Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Apple iPhone 12: Which should you buy?


(Pocket-lint) – For as long as the modern smartphone era has been around, Samsung and Apple have offered flagships phones that seem to be the two default choices for so many buyers. Right now, those two phones are the Galaxy S21 and the iPhone 12. 

Design 

  • iPhone: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4 mm 
  • Galaxy: 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm
  • Both: IP68 water and dust resistant
  • iPhone: Glass and aluminium build
  • Galaxy: Plastic, aluminium and glass

If there’s one area these two phones differ the most, it’s in design. Whether you look at them from the front, the side, or the back, there’s no way you’d get them confused with each other. In fact, even if you held them in your hand, they feel nothing alike. 

Featuring a frosted plastic back, the Samsung immediately feels warmer and and softer in the hand. That’s further aided by the rounded edges. That makes it the more tactile of the two devices.  

For some, featuring plastic on a flagship device is unacceptable, but the way Samsung has utilised the plastic – and the finish it’s achieved with the frosted translucent panel letting through light from the reflective layer beneath – actually looks and feels great. 

As for looks, there’s no doubt that the iPhone has that premium appeal. The flat edges and clean lines give it that purposeful look, and the build materials of glass and aluminium in a minimalist blend will appeal to a lot of people. It looks great.

On a more practical note, it feels a lot more solid and durable too. The frame feels practically unbendable, and even after nearly 6 months with it, there’s barely a scratch on the glass. Both phones feature IP68 water and dust resistance, so will survive if you accidentally drop them in the sink or get caught in the rain. 

From the front, Samsung seems to make better use of space, by filling as much of it as possible with display. Apple’s notch cuts in considerably at the top, while Samsung only has that tiny hole punch getting in the way. In actual fact, once you load some games and apps – especially in landscape – Samsung tends to black out a portion of it and make an artificial bezel anyway, so the difference once you’re actually doing something, is minimal. 

Saying that, Samsung’s bezels do seem a bit skinnier around the sides and at the top. Apple, however, kept them uniform all the way around, avoiding that tiny chin look that Samsung has. 

Displays

  • iPhone: 6.1-inch, 1170 x 2532 resolution OLED display
  • Galaxy: 6.2-inch, 1080 x 2400 resolution AMOLED display
  • iPhone: HDR10 and up to 60Hz refresh
  • Galaxy: HDR10+ and up to 120Hz adaptive refresh
  • iPhone: 1200 nits peak brightness
  • Galaxy: 1300 nits peak brightness

Unlike last year, Apple’s is the one with the sharper screen here. Samsung downgraded from QHD to FHD, and while it’s 6.2-inches versus Apple’s 6.1-inches, it packs in fewer pixels than the iPhone. Not that you’d particularly notice.

Both push pixel density past the 400ppi mark, and both seem sharp and clear in daily use. Both even feature similar peak brightness: it’s 1200nits for Apple versus 1300 nits for Samsung. Both are OLED based, and that means you get vivid colours and great contrast regardless of which you go for. 

Perhaps the one big difference is Samsung’s adaptive frame rate technology. It goes all the way up to 120Hz when the content on screen requires it. Some will notice it more than others, but it makes general interaction and animation seem really smooth. 

Watch the same video or look at the same photo side by side, and you’ll spot other differences too. Even in its ‘natural’ mode, Samsung’s screen seems to boost pink/red/orange colours. White skin tones look a bit pinker, and oranges are fiercer. iPhone is a little bit more muted, but other colours are similar on both. That said, Samsung seems to make stuff look sharper because it boosts contrast. 

On the one hand, it’s great because it’s sharp and bright during video, but on the other, there’s the red saturation makes things look less balanced. 

The other plus side for Samsung is that you can tune it to your liking if you want to. Using the Vivid mode you can adjust the colour temperature. Whereas Apple likes it a certain way, and that’s pretty much it. Although you can enable True Tone to get it to adjust its white balance to suit the ambient lighting. 

