Best iPhone in 2021: Which model is right for you? | ZDNet

Apple’s iPhones are arguably the best phones available — with responsive performance, regular updates for years, compelling hardware designs, outstanding camera technology, and an ecosystem that appeals to the masses.

We have seen improvements in battery life, advanced multi-camera functionality, and continued improvements to Apple’s iOS. The high-end iPhones are pricey, but Apple’s processor architecture has also proven to be the best in the smartphone world. There are also ways to buy iPhones from Apple or your carrier so you can pay for the phone over time with no interest.

Best iPhone available

Processor: Apple A14 | Display Size: 6.7 inches | Storage Options: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Rear Cameras: Three 12MP (wide, ultra-wide, telephoto) | Front Camera: 12MP f/2.2 | Colors: Silver, Graphite, Gold, Pacific Blue | Size: 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4mm | Weight: 228g | Starting Price: $1,099 

Apple’s biggest and most feature-rich iPhone is a mouthful, the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Unlike past iPhones, the 12 Pro Max doesn’t just offer a bigger display and larger capacity battery over the 12 Pro. It also brings improvements in two rear cameras; so, if you want the absolute best from Apple you need to choose the largest and more expensive iPhone.

The telephoto camera has a larger aperture than the iPhone 12 Pro and optical zoom is improved from 2x to 5x. Sensor-shift optical image stabilization is also provided on the wide camera of the 12 Pro Max.

For the first time in a long time, I’ve been using the larger iPhone 12 Pro Max since late last year and an Android phone has not been able to best it. Apple continues to actively improve iOS 14 and the phone continues to perform perfectly.


  •    Lovely display 
  •    Flawless performance
  •    Long battery life
  •    Superb cameras


  •    Expensive
  •    Big and heavy

$1,100 at Best Buy

$1,099 at Amazon

$1,099 at Apple

Best iPhone for smaller pockets


Processor: Apple A14 | Display Size: 6.1 inches | Storage Options: 128GB/256GB/512GB | Rear Cameras: Three 12MP (wide, ultra-wide, telephoto) | Front Camera: 12MP f/2.2 | Colors: Silver, Graphite, Gold, Pacific Blue | Size: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4mm | Weight: 189g | Starting Price: $999 

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro is smaller than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but still has the triple rear camera array and all of the same features as the 12 Pro Max. As discussed above, there are a couple of differences in the telephoto camera and wide cameras, but most people are unlikely to notice those differences.

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro offers a smaller 6.1-inch display; compared to 6.7 inches seen on the 12 Pro Max, this model is more pocketable and manageable for most people. Along with the smaller display is a smaller battery so it won’t last quite as long as the largest iPhone.

5G is a staple of the iPhone 12 series of phones and it has proven to provide fast and wide coverage on various carriers.


  •    Smaller form factor
  •    Flawless performance
  •    Beautiful color options
  •    Superb cameras


  •    Average battery life
  •    2x optical zoom

$1,100 at Best Buy

$1,099 at Amazon

$1,185 at eBay

Best new iPhone for most people


Processor: Apple A14 | Display Size: 6.1 inches | Storage Options: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Rear Cameras: Two 12MP (wide and ultra-wide) | Front Camera: 12MP f/2.2 | Colors: Black, White, PRODUCT (Red), Green, Blue | Size: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4mm | Weight: 164g | Starting Price: $799 

The Apple iPhone 12 is an interesting device since it has the exact same 6.1-inch display seen on the iPhone 12 Pro so size and battery capacity are not differentiators here. There is one less rear camera on the iPhone 12 and there is no support for the LiDAR scanner. If the telephoto capability is not important to you then you can save some money with the iPhone 12.

I bought one in Blue (see my full review) before I decided to go all-in and upgrade to the large iPhone 12 Pro Max. The iPhone 12 is likely to be the most popular for the masses who may not need the higher-end cameras found in the Pro models.

The iPhone 12 also starts at a measly 64GB of storage so you have to pay a bit extra to pick up the 128GB or 256GB models. Thankfully, it is only $50 for the 128GB option that I highly recommend for people who use their phone as their camera.


