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iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Which phone wins?

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra face-off is all about finding out which premium flagship phone reigns supreme. And based on our testing, it's not easy to pick a winner.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max delivers improved cameras, a bigger battery and a brighter display with a 120Hz refresh rate. That latter feature is already included with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, though, with Samsung's phablet boasting impressive cameras and performance of its own. Plus, the S21 Ultra offers S Pen support.

With the iPhone 13 Pro Max now available, we've had a chance to do a more thorough comparison of the two big-screen contenders. A lot of it comes down to what you value most in a flagship, but ultimately there can only be one champ. 

iPhone 13 Pro vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Specs

iPhone 13 Pro MaxSamsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Starting price$1,099$1,199
Screen size6.7 inches (2778 x 1284)6.9 inchres (3200 x 1400)
Refresh rate10Hz - 120Hz10 -120Hz
CPUA15 BionicSnapdragon 888
RAMUnknown12GB, 16GB
Storage128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Rear cameras12MP wide (f/1.5), 12MP ultra-wide (f/1.8), 12MP telephoto (f/2.8) with 3x zoom; LiDAR sensor108MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (f/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, f/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, f/4.9), laser AF sensor
Front camera12MP TrueDepth (f/2.2)40MP (f/2.2)
Battery sizeUnknown5,000 mAh
Battery life (Hrs:Mins)12:1610:07
Size6.3 x 3.1 x 0.3 inches6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches
Weight8.5 ounces8.08 ounces
ColorsGraphite, Gold, Silver, Sierra BluePhantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Brown

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Price and availability

Not much has changed on the pricing front. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is now available at a starting price of $1,099. That gets you the 128GB, and to boost storage to 256GB, you'll pay an extra $100. There are also 512GB and 1TB iPhone 13 Pro Max options for $1,399 and $1,599, respectively. That latter price is getting into Galaxy Z Fold 3 territory.

The 128GB Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at $1,199 — $100 more than the iPhone 13 Pro Max. The 256GB S21 Ultra ($1,249) is also more expensive than its iPhone equivalent while the 512GB model is $20 cheaper. We track the best iPhone 13 deals and best Galaxy S21 deals to find the best prices on both models. We also have guides to the best Phone 13 Pro Max cases and best Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra cases.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro Max

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Design

Apple has shrunk the notch the iPhone 13 Pro Max while giving this flagship a slightly larger camera array to accommodate the bigger lenses used by the new iPhone. But you don't have to deal with a notch at all on the Galaxy S21 Ultra (there's just a small punch hole). 

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

iPhone 13 Pro Max (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The camera array is more subtle on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, where it blends into the side of the device thanks to a contour cut design. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is taller and thicker than the iPhone 13 Pro Max while Apple's phone is fractionally wider. Apple's phone is now the heavier of the two handsets by nearly half-an-ounce.

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

Both phones have IP68 water resistance ratings, though the iPhone 13 Pro Max is listed as being able to survive a deeper plunge — 6 meters of water to 1.5 meters for Samsung's phone. And while we haven't seen durability testing on the iPhone yet, the Ceramic Shield display on the iPhone 13 Pro Max should help Apple's device stand up to a pretty good beating.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Display

The Galaxy S21 Ultra would take this category if you awarded bonus points for having a feature first. After all, fast-refreshing displays are old hat for Samsung's phones, and the S21 Ultra is able to dynamic adjust how fast its 6.8-inch screen will refresh, scaling from 10Hz all the way up to 120Hz.

But the iPhone 13 Pro Max is the first Apple phone to feature a fast-refreshing display (along with the iPhone 13 Pro). And its refresh rate also can adjust between 10Hz and 120Hz. That's probably because Samsung is a chief display supplier for phone makers, including Apple.

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

iPhone 13 Pro Max (left) and Galaxy S21 Ultra (right) (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone 13 Pro Max's 6.7-inch screen stands out in other ways, most notably in how bright it is. We measured 1,038 nits of brightness with the Adaptive setting on, topping the S21 Ultra's 821-nit reading. Apple's screen is just easier on the eyes, and it really brings out the highlights even in low-light video scenes. 

The iPhone 13 Pro Max's display registered 109.3 and 77.4 percent, respectively, of the sRGB and DCI-P3 color space. The Galaxy S21 Ultra was slightly ahead at 110.9 and 81.4 percent.

However, the iPhone 13 Pro Max's panel was slightly more accurate with a Delta-E reading of 0.21 versus 0.35 for the Samsung. Lower numbers are better in this test.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro Max

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Cameras

On paper, the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras seem evenly matched. Both phones offer triple camera displays, with Apple putting the emphasis on low-light photography this time around — the main lens uses a bigger sensor than before and lets in 49% more light while the aperture on the ultrawide angle lens has increased as well.

Meanwhile, the Galaxy S21 Ultra continues to rule with its zoom ability. That phone's 10MP telephoto lens is capable of a 10x optical zoom, compared to 3x for the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

What does this mean in terms of real-world photographic performance? When we shot a close-upphoto of some purple pansies, the iPhone 13 Pro offered a shot with richer colors and more detail, especially in the petals. The S21 Ultra's photo was over-aggressive with its color correction, and the background gets dangerously close to being over-saturated compared to the iPhone's more balanced look.

When the lights are low, the iPhone 13 Pro Max also shines, squeezing out more color in this shot of hydrangeas. The background leaves look greener, too, while those get lost in the darkness of the S21's photo.

We also think the iPhone 13 Pro Max takes a better portrait shot, bringing out the green color of my colleague Mark's shirt. The Samsung photo is overly dark, so you lose the impact of the background blur effect.

