Apple 2023 report cards: iPhone 📱

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 6 min read

This is the first in a 4-part series of posts I’m writing to close out the year where I can get my thoughts out about Apple’s biggest product lines. I won’t be giving a score, but I will share my thoughts on the state of each product line, as well as what I thought of this year’s updates.

How the year started

I think the iPhone was in a pretty decent place to start 2023. The iPhone 14 Pros were generally well-received, and added several notable features people had been hoping for years to see, namely an always-on display and a larger and higher resolution camera sensor. There were some battery complaints with those phones (including from me), but the dynamic island was rad, if not the game-changer we maybe have hoped it would be, and I think you would be pretty happy if that was your phone.

The non-Pro lineup wasn’t as hot, though. The non-Pro 14 was maybe the most minor upgrade we’ve ever had from one iPhone to the next, which was a real disappointment. I’m someone who can always go, “yeah, the new phone looks similar, but here are a few reasons you should still probably get the new model,” but I couldn’t make that argument with the 14. On the plus side (pun not intended), the 14 Plus finally brought the big phone size down to the non-Pro line for the first time ever. It was a battery king, and despite rumors of it being the 4th best selling iPhone last year (something has to be!), it doesn’t seem to be as niche a device as the mini iPhone was, which much like the Touch Bar, has a vocal minority of love it and wish the rest of the world loved it as much as they do.

And then there’s the iPhone SE, which released in early 2022 and had the same system on a chip as the iPhone 14 and 14 Plus, although it still came in the iPhone 8 form factor, which looks old, is the sole device that requires iOS to still support the home button, and has a pretty tiny battery. But if you just need an iPhone and you don’t care about your phone much, an SE fits the bill at a low (for Apple) price point.

The new iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max

I was talking to my brother-in-law at Christmas this past week, and he asked me how big an upgrade I thought the 15 Pro was compared to last year. He’s a technical guy, but less of an enthusiast, so little things don’t move the needle for him as much as they may for many people reading this blog. I took a beat to think about it, and my answer was some variant of, “it’s a bunch of small upgrades that add up to a solid update, but USB-C is the thing I notice the most.”

Looking back on my review from September, I am struck by its brevity and focus on a few changes; I just didn’t get into all the minutiae I could have for a “comprehensive” review. The 15 Pro lineup upgraded from 6GB to 8GB RAM, from Wi-Fi 6 to 6e, and shrank the bezels by about 0.8mm on each dimension, but those didn’t really change my use of the phone. For me, the notable changes are USB-C which makes my iPhone a better player in the 2023 gadget space, the new material for the outer band is made of a titanium alloy which makes the phone lighter, the edges are slightly curved which makes the phone more comfortable to hold, the camera shoots 24MP images, the telephoto lens on the Max goes to 5x which is genuinely game-changing for iPhone buyers, and the action button is a nice addition.

One thing I find funny is that a lot of people online think that the action button is clearly designed to be used for one thing, but they don’t agree on what that one thing is. Some will say it’s perfect for launching the camera. Others will insist it’s best for running a shortcut. Still others will tell you they use it for toggling silent mode and it is a totally useless change. I think the range in opinions on what’s “obviously” the right thing to do with it speaks to how useful it is to let people use their computers how they want.

Back when Jonny Ive introduced the iPhone 8 from his trademark “white room”, he called it something like, “the final, perfected version of this form factor,” and I think that’s where we’re at with this iPhone design today. The next couple iPhones will probably keep this design, and that’s fine because I think it’s in a very good place.

Oh, and while the A17 Pro system on a chip (SoC) has some impressive specs, you don’t feel much of it in the day-to-day, and the two Resident Evil games announced with the phone have come out and, well, let’s just say the best thing I can say about them is that it’s impressive they run at all, but they barely run and no one should play them this way unless they have absolutely not other way to do it.

The iPhone 15 and 15 Plus

Unlike last year’s normal iPhone line, the 15 generation actually got some meaningful upgrades, including better camera sensors, the dynamic island, and USB-C. It’s still a generation behind on the SoC front, but that’s not the end of the world in my book.

The one thing that does bum me out is that the display is still 60Hz, making it the only premium phone (and one of the only phones, period) that doesn’t have at least a 90Hz variable refresh display. Some will mention that this isn’t something everyone needs or will notice, but I will retort with a few points:

  1. The benefits to variable rate displays is that they can go down in refresh rate as well, which helps with efficiency and battery life, something everyone wants.
  2. There are plenty of things Apple does that not everyone notices (color accuracy, symmetrical bezels, high DPI screens, etc.) but they do anyway because technical standards advance and someone paying upwards of $1,199 for a phone should be able to expect pretty standard tech in 2023.

But 60Hz isn’t a dealbreaker, and I think people looking at getting an iPhone right now would do very well to get a current model, and I think they’ll enjoy it more than spending $100 less on the iPhone 14 or 14 Plus.

The iPhone SE (3rd generation)

There were four years between the 1st and 2nd (2016-2020) SE models, and two years between the 2nd and 3rd (2020-2022) models, so it wasn’t really surprising that the SE didn’t see an upgrade in 2023.

Whether an upgrade is coming in 2024 is an interesting question. On the one hand, it’s been 2 years since the last model, which might indicate it’s due for a refresh, but I think there’s a decent chance Apple waits until 2025 for the next model. I’m really on the fence here.

One reason they might way another year is that the A15 SoC in the current SE is only 1 generation older than what’s in the iPhone 15 and 15 Pro. Would Apple upgrade the phone for just one year’s SoC iteration?

Another cause of pause would be the question of what hardware Apple uses for the phone. Traditionally, they’ve given the SE the recently-replaced form factor of the main iPhones, so what would that be in 2024? I think it would either be the iPhone XR/11 or iPhone 12/13/14 design, both of which would bring it into the Face ID era. Given Apple still sells the iPhone 14, they probably want to have a visual differentiator between it and the SE, so if we get one this year I’d lean towards it using the XR/11 design and using the A16 SoC. That would remove Touch ID from the product line while leaving a few clear differentiators between the SE and the 14 (namely multiple cameras, a better screen, and a clear visual difference). If we don’t get one until 2025, then the iPhone 12/13/14 design becomes more likely.

Another question is whether this new SE gets a USB-C or Lightning plug. It feels like Apple is trying to leave Lightning behind, but if they were going to leave Lightning on anything for another few years, the iPhone SE makes as much sense as anything else. I still think USB-C is the right choice here, but this feels like a coin flip to me right now.

What I want to see in 2024

I spoiled this for the iPhone SE above, and I don’t have any super strong desires for the mainline phones, myself. I’d love to see the 5x telephoto lens come to the smaller Pro phone and for the ultra-wide lens to get a resolution boost on all phones. But as we’ll see in other posts in this series, I think Apple has some bigger fish to fry in 2024, and I think the iPhone is in a very good place, so if the 16 lineup is just a solid, iterative update, it will be more than enough for me.