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The top 10 camera phones of 2021: our standout handsets of the year

The top 10 camera phones of 2021
(Image credit: Future)

Despite the ongoing chip shortages and pandemic uncertainties, 2021 has managed to be another exciting year for camera phones. Ever-faster processing power, folding screens, even more intelligent AI image processing algorithms, higher megapixel counts, larger image sensors - it's all helped make the best camera phones (opens in new tab) of 2021 supremely impressive.

Here's our rundown of the 10 most noteworthy camera phones of the year and why we love them, in order of their release...

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)
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It may have been launched back in January, but the S21 Ultra is still unbeaten

Specifications

Release date: January 2021
Rear cameras: 108MP f/1.8, 10MP f/2.4, 10MP f/4.9, 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide
Front camera: 40MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 227g
Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm
Storage: 128/256/512GB

Reasons to buy

+
Fantastic camera zoom
+
Beautiful display

Reasons to avoid

-
A little pricey
-
No microSD card slot

Despite being almost 12 months old, the Galaxy S21 Ultra still reins supreme at the top of our best camera phone guide. This is in spite of some extremely tough competition from the likes of the iPhone 13 Pro and Sony Xperia 1 III.

The reason the S21 has managed to fend off these rivals is thanks to its superb camera hardware - it boasts four rear cameras, including a stellar 108MP f/1.8 main camera, a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera and two 10MP telephoto cameras – one with an f/2.4 aperture and 3x optical zoom and one with an f/4.9 aperture and a huge 10x optical zoom.

Then there's the sublime 6.8" Dynamic AMOLED 2X display which features a 120Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling and gaming experiences, HDR10+ support, 1500-nit peak brightness and a 1440 x 3200 resolution.

Factor the phone's useful S Pen support, improved interface and solid performance, and the S21 Ultra got 2021 off to one heck of a start!

In full: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli)
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Sony's most extreme flagship phone ever

Specifications

Release date: January 2021
Rear cameras: 12MP f/1.7 24mm wide, 12MP 16mm ultrawide, 12MP 70mm telephoto
Front camera: 8MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 225.1g
Dimensions: 170.2 x 76.2 x 10.2mm
Storage: 512GB, microSDXC

Reasons to buy

+
Undeniably useful multi-functions
+
Gorgeous 4K OLED display
+
Most stable 5G on any phone we've tested

Reasons to avoid

-
Overpriced as a personal phone
-
No recording as external monitor
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No overlays like peaking/zebra

The standout feature of the Xperia Pro is that it was designed to be a two-in-one smartphone and field monitor for videographers. If you fall into this rather small market subset, the Pro proved to be really handy as a field monitor and a 5G hotspot. It’s also an Android smartphone that’ll run your camera companion apps like a champ, be they made by Canon, Sony or another camera maker.

But the Xperia Pro was never going to find many buyers who would use it their personal smartphone 'daily driver'. Its eye-watering $2,499 / £2,299 launch price made that prospect incredibly difficult to justify. The Xperia Pro was simply too focussed at professional videographers needing a multi-purpose work tool. And for that market, it excelled where no other phone could offer such versatility.

Sony has long targeted the imaging enthusiast/creative pro audience with its flagship camera phones, but the Xperia Pro was its most hardcore offering. It's a handset we are very glad exists, even if we wouldn't really recommend you actually splash the cash and buy one.

In full: Sony Xperia Pro review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli / Digital Camera World)
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A stunning foldable, if hard to recommend

Specifications

Release date: February 2021
Rear cameras: 50MP f/1.9 23mm wide, 16MP 17mm ultrawide, 12MP 70mm telephoto, 8MP 240mm periscope telephoto
Front camera: 16MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 295g
Dimensions: Unfolded: 161.8 x 145.8 x 8.2mm, folded: 161.8 x 74.6 x 14.7mm
Storage: 256/512GB, Nano Memory up to 256GB

Reasons to buy

+
Fantastic camera system (17mm-240mm)
+
Superb folding hardware
+
Kickstand included in box

Reasons to avoid

-
No wireless charging
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No Google Mobile Services

What do the Huawei Mate X2 and Sony Xperia Pro have in common, aside from being released in 2021 and costing an arm, leg, and half your soul? Well, they're both a technical tour de force, yet both were destined to be sales flops. In the case of the Mate X2, its lack of Google Services meant few would actually make the leap and buy one, but this is still one mightily impressive camera phone.

When unfolded, the huge interior OLED screen measures 8 inches and benefits from a 90Hz refresh rate and features a resolution of 2480 x 2200 — 413 pixels per inch (PPI). Fold the Mate X2, and the exterior screen is a 21:9 aspect ratio, 6.45-inch OLED panel, also sporting a 90 Hz refresh rate.

Whereas the rival Galaxy Z Fold3 may be newer, its camera hardware is somewhat pedestrian. By contrast, the Mate X2 features a superb 50MP Ultra Vision primary camera, a 16MP 17mm-equivalent ultra-wide module, and even dual telephoto cameras, with 70mm and 240mm-equivalant focal lengths, for 3x and 10x zoom respectively.

