The Galaxy S21 Ultra offers better value than the iPhone 12 Pro Max
Is bigger better? If you ask smartphone companies — the answer is a definitive yes. Whether it’s Apple or Samsung, Huawei or Oppo, the trend has been to reserve the most premium specs, the most bleeding-edge components for the largest variant of its phones. The latest big thing right now is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and so it’s natural we pit it against Apple’s most recent biggest thing: the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max: Specifications and Comparison
|Specifications||Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra||Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max|
|Dimensions & Weight|
|Ram & Storage Options|
|Battery & Charging|
|Security||Ultrasonic In-Display Fingerprint Scanner||Face ID (TrueDepth camera for facial recognition)|
|Front Camera(s)||40MP, f/2.2, 0.7µm, 80° FoV, 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 $1,199||Starts at $1,099|
Design and hardware
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max are both unapologetically huge phones, weighing 229g and 228g, with 6.8- and 6.7-inch screens respectively. But despite their heft, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is significantly more comfortable to hold for me, because Samsung’s device features curves on both front and back, blending into a slightly rounded chassis, whereas the iPhone 12 Pro Max, like the rest of the iPhone 12 series, features flat sides with almost uncompromising hard edges.
I actually quite liked the boxy design of the iPhone 12 series when I tested them last fall — but only the other smaller iPhone 12s. The Pro Max, which measures 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4mm (6.3 x 3.07 x 0.4-inches) is just too big and wide to have such hard corners.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 6.8-inch screen also uses a narrower 20:9 aspect ratio to the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 19.5:9, which further makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra a more comfortable phone to grip.
Speaking of screens, this is a lopsided victory for Samsung. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s panel not only gets brighter, has more pixels, and refreshes at twice the speed, it also is mostly uninterrupted, with just a small hole-punch compared to the iPhone notch.
Software and special features
As we just covered in the design section, huge phones are harder to hold and use. So why do people put up with them? Two reasons: the ability to consumer entertainment content (games, videos) on a larger canvas, and the ability to do more in terms of productivity.
In both cases, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra completely beats the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s screen has fewer interruptions, so videos or games look better. Samsung’s also implemented a host of software features that allow the Galaxy S21 Ultra to take advantage of its larger screen, such as the ability to open apps in a floating window and to launch two pre-set apps simultaneously in split-screen view.
For the first time ever in a Galaxy S phone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra also supports the S-Pen stylus that has been a stable of the Note series. This, along with DeX functionality, makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra one of the most versatile devices in mobile.
The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, on the other hand, is really just a blown-up, super-sized iPhone 12 Mini. The UI behaves exactly the same on the Pro Max as on any other iPhones running iOS 14. You can’t open more than one app at a time, you can’t adjust the homescreen grid to place more apps on the homescreen.
It’s been a one-sided affair so far, but at least Apple can take solace in knowing it has the more powerful brain. Apple’s A14 Bionic outscores the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 in every benchmark, although in the real world, it’s really hard to tell the difference except when editing/rendering videos — the iPhone’s native photo gallery app allows me to not only trim videos but crop and rotate as well; no Android phone, including the Galaxy S21 Ultra, has been able to offer that.
As a media consumption device the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a more immersive screen, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max has better stereo speakers that pump out louder, fuller sound.
Overall speed between the two devices is similar, although the Galaxy S21 Ultra often feels faster due to that higher refresh rate, but that’s mostly an illusion. App launch times on both phones are very close.
When it comes to snapping “normal” photos with the main cameras, both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max are excellent. Shots day and night turn out sharp and vibrant, dynamic range almost always on point.
Picking a winner between the two main cameras almost comes down to subjective opinion and preference for colors — the Galaxy S21 Ultra tends to have a cooler tone, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max photos appear warmer.
If I have to nitpick, I’d say the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s main camera is easier to use because it feels more fluid. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s main camera has a slight shutter lag — in the set of photos below, I pressed the shutter button on both phones at the same time, and the iPhone shot clearly shot first (like Han). If I need to snap a pic of a moving subject, I’d trust the any iPhone within the last few years over the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max also turns on night mode automatically and blends it into the photo-taking experience relatively seamlessly (it just turns on automatically in dimly-lit scenes) while the Galaxy S21 Ultra requires you to manually jump to night mode. Of course, users who want more control may prefer Samsung’s approach, which offers users more total control.
Moving onto videos, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s main camera is also a bit better there: footage is ever so slightly more stable, especially at night, where the Galaxy S21 Ultra still suffers from micro-jitters whenever I walk and film.
All those wins for Apple just now are all from the main camera. Move to the zoom lens, and it’s a one-sided beatdown. The Galaxy S21 Ultra uses a dual-zoom system to cover various focal lengths. A 10MP telephoto camera captures 3x optical shots, while its 10x optical Periscope camera handles the longer zoom. The iPhone 12 Pro Max uses a single 12MP telephoto camera with 2.5x optical zoom. Below are two shots captured at 12x zoom, the maximum the iPhone 12 Pro Max allows.
Here’s another 12x zoom set.
Finally, here’s 5x zoom. The gap in quality closes, but it’s still a clear win for Samsung.
It’s much closer with the ultrawide-angle camera. Both phones use a 12MP sensor and shots look close in terms of field-of-view and sharpness.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 5,000 mAh battery is much larger than the 3,687 mAh cell inside the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but because the latter’s display has fewer pixels to push and refreshes at 60Hz, it consistently gives me better battery life than the Galaxy S21 Ultra. I’m a heavy user, so for me, Samsung’s latest routinely just barely makes it to the end of a 14-hour day (with around 10-15% battery left), whereas the iPhone 12 Pro Max usually finishes with at least 25% left.
Which one should you buy?
Both the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra are super powerful phablets with a great main camera. However, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is in my opinion a flat-out more versatile device. If I really need to get work done, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s superior filing system, ability to run two apps at the same time, stylus support, and option to double as a desktop computer just far outshines what the iPhone 12 Pro Max can do.
One may argue I should judge a phone as “just a phone,” and not factor in all these other usage cases such as Samsung DeX, but if I’m paying over $1,000 for a phone, I want to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. And the Galaxy S21 Ultra is just a better value in my opinion.