Best iPhone for 2021: Which of Apple’s 8 phones is right for you?

Apple introduced four new iPhone 13 models this year, and stopped selling the iPhone XR, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple currently offers eight different models of iPhone, including four launched in just over the past year alone. There’s an iPhone that works with pretty much every major phone carrier in the world, and the iPhone-buying journey is a complicated one. That said, technology buffs and people looking for a solid phone can agree that the iPhone has a lot to offer, from a robust app ecosystem to powerful computing and a wealth of camera features. (Portrait mode for the win!) Even an older iPhone is able to meet many people’s requirements.

Apple’s iPhone line used to be simple. When the original iPhone model was unveiled by Steve Jobs over 14 years ago, it was just one phone, and exclusively available on AT&T. The difficult part of choosing an iPhone in 2007 was working up the courage to buy a phone from a company better known for its computers and the iPod. Beyond that hurdle, you only had to make two decisions: Did you want 4GB or 8GB of storage, and did you want the black or aluminum model?   

Today, there’s an iPhone for pretty much everyone. Should you still buy an iPhone 12? What about an iPhone 11 or an iPhone SE? And how might the iPhone 13 compare to the iPhone 12? Here’s how to decide between Apple’s current iPhone offerings. 

Current iPhones, compared

Model Starting price Screen size No. of rear cameras CPU Release date
iPhone SE $399 4.7 inches 1 A13 Bionic April 2020
iPhone 11 $499 6.1 inches 2 A13 Bionic September 2019
iPhone 12 Mini $599 5.4 inches 2 A14 Bionic November 2020
iPhone 12 $699 6.1 inches 2 A14 Bionic October 2020
iPhone 13 Mini $699 5.4 inches 2 A15 Bionic September 2021
iPhone 13 $799 6.1 inches 2 A15 Bionic September 2021
iPhone 13 Pro $999 6.1 inches 3 A15 Bionic September 2021
iPhone 13 Pro Max $1,099 6.7 inches 3 A15 Bionic September 2021

You might find that carriers and third-party sellers offer older models, like the iPhone X. To complicate matters, some iPhones have two cameras, others three and still others four (including the front-facing selfie camera). Then there’s the fact that nearly all current iPhones have Face ID, but one model — the iPhone SE — soldiers on with Touch ID. Having a lot of options isn’t bad, but it can feel overwhelming to select a model when buying a new iPhone.

To help you figure out which is the best iPhone for you, we thoroughly reviewed and tested each one on this list, from their batteries to camera performance. We’ve included current iPhone prices, though iPhone deals are known to happen, so don’t assume your only option is paying full price.

But if you’re looking for an Android phone or another smartphone outside of Apple’s offerings, read our guide to help find the best phone for your needs and take a look at our tips on how to buy a new smartphone

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Buying guide: The best iPhone models in 2021


Patrick Holland/CNET

Out of the four phones in Apple’s iPhone 13 series, the regular 13’s spot is a bit overshadowed by its siblings. But if you look closely, you’ll realize it’s basically the iPhone 13 Pro with a $170 price cut. They have the same design, the same insanely fast A15 Bionic chip, the same 5G support, the same support for MagSafe charging, and the same selfie, wide and ultrawide cameras.

What do you miss for not going Pro? You don’t get a dedicated telephoto camera, the ability to shoot Apple ProRaw photos or the lovely matte finish back and glossy stainless steel sides. Plus, you miss out on the 120Hz ProMotion display. Instead you get a glossy finish back and matte aluminum sides. The iPhone 13 comes with an upgraded 128GB of storage for the same price as that of the 64GB iPhone 12.

Read our Apple iPhone 13 review.


Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 13 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro Max feature the same set of cameras, which comes as a change when compared to last year’s iPhone 12 series. If you want to get a 6.1-inch iPhone, the 13 Pro is the one to get. It comes with the fastest mobile chip, the best set of iPhone cameras, a ProMotion display that offers a 120Hz refresh rate and a faster f1.5 aperture lens.

The iPhone 13 Pro cameras have a couple of new features including macro and Cinematic modes. The former is solid. As for the Cinematic mode, it uses the rear cameras or the True Depth camera array to create a 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Like Portrait mode for photos, the feature allows you to change the depth of field.

As for the battery life, we didn’t have any trouble getting through a day, even a hot and humid one when I captured a bunch of photos and videos.

Angela Lang/CNET

If you want a 5G iPhone and don’t want to miss out on features like an OLED display, one of the best camera systems and superb performance, the iPhone 12 is your go-to choice. 

The cameras received hardware, software and processing upgrades last year. The iPhone 12 can capture excellent photos and video and deliver consistently fantastic images. It has the exact same cameras as the iPhone 12 Pro, except for the telephoto camera and lidar. On the design front, it features the same flat edges as the latest iPhone 13.

The iPhone 12 is also defined by a stunning OLED panel, which Apples calls a Super XDR display. It is rated IP68 for water- and dust-resistance and can withstand being submerged in water to a depth of 6 meters for 30 minutes. 

John Kim/CNET

At $399 you might think the only appeal of the iPhone SE (2020) is its price. And admittedly it is the cheapest iPhone on this list, which is a big deal. On the outside, the iPhone SE has the same body as an iPhone 8. It’s the only iPhone on this list that has Touch ID, which in pandemic times is actually a plus, as face masks make using Face ID a frustrating experience.

On the inside, the SE has the same A13 processor as the iPhone 11, which gives the 2017 camera hardware a 2020 injection of Apple’s computational photography magic. The SE supports 4G and is the only phone on this list that has the classic iPhone design. But with the ability to run the latest version of iOS, it’s just as relevant as ever.

Read our Apple iPhone SE (2020) review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Who said small phones don’t exist in 2021? The iPhone 13 Mini ($729 unlocked, $699 on a carrier plan) is brilliant because it has everything the iPhone 12 has — it’s just smaller. It has the same flat-sided design, 5G and an OLED screen with support for HDR. The screen is covered with Apple’s ceramic shield. The body has an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance and supports MagSafe wireless charging and accessories. It has the same A15 Bionic processor, runs the same iOS 15 software and even has the same cameras. The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini are the same phone. But one is small and the other isn’t.

That said, I only recommend you get the 13 Mini for its size. It’s $100 cheaper than the iPhone 13, which might be a tempting reason if you’re trying to save money. But if you aren’t OK with a small phone you might be frustrated by its size.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 13 Pro Max is essentially the ultimate iPhone. The smartphone features the best processor in a smartphone, a triple rear camera setup, 5G connectivity and the biggest screen you’ll find on the latest iPhones. The device packs the best hardware you can get in an iPhone. We also noticed that photos had fast shutter speeds, which resulted in freezing action better.

Read our Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max review.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The $499 iPhone 11 is kind of like the middle child of the iPhone lineup. There’s the iPhone SE that’s $100 less and has a newer processor. But the iPhone 11 offers something the SE doesn’t. It is part of Apple’s new generation of iPhone design that started with the iPhone X. The 11 has Face ID, a large 6.1-inch screen and comes in six colors instead of the three that the SE comes in.

Read our Apple iPhone 11 review.


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