“What’s the best phone?” is probably the question that I’m asked more than any other (as a tech journalist). And it’s fair enough. Smartphones are, for most people, the part of technology they care most about. If only I could give them a simple answer.
Personally, I think the iPhone 12 Pro is the best smartphone on the market. Anyone who buys this will not be disappointed. Yet, I also think that it’s too much smartphone for the majority of people. And so, it’s also too expensive for the majority of people.
Apple CEO, Tim Cook, clearly agrees with me. That’s why Apple, in the post-Steve Jobs era, has started selling “affordable” iPhones. The current examples are the lower-spec iPhone 11 and 12 devices and iPhone SE. Both are very good handsets, but they’re some way off the iPhone 12 Pro regarding what’s inside them and what they can do.
The same can be said for Android. Last year’s crop of high-end Android smartphones – Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, Oppo Find X2 Pro, et al. – are as impressive as they are expensive. Here’s the thing: most people don’t use their phones for gaming, which means most people don’t need the expensive processors that push the price of Android devices close to the two thousand dollar mark. And sometimes past that.
So, with that in mind, this article will offer you two things. First, you’ll see a ranked list of what I think are the best phones available to buy in New Zealand in 2021. However, if you’re looking to pick up the best phone available in New Zealand…that’s right for you. I’ll also explain some things to look out for, and list (what I think) are the best smartphones for most people.
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Best Phone in New Zealand 2021 (…if money were no object!)
1. iPhone 12 Pro Max ($2,099)
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best of the best of what Apple can achieve in a smartphone. It’s a big and expensive device that won’t be to everyone’s taste or budget. But for anyone who wants a big phone, with a killer camera set up, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is undeniably impressive.
Here’s my iPhone 12 Pro Max review.
2. iPhone 12 Pro ($1,899)
I love this phone. It’s the one I grab whenever I’m not reviewing a new device. It’s sits neatly between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro Max in terms of features, while its size is small enough to make it suitable for those of us that don’t want a huge smartphone. It’s worth noting, however, that the iPhone 12 Pro’s camera setup isn’t the same as the Pro Max’s – it’s a little bit less “wow” but still very good.
3. iPhone 12 & iPhone 12 mini ($1,499 & $1,349)
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini are the same phones, just in different sizes (and with different sized batteries). The rest is the same. The iPhone 12 (and mini) improves on its predecessor (the iPhone 11) in every department that matters. Its camera, display, all-round processing performance, screen durability are all better. And most important of all, it brings 5G to the iPhone for the first time.
This is the new phone that, I think, most people should buy in 2020. Unless, of course, they want something smaller – in which case, the iPhone 12 mini is almost identical. Just, you know, smaller.
4. Samsung Galaxy S21 ($1,399)
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is all about two things. A lower price and a better processor that makes a phone – that’s otherwise not very different from last year’s model – a bit better in all departments. The price drop is obviously a good thing too.
However, here in New Zealand, it’s only NZ$100 cheaper, which is offensively smaller than the discount seen in the US. And that leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, which for many might be compounded by the lack of actual upgrades elsewhere in the phone.
Here’s my Samsung Galaxy S21 review.
5. Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus ($1,699)
Samsung has improved the Galaxy S Plus device in all the areas you’d expect – camera performance, screen quality, battery life and 5G – and the result is three smartphones that, I expect, will be very popular with customers.
Here’y my Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus review.
6. Samsung Galaxy S20 ($1,299)
Sitting underneath the S20 Plus is the S20. Much like the iPhone 12 has most of the iPhone 12 Pro Max features that most people need, the S20’s relationship to the S20 Plus is the same. Minus 5G. Which may or may not be an issue for you.
The rest is solid. The S20’s processor, screen, and camera set up is still very good. Samsung is expected to launch the Galaxy S21 range in early 2021, though. So maybe hold fire on buying this, if you’re planning on buying a high-end Samsung smartphone.
Here’s my Samsung Galaxy S20 review.
7. Oppo Find X2 Pro ($1,899)
Welcome to the big leagues, Oppo. This is a device that has it all. The camera(s), screen, processor and even battery is everything you could hope for from an Android Smartphone in 2020. The only question you need to ask yourself is a subjective one: do you like the design? If the answer is yes, then you’re going to love the Oppo find X2 Pro.
Here’s my Oppo Find X2 Pro review.
8. Samsung Galaxy FE ($899)
I really like what the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE represents. It’s a device that recognises the world, and the smartphone market has changed. Fewer people are happy to spend thousands of dollars on a smartphone with crazy premium features, right now. A growing number of customers just want a phone that’s got a good camera, decent screen, big battery and is speedy to use.
