Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Which should you buy?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Iphone 12 Pro Max
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Iphone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Android Central)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Render Phantom Black Front Official

Following the lackluster Galaxy S20 Ultra from last year, Samsung had to prove itself in 2021 with the S21 Ultra. Thankfully, a year of refinement did the company a lot of good. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has top-notch specs across the board, features the most impressive camera system we've ever seen from Samsung, and even works with the S Pen now.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Ultra impressive

120Hz AMOLED display is stunning
Gorgeous new design
Huge 5,000 mAh battery
Can be used with the S Pen
Impressive camera system with 100x zoom
Samsung Pay now limited to NFC
No longer supports expandable storage

iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max

If you want the very best iPhone that Apple has to offer, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is for you. It's stupidly fast thanks to the A14 Bionic processor, battery life is fantastic, and it features some of the best cameras you can get on a smartphone in 2021. It also happens to cost $100 less than the S21 Ultra, making it a surprisingly great value.

iPhone 12 Pro Max

Apple's best

Top-notch build quality
A14 Bionic is unmatched
Excellent battery life
The best iPhone camera ever
5+ years of software updates
Display is only 60Hz

The Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max are two of the biggest, baddest, and most expensive smartphones you can buy in 2021. They both feature incredible processors, bleeding-edge cameras, massive batteries, and even bigger displays. You'll find strengths and weaknesses across the board for each device, but given just how good they both are, this ultimately comes down to a matter of which operating system you prefer and if you want to save $100.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max Price and availability

The base model of the iPhone 12 Pro Max costs $1,099 and comes with 128GB of storage. You can also get the phone in 256GB and 512GB variants, with those selling for $1,199 and $1,399, respectively.

Believe it or not, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is actually more expensive than the iPhone. The 128GB model costs $1,200, the 256GB one retails for $1,249, and you'll pay $1,380 for the 512GB version.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max Top-tier specs across the board

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

While there are plenty of technical differences when comparing the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max, these are two phones that share the same ultimate goal — to be the very best flagship from Samsung and Apple, respectively.

Let's start first with the display, which is fantastic regardless of which phone you buy. Both feature large AMOLED/OLED panels and sharp resolutions, though the S21 pulls out ahead with a smoother 120Hz refresh rate. That allows the S21 Ultra to feel a bit snappier and more responsive than the iPhone at times, but given that each phone is equipped with a bleeding-edge processor, speed is not an issue for either one. The A14 Bionic in the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the very best chipset available in a mobile gadget right now, and while the Snapdragon 888 may not be as technically impressive, it's still an absolute beast when it comes to virtually any task.

Battery performance is also top-notch no matter which phone we're talking about. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has already proven itself to be an endurance champ, and thanks to a massive 5,000 mAh battery inside of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, getting through a full day (or more) of intensive use with plenty of gas left in the tank should be a breeze.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 Samsung Galaxy S21 UltraiPhone 12 Pro Max
Operating SystemAndroid 11 / One UI 3.1iOS 14
Display6.8-inch AMOLED3200 x 1440120Hz refresh rate6.7-inch OLED2778 x 128460Hz refresh rate
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 888Apple A14 Bionic
Memory12 or 16GB RAM6GB RAM
Storage128, 256, or 512GB128, 256, or 512GB
Rear Camera 1108MP primary, f/1.812MP primary, f/1.6
Rear Camera 210MP telephoto (10x)12MP telephoto (2.5x)
Rear Camera 310MP telephoto (3x)12MP ultra-wide
Rear Camera 412MP ultra-wide
Battery5,000 mAh3,687 mAh
Charging25W wired, 15W wireless, 4.5W reverse wireless20W wired, 7.5W wireless, 15W MagSafe
Dimensions75.6 x 165.1 x 8.9mm78.1 x 160.8 x 7.4mm

iPhone 12 Pro Max

Source: Apple (Image credit: Source: Apple)

Where both phones really stand out is in the camera department. The Galaxy S21 Ultra's pièce de résistance is its 108MP primary camera, allowing for incredibly sharp and detailed photos no matter what you're taking a picture of. That's paired with two telephoto sensors offering 10x and 3x optical zooming capabilities, and when you factor in digital zoom, you can go all the way up to 100x. Combine all of that with a 12MP ultra-wide camera, a 40MP selfie camera, 8K video support, and a variety of different shooting modes, and Samsung's making a big bet with the S21 Ultra's camera capabilities.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max's camera situation doesn't look nearly as impressive on paper, touting 12MP sensors for its primary, telephoto, and ultra-wide cameras. However, specs only tell a small part of the story. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has been hailed as one of the best smartphone cameras currently available, with its strong suits coming from low-light photography and unmatched video recording.

Finally, there are some smaller perks for each phone. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is compatible with the S Pen, allowing you to draw, take handwritten notes, and annotate documents with maximum precision. The iPhone 12 Pro Max supports Apple's new MagSafe system, allowing for more convenient charging and a wide array of new accessories.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max A difference of software

iPhone 12 Pro

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

All of that is to say that the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max are both darn good phones. As such, the biggest point of contention comes down to software.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is powered by Android (specifically, Android 11 with Samsung's One UI 3.1 interface) and the iPhone 12 Pro Max has iOS 14. The debate of Android vs. iOS isn't one we're going to settle today, but what we will say is that each platform has its audience.

This is a comparison that comes down to which software you like the most.

If you want to have the absolute most control over how your phone looks and works, Android's greater freedom is hard to beat. From changing your home screen launcher to deeper controls over default apps, it allows you to fine-tune the user experience to be exactly the way you want it.

iOS is a bit more restrictive by comparison, but if you don't care about all those customization features, it has plenty of its own perks — including iMessage, AirDrop, ease-of-use, and Apple's unbeatable commitment to software updates.

One operating system isn't necessarily better than the other. Instead, it's a matter of personal preference. Some people like Android more, others would rather be on iOS, and both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max cater to those groups incredibly well.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max Two easy recommendations

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the best Android phones you can buy, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the very best iPhone currently available, and that's all you really need to know. That's really what this comparison comes down to.

Yes, there are some differences when it comes to things like the camera, performance, etc., but both are two of the highest-end smartphone experiences in 2021 so far. No matter if you prefer Android or iOS, these are two fantastic handsets that'll serve you well for years to come.

Joe Maring

Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.