by Jason Snell & Dan Moren
October 5, 2023 1:33 PM PT
iPhone designs change at a glacial pace. It’s rare that a new iPhone looks completely unlike the previous model. They’ve all looked more or less the same since the iPhone X ditched the home button back in 2017. Careful observation indicates that the iPhone 15 Pro design is different from the iPhone 14 Pro, which is different from the iPhone 13 Pro—but the external differences are extremely subtle.
This is okay. The iPhone is clearly on a multi-decade trajectory toward becoming a thin, featureless slab of glass. In the meantime, Apple keeps varying materials and colors and upgrading the processors and cameras in order to ensure that people buying a new iPhone will find it at least somewhat different from the ones in their pockets.
It may not be logical, but it’s absolutely true that after spending around $1000 on a new phone, I don’t want it to be exactly like the one it’s replacing. What’s the fun in that?
The iPhone 15 Pro offers very nice variations in materials and utterly boring variations in color. The replacement of heavy, shiny stainless steel with light, textured titanium is a winning move. (Truth be told, I think the iPhone 12-13-14 Pro design was a mistake, from the heavy fingerprint-laden frame to the subdued rear color palette. The non-pro iPhone 12-13-14 models were lighter and more colorful.)
By objective measurement, the iPhone 15 Pro isn’t much lighter than previous models, but it sure feels lighter. Maybe that’s because the big weight reduction is on the outside edges, but when I first picked one up, I expected the difference in feel to be imperceptible—and it was absolutely noticeable from the first moment. Anyone upgrading from the last three iPhone models should notice, too.
There are a few ways to add color to titanium. You could just paint it, but Apple already tried that, and it didn’t work out. You could use anodization, which is the process Apple uses to color aluminum, and my understanding is that anodized titanium can similarly hold colors pretty well. But for whatever reason, Apple chose a PVD coating.
I’m not going to pretend to be a materials scientist, so I can’t tell you about the tradeoffs involved in choosing a process in terms of ruggedness or in terms of color range. All I know is that my pal Dan’s iPhone 15 coating has already scuffed and that the colors on these phones are thoroughly boring. Bad on all fronts.
Apple offers four colors in the iPhone 15 Pro, which I’d describe as black, bluish gray, medium gray, and light gray. I don’t dispute that some people don’t want a colorful phone, and many people put cases on their iPhones so they never really see the color. But what about people who do enjoy color, who do use their iPhone without a case? It would be nice if Apple offered an iPhone Pro for them, and it steadfastly refuses to do anything more than toss in a single dim shade that’s almost indistinguishable from the rest of the monochrome parade. It’s such a dull set of colors that the best of the bunch is probably Natural Titanium, an unabashedly metallic medium gray.
Moving away from the tragedy of the world’s most exciting technology product being wrapped in the world’s dullest colors, let me applaud Apple’s choices in rearchitecting the glass front and back of the iPhone 15 Pro. Following its changes in the regular iPhone 14, Apple has redesigned the iPhone 15 Pro to make the device much more repairable. It’s also slimmed down the size of the bezels around the display, making the device slightly easier to hold than its predecessors.
Perhaps the best tiny adjustment is that the edges of the phone that transition between the bezels and the sides are no longer sharp angles. It’s like sanding off the edges of a piece of wood: the whole thing just feels smoother and nicer to hold in your hand. Combine that with the weight changes, narrower bezels, and overall size reduction, and you get a bunch of positive steps forward in iPhone ergonomics.
So where does iPhone design go from here? Leaving aside the possibility of folding models, it feels to me like the biggest opportunity lies in addressing the cameras on the back. Whether that’s reducing the distance they stick out, arranging them across the width of the phone rather than in one corner, or something else, I have to believe there’s a better approach than the current one. (Spreading out the camera terrace would also allow Apple to give more parallax separation to cameras capturing spatial video for the Vision Pro, too. Just sayin’.)
Apple likes to keep things simple. When you see the company adding a physical button to a device, it’s a big deal. In this case, it’s removed the ring/silent switch that’s been on the iPhone since the start and replaced it with a new Action Button.
Let’s get this out of the way first: If you’re one of those people who could always remember which position of the ring/silent switch meant silent and which meant ring and could feel that in your pocket, this is a regression. You will now have to pull out your phone to look at the status or use the Action Button as a ring/silent button and feel for the proper haptic to indicate the status. I understand why that would stink.
As for literally everyone else—the people who couldn’t remember which position meant which, the people (I’m one) who always left their phone in silent mode, and the monsters who never silenced their phones… that switch was a waste of space. And now the Action Button lets us choose to use that space for something more useful.
The Action Button is a ring/silent toggle by default, but it’s easily changed in the Settings app. Apple offers a bunch of options, including a flashlight toggle, Do Not Disturb toggle, Voice Memo, Camera, and Magnifier. And if none of those speak to you, you can assign it to a shortcut—including both complex, user-built shortcuts and simpler Apple Shortcuts provided by the people who make the apps you use.
