2020 may be behind us, but its impact isn't, with major shakeups to the smartphone release calendar making 2021 the least predictable year in the phone industry since...well, 2020.
Still, some things never change. They may be coming at slightly different times to normal but we've still got new flagships from Oppo, Xiaomi, OnePlus and more to look forward to in the next few months, and new iPhone and Pixel phones to follow later in the year.
We're going to see 5G connectivity become a standard feature not only in flagships but also in mid-range and budget phones. We'll see more screens that boast 144Hz refresh rates, which is good news for gaming and video, and camera phones continue to pile on the megapixels and extra sensors, unlike anything we've ever seen before.
Foldable designs are becoming cheaper and more durable, and battery technology is constantly improving too. We've also seen software enhancements too, making us even more excited for Android 12 and iOS 15, not to mention the first phones powered by the Snapdragon 888 chipset.
In this feature, we've outlined all the major smartphone launches expected to take place in 2021 and beyond, along with an outline of what new features and hardware specifications have been or are likely to be included.
Read on to ensure your next smartphone purchase is not immediately followed by the regret, tying you into a long two-year contract. (Remember that there is a chance you could upgrade your contract early.)
Pro tip: As these new phones edge closer, the outgoing flagships will fall in price and you'll be able to scoop up some great deals. If you're not bothered about having the very latest tech, check out our take on the best phones you can buy today.
Best new phones coming out in 2021
Huawei Mate X2 - 22 February
It's been almost a year since we saw Huawei's refined Mate Xs foldable, but we're expecting bigger changes when the Mate X2 launches in China on 22 February.
Huawei has already promised the Kirin 9000 chip, but more exciting is a teaser image (and plenty of leaks) suggesting the phone has changed design entirely, and will now fold inwards rather than outwards - more like Samsung's Galaxy Z Folds.
Beyond that we're expecting a 120Hz display, faster 66W charging, and up to six camera lenses - though no Google, and no word yet on whether it will launch worldwide or not.
Xiaomi has unveiled the Mi 11 series in China, but while it's on sale there now, it doesn't hit UK stores until March.
Mi 11 is notable for being the company's first phone with a 2K resolution screen, but it was also the world's first Snapdragon 888 smartphone, with the promise of blistering performance.
Other highlights in the spec include a 120Hz refresh rate, Harman Kardon-tuned stereo speakers that support wireless sharing with two pairs of earphones or two speakers, a 108Mp triple-lens camera, 55W wired and 50W wireless charging for the 4600mAh battery, and an in-display fingerprint sensor that integrates a heart-rate sensor.
Honor unveiled the V40 in China in January 2021, but we're still waiting for official word on the phone's European release.
Expect a 120Hz curved OLED display with a dual hole-punch front-facing camera setup, a 50Mp RYYB-pixel-arranged primary camera, and impressive 66W wired charging alongside 50W wireless charging.
We're not sure yet if it will launch in Europe - likely as the View 40, if it does - and it's still unknown if Honor will be able to include Google Mobile Services on the international version of the phone, since the company is now free of the trade restrictions against former parent company Huawei.
The Oppo Reno 5 series has already launched in China, but we're holding out hope that the phones will come to the UK and Europe in early 2021 - though a leak claiming that the Reno 5 will be re-packaged as the Find X3 Lite may dash those hopes.
Two phones have been announced so far - the Reno 5 and 5 Pro - with a 5 Pro+ model also teased by the company.
The 5 and 5 Pro are very similar, with 64Mp quad camera setups, 65W charging, and AMOLED displays - they only differ in display (the Pro is a little larger, and curved) and chipset (the 5 runs a Snapdragon 765G, the 5 Pro the less well known MediaTek Dimensity 1000+).
The launch of the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE has led many to believe a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 FE may also be on the way, perhaps in place of a Galaxy Note 20 Lite. If true, it could arrive any time in Q1 2021.
We would expect it to feature a 6.7in AMOLED display and an Exynos 8250 (Europe) or Snapdragon 865 (North America) processor, but some slightly slimmed down core memory and storage specs over the standard Note 20. It is also likely to feature a plastic case to help bring down the price further, and you should expect some camera downgrades, too.
Just like Samsung, OnePlus is also rumoured to be bringing its next flagship out a little early, moving from its customary April/May slot to a March 2021 release for the OnePlus 9.
