The iPhone 15 is a surprisingly big upgrade — and the best option for most

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Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

The iPhone 15 doesn’t immediately seem like a huge leap from last year’s model, and in many ways, it’s not. But once you get used to seeing your flight times right at the top of your screen, instantly turning any photo into a Portrait mode shot or charging your iPhone with the same universal cable you use for every other gadget in your home, you’ll likely have a hard time going back to an iPhone 14 or older. By making small improvements that make life a bit easier, the iPhone 15 is a bigger upgrade than its familiar design might suggest.

That said, for all of its handy advancements, the iPhone 15 is still stuck in the past in a few frustrating ways. And as usual, the iPhone 15 Pro may be the more compelling buy if you’ve got the means to splurge. Now that the iPhone 15 is in stores, who should actually upgrade? I’ve spent a week using the iPhone 15 Plus as my main phone — and putting the standard iPhone 15 through its paces — to figure out exactly that.


iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus

Apple
Apple

The iPhone 15 is the best new iPhone for most people, with useful new camera tricks, the excellent Dynamic Island and all of the perks of USB-C.



From $799 at Apple
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From $23/month at Verizon


What we liked about it

A comfier, lighter design

Pick up the iPhone 15, and you’ll immediately notice some changes from last year’s model. Apple’s latest flagship has a new “color-infused” glass black, which sports a nice matte texture that’s less slippery (and, more notably, less smudge-prone) than the glossy finish on the iPhone 14. It’s even a smidge lighter than before, and while we’re talking a fraction of an ounce here, I could definitely notice a difference when I held both phones at once. When you combine all of that with freshly contoured edges, you’ve got an iPhone that just feels better to hold — at least for those daredevils who don’t immediately toss their phone in a case.

Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

This year’s iPhone comes in pink, yellow, green, blue and black color options, all of which look paler and more subdued than in previous years due to that matte finish. I’ve been using a yellow iPhone 15 and the much-hyped pink iPhone 15 Plus, and I’m torn on this change. The pink model has a pleasing cotton candy hue, unassuming enough to make me feel comfortable rocking a pink iPhone in public. The yellow, on the other hand, just looks a bit dull — not nearly as vibrant as the banana-yellow iPhone 14 that Apple dropped earlier this year.

Of course, this is a matter of preference. I’ll personally take a more subdued-looking phone that’s more comfortable and less of a fingerprint magnet, and my iPhones are always in a case anyway. But if you want your phone to be a bold fashion accessory to complement your everyday look, this probably isn’t the iPhone for you.

Finally, USB-C

Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

New textures and colors are nice, but the iPhone 15’s most noteworthy change becomes apparent once you plug in the phone. After much anticipation (and a bit of legislative pressure), Apple has finally added a USB-C port, ditching the proprietary Lightning jack that’s been around for more than a decade in favor of a universal standard that’s used to charge just about any piece of electronics these days.

Thanks to this change, the same USB-C cable you use to charge your laptop, tablet, gaming controller, Android phone or Nintendo Switch can now also juice up your iPhone. For many folks, that means fewer cables that need to be strewn around your desk or couch — and also means less frantic fishing for the proper cord once you reach that dreaded 1% battery.

While having USB-C on my iPhone 15 didn’t suddenly change the way I use an iPhone, I started reaping the benefits of it pretty quickly. There’s something nice about reaching for one of the many USB-C cables I have plugged in at any given time and knowing it’ll work with my phone instead of wading through my mess of cords trying to find the special Apple one. When I unplugged my phone for the night and popped that same charging cable into my DualSense PlayStation 5 controller, I realized that it should have been this way all along.

The iPhone 15 comes with a braided USB-C cable out of the box, which feels nicer and more durable than the basic Lightning wire we’ve gotten with most previous iPhones. You can even use your iPhone to charge a pair of USB-C earbuds (including the AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C), which is something I’ll be glad to have handy the next time my AirPods inevitably die toward the end of a cross-country flight.

Just keep in mind that you’re still getting the same USB 2 speeds for charging and data transfers as on previous iPhones; if you want the super-speedy perks of USB 3, you’ll have to spring for an iPhone 15 Pro. Also, if you have any Lightning gadgets you’re especially attached to, such as a pair of wired EarPods, Apple is charging a whopping $29 for a USB-C to Lightning Adapter, which you shouldn’t waste your money on. But considering the sheer amount of USB-C cables and accessories I have in my home, the transition to the iPhone 15 has been a smooth one — and I’d wager that’ll be the case for a lot of other folks too.

