The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

iPhones, Pixels, Flips: What to know about the top smartphones of 2021

We lived with these phones to test what works and what doesn’t

The Washington Post Help Desk's Chris Velazco lived for weeks with iPhones, Pixels, and Samsung smartphones to see what works and what does not. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Smartphones might be the most personal tech you use in your life, but sometimes, it can be hard to make sense of what makes one right for you. And that feels especially true this year, when some of the biggest players in the industry are trying to reshape your expectations of what a smartphone should look like and should be able to do.

If that all sounds a little daunting, well, don’t worry — the Help Desk has your back.

As someone who has spent a lot of time reviewing phones, I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by all the things these devices can do — or claim to do. And since we’ve arrived at that time of year when flashy new phones seem to come out every few weeks, we wanted to help you cut through some of the noise.

To do that, I’ve been living with five of the most notable smartphones that were unveiled recently: Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip3, Apple’s iPhone 13 and Pro, and Google’s new Pixel 6 and Pro. Each of these phones embody slightly different ideas about the role a phone should play in your life — here’s what you should know about them.

Help Desk: Ask our tech team your pressing tech questions

Small, sensible upgrades

Remember years ago, when Apple used to release “S” versions of its iPhones? Apple seems to have stopped that practice after 2018′s iPhone XS, but that one-letter addendum basically meant those phones were more about polish than progress.

After living with the iPhone 13 ($799+) for a while, it’s easy to understand why some people think it should have been called the iPhone 12S instead: Apple focuses more on smaller, quality-of-life changes in its latest versions than bold new features and design updates.

For one, the entry-level iPhone 13 comes with 128 gigabytes of storage, or double what last year’s basic iPhones came with. The notch cut into its screen is a little smaller, which is nice, but I’m waiting for Apple to do away with it the way other smartphone makers have. Speaking of screens, the iPhone 13’s 6.1-inch display is the same size as last year’s model, but it’s a little brighter — that made it noticeably easier to read when I took the phone on some long walks.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 13 basically inherited the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s main 12-megapixel camera, which makes it an excellent all-around performer — daytime photos contained lots of vivid color and ample detail, and Apple added a set of “photographic profiles” that give you more control over the way your photos look without fiddling with lots of settings.

And of course, Apple’s new A15 Bionic chip makes the iPhone 13 a little faster than the iPhone 12, although I really doubt most people will notice the difference daily — I usually didn’t.

Apple unveils new iPhone 13, iPads and Apple Watch Series 7 at its fall event

And what about the iPhone 13 Pro ($999+)? It shares many of the changes you’ll find in the regular 13, plus some extra flourishes to justify the extra money. Its screen is brighter still, so outdoor use isn’t a problem, and on-screen motion looks smoother because the display updates much faster. (It’s one of those things that sounds a little frivolous, but it’s nice to have for compatible games.) The iPhone 13 Pro’s chassis is also made of stainless steel, which is certainly nice to look at, but — to me, at least — makes it feel much more slippery than the standard 13.

If you’re a stickler for image quality and more cinematic video, the Pro might be worth the upgrade. That’s because Apple used a larger sensor for its main camera, which produces slightly better-looking photos and videos, especially in low light. And if you want the ability to get closer to your subject without actually moving, only the Pro iPhones have longer-range telephoto cameras — those with longer range for Zoom shots. This year, Apple went with a 3x optical zoom.

If there’s one reason you should consider upgrading to a 13 or 13 Pro, it’s battery life. Since “good” battery life can be pretty subjective, here’s what it means to me: If you forget to plug in your phone before you go to bed, it should still have enough juice to help you get stuff done the following morning. The iPhone 12 struggled with that, but the 13 and 13 Pro pulled it off no problem. That’s because both of these phones have higher-capacity batteries, which might explain why these phones are a little heavier than last year’s models.

Bottom line: If your phone is on its last legs, the battery and camera improvements make these latest iPhones worthy upgrades, and the standard iPhone 13 is probably the better option for most people. But if you think your phone can hold out for a little longer, no one would blame you for waiting to see what Apple does next year.

AI everywhere

Most smartphones in the world right now use Android — north of 80 percent, according to research firm IDC — but in the grand scheme of things, Google’s Pixel phones barely account for a drop in that bucket. Now, Google wants to change that.

The new Pixel 6 ($599+) and Pixel 6 Pro ($899+) have quickly become my favorite Android phones of the year — and that includes phones that fold in half like it’s 2005. That’s partly because both Pixel models are relatively cheap by fancy smartphone standards (who doesn’t like saving a little money?) but also because Google has finally started treating its phones as more than just a side project.

