The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max showdown looks at how the two best smartphones in the world (right now) compare to each other. It's an intense battle, but there can only be one winner.
Our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review shows just how impressive a flagship Samsung has produced — and it should be for $1,199. You get a gorgeous 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display that scales from 10Hz to 120Hz, dual telephoto zoom lenses and a huge 5,000 mAh battery. Plus, the S21 Ultra supports the S Pen, a first for a phone outside of the Galaxy Note lineup.
- The best phones right now
- Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S20: Should you upgrade?
- Plus: Android 12 beta updates, features and what to expect from the new OS
On the other hand, as you'll see in our iPhone 12 Pro Max review, there's a reason why Apple's phone has been the No. 1 pick on our best phone list. It offers an amazing camera system with superb low-light performance and Dolby Vision video recording. Plus, it offers a stellar 6.7-inch OLED display, the fastest performance around and a sleek new design.
So which phone is best overall, and which one is better for you? Our Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max face-off will answer these questions.
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12: Specs
|Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra||iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Screen||6.8 inches (3200 x 1400)||6.7 inches (2778 x 1284)|
|Display refresh||10Hz to 120Hz||60Hz|
|CPU||Snapdragon 888||A14 Bionic|
|Storage||128GB, 256GB, 512GB||128GB, 256GB, 512GB|
|Rear cameras||108MP 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||12MP wide (f/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (f/2.4), 12MP telephoto (2.5x zoom, f/2.2)|
|Front camera||40MP (f/2.2)||12MP TrueDepth (f/2.2)|
|Water reisstance||IP68 up to 1.5 meters||IP68 up to 6 meters|
|Battery size||5,000 mAh||3,678 mAH|
|Battery life||11:25 (60Hz)/10:07 (adaptive)||10:53|
|Size||6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches||6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches|
|Weight||8.08 ounces||8.03 ounces|
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Price
Yes, Samsung has cut the price on its Galaxy S21 phones by $200 compared to the S20, but Apple still holds the pricing edge here. The iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1,099 — $100 cheaper than the Galaxy S21 Ultra's $1,199 cost.
However, it's less expensive to boost the storage on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, where upgrading to the 256GB version costs an extra $50. You need to pay an extra $100 for the 256GB iPhone 12 Pro Max. The 512GB Galaxy S21 Ultra is also cheaper than the equivalent iPhone 12 Pro Max — $1,379 versus $1,399.
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Design
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra sports a new contour cut camera design that blends the camera into it glass back. It's a sleek look, but the Ultra is still a beast of a phone. At 6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches and 8.08 ounces, it's taller, thicker and heavier than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which measures 6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches and weighs 8.03 ounces.
I also prefer the flat edges of the iPhone 12 Pro Max to the curved sides of the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The S21 Ultra comes in Phantom Silver and Phantom Black from carriers, but you can get Navy, Titantium or Brown through Samsung.com. Apple offers Silver, Graphite, Gold and Pacific Blue for the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max has an advantage in terms of durability and water resistance. The Ceramic Shield display on the iPhone is designed to offer four times the drop performance of its predecessor, and it has performed well in various drop tests. Samsung doesn't make any such claims for the Gorilla Glass Victus screen on its phone.
In addition, the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a higher IP68 water resistance rating of up to 6 meters, compared to 1.5 meters for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The biggest strike against the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the display notch; the S21 Ultra has a small punch hole camera up front.
Winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Display
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a few advantages over the iPhone 12 Pro Max in this round. For one, it offers an adaptive AMOLED display that can scale its refresh rate from 10Hz all the way up to 120Hz, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max is stuck at 60Hz. Having a faster refresh rate enables smoother scrolling and better performance in games that support it.
The 6.8-inch screen on the S21 Ultra is also a bit sharper than the panel on the iPhone 12 Pro Max with a resolution of 3200 x 1400, compared to 2778 x 1284. That's a difference between 515 ppi and 458 ppi.
Samsung keeps the winning streak going by registering a higher brightness on our testing. It notched a reading of 821 nits, compared to 654 nits for the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
Apple's display did pull ahead with its color reproduction, reaching 84.8% of the DCI-P3 color gamut. The S21 Ultra managed 81.4%.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Cameras
The Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max battle largely hinges on the cameras, and both phones are very well armed. The S21 Ultra packs four rear lenses, plus a laster autofocus sensor. There's a main 108MP camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera and dual 10MP telephoto lenses, one capable of 3x optical zoom and the other 10x.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max features a main 12MP sensor, a 12MP ultra-wide camera and a 12MP telephoto zoom lens with 2.5x optical zoom. There's also a LiDAR sensor that helps with low-light photography and portraits.
The cameras on the S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max are both great, but they excel in different areas. The S21 Ultra wins hands down in zoom performance, because its lenses simply push further.
As you can see in this photo of lawn chairs across the street, the S21 Ultra gets you much closer to the subject than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The 30x zoom shot is perfectly usable, but the 100x zoom shot is too fuzzy.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max image is decent at 12x zoom, but that's as far as Apple's cameras can go.
Samsung's shot of these green peppers looks shiny and delicious, but the produce looks even more vibrant in the iPhone 12 Pro Max photo. Apple's phone has the edge here.
I give the nod to the Galaxy S21 Ultra of trees. While both cameras deliver an impressive amount of detail in the bark and handle the shadows well, the S21 Ultra delivers more contrast and the trees pop more against the blue sky.