Dynamic Island just makes life easier

Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

Just like last year’s Pro models, the iPhone 15 finally downsizes the polarizing notch in favor of the Dynamic Island, a small, ovular camera cutout that can expand and morph to show you vital information at a glance. It’s easily my favorite thing about my iPhone 14 Pro, and I’m thrilled to see it come to the more affordable iPhone 15 model.

The Dynamic Island can display things like your current Spotify track, turn-by-turn Apple Maps directions and sports scores in a handy little bubble at the top of your screen, which you can press down on to expand for more interactivity. I personally love being able to keep tabs on any timers I have set right at the top of the screen when I’m cooking or doing laundry, and the Uber integration is super useful for knowing how far away my driver is while I’m using other apps. Incoming calls now show up in the Dynamic Island rather than taking over your entire screen — something I found infuriating on older iPhones — meaning you can ponder whether or not to answer that chatty family member while scrolling through Instagram.

It might seem gimmicky to some, but having spent a year with the Dynamic Island, I find it to be legitimately useful for getting the info I need at a quick glance rather than having to bury myself in apps. It’s one of the main reasons I splurged on a $999 iPhone 14 Pro, and the fact that it’s now available on a $799 iPhone makes the 15 an especially good value.

Speaking of useful new features, the iPhone 15 brings Precision Finding to the mix. While the Find My app has always let you keep tabs on where your friends and family are located (provided they choose to share that data), iPhone 15 and 15 Pro users can use the app to get detailed, step-by-step directions to where that person is. It’s the same process you’d use when tracking down an AirTag with Precision Finding, and seems ideal for finding a friend in a crowded concert hall or street fair. However, it’s only available amongst iPhone 15 users for the time being — meaning your friends that don’t upgrade to the shiny new iPhone might stay lost a little longer.

Great cameras with one game-changing upgrade

Even as someone coming from a higher-end iPhone 14 Pro, I found the iPhone 15 to be a joy to use as my main camera for a few days — for the most part, at least. My daytime snaps were bursting with color and detail, my night shots were good enough and, most importantly, my selfies looked great. Several friends I sent photos to were quick to point out the bump in quality. All of these slick snaps were made possible by the phone’s upgraded dual-camera system, which is now led by a 48-megapixel main camera that can shoot much higher-resolution photos than last year’s models, complete with sharper zoom. And while that all leads to excellent photos that we’ll get to in a bit, my favorite new iPhone 15 camera feature all starts with a quick tap of the screen.

Thanks to the new phone’s Focus and Depth Control features, swiping over to Portrait mode just to get that dramatic bokeh effect is a thing of the past. Now, when you have a person or pet prominently in frame, you can simply tap a little “ƒ” icon at the bottom of your screen, and boom — you’ve got a nice blurred background that makes your subject stand out even more. You can even hop into the Photos app and add the portrait effect to your shots after the fact — as well as change the subject of the focus (such as one of two people in a shot) with a quick tap.

Of all the iPhone 15’s new features, this is the one that had the biggest impact on my day-to-day use. I spend a significant portion of my day taking photos of my dog, and being able to instantly switch to Portrait mode when I’ve got the perfect shot was a major time-saver — especially considering the limited window I have on her staying still. It’s also just fun to use, and consistently resulted in some pretty great-looking bokeh shots. This feature also worked well for selfies, instantly elevating my front camera shots from Instagram Story-worthy to something I’d post on the grid.

Fancy Portrait mode or not, the iPhone 15 simply takes stellar photos. My copious dog shots captured every fine detail, down to individual strands of fur, and my food photos looked mouthwateringly true to life. Apple’s latest phone cameras show some notable improvements over those of the 14, and oftentimes impressed me more than the competition — but not always.

Shots I took of New York City’s East River looked pretty similar across my iPhone 15, iPhone 14, Samsung Galaxy S23 and Google Pixel 7, but the differences started to show once I zoomed into the Roosevelt Island skyline in the distance. The iPhone 15 introduces a new “optical-quality” 2x telephoto lens, which delivers a much clearer 2x zoom than the standard digital zoom in last year’s model. But the Galaxy S23 and its superior 3x optical zoom won out here.