It’s hard to express just how great this is. The Action Button will be relevant to far more users than the ring/silent switch ever was. The Action Button section of the Settings app is big and clear and animated and almost fun to use, and makes it very easy to change your settings. Apple has taken the most obvious alternate uses people would want and baked them right in—I imagine that Camera and Flashlight will be big winners. And with Shortcuts, almost anything is possible.
More to the point, it shows how good physical buttons can be. As revolutionary as the iPhone’s all-touchscreen design was, sometimes I think Apple has taken the lesson a little too far. iPhones are still physical devices existing in reality, held in meaty human hands. Swiping and tapping on a Retina-quality touchscreen is usually delightful, it’s true, but if you’re just trying to find your way in the dark or quickly get a shot of your kids playing, it’s not.
There is something to be said for the fact that, if you set the Action Button to Camera, you know with certainty that in one gesture you can pull your phone out of your pocket, smashing one meaty finger on the Action Button as you do so—and by the time you can see the screen it’s ready to take a picture. (And on top of that, you can leave your finger right where it was—in Camera mode, the Action Button will also take a picture.) Muscle memory takes over.
Apple nailed this feature, but it’s also left some room to grow. While its defaults should always remain simple and difficult to trigger accidentally (you must hold the Action Button purposefully to trigger it), it sure would be nice if it could optionally be made a little more complex. Perhaps it could register double-presses or offer additional interactions in the specific app it launched (as it already does in the Camera app).
As for me, I’ve turned my Action Button into a trigger that launches a simple Shortcut that listens for dictation and places the result (as transcribed text) into my main Reminders list. Maybe it’ll stick, or maybe I’ll find some other feature I use more often. The sky’s the limit.
The iPhone 15 Pro now has a USB-C port instead of Lightning. It’s a good change, though (as all port changes are) it’ll be disruptive to people who have invested in a bunch of Lightning-specific accessories. Still, in most cases, this is a matter of swapping cables—and Apple includes a very nice braided USB-C to USB-C cable in the box. It’s been more than five years that Apple has been moving its products over to USB-C, and with a few minor outliers, the job is now done.
Did Apple do it because the EU is about to mandate USB-C for all phones? Oh, to be a fly on the wall in Cupertino. I’d argue that this change actually feels a year or two late, and I look forward to slowly filtering all my Lightning cables out and placing them in a bag somewhere.
All port changes suck, of course, because there’s confusion and forgotten cables and the like. But there are advantages: in the case of the iPhone 15 Pro, the USB-C port also supplies USB 3.0 speeds. This is the fastest you’ve ever been able to pull data off of an iPhone. Within the first four days I was using an iPhone 15 Pro, I had to pull off a two-hour-long 4K HDR video file so I could send it to a video editor. That file was huge, but I was able to transfer it to my Mac so much faster than I would ever have been able to do in the past. This is a big win for people with big files. (You can also now shoot ProRes video directly to an external USB drive, another win.)
Four years ago Apple introduced the U1 chip, which added Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology to the iPhone for the first time. Proving that it still hasn’t found what it’s looking for, it’s introduced a second-generation UWB chip in the iPhone 15 and 15 Pro.
Thus far, Apple’s attempts to light the UWB fire have been a bit forgettable. But the technology is no lemon—it has true promise, and the more Apple devices that incorporate it, the more potential it has. UWB’s magic trick is that it can provide absolute positioning in three-dimensional space, unlike technologies such as Bluetooth that try to tease out the distance between two devices by measuring how strong or weak a radio signal is.
Right now it feels like this technology is running to stand still, but UWB will eventually support smart car doors and door locks, and of course, it allows clever tricks like offering to move your music to a nearby HomePod based entirely on your proximity to it. Eventually, your smart home devices should be able to react to your physical presence as you desire. (That’s when you create a Shortcut that plays a fanfare every time you enter the room1, which you’ll use exactly once before being shamed into deactivating it.)
I recently went to a football game (it was a beautiful day in Berkeley, California) and was trying to figure out where my wife had gone—we were separately looking for concessions amid the rattle and hum of a busy stadium walkway. Then I remembered we both had new iPhone 15 models, and I opened Find My—the app that lets you find all that you can’t leave behind—and enabled the remarkable new UWB-powered feature that lets you find nearby friends. Not only did I almost immediately discover that she was to my right (so I began heading that way), but she was also notified that I was looking for her. We found each other and had fun doing it!
Anyway, it’s a little weird that this new second-generation UWB chip doesn’t have a name.
The iPhone 14 Pro added a 48-megapixel sensor to its main camera, but Apple’s software support for the sensor felt a little halfhearted. The images were an upgrade, for sure, but most people were just shooting 12MP images, with each pixel comprised of four pixels on the sensor. You had to turn on RAW format to snap a detailed 48MP image.
With the iPhone 15, the software (and presumably the processor; otherwise, it’s mystifying why the iPhone 14 Pro is not also covered by what I’m about to describe) finally seems to have been tailored to make the most of that main camera sensor. By default, the Camera app captures multiple 12MP images that take advantage of the pixel binning feature that gathers more light, but also captures a full-resolution 48MP image and then combines them all into a 24MP image, twice the size of last year’s main-camera images, mixing the best features of the binned and non-binned sensor data.
