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 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...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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