• We’re now full into the fall season and most devices for the year have been released, with vendors now focusing on some newer second half of the year releases. While we’re still awaiting notable phones such as the Pixel 6 on the high-end spectrum, the mid-range and low-end recommendations will mostly be affected by their current pricing and availabilities.

    For US readers, the situation in the high-end has been mostly static for the last couple of months, with actually pricing on the most interesting devices even going up. European readers looking for an S21 have currently great discounts and it’s seemingly a good time to jump in.

    At the super-high end of the spectrum, the S21 Ultra still reigns supreme in the category, especially in the US market. The great promotions that we’ve seen from Samsung in the US seem to have faded away, with the S21 Ultra now been officially sold at $1199 – quite a lot more than the initial $999 promotions that the phone was selling for the first few months of its release. At this point in time and late in the year, it might be worth waiting out to see what the Pixel 6 Pro has to offer, or outright just wait out the next generation. European readers aren’t more lucky- the S21 Ultra is still around 1089€ which is at least steady compared to the last few months. The Mi 11 Ultra, the only other contender at the ultra-high-end, is still nowhere to be seen in terms of availability, which greatly diminishes its viability to be recommended.

    At the high-end, US high-end has also been static for months. The S21, S21+ and OnePlus 9 Pro are still the same price as 3 months ago, and have barely budged over their launch MSRPs. The Pixel 6 (regular) might be a phone to wait for to see if it manages to shake things up in this segment.

    European readers are seeing extremely large discounts on the S21 and S21+, which can be had for 686€ and 739€ at time of writing – these are currently the largest discounts on the phones we’ve had this year, and represent excellent value and outright recommendation. Xiaomi and OnePlus pricings have been static – and although Xiaomi has released a whole new set of devices such as the 11T series, their value doesn’t really shake things up the guide.

    In the US mid-range, the Pixel 5a with 5G replaces the Pixel 4a in our recommendations – it’s slightly more expensive at $449, but does feature better specifications and is just a better phone. Samsung is currently is doing a very large promotion on the Galaxy A52 5G, selling it at $325, quite below its $499 launch price, and thus warrants a strong value recommendation here.

    At the low-end in most markets the new Redmi Note 10 Pro should be the go-to choice, if available. The high-light here is a new OLED display even in this price segment, vastly augmenting the user experience. US users have to fall back to a 2020 Motorola G Power given the lack of alternatives.

    Best Mega-Flagship: Galaxy S21 Ultra

    Starting off with the super-high-end, we’ve never really recommended a device at this high a price range, but Samsung’s new super aggressive pricing and general execution on then new Galaxy S21 Ultra means it’s a device that even though very expensive, does deliver on its price point.

    The S21 Ultra is defined by an industry leading 1440p 120Hz OLED screen: It features a new generation OLED emitter, a polysilicon backplane, and software as well as hardware variable refresh rates. It literally checks off every feature list that a display can have today, and it gets extremely bright, and is extremely power efficient, leading to great battery life.

    Samsung’s new camera setup this year iterates on the previous generation. While there’s still quirks with Samsung’s unorthodox module setup, it also some of the biggest strengths in the market right now. In our review, we weren’t quite satisfied with the processing of the cameras, however Samsung does have a track record to continuing to iterate and improve things through firmware updates throughout the device’s first year.

    The S21 Ultra was one of the best phones for the year. In the US, Samsung had extremely aggressive promotions where the phone could be had for $999, unfortunately this has gone back up to $1199 which is essentially the MSRP. The European prices have been steady at around 1089€, which is still fair, although, this late in the year not as attractive.

    The upcoming Pixel 6 Pro is looming over the horizon here, and unless Google has some completely outrageous pricing, the phone should have extremely competitive positioning against the S21 Ultra, and thus I would recommend users to wait it out for a few more weeks.

    Best Mega-Flagship Alternative: Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra – Missing in Action

    For non-US readers, the Mi 11 Ultra had been a contender in the ultra-high-end category, however the phone has seen some extremely spotty availability, and ever since its launch, the phone was barely available.