In fact, the camera system goes beyond that: it’s really tuned to provide excellent results anywhere from 1x (in which it’s using the entire 48MP sensor) to 2x (in which it’s zoomed into the center area of the sensor). Apple’s so confident in its various capture and fusion algorithms that it’s placed various presets between 1x and 2x, corresponding to the equivalents of common focal lengths.
In a very Apple move, the iPhone 15 now has enough intelligence to detect if a photo is eligible for Portrait Mode and automatically capture depth information. This means that you can retroactively add portrait blur to photos you’ve taken that qualify—generally, ones containing people, cats, or dogs. Taking a feature that most people will forget to turn on and then regret later, and making it automatic, is a quintessential Apple move and I’m here for it.
The new 5x zoom camera on the iPhone 15 Pro Max is quite impressive. I used to bring an SLR camera and a long lens to football games and shoot action shots; while the 5x lens can’t quite get me that close, it was able to approximate those shots in ways that no other iPhone camera has ever been able to.
I’m also impressed with how good digitally zoomed images a bit beyond 5x look. They’re processed, sure, but it’s really good processing—at least to a point. Apple’s clearly using some machine-learning tricks to make zoomed-in pictures look better, and if you look closely at extreme zoom-ins, you’ll find some bizarre effects. I recommend not looking too closely, and not zooming all the way in.
The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s image stabilization is remarkable, counteracting shaky human hands, and (on both phones) when you zoom in a lot, a pop-up of the full frame appears to give you guidance about exactly where you’re aiming. Well done.
If you’re someone who takes a lot of zoomed-in phone photos, especially if you find yourself frequently going beyond the optical zoom into digital territory, the iPhone 15 Pro Max will be an excellent upgrade. But you’ll need to be comfortable taking on the extra size of the device. After years of gradually creeping iPhone size increases, the iPhone 15 Pro Max doesn’t appear laughably huge—but I still can’t stretch my fingers and thumb across it to use it one-handed, and I’m not willing to sacrifice that in order to use that 5x camera. But if you are, you will get access to an excellent zoom camera.
With the iPhone 15 Pro comes the new A17 Pro chip, a new Apple-designed processor that’s using TSMC’s new 3nm process. Bragging rights aside, what the A17 Pro brings are CPU and GPU performance boosts more or less in line with previous generational updates.
The iPhone 15 Pro ends up with a big jump in graphics performance mostly because Apple has added one GPU core to the mix, but on a per-core basis, it’s a pretty standard update.
I do wonder about Apple’s emphasis on gaming when it announced the iPhone 15 Pro. Apple’s history with gaming is long and tortured, but the iPhone is by far the most successful device it has ever made for people to play games on. Still, bringing console games to the iPhone feels a little… weird? (I’ve used a Backbone controller with an earlier-generation iPhone, and it’s pretty cool… but how many people are yearning to turn their iPhones into a Nintendo Switch in their pocket?)
Sometimes, Apple just uses game performance as a proxy for graphics prowess. It knows most people won’t be playing Resident Evil Village on an iPhone 15, but the fact that they could shows how awesome Apple’s chips are. Fair enough. I do wonder if Apple might also be trying to apply a platform-wide strategy here that leads to more games arriving on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Will the M3, presumably the Mac chip based on the A17 Pro, also offer more impressive graphics performance that will make it a better gaming device? We’ll have to see.
As it is, most of the games I play on my iPhone don’t remotely tap the power of the device. I suspect that’s true for most people. I’m not sure if there’s anything Apple can do to change that.
We product reviewers spend a lot of time focusing on those incremental updates between last year’s model and this year’s. There are a lot of reasons why that makes sense, but it does ignore the fact that most people will be upgrading from an older model. If you’re upgrading from the iPhone 14 Pro, look above! Otherwise, read on.
If you’re updating from an iPhone 11 Pro model or earlier, you’ll get a taller phone with a larger screen, and access to fast 5G cellular networks for the first time, plus all the upgrades below.
If you’re upgrading from the iPhone 12 Pro after three years, you’ll get a ProMotion display with a faster refresh rate, making scrolling buttery smooth. And the 3x zoom will be a nice step up from the 2x zoom on your current telephoto lens. You’ll also have access to Cinematic Mode, which lets you create videos with selective focus, like blurred backgrounds. And you’ll pick up Photographic Styles, a feature that lets you tweak the settings of Apple’s image pipeline to make all the photos you take more in line with your own taste. And you’ll get every upgrade I describe below.
If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 13 Pro after two years, you’ll get an always-on display, including support for always-on StandBy mode. The screen’s also quite a bit brighter.
You’ll also get the Dynamic Island, which replaces the useless display notch with a floating black oval that morphs and changes to indicate things that are currently happening in the background on your iPhone.
Upgraders also get access to the new 48MP main camera sensor and Action Mode, which lets you shoot extra-stabilized video in situations where you might otherwise create ugly shaky-cam videos.
Finally, upgraders will get access to Apple’s newest safety features: Satellite SOS lets you send text messages requesting assistance when you’re unable to get a cellular signal from any carrier, as long as you’ve got a view of the sky. And Crash Detection will detect when you’ve been in a car crash and automatically call emergency services for help.
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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren