Samsung recently unveiled the Galaxy S21 series of phones, which will sit as a direct competitor to Apple’s iPhone 12 range. Having thoroughly tested both families of phones we’ve created this guide to help you decide which is right for you.
Traditionally, iPhone users are so deep into Apple’s ecosystem that the thought of buying an Android phone will sound like the premise of a horror movie. But these days there are a growing number of people open to switching operating systems. If you fall into that camp of iPhone users one of the first flagship Android phones you’re likely going to consider will sit in Samsung’s iconic Galaxy S-line, and for good reason.
Having thoroughly tested both the Samsung Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 we can confirm they are enticing devices, with a strong focus on camera and performance along with various larger (and smaller) versions for those who want something a little different.
Here we’ll delve into what sets these phones apart and where they’re similar based on our real world experience using, and expert knowledge of the two families of phones. If you’re after a more detailed breakdown of how the new Samsung phones compare, check out Samsung Galaxy S21 vs S21 Ultra guide.
- Fantastic new design
- Very reliable cameras
- Execptional performance
- Screen lacks some of the benefits you’ll find elswhere
- The notch remains annoying
- Much more affordable at launch than S20
- Still a great screen (and it’s flat)
- Snappy performance
- Lack of microSD and WQHD+ resolution make it feel like an S20 downgrade
- Doesn’t feel as good as previous S series phones
- Minimal camera upgrades
Pricing and availability
- How do the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S20 compare in price?
Pricing for the Samsung Galaxy S21 starts at £769/$799. This is a notable reduction over the outgoing Galaxy S20 which launched at £899/$899 for the 5G model in March 2020. By launching at £769, Samsung undercuts Apple’s iPhone 12, in the UK, as Apple’s phone retails for £799/$799.
There are other models available in both phone lines if you’re looking for a different display size or more power. The starting RRP of the most expensive Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is £1149/$1199, while the Samsung S21 Plus will cost from £949/$999 upwards.
Within the Phone 12 line, you’ve got the iPhone 12 Mini at £699/$699, iPhone 12 Pro at £999/$999 and iPhone 12 Pro Max at £1099/$1099.
All the iPhone 12 models are available now. The Galaxy S21 phones go on sale January 29.
Design and screen
- Both ranges feature huge updates
- Both sets of phones receive big upgrades
- All use OLED displays with varying resolutions and sizes
The latest Galaxy and iPhones are drastically different in their approach to design. Let’s start with the iPhone 12, as this is the one we’ve spent the most time with.
Apple finally retired the aged design we’ve had since the iPhone 6 with its new models. Specifically, it replaced the retro rounded sides with a flat finish. It looks great, and we found the smaller-sized versions (basically everything but the Max) make them far more ergonomic and easy to hold during testing.
If you go for the regular iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Mini, you have matte sides and a glossy glass back, while the Pro model switches them around. There’s a nice selection of pastel colours too, and some darker, moodier options for the Pro.
Apple’s iPhone 12 range also offers very different screen options. There’s the 5.4-inch Mini, 6.1-inch 12 and Pro and 6.7-inch Pro Max. No other phone range offers this variety of sizes and we appreciate having a small option. All the iPhone 12 models offer IP68 level water resistance, have Lightning ports for charging and Face ID for biometric unlocking.
There are three models in the S21 line and each has a similar look. This year, Samsung has made the camera module more seamless with the design, blending it in via the metal rim. Taking out of the box we can confirm the change gives the phones a striking and rather futuristic feel that was missing on last year’s S20 range..
There are a few key differences between the three models though. For instance, the S21 has a plastic back, whereas the other two models are glass. The S21 Ultra also has a far bigger camera array and a curved display – the displays on the S21 and S21 Plus are both flat. USB-C is the single connection and, like the iPhone, you’ll find an IP68 water resistance rating.
During testing we found the S21 and S21 Ultra have excellent displays. We haven’t had the Plus in for testing yet. However, there are some noticeable differences between the three phones’ screens, even if they do all use OLED as opposed to LCD panels.
One important feature you’ll find on the S21 series but not on the iPhone 12 is a 120Hz refresh rate across the board. A faster screen gives you smoother scrolling, more responsive gaming and a generally more reactive feel. The iPhone 12, with its 60Hz panel, feels lacking in comparison when you use the two side by side.
