The iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S21 are top-quality phones that do not seem designed only for people who spend too much time thinking about specs and researching phones online.
Sure, you’re reading this, so you’re doing some research. But the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 are far from the most expensive phones Apple and Samsung make. They won’t stretch your pocket to breaking point, figuratively or literally.
If you already own an iPhone, you’ll probably be drawn to the iPhone 12. That is a fine choice. It has buckets of power for games and apps, more than the Galaxy S21, and it feels great. The iPhone 12 is an all metal and glass phone, where the Galaxy S21 has a plastic back.
However, the Samsung Galaxy S21 has a more fun-to-use camera. It takes better zoomed-in photos and better ultra-wide ones. The phone costs less too, and should probably lure at least a few of you away from Apple-land.
So, which one should you invest in? We compare everything from specs to battery life and camera performance to help you decide.
Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21: key differences at a glance
- The iPhone 12 has a glass back, classier than the Galaxy S21’s plastic back
- Samsung’s S21 has rounded corners, making it more comfortable to hold
- The iPhone 12 is more powerful, important for gaming fans
- The iPhone 12 has a bassier stereo speaker, although the S21 is arguably better for podcasts
- The Samsung Galaxy S21 has a more versatile camera, with a dedicated zoom and superior ultra-wide lens
- Want to shoot 4K video? The iPhone 12 is better for the job
Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 in detail
Samsung and Apple pack a lot into these relatively small phones. They have the same processors, the “brains”, as the top-end phones in their respective ranges.
For the Samsung Galaxy S21, that means the Exynos 2100. The iPhone 12 gets the A14 Bionic.
Forget the techy names; this is a clear win for the iPhone. It’s more powerful and more efficient, meaning games look smoother and less battery is wasted.
How about their speakers? Both phones have stereo speakers, one on the bottom edge, another above the screen.
The iPhone 12’s speaker array has better bass, no contest. However, with the two phones maxed out, the Galaxy S21 has better mid-range, making spoken word stuff, such as podcasts, sound more natural.
Still, most of you will be more impressed by the iPhone 12’s added bass. It’s great for music. As great as the built-in speaker of a small phone can be, anyway.
What about the rest? The Samsung Galaxy S21 has a fingerprint scanner baked into the screen to stop anyone from just picking up the phone and sending ‘funny’ messages to friends.
Apple’s iPhone 12 uses face unlocking instead, which works very well. The Galaxy S21 has face unlock too, but it uses simpler tech that doesn’t hold up quite as well in dark rooms.
Software is perhaps the most impactful difference here, though. The iPhone runs iOS, and the Galaxy S21 runs Android.
Your current phone most likely uses one of these. We’re not going to sugar-coat it; if you choose to switch sides, it will feel odd for a week or two.
How iOS and Android move, operate and are laid out feels quite different, even if they roundly do the same things. We use Android far more regularly, but iOS arguably has the most clearly defined benefits.
iOS tends to get new apps and games first. The AirDrop feature, which lets you wirelessly transfer files from phone to phone or to a MacBook, is excellent. Apple’s privacy is better, and you get some excellent software for free. Apple GarageBand is a superb music-maker that almost anyone should be able to get their head around.
On the other side, Android is less restrictive. You can plug it into a laptop with a cable and drag off photos or transfer music files onto your phone. Apple makes this more complicated. But the long-standing appeal of Android is it often lets you buy a cheaper phone.
At first glance, it seems the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 are very similarly priced. The iPhone 12 starts at £799, the Galaxy S21 at £769.
There’s actually a bigger gap. The base iPhone 12 only has 64GB of storage. You need to pay £849 to get the same 128GB of room for apps as the cheapest Samsung Galaxy S21.
Can you get by with 64GB? Sure. But it means less space to store photos, games and downloaded Netflix movies before you need to have a clear out. We much prefer a 128GB phone these days.
The Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 are both available with 256GB storage, too, for £819 and £949, respectively. Samsung’s upgrades cost less than Apple’s, as well as its phones.
As ever, you can often find the phones for slightly less online, but the price disparity tends to persist.
Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21: battery life
The Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 are reasonably evenly matched for battery life. Neither will last two days for someone who uses their phone a lot each day. Both should last a full day for just about everyone.
We find the iPhone 12 tends to last a little longer when subjected to our daily routine of podcast and radio steaming, lots of WhatsApp’ing and some mindless social network scrolling.
If you’ve read a bunch of articles comparing these two phones, bear in mind the American version of the Galaxy S21 has different hardware to the one we get in the UK. The UK S21 has a Samsung processor, which is a little less easy on the battery than the one used in the US.
Neither of these phones includes a charge adapter, and you’ll want to get hold of a “fast charger” for the best results. With one, both phones get to around 50% charge in 30 minutes. A full charge takes around 80 to 90 minutes.