    The phone is a gigantic beast in terms of size and weight, featuring a massive back camera setup that technically is superior to the S21 Ultra, even though the software processing isn’t quite as consistent. In a global/European market the Mi 11 Ultra also has the advantage of the more performant Snapdragon 888 compared to the Exynos 2100 S21 Ultra, giving the Xiaomi phone a better gaming performance lead. Where things lag behind though is battery life, where Samsung this year is still an uncontested leader – even though the Mi 11 Ultra’s battery life isn’t bad through its massive battery.

    For non-US readers, the Mi 11 Ultra had been a contender in the ultra-high-end category, however the phone has seen some extremely spotty availability, and ever since its launch, the phone was barely available.

    The device deserves a mention due to its capabilities, however it’s unlikely the average buyer will be able to find one. The same notes as the S21 Ultra applies – wait out the Pixel 6 Pro to see a likely shake-up in this segment.

    Best Flagship: Galaxy S21 / S21+

    In the “normal” flagship segment, the S21 and S21+ are still solid devices. US readers have to content with MSRP prices of $799 and $999, which aren’t too great compared to the great promotions early on in the year. European readers however, can have the devices for 686€ / 739€ – the cheapest they’ve ever been.

    The S21 doesn’t improve generationally as much as the S21 Ultra, but does take advantage of a newer SoC – while not that large upgrade on the Snapdragon variant, does bring large gains for the Exynos model, which makes the phone much more viable in those regions of the world. The phone shares the same camera setup as the base S20 series, and cuts some corners in terms of screen quality as it downgrades from 1440p to 1080p – however it does have software variable refresh rate this time around which does improve battery life quite a bit when using the 120Hz refresh rate mode.

    I wouldn’t say the S21 does anything special, but it’s an extremely solid phone which brings tons of performance and is extremely well-rounded. 

    US users might consider waiting on the regular Pixel 6 to see what Google has to offer in terms of pricing – while as noted, European users are seeing fantastic promotions, and can easily jump on either the S21 or S21+ at this point in time.

    Alternative Flagship: OnePlus 9 Pro

    For many users, especially in the US, the OnePlus 9 Pro remains one of the only alternatives to Samsung. Even though OnePlus’ large issues with the 9 Pro in terms of performance, given the lack of competition, it’s still the only other option for many, and remains a reasonable phone.

    Where the OnePlus 9 Pro fits in is essentially a niche that Samsung abandoned this year – the more premium reasonable sized flagship. With outstanding ergonomics and build quality, but without being a super-sized phone like the S21 Ultra, OnePlus checkmarks a lot of features of what you’d expect of a 2021 flagship device. The camera performance of the phone is reasonably competitive with a traditional 3-camera setup. The only real draw-back of the device is battery life, which for some reason is still below expectations of the hardware, and as noted, OnePlus does hamper performance of many popular applications.

    OnePlus continues having a weird strategy of releasing only the 12+256GB variant in the US, and pricing is still steady at $969 In Europe, the 9 Pro pricing has gone up slightly at up to 869€, which is fair, although not extremely good value right now.

    Alternative Flagship (Global): Xiaomi Mi 11

    While initially it was quite hard to recommend the Mi 11 against the Samsung S21 alternatives, the phone in a 256GB can now be had for 719€ in Europe, which is outright entering the very high end mid-range, or one should say the low high-end.

    While the phone has weaknesses, such as a camera that doesn’t quite keep up with the best out there, it still provides an incredible high quality display experience in a high-end design, with outstanding performance virtue of the Snapdragon 888. Performance over recent months has improved thanks to the new MIUI 12.5 update which makes the phone much more responsive than what we experienced in our initial device review.

    Cameras and battery life being the draw-backs, at the current price of 719€, it’s still easy to recommend the phone, and puts itself in a good spot in the competitive landscape.

    Best Mid Range Smartphones (Global): Xiaomi Mi 11 Lite 5G

    The big shake-up in this segment has been the release of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 780G and 778. The new SoCs offer significantly better performance than its predecessors while remaining quite efficient, and this means that devices powered by the chip in this segment should be of significant better value and user experience compared to previous generation phones.

    The first of these devices is the new Xiaomi Mi 11 Lite 5G. Besides the Snapdragon 780, the phone is also defined by an extremely thin and light form-factor, even though it still managed to retain a 4250mAh battery. The 6.55” 1080p 90Hz OLED screen is fantastic for this price segment, and also features a reasonably capable 64MP main camera.

