There are plenty of buying guides for figuring out the best phone to buy at a given time, across a wide variety of prices. We have two of them, in fact. But if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool phone enthusiast, you don’t need a guide that’s going to give you the best rational recommendation. You need something that’s going to help you scratch your new gadget itch in the most satisfying way.
I’m here for you because, well, I’m one of you. This is the internet’s premiere buying guide for phone enthusiasts. We’re not going to focus on practical, rational choices, nor are we going to concern ourselves with budgets. These are the dream phones, the ones you buy not as a utilitarian tool, but for the fun of playing with a new piece of tech that you’ll probably sell or trade in for a loss in six months. I’m not even going to single out a specific model that you should buy, because you’re likely buying a new phone every year (or maybe more!) anyway. This is all about throwing caution to the wind, diving deep into a hobby, and buying something you don’t need but absolutely want. Budgets be damned.
Grab your cargo shorts, we’re going shopping.
The best phones to buy if you’re a phone enthusiast 2021
The best folding phone because you know you need one in your collection
Folding phones are the future, right? You can’t call yourself a Real Phone Enthusiast without one in your life. Hands down, the best folding phone you can buy right now is Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G. It’s got everything you might want from a modern smartphone, but it also opens up into a tablet-sized screen that lets you put more than one app side-by-side or look at a giant version of Google Maps. It’s easy to justify because you can tell yourself that you will get SO MUCH WORK done on it, right after you finish watching that YouTube video. Promise.
The Fold 2 costs more than most laptops, you have to baby it, and there’s a really good chance the screen will crack or break on you even if you are careful, but that’s just the price you have to pay to be on the bleeding edge.
The best iPhone for when you’re double-fisting an Android phone
Look, I know that you know that everyone in the world has an iPhone and it’s the farthest thing from an “interesting” phone. But at the same time, it’s hard to ignore what Apple’s doing, and really, iMessage and the Apple Watch are pretty great. Lots of people carry an iPhone alongside an Android phone, and you could be one of them.
The best iPhone for doing this is the iPhone 12 Mini. It does everything its bigger siblings can do, but it can easily fit in a secondary pocket and isn’t a burden to carry around. The battery life is kinda lousy, but who cares, that’s why you have a second phone on you anyway, right?
The best phone for seeing what this “gaming phone” trend is all about
Gaming phones are so hot right now (unless they’ve got a great cooling system) — it seems like a new model is released every three months. You can’t call yourself a true phone enthusiast without being up on this trend, and the best one to dip your toes into it with is the Asus ROG Phone 5 Ultimate.
The ROG Phone 5 Ultimate has a ton of features that can make any mobile accomplisher swoon. A massive battery. A ridiculously high refresh screen. An OLED screen on the back you can customize to show whatever you want. A bunch of accessories to make gaming better. 18GB of RAM! How could you not buy this phone?
The best phone for pretending you’re going to use a stylus
Writing on a phone screen with a pen is so cool! It feels futuristic and is just so natural. At least, it is for the first week until you forget about it and it never leaves the little garage built into the side of the phone again.
If you’ve been telling yourself that little “I’m gonna be a stylus person” lie, you need a phone that supports one and it’s hard to see buying anything other than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20. It’s got a low latency S Pen, a bunch of software features that can utilize the stylus, and all of the other bells and whistles of a modern smartphone, which means it works quite well long after you’ve forgotten about the stylus.
The best phone for messing around with the Android 12 beta
Okay, I said I wasn’t going to recommend anything rational in this guide, but this is perhaps the recommendation that makes the most sense: if you want to mess around with the Android 12 beta but don’t want to install it on your main phone, you should just buy a Google Pixel 4A. It’s only $350 (that’s just $20 more than it costs to fix a broken screen on an iPhone 12 Pro Max) and can work with Google’s latest and greatest software even before it’s released to the public.
You know the Android betas are going to be messy — battery life is going to be bad, there will be lots of bugs, certain apps might not work correctly — so you don’t want to put it on a device you actually need to rely on. Once the beta period is over, the Pixel 4A is a great device for experimenting with the aftermarket ROM world. Get a Pixel 4A and flash those ROMs to your heart’s content.
The best phone for making people go “Whoa, is that a phone?”
As a phone enthusiast, you already know this harsh truth: the Microsoft Surface Duo is not a good phone. It has an old processor. The camera is worse than any iPhone of the past five years. The battery life is decidedly Not Great. It gets hot doing simple tasks. There are SO MANY software bugs. It’s got a generation-old version of Android. It doesn’t even support wireless charging or NFC payments! Oh yeah, and there’s that questionable build quality to worry about.
But there’s something undeniably cool about the Surface Duo, like it’s a device from the future coming here to bless us in the early 21st century. It’s so thin, it has two screens, the hinge is incredibly neat. Open it up in public and you’re sure to get someone to ask “wow, is that a phone?” which we all know is the ultimate goal here. You can then show them all of its cool features, right after it’s done rebooting itself for the fifth time that day.
The best phone for telling yourself that you don’t need an actual camera
For years now we’ve been told that phone cameras are so good that you don’t need an actual camera. The iPhone 12 Pro Max might be the best example of that yet. It’s got a bigger sensor! It’s got three focal lengths! It can shoot video in Dolby Vision HDR!
At the end of the day, it’s still a phone camera and can’t really hold a candle to the image quality or creative control you get with a larger mirrorless camera. But hey, it’s fun to live in that lie and you can totally see the difference between the 12 Pro Max images and other phones. When you blow them up on a big screen. And zoom in.
The best phone for saying “you can’t get this in the US”
Perhaps the ultimate phone flex is pulling a phone out of your pocket that nobody else is going to have. If you’re in the US, the Oppo Find X3 Pro is that phone. It’s got features you can’t get on any American phone and a design you won’t see everywhere, like a microscope camera and softly rounded camera bump. Sure, it won’t really work great on the cellular networks here, importing it is an expensive hassle, and you won’t have any warranty whatsoever. But just think of the envy on your friends’ faces when you tell them they can’t have this phone.
The best phone for when you realize that Pixel phones aren’t great, but you don’t want a Samsung either
Google’s Pixel phones have such great software and then… mediocre everything else. Samsung phones have incredible hardware but are laden with heavy software and actual ads inside of the stock apps. The OnePlus 9 Pro splits that difference — it has software that’s similar to Google’s on hardware that’s virtually a Samsung with a different logo on it.
The 9 Pro is just what the phone enthusiast ordered: a high-end, bells-and-whistles device with All Of The Specs but none of the cruft.
The best weekend phone for when you’re “disconnecting”
Here comes the weekend, with all of its promises of relaxation and enjoyment. You don’t need a phone that’s going to make you more productive, you need something that’s going to slip into your pocket and won’t distract you with a colorful display unless you absolutely need it to.
The Z Flip 5G is this phone. You can flip it closed to ignore it and then pop it open and have a full smartphone inside, complete with every feature you get on non-flippy phones. You’re making a compromise without really making a compromise, because we all know that you had no intention of actually disconnecting for the weekend.