Expect to see a lot of what we saw in the OnePlus 8T - especially 120Hz display and 65W fast charging - along with upgrades to the Snapdragon 888, a new camera sensor, and hopefully the introduction of wireless charging to the standard model.
On that note, we're not sure whether to expect a 9 Pro or not. There was no 8T Pro, but that may just mean that OnePlus is dropping its 'Pro' models down to annual events.
Oppo used to treat its zoom-heavy Reno phones as its flagship line, but now the Find X series has begun to take more of a spotlight, especially in international markets.
The Find X3 series is expected to arrive some time around March 2021 packing the latest Snapdragon 888 chipset, and a heavy focus on camera, display, and charging specs.
Leaked renders show an unusual sloping camera module - pictured - which is expected to drop the periscope zoom and focus instead on 50Mp main and ultrawide lenses, along with 2x zoom and a macro lens. The company has also confirmed already that true 10-bit colour reproduction is a priority, from display to the camera and every step in between.
We've had the Mate 40 phones, so next up from Huawei are the P50 series, expected to be announced in March 2021 if the company follows its usual release cycle.
Expect to see three phones - a P50, P50 Pro, and P50 Pro Plus - with prices going up and over a grand for the top model.
They should be powered by the Kirin 9000 processor found in the Mate 40 phones, and will likely borrow some of those phones' camera features too. They could also be the first Huawei phones to use 120Hz panels, though most rumours so far still only point to 90Hz.
The Moto Edge S is yet another phone that's had a launch in China, but hasn't yet been confirmed for the rest of the world.
While it has the flagship 'Edge' name in China, rumour has it a global release would see it named the Moto G100 - putting it at the upper end of the company's budget line.
That's despite featuring the powerful Snapdragon 870 chipset, along with a 64Mp rear camera, 5000mAh battery, and 6.7in 90Hz display.
There are compromises too though: that display is LCD, not OLED; charging is limited to 20W wired; and the display is flat with a thick bezel, giving away that this isn't a true flagship, despite the 870 chip.
The next Realme flagship is likely to launch in early 2021, and all we know about it is the codename, and that it will pack a Snapdragon 888 and a quad camera.
The 'Race' codename is intended to show that the unknown phone "will come with fast speed and high performance," according to Realme CEO Sky Li. We don't know if the phone will sit within one of Realme's existing phone lines - the follow-up to last year's X50 series seems most likely - or start a new line.
The Moto G series may be the company's budget line, but that doesn't mean they aren't phones to be excited about.
It's hard to predict when the next generation of Moto G will arrive, because the normal timing is out the window, as Motorola has accelerated the progression from the G8 to G9 series in 2020, while dropping the numbering entirely in the US and some other markets.
Still, we're expecting to see the first Moto G10 models some time in the first half of 2021, with the G10 Play or G10 Power likely to arrive first, with G10, G10 Plus, and potentially more to arrive eventually.
As always, we'll see cheap processors, basic cameras, and big batteries, with a clean, stock-ish Android experience across the board - and 5G creeping into a few of the pricier models too.
You read that correctly, BlackBerry is back from the dead again. In August, that US company Onward Mobility licensed the BlackBerry name and has announced that it will work to release a new BlackBerry device in the first half of 2021.
According to Onward Mobility, the new BlackBerry will have 5G network capabilities and a physical keyboard. These really are the only two indications of specs that we have aside from the phone running Android, as currently the announcement is only of the partnership’s existence and nothing more.
The Pixel 'a' phones are always budget-friendly takes on the flagships that arrive a little later, so we're expecting to see a Pixel 5a turn up some time next year - mostly likely in summer 2021.
We don't know much about what to expect from the 5a, if it does arrive, but at this point 5G support is a given. A 90Hz refresh rate is also likely, along with an upgraded processor and - wishful thinking alert - maybe even waterproofing or wireless charging.
Apple's new iPhone SE went on sale back in April, but rumours since have pointed towards the launch of either a follow-up or a Plus model. If you're thinking that might be imminent, though, don't hold your breath; we could be waiting until the second half of 2021.
The long-rumoured SE Plus is not simply a larger version of the iPhone SE, mind you. Prolific Apple leakster Ming-Chi Kuo suggests that the iPhone SE Plus will feature either a 5.5 or 6.1in display and, crucially, it’ll sport a “full-screen design” like that of the iPhone 11 range. It may also have Touch ID built into the power button.
