“Let’s charge the iPhone 15 Pro Max before going to bed,” I thought wearily after a long day at Apple Park. Even though the device, which I had just unboxed a few hours earlier, was still showing at least 80 percent left of juice, I wanted to make sure it didn’t run out the next day. Time with a new review unit is precious, and I couldn’t risk wasting any of it on a dead phone.
I dragged myself over to the work desk in my hotel room, unplugged my iPhone 14 Pro and stuck the Lightning charger into the iPhone 15 Pro Max. It didn’t work. In my sleep-deprived fog, I tried a few more times to jam the cable into the port. It wasn’t until about five attempts later that it hit me: This is USB-C.
A spark of joy broke through the haze clouding my brain, until I realized I had to unplug my laptop or set up a whole new USB-C charger. I looked at the clock, glanced at the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s battery indicator, shrugged and went to sleep. It’ll probably have enough power till I can plug it in in the morning.
As it turns out, although my dream of a one-charger-fits-all world had finally come true (at least for the devices I use), the utopia I had envisioned wasn’t quite perfect in reality. I wanted to just be able to carry a single charger for the half dozen (or so) gadgets I carry around when I travel, but that’s probably never going to happen. If I’m going to have to bring multiple wires anyway, does it matter if one of them is Lightning?
In the end, it does, but the convenience of being able to use any of the cables I have to charge any of the devices I own doesn’t make as huge of a difference as I had expected. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps it will be a bigger improvement when people using older, Lightning-charging iPhones finally move on to USB-C and the whole world adopts this standard. For now, though, the change is small.
What might matter more on the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max are the new action button, camera improvements, refined design and updated processor. Apple also managed to keep the same price for the Pro ($999) and Pro Max ($1,199) while doubling the storage capacity on the base model of the latter. If you’ve been holding onto an iPhone that’s at least two years old (or even just a year old), this could well be the year to upgrade.
For the first time, I’ve found myself seriously considering switching to a Pro Max. In the past, despite some performance benefits and superior features, Apple’s largest handset has always felt too hefty. But thanks to its new titanium build, the iPhone 15 Pro Max is fractions of an inch smaller and almost 20 grams (or about half an ounce) lighter than its predecessor. I said this in my hands-on and I’ll say it again: The iPhone 14 Pro Max felt like it would fracture my skull if it fell on my face, while the new model may only leave a bruise (or maybe a dent).
That’s probably in part thanks to the fact that the new iPhone’s edges are slightly curved, which not only makes them feel less sharp, but gives the handset the illusion of being thinner, even though it’s actually a hundredth of an inch thicker than last year.
Speaking of teeny measurements, the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max’s bezels are also ever so slightly smaller than before. That’s largely why Apple was able to retain the same screen sizes while bringing the length and width of each device down.
Together with the smaller bezels, the overall design changes make the iPhone 15 Pro Max slightly easier to use with one hand. I also appreciate the brushed metal finish on my Natural Titanium review unit, though I wish Apple would give the Pro line some brighter colors already. This year, you can choose from the silver-ish shade I have, or white, black and blue. Yawn. I know a lot of people slap a case on their new phones the second they get them, but some of us like to live a little dangerously and want a pretty color like those on the regular iPhone 15s.
Though the iPhone 15 Pro Max is smaller and lighter than the last generation, it’s certainly still one of the heaviest in its category. The Pixel 7 Pro is a bit lighter at 212 grams (7.5 ounces) while the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is the heaviest at 234 grams (8.25 ounces). Meanwhile, the smaller Pro model is actually lighter than the S23 Plus (195 grams) and the Pixel 7 (197 grams, 6.9 ounces).
I haven’t used the phones long enough, nor have I been brave enough to risk exposing these review units to my hazardous purse without a case, so I can’t tell you how durable or scratch-resistant the titanium build is yet. Thankfully, I have also not dropped either device so far, but, as in previous years, they’re both rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, which should provide the clumsiest of us some peace of mind.
There are, of course, two crucial external hardware changes this year: USB-C and the Action button. If you’re not looking for them, these differences aren’t obvious. The hole at the bottom is still a hole, while the button now juts out slightly more than before. And because the iPhone 15 Pros are slightly smaller than their predecessors, your old case will not fit.
I was surprised to learn that I’m actually in the minority of people who used the mute slider on older iPhones. It turns out that apparently most people set their devices to mute and leave it at that. I tend to leave my phone on my couch while doing chores, so every now and then I’d set it to ring so I wouldn’t miss calls from delivery people.
In any case, Apple switching the mute slider out for the Action button doesn’t bother me. I still get access to a physical key to quickly mute my phone, but for people who don’t use that function, there are plenty more options. You can set it to open the camera, turn on the flashlight, begin a voice recording, change Focus modes or start a shortcut. In each of those, you can fine-tune the settings to have the system, say, launch the camera in selfie or portrait mode.
