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Best iPhone of 2021: Which iPhone is right for you?

iPhone 12 on a trunk with a plant
(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The iPhone lineup grew last year with the addition of the iPhone 12 mini, which also expanded the price range of the five 2020 iPhone models from $399 to $1,099. While more options are hardly a thing to complain about, it can make deciding which iPhone is the best for you a bit more difficult. 

We are here to help. You should keep in mind that the iPhone 13 announcement is expected later this month if you need a phone immediately our iPhone buying guide will give you clear answers regarding the differences and similarities between each of the models so that you can find the best iPhone to meet your needs while staying within your budget.

iPhone SE vs. iPhone 12 mini vs. iPhone 12 vs. iPhone 12 Pro vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Specs 

Last year Apple split the iPhone series into five models: iPhone SE, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. While there are many similarities between them (as we’ll cover in the next section), if you drill down to the details, you’ll find some crucial differences in the specs, design and pricing. 

Here’s a full breakdown of the current iPhone lineup. 

iPhone SE (2020)12.9-inchiPhone 12 miniiPhone 12iPhone 12 ProiPhone 12 Pro Max
Starting Price$399$699$799$999$1,099
Screen4.7 inches Retina LCD (1334 x 750)5.4-inch Super Retina XDR OLED (2340x1080)6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED(2532x1170)6.1-inch Super Retina XDR OLED (2532x1170)6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED (2778x1284)
ProcessorApple A13 BionicApple A14 BionicApple A14 BionicApple A14 BionicApple A14 Bionic
Storage64GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Rear Camera(s)12MP f/1.8 wide-angle12 MP, f/1.6 wide-angle and 12 MP f/2.4 ultra-wide12 MP, f/1.6 wide-angle and 12 MP f/2.4 ultra-wide12 MP, f/1.6 wide-angle, 12 MP f/2.4 ultra-wide, 12MP f/2.0 telephoto (2x) and a LiDAR sensor12 MP, f/1.6 wide-angle, 12 MP f/2.4 ultra-wide, 12MP f/2.2 telephoto (2.5x) and a LiDAR sensor
Front Camera7MP, f/2.212 MP f/2.212 MP f/2.212 MP f/2.212 MP f/2.2
Battery life (hh:mm)9:187:218:248:1510:53
Dimensions5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches5.18 x 2.53 x 0.29 inches5.78 x 2.81 x 0.29 inches5.78 x 2.81 x 0.29 inches6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches
Weight5.22 ounces4.76 ounces5.78 ounces6.67 ounces8.03 ounces
ColorsBlack, White or RedBlack, White, Red, Green, Blue or PurpleBlack, White, Red, Green, Blue or PurpleGraphite, Gold, Pacific Blue, SilverGraphite, Gold, Pacific Blue, Silver

Common Features

I’m going to cover the iPhone SE by itself first as it is the odd-phone-out when it comes to commonalities between the flagship iPhone 12 models. The iPhone SE does, however, have access to all of the same apps as the iPhone 12 models and its A13 Bionic chip is still among the most powerful on the market, so performance is top-notch. 

Moving on to the rest, the iPhone 12 models are more alike than any family of phones from Samsung, Google or OnePlus. All four feature a virtually identical design, with the sizes and rear camera arrays as the only notable differences. The wide-angle, ultra-wide and front-facing cameras are identical across all four models as well with only the telephoto lens of the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max differing.

iPhone 12 pro vs. iPhone 12 pro max

(Image credit: Future)

While the display sizes differ, all four use the same OLED technology for the first time. Yes, the resolutions differ, but they all offer a pixel density of roughly 480 pixels per inch (PPI), meaning the resolution is scaled for the size of the screen.

All four models feature an identical Apple A14 Bionic processor, the fastest mobile processor available today. This allows them all to run any of the millions of apps available in the App Store without issue. Sticking to software similarities, all four phones also run the current version of iOS 14 and are expected to receive day-and-date updates to the most current version of iOS for approximately six years.

All four iPhone 12 models offer the same level of 5G support with coverage on both mmWave and Sub-6GHz 5G bands on all carriers in the U.S. 

 Key differences 

I’m going to tackle the iPhone SE first as it stands apart from the rest of the lineup. The iPhone SE has a single wide-angle camera on the back and a lesser 7MP front-facing camera. The A13 Bionic, while excellent, is a step down from the A14 Bionic found in the others. The display resolution and LCD tech are good for the price range but don’t hold up to the PPI or OLED in the iPhone 12. Finally, the rounded design now feels dated due to the iPhone 12 design refresh, as does the use of Touch ID and the large bezels at the top and bottom of the display.

