2021 has been quite an interesting year, with plenty of ups and downs in the tech world to make your head spin. But today, we’re looking at the best of the year, as we have put our collective heads together to come up with the best devices, accessories, and services. These are devices that we’ve enjoyed using over the past year, and some of them may not come as much of a shock, but others may surprise you. Without further adieu, here’s the Best of 2021, Phandroid syle.
Best Smartphone of 2021 – Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
There were a lot of smartphones released in 2021 that could have taken home the crown of the “best” smartphone. But the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers the best combination of being sleek and ultra-powerful. From the beautiful AMOLED display complete with a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate to featuring a total of five cameras, the S21 Ultra can handle anything that you throw at it, and then some.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the ultimate 2021 smartphone.
One UI has continued to evolve, leaving the days of TouchWiz feeling like a long-forgotten memory of the past. While Samsung continues to throw the “kitchen sink” into its flagship devices, the features that are added make the phone feel even more like a tool and not just a toy. Even with its successor likely arriving around the corner, the Galaxy S21 Ultra remains the best Android phone that you can get today.
Best Budget-friendly Smartphone – Google Pixel 5a
This one should come as no surprise, but Google’s Pixel 5a is truthfully one of the most impressive smartphones released in 2021. Google took everything that was great about the Pixel 4a 5G and packed it into a similar build with an even larger battery. The end result is a phone that is perfect for anyone who doesn’t want to break the bank, while still being able to capture pictures that punch high above its weight class.
Google’s Pixel 5a: the perfect for the every-day user
And in true Pixel fashion, the 5a is one of the first devices to see software updates, which is somewhat of growing concern in the Android space. Instead of waiting for months for a smartphone maker to push the next major Android update, you’ll be able to enjoy all of the features from day one.
Best Premium Flagship – Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
In the “premium” space, the competition is much less fierce if you limit the scope to what’s available here in the U.S. But it’s obvious that even after you broaden the spectrum, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra reigns supreme as it provides a complete package from a design and performance perspective. If you want to sit back and play some more graphics-intensive games, the S21 Ultra doesn’t skip a beat.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra takes premium to a whole new level
All the while, the phone sports a design that is comfortable to hold, while letting you know that you’re using a premium device. Even with the awkward camera design, the S21 Ultra manages to make the user forget about the weirdness and instead can focus on just how great the phone feels with its combination of glass and metal.
Best Smartphone Camera – Pixel 6 Pro
A phone that offers the “best” camera is definitely subjective. But if you take a look around the tech space, you can see more and more users opting to use the Pixel 6 Pro over the other available options. Those who aren’t even as intrigued with technology as ourselves are making the move over to Google’s Pixel 6 Pro, simply because the camera hardware has finally been updated and Google’s processing prowess is second to none.
Google’s Pixel 6 Pro takes smartphone photography one step further
You might miss out on the additional cameras found in the likes of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. But the Pixel 6 Pro makes up for it with the different camera focus options at your disposal. And thanks to the power of Google’s Tensor chip, you can go so far as to get rid of the photo-bombers from your pictures, which is simply incredible. Plus, you’ll still enjoy other features such as Night Mode, which is better than ever, along with the ability to capture images in RAW if you want to edit them later.
Best Foldable Smartphone – Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3
Foldable smartphones are a fickle thing. But what isn’t fickle is that Samsung has a commanding lead in the space, one of which likely won’t be matched for quite some time. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 may be the bigger and arguably better phone, but the Galaxy Z Flip 3 has captured the hearts of many more. We’re not just talking about the #ZFlipGang, but Samsung finally released a phone with a foldable display that doesn’t break the bank.
The Galaxy Z Flip 3 embodies design at its best
You’ll get internals that match up with the best phones of the year, along with a 120Hz display, and a larger cover screen. Thanks to Samsung’s Bespoke Edition, you can even mix and match colors to create a Z Flip 3 that is truly unique to you and something that you won’t find anywhere else. Finally, the concerns about durability have largely been solved with the addition of IPX8 water resistance, one of the first two smartphones to feature the rating.
Best Gaming Phone – ASUS ROG Phone 5s
As the “slab” phone market begins to stagnate just a little bit, there’s a new device category that is starting to make waves and that’s gaming phones. These gaming-focused phones usually aren’t the “complete” package, but the ASUS ROG Phone 5s comes pretty darn close. From its 144Hz refresh rate to featuring the best specs available (at the time of launch), the ROG Phone 5s can handle everything and anything that you throw at it.
Mobile gaming will never be the same with the ROG Phone 5s.
