CES 2021: The most exciting new smartphones to watch out for this year

The most exciting phones at CES 2021 included some surprises from the likes of TCL and Motorola.
The most exciting phones at CES 2021 included some surprises. Photo credit: TCL / Motorola

The world's biggest tech expo has just concluded for another year - albeit virtually - and given technology enthusiasts a glimpse at what 2021 has in store for smartphones.

From weird and wacky rollable phones to an exciting range of 5G-compatible devices, here's a rundown of the top smartphones shown off at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Foldable fun

Motorola and Samsung may have kickstarted the foldable phone movement, but staggeringly-high price points and subpar componentry have left the door wide open to competition.

Chinese electronics company TCL is taking on the giants with a number of new foldable and rollable concepts. After years of prototypes and working concepts, the company has finally announced a consumer-ready foldable phone for 2021 - as to which one, we'll have to wait and see. 

Pushing a button will instantly convert TCL's rollable from a 6.7-inch phone to a 7.8-inch tablet.

The company will have some serious hurdles to overcome if they want to succeed in western markets, however. For a brand mostly known for their televisions, dangerous territory awaits the relatively-unproven technology brand straying into the premium phone market.

For smartphone consumers, not much matters more than brand reputation.

If you're desperate for a rollable phone from a brand with a proven track record, LG also teased one at CES, although with less fanfare than some of its other products.

The LG Rollable (yup, not a very original name) is said to launch before the end of 2021. We don't know much about it aside from what was shown in a few short teasers, but its rolling motion definitely looks like the futuristic tech consumers have been promised.

After years of lagging behind in the smartphone market, my guess is the LG Rollable will launch at a medium-range price point to undercut the pricey foldables from Samsung and Oppo, and will likely launch with the much-anticipated Android 12 OS.

Low-range on the rise

If there's one thing we've learned from CES this year it's that the phone companies of old are willing to move away from pricey flagships in favour of cheaper devices.

People might be sick of spending at least NZ$1000 on a new phone - well, those people are in luck.

Brands like Alcatel and Motorola - former ruling titans of the mobile phone world - both launched new iterations of budget phones that offer quite a lot for very friendly price points. Motorola launched the Moto G Stylus and Motorola One 5G Ace, while Alcatel's 3L, 1L and 1S also received serious airtime.

Motorola unveils cheap, powerful phones at CES 2021.
Photo credit: Motorola

As the name suggests, the Moto G Stylus is a stylus-compatible smartphone with a behemoth 6.8-inch screen. For a very reasonable NZ$400 (if it reaches stores in Aotearoa), consumers will get a well-specced smartphone with a triple-array rear camera, microSD card slot and - most important to me - a 3.5mm headphone jack!

Alcatel's new releases really are still supermarket smartphones: pay a few hundred dollars for the Alcatel 3L and you'll get an octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM and a triple shooter rear camera. 

Alcatel and Motorola seem to be banking on the financial impact of COVID-19 to sell their phones - in a world of uncertainty, buying something safe and affordable may appeal to many would-be consumers.

TCL, which owns Alcatel, also launched its own line of budget smartphones in the midst of CES. The TCL 20 5G will launch for around NZ$500, while its sibling the TCL 20 SE will be even cheaper - but minus the 5G compatibility.

TCL unveils phones at CES 2021.
Photo credit: TCL

Samsung steals the show, again

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Samsung is back at it again with the launch of the Galaxy S21 range, which it unveiled not as part of CES but with its own Unpacked event during the same week.

The base model Galaxy S21 comes in at the cheapest of the three models at NZ$1400 - very affordable for this sort of flagship model. While that's a cool NZ$100 less than the Galaxy S20 cost at launch last year, Samsung has reneged on its promise to include a charger and headphones, despite mocking Apple for the same decision just last year.

Pay a small fortune for the Galaxy S21 Ultra and you'll receive a vibrant 120Hz AMOLED 2X display, 512GB of storage and 16GB of memory. Much to the delight of photography enthusiasts nationwide, an updated quad-lens camera array will shoot in 4K across all lenses, and capture images in RAW too.

A 5000mAh battery remains a standout feature of the S21 Ulta for me - that's barely smaller than an Apple Macbook Air battery! It promises unrivalled battery power for a smartphone.

Samsung S21 Ultra with S Pen.
Photo credit: Samsung

Final thoughts

Despite being forced to go online as the world grapples with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, CES 2021 offered consumers an exciting glimpse into what tomorrow's technology has to offer.

But it was far from the best CES we've ever seen.

It might be the world's largest technology expo, but being an all-online event appears to have caused some of the big vendors to hold back on unveiling their exciting new technology, and for brands like Huawei and Xaomi, to avoid it altogether.

While some are obviously happy holding their own standalone events, others may be waiting until Barcelona's Mobile World Congress in June: a three-day event attended by most of the big manufacturers as well as thousands of tech enthusiasts.

Here's hoping the pandemic is more under control by then and the pageantry and showmanship only a live event can bring will mean a more thrilling showcase.

This article was created for Newshub Technology, produced in partnership with Noel Leeming.