Returning to the flagship iPhone 12 models, there are still a few key differences separating the four devices. Arguably the biggest of these is the LiDAR sensor found in the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. This stands for Light Detection and Ranging and is the technology that enables some of the cool iPhone 12 AR features you may have seen. The rear cameras also leverage it for improved portrait mode photos as it provides vastly greater data on the depth of objects in the photo.

iPhone 12 Pro AR

(Image credit: Future)

Sticking to the cameras, as previously mentioned, the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max both feature a third telephoto lens. While neither offers the reach of something like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the lens does still give you added versatility compared to the standard models.

The base storage is another differentiator with the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 starting at 64GB, while the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max start at 128GB. On a modern iPhone, 64GB can be a bit small, so many will want to consider spending the extra $50 to bump up to 128GB.

Finally, the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 feature 4GB of RAM compared to 6GB on the Pro models. Where you could ultimately notice this is with handling multiple apps after a few years of use, but as it stands, this doesn’t make a practical difference in performance.

iPhone SE 2020 in hand showing the back of the phone - best low-cost iPhone

(Image credit: Future)

iPhone SE (2020)

Best low-cost iPhone

Reasons to buy
+Affordably priced+Unbeatable performance in budget category+Compact chassis+Solid cameras
Reasons to avoid
-Dated design-Lacks 5G

At $399, the iPhone SE is a phenomenal option for those who want an iPhone without spending $700 or more. While there are certainly plenty of trade-offs, this is a sub-$400 phone with the same processor as last year’s top-of-the-line iPhone 11 models that cost around $1,000. 

It’s a mistake to compare it to the rest of the iPhone lineup, but looking at the other best budget phones on the market, the SE is an impressive device. The rear camera is quite good and still benefits from the computational photography that Apple has made massive strides with over the last couple of years. The software support is unmatched in the budget realm with at least five years of day-and-date updates to the most current version of iOS.

If you are looking for an advantage over the iPhone 12 models, the battery life is better than all but the iPhone 12 Pro Max. We already covered the downsides in the key differences section above, but one added consideration is the lack of 5G support. Some other phones in this price range do now offer 5G, but that’s not worth giving up the software support and Apple ecosystem for most users.

Best for: Anyone who wants to get into the Apple ecosystem, but can’t afford or doesn’t want to spend the money for one of the flagship iPhone 12 models. The iPhone SE is easily one of the best budget phones in recent memory and for anyone who isn’t concerned with the camera, design, or performance benefits of the iPhone 12, this phone won’t disappoint. 

iPhone 12 mini - best budget iPhone

(Image credit: Future)

Best budget iPhone

Reasons to buy
+Beastly performance+Cute and compact+Mid-range pricing+Nostalgic design
Reasons to avoid
-So-so display-Mediocre battery life

The most affordable iPhone 12 model, the iPhone 12 mini starts at just $699, and yet, it's the most powerful iPhone 12 on some benchmarks. With a 5.4-inch display, the iPhone 12 mini is minuscule by modern flagship phone standards, and while its sales figures haven’t stacked up to its larger siblings, it has extremely staunch defenders. 

The key is that Apple didn’t shortchange the iPhone 12 mini in any regard when it came to the phone’s specs; it’s everything you get from the iPhone 12 in a more pocketable package. The one real concern for iPhone 12 mini buyers is the battery life; it did not fare well in our Laptop Mag battery test, lasting 7 hours and 21 minutes, but our iPhone 12 mini long-term review found that this isn’t as much of an issue in real-world usage.

Best for: While it may seem to be reductive, the only reason to go for the iPhone 12 mini is the size. If you are looking for a phone that can fit in smaller pockets or hands this is the only iPhone 12 for you and the only flagship phone that comes close to this form factor. As a bonus, the 12 mini is also the most affordable iPhone 12 model by $100, although if you install lots of apps or take many photos and videos, I recommend bumping up to the 128GB model for $749. 

See our iPhone 12 mini review

iPhone 12 on a leafy background - best iPhone for most people

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Best iPhone for most people

Reasons to buy
+Unmatched performance+Excellent cameras+Unbeatable software support+Beautiful new design
Reasons to avoid
-64GB base storage is low-60Hz display

The standard iPhone 12 is not just the best iPhone for most people, but the best phone for most people. The iPhone 12 delivers stellar performance, outstanding photos, and a beautiful design. With a starting price of $799, it is a great example of why you don’t need to spend $1,000 on a flagship phone.

The iPhone 12 gets the same 6.1-inch, 2532 x 1170-pixel Super Retina XDR OLED display as the iPhone 12 Pro and the same 2815mAh battery. Like the iPhone 12 mini, it gets a much more fun and varied collection of colors compared to the Pro models, while still benefiting from that beautiful new design. Like the rest of the iPhone 12 models, it features the A14 Bionic processor that will have this relatively affordable phone running the latest and greatest apps and the most up-to-date version of iOS into 2026. 

