Samsung has altered its strategy with the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, advancing both phones technologically while also cutting a few corners — such as using flat rather than curved displays — to price both models more competitively. The same, however, can’t be said for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Not only does this monster of a smartphone find Samsung refusing to compromise on any design feature, but it also boasts several improvements and upgrades that make it one of the phones for 2021.
It may be one of the best smartphones we’ve ever laid our hands on, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have any competition. Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is another big beast of a smartphone, benefitting from the best performance you can find on any Apple smartphone, as well as several key enhancements to its screen and camera.
It’s certainly in the same league as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, but we’re here to find out which one is the best, so read on to see how each phone performs in our head-to-head.
|Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra||Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Size||165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm (6.5 x 2.98 x 0.35 inches)||160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4 mm (6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches)|
|Weight||229 grams (8.04 ounces)||228 grams (8.04 ounces)|
|Screen size||6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X||6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED|
|Screen resolution||3200 x 1440 pixels (515 pixels per inch)||2778 x 1284 pixels (458 pixels per inch)|
|Operating system||Android 11, One UI 3.1||iOS 14|
|Storage||128GB, 256GB, 512GB||128GB, 256GB, 512GB|
|MicroSD card slot||No||No|
|Tap-to-pay services||Google Pay, Samsung Pay||Apple Pay|
|Processor||Exynos 2100 (global) Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (USA)||Apple A14 Bionic|
|Camera||Quad lens 108-megapixel wide, 10MP telephoto, 10 MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear
|Triple lens 12-megapixel wide, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear
|Video||8K at 30 fps, 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps, 720p at 960 fps, HDR12||4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 120 fps, HDR10|
|Fingerprint sensor||Yes, in-display (ultrasonic)||No, Face ID|
Fast charging (25W charger sold separately)
Qi wireless charging
Fast charging (20W charger sold separately)
Qi wireless charging (15W)
|App marketplace||Google Play Store||Apple App Store|
|Network support||All major carriers||All major carriers|
|Colors||Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Brown, Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium||Silver, Graphite, Gold, Pacific Blue|
|Review score||4.5 out of 5 stars||4 out of 5 stars|
Design, display, and durability
Both the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max showcase notable design updates. The Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts an edge-to-edge display with even thinner bezels than the S20, with the discreet punch-hole selfie camera providing it with a very svelte look. It also features a newly revamped rear camera bump, which slopes down nicely into the frame of the phone, making it stick out less and seem more smoothly integrated into the overall device.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max sports two main renovations: A thinner notch at the top of the display and flattened/squared edges around the side of its frame. Again, these are pretty subtle changes, but they serve to distinguish the phone from earlier models, giving it a more premium and upmarket aesthetic. It’s hard to say which device is better looking, although the sloping camera bump of the S21 Ultra is arguably more striking than the flat edges of the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
There is, however, a clear difference when it comes to the displays of each phone. The S21 Ultra packs a large 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen into its frame with a generous helping 3200 x 1440 pixels, making for a very vivid 515 pixels per inch. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED screen, coming with 2778 x 1284 pixels, or 458 ppi.
In practice, this means that the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s screen will look more impressive, offering greater resolution and sharpness, and with its AMOLED (as opposed to OLED) technology providing deeper blacks and slightly better dynamic range. At the same time, the Ultra also supports a 120Hz refresh rate, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max only goes up to 60Hz. This makes video and moving pictures flow much more smoothly on Samsung’s device.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Performance, battery life, and charging
Leaving behind the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 of the S20, the Galaxy S21 Ultra runs on the newer Snapdragon 865. Combined with a hefty 12GB of RAM, you’ll find that it handles any app or game with relative ease, even letting you keep multiple apps on the go without suffering a noticeable slowdown. By contrast, the iPhone 12 Pro Max musters a less impressive 6GB of RAM, yet its use of the latest Apple A14 Bionic chip — as well as the fact that iPhones need less RAM — means that you’ll also have no trouble playing demanding games or running multiple apps.
This year, Samsung has jettisoned the MicroSD card slot, mostly to make its range of devices a little more affordable. As such, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t have the edge over the iPhone 12 Pro Max when it comes to storage, not least because both phones come with 128GB of internal memory as standard, or can be bought with 256GB or 512GB for higher prices.
As for the battery, the S21 Ultra comes with a larger 5,000mAh cell, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers a 3,687mAh battery. Nonetheless, the iPhone comfortably provides over a day of usage even under the heaviest of regimens. The same is true for the S21 Ultra, with our review finding that it also lasts into the second day, even with 120Hz mode enabled.
It’s with its camera that you’ll probably notice the biggest difference between the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the S21 and S21 Plus, with the Ultra boasting four rear lenses. This includes a main wide lens with a whopping 108 megapixels, a 12MP ultrawide lens, and also two (yes, two) telephoto lenses. The first telephoto lens is 10MP with 3x optical zoom and an aperture of f/2.4, while the second is also 10MP, but with 10x optical zoom and an f/4.9 aperture.
These are impressive specs, and in practice, they result in a camera that’s highly versatile and capable of taking very usable shots in most conditions. The two telephoto lenses are particularly impressive, with our review finding that they take very detailed zoomed shots, when used with optical zoom. More generally, the overall quality of the S21 Ultra’s main camera is comparable to that of the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which is also one of the best camera phones around.
That said, the S21 Ultra still struggles a little in low-light environments, where it introduces a little bit of noise and smooths over details. Because of this, we’re giving a narrow win to the iPhone, which is more effective in nighttime conditions.
Winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max
Software and updates
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra operates using OneUI 3, Samsung’s skin for Android 11. It’s a great OS, although it’s hard to compare it directly to iOS 14, on which the iPhone 12 Pro Max runs. Both systems have their advantages, so we’ll leave the question of which is best to personal preference.
On the other hand, Apple still has the edge with updates. Users of the iPhone receive new software versions as soon as they’re ready, while they’re also supported with updates for several years. The same can’t quite be said for Samsung, even if its track record has improved somewhat in recent months.
Winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the first S series phone to support the S Pen, which is usually reserved for Samsung’s Note series. It doesn’t have a slot for the stylus and lacks some of the functionality you’d find with the Note 20 Ultra, but it provides a very convenient way of taking notes, marking up documents, and drawing, so it will definitely come as a bonus to those who need to use their phones for work.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t support the S Pen, funnily enough, but like the S21 Ultra, it does support 5G. In fact, both phones support the two main 5G bands, mmWave and sub-6Hz, providing users with the fastest possible 5G speeds.
Beyond that, the phones offer some more modest special features. The S21 Ultra provides its Camera app with a Vlogger View mode, which lets you capture video with both front and rear cameras simultaneously, as well as the Director View mode, which displays thumbnails of the feed from the phone’s different camera lens. Meanwhile, the iPhone 12 Pro Max provides support for MagSafe accessories, meaning you can attach various magnetic paraphernalia to its rear.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Price and availability
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra starts $1,200 for 128GB model, $1,250 for 256GB, and $1,380 for 512GB, and can be bought directly via Samsung’s website now. It’s supported by all major carriers and is available through most major retailers.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is available now from $1,100, with the 256GB and 512GB models setting you back $1,200 and $1,400, respectively. It’s also supported by all major carriers.
Overall winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max
As good as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is just about a better smartphone. It offers a slightly better camera overall, better updates, and better software support, while it also matches the newer S21 Ultra in several key areas, including performance, 5G support, software, and battery life. To be fair, the S21 Ultra does have a more impressive display, looks a little more attractive, and also offers support for the S Pen. Even so, the S Pen support may not be used by most users, so it isn’t enough to tip the scales back in the S21 Ultra’s favor.
These quibbles aside, the S21 Ultra still is one of the best phones you can buy right now, and if you prefer Android to iOS, it may be the one to get regardless.