  •    Gorgeous flat OLED display
  •    Loud stereo speakers
  •    Excellent cameras


  •    Volume buttons tough to feel
  •    Starts with 64GB internal storage

$800 at Best Buy

$829 at Amazon

$799 at eBay

Best small iPhone


Processor: Apple A14 | Display Size: 5.4 inches | Storage Options: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Rear Cameras: Two 12MP (wide and ultra-wide) | Front Camera: 12MP f/2.2 | Colors: Black, White, PRODUCT (Red), Green, Blue | Size: 131.5 x 64.2 x 7.4mm | Weight: 135g | Starting Price: $699 

In a rather unique move from Apple, we also saw a fourth iPhone 12 model announced with the 5.4-inch display on an iPhone 12 mini. This small iPhone option also has an OLED display so there are no differences there, other than size.

The same Apple processor powers the device with a dual rear camera system that is the same as the iPhone 12. Face ID, 5G, wireless charging, and all the rest from the iPhone 12 are present on the smaller iPhone 12 mini.

The Apple iPhone SE is still available with a 4.7-inch display and low Apple price of $399, but the iPhone 12 mini offers a $100 savings over the larger iPhone 12. It’s far too small for my aging eyes, but people who want a very pocketable phone love the iPhone 12 mini.


  •    Small phone
  •    Flawless performance
  •    Excellent cameras


  •    Average battery life
  •    Starts with 64GB internal storage

$700 at Best Buy

$729 at Amazon

$670 at eBay

Best available from 2019


Processor: Apple A13 | Display Size: 6.1 inches | Storage Options: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Rear Cameras: Two 12MP (wide and ultra-wide) | Front Camera: 12MP f/2.2 | Colors: Black, White, PRODUCT (Red), Purple, Yello, Green | Size: 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3mm | Weight: 194g | Starting Price: $599 

While this list starts with the most powerful, and expensive, phones available, ZDNet’s Jason Cipriani was right in stating that the Apple iPhone 11 is probably the best last generation iPhone for most people. We typically see Apple keep prices the same, or increase them, each year, but with the iPhone 11, we actually saw a price drop of $50 at launch and a further drop over the past six months since the iPhone 12 release.

Unlike the terrible decision to launch the iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max with 64GB and then charge a massive premium to upgrade to the next level of 256GB, Apple lets iPhone 11 buyers go from 64GB to 128GB for just $50. Thus, the iPhone 11 with 128GB is an excellent and recommended option for most people.

The iPhone 11 has a size between the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max with long battery life, capable processor, several color options, and rear dual camera setup. The iPhone 11 has an ultra-wide angle and standard rear cameras but doesn’t have the 2x telephoto zoom lens found on the other new iPhone 11 models.


  •    Perfect size
  •    Flawless performance
  •    Solid cameras
  •    Long battery life


  •    Starts with 64GB internal storage

$600 at Best Buy

$599 at Apple

Best least expensive iPhone


Processor: Apple A13 | Display Size: 4.7 inches | Storage Options: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Rear Cameras: One 12MP | Front Camera: 7MP f/2.2 | Colors: Black, White, PRODUCT (Red) | Size: 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm | Weight: 148g | Starting Price: $399 

Apple isn’t known for making affordable phones, but the new Apple iPhone SE (2020) — see our full review — is a perfect option for those who want an iPhone experience without paying high prices. As a person who primarily uses Android phones, it is also a great option as a second phone for those times you want to use iOS.

The iPhone SE is smaller than nearly all other modern phones and looks like an iPhone 8 on the outside. However, it is the inside that matters here with the Apple Bionic A13 processor, high IP67 dust/water resistant rating, and a very capable 12-megapixel camera. You won’t find a budget Android phone with all of these features at this price and it’s wonderful to see Apple offering up such a solid affordable option at this time.

This is a great option for a first iPhone and one for those who just don’t want to give up on a Touch ID button.


