If the YouTube Statistics Machine is anything to go by, the battle of the flagship smartphone only exists between two brands: Samsung versus Apple.
There are other scuffles taking place, of course. Apple versus Google. Xiaomi versus anyone who fancies it. Samsung versus itself.
But the battle between Apple’s latest flagship and its competing S-series device is the one that really brings in the views, comments, and endless trolling from easily-triggered and massively insecure Samsung fans.
This year, it’s all about the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra versus the iPhone 14 Pro Max.
I’ve been using these devices extensively and I’m well aware that they both cost an awful lot of money. So, if you’re thinking of spending your hard-earned on one of them and you don’t have specific allegiance to either iOS or Android, which one is best?
The iPhone 14 Pro Max starts at £1,199 for the 128GB version. Max it out, and you’ll spend an eye-watering £1,749 for the 1TB edition.
The S23 Ultra is a smidgen ‘cheaper’ thanks to the absence of a 128GB version. Starting at 256GB and with 8GB of RAM, Samsung’s flagship can be had for £1,249 at its cheapest and £1,599 if you want the 1TB of storage and 12GB of RAM.
However, things swing rapidly in Samsung’s favour when you dive into the possibilities of trading in an old device. The most Apple will give you for an old phone is £565, but I challenge anyone to achieve that number – they are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to trade-in values. Samsung, by comparison, isn’t. They’ll give you up to £600 for any old smartphone and duly paid me exactly that for my S22 Ultra.
What’s more, at the time of writing, Samsung is also offering a generous free upgrade from 256GB to 512GB and the same from 512GB to 1TB.
Samsung, therefore, wins this part of the battle hands-down. If you’ve got an old device you want to trade in against the purchase of your new S23 Ultra and do so quickly, you’ll benefit from a fair exchange and a nice upgrade sweetener.
However, bought at full price, these both remain very expensive smartphones.
Design, display and features
To the untrained eye, these two phones are very similar in size. It’s only when you place the against one another that you realise the S23 Ultra is a smidgen taller. Conversely, it’s lighter than the iPhone by a few grams – noticeably so, in fact.
Despite this, both devices feel identically premium. They are wonderful pieces of kit – you certainly won’t feel short-changed when you unearth your chosen flagship from its box. I’m more partial to Samsung’s choice of colours (the Sky Blue S23 Ultra I have looks stunning) but that’s entirely subjective.
One of the biggest differentiators is the display. Both feature their own take on OLED technology and dynamic 120Hz refresh rates, but the S23 Ultra has a higher PPI and resolution. It’s noticeable, too; despite the 14 Pro Max having higher peak brightness, the S23 Ultra’s display is a runaway winner.
It also feels far more expansive than Apple’s effort. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there is no Dynamic Island equivalent on the S23 Ultra; instead, it has a pinhole camera which works perfectly for facial recognition and takes fantastic photos. Secondly, the bezels on the now less-curved S23 Ultra display are smaller than the iPhone’s.
The only thing lacking on the S23 Ultra is an equivalent to True Tone (Eye Comfort Shield doesn’t dynamically adjust the white balance in the same way) but that’s a minor gripe. I’d take the Samsung’s display over the iPhone’s all day long. It has a far better always-on display, too – and a fingerprint reader.
The only other differentiator when it comes to design is the presence of the S Pen tucked away within the S23 Ultra’s refined frame. I can’t see Apple doing anything remotely similar, and while I still find the S Pen a bit gimmicky, it has a very loyal fanbase and it’s interesting enough to swing the attention in Samsung’s favour.
Performance and battery life
Thanks to the presence of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 in the UK edition of the S23 Ultra, Samsung’s flagship finally feels iPhone-fast.
For far too long, the UK (and various other regions) have endured Samsung’s own Exynos chip, which was an utter disaster. Thankfully, that weird silicon strategy appears to be over, which means we all get the Snapdragon. And what a difference that thing makes.
I have zero interest in running smartphone benchmarks, but in everyday use, there is nothing to separate these two devices. They feel identically smooth and crash-free and are a joy to use.
The biggest difference in performance lies within the battery. Once again, you’ve come to the wrong review for in-depth statistical tests, but I can tell you without hesitation that the S23 Ultra has better stamina than the iPhone 14 Pro Max.
I think this is mainly due to the standby time offered by the S23 Ultra – that thing barely chews up any percentage points when left unattended. Regardless, whereas the iPhone 14 Pro Max just about does two days on a single charge, the S23 Ultra sails past into three-day territory.
I’d recommend watching my YouTube video which features a detailed camera comparison between these two phones, but I’ll share a few images with you here.
I can’t tell you which you prefer, because of all the points of comparison, this is easily the most subjective. Equally, there are instances where they are virtually indistinguishable, as you can see in the image below.
Despite this, the S23 Ultra does sometimes bring out more detail, as can be seen on the bricks of the house below. The iPhone has a tendency to over-sharpen the image and make it a touch too contrasty for my liking.
I do love what the S23 Ultra does with the greens when you snap away at nature scenes – something the iPhone, once again, doesn’t quite nail for me.
However, the iPhone 14 Pro Max regularly beats the S23 Ultra when it comes to accurately capturing the sky. Like so many Samsung smartphones, the S23 Ultra ruins blue skies by over-saturating them.
The biggest problem with the S23 Ultra, however, is the shutter lag. As you can see in the following photo of my dog, the iPhone pretty much nails a relatively fast-moving subject. The Samsung… doesn’t (and I tried to capture Eddie in this relatively well-lit scene several times).
I know there are tools to prevent the shutter lag and improve the responsiveness of the S23 Ultra in that regard, but as always, I want to see what you get straight out of the box.
Samsung wins in the battle of the zoom, thanks to its frankly ludicrous (and often unusable) maximum 100X punch-in, but both perform admirably up to 10X.
Selfies are also great on both devices – you can tell that the teams at Samsung and Apple have been putting in the hours on this stuff.
Video is where the iPhone still scores highest, though. For me, the S23 Ultra produces poorly stabilised and, weirdly, less vibrant footage than the 14 Pro Max. Although, once again, this will entirely be a matter of personal preference.
This is a tough point of comparison because I think the S23 Ultra takes better photos overall than the iPhone 14 Pro Max. But the presence of that shutter lag issue and the video prowess offered by Apple means the latter just pips it.
I’m so tempted to switch full-time to the S23 Ultra. It’s a wonderful device and one that I genuinely cannot stop using – it feels very much like the Pixel 7 Pro in that regard.
There are two things stopping me – my reliance on the Apple ecosystem, and the aforementioned camera deficiencies.
However, neither of those things should prevent you from choosing the S23 Ultra, unless you’re similarly welded into Tim’s world as I. The camera shutter lag is fixable and everything else offered by the S23 Ultra more than makes up for it.
Samsung takes the gong this time around. It has taken way too long for regions like the UK to be freed from Exynos Jail, but I’m so glad it has finally happened. The S23 Ultra is a stellar device and reveals, once again, that Apple really does need to up its game come iPhone 15 time.
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