Once you’ve used the Action button to trigger your shortcut, you can keep pressing the button to control the primary action in each scenario. In the camera, that’s the shutter. For voice recordings, that becomes the start or stop key.
In the days that I’ve been testing the iPhone 15 Pro Max, I’ve set it to launch the camera, since I’ve been focusing on testing the new hardware. It’s frankly been a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it’s so much faster to use the Action button to open the camera than having to long press or swipe on the on-screen shortcut. On the other hand, it wasn’t always easier to reach for the Action button, and though it’s easy enough to identify it by size, I found myself accidentally pressing the volume keys a few times.
I get the sense that this is a gesture I’ll get used to over time, especially since it did eventually come in handy when I was frantically photographing some wild deer and rabbits in Caumsett State Historic Park.
It’s also worth noting that, despite my concerns that the Action button might be too easy to accidentally trigger, I have yet to unintentionally launch the camera. I’ve tossed the iPhone 15 Pro Max in a satchel full of other phones, a backpack stuffed with jackets and snacks, as well as a tightly packed overnight duffel bag. Surprisingly, none of these tight squeezes caused the shortcut to trigger.
Cameras — To zoom or not to zoom
This year, the Pro Max has a new telephoto lens that offers 5x optical zoom, thanks to a tetraprism design that reflects light four times within the iPhone’s body and creates enough space for a 120mm focal length. Meanwhile, the smaller Pro still retains a 3x optical zoom at 77mm.
In reality, the iPhone 15 Pro Max delivered closeups that are slightly cleaner than what its predecessor was capable of. I used them both to take photos of an ad for the iPhone 15 Pro Max on the side of a building, and only after I zoomed all the way into the pictures on my laptop did I notice a slight difference. The newer phone rendered a window frame better, with a bit less noise than the iPhone 14 Pro Max.
When I set both cameras to shoot at the older phone’s maximum range of 15x, the newer phone had a noticeable advantage. Wording on the back of a faraway bus was so much clearer on the 15 Pro Max that I could actually guess what an ad said, while the 14 Pro Max’s image was basically a blur.
The iPhone 15 Pro Max’s closest rival on the zoom photography front is Google’s Pixel 7 Pro, which also offers 5x optical zoom. Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra has 3x and 10x options, with a total of 100x zoom when combined with digital processing. It’s no surprise, then, that in general, the Galaxy handset tended to deliver the clearest images at 3x, 5x and beyond. Words were visible on distant objects, and blades of grass were clearer.
Compared to the Pixel 7 Pro, the iPhone 15 Pro Max offered similar clarity and detail, as well as brighter images. But Google usually offers better contrast and shadows.
In a very challenging situation when I was trying to shoot a gray heron that was bathing by Oyster Bay in Long Island, the iPhone was better at retaining the ripples on the water’s surface, while the Pixel mostly overexposed the sea. At 10x zoom, the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s pictures of the bird looked like I had captured images of the Predator, complete with extreme halo effect around the subject.
The iPhone and Pixel both allow you to make use of these telephoto options while recording video, which came in handy when I tried to film a finicky baby deer from a distance. The Galaxy, on the other hand, is stuck at one zoom level. Ultimately, if you frequently use your phone to capture distant subjects, the iPhone 15 Pro Max will serve you well and has mostly caught up to the competition.
What might matter more in your daily photography scenarios is the updated portrait mode pipeline, which Apple says now “benefit from the Photonic Engine.” I was really excited to see an improvement here, since I rely heavily on Portrait mode for most of my photos of food, animals and people. For the latter two (specifically cats, dogs and people), Apple will automatically capture depth information so you can edit background blur later, and you won’t have to go into Portrait mode just to get bokeh. But sadly, the iPhone still lags behind the likes of its Pixel and Galaxy competitors.
In my close-up portraits of sprinkles on a scoop of ice cream, the Pixel 7 Pro and Galaxy S23 Ultra managed to keep the individual grains as well as a spoon in focus while retaining the frosty texture of the mounds underneath. Meanwhile, the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s picture was a mess, with large parts of the spoon and ice cream blurred out and random other bits in focus. This could have been a fluke, but I never got the same with the other phones.
Apple’s portrait effect fared better when I changed over to 1x zoom, although as with older iPhones I have to move back a significant distance before the bokeh effects will kick in. But when it did work, the iPhone’s portrait mode produced a shallower, more pronounced depth of field than Google and Samsung’s phones. The Pixel delivered a more natural and subtle result, though.
