Why Samsung just can’t beat the iPhone

galaxy s21 plus vs iphone 12 pro
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For the first time in four years, Apple just surpassed Samsung in smartphone sales worldwide during the final quarter of 2020. That's according to Gartner, which says that the launch of the iPhone 12 series helped Apple achieve double-digit growth for both the quarter and 2020 overall.

Meanwhile, Samsung experienced a 14.6% year-over-year decline. Granted, the Samsung Galaxy S21 launched outside that window in January, but based on our iPhone 12 vs Galaxy S21 face-off, Apple remains in the lead. Apple also won our in-depth iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Galaxy S21 Ultra comparison and iPhone 12 Pro vs Galaxy S21 Plus Plus battle. 

Why does Apple keep winning? Yes, iOS has some advantages over Android in terms of ease of use — and Apple’s ecosystem is sticker than Samsung’s when you include other products like the MacBook, Apple Watch, AirPods and iCloud. But for me, it all comes down to the cameras.

I know what you might be thinking. The standard iPhone 12 doesn’t even offer a telephoto camera, while the Galaxy S21 delivers a 3x hybrid optical zoom and a 30x Space Zoom (digital). So Apple loses on versatility right off the bat.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is even more powerful, offering dual telephoto zoom lenses that go up to 10x optical zoom and 100x digital. The iPhone 12 Pro Max makes do with just a 3.5x optical zoom and 12x digital. Our Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom test puts the iPhone 12 to shame on this front. 

But when you actually look at the image quality offered by both brands, Apple is still in the lead. In fact, Samsung’s phones continue to struggle in certain conditions.

Take this portrait of my colleague Jordan. The Galaxy S21 Plus’ photo looks like it has a film over it and washes out his face. The iPhone 12 Pro pic is almost too warm, but it delivers a lot more detail in his hair and beard. 

The same thing happens indoors, too. In this photo of a golden retriever, his fur looks more gold in the iPhone 12 Pro Max shot. The Galaxy S21 Ultra image is flat and lacks contrast.

In this outdoor photo there’s a similar pattern. The Galaxy S21’s shot looks hazy next to the iPhone 12 Pro. The shadows are more defined in the iPhone’s pic and there’s more of a sense of depth.

While not as dramatic an example, once again the iPhone 12 wins in this side-by-side comparison with the Galaxy S21 in a photo of a Merida figurine. Her hair is more red in the iPhone photo and her green skin looks richer. 

The iPhone 12 series’ Night Mode also tends to perform better than the Galaxy S21. In this comparison, you can see that the brick, the number of the house and the window area all look brighter and clearer. The figurine also blends more into the background in the S21 image.

I’m not saying that the cameras on the Galaxy S21 series are bad by any stretch. In fact, there are cases where Samsung’s phones come out on top. 

In this photo of a chicken stir fry meal, the peppers in the S21 Ultra photo look a bit richer. I give Samsung the edge here. And as I’ve already mentioned, Samsung’s phones blow away the iPhone when it comes to zooming.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra series also boats some photography and video features I wish Apple had. This includes Single Take, which captures a bunch of photos and videos at once using multiple lenses. And there’s Director’s View, which lets you recording using the front and back cameras at the same time.

But, overall, Samsung needs to catch up to Apple when it comes to computational photography. The camera hardware on the Galaxy S21 series is solid. But the post processing and machine learning used to make images look their best is still a step behind Apple’s efforts. 

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.