Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro Max: Which flagship should you buy?

June Wan/ZDNET

2022 was a rough year for smartphones, but two companies, Apple and Samsung, still dominated the market. The reason is pretty obvious: Both parties make really good phones, some of the best phones that we’ve tested at ZDNET.

This year, Samsung looks to stay on top with its market-leading entrant, the Galaxy S23 Ultra. The phone is ultra-big, packed with ultra-specs and features, and… ultra-expensive.

But if the best smartphone available is what you’re after — and you’re willing to pay for it — then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Samsung’s latest flagship alongside Apple’s tried and tested iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Also: Samsung unveils Galaxy S23 series live at Unpacked

Both devices represent the best of their respective brands. If you’re ready to slap your wallet down and reap all the benefits that the flagship smartphones have to offer, let this comparison guide you to the best investment.

specifications

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra

iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max

Display

6.8-inch AMOLED with 120Hz (LTPO)

6.1-inch/6.7-inch Super Retina XDR with ProMotion (120Hz)

Processor

Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy

Apple A16 Bionic Chip

RAM/Storage 8GB/12GB with 256GB, 512GB, 1TB 6GB with 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
Battery 5,000 mAh 3,200 mAh / 4,323 mAh (estimated)
Camera 200MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 10MP telephoto, 12MP front 48MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP telephoto, 12MP telephoto, 12MP front
Connectivity 5G (sub-6GHz and mmWave) 5G (sub-6GHz and mmWave)

Colors

Phantom Black, Cream, Green, Lavender

Space Black, Deep Purple. Gold, Silver

IP rating

IP68 water and dust resistance

IP68 water and dust resistance

Price Starting at $1,199 Starting at $999 and $1,099

You should buy the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra if…

The S23 Ultra in green leaning against a big glass mushroom.

June Wan/ZDNET

1. You want everything but the kitchen sink

Samsung’s Ultra line has become notorious for offering virtually everything that a smartphone can provide, whether you need it or not. That holds true with this year’s flagship model, with features like the S Pen for stylus controls, a five-camera setup that’s headlined by a whopping 200-megapixel sensor, a SIM card slot that’s more significant than ever thanks to Apple’s anti-consumer behaviors , and all the One UI fix-ins that make Samsung’s software experience one of the most customizable.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra is one of the few phones that can somehow justify its $1,000-plus listing price.

Also: S23 vs S22: What are the differences?

2. Mobile entertainment has become your daily ritual (and more)

Does anyone else feel like they’re consuming more media content from their phones than ever before? If you’re like me, then the mobile entertainment experience on the Galaxy S23 Ultra may be even more appealing than all the features I mentioned before — and that you’ve now lost count of. For one, the device uses Samsung’s own Dynamic AMOLED display, which gets noticeably brighter (1,750 nits) and sharper (QHD+) than Apple’s best iPhone. Samsung’s gotten so good at calibrating these panels that even the iPhone 14 Pro uses one, seriously.

Also: Samsung brings advanced smartphone OLED tech to laptops

Did I mention that there’s no obnoxious, pill-shaped cutout named Dynamic Island on the top of the screen? If you want the most immersive mobile entertainment machine, then the Galaxy S23 Ultra is the way to go.

3. The trade-in offers are just too good

Carriers are always trying to upsell Apple’s latest and greatest, but there’s no beating Samsung’s aggressive trade-in offers come launch season. Even if you own a phone that’s five to six years old, there’s a high probability that your carrier, or even Samsung itself, will knock a couple of hundred bucks off of the Galaxy S23 Ultra if you trade it in. AT&T will happily accept cracked phones, too, from what I’m hearing.

You should buy the iPhone 14 Pro if…

iPhone 14 Pro on top of a table.

June Wan/ZDNET

1. Battery life comes before anything else

On paper, the Galaxy S23 Ultra (5,000 mAh) has a larger battery capacity than even the iPhone 14 Pro Max (4,323 mAh). But if you’ve been in the game long enough, you know that numbers don’t define the winner; the power efficiency of the phone does. With the iPhone 14 Pro Max in particular, Apple is combining the efficiency of its A16 Bionic Chip with its ever-simplified iOS 16 experience to deliver some of the best endurance numbers we’ve tested at ZDNET.

Also: Five iOS 16 features I can’t live without

The iPhone’s standby time is still king, too, with the 14 Pro being capable of putting a harder pause on background usage than Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra.

2. You’ve already sold your soul to Apple

As much as I don’t want to take the easy way out of the Samsung versus Apple debate, you may have effectively picked a winner already based on other products you own. For example, if you already have a pair of AirPods or an iPad now macbookor a combination of the three, then there are clear benefits to buying an iPhone, like iMessage syncing and AirDrop, to complete the ensemble.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Book3 Ultra vs Apple MacBook Pro: A premium laptop showdown

3. Some emergency features are better than none

In an unexpected turn of events, Apple promoted its iPhone 14 Pro series back in September for its life-saving features more than, say, its colors. This shift in priority speaks volumes to Apple’s vision for the iPhone, a pocket companion that can provide you with any information you need, whenever, wherever. Features like Emergency SOS and Crash Detection, while hidden in the background, can genuinely save you from life’s dangerous encounters.

Alternatives to consider

Open to other smartphone prospects? Consider these ZDNET-recommended devices:

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