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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Which phone will rule 2021?

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12
(Image credit: Apple/OnLeaks)

It’s Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12 time, already? Yes, one of the biggest phone face-offs of the year began much earlier than usual in 2021, as Samsung just announced its new Galaxy S21 phones at an Unpacked event on January 14, jumping out in front of its typical February or March schedule, taking the fight for the best phone straight to Apple and its iPhone 12 lineup.

Samsung's new phones will face a formidable opponent. The iPhone 12 models introduced by Apple last October have already rocketed to the top of the smartphone world, thanks to outstanding cameras and the best performing mobile processor we've tested. It's going to take a lot to top Apple's four phones.

Now that Unpacked has been ... unpacked, we've got a clear idea of how the Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 showdown will shake out. We won't know for certain how the different phones compare until we've actually tested these new S21 phones, but we can make some pretty educated guesses as to how these smartphone heavyweights will compare.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Specs compared

Samsung Galaxy S21Samsung Galaxy S21 PlusiPhone 12
Screen size6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED (2400 x 1080; 48Hz - 120Hz)6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED (2400 x 1080; 48Hz-120Hz) 6.1 inches OLED, 60Hz
CPUSnapdragon 888Snapdragon 888A14 Bionic
Rear camera12MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 64MP (f/2.0) telephoto with 3x optical zoom12MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 64MP (f/2.0) telephoto with 3x optical zoom12MP ultrawide, 12MP wide
Battery size4,000 mAh4,800 mAh2,815 mAh
ColorsPhantom Violet, Phantom Pink, Phantom Gray, and Phantom WhitePhantom Silver, Phantom Black, and Phantom VioletBlack, White, Red, Green and Blue

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Price and availability

The pricing picture for our Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 face-off is complete, and Apple starts at the lower rate. Prices start at $699 for the iPhone 12 mini, with the iPhone 12 costing $799. The Galaxy S21 starts at $799, with the S21 Plus coming in at $999. 

The iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max round out the lineup, at $999 and $1,099, respectively.

As for how Samsung pulled this pricing off? The S21 features the specially reinforced polycarbonate material back that was seen in the lower-priced Galaxy S20 FE last year. Also referred to as "glasstic," this design change is seen as enabling Samsung to lower its prices. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Design

Apple didn't make too many radical design changes with the iPhone 12 lineup, opting to move away from curved edges to a more flat-edged design reminiscent of the iPhone 5. Apple also switched to OLED panels for the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 mini and 6.1-inch iPhone 12, dropping LCD screens from its flagship phones.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12

iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 12 Pro (Image credit: Future)

The biggest change in the iPhone 12’s design is something you don’t see. There’s a Cermaic Shield display that’s designed to deliver four times the drop protection of previous iPhones. Samsung's touting enhanced durability as well with its "toughest front glass ever."

Samsung's biggest change with the Galaxy S21 design is the Contour Cut camera housing, which aesthetically integrates its trio of cameras into the chassis of the phone. It looks most striking on the Phantom Violet model, where the metallic camera housing is so different from the rest of the chassis

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Galaxy S21

Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Unlike Apple's lineup, there is no mini version of the Galaxy S21, and all three models have displays larger than 6 inches. The S21 will be the smallest of the three new phones with a 6.2-inch OLED panel, while the S21 Plus and S21 Ultra are expected to feature 6.7- and 6.8-inch screens, respectively.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Display

Apple removed one edge that Samsung enjoyed over the iPhone lineup when it dropped LCD panels from the lower-cost phones in its flagship lineup. Now, even the $699 iPhone 12 mini has an OLED screen, just like all the phones in the Galaxy S lineup. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro (Image credit: Future)

But the Galaxy S21 will retain one of its biggest advantages over the iPhone 12, which shipped without fast-refreshing displays. The Galaxy S20 introduced that feature last year, as all models of the phone feature dynamic 48Hz - 120Hz refresh rates that deliver smoother scrolling and better gaming experiences.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Galaxy S21 models (Image credit: Samsung)

