iPhone 13 Pro Max vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Who Wins?

There’s no mistaking that the iPhone 13 Pro Max is the most deluxe, souped-up Apple smartphone you can buy right now. Boasting newly improved camera lenses, a stunning 120Hz refresh rate, an enlarged (and more efficient) battery, the new A15 Bionic chip, and the option to have a whopping 1TB in storage, it pretty much covers every single base a smartphone can cover.

However, while it may be the best iOS phone, it’s not necessarily the best smartphone using any operating system. One other prime candidate for such a title is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, which also improves on its predecessor in several major areas. As with the iPhone 13 Pro Max, it really does put most other smartphones to shame, even if it’s not for anyone looking to save a little money.

The thing is, which one is the better phone overall: the iPhone 13 Pro Max or the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra? We answer this question by subjecting both phones to a comprehensive head-to-head test. By looking at their specs, designs, displays, performance, cameras, and software, we should help you decide which is the best super flagship.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 UltraiPhone 13 Pro Max
Size165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm (6.5 x 2.98 x 0.35 inches)160.8 x 78.1 x 7.7mm (6.33 x 3.07 x 0.30 inches)
Weight229 grams (8.04 ounces)240 grams (8.47 ounces)
Screen size6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X6.7-inch Super Retina XDR OLED
Screen resolution3200 x 1440 pixels (515 pixels per inch)2778 x 1284 pixels (458 pixels per inch)
Operating systemAndroid 11, One UI 3.1iOS 15
Storage128GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
MicroSD card slotNoNo
Tap-to-pay servicesGoogle Pay, Samsung PayApple Pay
ProcessorExynos 2100 (global) Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (USA)Apple A15 Bionic
RAM12GB6GB
CameraQuad lens 108-megapixel, 10MP telephoto, 10MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear

40MP front

Triple lens 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide, and 12MP telephoto rear (and LiDAR sensor)

12MP front

Video8K at 30 fps, 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps, 720p at 960 fps, HDR10+4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps, Dolby Vision HDR
Bluetooth version5.05.0
PortsUSB-CLightning
Fingerprint sensorYes, in-display (ultrasonic)No, Face ID
Water resistanceIP68IP68
Battery5,000mAh

Fast charging (25W charger sold separately)

Qi wireless charging

4,373Ah

Fast charging (20W sold separately)

MagSafe wireless charging (15W)

Qi magnetic fast wireless charging (7.5W)

App marketplaceGoogle Play StoreApple App Store
Network supportAll major carriersAll major carriers
ColorsPhantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Brown, Phantom Navy, Phantom TitaniumGraphite, Gold, Silver, Sierra Blue
Price$1,199$1,099
Review score4.5 out of 5 starsNews

Design, display, and durability

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra as seen from the front.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The iPhone 13 Pro Max won’t win any prizes for design originality. As with the other devices in the iPhone 13 series, it recreates the flat-sided design of the iPhone 12 series. The only discernible difference is that it has a smaller notch. But when the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra offers a nearly bezel-less and unbroken edge-to-edge display with a discreet punch-hole selfie camera at the top center, such an improvement seems pretty trivial. When adding the S21 Ultra’s newly introduced rear camera module, which slopes elegantly into the phone’s shoulder, Samsung’s phone begins to look even better.

It’s also worth pointing out that the two devices weigh roughly the same (8 ounces for the S21 Ultra, nearly 8.5 ounces for the iPhone 13 Pro Max), and have similarly large dimensions. In other words, you’ll find them as comfortable as each other, and if you have smaller hands, this means you should probably swap “uncomfortable” for “comfortable” here.

The S21 Ultra arguably also has the edge in terms of its display. Its whopping 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED screen packs in 3200 x 1440 pixels, giving you 515 pixels per inch. By contrast, the 6.7-inch Super Retina OLED display of the iPhone 13 Pro Max contains 2778 x 1284 pixels, equating to 458 pixels per inch. This makes the S21 Ultra a little sharper than the iPhone 13 Pro Max, while it’s also capable of a maximum brightness of 1,500 nits, compared to 1,200 for Apple’s phone. Both devices do support a very nice 120Hz refresh rate, but when the S21 Ultra also offers an AMOLED (as opposed to OLED) display, you do also get slightly deeper blacks and richer contrasts.

Both phones have received an official IP68 rating, indicating that they can cope with immersion in up to 1.5 meters of water for as many as 30 minutes. However, while this puts both devices on an equal footing, the S21 Ultra wins this round by virtue of its more attractive design and slightly more impressive display.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Performance, battery life, and charging

Charging the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Galaxy S21 Ultra ships with the (still relatively) new Snapdragon 888, which boasts a 5nm manufacturing process for its transistors, meaning it can squeeze more of them into the same available space. As luck would have it, the iPhone 13 Pro Max also benefits from a 5nm chip, the A15 Bionic, which has just been released for the 13 series. While the A15 only has 6GB of RAM to work with in the iPhone 13 Pro Max, this is more than enough, given that Apple phones use RAM a little differently from Android alternatives. Put differently, even though the S21 Ultra comes with a considerable 12GB of RAM, you will find similar performance on both devices.

