Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus vs Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Which flagship should you buy?
Samsung’s Galaxy S series is often the standard-bearer for Android smartphones – especially in North America – and so it’s only natural that they get compared to Apple’s iPhones. In this comparison, we’re going to pit the two “middle-child” devices Apple’s and Samsung’s latest flagships against each other – how does the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus fare against the iPhone 12 Pro?
Samsung Galaxy S21+ vs Apple iPhone 12 Pro: Specifications and Comparison
|Specifications||Samsung Galaxy S21+||Apple iPhone 12 Pro|
|Dimensions & Weight|
|Ram & Storage Options|
|Battery & Charging|
|Security||Ultrasonic In-Display Fingerprint Scanner||Face ID (TrueDepth camera for facial recognition)|
|Front Camera(s)||10MP, f/2.2, 1.22µm, Dual Pixel PDAF||12MP, f/2.2|
|Port(s)||USB 3.2 Type-C||Proprietary Lightning port|
|Software||Samsung One UI 3.1 based on Android 11||iOS 14|
|Pricing||Starts at $999||Starts at $999|
Design and Hardware
One of the fun things about using Android is that brands are more willing to switch their style up year to year. And so, while the iPhone 12 Pro mostly looks like the iPhone 11 Pro on the front and the back, which itself didn’t look too different from the iPhone XS and iPhone X, the Galaxy S21 Plus has a mostly never-before-seen design thanks to its unique looking camera module. Dubbed “contour cut” by Samsung, half of the Galaxy S21’s camera module blends seamlessly into the aluminum chassis. It’s a look and design that hasn’t been done before and gives the Galaxy S21 Plus a striking look.
The iPhone 12 Pro has that now-iconic iPhone notch around the front, while the Galaxy S21 Plus is mostly an uninterrupted display save for a small hole punch-out. Back in the pre-pandemic days, one could argue the iPhone notch is worth it because Face ID is so useful – but in today’s age of constant mask-wearing, having facial recognition as the only form of biometric security has become a big hassle. When you consider that the in-display fingerprint sensor of the Galaxy S21 series has improved yet again (it’s 1.7x larger than last generation’s sensors), it’s a no-brainer – I’ll take a small hole-punch over a notch any day. The Galaxy S21 Plus’ display also gets brighter (at a max 1500 nits brightness), refreshes at a higher rate (dynamically adjusting between 48Hz and 120Hz), and has a higher resolution.
While I personally prefer the Galaxy S21 Plus’ looks over the iPhone 12 Pro, that’s just my subjective opinion. When it comes to construction and durability, the iPhone 12 Pro is objectively more sturdy, due to the flat stainless steel railings compared to the Galaxy S21 Plus’ thinner aluminum chassis. With that said, however, I find the Galaxy S21 Plus more comfortable to hold due to its narrower aspect ratio and more rounded sides.
Software and Special Features
The Galaxy S21 Plus runs One UI 3.1 over Android 11; the iPhone 12 Pro runs iOS 14. There’s not much point in comparing both the OS too in-depth, as each side has its loyalists who are firmly entrenched within those ecosystems. I personally prefer Android over iOS due to the extra customization, a more coherent filing system, and the ability to run two or more apps at the same time. One UI 3.1, unlike previous Samsung software skins, doesn’t interrupt with Android too much, and the additional features it brings are mostly welcomed, except all the bloat Samsung apps such as Bixby.
Where Apple’s iOS wins is ecosystem integration. Whether it’s sending files from an iPhone 12 Pro to a MacBook via AirDrop, or recording a voice memo on an Apple Watch and have that file immediately be available on the iPhone or iPad, or the way you can use an iPhone as a remote control for Apple TV, there’s just a more mature ecosystem of products, closer integration, and superior third-party app support to Samsung’s ecosystem. Samsung is trying and making progress, however: the Galaxy Buds Pro that was released alongside the Galaxy S21 series can switch between the Galaxy S21 Plus and, say, a Galaxy Tab S7. The Galaxy Watch 3 that was released in late 2020 is also arguably the most capable Android smartwatch and comes as close to the Apple Watch 5 as any other wearable. There’s still plenty of room to improve, so Apple goes ahead in this one.
The Galaxy S21 Plus is more versatile as a computing device, however, since its software can double as a desktop computer if you plug it into a screen and pair it with a keyboard — Samsung calls this feature DeX. The iPhone 12 Pro remains just a phone.
With 5nm chips powering each device — neither phone is short on raw horsepower. Technically speaking, Apple’s A14 Bionic still beats Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 in benchmarks, but it’s not like the gap is tangible in real-world usage scenarios.
