Chip-set shortages or not, a slew of phones across various price points and screen sizes were released in 2021, from every tech company under the sun. The year also saw the demise of LG Mobile and the return of Honor (Huawei’s former sub-brand).
Choosing the best smartphone is tough because everyone’s needs and opinions differ as to what combination of design, features and specs make a perfect phone.
As someone who has reviewed and experienced thousands of phones — from entry level to flagship and ultra premium — here are my picks for the best phones of 2021.
Best flagship phones
iPhone 13 Pro
The smaller sibling of the 6.7-inch 13 Pro Max, the 6.1-inch iPhone 13 Pro strikes the best balance between power and portability.
While iPhones might not offer the flashy features of some Android devices, they do bring consistency and a unified experience you cannot get with other devices. Couple that with the improved cameras, 120Hz ProMotion display, MagSafe, A15 Bionic chip set and impressive high-end features such as the ability to record ProRes video, and you get a smartphone that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
From 15,499. istore.co.za
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
If you think Android, the odds are that you think of Samsung, and for good reason.
Over the years, Samsung has risen to the top of the global rankings by continuously refining its offerings and partnering with some of the biggest names in the world to bring you a more well-rounded software experience.
This is clearly evident with the S21 Ultra, which offers the most versatile smartphone camera set-up on the market, as well as the most polished software experience the company has ever offered. Throw in the QHD display with variable refresh rate, S-Pen support and a 5,000mAh battery, and you have one of the best Android phones to date.
While it should come as no surprise that Apple and Samsung took the crowns for best flagship smartphones, there are a few Android devices that were very close to snagging the top spot.
Xiaomi 11T Pro
Chinese tech brand Xiaomi was on the verge of snatching the title of number one smartphone manufacturer from Samsung in 2021, which makes them a force to be reckoned with.
The 11T Pro is the company’s latest flagship, which features a 108MP main camera sensor, 120Hz refresh rate AMOLED display with Dolby Vision and HDR10+, and a 5,000mAh battery with 120W charging.
This impressive Snapdragon 888-powered smartphone packs in all the features you’ll actually use and a few you didn’t know you needed, but is let down by Xiaomi’s inconsistent support for software updates, something Samsung and Apple excel at.
Best budget phone
This segment of the market has been heating up over the past few years, making it arguably more interesting than the flagship segment.
While Oppo, Honor, Huawei, Nokia and other brands all put out strong affordable offerings, it’s the Samsung Galaxy A32 and the Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 series that stood out.
Samsung’s Galaxy A32 did many things right, making it one of the most popular mid-range handsets in 2021.
Packing a 6.4-inch Super AMOLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate, 5,000mAh battery, expandable memory and a great quad-camera set-up, the A32 stole some of the limelight from it’s A52 and A72 siblings. Making it even more attractive is Samsung’s huge ecosystem of software partners and that it will get two years of software updates and three years of security updates.
While the rear design might be divisive, it’s clear that doing something different has worked for Samsung (and it may have inspired the design for the upcoming S22 Ultra).
Redmi Note 10 Pro
Once again, Xiaomi finds itself in the position of making a great phone that does not get all the recognition it deserves.
The most fully loaded variant of the Redmi Note 10 series, the Redmi Note 10 Pro packs specs you wouldn’t expect to see in a mid-range handset: a 108MP main camera, 6.67-inch AMOLED display with 120Hz refresh rate and HDR10, stereo speakers and a 5,020mAh battery with 33W fast charging.
Foldables are still seen as niche items, but after having spent a fair amount of time with Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 and 2021’s Z Fold 3 5G and Z Flip 3 5G, it’s clear that devices with expanding displays are the way of the future.
Of the two foldables released by Samsung in 2021, it’s the Z Fold 3 5G I found myself going back to.
Sporting an IPX8 rating and S-Pen support (both firsts for Samsung’s foldable line), the Z Fold 3 is the ultimate foldable phone.
Still notably heavier than a standard flagship smartphone, the foldable is perfect for responding to text-based messages and making calls as well as watching video and making hands-free video calls.
