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iPhone 15 review: I spent a month with Apple’s base model and found it more ‘Pro’ than ever

iphone-15-and-iphone-15-plus-in-hand-2.jpg

Apple iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus

pros and cons

Pros

  • Sleek, matte-frosted design for a superb hand feel
  • Dynamic Island replaces the aging notch
  • Pro-grade A16 Bionic chip
  • USB-C, finally!
  • Reliable camera system
Cons

  • Slower charging and data transfer speeds than Pro models
  • New colors are uninspiring
  • 60Hz display is a dealbreaker for some
  • Battery life on standard 15 is subpar

more buying choices

ZDNET’s buying advice

A month of testing proved that Apple’s standard iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus bear more “Pro” features than ever before, including a Dynamic Island for more seamless multitasking, a 48MP camera system that — when paired with the A16 Bionic chip — consistently produces eye-catching imagery, and a new satin-finished design that left me with no envy for the more expensive iPhone models. 

If you don’t see yourself shooting videos in ProRAW, requiring the extra Action button, or drooling over the 5X zoom camera on the iPhone 15 Pro Max, you’ll be plenty comfortable with the $799 iPhone 15 and $899 iPhone 15 Plus. Between the two, buy the former if you want one of the most compact (yet capable) handsets on the market, and buy the latter if you want a more affordable big-screen iPhone and the best battery life of all the models this year.

Specifications

iPhone 15

iPhone 15 Plus

Display

6.1-inch OLED with 60Hz

6.7-inch OLED with 60Hz

Weight

6.02 oz (171 grams)

7.09 oz (201 grams)

Processor

A16 Bionic

A16 Bionic

RAM/Storage

4GB RAM with 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB

4GB RAM with 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB  

Camera

48MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP front

48MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP front  

Battery

Up to 20 hours of video playback

Up to 26 hours of video playback

Connectivity

USB-C, 4G LTE, 5G, eSIM, Satellite

USB-C, 4G LTE, 5G, eSIM, Satellite  

Price

Starting at $799

Starting at $899


How I tested the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus  

I typically spend at least two weeks testing phones before writing the full review, so I had my Mint Mobile eSIM installed on the smaller iPhone 15 for the first half of October and then transferred to the iPhone 15 Plus during the second half. I spent a good chunk of my time evaluating cellular connectivity, day-to-day performance, and camera output as I hustled through the product launch season in the concrete jungle that is New York City.

The difference between the two iPhone handsets this year mainly boils down to display size and battery life; unlike the Pro models, there’s no camera hardware discrepancy, which means the general user experience of the two is pleasantly similar. That made my life as a phone reviewer this past month a little easier — and makes the below list all the more applicable to both iPhone models.

What are the iPhone 15’s best features?

Thinner, lighter form factor — Without question, the most important aspect of a phone is how it feels in the hand — we carry these things around 24/7! — and with the new iPhone, it’s baffling how much more premium it feels compared to previous generations. Whether you’re coming from an iPhone XR or an iPhone 14, the glossy, sharp-cornered form factor of old pales in comparison to Apple’s new design language, which flaunts contoured edges and a color-infused, satin backing. Apple has always kept the matte finish exclusive to its Pro line, so I’m all for the iPhone 15 being a little more disruptive.

iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus in hand

June Wan/ZDNET

Less is more here, and Apple’s slimming down of the base-level iPhone has made it so comfortable in the hand that I didn’t — and still don’t — envy the Pro model’s titanium material one bit. The iPhone 15 also comes in more charming colors than the Pro line, with pastel — and emphasis on “pastel” — hues of green, yellow, pink, blue, and black. For me, matte black is king, easily matching my favorite (though flawed) iPhone finish of all time.

Dynamic Island — The most notable display upgrade with the iPhone 15 is the Dynamic Island, carried over from last year’s iPhone 14 Pro. (The brighter 2,000-nit display comes in a close second.) It’s a feature that everyone can appreciate — whether you end up using it or not — because, unlike the notch that’s replaced, the Dynamic Island turns that chunk of previously unused real estate into a glanceable status indicator system. 

