Anton D. Nagy contributed to this post.
Suum cuique, or as we locally say: “to each his own…” That typical phrase we use to clarify that other people are free to like different things. It’s probably the best way to understand how it’s possible that the flagships of two different companies, can cost the exact same money, but then offer a completely different approach to the ideal flagship, and be just as successful.
On one corner we have Samsung which adequately calls its phone the Ultra. This is not just a case of More is Better. Instead, consider this as the Extreme that the name embodies. On the other, we have Apple, which also properly names its phone the Max. It’s the maximum amount of iPhone you can get, but which is also a contradiction since Apple favors the principle of “less is more.”
Right now these are the two most powerful phones, from the two most popular companies in the industry. Calling out a winner is about more than just a comparison of numbers.
It’s funny how I always feel the need to clarify that this is NOT a comparison between Android and iOS. It just completely ignores the bigger picture. We’re talking about differences in capabilities, features, and even ecosystems, where to each, its own. Both platforms have matured in such a way that even quantity is not as important as the quality of the implementation.
Visually I think these are the two best-looking phones right now, even if design choices vary. Each device is made of the strongest glass they could secure from Corning, with the Ultra going Victus on both panels, while Max offers Ceramic Shield just at the front. There’s an Aluminum frame on the Galaxy versus stronger stainless steel on the iPhone, even if neither is exempt from scratches given their glossy side rails. Samsung has also chosen a more contour approach to have the camera hump blend with the chassis, while Apple uses a stepped approach to draw less attention to the footprint. The Ultra is also 5mm taller, and a bit more than a millimeter thicker, but then the iPhone is 3mm wider and a gram heavier. Frankly, I’m more of a fan of how the Galaxy feels in the hand given the curves, and I really like the badass look of this Phantom Black finish, but you can’t deny that the flat iPhone in silver is kinda hot.
Internally things start to tip a bit towards Samsung. They’re both powered by modern 5nm chips and also start at the same amount of non-expandable storage since Samsung decided to follow on another controversial move. Now, the Galaxy has double the RAM or even more depending on the variant you pick, but we know iOS doesn’t need much, and it’s the same story if we measured battery size differences. But then the Galaxy has an edge with more modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth specs, and its wireless charging is also reversible. 5G though is the same across the board, with both flavors where available.
Once you flip to the displays, technically Samsung wins but depending on how much you care about the reasons why. They’re both almost as large, have our favorite AMOLED technology, and it’s hard not to praise Apple’s Super Retina XDR for its color accuracy and just how elegant this flat panel looks… but that’s it. Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED 2X reaches a higher peak brightness, offers more pixel density and screen to body ratio on nearly the same footprint in addition to supporting more standards. 2020’s pandemic has also made Apple’s Notch useless in public, while Samsung solves this with a less intrusive punch-hole and a new and faster Ultra Sonic fingerprint scanner. (Speaker test Galaxy) You won’t notice much of a difference in the quality of their speakers (Speaker test iPhone), but it’s clear that the whole package favors Samsung as a better option for content consumption.
Now, if we’re honest, specs and visuals are just part of the story. At this price, for most people, it’s either a question of how much of a status symbol a product is, which both devices check, or which one is more capable. This is another area where I feel Samsung wins in most things, but not all. See, the biggest problem with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, is that in almost everything, it’s just a bloated iPhone. Seriously if you were to use a 12 mini or a 12 Pro Max, the experience only varies in how much more visible the text is, or how separated the icons are. This leads to a lot of wasted space on the 12 Pro Max, along with missed opportunities in multi-tasking. I will praise iOS 14 for finally taking a leap into a more cohesive design language. We now have widgets, and there’s more flexibility in the services you can choose by default.
By contrast, the size of this particular Ultra actually serves a purpose, now that Samsung has bestowed it with a WACOM digitizer. This is pretty much a more modern Galaxy Note, even if the S Pen here is a separate purchase. The ability to use your phone as your digital note pad provides a ton of added value, from screen off memos, to the functionality it provides to the Microsoft Office Suite to name a few. And then there’s the fact that OneUI 3.1 offers a more dense approach to apps, widgets, and even the inclusion of the Google Feed on the launcher. Android 11 now stacks notifications in a smarter way, prioritizing notifications and alerts, in addition to giving you an easier way to control your home devices. You have edge menus to easily call on contacts and apps, and then my favorite feature, which is to launch app pairs for split window multitasking. The Ultra is just a smarter solution for a large canvas if size matters to you.
