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The most underrated phones of 2021
It’s been a pretty good year for smartphones in 2021, with 5G becoming almost a given, flagship pricing becoming a little more palatable, and several more brands committing to longer update support. We saw loads of standout phones too, such as the Pixel 6 series, Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and iPhone 13 Pro Max.
What about the devices that went under the radar though? There were plenty of releases that didn’t quite get the love they deserved, for whatever reason. While there are plenty of handsets that could’ve made this list, we’ve pulled together six of the most underrated phones of 2021.
ASUS Zenfone 8
ASUS had a pretty solid run in 2021, releasing the ROG Phone 5 range and Zenfone 8 duo. The ROG Phone 5 series and Zenfone 8 Flip represented more of the same for the Taiwanese brand, but it’s the vanilla Zenfone 8 that stood out as one of the best (and only) small Android phones of the year.
Our thoughts: ASUS Zenfone 8 review — pint-sized powerhouse falls just short of perfection
The standard Zenfone model ditched the flipping camera mechanism of the Zenfone 8 Flip and predecessors in favor of a compact flagship design that’s perfect for one-handed use. This means you got a phone with a smaller 5.9-inch 120Hz OLED panel. Despite its size, the Zenfone 8 holds its own with a Snapdragon 888 SoC, 30W charging, and you even got water resistance and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
It isn’t perfect though, as the phone lacks a telephoto lens and the larger battery of its stablemates. But it definitely deserved a lot more love than it got in 2021.
Lenovo Legion Duel 2
ASUS typically rules the roost when it comes to gaming phones, but Lenovo also stepped up to the plate in 2020 with its Legion Duel device. It was back in 2021 with the Legion Duel 2, and this was a pretty cool take on the gaming phone.
Lenovo didn’t just add better cooling and fancy colors and call it a gaming phone. The device is designed for landscape use, featuring a selfie camera that pops up from the chunky center so you can stream your reactions while playing in landscape mode. You also get four ultrasonic shoulder triggers as well.
Other notable features include a Snapdragon 888 SoC, a 5,000mAh battery with 90W charging, two USB-C ports, and a 144Hz OLED panel. There are downsides though, such as the ho-hum cameras, lack of wireless charging, and awkward use as a normal phone, but you should still give this a peek if you want something a little different.
POCO F3 GT
Another gaming-focused device makes this list of underrated phones in the POCO F3 GT. But it differs from flagship gaming phones by virtue of a more affordable price tag, coming in at the equivalent of just ~$350 in India.
More coverage: POCO F3 GT review — High power, low price
We do see some cutbacks as a result, such as the still-powerful Dimensity 1200 SoC instead of a Snapdragon 888 chipset, as well as a middling rear camera system. Nevertheless, the phone still delivers a 120Hz OLED screen, a 5,065mAh battery, fast 67W charging, and a splash-resistant design.
Poco’s phone also brings a pair of physical shoulder triggers for use in games. But in a smart move, you can actually retract these so they sit flush with the rest of the phone’s body when not in use. It’s a shame this one isn’t available more widely.
Samsung Galaxy A52s
The Galaxy A52 5G got all the attention in the first half of 2021, delivering a great mid-range proposition. Unfortunately, it was reportedly affected by the global chip shortage, leaving Samsung to prioritize its availability to key markets.
Thankfully, Samsung introduced the Galaxy A52s in the second half of the year for non-US regions including the UK and India. The new model came with a couple of welcome upgrades. More specifically, we got a switch from the squarely mid-range Snapdragon 750G to the more powerful Snapdragon 778G, and an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, too.
Otherwise, the A52s still packs great features like a 120Hz OLED panel, water resistance, a 4,500mAh battery, and a solid rear camera system. Sorry, US buyers. This one’s an underrated winner you can’t buy.
Sony Xperia 1 III
We were torn between the Xperia 1 III and Xperia 5 III for inclusion here, but ultimately settled on the Xperia 1 III as the more underrated device. The Xperia 1 III may have a higher price, but it offers a crazy 4K 120Hz OLED panel, wireless charging, a rear Time-of-Flight sensor, and tougher glass.
More reading: Sony Xperia 1 III review — Elegant, exhilarating, expensive
The rest of the phone is pretty great too, featuring a Snapdragon 888 SoC, 4,500mAh battery, 3.5mm port, water resistance, and an innovative telephoto camera that can hop between 2.9x and 5x.
The Xperia 1 III isn’t perfect though, as the telephoto camera quality can be very inconsistent, the 30W charging is pretty slow in general, and the price is a little high. But even with all the plaudits (we gave it our coveted Editor’s Choice award), it’s definitely one of the most underrated phones this year when you factor in its relatively low popularity among buyers compared to other premium flagships.
vivo X70 Pro Plus
BBK-owned brand vivo really stepped up its high-end game in 2021, with the vivo X60 Pro Plus being just a step or two away from a genuine contender to the Apples and Samsungs of the world. But it’s the vivo X70 Pro Plus that lands on the list, as the company delivered an experience that matched the high price.
What we thought: vivo X70 Pro Plus review — A true premium flagship experience?
The phone introduced three key additions compared to the X60 Pro Plus, namely a QHD+ display resolution, wireless charging (50W), and water resistance. All of these features were missing from the older phone and helped the device duke it out against the likes of the Galaxy S21 series, OPPO Find X3 Pro, and OnePlus 9 Pro.
It wasn’t perfect though, as long-range zoom quality could be better and the device is pretty ungainly. Availability was the biggest issue though, as the phone was limited to China and India. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a look as one of 2021’s most underrated phones.
That’s it for our look at the most underrated phones of 2021 — cast your vote in the poll below for which phone you think deserved more attention. Are there any other devices you think unfairly slipped under the radar? Let us know in the comments!