Also: Dynamic Island: How to use the iPhone’s latest software trick

You don’t have to interact with the Spotify music player or Uber Eats tracker that magically morphs into the pill-shaped cutout to appreciate its functionality. But if you do, you’ll be glad you no longer have to open an app just to skip a track or know how much further away your game-day pizzas are. I’ve enjoyed using the Lumy app, which displays a timer for when golden hour ends, so I know exactly how much longer I have left to take those warm and dreamy photos before sunset.

USB-C port — This one should be more straightforward than it seems, but a crisscrossing of charging standards and data transfer speeds by Apple means that it’s not. While the iPhone 15 now supports the universal USB-C port, meaning I no longer have to wrestle through my car’s center console for a Lightning cable or USB cable depending on what phone I’m using, it’s not as powerful and fast as the one on the iPhone 15 Pro.

iPhone 15 USB C charging accesories

The iPhone 15 can also charge other phones and accessories, including this SmallRig video light that I use when filming.

June Wan/ZDNET

The result is a slower charging rate (up to 18W) and data transfer speed (up to 480Mbps), which I haven’t found to be deal breakers. Part of the reason is because the iPhone 15 Plus, in particular, has been an absolute endurance beast, lasting me well into a second workday before needing to be charged. It even beats the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s battery life, as reported by numerous testers. 

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

Naturally, I’ve been topping it up when I’m in deep work or cooking, when how quickly the phone charges is the least of my worries. (Second note: The smaller iPhone 15’s battery life has been less spectacular, netting me well under a day of usage.) I’ve also gotten so used to using AirDrop and cloud services for file transfers, especially for time-sensitive photos and videos captured at press events, that the slower data transfer speed is insignificant to my workflow. 

48-megapixel camera — Speaking of which, both the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus feature a new 48MP main camera that defaults to 24MP capturing (by combining the low-light capabilities of a 12MP binned photo and the detail of the 48MP), and I was satisfied with its output. The iPhone’s color science leans more natural, prioritizing the finer details like subjects underneath shadows and how evenly lit everything in the frame is.

iphone-15-ultra-wide

The Wythe Hotel captured with the iPhone 15 Plus’ 12-megapixel ultrawide lens.

June Wan/ZDNET

The image above, when captured on a Samsung Galaxy S23 and OnePlus 11, made the sky more blue, the trees unnaturally vibrant, and the traffic lights a more polarizing neon yellow. Of course, the better camera output comes down to personal preference, and in some cases, I actually prefer the more-processed but ready-to-share stills that I get from a competing Android device.

Also: iPhone 15 models compared: iPhone 15 vs. Plus vs. Pro vs. Pro Max

The iPhone 15’s 48MP camera can also function as a telephoto lens with a 2x zoom. Apple calls it a 2x “optical” zoom, but from what I’ve seen when comparing the optically zoomed photo to one I manually cropped in, the difference is negligible. As for low-light photography, I’m glad to see Apple embracing the darkness and not making an otherwise moody, sunsetting environment look like the middle of the day, as depicted below.

iphone-15-low-light-wide

Tip: iOS 17 gives you a leveler in the camera app to help you frame and straighten photos just right.

June Wan/ZDNET

But what stands out to me the most with the iPhone 15 camera system is its video capabilities. Of all the phones I’ve tested this year, nothing comes close to the raw output that I get from an iPhone camera, from the image stabilization that doesn’t make a buzzing effect every step that I take to how consistent colors are when switching between the main wide lens to the ultrawide. I’ve been using the iPhone 15 to shoot unboxings, product announcements, and hands-on demos all month for ZDNET’s social pages — you can check out the samples across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.

Should I upgrade from my older iPhone?

It’s true that consumers are now upgrading their smartphones at a slower rate, spending three years or more with their devices before switching to the next best thing. If you’re coming from an older iPhone model, here’s how it stacks up with the iPhone 15 and the biggest differences you can expect.

