April 11, 2021

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max: Which phone should you buy? – Tom’s Guide

9 min read

The smartphone rivalry between Apple and Samsung looms ever larger this year, as a pair of super-sized phones will clash over which one deserves your dollars.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the latest device to enter the fray, carrying the billing of Samsung’s ultimate phone. The S21 Ultra improves upon last year’s model in a number of ways while also cutting its once astronomical price down to something more reasonable.

That makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra a formidable challenger to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, already considered one of the best phones available since its release last fall. Apple’s largest phone boasts a best-in-class chip, terrific cameras, and the usual Apple flair for design as it looks to stave off any pretenders to the throne.

We’ll need to finish our review of Samsung’s phone before we can pick a winner in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max battle. But here’s how this showdown is shaping up so far.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra iPhone 12 Pro Max
Starting price $1,199 $1,099
Screen size
CPU Snapdragon 888 A14 Bionic
RAM 12GB, 16GB 6GB
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Expandable? No No
Rear cameras 108MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (f/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, f/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, f/4.9), laser AF sensor 12MP wide (f/1.6), 12MP ultrawide (f/2.4), 12MP telephoto (2.5x zoom, f/2.2)
Front camera 40MP (f/2.2) 12MP TrueDepth (f/2.2)
Water reisstance IP68 up to 1.5 meters IP68 up to 6 meters
Battery size 5,000 mAh 3,678 mAH
Size 6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches 6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches
Weight 8.08 ounces 8.03 ounces

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Price

Even though Samsung has cut the price on its Galaxy S21 phones by $200 off of last year’s S20 models, Apple still holds the pricing edge. The iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1,099 — $100 cheaper than the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s $1,199 cost.

It’s less expensive to boost storage on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, where upgrading to the 256GB version costs an extra $50. You need to pay an extra $100 for the 256GB iPhone 12 Pro Max. The 512GB Galaxy S21 Ultra is actually cheaper than the equivalent iPhone 12 Pro Max — $1,379 versus $1,399.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra arrives in stores Jan. 29. When it does, it will be available from the same locations as the iPhone 12 Pro Max, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and others.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Design

The Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max both boast premium designs, and which one you favor will likely come down to personal taste. That said, the contour cut design favored by Samsung for its new Galaxy S21 phones successfully integrates the rear camera bump into the device’s frame, making it seem a little less prominent than it looks on the iPhone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

The two phones weigh about the same, even though Samsung’s device is taller and thicker than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple’s device is slightly wider.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max also share an IP68 water-resistance rating, but not all ratings are created equal. In the case of the S21 Ultra, it can survive a drop into 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s water-resistance rating lets it endure a 6-meter plunge.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

 iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

The iPhone 12 Pro Max would seem to offer more color options with Silver, Graphite, Gold, Pacific Blue, compared to Phantom Silver and Phantom Black for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. But order your S21 Ultra from Samsung’s website, and you can also choose from Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium and Phantom Brown.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Display

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a big edge over the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and it’s not just because the phone’s 6.8-inch AMOLED display is slightly larger and offers sharper resolution than the 6.7-inch panel on Apple’s handset. Rather, while Apple’s iPhones continue to feature a conventional display rate of 60Hz, Samsung has retained the 120Hz refresh rate it introduced with last year’s Galaxy S phones.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

But the refresh rate on the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s display isn’t simply fast — it’s also adaptive. The Galaxy S21 Ultra screen can adjust from 120Hz all the way down to 10Hz, dynamically changing the speed to better suit whatever task you’re performing. Something like scrolling would get a maximum refresh rate for a smoother experience, while looking at still photos will cause the refresh rate to slow down and conserve battery.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

 iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

Unlike the Galaxy S20 Ultra which made you choose between a fast refresh rate and full resolution, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is able to support both features at the same time. So we’re talking about a better display all around.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Cameras

Any Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max face-off will likely come down to cameras. Apple has already planted its flag here, with the iPhone 12 Pro Max ranking as the best camera phone.

While the iPhone boasts some impressive hardware — a 12MP main lens along with a 12MP ultrawide camera with a 120-degree field of view and a 65mm telephoto camera with a 2.5x optical zoom. The LiDAR sensor included in the camera array allows you to take portrait shots in low lights. But it’s the software that truly shines, with improvements to Apple’s Deep Fusion feature for highlighting details and Smart HDR 3 for dealing with challenging lighting conditions.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

Samsung is responding by tweaking the camera array it introduced with last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra. The 108MP main camera is back, along with a 12MP ultrawide angle lens. To cement its dominance with zoom shots, Samsung is adding two telephoto lenses — one capable of a 3x optical zoom, the other delivering a 10x zoom. The Space Zoom feature supports a 100X digital zoom, and Zoom lock keeps the subject of the shot steady in the frame for less shaky shots.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung is improving software features with an updated version of Single Take that adds more options when you snap a photo, including slow-motion videos. A Director’s View when shooting video also gives you multiple camera views and lets you record from the front and rear cameras simultaneously. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Performance

Normally, you’d expect Apple’s iPhone to dominate the performance category, given how its chips tend to outpace the processors powering the best Android phones. But the Galaxy S21 Ultra introduces a new chipset to the mix, and the A14 Bionic inside the latest iPhones could be facing a serious challenge.

