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The best 5G phones to buy in 2021

Phone carriers are rolling out their 5G networks. It will take years before 5G coverage is available everywhere, but this new network will deliver better speed and improved coverage. Now is the perfect time to invest in a flagship phone that supports 5G, even if you don’t necessarily buy a phone just for its 5G support. Think of it as future-proofing yourself.

We’ve been reviewing 5G phones since the start and have spent countless hours testing all aspects of 5G phones — including their performance, display quality, battery life, and connectivity to 5G networks. And we’ve covered 5G as a whole, from the rollout of 5G networks to the development of the 5G modem.

Here are the best 5G phones available. Right now, the best 5G phone you can get is also the best overall smartphone: The iPhone 12 Pro. Once you know which phone you want, you can check out the latest 5G phone deals for savings.

Best 5G smartphones at a glance

Best 5G phone overall: Apple iPhone 12 Pro

Why you should buy this: The iPhone 12 Pro offers a beautiful display, stunning new design, and the 5G support you would expect from a phone that’s going to last for years to come.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a high-end phone — unless they’re firmly in the Android ecosystem.

Why we picked the Apple iPhone 12 Pro:

The Apple iPhone 12 Pro represents a shift in design for the iPhone series, blending the much-loved iPhone 5 design with the edge-to-edge display found on iPhones since the iPhone X. Of course, it’s more than just pretty though — it offers the best performance you can get in a phone, with an awesome rear camera and a range of premium features.

But we’re here to discuss 5G, so 5G is what we’ll highlight first. The iPhone 12 Pro supports all the different kinds of 5G connectivity, from sub-6 through to mmWave. That sounds like technical jargon because, well, it is — but the upshot is the iPhone should be able to take advantage of 5G on every major U.S. network as they continue to be built up and developed. Even if you can’t really take advantage of 5G just yet, the iPhone 12 Pro means you’ll be ready when it’s available near you.

Like the previous-generation iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone 12 Pro offers an OLED display that meets Apple’s “Super Retina XDR” standard. Tech specs of the display aside, the 5G iPhone offers a sharp image with bright vivid colors and deep black levels. It looks great. Apple has also revived MagSafe for the iPhone 12 series, and as such, the new iPhone can take advantage of the new ecosystem of magnetic accessories, including those that allow for faster wireless charging.

The camera is a step up this year too, though perhaps not as much of a step up as the iPhone 11 Pro was compared to the iPhone XS. The 5G device offers a triple-lens rear camera with one wide, one ultrawide, and one telephoto lens. You’ll get a wider f/1.6 aperture on the primary lens, which means that the camera can let in more light than before — essentially meaning you’ll get better low-light shots. It’s an iterative update to the camera, but you’re still getting among the best you can get in a smartphone camera.

The Apple A14 Bionic chip in the iPhone 12 Pro is Apple’s most powerful chip to date. It’s easily powerful enough to handle all the mobile gaming and multitasking you can throw at it, and it should remain so for at least three or four years before it even starts to slow down. In classic Apple fashion, we also expect the iPhone 12 Pro to stay up-to-date with new versions of iOS well into the next four or five years.

 Read our full Apple iPhone 12 Pro review

Best 5G Android phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: If you prefer to stick within the Android ecosystem, then the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a beautifully huge display, excellent multitasking features, and a high-end camera.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants the best Android phone they can get that also happens to support 5G.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the latest high-end phone in Samsung’s bestselling series, offering a sleek new design, a great camera, and a beautiful display with a variable refresh rate. The 5G smartphone is perfect for both work and play, and it’s a perfect choice for mobile gamers, thanks to its huge display.

Samsung has been bundling 5G connectivity into its flagship phones for a while now, so it’s no surprise the S21 Ultra comes bundled with every current 5G network compatibility, including sub-6 and mmWave. That means it’ll work with every 5G network at the moment, so you can rest assured it’ll work with any network if you choose to buy unlocked.

Under the hood, the phone offers everything you would expect from a flagship Android device in 2021. There’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor coupled with up to a massive 16GB of RAM and a hefty 5,000mAh battery that will easily last through a full day of even heavier use. Speaking of “heavy,” though, the main downside to the phone is its size, weight, and where that weight is placed within the phone. The camera nodule adds a lot of weight, and that makes the phone top-heavy — so make sure to keep two hands on it most of the time.