Best for: Most people are going to find the iPhone 12 suits their needs perfectly. The 6.1-inch screen size is large without being overwhelming and the price, at $799 (or $849 if you bump to 128GB of storage), feels a bit removed from the $1,000 flagships. If you use your camera for snapshots and a quick video, you won’t miss the pricier iPhone models’ LiDAR sensor and telephoto lens. 

See our iPhone 12 review

iPhone 12 Pro

(Image credit: Future)

Best affordable future-proofed iPhone

Reasons to buy
+LiDAR scanner for AR fun+Ergonomic, flat-edge design+Easy Dolby Vision video recording/editing+Lightning-fast A14 bionic chip
Reasons to avoid
-Mediocre battery life-Unattractive notch

The iPhone 12 Pro is more similar to the iPhone 12 than is typical for the standard iPhone versus Pro model, so how does it justify its $200 premium? While less obvious than the typical screen size and screen tech upgrade, there are still a few key advantages.

The iPhone 12 Pro picks up a 2x telephoto lens along with a LiDAR sensor. If you rely on your smartphone as your sole camera, the former is a big selling point as we’ve shown in our report on why you need a telephoto zoom lens on a phone. The latter has advantages with the aforementioned cool AR apps and superior portrait photography, but there’s ample evidence that Apple considers AR to be a key feature going forward, and this ensures your device will be supported. 

Finally, the $200 premium is a bit deceiving as it comes with a base 128GB of storage, a $50 upgrade for the iPhone 12 that narrows the gap, and you also get the bump up to 6GB of RAM. While that doesn’t make a massive difference now, that extra RAM may be relevant for those who hang on to their phone for 4 to5 years.

Best for: Smartphone photographers and videographers who don’t want to deal with a huge display will be thrilled with the iPhone 12 Pro. It’s also the best option for those who plan to stick with the phone for several years as it offers the most affordable future-proofed iPhone thanks to its added RAM and camera features. 

See our iPhone 12 Pro review

iPhone 12 Pro Max - best iPhone for professionals

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Best iPhone for professionals

Reasons to buy
+Gorgeous redesign+Versatile and improved cameras+Excellent battery life+Extensive 5G support
Reasons to avoid
-60Hz Display-Expensive starting price

The iPhone 12 Pro Max stands alone atop the iPhone options this year in a couple of ways that matter greatly to professional users. Now, "professionals" can have a couple of different meanings; I’m referring to either people who rely on their phone for work in general or creative professionals who will push the limits of the iPhone cameras and performance.

For the former, the biggest selling point might be the large battery found in the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Battery life was a weakness for the iPhone 12 family in general, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max bucked this trend and still delivered 10 hours and 53 minutes in our testing and was able to last into a second day depending on usage in our real-world testing. For a busy professional, it’s hard to overstate the advantage this offers. The 6.7-inch display is certainly a factor as well; if you turn to your phone to get work done, that larger screen is great.

iPhone 12 Pro Max rear camera array

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Turning to creatives or advanced hobbyists who want to leverage the iPhone 12 Pro Max for photo and video work, it has a couple of notable advantages over the iPhone 12 Pro. The first is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a larger camera sensor, 47% larger according to Apple. This means larger pixels and superior low-light performance. That is enhanced further by the sensor-shift technology found only in the iPhone 12 Pro Max; this again improves low-light performance and improves stability for video capture. Finally, the iPhone 12 Pro Max gets slightly more reach with a 2.5x telephoto lens compared to the 2x found in the iPhone 12 Pro.

Best for: Anyone who values great battery life on their iPhone, wants to maximize mobile productivity, or the smartphone photographers and videographers. In all of these regards, the iPhone 12 Pro Max stands head and shoulders above the rest. As long as the price or size of the phone isn’t a hindrance, this is the best of the best for good reason. 

See our iPhone 12 Pro Max review

iPhone Tips and Tricks

Sean Riley

Sean Riley has been covering tech professionally for over a decade now. Most of that time was as a freelancer covering varied topics including phones, wearables, tablets, smart home devices, laptops, AR, VR, mobile payments, fintech, and more.  Sean is the resident mobile expert at Laptop Mag, specializing in phones and wearables, you'll find plenty of news, reviews, how-to, and opinion pieces on these subjects from him here. But Laptop Mag has also proven a perfect fit for that broad range of interests with reviews and news on the latest laptops, VR games, and computer accessories along with coverage on everything from NFTs to cybersecurity and more.