The best (and worst) smartphone designs of 2021

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max shade

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

It’s hard to disprove the idea that smartphone designs have become significantly less diverse and radical over the years. After all, there are only so many ways you can pack the same set of hardware — besides foldable devices like the Galaxy Z Fold 3, of course.

That said, there were still quite a few excellent smartphone designs that caught our eye this year. We also ran into a handful of design choices that left us a little disappointed, but let’s talk about that later. For now, here’s what we think were the best (and least exciting) smartphone designs of 2021. Don’t forget to vote for your favorite in the poll below!

The Sexiest Smartphone Designs of 2021

Google Pixel 6 and 6 Pro

Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro on red leaf background

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

For years, the Pixel series did little to differentiate itself from the rest of the smartphone industry in terms of design. The last time we saw a unique-looking Google phone was in 2015 — before the Pixel brand even existed. Thankfully, that all changed this year with the Pixel 6 lineup — Google’s first phone in years that won’t have to catch up with the rest of the industry.

read more: Our Pixel 6 review

In October, a poll we conducted showed that 90% of our readers liked the design of the Pixel 6 series. It’s not hard to see why: both Pixel 6 models have a unique and stylish camera bar that spans the entire width of the phone. Overall, the design is reminiscent of the Nexus 6P. And if that wasn’t enough, you can also get the Pixel 6 in an assortment of fun and playful colors. The only complaint we’ve seen regarding the phone’s design is that the camera lip tends to collect fluff in the bottom crease over time.

Oppo Find X3 Pro

Oppo Find X3 Pro back of phone in a drawer

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

Oppo’s Find X series has always managed to carve a special niche for itself. Last year’s Find X2 Pro, for example, was offered in two unique finishes: ceramic and vegan leather. This time, Oppo dropped exotic materials in favor of a fairly typical glass back. However, it still impressed us with a very unique camera bump design on the Find X3 Pro.

read more: Our Oppo Find X3 Pro review

Rather than opting for a dull rectangular cut with sharp edges, Oppo went to the other extreme and accentuated the Find X3 Pro’s camera bump with a unique, gently sloping design. The back is made from a single piece of glass that has been heated to a super high temperature and carefully forged into the desired shape. In a blog post, the company said it experimented with 100 different production molds before coming to the final design.

Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus

Samsung Galaxy S21 back of device in hand 2

David Imel / Android Authority

Even almost a year later, the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus are extremely fashionable devices, especially in the Phantom Violet color pictured above. The company knows it has struck gold here as it uses this colorway in most of its marketing and press materials. It’s easy to see why – when you combine the two-tone look with how the frame smoothly transitions into the camera bump, the S21 looks more futuristic than user-friendly.

read more: Samsung Galaxy S21 review

While Samsung downgraded the base S21 to a plastic back instead of glass, the soft-touch finish retained the premium feel we’ve come to expect from flagship phones. At just 171g, it’s one of the lighter devices on this list. We don’t officially know what the upcoming Galaxy S22 series will look like, but it’s safe to say that the company has set a pretty high bar for itself.

Realme GT

Realme GT review lead image posted on a bag

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Do you remember the vegan leather back of the Oppo Find X2 Pro? This year, Realme brought that idea back to life with the Realme GT – a premium sub-flagship smartphone that slipped under most people’s radar.

According to the company, the Realme GT’s Racing Yellow livery was “inspired by the color of dawn” and intended to signify “the color of hope”. Luckily, if you can’t see the resemblance, there’s an alternate interpretation too: The black bar running the length of the phone looks a lot like a sports car racing stripe.

The artificial leather finish also offers functional advantages over glass and plastic. In our review, we praised the phone’s exceptional grip and fingerprint resistance. Overall, the Realme GT ticks all the right boxes for design, especially if you’re not into cases.

Which smartphone design for 2021 did you like the most?

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Smartphone designs that failed to impress us in 2021

honor 50

Honor 50 back lying on stump

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

Do you love sleek smartphone designs and unobtrusive branding? Well, the Honor Code livery of the Honor 50’s special edition is definitely not for you. It’s hard to follow or even describe Honor’s design language – but the expression walking advertisement does come to mind.

Needless to say, if I were to use this phone as my daily driver, I’d grab an (opaque) case ASAP. However, to Honor’s credit, it offers other colorways without the company’s branding all over the back of the device.

Realme 8 Pro

Realme 8 Pro back panel

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Like the Honor 50, the Realme 8 Pro does not excel in subtlety. This time, we’ve put a big brand slogan on the back of the device. Realme says its designs have been well received by fans of the brand. We don’t doubt it, but we certainly can’t share the appeal.

We asked you to tell us: Most of you hate huge branding on the back of phones

Unfortunately, if your heart is on the Realme 8 Pro, there’s no way to ditch the branding. However, if you can see past it, the matte blue gradient looks quite nice, especially considering the budget price tag.

Motorola Edge (2021)

Motorola Edge in hand left back profile

Eric Zeman / Android Authority

In 2020, Motorola debuted the Edge and Edge Plus – the first flagship line of smartphones in years. The Edge featured all the design-related bells and whistles we’ve come to associate with flagship smartphones: a sleek metal frame and excellent materials. Motorola even threw in a curved screen and squared corners to enhance the premium look.

This year, however, the Motorola Edge shed those flagship looks for a much more common avatar. The company swapped the metal frame for polycarbonate, downgraded the stereo speakers to a mono setup, and skimped on the front glass protection with Gorilla Glass 3 instead of newer standards.

read more: Our Motorola Edge (2021) review

The 2021 Motorola Edge doesn’t have a bad or shocking design in any way, but the phone is a remarkable step backwards compared to its predecessor and most of its competitors.

Apple iPhone 13

iPhone 13 Pro review in hand with camera

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Almost everyone is familiar with the appearance of a modern iPhone. Sure, the previous generation adopted a square design, and this year’s iPhone 13 shrank by 20%, but otherwise little has changed. We’ve had the same iPhone design for years now and it’s a bit boring. Contrast that with the iPhone 4 era, when Apple clearly had the best smartphone design in the industry.

Android OEMs, meanwhile, have moved forward introducing improvements such as ultrasonic in-display fingerprint readers, edge-to-edge screens, and even hidden selfie cameras. All in all, we’re ready to finally see something radically different from the iPhone in 2022.

Which smartphone design for 2021 did you like the least?

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What do you think of our choices? Did we miss your favorite smartphone design? Let us know in the comments below.

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