On the back of the phone is a pretty huge camera bump, but that bump hosts a great camera, and it doesn’t look too out of place, thanks to how it flows into the frame of the phone. You’ll get a 108-megapixel main camera, with two 10MP telephoto sensors (one with 3x optical zoom and one with 10x optical zoom), and a 12MP ultrawide camera.

For the productivity-focused on the go, Samsung DeX has been getting better and better, and on the S21 Ultra, it’s wireless, too. If you’re a drawing fan, you can also pair it with Samsung’s S Pen for some serious sketching.

There aren’t too many downsides with this phone, but nothing’s perfect. There’s the previously mentioned weight issue, no microSD card slot, and the phone is pretty expensive. But as with anything, you get what you pay for, and with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, you’re getting one of the best 5G phones out there.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

Best value 5G phone: Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: The Samsung Galaxy S21 might not have all the Ultra’s features, but it’s still a powerful flagship at a lower price.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a 5G-capable phone that offers high-end specs at a relatively affordable price.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S21:

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra may be one of the best 5G phones out there, but ultimately, you probably don’t need all of the features it has to offer. If you’re willing to deal with a slightly less premium build and a bit less RAM, you’re getting practically the same experience from a cheaper phone in the Samsung Galaxy S21.

A lower price doesn’t mean lesser 5G, though — the Samsung Galaxy S21 comes with full 5G compatibility for all major U.S. carriers, so you’ll be able to able to access the fastest 5G connections across the country and should be able to hop between them on an unlocked model without losing access to 5G.

The specs on offer by the phone are almost identical to the specs you would get in a more expensive phone. You’ll get the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, with 8GB of RAM, 128GB or 256GB of storage, and a 4,000mAh battery that’s nothing special but will last you a day of all but the heaviest use. These specs match what you’ll get in the Galaxy S21 Ultra (or are as close as makes no difference), and while there’s no microSD card slot any longer, that’s a common feature in the S21 range as a whole, as is the lack of a charger in the box.

The camera doesn’t match the iPhone 12 Pro or Galaxy S21 Ultra, but it’s still a great phone camera. You get a 12MP wide camera paired with a 64MP telephoto camera and a 12MP ultrawide camera. It shoots great photos the vast majority of the time, even if it’s functionally identical to the Galaxy S20‘s camera. But you shouldn’t be disappointed, as long as you’re not upgrading from last year’s model purely from the camera. It does struggle with lower-light shots sometimes, but it’s otherwise a solid camera with a lot to recommend — especially at this price.

The display isn’t the biggest around — 6.2-inches — which is good if you’re looking for a smaller smartphone. It’s not lacking in specs, though, as it’s a Dynamic 2X AMOLED with a 2400 x 1080 resolution and a 120HZ refresh rate. In short, it’s sharp, colorful, and feels extremely smooth in action.

Other features include the fact that the phone offers an in-display fingerprint sensor and wireless charging — but the cheaper price tag does show itself in the build. The plastic back is very noticeable if you’re used to more premium glass. Still, chuck a case on it and you won’t care.

So, what about the price? Well, while the Samsung Galaxy S21 may have launched at $800, it’s more than possible to find some pretty great deals on it already. Best Buy is currently offering it unlocked for $150 off, so a cool $650. That makes it a strong value proposition and one of the best smartphone bargains out there.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Best cheap 5G phone: Google Pixel 4a 5G

Why you should buy this: The Google Pixel 4a 5G offers the awesome camera and stock Android experience you would expect from a Pixel phone, in a cheaper body.

Who it’s for: Anyone that wants that Googley phone experience without needing the bonus features.

Why we picked the Google Pixel 4a 5G:

The standard Google Pixel 4a is easily the best Android phone for $350 or less, but there’s also a 5G version of the phone, which has a better processor, upgraded camera, and a larger display. The 5G variant would be better named the “Google Pixel 5 Lite,” since it shares more in common with the more expensive, flagship device than the budget Pixel 4a.