While it’s not a perfect device, it is the best foldable phone on the market with its only competition coming in the form of the China-only Oppo Find N.
As is expected, Apple continues to dominate in the tablet market, and with good reason.
While most people would expect the M1 power 12.9-inch iPad Pro or even the fourth-generation iPad Air to take the crown, it’s actually the new iPad mini that snags the honour.
Sporting a refreshed design, the same A15 Bionic chip as the iPhone 13 range, TouchID and support for the second-generation Apple Pencil, the new iPad mini is a delight.
Portable enough to slip into your backpack or a large pocket, the latest mini iPad doesn’t skimp on power or functionality and its size makes it perfect for note-taking, reading or catching up on your series.
My only gripe is that Apple didn’t release a 128GB storage option.
From R9,299. istore.co.za
Best true wireless buds
The past year has been a great one for true wireless buds, with many companies offering incredible alternatives to Apple’s industry-leading AirPods.
If you’re looking for the ultimate top-tier wireless buds, then look no further than the Sony WF-1000XM4.
Not everyone will love the fit or the price point, but if you’re looking for great-sounding buds with good noise cancellation and reliable voice-calling capabilities and solid battery life, then these are the buds for you.
On the more economical side, it’s almost impossible to beat Xiaomi’s Mi True Wireless Basic 2S buds with noise cancellation.
More discreet than the Sony buds, these do away with touch-sensitive controls in favour of a button on each bud that can be pressed to play and pause music or answer a call.
While the audio quality won’t impress an audiophile, it’s more than good enough to enjoy your favourite song without worrying about any distortion or flat audio.
There were many great smartwatch offerings in 2021, but none impressed as much as Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 series.
Available in either a classic or standard variant (each available in two sizes), the Watch 4 is the first smartwatch to run on Google’s new Wear OS made in conjunction with Samsung.
Boasting deeper integration with Google, the watch also has a new Body Composition Analysis tool and a Bioactive Sensor comprises an Optical Heart Rate Sensor (PPG), Electrical Heart Rate Sensor (ECG) and Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis Sensor (BIA).
While all of this is impressive, my favourite feature is the rotating bezel, which makes navigating the watch more intuitive than any other smartwatch on the market.
From R4,998.99. samsung.com/za
Sony, LG and Hisense all unveiled standout TVs in 2021, but it was Samsung that offered the most well-rounded package in the form of The Frame TV.
Available in either a 55- or 65-inch model, the 2021 Frame is everything you could want in a lifestyle TV.
Beautiful image quality thanks to the 4K QLED panel, immersive audio, Art Mode, Apple Airplay compatibility, HDMI eARC support, and the ability to connect your Galaxy Watch 4 so you can workout at home while viewing the exercises on your TV, make it almost impossible to beat.
My standout feature is the solar cell remote that does away with batteries and allows it to be charged by your indoor lights.
From R26,999. samsung.com/za
Best connected home audio
The Denon Home 250 is one of the best-sounding connected speakers I tested in 2021, but it’s let down by a lacklustre app that is not as intuitive as Sonos S2 app.
This is why the Sonos ecosystem takes top honours for best connected home audio.
While there are brands that might offer better audio, none of them have managed to find the sweet spot between form, function and smarts that Sonos has.
The recently launched second-generation Beam with Dolby Atmos support via HDMI eARC is an impressive sound bar that is a great affordable alternative to the Sonos Arc. Complement this with a sub and a pair of Sonos One and you’ll have a connected home audio set-up that will make your friends go green with envy.
The beauty of these devices is that not only do they provide impressive audio quality for their price and work well together, they’re also able to work independently of each other. This means you can have a Sonos in each room and either have them all play the same audio or each one can play a different song.
Enhancing the experience is the Sonos S2 app, which brings all your audio streaming services together and gives you the ability to play your favourite song or podcast from any streaming service you’re signed in to.
If you ever want to grab your music and go, then the Sonos Roam is the perfect portable speaker to take with you when you head to the beach or go to a picnic, while also slotting seamlessly into your connected home audio set-up.
From R3,999. sonos.com/za