As with the iPhones, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have a lot in common. They both have colorful new designs with big, black camera bars on their backs. They both share the same 50-megapixel main camera sensor, which, thanks to Google’s obsession with using AI to understand and tweak images, produces some of the nicest photos I’ve ever taken with a smartphone.

After poring over my photos from the past few days, I’ve come to prefer the Pixel’s pics a bit more, although I think the iPhone 13 Pro still has the edge in video recording. (That said, if you really care about having the right camera for the right situation, you’ll once again have to pay for the 6 Pro and its additional 4x optical zoom camera.)

Both the 6 and Pro also have batteries that lasted well into the next day if I didn’t charge them the night before. But most important, both Pixel phones use Google’s new Tensor processor, which lets Google flex its artificial intelligence muscle in ways you might not expect.

Google’s new Pixel phones go big on AI for better photos, faster speech recognition

Over the last two weeks, I’ve used those AI features to erase people from the backgrounds of photos that I don’t want there — which works better in some cases than others — and to dictate my text messages faster and more accurately than I’ve ever seen on an iPhone. (That’s partly because the Pixels now handle voice recognition locally, rather than ferrying your voice into the cloud for processing as Google used to.) I’ve even used Google’s Assistant to help me more quickly whip through those annoying customer service menus when I called my bank.

You might not use features like these every day, and they don’t always work perfectly. If nothing else, though, they offer a clear sense of what Google is trying to accomplish here. The iPhone 13 and Pro are great, but much of Apple’s work this year seems designed to make them more effective at things you already use them for. Meanwhile, the Pixels attempt to help you in ways you might never even thought about.

With all that said, the Pixels aren’t exactly perfect. Both have fingerprint scanners under their screen, and they don’t always work correctly on the first try — for what it’s worth, I’ve noticed this more from the standard Pixel 6. (That said, it’s still not bad enough to make me use a PIN code instead.) Beyond that, the size of the phones might be a dealbreaker for some people. The 6 Pro has a 6.7-inch screen and feels absolutely enormous in my hands; the 6’s 6.4-inch screen makes it more manageable, but it’s still a bit of a handful. If you have small hands, do yourself a favor: Go to a store and pick these things up before you buy one.

Bottom line: Google’s Pixel phones are powerful, reasonably priced and surprisingly helpful. If you’re an Android person, or you’re thinking of becoming one, these should be among the first phones you look at.

Flipping and faltering

If you’re looking for a new form factor or design, the $999+ Galaxy Z Flip3 is one of the first foldable phones you might actually consider buying, and it’s a remarkably charming little gadget. (Especially to those of us who grew up during the flip-phone era.)

The best thing about it is, obviously, the way that 6.7-inch screen folds in half for easy storage. It’ll slip into a purse or a pocket with very little fuss, though it’s not exactly ideal for folks who love their skinny jeans. And because that screen is narrower than some other, similarly priced Android phones, the Z Flip3 is very comfortable to hold for long periods. Considering how much time we spend glued to our phones, comfort is one of those things we should really be paying more attention to.

Samsung’s new foldable phones come with a price cut, but they’ll still cost you at least $1,000

When the Z Flip3 is open, it works just like a regular smartphone, but Samsung cooked up a few interesting features to take advantage of that folding screen. You can, for instance, open the phone half way and set it down on a table during video calls — that way, the camera above the screen stays pointed at you after you back away. And if you keep the phone in that half-open position, you can use its small external screen next to its main cameras to frame up pictures of you and your friends.

With foldable phones, though, my biggest concern has always been how the bending screen can hold up in the real world. The Z Flip3 still works as well as it did on Day One, even after dropping it a few times.

So, is it worth embracing the future and buying a Z Flip3 right now? There’s no denying this phone is neat, but its cameras don’t quite stack up to the ones found in the iPhones and Pixels, and its battery life is a bit of a bummer. The iPhones and the Pixels both cleared the “forgot to charge it before going to bed” test just fine, but I sometimes struggled to get even a full day’s use out of the Z Flip3.

Bottom line: The Z Flip3 is the best folding phone you can buy, but for now, living the foldable life means dealing with some real compromises.

Help Desk: Making tech work for you

Help Desk is a destination built for readers looking to better understand and take control of the technology used in everyday life.

Take control: Sign up for The Tech Friend newsletter to get straight talk and advice on how to make your tech a force for good.

Tech tips for make your life easier: 10 tips and tricks to customize iOS 16 | 5 tips to make your gadget batteries last longer | How to get back control of a hacked social media account | How to avoid falling for and spreading misinformation online

Data and Privacy: A guide to every privacy setting you should change now. We have gone through the settings for the most popular (and problematic) services to give you recommendations. Google | Amazon | Facebook | Venmo | Apple | Android

Ask a question: Send the Help Desk your personal technology questions.