The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus both the adaptive refresh rate display tech — which dynamically adjusts depending on your on-screen activity — to help conserve battery power. That's a capability Samsung introduced with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and it made that device one of the best Android phones of the year.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Cameras

All four iPhone 12 models are among the best camera phones that you can buy, whether you opt for the dual rear lenses found on the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 or the triple camera setup of the iPhone 12 Pro phones. That's because hardware only tells some of the story for Apple's mobile photography. The neural engine on Apple's A14 Bionic chip also delivers a lot of computational photography features that help every iPhone 12 produce superior shots.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12

iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

Samsung's approach seems to be to overwhelm the competition with hardware. The Galaxy S21 features the same camera setup as the Galaxy S20 — a 12MP main shooter along with a 12MP ultrawide sensor and 64MP telephoto lens.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12 - Samsung Galaxy S21cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21cameras (Image credit: Samsung)

The S21 also gets Space Zoom, a digital 30x magnification, and Zoom Lock to keep your subject centered in your framing, and in focus.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Performance

One area where the Galaxy S21 might have trouble topping the iPhone 12 involves the processors powering the two phones. Simply put, the A14 Bionic chip inside the latest iPhones is the best-performing mobile processor we've tested in a phone, setting a high bar for any other chipset to clear.

Inside the S21, you'll find Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 (which the chip maker introduced earlier this month). While performance is just one part of the Snapdragon 888 story — Qualcomm is also promising an improved image signal processor, better AI engine and gaming improvements — you can certainly expect a faster chip than before. Qualcomm says that the Kryo 680 CPU in the Snapdragon 888 can deliver a 25% boost in overall performance over the Snapdragon 865; similarly, the Adreno 660 GPU should improve the speed of graphics rendering by 35% over the previous chipset.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12

Snapdragon 888 (Image credit: Qualcomm)

That may not be enough to beat the iPhone 12 in benchmarking tests, as Qualcomm's own Snapdragon 888 numbers don't beat the iPhone 12 — but they do close the gap a fair bit. but it should help the Galaxy S21 come close to matching the performance of Apple's phones. We'll get a better idea once we have a chance to benchmark a Snapdragon 888-powered device.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Battery and charging

Battery life could be one area where Samsung could spell out a stark difference between its phones and the iPhone 12. Apple's new models (save for the iPhone 12 Pro Max) struggled with battery life in our testing. Perhaps that's not surprising given that these are Apple's first 5G phones and 5G can strain a device's battery. With two years' experience making 5G handsets, Samsung should be able to master power management with the Galaxy S21.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12

iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

Don't expect big changes in battery capacity on the Galaxy S21 lineup, though. The S21 features the same 4,000 power packs found in its predecessor, and the Galaxy S21 Plus got a small bump from the S20 Plus' 4,500 mAh battery ... to a 4,800 mAh battery. It's thought that the more power efficient Snapdragon 888 chipset and its integrated 5G modem will help improve battery life on the S21 phones, even if the batteries themselves aren't much larger.

In a surprise move, Samsung followed one of Apple's more controversial decisions with the iPhone 12. The new Galaxy S21 phones, just like the new iPhones, ship without a charger, which Apple says is friendlier to the environment.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Software and special features

The Galaxy S21 will ship with Android 11 pre-installed, but future updates will be touch-and-go. Samsung has launched a new policy to support its devices with three Android updates, but those usually lag Google's releases by several months. Android 11 is only now rolling out to current Galaxy flagships, for example, even though the update came out in September.

iPhone users don't have that issue, of course, since iOS updates are available at the same time for everyone. That means the iPhone 12 runs the latest iOS 14 software, and when iOS 15 comes out next fall, it will work with each iPhone 12 model.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12: Outlook

A lot has to happen before a winner emerges in the Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 duel — most importantly our intensive review and benchmarking process. From what's emerged so far, though, the S21 figures to give the iPhone a run for its money.

Samsung's phones feature fast-refreshing displays, improved telephoto lenses and potentially better battery life. 

The iPhone still has its class-setting cameras and processor as arguments in its favor and seamless iOS updates remain a feature that Android phones just can't offer. Look for this phone face-off to be particularly fierce once the new year brings new Samsung models.