Obviously the iPhone 4 is in the iPhone Update Hall of Fame. Its Retina display was game-changing, and now we enjoy pixel density that once seemed like science fiction.
The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, despite their rather lackluster design, are also in the Hall of Fame. They were the first big iPhone, and it took Apple’s sales numbers into the stratosphere.
Then there’s the iPhone X, which totally redefined the iOS experience while ditching the home button and embracing a full-screen design with Face ID.
Most years, it’s easy to guess where the new iPhone will end up: either in the Hall of Fame or a phone that was good, but within a few years will be hard to remember clearly.
With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max, Apple has muddied the waters. I honestly can’t tell if this is a really good normal iPhone update or a pretty good big update that we’ll remember for years to come.
The iPhone 15 Pro brings a lot of new elements — quite literally — to a design that’s mostly familiar.
The Dynamic Island that first washed up on shores with the iPhone 14 Pro has really come into its own here in 2023. It’s taken longer for developers to adopt Live Activities and the Dynamic Island than I think Apple expected, but I am loving my uses for it now:
- Controlling Podcast and music playback
- Following sporting events with Sports Alerts
- Monitoring Instagram background uploads
- Keeping up with weather via CARROT
- Trying to ignore timers1
Dating back to the iPhone X, Apple has used stainless steel to set the high-end phones apart from their aluminum-clad cousins. This made the phones heavier, and made the exterior rails true fingerprint magnets.
I loved this aspect of the iPhone X, especially in white/silver. By the time I started carrying the Pro Max, I was over it. The phones just got too dang heavy.
Apple addressed this by replacing the stainless steel frame and rails with a mix of aluminum on the inside and titanium on the outside. Mercifully, Apple’s metallurgy work has greatly evolved since the Titanium PowerBook had to be painted.
These new materials have let the iPhone Pro line shed a noticeable amount of weight:
- 12 Pro: 189 grams
- 13 Pro: 204 grams
- 14 Pro: 206 grams
- 15 Pro: 187 grams
- 12 Pro Max: 228 grams
- 13 Pro Max: 240 grams
- 14 Pro Max: 240 grams
- 15 Pro Max: 221 grams
Here are just this year’s phones:
- 15: 171 grams
- 15 Plus: 201 grams
- 15 Pro: 187 grams
- 15 Pro Max: 221 grams
Apple has been successful in bringing the weight down, but in the hand, the difference feels to be greater than the numbers would indicate.
If you remember how light the iPhone 5 felt compared to the iPhone 4 or 4S, you’ll understand how I felt when I first picked up the new Pro Max at Apple’s event back in September.
There is one difference, though. The iPhone 5 felt almost hollow; the 15 Pro Max feels dense. Coupled with the slightly rounded edges on the otherwise flat sides, this make-it-feel-light-around-the-edges is a trick that Apple has used before. With products like the original iPad and the iPhone 3G, it was obvious what Apple was trying to do, but with the modern flat-back design it’s harder to pull off well. Apple nailed it, though, and these are the best feeling iPhones in a long, long time.
Visually, the titanium sides look great. If you’ve ever seen a titanium Apple Watch Edition, you’ll be familiar with the brushing Apple does with its titanium. The brushing isn’t quite as dark as on those old Apple Watches, but your mileage will vary based on the finish you choose.
Over the years, I’ve had mostly alternated between light and dark phones, with one stop in Sierra Blue Land a few years ago:
These phones so look so shiny now.
Personally, I adore the Natural finish on this phone. I knew right away at the hands-on area in the Steve Jobs Theater that it was the choice for me.
From left to right: Black Titanium, White Titanium, Blue Titanium, and Natural Titanium. And yes, those are the official names.
The most important design change to the iPhone 15 Pro comes on the bottom edge.
At this point, we don’t need to relitigate the strategy around Apple’s Lightning connector, but I will say that I the backlash against this connector change doesn’t seem to be nearly as loud as the move away from the 30-pin Dock Connector (and to Lightning) proved to be.
With Apple taking their sweet time in adopting USB-C, the standard had time to get established before the iPhone joined the party. The truth is that people already have USB-C devices in their lives, including from Apple. For many of us, the iPhone was the sole reason we carried Lightning cables around.
If all this port change meant was that the iPhone uses the same port as everything else in my life, it would be a huge win.
The USB-C on the 15 and 15 Plus looks the same as the one on the Pros, but the standard models are limited to USB 2.0 speeds. That’s the same speed supported by Lightning and my ancient iMac G4 from 2003: a measly 480 Mbps.
Meanwhile, the Pros support USB 3 at speeds up to 10 Gbps, which is so much faster that it’s hard to believe the same connector supports both speeds.
I don’t love that the regular iPhone 15 line is hamstrung by these speeds; maybe next year all of the iPhones will support USB 3 or greater.
For now, USB 3 unlocks some fun new things on the Pro phones, including recording video footage directly to external storage. I won’t ever fully tap into this, but I am glad it is there on a device with “Pro” in the name.
We have come a long way from the single, small camera bump that appeared on the iPhone 6. That flat-topped mountain of technology continues to impress, though. The main camera of the iPhone can do amazing things, and the ultra-wide camera continues to be a lot of fun, but like those old Mazda ads, this year’s Pro Max is all about the zoom zoom.
Apple is very proud of how the new telephoto camera works:
We created a state‑of‑the‑art tetraprism design — a folded glass structure below the lens — to reflect light rays four times over. This allows light to travel for longer in the same space, giving you a new focal length that really goes the distance.
