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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Battle of the giant phones

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (left) versus iPhone 11 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

If you're in the market for a seriously big phone, your decision has become more complicated this year. The 6.9-inch Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra arrived in the spring, and it's an epic device in every sense — from its quad-lens, 108-megapixel camera system to its 5G connectivity, 5,000-mAh battery and 120Hz display. It's also a very compelling alternative to one of our favorite big phones, the 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max.

However, both of these large flagships also feature appropriately large price tags — $1,099 for Apple's range-topping iPhone, and a whopping $1,399 for the biggest, baddest Galaxy. That makes the decision on what phone to buy even more stressful, but don't worry: Our Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs. iPhone 11 Pro Max face-off will help you suss out the differences and determine which one is the best fit for you.

Interested in Samsung's other S20 devices? Check out our Samsung Galaxy S20 review and Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus review. The Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which released recently, are also worth considering if you're in the market for one of the best big phones.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Price

If you thought the iPhone 11 Pro Max was expensive, the Galaxy S20 Ultra's price tag puts Apple's to shame. At $1,399 for the base configuration of the S20 Ultra with 128GB of storage and 12GB of RAM, Samsung's flagship demands a $300 premium over the cheapest version of the iPhone 11 Pro Max with 64GB of storage.

Is $300 worth double the base storage? You could argue that it is, considering you'd have to pay another $149 to get 256GB of storage in the iPhone — driving up the price to $1,249. Even then, you don't have the ability to expand that further with a microSD card on Apple's device.

Still, most people are going to look at the different prices between the Galaxy S20 Ultra vs. the iPhone 11 Pro Max and come away with some sticker shock from Samsung's offering. Of course, there's quite a good chance iPhone 11 Pro Max prices will slide once the new iPhone 12 Pro Max begins shipping on Nov. 13, making Apple's device even more compelling.

Winner: iPhone 11 Pro Max 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Specs

Samsung Galaxy S20 UltraiPhone 11 Pro Max
Starting priceFrom $1,399From $1,099
Display 6.9-inch AMOLED (3200x1440; 120 Hz) 6.5-inch OLED (2688x1242)
Rear cameras Quad lens: 108 MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 48-MP telephoto (ƒ/3.5); 12 MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2); time-of-flight VGA Triple lens: 12 MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 12-MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0) 12 MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.4)
Camera zoom 10x lossless zoom, 100x digital zoom 2x optical zoom, 10x digital zoom
Front camera 40 MP (ƒ/2.2) 12 MP (ƒ/2.2)
Cellular networksUp to 5G (sub-6GHz and mmWave)Up to 4G LTE
Video Up to 8K resolution at 24 fps Up to 4K resolution at 60 fps
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 865Apple A13 Bionic
Storage 128GB, 512GB64GB, 256GB, 512GB
microSD Yes, up to 1TBNo
Battery 5,000 mAh3,969 mAh
Size 6.6 x 2.7 x 0.34 inches 6.22 x 3.06 x 0.32 inches
Weight 7.7 ounces7.97 ounces

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Design

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (left) versus iPhone 11 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

At 6.5 inches from corner to corner, the iPhone 11 Pro is already an imposing smartphone. But the Galaxy S20 Ultra takes things a step further with its largest-in-class 6.9-inch AMOLED panel. Samsung's handset also employs a 20:9 aspect ratio that's slightly narrower than the iPhone 11 Pro Max's squatter 19.5:9 proportions.

As a result, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is considerably taller than Apple's supersized iPhone, yet not quite as wide. Because the S20 Ultra is a hair narrower, Samsung's device is actually a bit easier to grasp in your hand. On the flip side, the additional three-tenths of an inch of height means you have to stretch your thumb farther across the Galaxy's display to reach the opposite corner.

Make no mistake: Those shopping for one of the best small phones aren't going to be comfortable with either of these handsets. But aesthetically speaking, the iPhone 11 Pro Max feels a bit more premium and distinctive, with its stainless steel frame, matte glass back, meticulously designed triple-lens rear camera array and selection of color options. The S20 Ultra, by comparison, is only available in Cosmic Black and Cosmic Gray — both of which look very boring.

Winner: iPhone 11 Pro Max 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Display

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S20 Ultra's 6.9-inch display sports both a higher resolution and a peak refresh rate that's double the 6.5-inch panel inside the iPhone 11 Pro Max, so you might expect Samsung to pull out a massive lead in this category.

However, there are a few caveats to those eye-catching specs. The S20 Ultra defaults to full-HD resolution, rather than its native quad HD. The default refresh rate mode is also 60Hz, even though the phone can be set to 120Hz for smoother animations and scrolling. (Raising the refresh rate imposes an adverse effect on battery life, but we'll get to that later.)

In other words, while the S20 Ultra's display can look better than the iPhone's, it doesn't come out of the box that way. To get the best longevity on a charge, you won't want to keep it locked on those energy-draining settings.

iPhone 11 Pro Max

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

What's more, the iPhone 11 Pro Max's panel was able to reach a higher peak brightness setting in our lab, churning out 761 nits to the S20 Ultra's 662 nits. Apple's screen tuning also opts for more muted, realistic colors, whereas Samsung provides several options on its devices, ranging from natural to Adaptive. The latter lends a noticeably more saturated look to photos, movies and games.

