Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra — 7 ways it beats iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max
(Image credit: Future)

The $1,199 Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra may be cheaper than its predecessor but it’s also $100 more than one of the best phones money can buy in the iPhone 12 Pro Max. So what do you get for that premium? Quite a bit, actually.

In fact, Samsung’s top-end phone beats Apple’s flagship in several ways, offering features the iPhone simply can’t match, from its dual zoom cameras to its optional S Pen support. Samsung has definitely upped its game for this year after a lackluster effort with last year's Galaxy S20 Ultra

Of course, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is superior in some ways, especially performance and its more durable design. And there are plenty of people who simply prefer iOS. But you should not overlook Samsung's top-end phone. Here are seven ways the Galaxy S21 Ultra beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

A better display 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s display beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max in a couple of key ways. First, you get a faster refresh rate that goes up 120Hz, while the iPhone is stuck at 60Hz. This makes for smooth scrolling, as well as better performance in games and movies that support 120Hz.

In addition, the S21 Ultra’s panel gets brighter, as it registered 821 nits, compared to 654 nits for the iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

Much more powerful zoom

While the iPhone 12 Pro Max has a measly optical zoom of 2.5x, the Galaxy S21 Ultra packs two telephoto lenses — one 3x and the other 10x. As a result, you can get much closer to far-away subjects with Samsung’s phone.

See more

With digital zoom, the Galaxy S21 Ultra can go all the way up to 100x with its Space Zoom feature, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max maxes out at 12x. Based on my testing, you can get really good results on the Samsung out to 30x. And a decent shot is possible at higher levels thanks to the new Zoom Lock feature. 

Longer battery life

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra battery life

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra takes full advantage of its 5,000 mAh battery, as it lasted a whopping 11 hours and 25 minutes on our web surfing battery test over 5G. This is at 150 nits of screen brightness with the 60Hz display mode on. The above runtime lands the Galaxy S21 Ultra on our best phone battery life list.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max endured for 10:53 on the same test. Granted, the Samsung dipped to 10:07 with its adaptive display mode on (120Hz) but in general you should expect more unplugged time with the S21 Ultra.

Faster 5G

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review 5G

(Image credit: Future)

We plan to conduct more testing side by side, but based on what I’ve seen so far the Galaxy S20 Ultra offers faster 5G speeds than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. 

I started by using 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 be the difference. 

Fingerprint sensor built in

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

While Face ID works very well on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, it’s useless in pubic when you have to wear a mask. And I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra features a in-screen fingerprint sensor that’s 1.7x larger than the S20 Ultra, which makes it easier to log in. It’s fast and has proved accurate in my testing. The iPhone 13 is rumored to offer an in-screen Touch ID sensor, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max is Face ID-only. 

The cameras are more fun

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Samsung has a knack for packing too many features into its phones, but there are a couple of welcome additions with the S21 Ultra that I think a lot of people will appreciate.

The first is Director’s View, which allows you to use the front and back cameras at the same time to record video. I also like that the camera shows you a live thumbnail of all the different lens views so you can see if it’s worth switching.

The updated Single Take 2.0 records a bunch of photos and videos at once, and it leverages AI to highlight the most share-worthy moments. The new version does things like create a slow-motion video from your shots.

S Pen support

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen

(Image credit: Future)

The S Pen support on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is more of a bonus — especially since the pen itself isn't included with the phone the way it is with the Galaxy Note 20. But it’s nice to know that you can spring for an optional stylus if you really want it. 

The S Pen lets you take notes on the display, draw and make finer edits on photos. The S Pen costs $39 or you can grab a case and pen combo for $69. 

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.