In 2021, premium smartphone conversations went beyond Apple and Samsung. While the latest and greatest iPhone and Galaxy remained unbeaten, in the end, they did not go completely unchallenged. Two big unlikely players – Xiaomi and Vivo – surprised us by putting up a tough fight. You can say that it was the year of the underdog, in a way.
Also Read | The A-list: Best tech gadgets of 2021
There were other surprises, too. It was the year when OnePlus formally merged with Oppo, seemingly to build better products – a decision that’s getting a lot of heat from long-term fans. Oppo, meanwhile, went on to launch what could end up being, the best folding phone ever made. Asus failed to launch a proper flagship phone – the 8Z – in India. Nokia didn’t even get into the race while LG left the smartphone business entirely.
Here’s a look back at some of the best premium smartphones launched this year.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max, 13 Pro
Little things make “pro” things happen, best sums up the iPhone 13 Pro Max and iPhone 13 Pro. Apple has made upgrades in every department – design, screen, performance, cameras, even battery life, enough to make them a compelling buy for virtually anyone out there looking for the best smartphone in the market today. The iPhone 13 Pro is very similar to the “pro max” model this year, except the screen size and battery capacity. The 13 Pro Max has a bigger 6.7-inch display (versus 6.1-inch in the 13 Pro) and a bigger 4,352mAh battery (versus 3,095mAh in the 13 Pro). This means, you can pick either and be rest assured, you’re getting the best bang for your buck without any noticeable compromise.
Street price: iPhone 13 Pro starting @Rs 1,19,900; iPhone 13 Pro Max starting @Rs 1,29,900
Apple iPhone 13 Mini
The iPhone 13 Mini is the best small iPhone that Apple makes today. It is, also, the best small iPhone ever made. It is mostly, a “if it ain’t broke” affair relative to the iPhone 12 Mini, but it brings the right set of upgrades that make it a better buy, that is if you’re really itching to get the absolute best (else, the iPhone 12 Mini is a steal deal at around Rs 40,000). The form factor is exquisite. The performance, phenomenal. The cameras, though they’re not on the same level as the iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max models, are still brilliant. The battery life, more importantly, is better than the iPhone 12 Mini which, is a big factor to consider it over its predecessor.
Street price: Rs 69,900 (starting)
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
The S21 Ultra is the best premium flagship Android phone of 2021. It’s a classic case of “the dark knight rises” in every sense of the word. A return to form, if you will. If the S20 Ultra was all about setting great expectations, with the S21 Ultra, Samsung finally met those expectations. The design and build are spot-on. The performance is great across the board. So is the battery life. In some cases, it has even exceeded expectations. Case in point: the S21 Ultra camera system is fantastic. Pair all this with Samsung’s excellent track record with software, lately, and what you get is an Android phone second to none.
Street price: Rs 1,05,999 (starting)
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, Galaxy Z Flip 3
With no new Galaxy Note happening this year, the onus fell on the Fold 3 to take the baton from the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and take charge as Samsung’s new high-end premium offering for the remainder of the year and the near future. It had some big shoes to fill. The Fold 3 did not disappoint. The Fold 3 brings key improvements on the durability front including a new water-resistant design, upgraded hardware with S-Pen support, and an under-display camera for a more uninterrupted viewing experience in tablet mode. The cover screen has also received an update with faster refresh rate. Cut to the chase, the Fold 3 makes the best possible case yet for folding devices and comes highly recommended for anybody looking to get a taste of the future, today. We would like to warn you, once you’ve had it, there will be no looking back. The Flip 3, as we’ve said in multiple articles before, is the real MVP of Samsung’s current foldable line-up, offering an eclectic mix of style and substance that go beyond the convention of regular smartphones. More importantly, it’s priced like a regular smartphone which is to say, it’s more accessible despite being cut from the same cloth as the Fold 3.
Street price: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 starting @Rs 1,49,999; Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 starting @Rs 84,999
Vivo X70 Pro Plus
This is Vivo’s most ambitious, most expensive phone to launch in India, ever. But more importantly, this is Vivo’s most complete premium flagship to date. It seems the company took feedback very seriously, went back to the drawing board, added everything a potential Samsung Galaxy or iPhone buyer would ask for, came back and said, hey, we got this. The X70 Pro Plus brings some welcome upgrades to an all-round familiar camera package last seen in the also very promising X60 Pro Plus. It has the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Plus, an official IP rating, and wireless charging. It has a bigger, more advanced LTPO display. The battery has been bumped up too, ever so slightly. It also has dual speakers. As we said, it has everything. At its heart, though, it’s still a high-end camera phone first and an excellent one at that, and then when you factor in the whole package, you’re basically looking at the best phone that Vivo has ever made.
Street price: Rs 79,990
Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
It came, it saw, it conquered, and just like that, it was gone. We’re, of course, talking about the Mi 11 Ultra, a phone that Xiaomi bet big money on, this year, to show it was capable of running (in) the big leagues. This is a phone that raised many expectations, met them fair and square mostly, only to then leave us asking for more. “It’s settled, a new star has entered the galaxy,” is how we had described the phone in our review. That star, though, left the galaxy a long time ago. Okay, enough build-up. What we’re trying to say is, you can’t buy this phone in India anymore – the phone in fact, saw very limited availability in the country – and Xiaomi never really gave any solid reason, why. That, obviously, doesn’t take away from the fact that the Mi 11 Ultra is, still, one of the best premium smartphones of 2021, its unique camera system being one of its biggest highlights.
Street price: No longer on sale
Asus ROG Phone 5
Picture a ridiculous amount of power – more than you’d probably ever need – inside an equally ridiculous chassis with RGB lighting. Throw in a few accessories including a miniaturised fan, and you get the ROG Phone 5. Asus literally went bonkers with this generation of the ROG Phone launching not one, not two, but three models with the top-of-the-line version packing a whopping 18GB RAM and 512GB storage. In case it wasn’t clear already, this is a gaming phone – peak gaming phone if you will. Asus, obviously, wants to sell this to non/causal gamers also, which is fine to an extent – barring the cameras, everything here is top-notch – which is why it’s being featured here. It has a great, colour accurate display, blazing fast performance, ad-free software, and outstanding battery life. Colour us impressed.
Street price: Rs 49,999 (starting)