Best iPhone 2021: Which one of Apple’s 7 smartphones is right for you?

The original iPhone was unveiled by Steve Jobs over 14 years ago. At the time, there was just one model of the iPhone supported by AT&T. The difficult part of choosing an iPhone in 2007 was working up the courage to purchase a phone from a company better known for its computers. Beyond that hurdle, you only had to make two decisions. Did you want 4GB or 8GB of storage, and did you want the black or aluminum color option? 

Now things have changed, Apple currently offers seven different models of iPhone, including five launched in just over the past year alone. There is also a new model on its way, rumored to be called the iPhone 13, in the fall. There is an iPhone that works with pretty much every major phone carrier in the world. The iPhone app ecosystem is robust. Storage options now top out at 512GB, and the smartphone is available in an array of colors and finishes (though, for its own protection, you might want to invest in a phone case).

Apple currently sells seven iPhone models, a mix of phones and models dating back to 2018:

Current iPhones, compared

Model Starting price Screen size No. of rear cameras CPU Release date
iPhone SE $399 4.7 inches 1 A13 Bionic April 2020
iPhone XR $499 6.1 inches 1 A12 Bionic Oct. 2018
iPhone 11 $599 6.1 inches 2 A13 Bionic Sept. 2019
iPhone 12 Mini $699-$729 5.4 inches 2 A14 Bionic Nov. 2020
iPhone 12 $799-$829 6.1 inches 2 A14 Bionic Oct. 2020
iPhone 12 Pro $999 6.1 inches 3 A14 Bionic Oct. 2020
iPhone 12 Pro Max $1,099 6.7 inches 3 A14 Bionic Nov. 2020

You might find that carriers and third-party sellers offer older models, like the iPhone X. To complicate matters, some iPhones have two cameras, others three and still others four (including the front-facing selfie camera). Then there’s the fact that nearly all current iPhones have Face ID, but one model — the iPhone SE — soldiers on with Touch ID. Having a lot of options isn’t bad, but it can feel overwhelming to select a model when purchasing a new iPhone.

To help you figure out which is the best iPhone for you, we thoroughly reviewed and tested each one on this list, from their batteries to camera performance. We’ve included current iPhone prices, though iPhone deals are known to happen, so don’t assume your only option is paying full price.

But if you’re looking for an Android phone or another smartphone outside of Apple’s offerings, read our guide to help find the best phone for your needs and take a look at our tips on how to buy a new smartphone

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Buying guide: The best iPhone models in 2021


Patrick Holland/CNET

With support for 5G being its crown jewel feature, the iPhone 12 ($829 unlocked, $799 on most carriers) marks the beginning of a new generation of iPhone. Out of the four phones in Apple’s iPhone 12 series, the regular 12’s spot is a bit overshadowed by its siblings. But if you look closely, you’ll realize it’s basically the iPhone 12 Pro with a $170 price cut. Both have the same design, the same display, the same insanely fast A14 Bionic chip, the same 5G support, the same support for MagSafe charging, the same selfie, wide and ultrawide cameras.

What do you miss for not going Pro? You don’t get a dedicated telephoto camera, the ability to shoot Apple ProRaw photos or the lovely matte finish back and glossy stainless steel sides. Instead you get a glossy finish back and matte aluminum sides. If you choose to get an iPhone 12 and can afford to pay $50 more, I recommend upgrading from 64GB of storage to 128GB.

Read our Apple iPhone 12 review.

Patrick Holland/CNET

If you want the largest screen and longest battery life on any iPhone ever made, the $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max is worth the price. And yes, if you want to get every last drop of image quality out of your photos and videos, then this is the iPhone to get. The iPhone 12 Pro Max also earned a CNET’s Editors’ Choice distinction.

Aside from being the biggest and heaviest iPhone, the 12 Pro Max has photo and video features not found on any other model. The new telephoto lens on the 12 Pro Max has a 2.5x optical zoom compared to the 2x optical zoom on the 12 Pro. And that extra 0.5x goes a long way. The main wide-angle camera on the 12 Pro Max has a larger sensor which according to Apple gets an 87% improvement in low-light capability. Compared to the regular iPhone 12 Pro, it’s hard to notice those improvements because Apple’s image processing on its other phones is so good.

