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iPhone 15 Pro review: Coming from iPhone 12 Pro or earlier? This upgrade will wow you

iphone-15-pro-in-front-apple-store.jpg

pros and cons

Pros

  • Action button brings new customizability
  • 10% lighter makes it nicer to hold
  • Brighter screen for better outdoor use
  • 5x camera on Pro Max takes high-quality shots
Cons

  • Battery life could be longer
  • The 5x camera still trails 10x of rivals
  • Apple-branded cases need to be better

more buying choices

Apple’s new iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max deliver another set of meaningful, step-by-step upgrades to one of the world’s most popular and iconic products. Where these upgrades really stand out is when you group them with the new features from the last two iPhones, since most people now wait at least three years to upgrade to a new phone.

If you’re reading this to decide if it’s time to upgrade and which model to upgrade to — or whether you should hold out until next year — then you’ve come to the right place. This review isn’t solely focused on what’s new this year, but instead puts the iPhone 15 Pro models in perspective for you if you’re coming from an iPhone 12 or earlier, since that’s the vantage point of the majority of upgraders.

If you’re strongly considering a pro model, then your choice is between the 6.1-inch iPhone 15 Pro or the 6.7-inch iPhone 15 Pro Max, because Apple doesn’t sell last year’s pro models at a discount like it does for the standard models.

So if you want to upgrade to a pro version of the iPhone for the camera improvements, the premium materials, and the latest smartphone features that Apple has to offer — to future-proof your iPhone for another several years — then I can highly recommend the iPhone 15 Pro and especially this year’s iPhone 15 Pro Max. As I’ll explain at the end of this review, there are a couple of caveats to be aware of with this year’s pro models and I’d also encourage you to seriously consider this year’s black iPhone 15 Plus, which feels like a very premium phone and can save you $300 versus the iPhone 15 Pro Max if you can live without a couple features. 

So let’s dig into it.

Specifications

Display

Super Retina OLED HDR 120Hz; 2000 nits peak brightness

Processor

A17 Pro with 6‑core CPU, 6‑core GPU, 16‑core Neural Engine

RAM/Storage

8GB / 128GB (Pro), 256GB (Pro Max)

Camera

48MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP 3x telephoto (Pro) or 5x telephoto (Pro Max)

Battery

3,274 mAh (Pro), 4,422mAh (Pro Max) with 20W wired charging and up to 15W wireless

Connectivity

USB-C, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3, 5G (mmWave and sub6), NFC, Ultra Wideband, Thread

Colors

Natural, Blue, White, Black

Price

$999 (Pro), $1199 (Pro Max)


How I tested iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max

I’ve used the iPhone since the original model first came out in 2007 and I’ve upgraded each year since then as part of my work covering Apple and the iPhone. As such, I’m familiar with all of the iPhone models. Over the past 16 years I’ve also given iPhone upgrade advice to countless friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors, who have typically upgraded their phones every few years.

To test a new iPhone, I use it as my main phone for at least a full week — preferably two weeks — and put a lot of emphasis on tracking battery life, spending ample time with the new features, testing the cameras in different scenarios, measuring charging speeds, using the most popular apps, closely analyzing any design changes to the hardware of the phone, and observing the speed and performance of everyday tasks like navigating menus, downloading apps, playing videos, sending messages, making calls, etc. This typically results in my daily screen time doubling during the period when I’m testing a new phone.

In this case, I’ve been primarily using the iPhone 15 Pro Max for two weeks and have been testing the iPhone 15 Pro alongside it.

iPhone 15 Pro (Blue Titanium) in hand, in front of an Apple Store

The iPhone 15 Pro in Blue Titanium, as photographed by the iPhone 15 Pro Max (24mm main camera).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

What are the iPhone 15 Pro’s best features?

The things you love about the iPhone are a little faster, smoother, more efficient, more refined, more powerful, or more capable in the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. At a high level, these are its best features:

Advanced titanium finish  One of the most noticeable changes in the iPhone 15 Pro models is that the shiny stainless casing around the edges has been replaced with brushed titanium. While the stainless steel looked more like a piece of jewelry, the matte finish of the titanium has an industrial, utilitarian appearance that meshes with the Apple Watch Ultra series. The titanium also makes the pro phones about 10% lighter and is very durable — although it will get dinged up if you drop it on a hard surface like concrete without a case. Titanium also shows fingerprints in a different way than stainless steel, but they are easily wiped away. And again, I recommend most people get a case and render the fingerprints a non-issue.