  •    Small size
  •    Affordable price
  •    Flawless performance
  •    Touch ID fingerprint sensor


  •    Starts with 64GB internal storage

$400 at Best Buy

$399 at Apple

Best old iPhone still available


Processor: Apple A12 | Display Size: 6.1 inches | Storage Options: 64GB/128GB | Rear Cameras: One 12MP | Front Camera: 7MP f/2.2 | Colors: Black, White, PRODUCT (Red), Yellow, Coral, Blue | Size: 150.9 x 75.7 x 8.3mm | Weight: 194g | Starting Price: $499 

The last phone in this list still being sold directly from Apple is the iPhone XR, which is the mid-level predecessor to the iPhone 11. It starts at $499 from Apple, $100 less than the Apple iPhone 11.

The Apple iPhone XR (see our full review) has a 6.1 inch LCD display, six available colors, and runs the latest version of Apple’s iPhone OS. It has a single camera on the back, capable of portrait mode shots of people.

Battery life is excellent on the iPhone XR and the size is similar to the iPhone 11.


  •    Same 6.1-inch display as newer models
  •    Flawless performance
  •    Long battery life


  •    Starts with 64GB internal storage

$500 at Best Buy

$499 at Amazon

$450 at eBay

Is the iPhone 12 Pro worth the extra $200 over the iPhone 12?

This is one of the most common questions new iPhone 12 series buyers have since both phones are the same size, have the same processor, have the same display, and other specs that match each other. The colors are different and the iPhone 12 Pro has one additional camera, a 2x optical telephoto camera. While the 2x optical isn’t that big of a deal, the 12 Pro also supports LiDAR technology.

For most people, the iPhone 12 is the better purchase. However, if you want the best cameras in an iPhone at this 6.1-inch size then the 12 Pro is for you. The extra camera also increases the weight by 25g.

Which iPhone models support 5G?

All four iPhone 12 models support 5G wireless technology. 5G continues to roll out across the US, and while it is debatable if there are benefits to the speeds of the network, in my experiences, the broad coverage of low-band 5G has solved my connectivity issues in spotty coverage areas with past iPhone models.

Even more importantly, the 5G iPhone models have Qualcomm chipsets inside that are proving to provide better RF reception than we saw in past iPhones that had Intel chipsets. The presence of a Qualcomm chipset has made it possible for me to use an iPhone 12 Pro Max as my daily driver since I purchased it.

Which iPhone models support wireless charging?

Yes, all of the iPhone models in this list support Qi wireless charging technology. MagSafe is only supported by the four iPhone 12 models. 

MagSafe provides a secure magnetic connection system so that you can connect to wireless chargers with perfect positioning and alignment. MagSafe can also be used with other accessories, such as wallets and kickstands.

How did we choose these iPhone models?

The process to make our selections includes testing the phones for weeks, reading reviews from other websites and publications, researching reviewer guides and manufacturer websites, talking with colleagues and other users who have hands-on experience with the phones, and then selecting the best from all of the available choices. 

For this iPhone list, we also only included iPhone models that are available directly from the Apple Store where you will get official support and can purchase Apple Care Plus. There may be other models of iPhones still available from third-party vendors or wireless carriers.

Which iPhone model is right for you?

It used to be fairly easy to choose an iPhone model as you typically selected either the “big” iPhone or the “small” one. With four models available in the iPhone 12 series alone, you have to dig a bit deeper to choose which is best for you. This is especially true of the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro that are nearly the same hardware so check out our question above for more on this decision.

Size is generally the first factor to consider, followed by price. Price limits will also drive the amount of internal storage you select for your iPhone.

One fantastic aspect of the Apple iPhone line is that iPhone models receive software support for years, so it’s OK to buy an older model and trust it will work well for you for years.

Model Base Price Base Storage Display Processor Cameras
iPhone 12 Pro Max $1,099 128GB 6.7 inches A14 3
iPhone 12 Pro $999 128GB 6.1 inches A14 3
iPhone 12 $799 64GB 6.1 inches A14 2
iPhone 12 mini $699 64GB 5.4 inches A14 2
iPhone 11 $599 64GB 6.1 inches A13 2
iPhone SE (2020) $399 64GB 4.7 inches A13 1
iPhone XR $499 64GB 6.1 inches A12 1

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