Every iPhone is pretty great. Truly, anyone who works in building products, especially hardware products, can appreciate how amazing it is that Apple is able to make something at such a high volume and at such a high quality every single year like clockwork. It’s absurd, and it’s a testament to the systems they’ve put into place over the years that we all just assume the iPhone will be very good.
But every few years the company puts out a particularly great iPhone, that just checks all the boxes, and anyone who bought that year’s phone will probably be happy for several years. In recent years, I think the iPhone 13 (normal and Pro) was one of those generations, as well as the 11 Pro.
My question in this review isn’t whether the iPhone 15 Pro is good or not, of course it’s good, it’s whether this is one of those special years where you’re going to buy this phone and feel really happy with it today as well as 3 years down the road. That’s hard to determine so early in the life of one of these things, but I have enough experience to get a feel for what I can tell already, as well as what I simply need more time to understand.
So, is the iPhone 15 Pro a great iPhone, or one of the great iPhones?
I kind of scoffed at Apple’s claims about the reduced bezel and weight reduction after the event. The phone is both 0.9mm narrower and shorter than the 14 Pro and it’s just 9% lighter than last year’s model. That sounds like a minuscule difference on paper, and in terms of total volume, the phone is actually 3% larger (854 cm³ vs 828 cm³) due to the 0.4mm extra thickness.
But here’s the deal…this phone feels notably different in the hand than last year, and it’s enough that it makes a notable difference in terms of usability and comfort.
The big change everyone knows about because it’s the center of the marketing campaign, is that the rails around the edge of the phone are made of titanium this year rather than stainless steel. From the iPhone 12 through 14 lines of phones, I was always of the opinion that the pro phones were a bit off. From my first impressions of the iPhone 12 Pro:
This is the first time an iPhone has felt like a regression over the previous model. […] I know that a lot of people prefer this, but while most iPhones make me look at my old phone and immediately think it’s less-then the new hotness, this is the first time I thought we’d moved the wrong direction.
And how would I fix it?
I suspect if they brought back the chamfered edges of the iPhone 5S then I would like this a lot more.
Happily, Apple has done basically this with the iPhone 15 lineup, and the squared-off edges are replaced with curves at the corners. It’s not the biggest change in the world, but it does lead to a phone that still looks great and retains the delight of a phone with flat sides, but manages to still feel pretty comfortable in the hand (or at least what we can consider comfortable for big rectangles and not something actually ergonomic).
Additionally, the 9% weight reduction is real and easy to notice. Titanium can be as strong as stainless steel with 40% of the weight, and if this band of metal was the only weight saving Apple did this year, that’s a pretty remarkable percentage of the phone’s weight that’s generated from the outer band alone.
So yes, the 9% raw difference isn’t huge, but it’s a combination of many things that add up to a notably better and lighter feeling phone in the hand:
- 9% less weight is noticeable in something you handle dozens or hundreds of times a day.
- The phone’s weight is more centered in the device whereas it used to be more around the edges.
- The curved edges make the depth feel smaller even though it’s slightly larger.
And let’s mention the color real quick. I got the natural titanium model, and I think it looks nice and classy. It really takes on the color temperature of the environment it’s in, too. Under warm lights, it has a more golden color, but outside on a sunny day under cooler light, it looks completely gray.
Apple wanted you to know this phone goes fast: really fucking fast.
The processor name has “Pro” in it now, they showed off basic ray-tracing running on the phone, and they bagged some pretty spectacular games coming to the device over the next 6 months. Resident Evil Village, Resident Evil 4 Remake, and Death Stranding are all great games I enjoyed on my PS5 and PC, and upcoming AAA titles like Assassin’s Creed Mirage and the next The Division game are coming to the iPhone soon after they launch on other consoles.
Reviewers were seeded access to the Resident Evil Village TestFlight and got to try out the game during the review process. Based on what those reviewers said, it looks like that game is running at 720p 30fps and uses lower graphical settings that are pretty inline with the PS4 version of the game (although the PS4 version targeted 900p). On the one hand, it might sound like a slight to say that the iPhone version of the game is playing at lower specs than a 10 year old console, but let’s remember that this is going to be running on a phone that’s smaller than the controller used to play those console games, and it’s doing it without any active cooling like fans or liquid cooling. Also, on a 6 inch screen, lower resolutions, textures, and effects won’t be as noticeable as they would be on a 50+ inch TV.
I haven’t played any of these games yet, but the fact that they are coming to the iPhone at all is a pretty incredible testament to the raw power inside phones today. And with the addition of USB-C this year, we can do display out to a TV very easily, so someone could pair a controller to their iPhone 15 Pro, hook up the phone to their TV or computer display, and play what amounts to a PS4 game quite easily. This is a far cry from a modern console experience, but it is pretty cool that it’s even possible.
I plan on getting these games when they come out (Resident Evil 4 will launch first on October 30) and see what it’s like, so stay tuned for those impressions next month.
