Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Which flagship is best for you?

Apple's iPhone 12 and Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra are spectacular smartphones. How do their specifications compare?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12
(Image credit: Samsung)

The iPhone 12 may be the best phone for most people, but there’s a strong argument that the new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is even stronger, with us recommending it as a great premium choice. It’s certainly the best Samsung phone that Samsung has ever made.

The Ultra isn’t a direct rival to the iPhone 12 – the standard Galaxy S21 is clearly priced to be the iPhone equivalent – but once the deals begin the price difference will start to get smaller. Could this be the phone that encourages Apple owners to switch? Let’s find out.

iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy Ultra S21: design and screen

Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra best phones 2021

(Image credit: Apple)

The iPhone 12 retains the notch of the iPhone 11 but its edges are flatter, harking back to the iPhone 4, and the glass on the front is Ceramic Shield for better drop protection. The standard model has a 6.1-inch HDR OLED display delivering 1,170 x 2,532 pixels but you can also get a 5.4” iPhone 12 mini or a 6.7” iPhone 12 Pro Max. The camera bump is bigger than the one in the iPhone 11, with two large lenses in the standard iPhone and three on the Pro and Pro Max. 

The Samsung Galaxy Ultra S21 has a 6.8-inch OLED delivering 1,440 x 3,200 pixels with a 120Hz refresh rate and HDR10+. It’s a beautiful display with always-on capability that the iPhone currently lacks. Like the iPhone it’s almost entirely screen on the front, but here the cutout for the front-facing camera is a hole-punch in the centre that’s much smaller than Apple’s notch. The aluminium back is dominated by the camera bump, which takes up roughly 1/6th of the case thanks to its multiple lenses. Unusually for a phone this Samsung has stylus support: you can use the S Pen on it. There’s no similar Apple Pencil support in the current iPhone.

iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy Ultra S21: cameras, specs and performance

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 best phones 2021

(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone 12 is powered by Apple’s blisteringly fast A14 Bionic and has 4GB of RAM. Storage is 64/128/256GB and the battery is 2,815mAh. The rear camera is a twin 12MP assembly and the front camera is also 12MP, but Apple has been working hard on its image processing and AI and the image quality is exceptional. Many rivals offer many more megapixels but that doesn’t necessarily mean they take better photos.

The Galaxy has an Exynos 2100 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor with 12/16GB of RAM and 256/512GB of storage. The battery is 5,000mAh. The most exciting specs here are in the cameras: a whopping 108MP four-camera setup on the rear and 40MP on the front. The rear cameras are capable of 100x Space Zoom.

Samsung hasn’t messed around with Android too much here but it does have DeX Mode, which enables you to turn your Ultra into a kind of laptop when you’re at your desk.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 best phones 2021

(Image credit: Samsung)

iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy Ultra S21: price and verdict

Photography aside, the Samsung may appear to be much more powerful than the iPhone but in reality the differences are slight: the Apple processor may have fewer cores than the Samsung one but it still outperforms its rival chip in most benchmarks, and Apple’s ability to optimise its operating system and hardware for one another – something Android firms can’t do to the same extent because it’s Google’s OS, not theirs – means it delivers much better performance than comparing the specifications might suggest. 

That said, there are some compelling reasons to consider the Samsung instead. Those cameras, for starters, but also the S Pen support and the DeX system that enable you to use it like a small tablet and a laptop respectively. That makes the Samsung as much of a hub as it is a phone. We think the iPhone 12 delivers a better user experience, but the Samsung offers much more flexibility and a spectacular set of cameras.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (