Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Two big phones face off

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the most beautiful and powerful smartphones we’ve ever seen, but is it better than the iPhone 12 Pro Max? We find out. …

Samsung has altered its strategy with the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, advancing both phones technologically while also cutting a few corners — such as using flat rather than curved displays — in order to price both models more competitively. The same, however, can’t be said for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Not only does this monster of a smartphone find Samsung refusing to compromise on any design feature, but it also boasts a number of improvements and upgrades that make it one of the phones for 2021.

It may be one of the best smartphones we’ve ever laid our hands on, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have any competition. Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is another big beast of a smartphone, benefitting from the best performance you can find on any Apple smartphone, as well as a number of key enhancements to its screen and camera.

It’s certainly in the same league as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, but we’re here to find out which one is the best, so read on to see how each phone performs in our head-to-head.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Size 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm (6.5 x 2.98 x 0.35 inches) 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4 mm (6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches)
Weight 229 grams ( 8.04 ounces) 228 grams (8.04 ounces)
Screen size 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED
Screen resolution 3200 x 1440 pixels (515 pixels per inch) 2778 x 1284 pixels (458 pixels per inch)
Operating system Android 11, One UI 3.1 iOS 14
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
MicroSD card slot No No
Tap-to-pay services Google Pay, Samsung Pay Apple Pay
Processor Exynos 2100 (global) Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (USA) Apple A14 Bionic
RAM 12GB, 16GB 6GB
Camera Quad lens 108-megapixel wide, 10MP telephoto, 10 MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear

40MP front

Triple lens 12-megapixel wide, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear

12MP front

Video 8K at 30 fps, 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps, 720p at 960 fps, HDR12 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 120 fps, HDR10
Bluetooth version 5.0 5.0
Ports USB-C Lightning
Fingerprint sensor Yes, in-display (ultrasonic) No, Face ID
Water resistance IP68 IP68
Battery 5,000mAh

Fast charging (25W charger sold separately)

Qi wireless charging

3,687Ah

Fast charging (20W charger sold separately)

Qi wireless charging (15W)

App marketplace Google Play Store Apple App Store
Network support All major carriers All major carriers
Colors Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Brown, Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium Silver, Graphite, Gold, Pacific Blue
Price $1,199 $1,099
Review score First look 4 out of 5 stars

Design, display, and durability

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Both the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max represent noticeable design updates. The Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts an edge-to-edge display with even thinner bezels than the S20, with the discreet punch-hole selfie camera providing it with a very svelte look. It also features a newly revamped rear camera bump, which slopes down nicely into the frame of the phone, making it stick out less and seem more smoothly integrated into the overall device.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max sports two main renovations: A thinner notch at the top of the display and flattened/squared edges around the side of its frame. Again, these are pretty subtle changes, but they serve to distinguish the phone from earlier models, giving it a more premium and upmarket aesthetic. It’s hard to say which device is better looking, although the sloping camera bump of the S21 Ultra is arguably more striking than the flat edges of the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

There is, however, a clear difference when it comes to the displays of each phone. The S21 Ultra packs a large 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen into its frame with a generous helping 3200 x 1440 pixels, making for a very vivid 515 pixels per inch. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED screen, coming with 2778 x 1284 pixels, or 458 ppi.

In practice, this means that the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s screen will look more impressive, offering greater resolution and sharpness, and with its AMOLED (as opposed to OLED) technology providing deeper blacks and slightly better dynamic range. At the same time, the Ultra also supports a 120Hz refresh rate, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max only goes up to 60Hz. This makes video and moving pictures flow much more smoothly on Samsung’s device.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Performance, battery life, and charging

Galaxy S21 Ultra charging

Leaving behind the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 of the S20, the Galaxy S21 Ultra runs on the newer Snapdragon 865. Combined with a hefty 12GB of RAM, you’ll find that it handles any app or game with relative ease, even letting you keep multiple apps on the go without suffering a noticeable slowdown. By contrast, the iPhone 12 Pro Max musters a less impressive 6GB of RAM, yet its use of the latest Apple A14 Bionic chip — as well as the fact that iPhones need less RAM — means that you’ll also have no trouble playing demanding games or running multiple apps.