Really the only reason why iOS is a better investment over time is because Apple is still king of software updates, where even the five-year-old iPhone 6S gets immediate access. Samsung has gotten better at supporting devices for longer, now committing to up to 3 years, but just keep in mind that historically, it’s been proven that the older your phone is, the longer it takes to get them.
Apple’s ecosystem also plays a huge role in the lock-in that most users have, but Samsung has also improved its offering dramatically. We now have an experience that’s on par with how Apple’s products talk to each other and handoff connections seamlessly. The difference is that Samsung’s ecosystem is much larger, including TVs and other appliances. You could also say that Samsung won the race in being the first to launch its own smart tags, but only time will tell if Apple’s solution goes beyond just giving you a way to track your valuables.
But as for the rest of the user experience, you gotta hand it to both companies for how well these phones handle endurance. I’d say the Ultra can last a bit longer, but that doesn’t mean both can’t go beyond a day of constant use, and this is all while connected to Verizon’s 5G network.
What’s left to discuss is cameras, but here numbers can be deceiving. Yes, the Max innovates with IBIS and offers a better primary than other iPhones, but if you do the math, that sensor is more of a match to the S21+. The Ultra takes cameras so far beyond what the iPhone can do that it’s hard to even compare. The question left is if the results speak as highly as the numbers.
While outdoors, I tend to drift more to the iPhone photos because of the balance in the dynamic range where the Galaxy tends to be a bit brighter, even if it still preserves the details. But yeah, once you punch into 10X, the Galaxy just slays the iPhone. I don’t use zoom photography all the time, but the Ultra just makes that compelling, given how much detail it can provide up to 30X digital, though yeah, forget about 100X here too. As for the iPhone, stick to 2.5. While indoors and when doing closeups, the opposite happens mostly, with the Galaxy providing better dynamic range, though bokeh seems to be a very close call, even with the sensor differences, and yes, RAW photography is available on both for extra flexibility in post.
At night I’ll drift to prefer the Galaxy because it handles lens reflections better. Not a fan of how either phone performs in anything other than the primary, but clearly Samsung’s hardware is doing a superior job.
Selfies are a mixed bag though, where I prefer the detail on the Galaxy so long as you don’t have too much light or the crop in the portraits, but where Apple’s Deep Fusion can really balance photos better in all scenarios.
Now in video, I hate to say this, but the iPhone still wins. Through the primary, both do a comparable job in stabilization, and the Galaxy’s video is good, but the iPhone’s dynamic range is just too good. It handles shadows and highlights far better, which results in far less grain being shown. I’d say it’s a closer call if we measured selfie video, with the Galaxy going closer in brightness, but not enough to hide the grain it’s showing, while the iPhone adapts to lighting in ways that are still hard for others to compete.
To conclude, I think it’s easy to see which phone came out on top. Samsung wins the hardware, it provides a ton of added functionality in the software, and in everything but video, it also owns the camera comparison. Maybe what’s interesting to consider, is that not by much though.
Even with all the added camera hardware on the Ultra, the iPhone’s results were comparable in everything but zoom photography. Even if Samsung’s display is superior in features, unless you care about 120hz or a stylus, the rest is pretty much on par. Even if Android has a denser user interface, iOS 14 is seriously making flexibility a close call between them. So, if they both last all day, have the latest 5G, lack accessories in the box, and are priced the same, really the rest is Suum Cuique, or as we say, a matter of taste.
If it were up to me to choose only one, I’d pick the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s such a great phone in everything that matters, and what I would consider to be the better value. That said, I wouldn’t blame you if you picked the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Hey, I carry two phones, and the Max is the other. I feel both companies have stopped drinking their own Kool-Aid so much, that they’re finally listening to consumers, and upgrading where it counts.