The good news is that with Apple’s new Focus and Depth Control tool, you can go into most pictures and edit the amount of background blur. Or you can change up the focal point altogether. This works with the front camera and live photos well, and generally delivers pleasant results. The iPhone is surprisingly accurate at recognizing the outlines of subjects, although not all my pictures with people in them were identified as portraits. I also couldn’t use this tool to fix the wonky ice cream photos, since multiple parts of the sprinkles remained blurry no matter where I tried to set a new focus.
Although Apple has worked on improving its Night mode, Google still has the upper hand in low light. My shots of trees and houses along a lake in the dark came out best on the Pixel, which retained the gradient in the sky and a bench in the foreground, without blowing out the lights from homes across the water. The iPhone 15 Pro Max and Galaxy S23 Ultra fared respectably, though Samsung’s phone was the most susceptible to overexposure from the lights.
It’s worth pointing out that the iPhone’s photos now use a default resolution of 24 megapixels, combining the light you get from 12MP shots and the detail from the 48MP sensor. File sizes are about half a megabyte larger than before, which will probably eat up your storage more quickly.
One thing this processing allows Apple to do is offer three focal length options: 24 mm, 28mm and 35mm. Practically, this just means you can tap the “1” icon at the bottom of the viewfinder to jump between 1x, 1.2x and 1.5x options. Apple didn’t just crop in from a 48MP image to create these views — it created individual processing pipelines to enable these at the default 24MP resolution. But for most mobile photographers, that won’t mean much. All it translates to are some nifty zoom options, which were fun to use but I didn’t find myself reaching for them much.
For the most part, the iPhone 15 Pro Max delivered solid landscapes and portraits in daylight, and has shown slight improvement at night. Its video quality remains arguably the best in the industry, with cinematic mode videos still as aesthetically pleasing as before.
Performance, in use and battery life
It’s hard to evaluate the performance of any new phone in just a week. Out of the box, handsets rarely have any lag, and the iPhone 15 Pro Max is as speedy as you’d expect. Its A17 Pro chip kept things running smoothly as I tested multiple camera and video modes in rapid succession, while downloading games, pulling up pictures and hotspotting to another iPhone nearby. I did notice some hiccups when launching the camera with the Action button, but I suspect that has more to do with glitchy software than actual performance.
One of the biggest updates with the A17 Pro processor is the six-core graphics processor that enables hardware-accelerated ray-tracing for realistic lighting effects in games. This allows Apple to coax serious developers and studios like Capcom and Ubisoft to bring console-level versions of their titles to the iPhone. I was able to check out a preview of Resident Evil Village on the iPhone 15 Pro and it ran smoothly as expected. Creepy babies aside, some of the graphics and lighting effects were nice and I saw no dropped frames, although the edges of a character’s hair looked a little jagged. Don’t expect high-end console level quality here, but you’ll get pretty good animations in general.
I loved looking at my new contact poster on the Pro Max’s 6.7-inch display, and thanks to ProMotion’s 120Hz refresh rate, scrolling through the long lists of my Instagram Story viewers was satisfyingly smooth. When I was getting ready in a hotel room, the background music I played sounded surprisingly clear and loud through its speakers.
I’ve already described the impact USB-C actually makes in the real world, so I won’t go on about it again. What I didn’t mention was that with the move to the new port, Apple was also able to add support for USB Power Delivery (USB PD), which allows the iPhone to charge up other devices. You can use a USB-C to Lightning cable to power up an AirPods case for example, or even another iPhone.
That’s a pretty handy feature, especially considering how much battery life the iPhone 15 Pro Max has. It usually lasted about two days on a charge, which is slightly longer than other handsets of this size. Of course, over time, I expect battery life to deteriorate and average out at about one and a half days, based on previous experience.
When it’s time to recharge your iPhone, you can expect similar charging speeds to older models in that you should get up to 50 percent in about 30 minutes. Fast charge is supported with compatible power units, capped at 27 watts, which is basically the same as before.
Is the iPhone 15 Pro Max worth it?
This year’s new iPhones actually feel like significant upgrades compared to the last two models. With the introduction of the Action button, USB-C and some camera improvements, the changes coming to Apple’s Pro handsets feel meatier than before. Plus, the new titanium build makes the devices seem refreshed, while under-the-hood advances like the A17 Pro processor and a second-generation ultra wideband chip should make for smooth day-to-day use. Though the individual features seem small on their own, altogether this year’s set of updates add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Of course, there’s also the non-pro models of the iPhone 15 to consider, and thanks to their new 48MP sensors and pretty colors, they’re a compelling, lower-cost alternative. They also charge via USB-C and come with the same new portrait image effects, which might be good enough for most people. Our review of that device is coming soon, so stay tuned if you can’t decide between the standard iPhone 15 or the Pro.
Meanwhile, if you’ve always been a Pro user and already live in a USB-C world, the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max will almost certainly satisfy.