This is a phone that has trimmed the fat. Samsung deserves heaps of credit for taking the time to find the features that people don’t really care about and replacing them with a cheaper, but still more than good enough, option. This is that phone.
Here’s my Samsung Galaxy FE review.
9. Oppo Reno4 Pro 5G ($999)
Oppo has joined the likes of OnePlus (with the Nord), Samsung (with the Galaxy S20 FE) and even Apple (with the SE) in created a great mid-range smartphone that covers the essentials really well.
This phone has a great screen, camera, chip and battery performance. It’s a lot of phone for NZ$999 and is definitely worth your consideration if you don’t know the benefits you’re paying for in the latest flagships.
Here’s my Oppo Reno4 Pro 5G review.
10. iPhone 11 ($1,129)
This is still a very good smartphohne. Even by 2021’s standards.
Its camera, battery, processor, display are still up-to-date. And that’s what you should care about when they’re buying a new phone. The only question you should be asking yourself now is whether you want to pay an extra $300 for the iPhone 12? Probably.
Here’s my iPhone 11 review
Best Phone in NZ 2021: 5 things to consider
1. Apple vs Android
There’s no right or wrong answer to this question; They’re both very good operating systems. And ultimately, it comes down to personal choice.
If you like iOS then I suggest you stick with it. It’s a solid operating system that’s fast, well designed and simple to use. It doesn’t disappoint, and it’s as secure as they come.
Similarly, if you feel Android’s open nature is more suited to your needs, then buying Android phones is a solid choice too. There’s no noticeable difference regarding mainstream app availability anymore.
That said, it’s worth noting that Android is more fragmented than iOS by nature. Apple has designed iOS specifically for its iPhones, and as a result, it’s a more efficient operating system than Android.
Android is an open-source OS that will run on a ton of different phones. But it’s not as optimised as iOS. This is important to keep in mind, as you’ll notice that Android’s specs wipe the floor with Apple’s regarding battery size, RAM and arguable raw processing power. However, the performance of these specs running a one-size-fits-all Android OS is far less efficient than what the iPhone and iOS are capable of.
Android manufacturers are also often guilty of butchering the performance and usability of the OS further with their own Android overlay (sometimes referred to as UI or launcher). For example, Samsung calls its overlay One UI, Oppo’s is ColorOS, and Huawei’s is/was EMUI. They all suck. They’re an added layer of branding/marketing that, in my opinion, detract from stock (best) Android experience.
The launcher/overlay that OnePlus runs is the best version of Android you’re going to get unless you buy a Pixel.
Every manufacturer will claim they make the phone with the best camera. The reality is that they all have strengths and weaknesses. Why? Because they’re all calibrated slightly differently re their hardware and software.
Knowing what to look out for here is really tricky. In the Android world, Sony sensors are king – but they have confusing names such as the IMX586 or the IMX555. Whereas Apple, as per, designs and manufacturers its own sensors.
The camera hardware inside a phone only tells half though story though. The way an image is processed also has a huge impact on the quality of a photo. This opens another set of problems with each manufacturer tuning their images slightly differently, resulting in different hues, tones and contrasts.
A smartphone camera’s “zoom” is another thing that needs to be taken into consideration. The Samsung Galaxy S20, for example, claims that it offers 100x zoom, which isn’t strictly true. In fact, it only has an optical zoom of 5x. The difference is made up with its digital zoom, which isn’t zoom at all – it’s cropping and AI processing.
Apple designs and builds its own chips. A14 is the latest and greatest work, and you’ll find it in all iPhone 12 devices.
The Android equivalent is something called the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. Make sure you look out for this, or something with similar performance (such as the Exynos 2100) if you want a high-end Android device.
4. Battery life
As a general rule, bigger is better here. The more mAH you can get, the longer you phone should last. High-end features such as 90hz (or even 120hz) displays and lower-end processors, will cause your battery to drain more rapidly. So look of for auto-scaling displays and, as I mention above, the Snapdragon 888 chipset for optimal power performance.
The iPhone is the exception that proves the rule here, though – benefitting from its purpose-built ecosystem that optimises power consumption a lot (lot lot lot) better than its Android rivals.
I think we’ve reached the stage where you don’t really need to worry about the quality of your phone screen anymore. Smartphone display’s pixel density exceeds what our eyes can see a long time ago. If you’re buying a flagship device that’s been released in the past couple of years, it’s going to be good.
If, however, you want the best. I suggest looking for OLED displays with refresh rates above 90hz. What size you should go for is up to you.