Pro-level camera system — The cameras in the iPhone 15 Pro models keep getting more professional. I shoot professional photos on Sony Alpha cameras and every year there are a few more types of shots that I can shoot on an iPhone without having to pull out the big camera. This year, it’s primarily the longer-range shots with the 5x telephoto lens on the iPhone 15 Pro Max, but the 15 Pro cameras can also get higher detail shots that I’d usually have to use a Sony full-frame camera to take (like the one below which shows wonderful details of a bird’s feathers).

Bird photo taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This pelican photo taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max at 120mm (5x zoom) shows excellent detail in the feathers.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Smooth, bright display — An under-appreciated aspect of most phones is the quality of the display, even though we all look at the screen so many times a day that it dominates our overall experience of the device. Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro models have OLED HDR displays with 120Hz refresh rates. That means the colors are vibrant, the text is super crisp, and the motion of moving things on the screen is very smooth. The iPhone 15 Pro models also get an upgrade in brightness to 1000 nits (typical), 1600 nits peak brightness (HDR) and 2000 nits peak brightness (outdoors). Simply put, the screen is better and brighter than ever, a big upgrade from the 1200 nits maximum of the iPhone 12 Pro models.

Zippy data transfers — With the switch to USB-C in iPhone 15, a number of new capabilities have been unlocked in the pro models, which also get a dedicated USB-C controller that handles USB 3 and its 20x faster data transfers at 10Gbps. In my testing, I was thrilled to experience this by plugging a USB 3.2 cable from Hyper into my Sony a7R III camera and then plugging the other end into the iPhone 15 Pro Max. I instantly transferred 42-megapixel files from the camera to the phone and uploaded them to Adobe Lightroom. It was eye-poppingly quick.

Fast, powerful performance (with a caveat) — The iPhone 15 Pro models are a breakthrough from a performance standpoint. The A17 Pro chip that runs them is one of the world’s first 3 nanometer chips, which means that the technology has shrunk to the point that it now packs more capabilities than ever into the same size chip. Apple chose to use that extra capacity to make the iPhone 15 Pro models even more powerful and capable than ever, especially when it comes to video and gaming. This is one place where I don’t agree with Apple’s priorities for the iPhone 15 Pro line. Rather than using up capacity to make the iPhone a more powerful gaming machine to try to compete with consoles, more iPhone users would have benefited from Apple choosing to use the extra capacity created by the A17 Pro chip to give the iPhone 15 Pro series longer battery life instead. That’s because the pro phones still can’t get through a full day of heavy usage that involves taking a lot of photos or video and uploading them to social media or texting them to friends and family, as many people do in their leisure time.

What’s it like coming from iPhone 12 Pro or earlier?

Again, the average time a person keeps their phone before upgrading is now three years or more. If you’re coming from an iPhone 12 Pro or earlier then you are in for a lot of significant upgrades when you get your hands on an iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max. Here’s a list of some of the best new features you can look forward to.

  • Longer battery life for up to two hours additional usage time (compared to iPhone 12 Pro models)
  • Always-on display for getting the time and basic info when you’re not using the phone
  • Brighter display for better use outdoors (2000 nits peak brightness on iPhone 15 Pro versus 1200 nits peak brightness on iPhone 12 Pro)
  • ProMotion display with 120Hz refresh rate offers smoother graphics and animations
  • Dynamic Island brings a useful new notification system
  • Standby Mode to see useful widgets when your phone is docked
  • USB-C charging with a more universal cable that connects to many other types of devices
  • Action button to get fast access to the camera or another one of your regular features
  • Emergency SOS via satellite to contact emergency services when you don’t have a cellular signal
  • Crash Detection for alerting emergency services and your contacts if you’re in an accident
  • 48-megapixel photos for more detailed shots and the ability to crop in farther 
  • LiDAR Scanner for better low-light and portrait-mode photos
  • Macro photography mode to get better images of things up close
  • Cinematic Mode video to shift focus from different subjects after recording videos
  • ProRes video recording to capture more professional-level video footage
  • Action mode for shooting smooth videos that look like drone shots
  • 5x tetraprism telephoto (iPhone 15 Pro Max only) to get crisp photos and videos of things farther away
iPhone 15 Pro and the new Standby Mode feature

The Standby Mode feature in iOS 17 looks great with the iPhone 15 Pro’s bright, always-on display (and with this jellyfish photo taken with iPhone 14 Pro Max).

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Is the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x zoom worth the upgrade?

