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

The iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Galaxy S21 Ultra are among Apple's and Samsung's most luxurious phones yet. Here's how the two smartphone royals stack up against each other.

Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram Senior Editor
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia's financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
Expertise Huawei, Oppo, smartphones, smartwatches Credentials
  • More than a decade of journalism experience
Sareena Dayaram
3 min read
Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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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.

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. 

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. 

Watch this: Galaxy S21 Ultra's camera goes head-to-head with iPhone 12 Pro Max

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. 


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: Samsung's most luxe S phone yet

See all photos

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 (3,200x1,440 pixels) and a 120 Hz display. The iPhone 12 Pro Max's screen is 2,778x1,284 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. 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max looks premium in gold

See all photos

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 UltraApple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Display size, resolution 6.8-inch WQHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 3,200x1,440 pixels6.7-inch OLED; 2,778x1,284 pixels
Pixel density 515 ppi458ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 2.97x6.5x0.35 inches6.33x3.07x0.29 inches
Dimensions (Millimeters) 75.6x165.1x8.9 mm160.8x78.1x7.4 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 8.07 oz; 229 grams8.03 oz; 228 grams
Mobile software Android 11iOS 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-megapixel12-megapixel
Video capture 8K4K
Processor Snapdragon 888 64-bit octa-core processor 2.8GHz (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz)Apple A14 Bionic
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
RAM 12GB, 16GBUndisclosed
Expandable storage NoneNo
Battery 5,000 mAhUndisclosed
Fingerprint sensor In-screenNo (Face ID)
Headphone jack NoLightning
Special features IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 100x Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging, 10x optical zoomLidar 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$1,849AU$1,849 (128GB), AU$2,019 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB)