Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Which should you buy?
For almost as long as we've had iPhones and Android phones we've had Apple vs Samsung. And in 2021, both released a big powerhouse of a device with a spec list that'll make any tech fan drool. Apple launched the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung launched the S21 Ultra.
As you can imagine, each has its strengths and weaknesses, but which is stronger in the areas you value the most? In this comparison we'll run over the differences in specifications as well as share some of the insights we've gained from having used both devices extensively over the last few weeks and months.
- 13 Pro Max: 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.7 mm - 240 grams
- S21 Ultra: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm - 227 grams
- 13 Pro Max: stainless steel and glass
- S21 Ultra: aluminium and glass
- Both: IP68 water and dust resistance
In recent years, Samsung and Apple have taken quite different approaches to design and aesthetics with their flagship smartphones. As different as it can be when you're designing a glass rectangle at least.
The only real similarity is that they're both made from glass and metal. But even here, Apple has gone with surgical grade stainless steel while Samsung has Aluminium.
What's interesting is that although the Samsung phone is taller and noticeably thicker than the iPhone, it also is lighter, slightly narrower and features curves on the back. That means it has a better, more comfortable one-hand feel than the sleek and flat iPhone. The curves at the edges are only subtle, but they do make it a nicer device to hold. There aren't as many sharp corners.
Where Apple has a bit of an edge is in the precision of some of the design elements. Like, looking at the camera housing which seamlessly curves up from the glass on the back. Samsung's almost has that seamless appearance too, and it wraps around the edges, but there are very tiny lines that slightly ruin the illusion.
It's a similar story on the front, where Apple has uniform bezel thickness all the way around the display, and even matches the curve of the external corners with the bezel. Samsung's doesn't do that, but then thanks to having a curved screen, its bezel up the sides does appear much thinner, giving it a more edge-to-edge feel to it. What's more, there's only one tiny camera punching through the panel at the top which doesn't obstruct anywhere near as much as the Apple notch, even though they made it smaller this year.
Still, that notch serves a purpose. FaceID is still a very quick and intuitive way to unlock a phone. You just have to pick it up and look at it, and it's unlocked. In a modern day world where we may need to wear face masks though, it's not always the most convenient, at least not when trying to authenticate payments. Samsung uses an in-display fingerprint sensor for this, which works well pretty much all the time, and can be used even if you've covered your entire face in a balaclava.
As for dust and water resistance, both have the same IP68 rating, so they'll survive pretty much everything. Although, Samsung's is only tested to 1.5m depths, Apple claims it can survive down to 6 metres for 30 minutes.
- 13 Pro Max: 6.7-inch OLED - 1284 x 2778 resolution
- S21 Ultra: 6.8-inch AMOLED - 1440 x 3200 resolution
- 13 Pro Max: Dolby Vision, HDR10, 1200 nits peak brightness
- S21 ultra: HDR10+, 1500 nits peak brightness
- Both: 120Hz adaptive refresh rate
When it comes to displays, it's safe to say the two phones are surprisingly evenly matched, despite what the spec sheets may lead you to believe. There are differences, but not enough to make one worth picking over the other.
For instance, Samsung's is larger and ever so slightly sharper in terms of pixel density, but when you're watching the iPhone next to the Samsung set to its natural mode, it can be a little tricky to spot significant differences. To our eyes, what we'd say is that - most of the time with both cranked to full brightness - the iPhone has the generally brighter panel. Even if Samsung's can technically reach a higher peak brightness.
Watching videos and movies on various services - whether its Netflix, Disney Plus or YouTube - it also appears to have a bit more contrast, which actually means that - at times - it can look a bit artificially sharp compared to Samsung's. The Samsung would often make the video look a little softer and more natural. Of course, if you set the Samsung to its vivid mode, the story is entirely different. It boosts all the colours way too much, but if you like it, the option is there.
Both even feature the same 120Hz screen refresh rates and - for the most part - you only really see that super smooth animation when you're scrolling around in the general user interface, and scrolling up and down things like the settings menu, or dropping down notifications. It's not something that makes a massive difference to movie watching.
The two even have their own ambient colour matching tech to reduce blue light on the screen and match the temperature to the light around you. Usually, that means making the screen a bit warmer.
Performance and battery
- 13 Pro Max: A15 Bionic six-core processor
- S21 Ultra: Exynos octa-core or Snapdragon 888 processor (region depending)
- 13 Pro Max: 128/256/512GB and 1TB storage options
- S21 Ultra: 128/256/512GB storage options
- 13 Pro Max: Approx 4300mAh battery - 27W wired, 15W MagSafe wireless charging
- S21 Ultra: 5000mAh battery - 25W wired, 15W wireless charging
If there's one area where it doesn't make much sense to actually compare specs, it's in performance and battery life. Because both have very different operating systems, and iOS is - by and large - far more efficient than Android in general usage. So it doesn't need all the additional RAM or the mega battery capacities we see on Android phones.
As speed and fluidity go, the two phones are quite similar. Both are fast and responsive, loading games and apps quickly. That's despite the Samsung's chipset having two additional processor cores. In Europe, it's the top tier Exynos processor vs. Apple's A15 Bionic chip, which outscores every other smartphone in Geekbench tests.
Side by side, the iPhone did appear to load most games and apps faster than the Samsung, but only by a tiny margin. The differences was less than a second.
Apple doesn't reveal battery capacities officially, but the iPhone features around 4300mAh and is significantly smaller than the Samsung's 5000mAh. Still, in our testing it can easily outlast the Samsung. Even for with moderate usage which usually involves 3-4 hours of screen time a day, the iPhone can usually make it to the end of a second day without too much effort.
