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Best 5G phones 2021: these are the next-gen handsets you should pick up

Best 5G phones
(Image credit: Motorola, Apple, Samsung)

In 2021, the best 5G phone for you won't just be the latest top-price flagship, as it would have been in past years when 5G was still new. Now that most new mid-range phones (and even some budget ones) connect to the next-gen cellular networks, there's a lot of choice for you. We'll highlight the best ones below.

5G is the next generation of mobile data connectivity, bringing super-fast speeds along with improved reliability and connection stability over 4G, making it great for tasks like online gaming, streaming movies, and quickly downloading large files.

Now that 2021 has shown its smartphone hand, so to speak, this list is likely going to stay the same until 2022 – that is, unless any last-minute handsets show up. Expect many to see price drops during the upcoming Black Friday on November 26 and Cyber Monday on November 29, especially the Android models.

This round-up isn't just a replica of our standard best smartphones guide. Instead, we've considered the key uses of 5G, and brought you a list that focuses on these key points. The following roundup is broken down into categories to fit the reasons you might be looking to buy a 5G phone.

Each of these entries has a 'best' model and a 'runner up' to give you a choice even within the categories, which is especially important given that not all of our best phone picks are available in the US or other regions.

At TechRadar, we test every new 5G phone that comes out, so we've got a good idea of how they all run, work, and compare. We've used that knowledge to create this buying guide to help you work out which 5G phone is best for you.

  • What is 5G? Our full explainer about the next-gen internet tech

Best 5G phones at any price

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Samsung)

1. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

A top tier smartphone, and it takes our best crown

Release date: January 2021
Weight: 227g
Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm
OS: Android 11
Screen size: 6.8-inch
Resolution: 1440 x 3200
CPU: Snapdragon 888 / Exynos 2100
RAM: 12GB / 16GB
Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB
Battery: 5,000mAh
Rear camera: 108MP + 10MP + 10MP + 12MP
Front camera: 40MP
Reasons to buy
+The best camera zoom+Mesmerizing design
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive at any level-No microSD card slot

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra tops our list of the best smartphones, so being a 5G phone it’s also of course the best 5G phone you can buy – but it doesn’t come cheap.

Still, you get a decent amount for your money, with a 6.8-inch 1440 x 3200 curved AMOLED screen (that also has a 120Hz refresh rate), a top-end chipset, up to 16GB of RAM, and a quad-lens camera, with a 108MP main shooter, a 12MP ultra-wide, and a pair of 10MP telephotos snappers – allowing for up to 10x optical zoom.

The design impresses too, with a stylish matte glass back and an edge-to-edge display. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra also has a big battery, so you can make use of 5G (and everything else) for longer, and there’s support for the S Pen stylus, making this better for art and productivity than most smartphones.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

OnePlus 9 Pro

(Image credit: OnePlus)

2. OnePlus 9 Pro

Another top Android choice

Release date: March 2021
Weight: 197g
Dimensions: 163.2 x 73.6 x 8.7mm
OS: Android 11
Screen size: 6.7-inch
Resolution: 1440 x 3216
CPU: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 8/12GB
Storage: 128/256GB
Battery: 4,500mAh
Rear camera: 48MP + 50MP + 8MP + 2MP
Front camera: 16MP
Reasons to buy
+Fantastic camera quality+Powerful specs
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive-No microSD support

The latest best OnePlus phone out there, the OnePlus 9 Pro is a top-tier device that improves upon past issues such as a weak camera. 

Besides offering that all-important 5G connectivity, it's the best OnePlus camera phone out there thanks to its 'freeform' ultra-wide lens that's designed to reduce the distortion at the edge of images, plus a partnership with Hasselblad. 

Elsewhere are high-end specs in the form of the Snapdragon 888 chipset, up to 12GB of RAM, and a 6.7-inch 1440 x 3216 AMOLED screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. HDR10+ support means visuals look fantastic too. 

65W fast charging and 50W wireless charging sweetens the deal meaning this is a pricey if highly commendable release from OnePlus. 

Best cheap 5G phones

OnePlus Nord CE 5G

(Image credit: OnePlus)

1. OnePlus Nord CE 5G

OnePlus' true budget 5G phone

Release date: June 2021
Weight: 170g
Dimensions: 159.2 x 73.5 x 7.9mm
OS: Android 11
Screen size: 6.67-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2400
CPU: Snapdragon 732G
Storage: 64GB/128GB
Battery: 5,020mAh
Rear camera: 108MP + 8MP + 5MP + 2MP
Front camera: 16MP
Reasons to buy
+It has a long-lasting battery+It feels great in the hand
Reasons to avoid
-It misses the traditional OnePlus alert slider-The camera performance is only okay

While OnePlus has a few Nord phones that offer low-cost 5G, the OnePlus Nord CE 5G is its only true cheap offering, with a low price that undercuts lots of the competition.

This one looks and feels pretty great, whether you're just peering at its colorful back or swiping through its menus. We also found its battery life was very impressive, something you can't say about many 5G phones, and lots of its other specs are good for the price.

This isn't the perfect phone - especially in the camera department - but with how little you're paying, it's our top pick for if you want a cheap 5G phone. 

Read our full OnePlus Nord CE 5G review

Realme 8 5G

(Image credit: Realme)

2. Realme 8 5G

An incredibly cheap 5G phone

Release date: April 2021
Weight: 185g
Dimensions: 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.5mm
OS: Android 11
Screen size: 6.5-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2400
CPU: Dimensity 700 5G
RAM: 4/6/8GB
Storage: 64/128GB
Battery: 5,000mAh
Rear camera: 48MP + 2MP + 2MP
Front camera: 16MP
Reasons to buy
+Its screen is large and bright+It's very affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Slow at times-Some redundant rear cameras

Possibly the cheapest 5G phone on the market right now is the Realme 8 5G, which is part of the eighth generation of budget devices from Chinese brand Realme.

This smartphone embodies 'cheap and cheery' - its design and cameras aren't exactly groundbreaking, but its screen is big, the processor is good for the price and the battery lasts a nice long time.

If you need a 5G phone but don't want all the bells and whistles of top camera features, snappy charging and oodles of processing power, this is a great choice, and we likely won't see 5G phones that are significantly cheaper for a long time.

Read our full Realme 8 5G review

Best 5G gaming phones

Lenovo Legion Phone Duel

(Image credit: Lenovo)

1. Lenovo Legion Phone Duel

The best gaming phone right now

Release date: October 2020
Weight: 239g
Dimensions: 169.2 x 78.5 x 9.9mm
OS: Android 10
Screen size: 6.65-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2340
CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus
RAM: 12GB/16GB
Storage: 128GB/256/512GB
Battery: 5,000mAh
Rear camera: 64MP + 16MP
Front camera: 20MP
Reasons to buy
+Super-fast charging+Great for gaming
Reasons to avoid
-High price-Software issues

The Lenovo Legion Phone Duel is a powerful 5G phone for gaming, with a top processor, plenty of RAM, side triggers and a dedicated gaming mode, so if you're a mobile gamer it's a great choice.

It's a good phone outside the gaming sphere though thanks to its incredibly fast 90W charging, a pop-up camera for selfies, software that works well in horizontal (unlike most phones) and clean software.

We found in our review a few software issues, but the only big downside is the phone's appearance as, just like for all gaming phones, it has quite a divisive appearance, with a big red 'Y' on the back and some rear LEDs.

Read our full Lenovo Legion Phone Duel review

Nubia Red Magic 5G

(Image credit: Nubia)

2. Nubia Red Magic 5G

Magic on the gaming front

Release date: March 2020
Weight: 218g
Dimensions: 168.6 x 78 x 9.8mm
OS: Android 10
Screen size: 6.65-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2340
CPU: Snapdragon 865
RAM: 8GB/12GB/16GB
Storage: 128GB/256GB
Battery: 4,500mAh
Rear camera: 64MP + 8MP + 2MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Great 144Hz display+Handy shoulder triggers
Reasons to avoid
-Software bugs-OS lacks customization options

The Nubia Red Magic 5G has all you'd want from a gaming phone - a FHD+ AMOLED screen with a 144Hz refresh rate, a top processor paired with plenty of RAM, and a long-lasting battery with fast charging capabilities.

You won't be able to pick up the Red Magic 5G in all regions, but if you can get it, and you're looking for a 5G gaming phone, it should definitely be your first pick.

We found some software issues with the phone, but if you're a mobile gamer it'll handle anything you throw at it with ease, especially if you want to play games online while out and about (thanks to the 5G connectivity).

