This comparison was inevitable. Hate it or like it, Samsung’s S21 Ultra is the biggest player of the Android world and competes directly with the biggest player in the Apple Ecosystem, which is the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Both phones are extremely premium, extremely capable and really, really expensive. Which one should you pick? Let’s compare the iPhone 12 Pro Max to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Design & Build Quality
The entire design philosophy behind the iPhone and the S21 is entirely different. The iPhone seeks inspiration from its ancestors- the iPhone 4 and 5 and churns out a unique, boxy design with a 100% flat front and back glass sandwiching a flat stainless steel frame. The triple camera setup on the back is also noticeably larger than the previous iPhone 11 Pro Max. I really love how this design looks. It is truly unlike anything in the market today and manages to grab a lot of eyeballs.
Talking of grabbing eyeballs, check out this new Phantom Silver Galaxy S21. Seriously, Samsung has stepped up their game with this. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has this never seen before design with a very interesting integration of the camera bump into the phone’s aluminium frame. I am all for new design leaps and I appreciate Samsung for taking the leap on this one. You have subtly curved glass on both the front and the back with an aluminium frame in the middle.
See, both phones are on top of their games design-wise but there are a few key differences. Firstly, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is shorter and wider which makes holding it harder than holding the Ultra. The flat edges do not help its case. Also, the iPhone uses Stainless Steel, which is harder and more resistant to dents and dings compared to the softer Aluminium used on the S21 Ultra. I also love the fact that the iPhone includes a Mute Slider since it is quite useful in the day to day life.
Also read: Best Accessories for iPhone 12 Pro Max
Moving on, let’s talk displays. The iPhone tried, it really did. It has a beautiful, 100% flat display with excellent colours, sharpness, saturation and vibrance. It is a bit warmer than I would have preferred, especially with True Tone on. Now even though the iPhone has a great display, it’s up against the best phone from Samsung, the company which has been making the best smartphone displays for years.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a more vivid display with saturation and vibrance a little overblown to show colours that pop out. All your multimedia would look larger than life on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. But where it truly races ahead of the iPhone is its 120 Hz refresh rate. It’s just smooth in a way that the 60 Hz display of the iPhone can’t replicate. See, even though the smooth animations of iOS try to cover up for the lower refresh rate, I have to admit that switching back and forth between these 2 phones really magnified the difference to me. Another thing that’s better on the S21 Ultra is the small hole selfie camera which looks so much more elegant than the giant notch on the iPhone’s display.
Software: OneUI vs iOS
Let’s talk about the software now. Android vs iOS is a matter of purely personal preference so I’m not going to dive deep into the core of it. Both phones represent the most cutting edge versions of their respective Eco-Systems with iOS 14 on the iPhone and Android 11 backed OneUI 3.0 on the S21. See, I love the software experience on both these phones and both of them have advantages over the other. For example, I think the notifications are much better on Android while third party App quality is miles ahead on iOS.
I just have one complaint. Dear Samsung, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is your premium flagship smartphone. Showing Ads in the UI is not a cool move on any phone but feels more like a kick in the balls when you do it even on your most premium smartphone out there.
Software Updates is an area where Apple is better than all. No matter how old your iPhone is, all iPhones get the software updates on the same day. Apple also commits to a 5 year support cycle, which is great for long term use.
Samsung has also upped their Software Update game. All flagships get 3 years of software support confirmed. Even though the software updates don’t roll out for all the models on the same day, Samsung’s Update roll out is much better than most Android vendors.
All in all, I have really enjoyed the software experience on both the iPhone and the S21 and I can recommend both of them without a second thought.
Let’s talk about the performance now. Both of these phones pack extremely powerful components, as they should, given how they are placed in the market. The Galaxy S21 Ultra packs either a Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 CPU depending on where you live. Now, in the past few years, the Exynos CPUs have been notorious for being significantly worse than their Snapdragon counterparts. This year, Samsung seems to have stepped up their game.
I am yet to see any instances of lags or slowdowns or overheating on my Exynos variant S21 Ultra when scrolling through the UI or doing routine stuff like checking out a Social Media feed. Gaming is a different story. While all the games run on medium to high Graphic settings, I did see the occasional frame drops and jitters, something that I never saw on the iPhone. It is still much, much better than last year’s Exynos 990 but not all the way upto the Apple A14.
A lot of games also didn’t support the Best Graphics settings on the S21 Ultra, while all of them do on the iPhone. As of today, I can say without a doubt that the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a better phone for gaming by a significant margin. But there is a catch. See, the Exynos 2100 is a brand new CPU and games might not have been optimised according to it yet. So, maybe, after a few more weeks, developers will optimise their games for the Exynos 2100 and things will get better.
Let’s talk about the cameras now. In terms of optics, the Galaxy S21 Ultra sports a 108MP f1.8 primary camera with laser autofocus, a 12MP f2.2 ultrawide camera and two 10MP telephoto cameras with a focal length that offers 3x and 10x optical zoom.
On the other hand, the iPhone 12 Pro Max sports a f1.6 primary camera with sensor-shift stabilization, a f2.4 ultrawide and a f2.2 telephoto camera with a 2.5x optical zoom. All cameras on iPhone shoot 12MP stills. Apart from the standard camera trio, the iPhone 12 Pro Max also sports a LiDAR scanner on the rear that captures depth information for better portraits.
