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Samsung’s latest flagship phone has just launched, and it’s early. The Samsung Galaxy S21 would have been expected in March or April, if the regular timetable was being followed, but this year Samsung wanted to get the year off to a lively start.
And since the last iPhone came not in September as is usual, but a few weeks later, the biggest phones from the UK’s leading phone brands have landed much closer to one another than ever before.
Samsung’s phone comes in three different versions, the S21, S21+ which is a touch bigger, and the S21 Ultra which uses more premium materials and has an extra camera.
The S21 is the direct follow-up to last year’s S20 but, in a surprise move from Samsung, is around £130 cheaper at £769. That means it’s almost an exact price match for the Apple iPhone 12 which comes in at £799.
Apple’s latest iPhone launch also revealed multiple devices when it happened in October. There’s the iPhone 12, a smaller, cheaper version called the iPhone 12 mini and two models with an extra camera and more expensive materials, the iPhone 12 Pro and the bigger iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 and Apple iPhone 12 have more in common than their price, though there are big differences, too. To help you choose, let’s start with the similarities.
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For the first time, Apple has put an OLED screen in its regular flagship – the iPhone 11 had an LCD display. Samsung has been putting OLED screens in its Galaxy S series for years.
The iPhone display measures 6.1in, with a high resolution, 460 pixels per inch (ppi). The Samsung Galaxy S21’s 6.2in screen has a slightly lower pixel density: 421ppi.
Both phones have flat screens unlike previous models which were pillowed.
Both have interruptions to the displays. A single camera peeps out of the S21 screen, right at the top, dead centre. The iPhone has a bigger dent out of the screen, because the “TrueDepth” camera system sits in a wide notch. It’s bigger because it has a sophisticated facial recognition system in it, secure enough to allow you to unlock the phone and even make payments just by letting the phone recognise your face.
Samsung also has facial recognition, but it’s not deemed as secure. Still, it has a cool alternative up its sleeve. It has a fingerprint sensor which is buried in the display itself. You press your finger or thumb on the screen (a fingerprint icon guides you to the right part of the display) and it unlocks.
The iPhone 12 is the first 5G iPhone, though Samsung’s phones have had the super-fast connectivity for a while already. Both these phones are capable of very high data speeds, assuming your network has the masts to support it – it’s far from everywhere yet.
Apple no longer includes a charging plug or headphones in the box with its iPhones, in an attempt to reduce electronic waste. Samsung mocked Apple for this in October but – guess what? – the new Samsung S21 range box contains only the phone and a charging cable. It means the boxes are much smaller and lighter.
Both phones are capable of wireless charging. Place the handset on top of a compatible charger and it conveniently charges, though not as quickly as being plugged in. Apple has a special MagSafe charging pad, sold separately, which locks on to the iPhone 12 so you don’t find you misplaced the phone when you put it down at bedtime and wake to a phone that’s still flat.
Samsung Galaxy S21
Display size: 6.2in
Display tech: OLED
Screen resolution: 421 pixels per inch
Dimensions: 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm
Security: Facial recognition, fingerprint sensor, passcode
Rear Cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 64MP telephoto
Front camera: 10MP
Operating system: Android 11
The new Samsung Galaxy S21 is certainly eye-catching thanks to a spiffy design. It comes in four colours: phantom violet, phantom grey, phantom pink and phantom white. For us, the standout shade is violet, which is a punchy and attractive shade, beautifully complemented by the subtle gold panel around the cameras
This panel sits in the corner of the phone’s back and slopes off the edge into the antenna band. It’s a distinctive look and wholly successful, we’d say. Where so many phones look near-identical, this stands out.
What’s less successful is the material finish on the back which is plastic. This does mean the handset is lightweight, but it just doesn’t feel premium. The three cameras sit in a bump which protrudes much less than on other recent Samsung phones and it feels much better for that.
The display is terrific. Where it differs from the iPhone is the refresh rate. It’s dynamic and goes as high as 120Hz. What that means is everything looks super-smooth, even scrolling through menu lists, for instance. Because it’s dynamic, if you’re doing something that doesn’t benefit from a higher refresh rate, it will scale it back, saving battery life.
Unlocking the phone is not as straightforward here as on the iPhone. The fingerprint sensor works well and is as fast as Apple’s Face ID, but facial recognition was much more hit-and-miss, only working about four-fifths of the time. Similarly, both phones have a raise-to-wake feature, so you simply lift them to turn on the display and this always worked on the iPhone but was less reliable on the Samsung.
The cameras on the phone are similar to last year’s phone, but with improved software. Still, there are three cameras, one more than the iPhone 12 manages. The first two cameras have 12MP-resolution sensors (which is the same as on the iPhone), but the third camera is a telephoto lens with a 64MP sensor behind it. For many people, this alone will put Samsung out in front.