Another area where ASUS thought to push the envelope is in battery capacity, and the ROG Phone 5s solves that with its enormous 6,000mAh cell. To combat potential heating issues and concerns, ASUS completely rethought the thermal cooling for the phone, along with adding multiple on-device inputs so you can ditch the additional controller while you’re gaming. And in order to avoid any potential latency concerns when using Bluetooth headphones, the ROG Phone 5s packs dual front-facing stereo speakers that also help to immerse you in the game.
Best Tablet – M1 iPad Pro
It should come as no surprise to see Apple’s M1 iPad Pro taking home the top spot for best overall tablet. There are other options out there, but Apple has really nailed the combination of performance with an incredibly sleek design. And speaking of performance, the 2021 iPad Pro takes the processor from 2020’s most popular laptop and truly offers desktop-like performance in a tablet form-factor.
The iPad Pro is an amazing tablet; the ultimate tool to get work done
Apple took things a step further when it comes to the 12.9-inch version. Instead of relying on an IPS LCD display, such as the one found on the 11-inch iPad Pro, Apple uses its own Liquid Retina XDR mini-LED display. This offers up to 1,600 nits of peak brightness, along with the ability to watch and enjoy HDR content in ways that you previously thought were only possible with the best TVs.
Best Budget-friendly Tablet – Lenovo Tab P11
Moving to the other end of the tablet spectrum, the Lenovo Tab P11 was released earlier in the year without much fanfare. But that’s just fine, as Lenovo is one of the few tablet makers to continue to push the envelope in the Android tablet space. With the Tab P11, you’ll enjoy a detachable keyboard, complete with a trackpad, along with enough performance to handle much of what you would need for it too.
The Lenovo Tab P11 is perfect for work and play on a budget.
And if you have a knack for drawing or sketching, the Tab P11 can be paired with Lenovo’s Precision Pen 2, offering the complete package for those who prefer the Android ecosystem. The tablet even includes that offers support for Dolby Atmos, making this a great media consumption device to go along with the 2K IPS display with thin bezels.
Best Wireless Headphones – Sony WH-1000XM4
Unlike the earbuds market, the best wireless over-ear headphones space is a bit less competitive. But even if there was more competition, it would take a lot for a set of headphones to dethrone the Sony WH-1000XM4s. These headphones are simply amazing, providing best-in-class active noise cancellation, along with all of the bells and whistles that you could want.
Cancel the noise of the world with the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Battery life is an absolute dream, as the WH-1000XM4s seem to last forever between charges, even if you are using ANC all of the time. It doesn’t matter if you are traveling and need to cancel out the sound of a plane, or are just trying to get some work done, these headphones are some of the best that we’ve ever seen. We don’t even know how Sony is going to manage to out-do itself with the next iteration.
Best True Wireless Earbuds – Sony WF-1000XM4
Along with the WH-series of headphones, Sony has been regularly updating its WF-series of earbuds. But it hasn’t been until the WF-1000XM4s that we have parity between over-the-ear cans and in-ear headphones. Despite the awkward-looking design, the WF-1000XM4s nail all of the important things such as industry-leading ANC, up to eight hours of battery life, and an IPX4 water resistance rating.
Sony WF-1000XM4: delivering audio-quality parity with over-ear headphones.
Sony even goes so far as to include foam ear-tips in the packaging, which offer a better fit and feel compared to the traditional silicone ear-tips found elsewhere. In terms of sound quality, the only earbuds that come close are Apple’s AirPods Pro, but Sony gains an edge with the ability to customize the EQ levels from the accompanying app. Seriously, you won’t find a better of true wireless earbuds anywhere.
Best Smartwatch – Samsung Galaxy Watch 4
Samsung nails the hardware while Google nails the software. And for the first time in years, the company’s are working together with the Galaxy Watch 4. The collaboration was announced at I/O ’21, and the Watch 4 remains the only smartwatch to be powered by Wear OS 3. Of course, it has Samsung’s own skin on top, but now you can download the best apps from the Play Store onto your wrist, instead of relying on a different app store.
Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 is the best Android smartwatch in years.
There are two versions available, but the specs between both options are the same, leaving you to pick between different designs. But the “normal” Galaxy Watch 4 is the best option for pretty much everyone with its lightweight design and excellent display. You can easily measure and track all of the necessary fitness metrics, including an ECG just by placing two of your fingers on the two side buttons. The Galaxy Watch 4 is pretty incredible, and while it doesn’t offer as much “Google flair” as we would like, it’s still the best smartwatch out there.
Best Laptop – MacBook Pro 14
Until late in the year, the title of “best laptop” was up for grabs, with plenty of incredible and impressive options to choose from. But then Apple came out with the completely redesigned 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro lineup, featuring the all-new M1 Pro and M1 Max processors. But even more importantly, Apple brought back the ports on its flagship laptop that MacBook users have been wanting ever since they were removed in 2016.