If you’re upgrading from…

The biggest differences are…

iPhone X or iPhone XR

If you’re coming from an iPhone X, you’ll now be able to experience iOS 17, which features StandBy mode, Contact Posters, Live Voicemail, Interactive widgets, and more. See below for everything else you gain.

iPhone 11

The iPhone 15 supports 5G connectivity and a much sharper and brighter OLED display (versus the iPhone 11’s LCD). See below for everything else you gain.

iPhone 12

For iPhone Mini users, the standard iPhone 15 is your best bet if you still want a relatively compact form factor with all the iOS perks. The iPhone 15 also comes with a base storage of 128GB, double that of the iPhone 12. See below for everything else you gain.

iPhone 13

Prepare to convert your physical SIM card to an eSIM. You’ll also gain access to Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite and Crash Detection safety features. See below for everything else you gain.

iPhone 14

The Dynamic Island, 48MP camera, thinner design, and USB-C port are the most notable upgrades from the iPhone 14. And, assuming you’ve converted to eSIM, the contacts transferring process should be very seamless.


What I’d like to see in the next model

iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus

June Wan/ZDNET

90Hz refresh rate, if not 120Hz — My biggest critique of the iPhone 15 is its display refresh rate. Not everyone will notice the difference between a 60Hz panel and a 120Hz panel, but as someone who carries a secondary Android phone at all times, it’s hard not to acknowledge the less fluid iPhone display. This may also be a deal breaker if you’re upgrading from an iPhone 13 Pro or iPhone 14 Pro and have gotten used to the ProMotion panels.

Also: The best new features in iPhone 15, iOS 17, and Apple Watch – and how to use them

Is this Apple’s way of splitting up the non-Pro and Pro models? Probably. And I don’t take for granted how fewer animations mean the iPhone 15 is more battery efficient than the Pro. But in a world where even sub-$200 phones have 120Hz displays, I really wished that Apple gave its $800 iPhone something that was smoother on the eyes.

An Action button — Given how many iPhone 14 Pro features Apple carried over to the iPhone 15, I have my fingers crossed for Apple to replace the alert slider with the Action button next year. Over the course of testing the new iPhones, I’ve used the alert slider twice — when I first set up the iPhone 15 and switched from “Sound” to “Silent” and when I did the same after moving to the iPhone 15 Plus. An Action button would give the iPhone much more functionality. 

Faster wireless charging — I recently converted most, if not all, of my chargers at home to wireless charging pads, and it’s been a more frustrating transition than expected. Apple limits the iPhone 15’s charging rate to 7.5W when docked on a standard wireless pad, while MagSafe accessories yield a faster 15W output. With the imminent release of the Qi2 standard, faster (and more consistent) wireless charging, no matter the accessory, on the iPhone 16 would be greatly appreciated.

Bottom line

It’s easy to call the standard iPhone model the “Best iPhone for most people.” That’s been the case since Apple introduced a Pro variant with the iPhone 11 series, and still holds true with the new iPhone 15. Only this year, I’m finding myself recommending the non-Pro iPhone to more users than ever before, including folks who I’ve known to be more demanding of their tech. Apple’s made just enough feature upgrades (and a few compromises that may be imperceivable to some) to help the latest iPhone model stand out, even when stacked against the generation before it.

Alternatives to consider 

yellow-iphone-14-plus-2

BEST IPHONE 15 ALTERNATIVE

Apple iPhone 14

Apple still sells last year’s iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Plus, and with a $100 discount, so if you don’t need the latest features — and want to save yourself a Benjamin — they’re both viable alternatives.

Google Pixel 8 in Pink

BEST ANDROID ALTERNATIVE

Google Pixel 8

Arguably the best Android alternative, Google’s latest Pixel 8 has a more customizable but still user-friendly interface, a similar dual-camera system, and some AI features for enhanced photos and videos.




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