Neither phone carries a microSD card slot, yet then again, both provide ample internal memory. This is particularly the case with the iPhone 13 Pro Max, which can go from 128GB to a whopping 1TB of internal storage, assuming you’re willing to pay an extra $500 for the privilege. As for the S21 Ultra it can be bought in a version with 512GB of memory, which should be enough for most purposes.

The S21 Ultra comes with a larger 5,000mAh battery, compared to a 4,373mAh battery on the iPhone 13 Pro Max. This might seem like a big difference, but Apple is saying that the 13 Pro Max provides 2.5 hours more maximum battery life than last year’s 12 Pro Max, which could leave with you almost 50% of battery power after even a fairly heavy day of use. This is roughly the same amount of usage as you’d get from the S21 Ultra, although we’d need to give the iPhone 13 Pro Max a full review before we can conclude whether one has a slight edge over the other. The 13 Pro Max may have it, but we’re calling this round a tie for now.

Winner: Tie

Cameras

galaxy-s21-ultra
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The iPhone 13 Pro Max features the same triple-lens rear camera setup as its predecessor, yet its hardware is actually new. That is, it increases its aperture values to f/1.5 for the wide lens and f/1.8 for the ultrawide lens, while it adds a 77mm-equivalent telephoto camera with an f/2.8 aperture, offering a 6x zoom range between the ultrawide and telephoto cameras. Given that the iPhone 12 Pro Max was already a great camera phone, this will make the iPhone 13 Pro Max seriously impressive.

Speaking of impressive, the S21 Ultra comes with a quad-lens setup: a 108MP wide lens, a 10MP periscope telephoto lens, a 10MP telephoto lens, and a 12MP ultra-wide lens. In particular, the periscope telephoto lens allows for 10x optical zoom, providing the photographer with some impressively detailed snaps. At the same time, Samsung has seriously upped its game in terms of general usability, with standard shots offering much greater balance than before, without the oversaturation of old.

In terms of which phone will offer a better camera overall, it’s therefore hard to say anything for certain at this stage. Given the previous history, the iPhone may edge things, particularly when the iPhone 12 Pro Max was such a great camera phone, to begin with. The iPhone 13 Pro Max also adds a new Cinematic Mode for capturing video, allowing you to shift focus from foreground to background in a highly impressive manner.

Even so, it would be premature to conclude that the iPhone 13 Pro Max is better at taking photos at this early stage, so this round is another tie.

Winner: Tie

Software and updates

Cloudy weather showing in iOS 15's weather app.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

The iPhone 13 Pro Max operates using iOS 15, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. This adds such new features as a more useful Notification Summary, the ability to share media via FaceTime and Messages, and a new Focus mode for avoiding distractions (from work, play, or sleep). Meanwhile, the Galaxy S21 Ultra runs on One UI 3.1, Samsung’s skin for Android 11. This is a streamlined and highly usable mod of the basic Android template, yet it also offers a high level of customization, making it a very good all-rounder.

Both systems have their pros and cons, so it would be unfair to choose a winner between them. That said, iPhone 13 Pro Max will be almost certainly be treated to not only speedier updates, but also more of them. Even now, the six-year-old iPhone 6S has received iOS 15, so your phone will be supported long beyond the point where you get an itch for a new phone. The same cannot be said for the S21 Ultra, which as a Samsung phone, will have to wait a little for Android updates from Google, and won’t be supported for quite as long.

Winner: iPhone 13 Pro Max

Special features

galaxy-s21-ultra-s-pen
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Almost needless to say, both phones support 5G, and this covers the basic sub-6Hz frequency range as well as the faster mmWave band. They’re also supported by all major carriers, so you’ll have no problem getting a 5G signal, assuming you’re close to a 5G network.

Aside from 5G, the S21 Ultra also introduces a new special feature for the Galaxy S range: it supports the S Pen, meaning you can draw, doodle, and take notes on the device. Unlike the Note 20 Ultra, it doesn’t have a slot for the stylus, while it lacks some of the more advanced compatibility features you get with the Note 20 Ultra, such as the Bluetooth-enabled remote shutter release for the Camera app. Also, you will have to pay extra to get it, costing anything from $50 to $100.

As for the iPhone 13 Pro Max, it doesn’t add anything significantly new. There’s the aforementioned Cinematic Mode feature, while it also uses Ceramic Shield glass in its display, making it more durable. Other than that, you mostly get fairly long-standing special features, such as Face ID and Memojis.

Winner: Tie

Price and availability

Neither phone is cheap. The iPhone 13 Pro Max can be preordered from Apple and is released on September 24. It starts from $1,099 for the 128GB model, but rises as high as $1,599 for the 1TB version. As can be expected, all major carriers will support it, while it will be sold far and wide by third-party retailers.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G starts at $1,200 for 128GB model, before rising to $1,250 for the 256GB model and to $1,380 for the 512GB version. It’s supported by all major carriers, and can be bought from most major online retailers.

Winner: Tie

Overall winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Yes, it’s very tight, but the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, just about edges this head-to-head. Its superior design and slightly more impressive screen put it ahead of the iPhone 13 Pro Max, even if the latter offers comparable performance and a similarly great camera. Compatibility with the S Pen is also another plus in its favor, even if not everyone will find such a feature useful.

However, because we haven’t yet fully tested the iPhone 13 Pro Max, this result may change in a future update. It’s possible that road testing will show Apple’s phone to provide slightly longer battery life, as well as a more versatile and impressive camera. So watch this space.

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