Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?
(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12 is set to be the phone face-off of 2021 – but which of these mighty mobiles is best for you? Grab a ringside seat and settle in as we compare these flagship 5G smartphones in terms of display, price, features, battery life, camera, sound quality and more.  

The iPhone 12 is one of Apple's most dramatic iPhone updates in recent years and sports a new design, OLED display, Apple A14 processor, 5G, superb sound and Apple's latest camera technology.

It's a five-star phone (check out our iPhone 12 review for the complete lowdown) – but it faces stiff competition from the Samsung Galaxy S21. The firm's latest flagship Android device totes a speedy chipset, 120Hz display, 8K camera, integrated 5G modem and AKG-tuned speakers. The 'Ultra' edition even comes with S Pen support.

So, is worth upgrading? And what do these phones have to offer AV aficionados, casual gamers and photography fans alike? Time to weigh up the Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12 to answer all your questions...

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: price

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

(Image credit: Apple)

Flagship 5G smartphones don't come cheap but there's good news: we're already seeing decent iPhone 12 deals, and Samsung is currently giving away a free pair of Galaxy Buds Live wireless buds with S21 pre-orders (Galaxy Buds Pro, if you order the S21 Ultra).

Now for the all-important prices. The 6.2in Galaxy S21 is available in two storage capacities: 128GB costs £769 (€849, $799); 256GB costs £819 ($849).

The 6.1in iPhone 12 – the model going toe-to-toe with the Galaxy S21 here – is available in three storage capacities: 64GB costs £799 ($799/AU$1349); 128GB costs £849 ($849, AU$1429) and 256GB costs £949 ($949, AU$1599).

In other words, the 128GB iPhone 12 costs around £80 more than its main rival, the 128GB Galaxy S21.

Fun fact: neither Samsung or Apple include a charger or earbuds in the box, so you might want to factor that into your purchase.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: design

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

(Image credit: Samsung)

The iPhone 12 saw Apple swap curved edges for flat, smooth aluminium ones. It was also the first time an OLED display (a Super XDR Retina display, to be exact) featured on what is essentially the standard premium iPhone. 

The aerospace-grade aluminium enclosure gives the iPhone 12 an impressively premium look and feel. It's durable and comfortable to use, too, and the screen is kept safe by what Apple calls 'Ceramic Shield', which is apparently tougher than any other smartphone glass.

The Galaxy S21 design, with its neat little 'hole-punch' front camera cutout, will be familiar to S20 owners, though Samsung has now switched to a flat display (only the Ultra's display curves at the edges).

If you're an outdoorsy-type, you'll be pleased to hear that both phones are rated IP68, so you can expect decent splash and spill resistance. Like to travel light? The iPhone 12 is a touch lighter (164g vs 171g) and thinner (7.4mm vs 7.9mm) than the Galaxy S21. 

And as with most cutting-edge Apple and Samsung devices, these handsets boast some unique features. The Galaxy S21, for example, supports Samsung's Smart Things Find system, which helps you locate Galaxy devices using Bluetooth LE – even when they’re offline. Clever.

Not to be outdone, the iPhone 12 boasts MagSafe technology, which charges at twice the speed of standard wireless charging pads and locks securely into place. Neither device supports the companies respective styluses, although the S21's larger sibling, the Galaxy S21 Ultra, does support Samsung's S Pen. 

Dedicated follower of fashion? The iPhone 12 is available in five colours (black, white, green, blue and red). The standard S21 comes in a range of muted 'Phantom' colours (white, grey, pink and violet)

Ultimately, both these premium handsets offer sleek looks and premium designs – it's just a matter of which handset tickles your fancy.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: screen

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

(Image credit: Apple)

The Samsung Galaxy S20's OLED display was often seen as a big advantage over the Apple iPhone 11's less advanced LCD screen.

Fast forward to 2021 and that perceived advantage has evaporated – Apple has upped its game and kitted the standard iPhone 12 out with an OLED display to counter the threat.

In our review of the 6.1in iPhone 12, we said: "It has a sense of polish and pristineness to the picture which the LCD display of the iPhone 11 simply can’t match." It's a great performer in this respect.

As for the S21, it sports a 6.2in "Dynamic AMOLED 2x" Full HD+ screen. The new display has a slightly lower resolution than its predecessor (1080 vs 1440 pixels) but it's not something you'd notice with the naked eye and it brings a big boost in battery life.

Despite Apple's OLED upgrade, Samsung has retained one notable advantage over its Californian rival: a fast-refreshing 120Hz display (the iPhone 12 is 60Hz). In theory, the S21 should offer exceptionally-smooth scrolling and top-notch gaming experiences but we'll verify that in due course.

With mobile phones now doubling up as portable TVs, HDR support is an increasingly important feature, both for AV aficionados and those who want to make the most of today's state-of-the-art displays.

The two tech titans have gone separate routes here. The Galaxy S21 supports Samsung's own HDR10+ version of HDR, while the iPhone 12 supports Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HLG.

Netflix and Apple TV support Dolby Vision and HDR10, whereas Amazon Prime Video mostly supports HDR10+. If you already subscribe to one or other of these streaming apps, you might want to factor HDR support into your decision. (Check out Dolby Vision vs HDR10 feature for more info on this).

Both phones come with a smattering of additional display technologies that are worth keeping in mind. The Galaxy S21, for example, features a new "Eye Comfort Shield" that automatically adjusts blue levels (blue light blocks a hormone called melatonin and messes with your sleep patterns).

Long story short: Apple has an edge over the S21 when it comes to pixels per inch (461ppi vs 421ppi) and broader HDR support, but the S21 totes a silky-smooth 120Hz refresh rate.

We're also yet to test the Galaxy S21 but when we do, we'll be able to bring you the definitive verdict on which smartphone has the best screen.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: power

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

(Image credit: Samsung)

Will the Samsung Galaxy S21 be able to keep pace with the iPhone 12? That's yet to be determined, but we can tell you that the iPhone 12 has one of the best-performing processors around in the A14 Bionic chip. 

According to the vast majority benchmark tests, the iPhone 12 outperforms the previous Galaxy S20 by some margin – but we'd expect this year's S21 to close that gap. Why? Well, the S21 is one of the first Android smartphones to boast Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 chipset, which is claimed to deliver big boosts in efficiency and speed.

Even if it transpires that Apple still has the jump on Samsung in terms of pure speed, the S21 could well have the edge elsewhere. Its Qualcomm chip has a groundbreaking 'integrated' 5G modem, which could improve the S21's battery life.

All in all, you'll almost certainly find the latest Galaxy and iPhone series devices faster than previous generations, and each offers more than enough oomph for day-to-day use, whether streaming HD movies, shooting 4K video or firing up your favourite games.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: camera

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

(Image credit: Apple)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 are among the finest camera phones in the business, and both offer plenty of features for the keen snapper.

The iPhone 12 is are kitted out with a 12MP dual camera set-up that includes a wide and ultra-wide lens. As a daytime snapper, there isn’t much to grumble about, with the iPhone 12 producing nicely balanced pictures with even colours and a fine sense of realism.

It's a great system but the S21 appears to outgun the iPhone 12 – on paper, at least – with a triple-lens set-up that features a 12MP main sensor complemented by 12MP ultra-wide and 64MP telephoto lenses.

It looks like Samsung has the upper hand when it comes to recording video, too. Both the iPhone and the S21 capture 4K video at 60fps but the S21 is also capable of shooting 8K at 24fps. It even has 8K Video Snap allowing you to capture high-res photos when playing your videos back. Samsung also says you can shoot in 4K through all lenses, too.

Both these flagship 5G mobiles feature a slew of extra modes. Samsung's S21 has Single Take, which creates a portfolio of all the best moments you capture in one shot.

Apple counters with a well-honed Night Mode that achieves brilliant results in low light conditions, using machine learning to recover details that would usually be lost in shadows.

Samsung has also followed Apple in giving users the option to record through the front and rear camera simultaneously. The idea being you can now capture your reaction to whatever you're filming. Clever.

The iPhone 12 performed well in our tests but the Galaxy S21 appears to offer an even beefier camera set-up. The standard S21 also boasts an optical zoom (reserved for Apple's pricier iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max models).

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: battery

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

(Image credit: Samsung)

It's no use spending an arm and a leg on the smartest of smartphone if the battery dies all too quickly. Thankfully, both these devices carry decent-sized power packs.

The Galaxy S21 – which sports a larger, faster-refreshing display than its rival – has a higher capacity battery (4000mAh vs 2,815mAh). That said, size isn't everything. Power management is arguably more important these days – especially as heavy use of 5G can seriously strain a phone's battery. 

To help prolong the battery life of the S21, Samsung has introduced "Intelligent Battery" – artificial intelligence that claims to optimise battery life by tracking usage patterns.

We've not put the S21 through its paces yet but the iPhone 12 clocked up around 17 hours for video and 65 hours for audio playback in our tests. Some Android rivals last longer, but we found the iPhone 12 had enough juice for a full day of average use.

Both phones can be charged wirelessly but the S21 can wirelessly charge a handful of other gadgets, such as the Galaxy Buds Pro wireless earbuds. 

The iPhone 12 has some neat additions of its own, though, including compatibility with MagSafe wireless chargers. They just 'snap' into place, so you don't have to worry about positioning them correctly. It also means you can charge all your Apple devices on one wireless charger.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: verdict

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12: which should you buy?

(Image credit: Apple)

We awarded the Apple iPhone 12 a well-deserved five-stars in our review. We've yet to publish an in-depth look at the Samsung Galaxy S21 but we'll be putting it under the microscope soon. In the meantime, the winner of the Samsung Galaxy S21 vs iPhone 12 scrap will probably depend on where your loyalties lie. 

Apple users will appreciate the Californian tech giant's beautifully-crafted design, its new OLED display, improved camera capabilities, slick iOS 14 operating system, blazing-fast performance and Dolby Vision HDR support.

From what we've seen of the Samsung Galaxy S21 so far, this Android flagship is stuffed with technology. It remains to seen if it can outperform the iPhone 12 and how it compares in the audio department, but it appears to have a few extra strings to its bow, including a faster-refreshing 120Hz display.

We'll deliver our verdict just as soon as we've given the Galaxy S21 a proper run out.


Read our in-depth review of the iPhone 12

Read the full Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Or browse our list of the best smartphones for movies and music 

Here's everything we know about the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

And what to expect from the 2021 iPhone 13

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