(Pocket-lint) – The world of Android phones is very different to the world of Apple phones. Apple aims to give you the same experience across its devices whereas Android embraces variety, with phones from different manufacturers having a very different personality – and different features.
That means personal brand preference plays a big part, aside from the core Android experience. Pricing is hugely competitive, presenting you with a lot of choices.
Here’s our run down of the very best Android phones you can buy right now and the reasons why they deserve your attention.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung delivered with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, making this a true flagship for 2021. It’s powerful, with an outstanding display, but backed up by a camera that actually delivers – and so much more so than the Galaxy S20 Ultra it replaces.
There’s loads of customisation in the software, while a move closer to Google will please both the Samsung fan and the Google fan. It’s a great phone, with very few weaknesses.
Oppo Find X3 Pro
Oppo has been getting more and more impressive and from the unique and high quality design through to the abundant power, the Find X3 Pro is one of the best Android phones we’ve ever used.
There are great cameras, increasingly refined software, and all the boxes ticked for a top Android experience. It offers really fast charging, a fantastic display, and great battery life.
The OnePlus 9 is our pick because it offers a great experience at a more affordable price – without some of the shortcomings suffered by the OnePlus 9 Pro.
It offers great performance, that light-touch OxygenOS software treatment, really fast charging and a great 120Hz display – with a few corners cut on the build quality to hit a more affordable price point.
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
The Galaxy S20 FE offers much the same spec and performance as the top models, but makes a few compromises to offer a more attractive price point.
Those are compromises we think are worth taking, because the use of plastic on the rear isn’t a huge loss and the 1080p display is a great performer with that 120Hz refresh rate.
While there’s no 3.5mm headphone socket, you get microSD, flagship Qualcomm hardware (globally), good speakers and waterproofing.
Sony Xperia 5 II
Sony’s top phone targets such highs with a 4K display, it’s not surprising that the more compact version – the Xperia 5 II – is the model with more appeal.
It has all the performance of the larger model, but with less of a promise and a lower price, making it all the more satisfying. Great 21:9 display, great sound and the quality build make it stand out.
Xiaomi Mi 11
Xiaomi’s Mi 11 offers the latest hardware for a top flight experience in a refreshing and quality design – but it’s the affordable power that appeals.
The lack of waterproofing sets it back and while the main camera is good the lack of zoom will be a turn off for some, as will some of the MIUI software quirks.
Redmi Note 10 Pro
An example of mid-range hardware meeting a great display and price – for a package that’s hard to ignore. You get a lot of phone for your money from Redmi, and for many, it will be all the phone they need.
The battery life is great, the camera is good and the while it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the top devices, at this price, you would expect that.
Samsung Galaxy A52 5G
Samsung’s A52 5G is a great example of how close mid-range phones get to flagship experience. Waterproofing, stereo speakers, a great display, and performance close to flagship gives you a lot for your money.
There’s compromise in the cameras – there’s really no need for most of the lenses – but for those who can’t stretch to the Galaxy S21 models, the A52 might suit.
Google Pixel 4a 5G
The Pixel 4a 5G offers the same experience as the Pixel 5, but it has a larger display, has better speakers and costs less money. It misses out on a few things – it only offers a 60Hz display, there’s no wireless charging and no waterproofing, but otherwise, it’s a great experience.
Importantly, you get the full Pixel camera experience, so you can rest assured that this sub-flagship phone will offer some of the best images you’ll get from a smartphone and all at a price that’s hard to argue with.
Xiaomi Mi 11 Lite 5G
Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Lite might have everything you want, but stop to admire the design first, because this is a slim phone that looks great.
It’s mid-range hardware that delivers great performance, there’s a display that hits all the right notes and a decent battery life – all with 5G thrown in. That makes for a great package and a phone that feels like it’s moved forward over 2020.
After years of climbing the price ladder with its standard and Pro model phones all sporting flagship Qualcomm processors, the OnePlus Nord is the first device from the company that doesn’t.
Instead, the Nord joins the flurry of mid-range phones with the Snapdragon 765 chipset under its hood and it offers a highly competitive experience for its price tag.
It’s got 5G, lots of storage, a big and fast display, fast-charging, and a software experience that’s fluid and clean. Its main camera is good, too, even if the others are just a distraction. As affordable phones go, the Nord is easily one of the best phones in its price range.
Google Pixel 4a
It might not sport a flagship processor under the hood, but being able to get an almost full Pixel experience at a fraction of the cost of the full Pixel 4 is fantastic. This phone is all about lowering the price barrier, enabling you to get to that excellent Pixel camera without needing hefty wad of cash.
It runs the same clean, enhanced version of Android as the Pixel 4 family, and there’s some AI smarts being used to ensure that the software and animations all runs as smoothly as you’d expect from a more powerful phone.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20
Samsung had two Note 20 devices, the Ultra – with a big camera and glass back – and the regular Note 20, which has a plastic rear and a more sensible camera offering, resulting in a better overall device.