When comparing shots I took of a recent Thai dinner (and getting very hungry in the process), the iPhone 15 looked the most crisp and color-accurate, with the Pixel 7 coming in a close second and the Galaxy S23 looking just a bit too bright and saturated. The shots I took of a cherry ice/vanilla ice cream twist were a similar story — the iPhone’s colors were just right, while the Galaxy’s were super rich and the Pixel’s were just dull.

The iPhone 15’s low-light chops are solid, as I noticed more accurate, less washed-out colors than the iPhone 14 when snapping pics of the skyline from my balcony at night. However, the Galaxy S23 captured more detail and color under these conditions, and the Pixel 7 — with Google’s beloved Night Sight tech — got the best shot of them all.

Most modern phones take share-worthy selfies these days, but the iPhone 15’s stood out the most in my testing. My daytime selfies looked balanced, detailed and color-accurate, whereas the Galaxy S23 added a bit of blue glow to my face and the Pixel 7 completely blew out the bright sky behind me. All of these phones got fairly blurry when it came to night selfies, but the iPhone 15 suffered the least — and the Pixel 7 was the biggest casualty.

While you’ll need to spring for the iPhone 15 Pro’s triple-lens system for things like ProRAW format (for those who like to edit in post) and better optical zoom, the regular 15 does have a neat new trick for those who want the crispest photo possible. When shooting in HEIF format, you can enable a new HEIF Max mode when shooting at 1x to ensure you’re squeezing every last bit of detail out of that fancy new 48-megapixel sensor. Combine that with excellent returning features like Action mode (which helped me take super-stable videos while chasing my dog around the park), and you’ve got one of the best camera phones yet.

Excellent overall performance

Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

What’s there to even say about iPhone performance anymore? These phones continue to be ludicrously fast, and the iPhone 15 is no different. This year’s model is powered by the same A16 Bionic processor found in last year’s Pro models, and while it’s not the best chip you can get on an iPhone — that honor belongs to the iPhone 15 Pro’s A17 Pro — you’d be hard-pressed to notice in real life.

I used the iPhone 15 as my primary phone for close to a week, which meant taking tons of photos, constantly bouncing between various chat apps, watching YouTube in picture-in-picture mode and playing an irresponsible amount of Marvel Snap. Nothing struck me about this experience, because everything just worked the way I needed it to — instantaneously and free of any nasty crashes or slowdown. Visually taxing games like Madden NFL 24 ran smoothly, and I was able to enjoy the stylish anime action of Honkai: Star Rail at a smooth 60 frames per second (barring a few infrequent stutters) with the graphics cranked all the way up.

But any modern iPhone is going to feel nice and zippy — it’s our benchmark results that cement Apple’s place at the top of its class yet again for 2023. Our iPhone 15 Plus unit netted nearly the highest score we’ve seen yet on Geekbench 6 (a test that gauges overall performance capabilities), falling only slightly to its beefier brother in the iPhone 15 Pro. It performed an impressive 28% better than last year’s iPhone 14 while beating the Galaxy S23 Plus by roughly the same amount, and absolutely trounced the Google Pixel 7, which couldn’t even score half as much.

There are a few reasons you might want to consider the more beastly iPhone 15 Pro, including its higher-end graphics that let you play exclusive console-grade games like Resident Evil Village and Death Stranding, as well as faster USB transfer speeds for mobile videographers. But if you want the fastest phone for the money, the standard iPhone continues to be king.

Good battery life (for the most part)

Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

The iPhone 15 has the same battery life rating as last year’s models, with an estimated 20 hours of video playback for the standard iPhone 15 and 26 hours for the iPhone 15 Plus. For the most part, these estimates seemed to hold up against my testing — after a typical day of power-hungry activities like playing hours of Marvel Snap and shooting lots of photos, I was ending most nights with 20% to 30% battery left to spare.

However, I couldn’t help but notice that my battery was draining a bit faster than when I first tested the iPhone 14 last year. It’s worth noting that I did a full iCloud transfer to the iPhone 15 from my main phone, and my glut of apps, files and background activities may have impacted its performance. We also got lower-than-usual numbers on our battery test, which consists of playing a 4K video on a loop, but that was caused by an issue with the VLC player app rather than the phone itself. Even on these abbreviated tests, we noticed about 30 minutes better endurance for the iPhone 15 Plus, confirming that the big iPhone remains the way to go if you want better battery.

