just yet though, as your own use may mean another iPhone will be a better buy.

Once you’re ready to pick up your new iPhone, take a good look at our list of iPhone deals to see if you can save some money, and also check all our latest smartphone deals too. Want to see what Android has to offer? Here are the best Android phones you can buy for comparison.

Best iPhone at a glance

Best overall iPhone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro

iPhone 12 Pro
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 12 Pro brings the latest and greatest technology Apple has to offer in a package that’s still relatively affordable and manageable in one hand.

Who it’s for: If you want the best iPhone money can buy, this is for you.

Why we picked the iPhone 12 Pro:

The iPhone 12 Pro is the best iPhone for most people. The new flat, slab-sided design is very attractive in person, and the polished stainless steel frame gives it both class and durability, plus it looks excellent when you choose a brighter color like Pacific Blue. For the Pro model this year, Apple has increased the size of its Super Retina XDR OLED screen to 6.1-inches, compared to the 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro. It’s one of the best screens you’ll find on a smartphone today, with beautiful contrast and colors, a natural palette and tone, along with features like HDR and Apple’s True Tone, which adapts the display’s look based on environmental lighting conditions.

On paper, the iPhone 12 Pro’s cameras are similar to the iPhone 11 Pro’s, but the entire system has been improved through the use of software, and some subtle hardware changes. Lowlight photography has been enhanced by a wider aperture, a LiDAR sensor, and Apple’s Night mode now being available on all the cameras, for example. The 12-megapixel standard, wide-angle, and 2x optical zoom telephoto cameras consistently take excellent photos in most situations, without over-processing, and simply by pressing the shutter button. The iPhone 12 Pro makes taking great photos very easy.

Battery life is strong, with the iPhone 12 Pro lasting two days easily with moderate to heavy use, plus there’s wired and wireless charging. The Face ID secure unlocking system is fast and extremely reliable, while iOS 14 is not only simple to use but feature-packed too. Apple’s newest A14 Bionic processor is a monster, and the iPhone 12 Pro never feels anything but immensely powerful. All the apps you could want are available from the App Store, Apple Pay works seamlessly in stores, and the sensibly-sized phone fits neatly in your hand or pocket, and has an IP68 water resistance rating too.

Two of the all-new additions on the iPhone 12 Pro are 5G connectivity and MagSafe, which both hold promise for the future but don’t dramatically change the experience today. You want to have 5G if you plan to have your phone for another two (or more) years, but right now you may not see it very often. MagSafe is a new way to think about cases, mounts, and chargers, and we’ve found a pair of good home and in-car mounts from Belkin which work well, but the true potential of MagSafe has yet to be realized.

The iPhone 12 Pro is the best iPhone for the majority of people, based on size, ability, and features. The starting price of $999 makes it reasonably priced too. The complete package is extremely compelling, and you won’t be disappointed if you choose one.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro review

Best value iPhone: Apple iPhone 12

iPhone 12
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 12 offers most of the 12 Pro experience, minus a few edge features, for $200 less.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the latest core iPhone features but has an eye on the budget.

Why we picked the iPhone 12:

The best thing about the $799 iPhone 12 is that it’s mostly the same as the 12 Pro, but starts at $200 less. For that money, you get the same design as the 12 Pro, albeit in a lighter aluminum rather than stainless steel, and in the same size down to the point where cases are interchangeable. That means the OLED screen is the same size, 6.1 inches, and it’s brilliant.

The front and rear cameras are almost the same, with the telephoto camera and LiDAR sensor being the biggest omissions. This means lowlight photography won’t be as good as it is on the iPhone 12 Pro, and you’ll miss out on taking high-quality optical zoom shots, which can diminish versatility a little. However, Apple’s top software features like Night Mode, Deep Fusion, and Smart HDR are all here, along with excellent overall performance, making it a fantastic array of cameras in a relatively affordable phone.

You also still get the same 5G and MagSafe experience, if you had those on your list. Elsewhere the day-to-day experience of using an iPhone 12 is basically the same as the 12 Pro. Battery life, performance, and software features are all the same. That makes the iPhone 12 an incredible value.