We applaud Huawei for going all-out and producing the most highly-specced foldable camera phone of 2021, in spite of being hung out to dry by Google.

In full: Huawei Mate X2 review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)
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The best budget camera phone of 2021

Specifications

Release date: March 2021
Rear cameras: 108MP f/1.9 26mm wide, 8MP f/2.2 ultrawide, 5MP macro, 2MP depth
Front camera: 16MP
OIS: No
Weight: 193g
Dimensions: 164 x 76.5 x 8.1mm
Storage: 64GB/128GB, microSDXC

Reasons to buy

+
Fantastic value camera system
+
Best-in-class 120Hz AMOLED screen
+
Sleek design

Reasons to avoid

-
In-interface adverts
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No autofocus on ultra-wide
-
No telephoto lens
-
Limited availability

2021 has been great for flagship phones, but it's been even better for budget handsets. We've seen phones from Oppo, Poco, Realme and OnePlus which all offer incredible specs for a relativelt small outlay, but none have offered such good value as the Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro, launched in March.

With a global launch price of US$279, you'd have been forgiven for thinking the Note 10 Pro would be just another cut-down disappointment, but it was quite the opposite. Its 108MP camera system was best-in-class, and by a wide margin. Its screen should be more at home fronting a flagship handset, while a huge 5020mAh battery, sleek design and enough processing power to deliver smooth performance made the Note 10 Pro a stunning all-rounder and unbeatable value for money.

In full: Redmi Note 10 Pro review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)
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Move over iPhone/Galaxy S21: Xiaomi guns for premium status

Specifications

Release date: April 2021
Rear cameras: 50MP f/2.0 24mm wide, 48MP 12mm ultrawide, 48MP 120mm periscope telephoto
Front camera: 20MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 234g
Dimensions: 164.3 x 74.6 x 8.4mm
Storage: 256/512GB

Reasons to buy

+
Stunning screen
+
Excellent camera system
+
Powerful performance

Reasons to avoid

-
Gimmicky rear display
-
Camera bump is huge
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Mediocre battery life

It's only a matter of time before a budget/mid-range phone company tries breaking into the flagship sector - after all, that's where the big profit margins are. April 2021 marked the point at which Xiaomi made the leap from a budget brand with an unpronounceable name to a genuine rival for the likes of Apple, Samsung and Google.

The Mi II Ultra was nothing short of a beast of a camera phone, with an almost 1-inch primary camera sensor in the form of Samsung's latest ISOCELL GN2 chip - a sensor big enough to rival the Sony RX100 VII sensor-size. That was teamed with a 48MP ultrawide camera, and a 48MP periscope zoom module. The premium specs extended to a 6.81-inch AMOLED screen with a 120Hz refresh rate and a stunning 92.4 per cent screen-to-body for a true flagship feel. Then there was the top-tier Snapdragon 888 SoC paired with either 8GB or 12GB RAM to ensure the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra made short work of whatever you chose to throw at it.

The Mi 11 Ultra proved that as well as making the best budget camera phones like the Redmi Note 10 Pro, it could also hold its own against the very best phones in the business.

In full: Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli / Digital Camera World)
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Gimmicky? Probably. Cool? Undoubtedly!

Specifications

Release date: May 2021
Rear cameras: 64MP f/1.8 26mm wide, 12MP 14mm ultrawide, 8MP 80mm telephoto
Front cameras: Rear cameras all flip forward
OIS: No
Weight: 230g
Dimensions: 165 x 77.3 x 9.6mm
Storage: 128GB/256GB, microSDXC

Reasons to buy

+
Novel, handy flip-out camera
+
Premium design
+
Powerful internals

Reasons to avoid

-
No OIS on any camera
-
Chunky design
-
No wireless charging

Innovation can be hard to come by in camera phones. The quest for ever-higher screen-to-body ratios has resulted in many phones looking mostly the same. And while at first glance the Zenfone 8 appears to fit right into this standard, it does boasts a seriously cool party piece.

Its 3 rear-facing cameras are mounted on a hinged panel which is motorized and can rotate around the topside of the phone, so the cameras face back at you and can double up as selfie cameras. That means you no longer need to compromise on image quality when shooting selfies, and you can choose from a wide, ultra-wide or telephoto viewing angle. The Zenfone 8 wasn't the first phone to sport such a trick, but it's still unusual and guaranteed to generate a lot of fuss when used in public.

A huge 5000mAh battery and flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 gave the Zenfone 8 added appeal, though this was always destined to be a phone that would only ever reach a niche audience. Even so, we've got to hand it to Asus for trying something a bit different in order to carve out that niche.

In full: Asus Zenfone 8 Flip review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)
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Samsung makes the foldable phone truly practical

Specifications

Release date: August 2021
Rear cameras: 12MP f/1.8 27mm wide, 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide
Front camera: 10MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 183g
Dimensions: Unfolded: 166 x 72.2 x 6.9mm, folded: 86.4 x 72.2 x 15.9-17.1mm
Storage: 128/256GB

Reasons to buy

+
Feels solid and premium
+
IPX8 water-resistant
+
Steady shooting in Flex Panel mode

Reasons to avoid

-
No telephoto camera
-
Last-gen 12MP camera spec
-
Better value imaging elsewhere

Up to this point the folding screen phone had been a mighty impressive feat of engineering, but one which always carried with it the worry of long-term fragility. Samsung changed that in August with the Z Flip3 - a landmark smartphone, costing less than a top-tier iPhone while delivering a foldable screen and a design that felt solid in the hand.