In fact, the Galaxy S21 Plus sometimes feels faster, mostly because of that 120Hz refresh rate. Basic animations such as closing apps feel zippier on the Galaxy S21 Plus than on the iPhone 12 Pro.
Gaming on both phones is absolutely no issue, as expected. Editing videos seems to be superior on the iPhone 12 Pro — the native camera app allows trimming and cropping, not to mention it renders faster — than on the Galaxy S21 Plus, but part of this is due to software more than just raw processing power.
Both phones have a triple camera system covering the now standard wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto focal lengths. The iPhone 12 Pro keeps it consistent with a trio of 12MP sensors, while the Galaxy S21 Plus uses a 12MP sensor for its main and ultra-wide, but uses a 64MP sensor for zooming.
In theory, the Galaxy S21 Plus’ more pixel-dense telephoto camera should be better at zooming further because there are more pixels for Samsung to play with to create what is essentially a digital magnification of an image. But in practice, each phone trade wins depending on the focal length. In general, the Galaxy S21 Plus is going to produce a sharper shot at 10x, but at 2x, the iPhone 12 Pro’s images exhibit more details.
The iPhone 12 Pro’s 2x zoom shots are consistently sharper than the same shots by the S21 Plus.
But push that zoom up to 10x, then the Galaxy S21 Plus takes the lead due to having more pixels for Samsung’s software to play with.
The Galaxy S21 Plus can push zoom beyond 10x, up to 30x maximum. But ultimately, because the Galaxy S21 Plus uses a basic telephoto zoom lens setup and not a Periscope lens, its zooming prowess is limited.
As for the other two cameras (main and ultra-wide), both phones produce very good photos that are almost too close to call during the day. In general, the Galaxy S21 Plus’s 12MP sensor takes in more light, but this also means photos with stark contrast such as shadows lose some of their mood. The iPhone 12 Pro also keeps color more accurate almost to a fault, as some of the indoor shots exhibit a blue-ish tint due to the curtains in my co-working space. Samsung tends to fix colors slightly to produce what it thinks are punchier shots.
In low light situations, however, the iPhone 12 Pro consistently produced sharper images with less noise. It helps Apple’s case that its night mode kicks in automatically and feels rather seamless, whereas on the Galaxy S21 phones you have to swipe to the “more” section of the camera app to manually bring up night mode. This is good for average users, but users who prefer being in control of the shot would appreciate Samsung’s approach. To switch off Night Mode on the iPhone 12 Pro, you need to tap on the yellow icon on the upper left corner of the viewfinder and then manually change the dial to 0 — a maneuver that is certainly not quick and ideal.
The iPhone 12 Pro also takes the win in video performance — although the gap this year is closer than ever. In the video samples below, you can see the Galaxy S21 Plus keeps up with the iPhone 12 Pro in dynamic range and even basic stabilization as I walk. However, when I panned the camera quickly at the 0:10 mark, the Galaxy S12 Plus footage suffers from the usual micro-jitters that have always affected Android phones more so than iPhones. At night, the Galaxy S21 Plus’ micro-jitter problem increases, but it also brings in more light than the iPhone 12 Pro in dark areas, most notably the shadow-drenched plants at the 0:24 mark.
In terms of endurance, the Galaxy S21 Plus’ 4,800 mAh cell is significantly larger than the iPhone 12 Pro’s 2,815 mAh battery (as per certification listings). However, factoring that the Galaxy S21 Plus’s display is more power-hungry, and Android phones are less battery-efficient than the iPhone 12 Pro, endurance may be close. I have used the iPhone 12 Pro extensively and found battery life to be good but not great – I expect the same out of the Galaxy S21 Plus, but we’ll update this once we’ve spent more time with Samsung’s new phone.
Which one should you buy?
Both the Galaxy S21 Plus and iPhone 12 Pro offer excellent build quality, top processing power, and really capable cameras during day or night. However, while the iPhone 12 Pro’s camera system is very close to Apple’s top offering (the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s camera improvements are very subtle), the Galaxy S21 Plus’ camera system is a clear notch below the Galaxy S21 Ultra‘s. The latter has a far more powerful zoom camera and additional features like the ability to take macro shots.
This means those who choose the iPhone 12 Pro know they’re getting an experience that is close to the very best of Apple’s tech, but Galaxy S21 Plus buyers will have to deal with the fact their device is a fairly noticeable step down from Samsung’s apex offering.
As someone who’s tested all four iPhone 12s and all three Galaxy S21s extensively, I’d say this: if you decide to buy an iPhone, the iPhone 12 Pro is a better choice over the iPhone 12 Pro Max. But with Samsung, it’s flipped: the Galaxy S21 Ultra is worth the extra money over the Galaxy S21 Plus.