Samsung says it has also improved the Portrait mode on the S21 by leveraging AI to better separate the subject from the background. The S21 Ultra delivers a great bokeh effect here. However, I slightly prefer the iPhone 12 Pro Max pic because of the warmer skin tone; the S21 Ultra blows out my face on the right side a bit.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra also performs quite well in low light, thanks to a faster Bright Night sensor and 12MP nona-binning technology for reducing noise reduction. In this comparison you can make out more of the stones and bushes in the foreground in the S21 Ultra’s photo. However, the colors in the iPhone 12 shot look more natural; Samsung's camera adds a gold/yellowish tinge in some cases.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max pulls ahead in this photo of a golden retriever. The S21 Ultra’s pic is overly bright and a bit washed out, while his fur his more golden and natural looking with the iPhone. The iPhone 12 Pro Max shot looks more realistic.
This one is really close, but the Galaxy S21 does a slightly better job here rendering the vegetables in this chicken stir fry meal. The peppers look a bit richer upon close inspection.
On the selfie front, I prefer the photo captured by the iPhone 12 Pro Max here. My skin looks warmer and the grass a bit greener in the background. The S21 Ultra photo is certainly sharp, though.
Winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Performance
The Galaxy S21 Ultra packs a fast Snapdragon 888 chip and 12GB of RAM, but it's still a step behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max in both synthetic benchmarks and real-world tests.
On Geekbench 5, the S21 Ultra notched 3,440 on the multi-core test and 1,123 on single-core. That’s behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which cleared 4,100 and 1,600.
The S21 Ultra performed fairly well on the 3DMark Wild Life graphics benchmark, hitting 34 fps. However, the iPhone 12 Pro Max averaged a higher 41 fps.
On our video editing test using the Adobe Premiere Rush app, the Galaxy S21 Ultra took 1 minute and 2 seconds to transcode a 4K video to 1080p. The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s needed only 28 seconds.
Winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: 5G
Based on our testing thus far, the Galaxy S20 Ultra offers faster 5G speeds than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. On AT&T, and the S21 Ultra averaged 84 Mbps downloads, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max didn’t even break 37 Mbps.
In a different location on T-Mobile’s network, the iPhone 12 Pro Max hit 93 Mbps, while the Note 21 Ultra exceeded 160 Mbps. The Galaxy S21 Ultra does have a newer and more powerful X60 Qualcomm modem, so that could account for the performance delta.
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Battery life
The Galaxy S21 Ultra makes full use of its 5,000 mAh battery, as the phone lasted a very impressive 11 hours and 25 minutes on our batter test. The iPhone 12 Pro Max endured for 10:53.
When we set the screen mode on the S21 Ultra to adaptive (120Hz), the runtime dipped to 10 hours and 7 minutes.
Neither Apple or Samsung includes a charger in the box, but both phones are capable of fast chaging. The S21 Ultra reached 56% in 30 minutes, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max only hit 47% in the same amount of time.
Winner: Galaxy S20 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Software and special features
iOS 14 brings a host of welcome features to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, including widgets on the home screen for easy access to info, including a Smart Stack of several widgets in one spot. And the new App Library feature automatically organizes your apps together by category.
Apple's software also delivers lots of helpful tweaks to messages, such as pinned conversations and inline replies. The design of iOS 14 is sleeker, too, with a more compact Siri and calls interface that stays out of your way. And if you own AirPods Pro, the spatial audio feature gives you a 360-degree sound experience.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs One UI 3.0 atop Android 11, and it brings some great additions of its own. This includes a wide selection of widgets you can access without unlocking your phone. The Quick Panel is now easier to customize get things done faster, and there are exclusive camera tricks like Director's View, which lets you use the front and back camera at the same time with recording video.
But the most unique special feature is S Pen support. The S21 Ultra has a digitizer for its display that supports S Pen input. You can buy a silicone case with S Pen combo for $69. The S Pen works well based on my testing, so it's great for taking notes and sketching, but it doesn't support Bluetooth.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: What about the iPhone 13?
Considering we're on the cusp of the 2021 Apple event, we have to consider the iPhone 13. We don't know details yet since the phone hasn't been announced. But we have rumors and conjecture that help paint a picture about the iPhone 13 Pro Max could look like, and what it could do against the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
First and foremost, we believe that the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max will get 120Hz LTPO displays. This high refresh rate would be a first for the iPhone and would narrow the gap between Apple's and Samsung's flagships. We also think that the ultrawide camera could see some needed improvements, notably auto-focus. 5G should also see an upgrade with a better modem, allow for faster speeds and better aggregation.
Samsung made a killer phone with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but the company will have its work cut out for it once the iPhone 13 comes out. The Korean company's latest Galaxy Z Fold 3 knocked our socks off, but it's several hundred dollars more than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (and that'll likely be true for the iPhone 13 Pro Max, too). Even so, we have a lot to be excited for in the Apple vs. Samsung battle.
Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Overall winner
|Galaxy S21 Ultra||iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Price and availability (10 points)||7||7|
|Design (10 points)||8||9|
|Display (15 points)||15||14|
|Cameras (20 points)||17||19|
|Performance (15 points)||12||15|
|5G (5 points)||4||3|
|Battery and charging (15 points)||13||12|
|Software and special features (10 points)||9||8|
|Overall (100 points)||85||87|
Apple and Samsung have never been so close. The iPhone 12 Pro Max narrowly wins this face-off with the Galaxy S21 Ultra based on the strength of its performance and better overall image quality. The iPhone's design is also a little more durable and easier to handle with its flat edges.
However, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra gets the win in some important categories, thanks to its smoother 120Hz display, faster 5G and longer battery life. And while the S21 Ultra costs more up front, it's a bit cheaper if you prefer more storage.
No matter which flagship phone you choose in this Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12 Ultra battle, you will not lose. And that's why these two phones occupy the top 2 spots in our best phone list.