The cameras weren’t quite so ground-breaking: a 12MP wide primary camera with 1.4-micron pixels, a f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization, plus a 12MP ultra-wide secondary camera.

But it's that folding screen which really set the Z Flip3 apart. When opened up, the 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED display managed to be 29 per cent brighter than the original Z Flip, while also boasting a slick 120Hz refresh rate. Last but far from least, there was also the phone's IPX8 water resistance - a huge deal for folding smartphones, as their moving parts make them much harder to weatherproof, let alone achieve an IPX8 rating.

Foldable displays are still a luxury, but the Z Flip3 proved that we’re eking ever closer to a world in which folding mobiles could well become the norm.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 hands-on review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Future)
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A modest upgrade, but still a superb all-rounder

Specifications

Release date: September 2021
Rear cameras: 12MP f/1.5 26mm wide, 12MP 13mm ultrawide, 12MP 77mm telephoto
Front camera: 12MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 204g
Dimensions: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.7mm
Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB

Reasons to buy

+
Cheaper than iPhone 12 Pro
+
Excellent macro/close-up focusing
+
Same cameras as Pro Max

Reasons to avoid

-
No advanced controls in native app
-
Price still high
-
Relatively restricted zoom

September's iPhone 13 launch gave us four new phones, none of which offered anything remarkably new or innovative, but all were typically solid performers with excellent photographic quality. We reckon the 13 Pro was the pick of the bunch, offering the same camera specs as the flagship Pro Max, but in a more convenient, easy to handle size.

Compared to 2020's iPhone 12 Pro, not much was new, aside from a nifty new macro mode and low light improvements for the ultrawide camera. Apple's Cinematic Video mode was also a nice - if not essential - new feature.

With recent iPhones clearly doing enough to maintain a vast and loyal fan base, it's hardly surprising Apple didn't feel the need to push any boundaries with the iPhone 13 Pro. But for still being the best iPhone yet, it has to make it onto this list.

In full: Apple iPhone 13 Pro review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)
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The phone that put Google back on the flagship camera phone map

Specifications

Release date: October 2021
Rear cameras: 50MP f/1.9, 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide, 48MP f/3.5 telephoto
Front camera: 11.1MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 210g
Dimensions: 163.9 x 75.9 x 8.9mm
Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB

Reasons to buy

+
Natural, reliable photo processing
+
Striking design and we love it
+
Big, bold, punchy screen
+
Uncluttered Android experience

Reasons to avoid

-
Can get warm with heavy use
-
Battery weak at first, then improves
-
Ultra-wide lens is fixed-focus

Despite a strong start, Google's Pixel phones had got a little disappointing by the Pixel 5. Thankfully, Google pulled out all the stops with the Pixel 6 Pro, and it hits the target. Its camera system was treated to a significant hardware refresh, and this was the first Pixel to get a periscope zoom camera. The new handset design was also nothing short of striking. We found everything from performance to photography to be impressive on Google’s top-tier flagship – a hands down win for Google in 2021.

In full: Google Pixel 6 Pro review (opens in new tab)

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)
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Sony's best-ever camera phone, with a landmark camera sensor

Specifications

Release date: December 2021
Rear cameras: 12MP f/2.0-4.0 24mm wide, 12MP 16mm ultrawide, 12MP 50mm telephoto
Front camera: 8MP
OIS: Yes
Weight: 211g
Dimensions: 166 x 72 x 8.9mm
Storage: 512GB, microSDXC

Reasons to buy

+
Huge 1-inch main camera sensor
+
Feels like using a real camera
+
Superb quality screen

Reasons to avoid

-
No periscope lens
-
High price tag

Where the Xperia Pro (above) was noteworthy in 2021 for being outlandishly advanced while also appealing to very few people, the newer Pro-I boasts equally impressive hardware and actually has mass-market appeal.

Here we have a camera phone that manages to outperform the Google Pixel 6 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro when it comes to taking natural-looking, detailed photos and videos with impressive dynamic range, stabilization, and scope to edit. Sadly its missing out on wireless charging and a periscope zoom camera module, but the Pro-I makes up for these shortcomings by packing a huge 1-inch size sensor for the primary camera. It's the largest sensor we've ever seen in a camera phone, and while not the first phone to employ this size of sensor - the Panasonic CM1 won that honour back in 2015 - the Pro-I manages this feat while still being super-slim.

Can even this leap forward give Sony a fighting chance against Apple and Samsung? From what we've seen so far of the Pro-I, it should, but then convincing iPhone and Galaxy S-series fans away from their beloved handsets is no easy task.

Sony Xperia Pro-I review (opens in new tab)

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