The resolutions are all slightly different, too. The 6.2-inch Samsung Galaxy S21 and 6.7-inch S21 Plus have FHD+ panels, with a 1080 x 2400 resolution. The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, on the other hand, have an 1170 x 2532 resolution. The S21 Ultra ups that, with its 6.8-inch panel packing a 1440 x 3200 resolution. Finally, the iPhone 12 Pro Max packs a 1284 x2778 screen.
Based on our testing and real world experience, we’d say the S21 Ultra has the best display of the bunch. It’s the sharpest and the brightest and is capable of displaying HDR content with real skill. The Ultra’s display can also be used with an S Pen stylus, giving it an edge for power users.
Another skill of the S21 line is the in-display fingerprint sensor, which is a lot better than previous iterations. While we’re big fans of Face ID, it’s pretty much useless when you’re wearing a mask, which was a key annoyance when testing the iPhone 12 phones.
Design and screen comparison
Performance and camera
- The latest chips, multiple sensors and more
- Apple’s iPhone 12 range runs on the A14 Bionic and supports 5G
- Samsung’s S21 line also supports 5G and they are powered either by the Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 chipsets
Whatever iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S21 model you choose, you’ll be getting a seriously nippy chipset powering the phone. The iPhone 12 series runs an A14 Bionic, while the S21 packs the Snapdragon 888 (USA) or the Exynos 2100 (UK).
These both have 5G modems and they’re three of the quickest chipsets we’ve ever tested. You really don’t need to worry about performance here in the slightest and they’re all excellent choices if you’re into mobile gaming. During testing we didn’t find a single game they couldn’t easily run with their graphics settings maxed out.
Storage options vary by model, with the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra going all the way up to 512GB. Plump for cheapest versions and you’ll get 64GB on the iPhone 12 and 128GB on the Galaxy S21. Samsung has ditched expandable storage from the range, something you’ve never been able to find on the iPhone.
Battery life varies between the various models of both phone families. The biggest two phones (that’s the S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max) last the longest by some way, with the smaller models all getting us through the day. When it comes to the 12 Mini, you might need to utilise the battery saver mode to really get from morning until night, however.
Another similarity is that you won’t find a charger or a pair of headphones in the box of any iPhone 12 or Galaxy S21 models. Instead, the boxes are super-simple coming with documentation and a cable. This cable is USB-C to USB-C for the S21 and USB-C to Lightning for the iPhones.
All of the iPhone 12 models have 12MP cameras, with the iPhone 12/Mini having a duo of them while the Pro models add a tele sensor to the mix. You’ll find a much bigger main sensor on the iPhone 12 Pro Max though and the snaps here are the best of the bunch.
On the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus you’ve got a very similar setup to the outgoing S20 models. That’s a 12MP wide, 12MP ultra wide and 64MP tele. 8K video is supported too, with the iPhone 12 maxing out at 4K.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra has possibly the most interesting camera array of the bunch, with four distinct sensors. See the chart below for a closer look.
Choosing between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is tricky. We prefer stills and video from the iPhone, thanks to more natural colours and better HDR processing, however it’s hard to argue with the versatility offered by the S21 Ultra.
The duo of zoom lenses get you far closer to the action than is capable with the paltry 2.5x zoom on the iPhone 12 Pro Max and this versatility is hard to pass up.
Which should you buy?
These are a bunch of excellent phones with plenty of high-end features. So let’s have a look at who they are for.
For most people who don’t want to spend lots of money, the base iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 are the best bet. They have reliable cameras, decent battery life, nice screens and refreshed, modern designs. We would give the overall better phone award to the iPhone 12, simply because the iOS software and ecosystem is deeper and the higher-end design just feels nicer to hold than the plastic backed S21.
If you’re on the hunt for a small phone then you really only have one choice – the iPhone 12 Mini. It’s as simple as that.
The choice becomes trickier when we look at the high-end, true flagships. The iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra are the two best phones around right now (helped by the fact they’re the two newest). They’re both stars when it comes to camera performance and overall build quality. The S21 Ultra probably just nabs it for us though as it has a marginally better display and more versatile camera array.