Samsung can still claim to offer the better zoom, though. At 3x, this shot of boats looks much sharper and more colorful when captured by the S21 Ultra. As we zoom past the iPhone's optical zoom limit, the S21 Ultra enjoys more of an edge, keeping everything sharp with a minimum of noise thanks to its Space Zoom feature.

Up front, the greater megapixels in the S21 Ultra's 40MP front camera are no match for the detail in the 12MP TrueDepth camera the iPhone 13 Pro Max relies upon. Mark's face looks more natural and more focused in the iPhone shot, while Samsung got a little bit over-aggressive when it comes to smoothing out his face.

Cameras are more than just still shots these days. Both the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra excel at capturing video. All iPhone 13 models up their video recording game with a new Cinematic mode that automatically puts the subject of the shot in focus while blurring the background. That blur can shift automatically during the shot as the focus changes. The result looks very much like something you'd see in a Hollywood movie, even if the output is restricted to 1080p resolution.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra can add a background blur to videos, too. The effect isn't as sophisticated as what you get with Cinematic mode, which does a better job training the focus on your subject. Plus, the S21 Ultra's portrait mode video is only designed to work with people and not animals or other objects. 

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro Max

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Performance and 5G

Performance testing remains not much of a contest between Apple and Android phones. The A14 Bionic chip powering last year's iPhone 12 models already topped the Snapdragon 888 inside the Galaxy S21 Ultra (though the gap had narrowed somewhat). With a new A15 Bionic chipset running the show on the iPhone 13 Pro Max, you'd figure Apple would continue to enjoy a big advantage.

You figured right, according to our iPhone 13 benchmarks. The A15 Bionic produces the best results we've seen on synthetic benchmarks, helping the iPhone 13 Pro Max to best the Galaxy S21 Ultra. In Geekbench 5, the iPhone 13 Pro Max's scores of 4,549 (multicore) and 1,720 (single-core) beat the Galaxy S21 Ultra's respective results of 3,440 and 1,123.

The iPhone 13 Pro Max topped the Galaxy S21's score in 3DMark's Wild Life Unlimited by a tally of 68.4 frames per second to 34 frames per second. And we found the iPhone 13 Pro Max can transcode a a 4K file to 1080p 37 seconds faster than the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samusng Galaxy S21 Ultra

Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

The phones are evenly matched on the 5G front, with both the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra able to work with all US carrier's 5G implementations. Apple argues that by year's end, though, the iPhone 13 Pro Max will double worldwide, with support for 200 carriers in 60 countries.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro Max

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Battery life and charging

Like the other iPhone 13 models, the iPhone 13 Pro Max gets a bigger battery over its predecessor. (How big, Apple doesn't specify, so we'll have to wait until iPhone 13 teardowns for this information.) Thanks partially to that move, the iPhone 12 Pro lasts longer on our battery test, surpassing the 12-hour mark and landing in the middle of our best phone battery life rankings.

iPhone 13 Pro Max charging on table

iPhone 13 Pro Max (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra reached that list, too — soft of. When we ran the test, which involves continuous surfing over cellular until a phone runs out of power, we turned off the dynamic refreshing display on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. On that test, Samsung's phone lasted 11 hours and 25 minutes. With the feature enabled, the result fell to 10 hours and 7 minutes. That's still slightly ahead of the average time for smartphones, but it's 2 hours behind the iPhone 13 Pro Max's result.

Neither the Galaxy S21 Ultra nor the iPhone 13 Pro Max ship with a charger in the box. The S21 supports 25W wired charging while the iPhone 13 Pro Max tops out at 20W. Neither speed is that impressive in this day and age, though the S21's 5,000 mAh battery got to 56% after 30 minutes of charging; the iPhone just reached 50% in that same time.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro Max

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Software and special features

The iPhone 13 Pro Max ships with iOS 15 installed. Apple's latest software update adds a new Focus mode for blocking out distracting notifications, Live Text and Visual Look Up features that use on-device intelligence to recognize text and objects in photos and improvements to the Maps, FaceTime, Wallet and Photos apps. The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs Android 11, and with with Android 12 set to launch soon, you'd expect Samsung's phone to be in line for an update by the end of the year.

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Samsung has gotten more aggressive about its software support, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra in line for three years of software updates and four years of security patches. That eats a little bit into an advantage Apple has long enjoyed with its iPhones, which receive software and security updates right away. Apple also supports phones for at least four years, with phones dating back to 2015 able to upgrade to iOS 15.

The Galaxy S21 enjoys one big advantage over the iPhone 13 Pro Max — Samsung added optional S Pen support. Pay $40 extra for an S Pen, and you can use Samsung's stylus to jot down notes, draw, and more precisely edit photos on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. You will need to buy a case to hold the S Pen, as there's no built-in slot on the S21 Ultra.

Another advantage for Samsung is its in-display fingerprint reader. It's great to have that option at a time many of us are still wearing masks, even though Apple's Face ID is superior to Samsung's facial recognition. 

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Verdict

As good as the Galaxy S21 Ultra is — and it's near the top of our rankings for the best phone — the iPhone 13 Pro Max is just a little bit better. The things that are important to phone owners — cameras, battery life, performance — are the things the iPhone does best. And areas where Samsung used to hold a big edge, such as fast refreshing displays, are now features you'll find on the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

iPhone 13 ProSamsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Price and availability (10 points)87
Design (10 points)89
Display (15 points)1413
Camera (20 points)1816
Performance and 5G (20 points)2018
Battery life and charging (15 points)1312
Software and special features (10 points)810
Overall8985

Android fans will be happy to have the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, especially if they take advantage of features like S Pen support, better zoom and the in-display fingerprint sensor. But there's a reason the iPhone 13 Pro can rightly claim to be the king of the smartphones right now. It's just a better all-around device by a narrow margin.

Philip Michaels
Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.