In the end, the S20 Ultra gets the nod here on the basis of its faster refresh rate, but only just. While Samsung's display breakthroughs are no doubt very impressive, they're not necessarily efficient enough to use every day.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Camera

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (right) versus iPhone 11 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

Whether you choose the Galaxy S20 Ultra or the iPhone 11 Pro Max, you're getting one of the two best camera phones money can buy. However, one of them has an edge.

The spec sheet would have you believe it’s the Galaxy. Sure, the iPhone 11 Pro Max features three 12-MP sensors on the back, tied to wide, ultrawide and 2x optical telephoto lenses. But the Galaxy S20 Plus sports a 108-MP primary wide lens; a 48-MP, 4x optical telephoto capable of 10x lossless hybrid zoom; a 12-MP ultrawide shooter; and a time-of-flight sensor for depth-measuring capabilities.

In some cases, such as when you can take advantage of the S20 Ultra’s zoom capabilities, the results just speak for themselves. The iPhone 11 Pro Max's camera is good — very good. But it often has a preference for artificially warm images, and its purely digital zoom is no match for the S20 Ultra's software-aided optical zoom that delivers lossless quality at 10x.

However, the S20 Ultra also has a habit of trying too hard sometimes — especially when things get dark. To its credit, Samsung’s device delivered a sharper image here that extracted more detail out of the ceiling and floor. But the white balance is a bit too cool, and the contrast is over pronounced compared to the more naturally-toned scene captured on the iPhone.

Plus, the iPhone 11 Pro Max still holds an advantage where portraits are concerned. While Apple's cameras muddied up my skin tone and lent a sepia-like cast to the frame, they also pulled out much more detail in my hair and the fabric of my scarf and jacket. The optimal portrait would combine the metering of the S20 Ultra's shot with the detailed exposure visible in the iPhone's.

Likewise, there are aspects I prefer of the selfie I captured using the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Apple's Deep Fusion camera technology excels at highlighting fine detail in medium lighting conditions. The S20 Ultra doesn't really have an answer to that technique, though I do prefer the more flattering, zoomed-in perspective of Samsung's 40-MP selfie lens.

It must be said that the Galaxy S20 Ultra has a few helpful camera interface features that the iPhone lacks. Single Take, for example, captures a variety of content types with just one press of the shutter button — including wide and ultrawide photos, short video clips and a preselected best shot. The S20 Ultra can also capture 8K video, though you'll obviously need an 8K display to view that content as it was intended to be seen.

However, those benefits don’t outweigh the glitches many have discovered within the S20 Ultra’s imaging stack. Samsung’s cutting-edge cameras happen to come with cutting-edge growing pains for now, like jumpy autofocus that takes too long to hone in on a subject, and a softness to portraits that is unexpectedly poor for such a sophisticated multi-lens module. The company issued a software update in the weeks following the S20 Ultra's release to address these problems, but even so, the iPhone remains a more reliable camera, despite its decidedly less impressive specs.

Winner: iPhone 11 Pro Max 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Performance

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

Here's one particular area where Samsung — and other Android phone makers — still have some serious catching up to do. The A13 Bionic chipset in the iPhone 11 Pro Max surpasses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset inside the Galaxy S20 Ultra, just like it beat phones powered by last year's Snapdragon 855 system-on-chip.

Now, rest assured — the S20 Ultra, with its 12GB of RAM compared with the iPhone's 4GB, is no slouch. But Apple's still a step ahead of the Snapdragon contingent, judging from the benchmarks.

For example, in Geekbench 5's multicore, systemwide test, the S20 Ultra delivered a score of 3,076, compared with the iPhone's 3,517. In GFXBench's Aztec Ruins high-tier off-screen graphics test, the S20 Ultra pulled a 1,319 result at 20.7 frames per second, compared with 1,657 at 25 fps for Apple's flagship. If maximum performance is a major priority for you, iPhone remains the answer.

Winner: iPhone 11 Pro Max 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: 5G and connectivity

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S20 Ultra can connect to any major carrier's 5G network, while the iPhone 11 Pro Max has to make do with pedestrian 4G LTE.

If you're spending more than $1,000 on a new smartphone, you're going to want one with 5G. Not so much this very moment, but rather in the coming years. You're making a serious investment with either of these devices, and if you're stuck with a 5G-less iPhone two years from now, you'll probably feel the pain in the future.

Right now, 5G speeds aren't all they're cracked up to be. Millimeter wave (mmWave) performance delivers exceptional download speeds well beyond 1 Gbps. But to get that, you have to stand outdoors, within line of sight of a node on a telephone pole or building. Meanwhile, broader sub-6-GHz 5G coverage is accessible indoors, but sort of performs like really good LTE, offering speeds hovering around 100 Mbps on T-Mobile's 5G network in New York on the S20 Ultra.