To help things further, the 12 Pro Max has sensor-based optical image stabilization instead of the lens-based OIS found on the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Mini and 12 Pro. By stabilizing the sensor on these iPhone 12 models, you gain the equivalent of a stop of light, which again, on paper is impressive.

Like the iPhone 12 Pro, it also can shoot Apple ProRaw photos. If you can handle the size of this phone behemoth, it’s worth every penny of its high price.

Read our Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review.

Angela Lang/CNET

If you don’t need support for 5G, the iPhone 11 at $599 represents the best deal for any iPhone. So much so that it is a CNET Editors’ Choice. You get so much for that price like an A13 processor, excellent cameras, a solid battery life and the choice of six colors. In contrast to the straight-sided 12 series, the 11 has curved sides which some may prefer.

The biggest drawback is the old style screen which uses an LCD panel instead of an OLED one. But don’t let that turn you away, the screen still looks good in everyday use. Like the iPhone 12, if you have an extra $50 in your budget, I recommend getting the 128GB version.

Read our Apple iPhone 11 review.

John Kim/CNET

At $399 you might think the only appeal of the iPhone SE (2020) is its price. And admittedly it is the cheapest iPhone on this list, which is a big deal. On the outside, the iPhone SE has the same body as an iPhone 8. It’s the only iPhone on this list that has Touch ID, which in pandemic times is actually a plus as face masks make using Face ID a frustrating experience.

On the inside, the SE has the same A13 processor as the iPhone 11 which gives the 2017 camera hardware a 2020 injection of Apple’s computational photography magic. The SE supports 4G and is the only phone on this list that has the classic iPhone design. But with the ability to run the latest version of iOS, it’s just as relevant as ever.

Read our Apple iPhone SE (2020) review.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Who said small phones don’t exist in 2021? The iPhone 12 Mini ($729 unlocked, $699 on a carrier plan) is brilliant because it has everything the iPhone 12 has — it’s just smaller. It has the same flat-sided design, support for 5G and OLED screen with support for HDR. The screen is covered with Apple’s ceramic shield. The body has an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance and supports MagSafe wireless charging and accessories. It has the same A14 Bionic processor, runs the same iOS 14 software and even has the same cameras. The iPhone 12 and 12 Mini are the same phone. But one is small and the other isn’t. It was recognized as a CNET Editors Choice and is currently my daily driver.

That said, I only recommend you get the 12 Mini for its size. It’s $100 cheaper than the iPhone 12 which might be a tempting reason to get the phone for an iPhone user trying to save money. But if you aren’t okay with a small phone you might be frustrated by its size or its “barely-gets-through-a-day” battery life. And as with other phones on this list, if you can afford it, I recommend paying $50 more and getting the version with 128GB of storage.

Read our Apple iPhone 12 Mini review.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is essentially the ultimate iPhone. But its size, weight and price tag will be a turnoff for many. That’s where the $999 iPhone 12 Pro comes in: It gives you the same solid build and premium finish. You just get a smaller screen, a smaller battery, and 2x telephoto camera instead of the 2.5x telephoto found on the Pro Max.

Read our Apple iPhone 12 Pro review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The $499 iPhone XR is kind of like the middle-child of the iPhone lineup. There’s the iPhone SE that’s $100 less and has a newer processor. But the iPhone XR offers something the SE doesn’t. It is part of Apple’s new generation of iPhone design that started with the iPhone X. The XR has Face ID, a large 6.1-inch screen and comes in six colors instead of the three that the SE comes in.

But then there’s the iPhone 11 that’s $100 more and has a newer processor and new cameras including an ultrawide camera that the XR doesn’t have. But the iPhone XR is cheaper. So if you’re looking for an affordable iPhone that embraces Apple’s more contemporary design and features, the iPhone XR is an excellent option and is a CNET Editors’ Choice. It’s even better with more storage if you can swing an extra $50.

Read our Apple iPhone XR review.

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