There’s plenty of power and performance in the Note 20, a decent camera and excellent display – but it’s really the skills of the S Pen that you’ll buy this phone for.
Moto G9 Power
The Moto G9 Power is is low priced, but packs in big battery life. You’ll realistically get two days from it, which is the main reason to buy it.
The rest of the package gives you a decent phone, free from bloatware or clutter with a design that, although plastic, is pretty light on the bezel, for a modern look.
How to choose the best Android phone
There’s a lot more to choosing an Android phone than there is to choosing an iPhone: Apple’s divisions are mostly around size, with all models offering a similar experience and few unique features.
Android phones are entirely different: there are many manufacturers, some well known and some more niche, there is a wide range of prices, designs, features – including phones with some specificity, like gaming phones, for example.
Go Google or go skinned?
One of the consideration is how close to stock Android you want your phone to be. While all Android voices have the same underlying experience, the alterations that the manufacturer makes can bring character, it can also bring duplication and bloat.
Google offers its own phones – the Pixel phones – while only a few offer a “pure” experience. Those phone running Android One are as close to stock as you’ll get – included those from Nokia and a couple from other manufacturers, although they are rare.
Motorola also offers a near-stock experience on its devices, although Lenovo offers a completely different experience (Lenovo owns Motorola).
Brands have generally been drifting towards Google in the last few years: there’s wider use of Google’s stock apps instead of duplicated alternatives, as well as use of features like Google Discover on the home screen to enhance the experience.
The skin and the manufacturer will define the experience, with OnePlus often regarded as a light touch and well optimised, through to Samsung’s highly evolved reworking that’s packed with features. Brands like Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi (and formerly Huawei) are often seen as slightly less advanced with software – but often offer better value for money.
Android phones cover all aspects of hardware, but there are really two areas that get the most discussion: flagship and not flagship.
This gap has narrowed recently, with mid-range devices offering an experience closer to flagship, meaning the many day-to-day experiences are just as good on an affordable device as they are on a flagship phone.
Qualcomm dominates these devices, with Snapdragon 800 series at the top level and 700 series in a tier just beneath this. We’re now seeing new versions of 800-series hardware reappearing for newer devices as a sub-flagship – while some devices will use slightly older hardware to make them better value for money.
Samsung is the big outsider here, often using its own Exynos hardware, but often having a mixture of Qualcomm and Exynos too. Huawei also used its own Kirin hardware, although generally, as it can’t use Google, it’s not considered as an Android phone in the same sense.
There are many budget Android phones, some with lower grade Qualcomm hardware, some using MediaTek to bring the price down further.
RAM runs to the ridiculous – up to 18GB on some gaming devices, while storage matches the pricing, with microSD expansion included on some devices – but not all.
Display dictates the size
One of the big decisions is choosing the size of the device. Smaller devices will fit your hand better, larger devices give a more immersive media and gaming experience – but can draw more power.
High quality displays that were once the preserve of flagship devices are now common in the more affordable devices, where you can get an AMOLED display without pay top prices. Samsung Display is often considered the market leader, with many brands declaring a Samsung display to convince you to buy.
Refresh rate is the latest battleground, from the typical 60 frames a second to 144fps on some gaming phones. Many phones are settling around 90 or 120Hz, with lower refresh rates now being reserved for lower-positioned devices.
Curves are common, although they are slowly becoming the preserve of flagship phones, with some offering a flat display in a “normal” device and curved in a “pro” device. Although curved looks nice, some might find the touch response across the panel better from a flat device.
The camera is the most often talked about aspect of a modern smartphone and there’s no end of comparison between different devices, all claiming to be the best.
The most important thing is having a main camera that will take a good photo in all conditions – that’s the one you’ll use the most, so that’s the one that needs to work. There’s a lot of oversell: high resolutions, supporting sensors, fancy functions. The most important thing is point and shoot performance – which is why the Pixel phones often do so well.
Camera performance is a big differentiator too, with flagship phones having better performing cameras and mid-range devices often having secondary or tertiary sensors that aren’t good quality or not really needed.
Pick the phone that’s right for you
The best thing about Android is that Google underpins the same thing, so you can move from one brand to the next and almost immediately you know where things are, you can have seamless access to your emails and contacts, but still have plenty to choose from.
Picking a phone that fits your budget is important, but also consider that you might not need all those flagship features. If you just use your phone for messaging and browsing social media, do you need four cameras on the back and all the power in the world?
If you spend your whole time gaming, is a gaming phone better for you?
The best phone is going to be the phone that fits your requirements the best – and while we test and evaluate all the Android phones we recommend, you have to make the decision and the phone that’s right for you.
Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Britta O’Boyle.