The Galaxy S21 models introduced in the U.S. will run on Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888 processor. Among other improvements, the new system-on-chip is supposed to boost CPU performance by 25% and speed up graphics rendering by 35% over last year’s Snapdragon 865; the new Qualcomm chipset is also more power efficient. Should the Snapdragon 888 deliver those promised performance gains to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung’s phone will come awfully close to matching the pace-setting numbers turned in by the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

Make no mistake: the iPhone 12 Pro Max and its A14 Bionic chip set a very high very bar for other phones to clear when it comes to benchmark results. In Geekbench 5, for example, the iPhone 12 Pro Max turned in single- and multicore scores of 1,603 and 4,111. The only phones to approach those kind of results were the other members of the iPhone 12 family. We’re looking forward to testing the Galaxy S21 Ultra to see if the iPhone 12 finally has a worthy challenger.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Connectivity

Both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max support the full component of 5G bands, so if there’s 5G in your area, either phone will be able to connect regardless of what kind of 5G network we’re talking about.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

Both phones also feature ultra wideband connectivity, which allows you to easily transfer files between other ultra wideband-equipped phones. Apple reportedly will leverage that ultra wideband chip in the iPhone 12 Pro Max and other recent iPhones when it releases AirTags key finders later this year; ultra wideband support will give AirTags a wider and more precise range than Bluetooth-based key finders like the Galaxy SmartTags Samsung just introduced. Meanwhile, Samsung is working with several car makers to let you use the ultra wideband support on your Galaxy S21 Ultra to unlock a car door just by approaching your vehicle. (Apple offers something similar with a feature called CarKey.)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra enjoys one edge over Apple’s phones when it comes to connectivity. Samsung’s new phone supports Wi-Fi 6E, a variation on the wireless standard that delivers faster speeds and greater bandwidth — at least if you have a Wi-Fi 6E router.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Battery life and charging

Most of Apple’s iPhone 12 models struggled in our battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over cellular until the phone runs out of battery. That wasn’t the case with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, though, as Apple’s largest phone used its 3,678 mAh battery to last 10 hours and 53 minutes on our test. That’s longer than the average smartphone and just short of the 11-hour mark needed to land on our list of the best phone battery life.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

We won’t know how the Galaxy S21 Ultra compares until we get a chance to test it, but Samsung’s phone has a few things working in its favor. For starters, it’s powered by a massive 5,000 mAh battery that should help it last a long-time on a charge. Also, by using the 5-nanometer Snapdragon 888 as its chipset, the Galaxy S21 Ultra should consume less power than its predecessor.

As with last year’s Galaxy S models, the S21 Ultra supports 25W wired charging while the iPhone 12 Pro Max can work with a 20W charger. Apple famously shipped the iPhone 12 Pro Max without a charger in the box, a move that Samsung pointed at and laughed last fall — and copied when it came time to ship the Galaxy S21 Ultra this year. 

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

The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs on Android 11 and introduces Samsung’s new One UI 3 interface. You’ll find a number of customization features with One UI 3, as well as other cool tricks like the ability to easily remove people who’ve photo-bombed your shots. Samsung flagship phones get three years of Android updates, so you’d figure the Galaxy S21 Ultra will still be up-to-date by the time Android 14 rolls around.

Of course, Apple’s software support puts Android to shame, with iPhones that are five years old able to run iOS 14. That’s the current version that shipped with the iPhone 12 Max, which is likely to still be supported by Apple four to five years from now.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

With the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung’s adding a new trick that might make iPhone 12 Pro Max owners a little envious. The Ultra is the first phone outside of Samsung’s Galaxy Note lineup to support the S Pen. Note that the S Pen doesn’t ship with the Galaxy S21 Ultra — it’s a separate $40 purchase. But it’s still a productivity boosting feature that Apple doesn’t replicate.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Outlook

The Galaxy S21’s dynamic display, improved processor and S Pen support make a compelling case for Samsung’s phone. And, of course, the all important camera face-off will be the true test of who wins any Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max showdown. 

We’re looking forward to finishing our Galaxy S21 Ultra testing to see just how these phones compare.

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