Just one last thing to consider is the $699 iPhone 12 Mini. It’s smaller than the iPhone 12 with a 5.4-inch screen, but the battery life suffers, which is why we recommend paying the $100 extra to get the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 unless you absolutely must have the smaller body.

Apple iPhone 12 review

Best productivity and video iPhone: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: When the iPhone 12 Pro isn’t quite large enough, and you are tempted by additional battery life.

Who it’s for: It’s the model for you if you want to work on your iPhone, watch a lot of video, or just want the most battery life.

Why we picked the iPhone 11 Pro Max:

The iPhone 12 Pro Max represents the technological pinnacle of the new iPhone range, and for once there are a few more differences between it and the iPhone 12 Pro to tempt you to go large. Regardless of the differences, the iPhone 12 Pro Max remains supreme for video and productivity, as the screen size is bigger than ever before at 6.7 inches.

It also has a more technically impressive camera system, with a special new optical image stabilization mode, plus a greater 5x optical zoom, but the normal iPhone 12 Pro’s camera is still superb. In reality, the other reason apart from the screen size that you should buy the Pro Max is battery life. The cell is 30% larger than the one inside the 12 Pro, and it easily lasts a full day with heavy use.

The trade-offs are the same as always with the Max models. The 6.7-inch Pro Max is bigger and heavier than the smaller 6.1-inch Pro. It’s 228 grams in all, and both wider and longer than the iPhone 12 Pro. If you’ve got small hands, it’s a seriously big smartphone, and over long periods of use, the additional weight is noticeable, as is the additional bulk in your pocket.

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max is the most expensive iPhone you can buy. It starts at $1,099 for the standard 128GB model, up from just 64GB on the 11 Pro Max, but we recommend the 256GB model. The more internal storage the phone has, the longer it lasts. This costs $1,249.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review

Best budget iPhone: Apple iPhone SE (2020)

Andy Boxall/ProWellTech

Why you should buy this: If the iPhone 12 is financially out of reach, the iPhone SE (2020) is the cheapest way to buy a brand new iPhone from Apple.

Who it’s for: You want an iPhone, but you need to save some money

Why we picked the Phone SE (2020):

Apple’s iPhone SE 2020 starts at $400, making it the cheapest brand new iPhone you can buy at the moment. The good news is it’s a great little smartphone, provided you understand its limitations. The phone takes the iPhone 8’s design, which has stayed surprisingly fresh-looking from the back, and puts the new A13 Bionic processor inside. This gives it up-to-date performance, and tweaks to the camera’s ability too.

The screen measures 4.7 inches and has a 1334 x 750-pixel resolution, while the single-lens camera on the back has 12-megapixels. It operates on the latest version of Apple’s iOS software, and is very slim, light, and pocketable. The camera performs well in good light and has a portrait mode, while the screen is great for general browsing, some video, and a little gaming too. The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is very reliable, but the phone does not have Face ID.

Where the iPhone SE (2020) suffers is when you watch a lot of video or play a lot of games. The small battery struggles to keep up, and may not last a full day if you hit it hard. The camera isn’t great in low light either. Otherwise, if you want all the desirable Apple benefits from great software to Apple Pay, there’s no cheaper way to get them than with the iPhone SE (2020).

However, don’t forget about the iPhone XR, even when considering the iPhone SE (2020). We called it the, “best iPhone of the year,” when we reviewed it at the end of 2018, and said it represented great value at the $750 it cost then. Now it costs $600 and despite being more than a year old, it still has a similar look to the modern iPhone 11, unlike the iPhone SE (2020).

Apple iPhone SE (2020) review

Best used/refurbished/old stock iPhone: Apple iPhone XS

iPhone XS review
Apple iPhone XS Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The XS may be a couple of generations old, but it still feels pretty new — and can be had at a steep discount.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a cheap full-size iPhone for a family member, or someone who wants to get started with an Apple phone without spending much.

