MKBHD is back once again for the 2021 smartphone awards. After the blind camera test last week, where the iPhone 13 Pro was beaten by the $399 Pixel 5a, he is back picking the best phone in nine different categories, ending with the overall ‘Phone of the Year.’

Before starting the awards, he had a moment of silence for LG, which stopped making smartphones this year.

There are nine categories a phone can win in:

  • Best Big Smartphone
  • Best Small Smartphone
  • Best Camera Phone
  • Best Battery
  • The Design Award
  • The Value Award
  • Bust of the Year
  • Most Improved Award
  • Phone of the Year

As expected, there are a lot of different Android phones on this list. With so many different manufacturers there is far more room to experiment and choose from. While iPhones keep basically the same experience from model to model and from year to year – though with continued improvements – Android phones can offer vastly different experiences at totally different price points, from flagship foldables to ultra-budget.

That’s not to say that Apple’s iPhone 13 line couldn’t hold its own this year, as the devices garnered five different mentions throughout MKBHD’s 2021 smartphone awards. This year, Apple’s iPhone 13 line and Samsung’s latest devices were basically trading blows in all categories except the “Value Award” and “Bust of the Year.”

MKBHD Smartphone Awards 2021

Best Big Smartphone Award

Samsung won the first award, with the best big smartphone award going to its Galaxy Z Fold 3. The large foldable offers a 7.4-inch internal display, almost a full inch larger than Apple’s largest device, the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s 6.68-inch display.

Apple was left off from the honorable mentions, but Samsung received another mention. The Galaxy S21 Ultra and Asus’ ROG Phone 5 earned honorable mentions in the category.

Best Small Phone

While Samsung may have earned the best large phone, Apple won the category for the best small phone, with the iPhone 13 Mini. Apple’s smallest current handheld is powered by the same processor as its largest, and as MKBHD notes in the video, the iPhone 13 Mini addressed the battery life weakness of the 12 Mini. Despite the stronger contender this year, it seems that Apple will not offer an iPhone 14 Mini come next year. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says that the 5.4-inch form factor will be abandoned by Apple, with next year’s lineup to consist of four iPhones with screen sizes of 6.1 inches and 6.7 inches.

Samsung earned another mention here as a runner-up, with its Z Flip 3. The Flip 3 folds out into a more conventional 6.7-inch display but more importantly folds in half to take up less space in your pocket.

The video also gave honorable mentions to the Asus Zenfone 8 and the Oppo Find N. Our colleagues over at 9to5Google said the Find N “addresses a lot of the [Galaxy Z] Fold’s pain points while still showing there’s no ‘right’ way to make a foldable.” Perhaps a next-generation device (and one more optimized for the US) would be able to earn an even higher spot on this list.

Best Camera Phone

While Google’s Pixel 5a may have won the blind camera test, there is a lot more that goes into a phone’s camera than a few photographs. In terms of best overall camera phone experience, video included, MKBHD awarded the iPhone 13 Pro.

This shouldn’t be too much of a shock. The video capabilities of the iPhone have long been applauded, and the inclusion of ProRes video recording, for those who can make proper use of it, is a big deal. He also notes the photographic styles available on the iPhone 13 line. They make it easy to customize the look of your photos before you take them.

While the iPhone earned the top spot here, Google’s own devices got their first mention, with the Pixel 6 Pro as the runner-up, and the Pixel 5a as an honorable mention alongside the vivo X70 Pro Plus.

Best Battery

The best battery award is another category that was an easy win. The iPhone 13 Pro Max earned the award for best battery thanks to its highly efficient custom silicon and software integration. Of course, the battery life is also helped by the ProMotion variable refresh rate, which in addition to providing smoother 120Hz scrolling can decrease the refresh rate to save battery when nothing on the screen is moving.

The gaming-focused Asus ROG Phone 5 was the runner-up in the category, with its massive 6,000mAH battery. The iPhone 13 Pro Max has a 4,352mAH battery for comparison, but it makes up for the smaller battery with its heavy optimization.

Design Award

As Marques Brownless notes, the design award is perhaps the most subjective of the awards he gives, but his design award this year went to Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra.

The runner-ups this year included the Oppo Find x3 Pro, the Oppo Reno 6, and the Legion Phone.

Value Award

MKBHD’s ‘Value’ award was previously the ‘best budget phone’ award but has spread out this year to include the best overall value. And the winner this year is Google’s Pixel 6. As our colleagues over at 9to5Google noted in their review of the Pixel 6:

The smaller Pixel 6 is, quite simply, one of the best deals on the market today. For $599, you get a flagship-tier device with one of the best cameras, an excellent design, software support that outlasts any other Android phone, and battery life that’s extremely good in our experience.

At $599 the Pixel 6 is not exactly a “budget” phone, but the value provided is simply amazing. With the same Google Tensor chip as its bigger brother the Pixel 6 Pro, as Ben Schoon put it in his review the standard Pixel 6 “takes a step back with a design that feels more Google-ly, with specs that hold up to that flagship and a price that arguably makes it the best deal for a smartphone today.”

The other mentions under the value award include the ~$400 Poco F3, the ~$450 Samsung A52, and the ~$500 Realme GT.

Bust of the Year

Apple and Samsung (thankfully) had no mentions for MKBHD’s “Bust of the Year,” that honor (dishonor?) went to Microsoft’s $1,500 Surface Duo 2. The unique surface Duo 2 takes two separate screens to the folding experience, but the hardware and software backing the unique approach just don’t provide the experience needed for its high price.

Most Improved

The iPhone 13 Pro improved a great over the iPhone 12 Pro, with a ProMotion display, ProRes video, photographic styles, and more, but the iPhone 12 line was already full of great phones, so it is not the most improved. Instead, MKBHD awarded Samsung another win here for its Galaxy S21 Ultra. One of the big improvements for the S21 over the S20 is the camera, as 9to5Google noted:

To say I was “disappointed” with the camera on last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra would be an understatement. It was… well, it was just bad. This year, I’m so glad to report exactly the opposite. I hesitate to call this the best camera on a smartphone today, but it’s definitely competing for that crown. 

Apple’s improvements with the iPhone 13 Pro did not go unnoticed, however, with the iPhone 13 Pro earning an honorable mention alongside Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3.

Phone of the Year

With Apple and Samsung battling it out between categories, the question remains what is MKBHD’s smartphone of the year, an Apple or Samsung phone? This year, his winner for the overall phone of the year was Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra. Samsung’s flagship device came out early this year. As 9to5Google said of the device at the time:

When last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra came out, I came to the conclusion that very few people should buy it. It was overpriced and fell on its face in the camera department. A year later, the story has been flipped entirely. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a truly excellent offering that actually manages to hit a reasonable price thanks to a $200 cut. This actually is the best option in Samsung’s lineup this year, not just on paper. If the $1,199 price tag is within your budget, it’s worth considering.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has continued to be a good option as its price has fallen throughout the year.

Apple came in the runner-up position with the iPhone 13 Pro, while the great value of Google’s Pixel 6 made it an honorable mention.

That begs the question, with the subjective nature of the ‘Phone of the Year’ award, what would your pick for the phone of the year be? Let us know in the comments down below!

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