    Starting at 352€ today, the device is coming at an extremely attractive price point in comparison to what it delivers. Keep an eye out for any alternative devices from the competition with Snapdragon 780 chips in this price segment.

    Alternatives are devices such as the OnePlus Nord 2 which were announced only short time ago, but won’t see sales until essentially August – but again the issue here is that the company appears to have no plans to offer the phone for US markets.

    Best Mid-Range US: Pixel 5a with 5G

    The US market unfortunately will be lagging behind in terms of the mid-range, with most new more interesting devices not launching in the market. Here, it just makes sense to look elsewhere, particularly given the usually higher prices and less options.

    What’s left in the quite barren mid-range landscape here is the Google Pixel 5a with 5G, which now replaces our Pixel 4a recommendation. It’s a slightly more expensive phone, but offers more for the money.

    The Pixel 5a 5G is essentially a slightly upgraded Pixel 4a 5G, but with a slightly different shell and larger battery. Taking the guys (Snapdragon 765) of the Pixel 5, the phone essentially lacks nothing but the 90Hz display of the Pixel 5, however it comes at a much lower price of $449. With a very large 4680mAh battery, it’s also expected to last much longer than other Pixel phones. While it’s $100 more expensive than the Pixel 4a, you get quite a lot more value out of the purchase.

    US readers will also have the option of the Galaxy A52 5G which can be had for only $329 right now, a larger promotion over its $499 MSRP. The phone fits in with where the Pixel 4a used to be in pricing as well as specifications.

    Best Budget Smartphone: Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro / Motorola G8 Power

    This category of devices is very hard for me to write about due to the sheer size of the market and particular regional segmentation. In particular the US market is absolutely barren of viable options due to the fact that many OEMs don’t officially release their products in this region. This is incredibly frustrating as it’s in this budget segment where we see the vast majority of competition from Asian vendors, providing some of the more incredible value propositions.

    The situation has been slightly been improved with Motorola’s range of low-end phones. Devices like the 2020 variant of the G8 Power represent a good value, although essentially, they’re beaten in every regard by the more competitive Chinese alternatives from vendors such as Xiaomi. For customers on CDMA carriers such as from Verizon or Sprint, the Moto is the only choice.

    The Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro was announced in early March and we’ve had a hands-on experience with the phone back during the announcement. With availability now starting to improve, it’s our recommendation for users who are able to get their hands on the phone.

    Compared to its predecessor, the Redmi Note 9 Pro, the new device is characterised by a new AMOLED screen that really augment the phone beyond its peers in this price segment. 

    The phone features a Snapdragon 732G which houses two Cortex-A76 cores as its performance cores, paired with 6/8GGB of LPDDR4X. 

    The main camera is a larger departure from past generations. This is amongst the first phones to feature Samsung’s new HM2 108MP module. Unlike other 108MP modules from Xiaomi or Samsung, this features smaller 0.7µm pixels, being a smaller 1/1.52” sensor. It’s still definitely a large module, and is quite bigger than the 1/1.72” GW1 in the Note 9 Pro.

    The phone is on the larger side with a width of 76.5mm width, but at least Xiaomi was able to slightly reduce the weight down to 193g, all while keeping the same 5020mAh battery capacity of the predecessor.

    At 243€ early pricing today, it’s a bit more expensive than the predecessor, but due to the OLED screen, it’s worth few extra coins.

    If you’re a CDMA carrier in the US or if you care about warranty, the Xiaomi isn’t an option and the only reasonable fall-back choice here is the Motorola G8 Power 2020. The phone features a Snapdragon 665 SoC, featuring Cortex-A73 cores, which would be quite significantly less performing that the A76 cores of the Redmi Note 9 Pro.

    On the camera side, the Motorola also offers less impressive specifications as we have a rather small 1/2.8” sensor with 16MP resolution. The display is a comparable 6.4” IPS LCD unit at 2300 x 1080 resolution which is still plenty satisfactory at this price range. The Moto G Power can be had for $219, and is actually also available in Europe as the G8 Power at 189€, although again I would rather recommend the Xiaomi Redmi as you get a lot more value out of your purchase.

    It’s to be noted that Motorola has release a 2021 version of the G Power. Although this new variant receives a more capable camera setup, the company has downgraded the display to a 720p unit. I just can’t bring myself to recommend a 720p phone in 2021, even at this price range – but you do you.




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