Why we picked the iPhone XS:

The iPhone XS launched at the end of 2018, which means it’s in a sweet spot of being old enough to be deeply discounted but still new enough to run the latest iOS software and feel like a modern phone. It has a 5.8-inch OLED screen with Face ID face unlocking, and the phone is new enough to still receive Apple’s software updates for a couple more years as well. On the back is a dual-lens camera, taking 12-megapixel images along with 2x optical zoom shots.

It’s not as advanced as the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro’s camera, or as high performance overall. Apple’s A12 Bionic processor is no slouch, it has a battery that will last all day, and it supports wireless charging.

But here’s the great part: So many people bought the XS new and have now upgraded in the subsequent years, that there are an incredible number available on the refurbished market. When it was new, the iPhone X started at $1,000, so how much can you get one for today?

Apple often sells refurbished iPhone XS models through its own store, with prices around $549 up. If you search online stores like Amazon’s refurbished store and Walmart, the iPhone XS can often be picked up for $500 or less, sometimes down below $400, which represents very good value. Local retail stores specializing in refurbished phones may also have good deals, as could eBay. While this may sound expensive for a phone released in 2018, remember that iPhones hold their value, which helps you when the time comes to trade it in.

Apple iPhone XS review

Things to remember when buying an iPhone

Buying an iPhone is a shrewd purchasing decision. Not only are you getting a well-made smartphone that will serve you well for several years, but it will be supported with software updates from Apple for up to five years after its launch date. This means even if you buy an iPhone X now, it should still receive the latest software until 2022.

Additionally, regardless of which model you choose, the trade-in value of an Apple phone is usually higher than any other brand. Prices vary depending on where you sell it, its condition, whether it’s an unlocked device or not, and the age and memory capacity of the model. When you decide to upgrade to a new phone, the extra return from your old iPhone is a considerable benefit.

If you’re coming to an iPhone from an Android phone, remember that some data may not easily transfer over, and you will have to get used to a new software operating system. For example, data saved in some messaging apps (WhatsApp, for example) can be difficult to export or import, so you may start with a clean slate. While iOS is logical and easy to use, it will feel different, so expect a learning curve before it feels like home.

Another aspect newcomers may not realize straight away is that Apple iPhones do not have expandable storage. When you buy a 64GB, 256GB, or 512GB iPhone, that’s all the storage space you get. Some Android phones have a MicroSD card slot, but not an iPhone. Instead, you can use the included iCloud online storage as an additional space; but bear in mind you only get 5GB free. To increase this, you have to pay a monthly subscription starting at $1 per month for 50GB. This is why we recommend paying extra for larger capacity iPhone models when you buy one.

Finally, once you’re inside the Apple ecosystem, it can be difficult to escape. Many accessories are Apple-only, apps you purchase can’t be swapped to Android or vice versa, and if you buy an Apple Watch Series 6 or Apple Watch SE — which we recommend if you want a smartwatch — then it only works with an iPhone. Provided you understand the commitment you’ll be making for the next two years minimum, an iPhone will serve you so well, you may not want to switch to another brand at all.

How we test

Why should you pay attention to our recommendations? We have reviewed iPhone models since the very beginning, along with almost every major Android smartphone too. While the new iPhone 12 models haven’t arrived yet, we’ll be hard at work on our reviews when they do. When we try out a phone we live with it every day, mostly as our only smartphone, to see how it performs doing the tasks we all need it to on a daily basis. This way, we get to see where it excels, and also where it may fail. Then we tell you all about it.

For that reason, we can make educated recommendations on which phones are worth it. Buying one of these is not just a lot of money, it’s committing to one phone for up to two years, should you buy it with a contract through a carrier. You need to make sure the decision is the right one, and being as informed as possible ahead of laying down your money is sensible.

We’re confident buying an iPhone is one of the best decisions you can make in the smartphone market, based on our experience, and the models above are the ones that deserve your attention. Check back very soon to see where the iPhone 12 models fit into our list.

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