This year, Samsung has jettisoned the microSD card slot, mostly to make its range of devices a little more affordable. As such, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t have the edge over the iPhone 12 Pro Max when it comes to storage, not least because both phones come with 128GB of internal memory as standard, or can be bought with 256GB or 512GB for higher prices.

As for the battery, the S21 Ultra comes with a larger 5,000mAh cell, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers a 3,687mAh battery. Nonetheless, the iPhone comfortably provides over a day of usage even under the heaviest of regimens. The same will likely prove true for the S21 Ultra, since our review of the S20 Ultra — which also had a 5,000mAh — found that it also lasted into the second day, even with 120Hz mode enabled.

Winner: Tie

Cameras

iPhone 12 Pro Max
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

It’s with its camera that you’ll probably notice the biggest difference between the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the S21 and S21 Plus, with the Ultra boasting four rear lenses. This includes a main wide lens with a whopping 108 megapixels, a 12MP ultrawide lens, and also two (yes, two) telephoto lenses. The first telephoto lens is 10MP with 3x optical zoom and an aperture of f/2.4, while the second is also 10MP, but with 10x optical zoom and an f/4.9 aperture.

The S21 Ultra is therefore pretty powerful as a camera, and if the S20 Ultra is any guide, it will certainly beat the iPhone 12 Pro Max as far as zoomed shots are concerned. That said, the S20 Ultra’s quality overall as a camera was disappointingly inconsistent, although software updates rectified most of the issues.

Even with updates, the S20 Ultra still struggles a little in low-light environments, unlike the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which provides excellent nighttime shots while also providing a high level of versatility. It’s for this reason that we’d expect it to just about beat the S21 Ultra, although without reviewing Samsung’s phone we can’t say this for sure — yet.

Winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max

Software and updates

iCloud storage on the iPhone
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra operates using OneUI 3, Samsung’s skin for Android 11. It’s a great OS, although it’s hard to compare it directly to iOS 14, on which the iPhone 12 Pro Max runs. Both systems have their advantages, so we’ll leave the question of which is best to personal preference.

On the other hand, Apple still has the edge with updates. Users of the iPhone receive new software versions as soon as they’re ready, while they’re also supported with updates for several years. The same can’t quite be said for Samsung, even if its track record has improved somewhat in recent months.

Winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max

Special features

galaxy-s21-ultra-s-pen
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the first S series phone to support the S Pen, which is usually reserved for Samsung’s Note series. It doesn’t have a slot for the stylus and lacks some of the functionality you’d find with the Note 20 Ultra, but it provides a very convenient way of taking notes, marking up documents, and drawing, so it will definitely come as a bonus to those who need to use their phones for work.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t support the S Pen, funnily enough, but like the S21 Ultra, it does support 5G. In fact, both phones support the two main 5G bands, mmWave and sub-6Hz, providing users with the fastest possible 5G speeds.

Beyond that, the phones offer a number of more modest special features. The S21 Ultra provides its Camera app with a Vlogger View mode, which lets you capture video with both front and rear cameras simultaneously, as well as the Director View mode, which displays thumbnails of the feed from the phone’s different camera lens. Meanwhile, the iPhone 12 Pro Max provides support for MagSafe accessories, meaning you can attach various magnetic paraphernalia to its rear.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Price and availability

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra starts $1,200 for 128GB model, $1,250 for 256GB, and $1,380 for 512GB, and can be pre-ordered via Samsung’s website now. It will be supported by all major carriers and will no doubt be available through most major retailers.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is available now from $1,100, with the 256GB and 512GB models setting you back $1,200 and $1,400, respectively. It’s also supported by all major carriers.

Overall winner: iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

We still haven’t reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, but at this moment in time, the iPhone 12 Pro Max does appear to be a better smartphone. It offers a better camera overall, better updates, and better software support, while it also matches the newer S21 Ultra in a number of key areas, including performance, 5G support, software, and battery life. To be fair, the S21 Ultra does have a more impressive display, looks a little more attractive, and also offers support for the S Pen. That said, the S Pen support may not be used by most users, so it isn’t enough to tip the scales back in the S21 Ultra’s favor.

Still, this verdict might change once we’ve reviewed the phone. Either way, it’s still one of the best phones you can buy right now, and if you prefer Android to iOS, it may be the one to get regardless.

Editors’ Recommendations

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