Asus usually announces the ROG Phone during the summer, before giving it a European launch in September, and we'd expect similar for the ROG Phone 4.
There have been very few leaks about the ROG Phone 4 so far, but it's a safe bet that it will use the Snapdragon 888 processor, and will have a design (and accessory range) to suit its gaming audience, along with another mammoth battery - likely 6000mAh.
It's normally a given that we'd see a new flagship Galaxy Note phone in autumn, but this year it's a little uncertain if we'll see the Note 21 at all.
Rumours have begun to point towards Samsung killing the Note line off, with its trademark S-Pen stylus already supported by the S21 Ultra and expected to be compatible with the next Galaxy Z Fold too - already taking the Note's place as the big-screen flagship in Samsung's lineup.
Leaksters mostly disagree so far on whether the Note 21 will be the last Note phone, or if the Note 20 was the final release and we just didn't know it at the time. We should get a better sense soon as leaks start to appear - or don't.
Much like the S20 was followed by the S20 FE, it's widely expected that the S21 will eventually be joined by the S21 FE - most likely around October if last year's release pattern is anything to go by.
Spec details are thin on the ground so far, and there's already disagreement - on whether it will have a 60Hz or 120Hz display, for example. Still, most agree the phone will have an AMOLED panel and the latest Exynos and Snapdragon chipsets.
As soon as one iPhone is out, it's time to look to the next, which means we're thinking about the iPhone 13 series already.
New iPhones usually launch in September, but the iPhone 12 was a bit later in October - either way we should see the iPhone 13 series in autumn 2021.
It's likely we'll see a range of four phones again, from a Mini up to a Pro Max, all powered by a new A15 Bionic processor.
Word is that the notch will still be there, but smaller, and we're hoping we'll finally see the display itself jump up to 120Hz. Storage is rumoured to go up to 1TB too, and we're keeping our fingers crossed for the return of Touch ID too, maybe even in an under-display sensor.
The more out-there rumour is that Apple might go entirely port-less now that it can lean on MagSafe charging, but we think that change is more likely to roll out for the iPhone 14 or beyond...
Google normally releases a new Pixel flagship every autumn, so it stands to reason that the expected Pixel 6 will turn up some time in autumn 2021.
We don't know a lot about what to expect from the phone yet, but a jump to a 120Hz refresh rate sounds plausible, and it's also probably time for Google to upgrade its main camera sensor - unchanged for a few years now - to make sure it clings onto its photography crown.
Other leaks point to a device known as the Pixel XE, but it's not yet clear if this is a fake, a new phone, or simply a codename for the Pixel 6.
This is a bit of a wild card - but leaked internal documents suggest that Google may be working on a Pixel-branded foldable device to launch in late 2021.
Beyond the device's existence there haven't been many leaks with details of what sort of foldable device it will be, or what specs it will have, but we know a lot of people will be curious about a Google-branded folding phone with that Pixel camera.
Xiaomi broke the rhythm of the Mi Mix series by pivoting to the wrap-around display concept device Mi Mix Alpha, but we're still expecting a proper Mi Mix 4 to turn up some time in 2021.
We don't know a lot about what to expect from the phone yet, but since Xiaomi usually uses the Mi Mix line to test its wilder tech out, we're expecting either that wrap-around screen to come to the 4, or for Xiaomi to unveil its first proper foldable phone.
Samsung is yet to confirm anything official, but we have pretty good reason to expect that a more affordable 'Fan Edition' of the Galaxy Z Fold is set to launch some time in 2021 - only we have no idea when.
One early leak pins the phone as costing $1,099, with a Snapdragon 865 chipset - last year's flagship - though curiously claims it will lack the 5G support that has so far been mandatory with that chip.
Others claim that the Fold FE will simply be the first-gen Fold, re-packaged at a lower price tag to reflect the older tech - that would mean the even older Snapdragon 855, but would explain how Samsung could hit a mainstream price point.
A folding iPhone has been rumoured ever since the first foldable display tech existed pretty much, but thanks to leaks and rumours we have pretty good reason to believe Apple is at least working on a foldable iPhone - even if it's probably years away.
Apple is rarely the first to market with new tech, though given that Samsung has already released several iterations of its folding tech there's a risk Apple will look backwards if it doesn't follow suit until 2023 - though if it can perfect the tech in that time it may well be worth the wait.