But most of the time you won’t be playing console games on your phone, you’ll be doing stuff like browsing social media, taking photos & videos, and playing normal mobile games. For those tasks, the story is as boring as it always is for new iPhones: last year’s model still does these great, and it’s hard to tell much of a difference with the new model. I did recently test what I know is a good “professional” task that took advantage of all the CPU cores you can throw at it, and the performance bump from the 14 Pro to the 15 Pro was pretty minor. Apple spent most of their time hyping up the GPU performance this time, and I simply haven’t seen the fruits of those improvements yet. But for a device that most people will own for 2-4 years, it’s good to have the extra oompth in the long run.
Finally, there have been a fair number of people who have experienced their new iPhones getting hot to the touch when in use on seemingly unexciting tasks. I personally felt some unusual warmth on the first day or two, which I attributed to photo processing and other background tasks going on overdrive as my phone finished setting up everything in the background.
But it’s been enough of an issue that Apple has made a statement on the matter, suggesting that it’s a software issue on iOS 17 that needs to be solved with a combination of OS and app updates. As of writing this review, Instagram has pushed out an update that should address their issue, but other apps like Uber may still have problems. It’s worth being aware of this for now, and to keep an eye out for iOS updates that hopefully address this.
Apple really gave the impression that the iPhone 15 Pro was getting a camera hardware update this year, but it seems like the hardware is identical to last year and all of the improvements come down to software. That’s not the end of the world, but it does mean that many of the photos I’ve taken in the past week look just like I’d expect an iPhone photo to look.
The ultrawide and 3x tele lenses still shoot 12MP photos, and to my eye the photos look the same as what I’d get from the 14 Pro. Where we do get some notable improvements is in the main camera, which has some really nice new tricks enabled by software and the updated A17 Pro chip.
The big thing I appreciate this year is the move to 24MP images on the main camera most of the time. Before we go any further, here’s a visual showing the difference in 12, 24, and 48 megapixel images.
I own two full frame cameras, the Canon EOS R6 and RP, and those have 20MP and 28MP sensors respectively. Obviously, most people don’t own cameras like these, but one of the things that always makes me want to shoot my photos on those rather than my phone is the resolution difference. For quick shots the iPhone has always been great, but for the important stuff, I do value the higher quality of the Canons, and a part of that is the added resolution I can achieve. The iPhone getting to 24MP is a perfect spot for me.
Although while the phone does shoot 24MP images, it’s more confusing than ever what you’re going to get with different shots.
- Zoom levels 1-1.9x are 24MP
- Zoom levels 2-2.9x are 12MP
- 1x portraits are 24MP
- 2x and 3x portraits are 12MP
- Night mode photos are 12 MP
- Panoramas as 12MP
- HEIF Max are 48MP
- ProRAW are your choice, 12MP or 48MP
I was happily surprised that 1x portraits are taken at 24MP, and it’s not like any of this got worse than before, but while we used to have absolute consistency across all cameras and camera modes, we now live in a Samsung-esque space where each lens and mode behaves differently. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing or anything, and Apple does a pretty good job of just making sure you get a good photo no matter what, but I remember Apple fans roasting Android phones for having differences like this between their lenses a few years ago, only to have that complaint disappear once Apple did it.
Snark aside, I would rather live in a world where most of the photos I take on my iPhone are higher resolution and I’m glad Apple’s made the choices they did this year with the camera. I can immediately tell when I pinch to zoom even a little into a photo that there is more detail there than I’m used to in iPhone photos. Especially in decent lighting, there’s notably less of a painterly quality to things in shadows.
I also can’t prove this, but the added resolution seems to have reduced the reliance the camera app has long had on sharpening, or over-sharpening I should say. Apple is of course processing the hell out of these photos, as they need to given the tiny sensor, but count me on the side of people who think the processing is a bit too heavy much of the time. To my eye, it seems like shots that are taken at 24MP feel more natural as Apple may be doing less sharpening, as the added resolution helps them get the crisp look they want more naturally. That processing is still there, and images are a bit harsher than what I get from my Canons, but it’s moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, ultrawide and telephoto shots look identical to what I’m used to, strong processing and all.
It sound alike a silly thing, but I’m a big fan of the ability to set my camera to default to either 24mm, 28mm, or 35mm equivalents. You get a 24MP image no matter what you choose, so it doesn’t feel like an artificial crop or a compromise in quality, but as someone who thinks that cell phone photos are a bit wider than I’d like much of the time, being able to use the 28mm equivalent (1.2x) as my default mode has been lovely. I can easily widen it back up if I want, but I’m just quite happy with the slightly narrower field of view.
And it’s worth noting that these 28/35mm zooms are more than just crops on the normal 24mm image. Ok, it technically is, but the combination of the 48MP capture combined with Apple’s elaborate image processing pipeline add up to photos that absolutely do not look like digital crops of old.
Ultimately, my feeling so far is that the ultrawide and 3x telephoto lenses are lateral moves from last year, but I’m invigorated by the improvements to photos from the main lens.
The Action Button
It’s been ages since we’ve gotten a new physical input for the iPhone and the Action Button is a solid addition to the phone. As a member of the Apple enthusiast community, it has been fun watching people see what they can do with it and how far they can push the new tool. My social feeds are full of people setting new and interesting shortcut automations to their action button, so I feel a little boring when I say I’ve just mapped mine to launching the camera and I’m pretty happy with it.