Performance and battery

  • iPhone: Hexa-core A14 Bionic 5nm processor
  • Galaxy: Octa-core Snapdragon 888 5nm processor or Exynos 2100 5nm processor
  • iPhone: 64GB, 128GB or 256GB storage
  • Galaxy: 128GB or 256GB storage
  • iPhone: 2815mAh battery (approx)
  • Galaxy: 4000mAh battery
  • Both: Wireless charging up to 15W

In performance and battery just reading the specs would be useless, because comparing those is like comparing Apples with Orang-Utangs. 

The real thing to note here is that in every day, day-to-day use, both phones give you fast and reliable performance. Whether you’re loading the latest graphically intense games, browsing the internet or catching up on social media. They’re fast and smooth. 

It’s the same with battery life. With our own personal use, using either phone as a daily device – with a 2-3 hours of screen time playing games or watching movies – we’d get to the end of the day with about 40 per cent left over. Not quite two-day batteries, but not far off either. 

Both have 5G, wireless charging and fast charging, but neither ships with a charger in the box anymore. 

Cameras

  • iPhone: Dual camera
    • 12MP primary f/1.6 wide camera
    • 12MP f/2.4 ultrawide
    • 4K video up to 60fps
  • Galaxy: Triple camera
    • 12MP primary f/1.8 camera
    • 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide
    • 64MP f/2.0 telephoto 3x hybrid zoom
    • 8K video at 24fps and 4K up to 60fps

In the camera department, Samsung does have at least one advantage over the iPhone. It’s got three lenses on the back, and that gives you more flexibility when it comes to focal lengths. As well as your primary and ultra-wide lenses – which the iPhone has – Samsung gives you a telephoto zoom lens, with 3x hybrid zoom. 

It achieves that partly because that telephoto lens has a 64MP sensor, giving you the ability to crop without losing tonnes of detail. If you want to, you can zoom digitally all the way up to 30x on the Samsung, giving you huge range, even if some of those results at the upper end of the scale are quite ropey. 

iPhone will let you do up to 5x zoom, but it uses the primary sensor and uses a digital zoom, losing a bit of detail when it does. Still, results from both cameras are good. 

Stick to the standard focal lengths and the two phones will both get you good results, and both offer effective night modes. iPhone’s results seemed cleaner, brighter and sharper than Samsung’s using night mode, like it did a better job of stabilising the image. Samsung’s by comparison was a tiny bit blurrier and didn’t seem to draw in as much light. 

In day time there were some differences. iPhone pictures on the whole seemed to up the contrast and saturation by default. Sometimes that means a lovely vibrant and rich picture that looked sharp, with Samsung looking a bit over exposed in the highlights by comparison. Other times, for landscapes, iPhone seemed maybe a tad too dark, with the Samsung offering the better picture without over egging the blue skies and darkening the shadows too much. 

The colour difference between the main and ulrawide cameras was noticeable though. As for selfies, yet again, Samsung seemed to do a better job of a natural look. iPhone went a bit aggressive on the HDR completely washing out faces one second, and the next when switched to portrait selfie making it too dark and saturated. 

And then there’s the fact that Samsung offers so many additional shooting modes to choose from, if you have the time, that’s a lot of fun to play with. 

Both do 4K video at 60fps, with the Galaxy also capable of shooting 8K at 24fps. Samsung looking a little over sharpened, but both are great quality, and offer effective stabilisation. 

Price and Conclusion

  • iPhone: from £799/$799
  • Galaxy: from £769/$799

In the end, both of these phones offer a great all-round experience and choosing one over the other might just come down to having premium build and a better display, in which case I think the iPhone is the better choice. Or if you’re all about cameras, Samsung has a lot going for it there. But even in that department, it’s not a clear winner. Both have strengths and weaknesses.

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As for software, iPhones benefit is that you get updates as soon as they’re available and will likely be supported for a good number of years before it no longer gets them. Samsung is getting better in that regard – in terms of long term support – but you do have to wait until Samsung tests and releases its own versions of major Android updates. 

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Writing by Cam Bunton.





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