Here’s the good news if you are a power user who typically chews through their phone’s battery in less than a day: The iPhone 15 will recharge super fast. A 30-minute charge using a 20W USB-C charger can get you up to 50% battery on the new phone, a claim that very much held up — I was able to go from a dead phone to fully charged in about an hour. Of course, you also have the option to charge wirelessly using Apple’s 15W MagSafe charger.

What we didn’t like about it

The display is due for an upgrade

Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

The iPhone 15’s Super Retina XDR display looks as nice as ever — particularly on the 6.7-inch Plus model — giving me a large canvas that popped whether I was engaging in colorful card battles in Marvel Snap or watching the New York Jets lose in vivid detail. Apple also upped the brightness (particularly for when you’re outside and squinting to see your screen), and I immediately noticed a difference when I put the iPhone 15 next to last year’s model at full blast. But while that’s a welcome change, the iPhone 15 still feels behind the times in one key area.

While the past few Pro models have adopted a 120Hz ProMotion display — which makes things like scrolling through photo albums and flipping between apps feel incredibly fluid — the base iPhone 15 and 15 Plus remain stuck at 60Hz. This feature won’t matter to everyone (as I learned in a recent spirited debate amongst some fellow tech writers), and if you’ve only ever used the basic iPhone, you won’t notice a difference. But as someone who made the jump to the 120Hz world with last year’s iPhone 14 Pro, the iPhone 15’s simpler screen was hard to go back to at first. Once you’ve experienced a smoother display, everything else just feels a little sluggish.

It certainly doesn’t help that competitors pack these super-fluid displays for the same price as the iPhone 15 — and sometimes for way less. The Samsung Galaxy line has offered 120Hz across the board for years now (most recently with the $700 Galaxy S23), and the Google Pixel 7 and 7 Pro both offer a step up at 90Hz and 120Hz, respectively. Heck, even budget phones like the $450 Galaxy A54 offer a 120Hz screen for nearly half the price of an iPhone 15. Granted, sheer refresh rate isn’t everything, and I’ve talked to many folks who would rather have Apple’s finely tuned iOS 17 software on a slower screen rather than a potentially janky Android experience on a faster one. But still, if fluidity is important to you, there are better options for the money.

No Action button

Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored
Mike Andronico/CNN Underscored

Speaking of Pro features that should be available across the board, I’m a bit bummed that the iPhone 15 Pro’s Action button is exclusive to Apple’s most expensive phones. This replaces the silent switch on your phone (which I thought no one used, but again, I’ve been proven wrong) with a fully programmable button that you can configure how you see fit.

It’ll still silence or louden your iPhone by default, but it can also be set to instantly open your camera, start a Voice Memo or turn on your flashlight with the click of a button, to name just a few examples. I totally understand the Pro models getting superior processors and cameras — these are features that power users and creative pros will splurge for — but something like the Action button would benefit all iPhone owners, and could prove to be a great accessibility perk for those who have trouble flipping through touchscreens. Here’s hoping it makes its way to the standard iPhone down the line, and if the iPhone 15’s Dynamic Island is any indication, that’ll probably happen as soon as next year.

How it compares

Bottom line

As great as last year’s iPhone 14 is, I called it “more evolution than revolution” when I first reviewed it. I was expecting to feel the same about the iPhone 15 at first blush, and while it, too, doesn’t reinvent the iPhone, its subtle upgrades all combine for a significant step forward. The improved camera features make snapping quality portraits more seamless, the Dynamic Island is endlessly useful and the switch to USB-C is a net positive for the vast majority of people. When you combine that with the typical best-in-class performance and a revamped, extra-comfy design, you’ve got the new best smartphone for most Apple shoppers.

That said, unless you’re a serial upgrader or impatiently waiting to burn your collection of Lightning cables to the ground, you can probably hold out if you’re rocking an iPhone 12 or newer. If you’re not on a budget, the iPhone 15 Pro — with its lightweight titanium design, gargantuan camera system and ability to play legit console games — may be worth the splurge. And if you’re open to switching sides or not tied to an ecosystem, you can find the Galaxy S23 and Google Pixel 7 (which compete with and even beat out the iPhone in some areas) for much less these days. Still, if you’re looking for the best iPhone for the money, the iPhone 15 is it.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed price at the time of publication.

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