You won’t appreciate the 2021 MacBook Pro until you use one.
The MacBook Pro 14 is the company’s first 14-inch laptop, and finally sports slimmer bezels for the most part. Even with the notch at the top, which houses a vastly-improved webcam, the MacBook Pro’s display is second-to-none, as Apple integrated its MiniLED technology into the laptop, and it’s something you can’t truly appreciate until you use one yourself.
Best Ultrabook – M1 MacBook Air
We know this one is kind of cheating since it was released in 2020. But it just goes to show that whatever black magic Apple is using when it comes to the M1 series of processors, continues making it tough to recommend anything else. The M1 MacBook Air is sleek and functional, retaining the same iconic design that we’ve had for years, including being one of the lightest and most powerful laptops on the market.
Apple’s entry-level MacBook offers incredible value and performance.
Unlike the 2021 MacBook Pro lineup, you won’t find a notch or slimmer bezels. Nor will you find a mini LED display or the ability to obnoxiously over-spec the laptop. What you will find is the best ultrabook that is more than equipped to handle tasks that even similarly-priced and spec’ed Windows laptops couldn’t dream of handling.
Best Chromebook – Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5
The most interesting thing to learn about the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 is that it doesn’t do any one thing exceptionally well. Instead, it offers a balanced experience that is simply unrivaled by the competition and features pricing that makes for an easy decision if you’re considering a new Chromebook. The Flex 5 features a 13.3-inch touchscreen display along with up to 10 hours of battery life on a single charge and even offers a backlit keyboard.
Lenovo’s Chromebook Flex 5 combines power and flexibility that is unrivaled.
Again, it’s easy to find Chromebooks that can be spec’ed higher with faster processors, more RAM, and more storage. But when it comes to price-to-performance, nothing comes close to offering what the Flex 5 can. There’s even Wi-Fi 6 support, which is something that can be said about a lot of the Chromebook market at this point. Plus, Lenovo includes USI stylus support, and plenty of ports ranging from HDMI and a 3.5mm headphone jack to even including a microSD card slot.
Best Budget-friendly Laptop – Microsoft Surface Go 3
When it comes to most “budget” laptops, the first thing that comes to mind is likely a Chromebook. And while that may be true, what Microsoft has done with the Surface Go 3 is rather impressive. This 2-in-1 tablet can run a full version of Windows 11, while also being available with LTE if you want an always-connected laptop.
The Microsoft Surface Go 3 proves you don’t need to spend thousands for a great, versatile laptop.
In addition to lasting for up to 11 hours on a single charge, this 10.5-inch device is perfect if you want to sit back and enjoy some movies thanks to the built-in kickstand. Or, you can use it to mark up PDFs or start sketching out plans for how you want to redesign the bathroom in your home. Windows 11 itself may take some getting used to, but the Surface Go 3 makes the transition into the future a bit easier.
Best Gaming Laptop – Razer Blade 14
So many great gaming laptops were released over the past two years, but the one that stands out the most to us is the Razer Blade 14. You may have to “deal” with Razer’s semi-unreliable Synapse software, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the Blade 14 is an absolute powerhouse. There are different configurations available, but the Blade 14 2021 is the first Razer laptop to be released with an AMD processor. It combines AMD’s processing power with NVIDIA’s incredible 30-series GPUs, while packing up to a 165Hz QHD calibrated display.
The Razer Blade 14 delivers desktop-class power in a laptop form factor.
The end result is a super lightweight and portable laptop capable of handling even the most demanding AAA games such as Halo Infinite, Cyberpunk 2077, and many more. The keyboard itself leaves a bit to be desired, but it’s fine even for those who work primarily from a laptop all day. There are also plenty of ports to connect all of your peripherals, including HDMI, USB-C 3.2 Gen 2, and even supporting 100W USB-C charging if you leave the proprietary charger behind.
Best Case Maker – UAG
Picking the best case maker is definitely subjective, but we here at Phandroid all agreed that UAG was above the rest. Not only are there cases released for pretty much every phone imaginable, but you aren’t limited to the same style with a few tweaks here and there.
If you’re looking for style and protection for your smartphone, UAG delivers.
If you want a UAG case with the most protection, then the Pathfinder is the way to go. But if you want something that is a bit more svelte and doesn’t add too much bulk, the Civilian Series is incredible. No matter what case you pick, you can’t go wrong.
Best Smartphone Charger – UGREEN 100W 3C1A
It’s one thing to have a charger that can handle the charging speeds of your smartphone, but it’s something else entirely to have one that can handle everything. That’s exactly what you get with the UGREEN 100W 3C1A, as this GaN charger is smaller than what Apple includes with the MacBook Pro.
The UGREEN 100W 3C1A is the ultimate charger for your smartphone, tablet and laptop.
