For the first time in four years, Apple has just surpassed Samsung in smartphone sales worldwide during the last quarter of 2020. This is claimed by Gartner, who says that the launch of the iPhone 12 series helped Apple achieve double-digit growth for both the quarter and 2020 in total.
Meanwhile, Samsung recorded a decline of 14.6% compared to last year. Admittedly, the Samsung Galaxy S21 was launched behind that window in January, but based on our iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21, Apple remains at the forefront. Apple also won in a detailed comparison of the iPhone 12 Pro Max against the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro against the Galaxy S21 Plus Plus battle.
Why does Apple continue to win? Yes, iOS has some advantages over Android in terms of ease of use – and Apple’s ecosystem is more similar to Samsung’s when you include other products such as MacBook, Apple Watch, AirPods and iCloud. But for me, it all comes down to cameras.
I know what you might think. The standard iPhone 12 doesn’t even offer a telephoto camera, while the Galaxy S21 offers 3x hybrid optical zoom and 30x Space Zoom (digital). So Apple loses on versatility right away.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is even more powerful, offering dual telephoto zoom lenses that have up to 10x optical zoom and 100x digital. The iPhone 12 Pro Max satisfies only 3.5x optical zoom and 12x digital. Our Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom test zooms the iPhone 12 from this aspect.
But when you actually look at the image quality offered by both brands, Apple is still at an advantage. In fact, Samsung phones still struggle in certain conditions.
Take this portrait of my colleague Jordan. The photo of the Galaxy S21 Plus looks like it has a movie and washes its face. The image for the iPhone 12 Pro is almost too warm, but provides a lot more detail in its hair and chin.
The same thing happens indoors. In this photo of a golden retriever, his fur looks more golden in the iPhone 12 Pro Max shot. The image of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is flat and has no contrast.
There is a similar pattern in this outdoor photo. The shot of the Galaxy S21 looks blurry next to the iPhone 12 Pro. The shadows are more defined in the iPhone image, and more depth is felt.
While not such a dramatic example, the iPhone 12 wins again in this comparative comparison to the Galaxy S21 in the Merida figurine photo. Her hair is redder in the iPhone photo, and her green skin looks richer.
The night mode of the iPhone 12 series also tends to work better than the Galaxy S21. In this comparison you can see that the brick, the house number and the window area look brighter and clearer. The figurine also fits more into the background in the S21 image.
I’m not saying the cameras on the Galaxy S21 series are bad at all. In fact, there are times when Samsung phones have come out on top.
In this photo of a chicken meal, the peppers in the S21 Ultra photo look a little richer. Here I prefer Samsung. And as I mentioned before, Samsung phones delight the iPhone when it comes to zooming.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra series also features some photos and video features that I wish Apple had. This includes Single Take, which captures a bunch of photos and videos at once using multiple lenses. And there’s Director’s View that lets you shoot with both the front and rear cameras at the same time.
But overall, Samsung needs to catch up with Apple when it comes to computer photography. The camera hardware on the Galaxy S21 series is solid. But the post-processing and machine learning used to make the images look their best is still a step behind Apple’s efforts.