Read our full Nubia Red Magic 5G review

Best 5G phones for watching and streaming media

An iPhone 13 Pro Max in gold, against a white background

iPhone 13 Pro Max (Image credit: Apple)

1. iPhone 13 Pro Max

The biggest iPhone with a great display

Release date: September 2021
Weight: 240g
Dimensions: 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.7mm
OS: iOS 15
Screen size: 6.7-inch
Resolution: 1284 x 2778
CPU: A15 Bionic
Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB
Battery: 4,352mAh
Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP + 12MP + TOF
Front camera: 12MP
Reasons to buy
+Great screen+Powerful camera
Reasons to avoid
-Almost too large-Most expensive iPhone

The iPhone 13 Pro Max inherits its predecessor's lauded display, so it's no wonder the newest and biggest Apple phone makes its way onto our 5G phone list in the 'screen' category.

With its big 6.7-inch OLED screen, great contrast and sharp visuals, the iPhone 13 Pro Max is great whether you're using Apple's own services like Apple TV Plus or any of the other streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. It's also good for watching YouTube, checking TikTok, or anything else that benefits from so much screen real estate.

The phone also has even better battery life than its predecessors, so watching shows during your commute to work won't stop you being able to stream on the way back. The presence of 5G also makes downloading movies on the go super easy.

Read our full iPhone 13 Pro Max review

Sony Xperia 1 III

(Image credit: Sony)

2. Sony Xperia 1 III

A truly exceptional display

Release date: August 2021
Weight: 186g
Dimensions: 165 x 71 x 8.2 mm
OS: Android 11
Screen size: 6.5-inch
Resolution: 1644 x 3840
CPU: Snapdragon 888 5G
Storage: 256GB/512GB
Battery: 4,500mAh
Rear camera: 12MP+12MP+12MP+0.3MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Incredible display+Great battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Tricky to handle for some users

With a 4K 120Hz display, Sony has achieved a world first here for smartphones and it looks truly gorgeous. The Sony Xperia 1 III is the phone you need if you plan on watching a lot of content on the move, with a choice of image quality modes ensuring you get fantastic color reproduction alongside great resolutions. 

The phone is no slouch elsewhere either with a 3.5mm headphone jack making a return, great performance from the Snapdragon 888 processor, plus a good quality camera too. Everything about the Sony Xperia 1 III oozes class. Just bear in mind you'll need to pay for the privilege and some users may find the 21:9 aspect ratio a little tricky to grip. 

Read our full Sony Xperia 1 III review.

Best small 5G phones

iPhone 12 Mini

1. iPhone 12 mini

The most pocketable 5G phone around

Release date: November 2020
Weight: 135g
Dimensions: 131.5 x 64.2 x 7.4 mm
OS: iOS 14
Screen size: 5.4-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2340
CPU: A14 Bionic
Storage: 64GB/128GB/256GB
Battery: 2,227mAh
Rear camera: 12MP + 12MP
Front camera: 12MP
Reasons to buy
+Smaller design looks great+Fantastic display
Reasons to avoid
-Middling battery life-Wireless charging is slow

The smallest of its line, the iPhone 12 mini has a relatively tiny 5.4-inch display. It's easily totable, fitting in your pocket or hand with ease.

The phone gets most of the specs of its bigger iPhone 12 sibling though, including the same processor, cameras, 5G and MagSafe technology. It's a veritable powerhouse, so you shouldn't judge it based on its size.

That dainty design does pressent one or two issues, especially in the battery department - the battery life isn't great and wireless charging is a touch on the slow side. Overall, though, if you're looking for a small 5G phone this is the one to go for.

Read our full iPhone 12 mini review

Google Pixel 5

(Image credit: Google)

2. Google Pixel 5

Small by modern phone standards

Release date: October 2020
Weight: 151g
Dimensions: 144.7 x 70.4 x 8 mm
OS: Android 11
Screen size: 6-inch
Resolution: 1080 x 2340
CPU: Snapdragon 765G
Storage: 128GB
Battery: 4,080mAh
Rear camera: 12.2MP + 16MP
Front camera: 8MP
Reasons to buy
+Great camera software+Clean Android interface
Reasons to avoid
-No telephoto camera-Middling night photography

Google Pixel phones tend to be smaller than your average flagship, and that's certainly the case with the Pixel 5, as its 6-inch display is quite a bit smaller than most 5G phones.

That makes it easy to carry about and use, and that's just one reason to pick it - it also has a nice clean Android interface, a metal design that's refreshing compared to loads of plastic or glass rivals, and the great camera software that Google is known for.

Like all phones it isn't perfect, with middling camera hardware, and it's not actually the smallest 5G phone either, as the iPhone 12 mini is quite a bit smaller. Still, if you're an Android fan and want a mini phone, this is your best bet.

Read our full Google PIxel 5 review