They are not the quickest speeds around. A OnePlus 9 is much faster to charge, for example, but that is only because Apple and Samsung haven’t chased fast battery charge tech as much as some other companies.
These phones are camera queens, even though they do not cost as much as the top Apple or Samsung phones. They both take excellent photos with their main cameras, shots that can go toe-to-toe with any phone camera out there.
However, we think the Samsung Galaxy S21 lets you have a bit more fun with your photography. It has a zoom camera, letting you get closer to the action without, well, actually getting closer to the action. Over the last few weeks of using the Galaxy S12, the zoom mode is probably the one we’ve used most.
The “3.0x” view lets you capture images that may just be out of reach with your current phone. Apple’s iPhone 12 uses digital zoom if you try to take a 3.0x image, which looks soft and blurry by comparison.
Samsung’s Galaxy S12 also has a better ultra-wide camera than the iPhone 12. These cameras are great for photos of big buildings looming overhead.
If we had to pick one of these two to use as a holiday camera, we’d pick the Galaxy S12.
The iPhone does have some important benefits, though. It’s better at shooting video, even though it seems worse on paper.
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 can shoot video at 8K resolution, which will probably the resolution of the TV you’ll own in, say, 5-10 years. The iPhone 12 can’t, but the quality and smoothness of its 4K resolution video (which may be the resolution of the TV you own today) are excellent.
We’d pick the Samsung for stills, the iPhone for video. Of course, if you already own an iPhone, you should probably give the iPhone 12 extra brownie points as you’ll slip right into using its camera app.
Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21: display
The iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 screens can sound pretty similar on paper. They have 6.1-inch and 6.2-inch OLED panels. Each offers superb contrast, very high brightness and excellent colour.
However, there are some important differences here. The iPhone 12 has a higher resolution screen. We’ve eyeballed the two, and sure enough, you can notice the difference if you get up close. Small text looks slightly sharper on the iPhone.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 has a higher refresh rate, 120Hz, to the iPhone’s 60Hz. This makes scrolling look much smoother, and it was quite noticeable when flicking through a website with the two phones side-by-side.
Each has an advantage, but the Samsung Galaxy S21 seems a significantly larger screen in person. The iPhone 12’s notch takes out a bigger chunk of the display than the S21’s punch-hole selfie camera, and the Samsung screen is significantly taller.
It’s a benefit for gamers, but not really for video streaming as the displays are almost identical in terms of width. Why does that matter? Phone screens are so tall these days that your normal 16:9 aspect video won’t fill it unless you crop into the image.
All UK Galaxy S21 phones have 5G. The iPhone 12 does too, so there’s no major difference here. This is a great feature to have even if 5G isn’t in your area yet, as it probably (hopefully) will be before you look into your next upgrade. It means faster downloads, less waiting for video to buffer.
They have the same restrictions too. You can’t plug wired headphones directly into the Galaxy S21 or iPhone 12. You’ll need an adapter. There’s no MicroSD slot to expand the memory either, making that initial choice of storage all the more important.
There’s one crucial difference. The iPhone 12 has a Lightning connector, the Galaxy S21 a USB-C socket.
This should come as no surprise unless you are considering your very first iPhone. Apple has used the Lightning connector in its phones since the iPhone 5 in 2012.
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Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21: design
Our side-by-side photos should give you an idea of the size and look of these phones. Our take?
The Samsung Galaxy S21 has a more distinctive look. Samsung’s two-tone style comes across beautifully in the gold-on-purple phone we have. And while their dimensions are similar — each a little over 71mm wide – the Galaxy S21 feels easier to handle because the back and sides are curved. The iPhone 12 has very squared-off sides.
However, in terms of build quality, this is an easy win for the Apple iPhone 12. It has aluminium sides and glass panels on the front and back. The Samsung Galaxy S21 has aluminium sides but a plastic back.
Some people like plastic. It won’t crack should you drop the phone, and the textured plastic Samsung uses here feels great. But it is a cost-cutting measure. The Galaxy S21 Plus and S21 Ultra have glass backs.
Simmer these designs down to the essentials, and you get the same thing. The iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 are relatively petite phones with high-end hardware. You probably shouldn’t base your decision solely on the fact the S21 has smoother curves.
The iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 are near-perfect phones for someone who wants a top-quality mobile that takes great photos but does not make you feel like you’re carrying about a tablet in your pocket.
They are annoyingly evenly matched in many ways and trading blows with slight advantages in each area.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 camera makes a better travel photography buddy. We’d pick the iPhone 12 for gaming, thanks to its better games library, more powerful processor and bassy speakers. And for the long-standing iPhone fan, there may not quite be enough here, in terms of tech and savings, to make you switch to Android.
Where to buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 – from £769
Not sure which model is for you? Compare with our Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra and the iPhone 11 vs 12 guides.