Samsung's doesn't ever make it through two days. By the end of the first day we're usually down to about 40 percent, and that's in an area without 5G support, and mostly working from home. The iPhone 13 Pro Max is easily one of the most long-lasting phones on the market and will rarely, if ever, give you battery anxiety.
Neither has particularly speedy charging, but they do support Power Delivery. iPhone's can do 27W speeds here (with the right charger), with Samsung offering 25W. Both also support 15W wireless charging.
- 13 Pro Max: Triple camera system
- 12MP f/1.5 - 26mm wide - sensor shift OIS
- 12MP f/2.8 - 77mm telephoto - OIS - 3x optical zoom
- 12MP f/1.8 - 13mm ultrawide
- S21 Ultra: Quad camera system
- 108MP f/1.8 - 24mm wide - OIS and laser AF
- 10MP f/4.9 - 240mm perisope - 10x optical zoom
- 10MP f/2.4 - 72mm telephoto - OIS - 3x optical zoom
- 12MP f/2.2 - 13mm ultrawide
- 13 Pro Max: 4K/60 and Dolby Vision recording
- S21 Ultra: 8K/24 and HDR10+ recording
It would probably be a bit of an over-simplification if we said the camera systems are basically the same. In theory. Except Samsung has an extra camera.
Both have a primary, ultrawide and 3x telephoto zoom cameras, but the S21 Ultra also features the periscope 10x optical zoom. That's kind of its secret weapon that lets you zoom even closer into your scene without losing a tonne of detail. Still, push either up to those limits, and you won't get as sharp a picture as you will from the primary camera, it just seems a bit more rough in general.
With the primary cameras, both feature similar tech. So you get stabilisation with both, but with different techniques. Samsung's stabilises the lens, where Apple has sensor shift tech. It's interesting comparing the cameras, because in some instances they produce very similar results.
We did find in some instances that the iPhone sometimes pushed the contrast a bit higher, particularly noticeable in indoor shots when compared to the Samsung. That resulted in a darker, less natural look. Other times, especially outside, it looked more natural and true-to-colour than the Samsung. With greenery and blue skies, we often found Samsung pushed the saturation a little bit more, making them appear a little hyper-real.
However there was the odd time when the ultra-wide results didn't colour match with the primary on the iPhone, which is unusual for Apple. The same can be said for Samsung's ultrawide, which would sometimes wash out the shots. And in macro mode there was the odd occasion where the iPhone would blow out the highlights, compared to Samsung. And there's that camera switching issue that Apple is rolling out a fix for. So if you get close to a subject, it starts switching between cameras and makes it really hard to frame your shot.
In lower light shots, they both do fine, although they take a different approach to temperature. We weren't quite prepared for the differences in night mode. Indoors, in a room with a smart bulb set to night mode where it goes dim and warm, Samsung's approach was to white balance it and get colours looking correct, as if it was white light. iPhone took the complete opposite approach, over-egging the warmth and making it seem bright red.
Otherwise, outside, in night mode we found that with all three cameras, Samsung's approach was softer and more natural than iPhone, which seemed to boost the contrast a bit too much perhaps in an effort to make the image appear sharper? It's safe to say, it wasn't an entirely consistent experience with either phone. Either way, at night time, both will get you bright, blur-free and sharp images.
Both can shoot in slow-mo, but from a video perspective iPhone has a trick called Cinematic mode, which introduces a relatively natural background blur and then slowly pulls focus when you move to point the camera at something else.
It works well with static objects that are visually well defined, but not so well when you're dealing with lots of moving people. And it shoots at a lower resolution. Still, the end result is still nicer than shooting in regular video mode and manually tapping to focus on an object in the background.
Apple's phone can shoot in Dolby vision HDR up to 60fps, Samsung's can do HDR10+, and can also shoot up to 8K resolution at 24fps. I always feel like Apple's camera is easier to use though, with fewer additional menus. Samsung sure does love to add in lots of different shooting options, which - again - might suit you down to the ground. Both offer decent stabilisation in video though, at least from the main camera.
At the end of it, regardless of which you go for, you will get a great camera system. But with the iPhone's inconsistency at the moment, we'd say - as things stand right now - if you want the best camera, particularly for photos, the S21 Ultra is the one to go for.
There is software and ecosystem to consider too, but both a strong here. Samsung has the likes of the new Galaxy Watch 4, which is a great every smart watch and fitness tracker with contactless payments. Similar to Apple Watch in a lot of ways. It also has SmartTag object trackers, like Apple has AirTags, and has a few different models of Galaxy Buds where Apple has AirPods. What's more, if you have a Samsung TV, you can use SmartThings to control it instead of a remote. Same with Apple's iPhone and Apple TV boxes.
But if you use a Mac, there is benefit to using an iPhone. Like being able to copy and paste between devices, or authenticating web based Apple Pay payments.
- 13 Pro Max: from £1049
- S21 Ultra: from £1149
Both Samsung and Apple's devices are pretty expensive, with full retail prices starting at over £1000 in the UK, and going all the way up to more than £1500 (in Apple's case).
Despite iPhone having a lower recommended retail price than Samsung, the S21 Ultra is the older phone of the two and you'll likely be able to find it cheaper than Apple's these days.
In the end, we think which ever of these you go for is going to be a great device. Apple's offers - we think - the overall performance and battery life, where Samsung trumps it in the camera department, at least based on our experience.
There really isn't a lot in it though, because nearly all the differences are very minor.