It includes features like “space zoom”, which lets you zoom in up to 30x. The quality drops at this zoom level, of course, but it can deliver some fun results. Without this feature, the telephoto lens delivers 3x the zoom of the main lens, which is great.
There are other features, such as portrait mode which blurs the background while your subject is in pin-sharp focus. This works well but Apple’s version just has the edge, we’d say.
Other extras include “director’s view” for video. This shows what all four cameras are seeing, so you can switch between the three rear cameras easily or capture your own reaction on the front-facing snapper.
Overall, the cameras are very good here and the addition of the third rear lens is very helpful. Still, it doesn’t make for an experience that is always better than Apple’s. That said, this camera system won’t disappoint most users.
Performance is fast and smooth, with no delays or dawdling. Android isn’t always as easy to use as Apple’s iOS but Samsung’s overlay is attractive. It has decent battery life, though nightly recharges are recommended.
In some ways this phone seems like a gentle upgrade over last year’s S20 but the big drop in price, snazzy design and strong cameras make the S21 highly appealing.
Open for pre-orders now, this model is on sale from Friday 29 January. Pre-orders include free Galaxy Buds Live in-ear wireless headphones and Galaxy Smart Tag, a location tracker tag.
Buy now £769.00, Samsung
Apple iPhone 12
Display size: 6.1in
Display tech: OLED
Screen resolution: 460 pixels per inch
Dimensions: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4 mm
Security: Face ID, passcode
Rear Cameras: 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide
Front camera: 12MP
Operating system: Apple iOS 14
Apple’s latest phones look very different from last year’s iPhone 11 series, thanks to a flat screen, flat edges and new colours: black, white, green, Product Red and a sultry dark blue, which is particularly eye-catching.
The finish is classy and attractive: there’s a glass back which looks and feels much more premium than the S21, an aluminium chassis and on the front something called “ceramic shield”. This is a new material which has so many ceramic particles in it, it’s not correct to call it glass, apparently. Apple says it’s four times better at surviving a drop than glass, and if you’ve ever fumbled your phone and seen the screen shatter, this could be a real boon.
The display is high-resolution and looks like it – though it can’t match Samsung’s fast refresh rate. Even so, the iPhone screen is carefully optimised to make everything look good. Photos shine and video playback is smooth.
The Face ID system is brilliant: fast and very reliable. And using your phone as a virtual credit card is easy: double-press the power button, let the camera see your face and tap the phone on the terminal. The only thing against it is that right now we’re wearing masks a lot of the time. Apple has tweaked the software so it can spot this and instantly offers the option to enter your passcode, but the additional fingerprint sensor on the Samsung is a timely extra feature.
The two cameras on the iPhone 12 are 12MP sensors, one a wide sensor which you’d use most of the time and an ultra-wide which has a focal length that’s 0.5x the main camera. It’s great for landscapes or striking full-length portraits. The phone uses both together for portrait mode shots with blurred backgrounds or special lighting effects.
A night mode, which activates automatically in low- or no-light situations, is especially good, better than Samsung’s equivalent. Apple’s aim is not just to brighten the effect with a long exposure but to process it so that the result matches what the moment felt like, rather than just looked like. Apple’s image processing is expert and effective, so the results are often outstanding.
Much of the excellence of Apple’s photography, and indeed the success of the iPhone 12 series generally, is the powerful processor at its core. Called the A14 Bionic, it is blazing-fast, ensuring that this is a phone with staggeringly good performance. Battery life is also strong. Last year’s iPhone 11 took a big leap forward in terms of battery, and this phone matches the full-day life here, even with the addition of 5G connectivity.
Buy now £799.00, Apple
The verdict: Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Apple iPhone 12
Samsung Galaxy S21 takes the lead over the iPhone 12 on several counts here, such as an extra camera, bigger storage and the addition of a fingerprint sensor as well as facial recognition. Oh, and it’s cheaper.
But it’s not quite as straightforward as that. The image quality on Apple photos just has the edge over Samsung’s, we’d say, and the iPhone camera is supremely easy to use. The lack of a fingerprint sensor on the iPhone isn’t too serious as Apple’s Face ID is still the best unlock and payment system on any phone thanks to its speed and reliability.
The design of the iPhone 12 is that bit classier, thanks to the glass back and overall build quality, though the S21 styling is eye-catching and distinctive. The display is sharper on Apple, but the high refresh rate on the Samsung makes up for this. The S21 has more screen: it’s bigger and there’s no notch, only a holepunch for the camera to sit behind. There’s also the peace of mind that comes from the ceramic shield super-strong front on Apple’s phone. Performance on the two is very fast. The iPhone’s processor is likely to have more headroom as more demanding apps arrive, but for now, neither phone will leave you waiting.
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