Both smartphones sport the best camera hardware and software that the industry leaders have to offer. Let’s find out how they perform in real life.
- Both devices capture excellent pictures in all lighting conditions with amazing colors. The iPhone 12 Pro Max takes pictures with better dynamic range, low noise and more accurate colors. On the other hand, the S21 Ultra takes sharper pictures with more vibrant colors and rich details. Also, the S21 Ultra’s primary camera has a slightly wider FOV.
- We see very similar results while shooting with the ultra-wide camera. Stills shot with the iPhone have high dynamic range but lack sharpness. Pictures shot with the S21 Ultra are sharp and have better noise processing than the iPhone.
- Things get interesting when it comes to telephoto lenses. The 12 Pro Max has only one zoom lens which offers 2.5x optical zoom as compared to the 3x and 10x optical zoom lenses on the S21 Ultra. The pictures shot on the S21 Ultra’s telephoto cameras are sharp, and rich in details as compared to the ones shot on the 12 Pro Max.
- The iPhone 12 Pro Max has an advantage when it comes to shooting portraits. Thanks to the LiDAR sensor, the subject separation in portraits shot on the iPhone are more accurate.
- When it comes to the front camera, the S21 Ultra is the clear winner. The selfies shot with it have more accurate skin tones and contrast. On the other hand, the selfies shot on the iPhone 12 Pro Max look somewhat over processed.
- All cameras on both smartphones support night mode. At a quick glance, the pictures shot on both devices look great with respectable amounts of details and faster processing. The moment you zoom into the pictures, the iPhone 12 Pro Max falls behind the S21 Ultra. The pictures shot on the S21 Ultra are sharper with low noise as compared to the pictures shot on the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
- The Galaxy S21 Ultra wins the resolution and frame rate rounds as it can shoot videos in upto 8K@24fps while the iPhone 12 Pro Max tops at 4K@60fps.
- Both devices can shoot videos in 4K@60fps from the front cameras.
- When it comes to video quality, iPhones have always been at the top of the chain. And this year is no different. Thanks to Dolby Vision HDR and sensor shift stabilization support, the iPhone 12 Pro Max shoots outstanding videos with best in class stabilization and dynamic range that can even put a DSLR to shame.
- This does not mean the Galaxy S21 Ultra is bad at shooting videos. Thanks to the high resolution sensors, it shoots sharper videos with better contrast and offers a native pro video shooting mode.
To conclude, both smartphones offer some of the best camera hardware and software in the industry like RAW photo and HDR video support. So, which one is the right choice for you? This depends on what you want out of your smartphone camera. If you’re looking for a device that offers an all rounder camera with the best in class video quality, go for the iPhone 12 Pro Max. If you like to tinker with your media in post production and all that 108MP sharpness matters to you, go for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. If you’re just a user who wants the best smartphone camera, you can’t go wrong with either of them.
Moving on, let’s talk about battery life. This has historically been a weakness for the Exynos processor but I am happy to report that battery life is excellent on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. I got an easy 6 hours of Screen on Time with heavy use. The phone lasted 1 and a half days comfortably and I am sure I can go without charging for 2 days with some power saving measures.
The iPhone has pretty similar battery life too. The only area where it has an advantage is the Standby Battery Drain. Standby battery drain is basically non-existent on the iPhone. So what happens is, both the S21 and the iPhone lose the same amount of battery when I am using them. But when they’re kept idle, the iPhone loses less battery than the S21, which leads to slightly better endurance. Not a huge deal, but it is something that I noticed.
Another thing to note is that both phones have no power adapters in the box. Foolish new trends. Both phones support Fast Wireless Charging but only the S21 supports Reverse Wireless Charging.
Also read: Best Fast Chargers for Galaxy S21 Ultra
Let’s talk about the phone call experience. When it comes to the core quality and signal retention, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is in a league of its own. It’s great for phone calls and generally holds on to a signal really well. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is great too, just not as good as the S21. If the iPhone 12 Pro Max is an A, the S21 Ultra gets an A+.
Another thing to note, now that we’re talking phone calls and telecommunication, is that if you are a part of the whole iMessage-FaceTime Apple Ecosystem, you will get that only with the iPhone. It is not a big deal here in India but I know it is a huge deal in some other places around the world.
The fingerprint sensor on the S21 Ultra is also really helpful when you’re out wearing a mask compared to FaceID which completely fails.
Conclusion: Which one should you buy?
Now, for the conclusion. Should you buy the Galaxy S21 Ultra or the iPhone 12 Pro Max? Well, the thing is, both these phones are top tier, maxed out products and there isn’t a single thing they are bad or even average at. For me, the only difference comes down to whether you prefer Android or iOS. Make that decision and pick the right phone for yourself.
Check Galaxy S21 Ultra Price on:
Amazon (US): https://amzn.to/36tfZjc
Amazon (UK): https://amzn.to/3csAbFO
Amazon (India): https://amzn.to/3czI1NE
Check iPhone 12 Pro Max Price on:
Amazon (US): https://amzn.to/2OA8ReP
Amazon (UK): https://amzn.to/3dkGJa3
Amazon (India): https://amzn.to/3rORPYQ