The standard Pixel 4a 5G supports sub-6 5G, and you’ll have to pay $100 for a Verizon version if you want mmWave support. Most, however, should stick with the unlocked model, considering the low availability of mmWave in general.

Going back to the device itself, the design of the device is more modern than any other Pixel phone before it. It has an edge-to-edge display with a hole-punch cutout for the front-facing camera, and in a bit of a throwback, a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. It’s nothing flashy for sure, like its bigger sibling, the Pixel 5, but it gets the job done. If you’re not too bothered about flashy designs and wireless charging, there aren’t too many downsides.

Under the hood, the phone is pretty powerful. You’ll get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G processor, which should be able to handle most that you can put it through. Coupled with that, there’s a 3,885mAh battery that most reviews suggest will get the phone through easily a full day of use. If you’re looking to grab 5G on a budget, then Google’s excellent Pixel 4a 5G should be your first port of call.

Best foldable 5G phone: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G

Galaxy Z Fold 2 vs Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Foldable phones are still in their infancy, but the Galaxy Z Fold 2 makes us excited to see more, thanks to its excellent specs and two beautiful displays.

Who it’s for: Anyone who wants a phone and a tablet all rolled into one.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G:

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is a luxury phone, to be sure, but if you want it all, and want the foldable experience with 5G support, this uber-flashy phone is the way to go.

As befits its super-premium price, the phone supports sub-6 and mmWave 5G, so it’s compatible with every major U.S. carrier’s network. That means that no matter where you are, if you have a 5G connection, you should be able to take advantage of it with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2.

But let’s move on to the most interesting part of this phone — the foldable display. Unfold your phone (as you’re going to want to do as soon as possible) and you’ll find a stunning 7.2-inch AMOLED display. Sure, a lot of apps are optimized for use on this big screen, but it’s still impressive to use, and something of a game-changer for multi-tasking. But it’s not all about the big inner display though, as there’s a good-looking display on the outside too — a 6.23-inch AMOLED display that’s just as useable and useful. Any open apps will snap between the two screens as well, so you can start using Maps on your outer screen, and continue using it if you open the phone up.

The phone also has a lot to offer under the hood. You’ll get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor, along with 12GB of RAM and either 256GB or 512GB of storage. These specs can handle pretty much anything you throw at it, and considering its ability to multitask, it might actually need these high specs. Powering it all is a 4,500mAh battery, which can get the phone through a day of use, though your usage may vary.

The camera is solid, too. There are three sensors, with one 12MP main camera, one 12MP telephoto camera, and one 12MP ultrawide camera. The 5G mobile phone is able to deliver solid photos and videos too — so don’t feel like you have to compromise on camera quality to get the foldable experience.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 review

Research and buying tips

Where can I get 5G?

Unlike a year ago, 5G service is actually pretty widely available now — though it really depends on what network you use. T-Mobile was the first to launch a nationwide network, built on its sub-6 spectrum, while Verizon finally launched a nationwide 5G network that relies on some fancy spectrum-sharing tech recently. AT&T has a relatively wide-spread 5G network now too.

If you live in a major city, you should have access to some kind of 5G network, and chances are you have access to one from all three of the major carriers. If you live in a rural area though, your odds still aren’t very good — though it might still be worth picking up one of the best 5G phones now if you’re worried about future-proofing yourself.

The different kinds of 5G

5G isn’t just 5G. If you have access to a 5G network right now, chances are you’re on what’s called a sub-6 network — which are much more available around the country.

But there’s another kind of 5G technology, too, called mmWave. And how it performs is drastically different from sub-6. MmWave networks are far faster than sub-6 networks in terms of 5G speed, and offer multi-gigabit speeds at times — which is enough to download a 4K movie in a matter of seconds. But mmWave connections are extremely limited, in that they rely on frequencies that can only travel very short distances, and can’t really go through obstacles, thus limiting 5G access.

That’s where sub-6 networks come in. Like 4G LTE, sub-6 relies on frequencies that can travel much further, sometimes a matter of miles. The downside to that, however, is that those connections can’t quite reach the same speeds as mmWave connections.

5G may not be widely available just yet, but it's getting there. Here's where you can find 5G in the U.S.
5G Map

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