iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra: Apple’s and Samsung’s luxe phones compared

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Galaxy S21 Ultra have arrived, representing the crown jewels in Apple and Samsung’s respective flagship lines. Each device is stacked with the top-of-the-line features reserved for smartphone royalty: blazing-fast processors, crystalline displays, versatile cameras and long-lasting batteries. 

As expected, neither comes cheap. The iPhone 12 Pro Max will set you back $1,099 (£1,329, AU$1,849) and the Galaxy S21 Ultra is $1,200 (£1,099, AU$1,849). You won’t find a bundled charger inside either box.

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It’s clear both Apple and Samsung have outdone themselves, but the phone that’s best for you will depend on your individual wants and needs. Let’s talk through the major features and compare the key specs. 

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Galaxy S21 Ultra has superior zoom; iPhone 12 Pro Max captures more true-to-life images

Both the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra take some of the best mobile photographs that money can buy. Each boast excellent cameras capable of capturing sweeping landscapes, detailed faraway subjects and impossibly crisp images, even on dark nights. But the S21 Ultra produced superior zoomed-in shots, while the iPhone captured the most realistic images, according to CNET’s Andrew Hoyle, a pro photographer who conducted a comprehensive shootout with both phones (watch his video below). When it came to night mode, his tests indicated no clear winner.

Keep in mind, the iPhone 12’s Pro models also have lidar, a depth sensor that’s useful for auto-focusing in low light for taking photos, videos and slow-motion footage, among other things. 

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Camera counts compared

The iPhone 12 Pro Max has three rear cameras consisting of a standard, ultra-wide and telephoto, while the S21 Ultra has an extra telephoto lens making a total of four rear cameras. On the front, the S21 Ultra has a higher-res camera than the 12 Pro Max. For specifics, scroll down to our chat below. 

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The Galaxy S21 Ultra (seen in black) features a quad rear camera module.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Long-lasting battery life 

Apple doesn’t disclose battery size for its iPhones, and stuck to the same approach for the iPhone 12 Pro Max. But CNET’s Patrick Holland, who reviewed the device, calls the 12 Pro Max’s battery its “sleeper feature.” According to his tests, the battery made it through a day and a half without a problem. More specifically, when Patrick played a looped video on airplane mode, the iPhone 12 Pro Max lasted 19 hours, 52 minutes, close enough to the 20 hours of performance for this test that Apple has advertised. Meanwhile, a 5,000-mAh battery supplies the S21 Ultra with juice. We haven’t had a chance to put it through the video loop test, but anecdotally it also lasted Patrick a day and half. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra has a higher-resolution display

Although both phones feature premium OLED panels that are wonderfully crisp, the S21 Ultra has the edge in terms of resolution and refresh rate. The S21 Ultra has a wide quad-HD-plus resolution (3,200×1,440 pixels) and a 120 Hz display. The iPhone 12 Pro Max’s screen is 2,778×1,284 pixels and has a 60Hz refresh rate, matching the iPhone 11 display. 

The S21 Ultra also has a variable refresh rate between 10 and 120Hz, which is determined by what’s on the screen. The number of hertz a phone screen is able to display refers to its number of frames per second, which determines how fast and smooth the screen feels when you’re scrolling through apps and web pages. It also affects how smooth supported games feel. 

iPhone 12 Pro Max has MagSafe; S21 Ultra has stylus support

Apple and Samsung both have unique add-on accessories that, if used, can change your day-to-day experience with the devices. The S21, for example, supports Samsung’s S Pen stylus, which blurs the line between the S series and the more pro Note series. It’s great for things like note-taking, drawing and signing documents. 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max, along with its three siblings, have MagSafe, Apple’s proprietary magnetically enabled system that lets you charge your iPhone wirelessly and attach MagSafe accessories to the back of the device.

For a spec-by-spec comparison of the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max, take a look at the specs sheet below. 

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra specs

Galaxy S21 Ultra

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Display size, resolution

6.8-inch WQHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 3,200×1,440 pixels

6.7-inch OLED; 2,778×1,284 pixels

Pixel density

515 ppi

458ppi

Dimensions (Inches)

2.97×6.5×0.35 inches

6.33×3.07×0.29 inches

Dimensions (Millimeters)

75.6×165.1×8.9 mm

160.8×78.1×7.4 mm

Weight (Ounces, Grams)

8.07 oz; 229 grams

8.03 oz; 228 grams

Mobile software

Android 11

iOS 14

Camera

108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 10-megapixel (3x telephoto), 10-megapixel (10x telephoto)

12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 12-megapixel (telephoto)

Front-facing camera

40-megapixel

12-megapixel

Video capture

8K

4K

Processor

Snapdragon 888 64-bit octa-core processor 2.8GHz (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz)

Apple A14 Bionic

Storage

128GB, 256GB, 512GB

128GB, 256GB, 512GB

RAM

12GB, 16GB

Undisclosed

Expandable storage

None

No

Battery

5,000 mAh

Undisclosed

Fingerprint sensor

In-screen

No (Face ID)

Headphone jack

No

Lightning

Special features

IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 100x Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging, 10x optical zoom

Lidar scanner; 5G enabled; MagSafe; water resistant (IP68); wireless charging; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM)

Price off-contract (USD)

$1,200 (128GB)

$1,099 (128GB), $1,199 (256GB), $1,399 (512GB)

Price (GBP)

£1,329

£1,099 (128GB), £1,199 (256GB), £1,399 (512GB)

Price (AUD)

AU$1,849

AU$1,849 (128GB), AU$2,019 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB)

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