As I’ve written before, the biggest thing holding back the usefulness of the iPhone’s pro camera system compared to its rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra has been the lack of a long-distance zoom lens. In fact, Samsung’s Ultra line released four models (the S20, S21, S22, and S23) with a true telephoto lens before Apple released its first one this year exclusively in the iPhone 15 Pro Max. But it’s finally here, and there’s a lot to like about it.

Of course, Samsung’s 10x “periscope” zoom lens and Apple’s 5x “tetraprism” zoom lens aren’t directly comparable because the Samsung phone still has extra reach that lets you get shots that aren’t possible with the iPhone (like this one). And Samsung has had four years to refine its telephoto cameras. 

Nevertheless, what the 5x zoom on the iPhone 15 Pro Max lacks in reach, it makes up for in quality. I put it through its paces in a number of different scenarios, from urban scenes like midtown Manhattan to photographing animals at my local zoo. The level of detail, crispness, color quality, and lack-of-image-noise make taking photos with Apple’s new 5x zoom a joy. 

Manhattan's 6th Ave before sunrise, taken with iPhone 15 Pro Max

This photo of New York’s 6th Ave before sunrise shows the quality of the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s 5x telephoto camera. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Polar bear photo taken at a zoo shows animal portrait mode in iPhone 15 Pro Max camera

This photo of polar bear Qannik at the Louisville Zoo shows the quality of animal portrait mode in the iPhone 15 Pro Max.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

If you see yourself taking lots of long-distance photos and videos, such as shots of your kids in sports or other activities, bird or wildlife pictures, or close-up details of places you visit on vacation, then you will probably find a lot of value in upgrading to the iPhone 15 Pro Max, even if you don’t usually buy larger phones. The fact that this year’s Pro Max is 10% lighter than last year’s, thanks to the move to titanium, could also help ease the blow of having to handle a larger phone.

What about iPhone 15 Pro overheating and FineWoven accessories?

The iPhone 15 lineup has had a couple of doses of controversy with reports of overheating and a lot of questions swirling around the quality and durability of the new FineWoven accessories that Apple introduced this year to replace its popular leather cases and wallets (as a positive step toward the company’s long-term sustainability goals).

Thermal imaging of iPhone 15 Pro Max fast-charging

Before the iOS 17.0.3 update, I took this thermal image while fast-charging the iPhone 15 Pro Max, showing it reaching 107.1 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

In terms of overheating, in my first couple weeks of testing I ran into two distinct scenarios of overheating and both have since been resolved by software updates. 

One occurred when I was doing camera testing outside on a fairly warm and sunny day (82 degrees Fahrenheit) and I was shooting a lot of photos. When I switched from the popular Halide camera app back to Apple’s built-in camera app, the Apple camera app would go black and flash a message that said “iPhone needs to cool down.” But it would only last for 1-2 seconds and then go away and I could resume taking photos in either app. Halide has since released an app update and the problem appears to be resolved.

The other instance of overheating came about a week into my testing when I was fast-charging the iPhone 15 Pro Max using Apple’s USB-C cable included in the box plugged into a 35W charging block. When I went to pick up the phone after charging it for about 15-20 minutes, I was surprised to find that it was very hot to the touch. I was later able to replicate this scenario when fast charging at 35W in a different location. I used a thermal camera to measure the temperature and compare it to other devices. The surface of the iPhone 15 Pro Max got up to 107.1 degrees Fahrenheit when fast charging. Most phones tend to max out around 85-95 degrees when they get warm during fast charging.

Thermal photo: iPhone 15 Pro warmest after iOS 17.0.3

After updating to iOS 17.0.3, the iPhone 15 Pro is considerably cooler when fast-charging — maxing out at 93.8 degrees Fahrenheit in my tests.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Apple responded to the controversy by saying that the issue was not a design flaw in the new iPhone 15 Pro hardware but an iOS 17 software flaw. Since then, Apple has released iOS 17.0.3 to address the overheating issue. ZDNET has tested fast-charging the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max under the same conditions as the earlier tests and found that they run considerably cooler after updating to iOS 17.0.3. Using a thermal camera, I found that the max temperature after the update was 93.8 degrees Fahrenheit during fast-charging and both phones typically ranged between the high 80s to low 90s. That’s a big improvement from pre-iOS 17.0.3 when both phones were often over 100 degrees when fast charging.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to avoid the iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max because of this overheating issue since it’s been resolved. However, I do recommend limiting the amount of fast charging that you do. That’s good advice at any time because fast charging typically generates more heat and we know that heat has negative long-term effects on lithium ion batteries

For example, if you charge overnight then I’d recommend slow charging by plugging into a 20W (or less) charger or using a MagSafe wireless charger, since it charges at 15W or less. The MagSafe option is especially appealing with the new Standby Mode that can turn your iPhone into a smart nightstand display with a large clock, weather conditions, and/or interactive widgets to turn off your lights and do other cool things.

