Starting off a new year with a new phone always feels like good timing, and there’s a pretty nice batch to choose from as the calendar turns over to another year.
To be clear, the best smartphones don’t always mean the most expensive, and that was very much the case in 2020. Some very interesting handsets came out in the mid-range, and those are the ones that stood out a little more. We’re talking about value for your money here, which is hard to argue with.
That doesn’t mean there were no good flagships to consider. There were certainly a few that come to mind that get a mention down below as well. But after all is said and done, these are the phones that offer the best balance.
Apple iPhone 12
Apple released four new models under the iPhone 12 name, but the one I usually recommend is the iPhone 12. More so than the mini, 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max. The reason why is because it offers the best mix of features, performance, screen size and affordability. This phone follows in the solid footsteps of the iPhone XR and iPhone 11, both of which played the same effective role when they respectively launched.
The iPhone 12 has a 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED display and runs on Apple’s latest A14 Bionic processor. There’s a good amount of power in that chipset, making gaming easier to enjoy, while other tasks should feel pretty fluid as well. You do have a choice between 64GB, 128GB and 256GB storage options, plus a slew of colours that are pretty lively, too.
The camera array comes with dual lenses in the rear for wide and ultra-wide angles, but it’s the extras that truly count. Better software helps produce better results, especially at night and low-light settings, and video gets an upgrade with Dolby Vision recording so you get the best effects of HDR. Fire away with this camera, as your images should come out looking nicer than in previous iPhones.
Apple also introduced the new MagSafe magnetic connector embedded in the back of the phone. It can attach to accessories, like chargers and other products to facilitate wireless charging. There are also cases supporting the feature, so you don’t need to worry if you want to protect it. The phone still supports wireless charging, letting you charge up with a Qi-enabled wireless charger.
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
Samsung launched four different Galaxy S20 models in 2020. It started with the Galaxy S20 and S20+, along with the S20 Ultra. Then several months later came the S20 FE. This quartet share a number of similarities, but to my mind, the S20 FE is the best of them all because it combines different elements of the previous three.
It has a 6.5-inch Super AMOLED display, and it’s a flat screen, rather than the curved style Samsung is prone to using on its phones. The back isn’t a glossy surface easy to smudge with fingerprints, but rather a tasteful matte surface that does quite the opposite. Samsung also made this phone in a number of neat colours to make it stand out.
It uses the same Snapdragon 865 processor as the others, only has 6GB or RAM and 128GB of internal storage. You could slot in a memory card to expand that up to another 1TB. The overall user experience isn’t all that different from the others. Unless you feel you need the highest specs, you’re likely going to find this mix perfectly suitable.
The camera has three lenses in the rear, one each from the S20 and S20+, along with a newer 8-megapixel telephoto lens. The front-facing camera is a newer 32-megapixel lens for better quality selfies and video calls. The same camera software applies, so you already get almost all the features that really matter when it comes to photos and video.
Battery life is excellent, and may actually be the best of all four, in that regard. The S20 FE does support wireless charging, as well as Wireless PowerShare, where you can charge devices by placing them on the back of the phone.
One thing this phone doesn’t have is the S Pen. If you want that, you may want to consider the Galaxy Note20 Ultra as an option. It’s the best the S Pen has ever been on any Samsung handset, so if you do need a stylus, go that route.
Google Pixel 5
Google released three Pixel phones in 2020, with the Pixel 5 being the flagship among them. Unlike in past years, it only comes in one size, so there is no XL version. From a purely aesthetic point of view, this phone isn’t going to be as pretty as the others. But Google has never prioritized beauty in its phones anyway. It’s more about the experience and functionality. One of my favourite features is Call Screen, where with one tap, Google Assistant responds to screen who’s calling.
You still get a pure version of Android that also comes with three years of Android updates. The haptic feedback is excellent, and the overall software layout is easy to like. The 6-inch OLED screen is also nice to look at. Google made this phone more affordable, partly by using a less powerful processor in the Snapdragon 765. And as is standard with Pixel devices, there’s no storage expansion, so beyond the 128GB included here, you will need to utilize the cloud.
The camera is one of the major features for this phone, and this is the first one to include an ultra-wide lens. While competitors are closing in with the quality of their cameras, the Pixel 5 is still one of the best. And video is far better now, with 4K at 60fps, plus a few dedicated shooting modes making it in.
While the back is made of aluminum, it has a cutout underneath that allows the wireless charging coils to still work. That means you can still set this down on a wireless charging pad or dock to charge without cables.
In lieu of the Pixel 5, I would highly recommend the Pixel 4a or 4a 5G. The only difference between the two is 5G connectivity. For mid-range phones, they pack serious value, and retain many of the features of the more advanced 5.
The LG Velvet is a surprisingly eye-catching device because of the “illusion sunset” back that shines and reflects in any room. The 6.8-inch screen is one of the best LG has used to date, and that makes the combination feel all the more interesting. This is more of a mid-range phone than a flagship, yet its unique design gives it a different aura.
The 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage are decent combinations, and you have a microSD card slot to expand that further. One of the real standout features is the audio quality. Not so much from the onboard speakers, but rather the 3D spatial sound and excellent Bluetooth codec support. Plug in a pair of headphones, or go wireless with a pair, and you can get great sound out of them.
The triple camera array in the rear is nice to have, though image quality won’t quite match up the others on this list. Still, images can look good in optimal conditions, and the phone is better at video recording than you might expect.
Battery life is solid with moderate usage. It also supports wireless charging for extra convenience. The Velvet is compatible with LG’s Dual Screen attachment, giving you a second screen to work with, though you would have to get it separately.
Planning your next move
However you want your new phone, this list offers a good starting point. All of them are good options that I think cover the most ground for most users. Going premium isn’t always an option for everyone. Is that you? Then you can always decide what you want to do. If you prefer to get your phone on a plan, try this out. If not, you can always get it unlocked and outright from the start.