Instead of having a smaller charger with just a single USB-C Power Delivery port, the UGREEN 100W 3C1A features much more. It offers three USB-C ports with fast-charging capabilities, along with a single USB-A port and the power is distributed evenly to ensure that your devices aren’t overcharged.
Best Wireless Charger – Anker 637
Desktop chargers are extremely handy in that you won’t need to crawl around on the floor just to plug (or unplug) something. Anker’s well-known for its vast array of charging accessories, but the Anker 637 is the best wireless charger.
The Anker’s 637 takes wireless charging to a whole new level.
Not only does the Anker 637 offer MagSafe compatibility with the wireless charging puck on the front. But if you flip the charger around, you’ll find an additional seven chargers. These include three AC outlets, two USB-A ports, and two USB-C ports with charging speeds up to 65W.
Best Battery Bank – Anker PowerCore MagGo 5K
There’s something to be said about how incredibly convenient MagSafe is for iPhone users. You can even get an attachment that adds MagSafe functionality to your existing Android smartphone. And with the Anker PowerCore MagGo 5K, you’ll be able to keep your phone juiced up throughout the day with ease.
Keep everything charged up on the go with the Anker PowerCore MagGo 5K.
The portable charger can attach magnetically to the back of any MagSafe compatible device. But you can also just place it on the back of your smartphone and charge it wirelessly. Anker also includes a built-in kickstand, so you can prop up your phone if you want to watch a YouTube video while keeping your hands free at the coffee shop.
Best Smart Light – Govee Lyra
Over the course of 2021, Govee surged atop the rankings for those building out the perfect smart lighting setup. The Govee Lyra is a prime example of why, as this floor lamp is compatible with your favorite smart assistants, but also can be tuned to more than 16 million different colors.
Govee’s Lyra is a prime example of why you should get into smart home lighting.
The compact base sports a satin aluminum finish and doesn’t take up nearly as much space as your traditional floor lamps. With the accompanying Gove Home app, you can create custom color effects and add more than 60 different scenes. It will even change the colors and lighting to match up with the music you’re listening to.
Best Robot Vacuum – Roborock S7
Gone are the days where you need to schedule time out of the day to vacuum or mop the house. Now, you can just tell the Roborock S7 to do the work for you, freeing you up and leaving your home as clean as a whistle.
Forget worrying about needing to vacuum or mop and let the Roborock S7 do the work.
The S7 offers up to 600g mop pressure and uses the company’s 2500PA HyperForce suction to make sure that no spot goes uncleaned. With the Roborock app, you can map out the floor, while setting “No-Go Zones”, or even setting up Invisible Walls to avoid the robot vacuum going near the stairs. Plus, you can add it to your smart home hub of choice, and start cleaning with just a few simple words.
Best Smart Display / Speaker – Google Nest Hub (2nd Gen)
Google finally updated the Nest Hub this year, and while there really wasn’t anything wrong with the first iteration, it was getting a bit long in the tooth. The design is practically the same, but with the Nest Hub (2nd Gen), you can now use it to keep track of your sleeping habits along with controlling the rest of your smart home.
Google’s Nest Hub is the ultimate smart home display.
Along with the additional features, Google also dropped the price down to just $100, which is cheaper than the original iteration. The speakers have been vastly upgraded, offering an additional 50% bass, along with giving you a few different colors to choose from.
Best Backup Battery – BLUETTI AC200MAX
Power Stations have been steadily growing in popularity, and when you take a look at the BLUETTI AC200MAX, you can see why. This power station can be expanded with up to two additional battery modules and offers up to a total of 8,192Wh of power.
Bluetti’s AC200Max delivers all the power you need, in any situation.
All of this, and it can be controlled and monitored right from your smartphone. But you can also take a look at the built-in display if you want to see just how much power is being consumed and how long it will be before you need to juice it back up. Speaking of which, you can power the BLUETTI AC200MAX back up to 100% using traditional wall outlets, or by simply plugging in a solar charger.
Best US Wireless Carrier – T-Mobile
Some could say that 2021 was the year that 5G really took off, and pretty much everyone can thank T-Mobile. The Uncarrier continues to push the envelope as it rolls out 5G networks in more regions than either Verizon or AT&T. And instead of needing to be in the right place at the right time, you can enjoy ultra-fast speeds when connected to T-Mobile’s network.
If you want fast, cheap and reliable 5G, T-Mobile’s the way to go.
Along with the network reliability benefits, T-Mobile also continues to give back to its subscribers thanks to T-Mobile Tuesdays. Various prizes and benefits are released every week as a thank you for those who left their old carriers in the dust. Plus, there are plenty of different cell phone plans to choose from, and they are nowhere near as complicated as what you’ll find elsewhere.