To support the tetraprism design, we pioneered a 3D sensor‑shift optical image stabilization and autofocus module that moves in all three directions. Our most advanced stabilization system ever delivers twice as many microadjustments as before.
The ability to punch in so far without needing messy digital zoom changes the types of photos and videos the iPhone is capable of creating. It’s great in a wide range of situations, but especially for capturing sports and school plays, in my experience at least.
There one downside to all of this, as John Gruber mentioned in his review:
One hitch with the iPhone Pro Max having a 5× telephoto lens is that if you really want a 3-4× focal length for framing, it needs to be digitally zoomed from the main camera. In my testing this doesn’t seem to make much difference, but more talented photographers might disagree. I tend to think that when I do want a long lens with extra reach, I might as well go really long.
Of course, the iPhone 15 Pro, in addition to being the wrong size, also lacks Apple’s fancy telephoto hardware. For some, 3× may be a better fit, or 5× may not be worth the size of the Pro Max.
I don’t know when Apple will be able to bring all that fancy tetraprism to the smaller phones, but I think most people will be happy once they do.
The main camera, now at 48MP for the second year in a row, comes with some new tricks, including automatically creating 24MP images, using as much data as it can from the full sensor. This camera can also output 48MP files and zoom to 2× just by cropping the sensor.
I have been thrilled with most of the photos I’ve taken with this new
camera phone. Color and HDR feel more natural than some previous models, and I find myself manually tweaking exposure or focus less and less over the years.
The iPhone’s camera system is more than hardware, of course. There are billions of transistors and millions of software actions taking place every time we take a photo on one of these things. It’s hard to know what part of the stack is making a difference year to year, but the iPhone 15 Pro Max is really doing a good job here.
(I don’t shoot a lot of video, but those reflections of light we all see in iPhone video have got to go.)
My iPhones have been on silent for as long as I’ve worn an Apple Watch, so the loss of the mute switch is no real loss for me. I imagine most people will use it to mute their device or to quickly access the camera, but I’ve got it wired up to a very simple Shortcut to get data into Todoist as quickly as possible, and it works wonderfully. I love that Apple made this button programmable.
iPhones have been so fast for so long, it’s basically impossible for me to push one hard enough to find the limits. Everything is basically instant almost all of the time.
As always, though, I’d love more battery life. I can easily make it a day on my 15 Pro Max, but would love to more easily make it two days.
Subjectively, this iPhone’s battery life seems more unpredictable than what I have experienced in the past few years. Some days, my phone will just be hot and burning through battery without a clear indication as to what is going on. A restart will set things right, but I’ve had to bounce into Low Power Mode a few times a month since upgrading. This could be an iOS 17 thing, but when Apple controls both the hardware and software, the latter will usually come up in a review of the former.
A Look at Some Cases
There was a lot of digital ink spilled over Apple’s FineWoven cases, which have replaced the previous leather products.
I got the FineWoven case at launch, and have not been impressed. It picks up lint, stains easily and looks far too cheap for a $59 case. Thankfully, there are other options and I have tried quite a few:
Here are some thoughts to correspond with that photo, going from left to right:
- Apple FineWoven case: After very sporadic use, mine already looks pretty trashed. I hope Apple is already working on something new.
- Peak Design Everyday Case: This case is awesome for snapping into a wide range of accessories. I’ve got Peak Design’s mounts on each of my bikes and love the system.
- Bullstrap MagSafe case: I got this after hearing good things from a bunch of folks, but I don’t like it. The rounded edges make the phone feel bigger than needed, and I don’t like having the little logo on the back.
- Nomad Modern Leather Case: This is my daily driver. The black leather looks and feels great, the buttons are nice and click, and the sides are scooped in, making the phone feel narrower than it does in other cases.
A Sidebar on the Whole Regular/Pro Lineup
Apple is now several years into the two-lineup strategy when it comes to new iPhones. Like the 14 before it, the 15 gets a mix of old and new tech. This year, the Dynamic Island and USB-C both appeared on all new iPhones, even if it’s all powered by last year’s system on a chip.
I have only two types of iPhone buyers in my life: nerds who buy a new phone every fall, and people who buy a new phone every 3-5 years when I tell them to or when something breaks. Even then, only a subset of those folks end up with the newest new iPhone. There are a lot of “new” iPhone 12 and 13 customers out there.
I say all of that to say this: we should not be shocked when the new mainstream iPhone model sells in smaller numbers than the Pro phones, especially at launch. The vast majority of people who will buy an iPhone 15 won’t even be in the market for a new phone for another 12, 24 or 36 months. By then, a new iPhone 15 or a refurbished iPhone 15 Plus will be a great deal, and those users will be very happy with them.
I think Apple’s quite happy having a steady supply of older-but-still-pretty-great iPhones for sale for years beyond their announcement date. As weird as it may seem to some nerdy folks, this strategy seems to be working just fine.
We may not know how the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max stack up historically for a few more years, but for now, I am quite happy with mine.
The updated design is fantastic. This phone is the best looking and feeling model in a long time. USB-C brings the iPhone into the modern era, letting it interact with a much wider ecosystem. The updated camera system unlocks new workflows and expands what is possible with just an iPhone in my pocket.
In its best years the new iPhone lets you do something you couldn’t do before. The 15 Pro Max meets that mark.