The controversy over the FineWoven accessories for the iPhone 15 models can be addressed even more succinctly. FineWoven is the brand name that Apple has given to its new line of cases, wallets, and Apple Watch bands to replace leather — since leather has a lot of negative impacts on the environment. The FineWoven cases are made from 68% recycled materials.

Apple FineWoven Case for iPhone 15 Pro Max (showing wear and tear)

Apple FineWoven Case for iPhone 15 Pro, showing wear and tear after less than a week.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

While Apple’s motivations are commendable, the FineWoven cases are not. When I first picked one up in the demo area at the Apple Event, I didn’t love the feel of it. The material on the back reminded me of inexpensive upholstery fabric and the material on the sides imitates plastic but is not very grippy. In my testing, the suede-like material on the back of the FineWoven case did not wear very well. When you scratch it, it does not heal or rub out the way leather does and so it doesn’t appear that it will age gracefully. I have serious concerns about whether these cases can stand enough daily wear and tear to even last for a full year, let alone two or three years. That’s not a good look for a $60 case.

Since the buyers of the more expensive iPhone pro phones are more likely to invest in one of Apple’s own high-dollar cases — and the leather cases have been popular among this crowd — that means you are also the most likely to buy the FineWoven cases. Don’t do it. As I wrote in my article, Don’t buy Apple’s FineWoven iPhone 15 cases. Get one of these 4 cases instead, there are other excellent cases that protect the iPhone very well, look great, and are likely to be durable for several years. My best recommendation is the Nomad Sport Case

ZDNET’s buying advice

If you are coming from an iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max, or earlier — and especially if your phone is starting to slow down or is having battery problems — then I can highly recommend an upgrade to the iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max. You will be getting a staggering number of impressive updates, as shown in the list above. Just buy a different case than FineWoven, as there are excellent alternatives available.

If you have an iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max or a 14 Pro or Pro Max, then I’d recommend waiting until next year, as long as you aren’t having any problems with your phone. And even if you are having battery issues with a 13 Pro or a 14 Pro, then I’d recommend getting an appointment with Apple and replacing the battery rather than upgrading. With next year’s iPhone 16 Ultra reportedly on the horizon, there are good reasons to hold off on your upgrade plans if you can.

I’ll leave you with one last bit of buying advice if you’re looking to get the iPhone 15 Pro Max this year: don’t sleep on the black iPhone 15 Plus. When I first picked it up in the demo area of the Steve Jobs Theater at the Apple Event, I thought it was one of the pro phones until I looked more closely at the camera bump. The matte black sides and the deep black color this year make it look and feel very premium. And with the standard iPhone 15 phones getting the Dynamic Island and the 48-megapixel camera sensor, these phones are almost like pro phones. 

The two big things you give up with the iPhone 15 Plus are the zoom lens and the smoother 120Hz display. But if you don’t take many photos of things far away and you don’t play any high-end games on your iPhone, then I’d recommend seriously considering the black iPhone 15 Plus rather than the iPhone 15 Pro Max this year. You will save $300 by buying the base model iPhone 15 Plus versus the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Maybe you could even take some of that savings and spend it on a better case and some cool new USB-C and wireless accessories.

Alternatives to consider

iPhone 15 Plus in black

BEST VALUE IPHONE

Apple iPhone 15 Plus

The iPhone 15 Plus in black has a very premium feel to it, and it now takes 48MP photos and comes with the Dynamic Island. At $899, you can also buy it for $300 less than the iPhone 15 Pro Max.

The bottom of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.

BEST ZOOM CAMERA

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra

Samsung’s flagship Android phone offers many of the same features of the iPhone 15 Pro Max but includes a 10x telephoto camera for even longer distance photos. At $1099, it starts $100 less than Apple’s flagship.

Google Pixel 8 Pro in blue

BEST AI PHONE

Google Pixel 8 Pro

Google’s flagship Pixel 8 Pro now has high megapixel cameras across all three lenses and the most built-in generative AI features in any phone. At $999, it also starts at less than both the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung S23 Ultra.




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