But while I’m generally happy with it, I do hope Apple makes some improvements to the feature in the coming years. The first part that I find problematic is the location of the button. It’s in the same spot as the old ringer switch, and I can see why they did that, but the ringer switch was something meant to be used on occasion, while the action button should ideally be useful more often. So while the ringer switch was a little out of the way before, it was fine since you didn’t toggle it constantly. Meanwhile, I find myself struggling more than I’d like to reach it comfortably to launch my camera when I want to take a picture. Even on the smaller iPhone 15 Pro, the button is just pretty high up and is awkward to hit when you’re holding the phone in one hand. I feel like something lower on the phone, below the volume buttons or below the sleep/wake button would be more accessible.
Again, I can see why they didn’t want to change his position, but I just don’t think they would have put it here if it was a brand new feature today.
As a bonus, the button is pretty small, and I’d love if it could be a little taller and wider, have a divot in the middle like on the Apple Watch Ultra, and maybe have an accent color to compliment your phone.
The other improvement I’d like to see them make is entirely software based. They definitely made the right call by forcing you to hold the button down for a second before triggers, your action, rather than triggering immediately when you press it. I don’t think I’ve ever accidentally Triggered my camera to launch with the action button, which is great. But I can only do one thing with the button, and there’s so many other interactions I could do with that to trigger different things. Right now, pressing and holding the button, launches my camera, but maybe double pressing it could trigger a second action, and triple pressing it could trigger a third. Of course many iPhone users won’t use these additional options, but if this is the “pro” phone then enabling more advanced workflows is part of the game.
So yeah, while I like the action button, it does kind of bum me out that all I’ve done with it is create a slightly worse version of the camera launch shortcut that most Android phones have had for many years (video demo on Mastodon).
I don’t use my iPhone wired very often, but I have been looking forward to Apple adopting the industry standard that they themselves basically created. I charge my phone with a MagSafe charger on my desk and by my bed, but I do top up throughout the day sometimes and it’s great to be able to use the same USB-C cable in the living room that charges every other piece of mobile tech in my life to charge my iPhone as well.
The one place this is going to be a slight issue for a bit is in the car. My wife’s car has CarPlay which works over USB, so swapping in one of my many USB-A to USB-C cables in the car is no big deal, but this does mean that until she upgrades her iPhone 13, we suddenly have two cables in the car and it’s annoying to have to swap cables based on who wants to run CarPlay each trip. She was planning on upgrading this year as well, but was going to wait until the spring to get her phone. Instead, she’s checking our local Apple Store’s stock everyday to wait for her color/capacity combo to be in stock for in-store pick up. I kinda think we are going to have a bump in purchases as couples suddenly have to deal with different cables and the best workaround is to both get the new phones.
On a similar front, I’ve talked to a few people in my life about the new iPhones as I do every year. Some of these people are nerds like me and others are what we in the tech space call “normal people.” I’ve yet to meet a real person who is upset about the change to USB-C, and a few “normies” who use Android have told me they’re honestly more likely to consider an iPhone now that it uses a normal port. Anecdotal data, but sharing because it’s the data I’ve got.
In terms of what else you can do with the port, I’m happy to see that Apple hasn’t gotten to weird with it and as long as apps support accessories, it seems you can use just about anything with your iPhone. I love that you can output a clean 4K image to an external display or TV and I love that you can plug in a hard drive or SD card and your phone will start recording video straight to the card without you needing to do anything fancy. Honestly I’m not doing much here myself, but I’m happy that when I need something, it will be easier and more capable than Lightning ever was.
Before I move on, I did want to say that I actually think Lightning was pretty great. It was an awesome connector, especially when it was new. But Lightning never evolved in any meaningful way and while it was great in 2012, it’s simply a dinosaur today and USB-C is better in so many ways. It was great, but the world moved on and it’s good to have the iPhone now on the right connector.
So is this going to be one of those great iPhones? I think it genuinely could be, but I’m not confident enough with this short review window to say that for sure. I think the materials change is a big win for weight and aesthetics. I also think the move to USB-C is a bigger win to the masses than many nerds worried it would be. Add to this the smaller bezels, more comfortable feel, still amazing speakers, a notable camera upgrade, and an Action Button that brings tons of potential, and we’ve got ourselves a pretty great phone.
There are still questions to be answered about battery life (seems okay so far, but can’t be sure for at least a few more weeks) and overheating issues that are still an issue for some people right now. We are also waiting to see how the titanium holds up over time. Drop tests show it’s not as protective as the steel band from before, but with a case does that matter much? And how will the titanium age? Will it stay looking the same? Will it get dings easier than the super-tough stainless steel band? Again, we’ll have to use these for longer to know for sure how well these go in the long run.
What I can say today is that I am quite happy with my iPhone 15 Pro, and if the above concerns turn out to be nothing of note, then I do think this could be one of the better-remembered iPhones in the last few years.