Ultimately, networks figure to improve over time, and because the Galaxy S20 Ultra's X55 modem works with different kinds of 5G, it stands to reap those benefits as you hold onto your phone.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Battery life

iPhone 11 Pro Max

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S20 Ultra averaged 11 hours and 58 minutes in Tom's Guide's custom battery test, where phones are made to endlessly load web pages over a mobile network (in this case, T-Mobile 5G) while set to 150 nits of screen brightness. The iPhone 11 Pro Max lasted essentially just as long, at 11 hours and 54 minutes.

That places both of these flagships near the the top of our list of the longest-lasting smartphones. However, there's a catch. Remember when we said the S20 Ultra has a 120-Hz screen? That 11:58 time was recorded with the phone's display set to 60 Hz, and you definitely won't get the same longevity when using the high refresh-rate mode.

In fact, Samsung's handset won't come anywhere close to that number, should you opt for 120 Hz. It turns out the Galaxy S20 Ultra's battery life is reduced by a quarter when you ratchet up the refresh rate, going from about 12 hours to 9 hours — something prospective owners should certainly keep in mind.

Surprisingly, the S20 Ultra even charges back up faster than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, even though it has a much larger battery. The 25-watt adapter included with the S20 Ultra replenished 63% of the device's charge after a half hour, compared with 48% for the 18-watt brick that ships with the iPhone. The S20 Ultra can also wirelessly charge other devices — like, perhaps, a pair of Galaxy Buds or a smartwatch — another thing Apple's handset cannot do.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Software

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro Max each come out of the box with the latest versions of their respective operating systems: Android 10 (featuring Samsung's One UI 2 interface) and iOS 13. We found the latter to be a more meaningful upgrade when we reviewed both releases late last year, thanks to Apple's well-designed new Dark Mode, improved Maps and Photos apps and privacy-protecting and time-saving Sign in with Apple feature.

And that's to say nothing of Face ID — Apple's secure, 3D face-scanning biometric technology that has now been refined over three generations of phones. Samsung still has no answer to it, and the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor it's used on the S20 Ultra instead is rather clunky and inaccurate.

iPhones also tend to be supported with new updates for far longer than Android phones typically are. For example, iOS 13 runs on every phone Apple has made stretching all the way back to 2014's iPhone 6s. Samsung's devices, conversely, often don't see updates after two years — and even then, those updates rarely show up on time. Both are sure to receive iOS 14 and Android 11, though the iPhone will surely get its update more quickly than the Galaxy.

Winner: iPhone 11 Pro Max 

What about the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra?

The new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

The new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If you've been keeping up with the latest in phones, you may have heard that there's a new "Ultra" Galaxy handset in town: the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

The Note 20 Ultra costs $1,299, making it $100 cheaper than the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Despite that discount, the Note 20 Ultra carries the S20 Ultra's 108-MP main lens, but with a new laser autofocus system that should make it ascertain focus faster than the S20 Ultra does.

However, the Note 20 Ultra's main camera tops out at 50x zoom, as opposed to the 100x "Space Zoom" of the S20 Ultra. That's not a big loss — Space Zoom was quite useless and unwieldy to shoot with anyway. The S20 Ultra also has a larger battery, at 5,000-mAh, compared to the 4,500-mAh unit inside the new top-of-the-line Note.

On the flip side, the Note 20 Ultra has a faster processor now that Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 Plus is out in the world. It also has the S Pen stylus, of course, which allows for seamless note-taking and many clever productivity-focused features.

Both Ultra Galaxy models have similarly-sized displays, at 6.9 inches, with 120Hz refresh rates. However, only the Note 20 Ultra's refresh rate is fully dynamic and allows the phone to adjust the smoothness of content on the fly for improved battery efficiency.

All that said, the Note 20 Ultra improves upon the S20 Ultra in a number of key ways. It's worth considering as an alternative to the S20 Ultra or the iPhone 11 Pro Max, though we can't ignore that the iPhone 12 Pro is now an option as well. Here's how we think the iPhone 12 Pro vs. Galaxy Note 20 face-off is shaping up.

Overall Winner: iPhone 11 Pro Max

It's hard to ignore that the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus gives you everything plus the kitchen sink. If you want the best phone and money is no object, there's really nothing (save for a headphone jack) you could ask for that the S20 Ultra doesn't have.  

Samsung Galaxy S20 UltraiPhone 11 Pro Max
Price (10)45
Design (15)1113
Camera (20)1618
Display (10)108
Performance (15)1314
Connectivity (5)53
Battery (15)1311
Software (10)710
Total (100)7982

However, $1,399 is a lot to spend on a phone, even if the phone in question touts 5G and a special camera — especially now that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra delivers those same features for less. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is significantly cheaper than Samsung's Ultra phones and slightly better than the S20 Ultra in ways that will likely matter to more people — namely, with regard to its more intuitive, regularly updated software, exceptional performance and attractive design.

Ultimately, you shouldn't regret purchasing either of these phones. No matter which you buy, they're both stunning devices that leave nothing on the table. The Galaxy S20 Ultra represents where the industry is going in so many ways, but the price is just out of reach, the advantages are negligible, and Samsung refined many of the features it introduced on the newer Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. But the iPhone 11 Pro Max is still a better big-screen phone overall.