It’s finally here, folks: new iPhone season. Apple’s iPhone 15 event wrapped up over a week ago, the first iPhone 15 reviews are trickling out, and it won’t be that long before you start seeing the new lineup in every Best Buy and Target you go to.
My iPhone 15 Pro Max arrived on September 20, and at the time of publishing this, I’ve been using it for just about 48 hours. That’s obviously not enough time for a full review, but during that limited amount of time, I’ve already learned some really important things about Apple’s latest entry in the Pro Max family. It’s very familiar in a lot of ways, but there are three specific changes that could make it a more worthwhile upgrade than expected — and I’m not talking about USB-C.
Titanium is a game-changer for the iPhone
Apple made a big deal about titanium when it announced the iPhone 15 Pro series, and rightfully so! Apple’s been using a stainless steel frame for its Pro iPhones since the iPhone 11 Pro — and even before then with the iPhone XS and iPhone X.
But for the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max, that stainless steel frame has been replaced with a brushed titanium one. It means this year’s Pro iPhones are lighter than ever, and Apple doubled down on the material by slightly curving the edges of the titanium frame around the front and back glass. The end result is the most comfortable Pro Max iPhone I’ve ever held.
The iPhone 14 Pro Max was (and continues to be) an outstanding smartphone — but it’s also ridiculously heavy and uncomfortable to use, weighing 240 grams. The iPhone 15 Pro Max now weighs just 221 grams, and it makes a huge difference. The minute I took the iPhone 15 Pro Max out of the box for the first time, the reduced weight was immediately noticeable. Combine that with the more rounded, softer corners compared to the annoyingly sharp ones we’ve had since the iPhone 12 Pro, I can confidently say it’s the most pleasant iPhone I’ve held in years.
Last year’s iPhone 14 Pro Max never felt comfortable to me. I made myself get used to it, but it’s never been a design I’ve been 100% happy with. The iPhone 15 Pro Max feels like the polar opposite within seconds of picking it up. It’s lighter, softer, and actually feels like it was designed to be held by human hands. Even this early on, I think it’s safe to say that Apple killed it here.
The camera makes a great first impression
No, I’m not going to give you a highly analytical evaluation of the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s camera after just over two days of using it. What I will say, though, is that I’ve been quite happy with the first few photos I’ve taken with the phone.
Like the iPhone 14 Pro Max, the iPhone 15 Pro Max has a 48MP main camera. However, it should produce better overall images thanks to Apple’s new Smart HDR 5 processing and a new coating to help reduce lens flares. The 48MP camera also now captures photos at a higher 24MP resolution compared to the 12MP files Apple was relying on last year. The 12MP ultrawide camera is also identical, but the 12MP telephoto camera gets a big upgrade from 3x optical zoom to 5x.
I’ve primarily been testing the main camera so far, and it’s produced some really excellent photos. The picture of my dog, Damon, is a relatively simple shot, but the iPhone 15 Pro Max nailed practically everything. There’s noticeably more detail in his fur compared to similar shots I’ve taken with my iPhone 14 Pro Max over the past year, and the colors look fantastic across the board. Even more impressive, though, is that I didn’t take this photo in Portrait mode, but I was able to turn it into a portrait photo after I snapped it.
This is a new feature across all iPhone 15 models this year, and it’s pretty amazing to see in action. If you take a regular picture of a person or pet, your iPhone 15 automatically collects a heap of depth data in the background. You can then find that photo, tap the Edit button, and then selct Portrait to retroactively turn it into a Portrait mode photo. You can adjust the intensity of the blur to be subtle or intense, and you can even change the focus point of the image to apply a portrait effect to a different subject in the shot. It all worked incredibly smoothly each time I’ve tried it, and as someone who often forgets about Portrait mode on my iPhone, it’s likely to be a huge convenience.
Early impressions of the new 5x telephoto camera are also good! The above photos show the difference in perspective when shooting the same scene with the camera app’s 1x, 2x, and 5x modes. The 5x option gets you quite a bit closer to your subject compared to the 3x maximum on the iPhone 14 Pro Max, and although it doesn’t come close to the 10x optical zoom on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, it’s still a big step forward.
I need more time to completely judge the quality of the 5x telephoto lens, but I do like what I’m seeing so far. The 5x images appear to still retain a good amount of detail, and the added versatility of going from 3x to 5x is already proving to be really welcome. I always felt like I missed out on good photo opportunities with the iPhone 14 Pro’s 3x optical zoom, and I have an inclination that feeling will be a lot less frequent this year.
Something else I’ll be keeping an eye out for over the next few days is how Apple’s Smart HDR 5 holds up. I sometimes found my iPhone 14 Pro Max would struggle with overcast skies and intense sunsets, and I’m curious to see if those things have improved this year.
Based on my first few photos, at least, things are looking promising.
Yes, the Action button is lovely
Other than titanium, one of the biggest visual changes for the iPhone 15 Pro Max is the new Action button. Gone is the ring/silent switch that we’ve had since the original 2007 iPhone. In its place is a customizable button, not unlike the one we have on the Apple Watch Ultra.
By default, a press-and-hold of the Action button on the iPhone 15 Pro Max lets you cycle between ring and silent modes as if the switch never left. It also makes the same vibration patterns when moving between them, so you can tell by feeling alone which mode it’s in. However, a quick trip to the Settings app allows you to change the button’s functionality. You can use the button to enable a Focus mode, open the camera app, turn on the flashlight, start recording a voice memo, open the Magnifier app, start a Siri Shortcut, or enable an accessibility feature.
Just the act of changing what the Action button does is a treat, as Apple made a ridiculously beautiful interface for it. It looks unlike anything else in iOS (and, by nature, a bit out of place compared to the rest of the software) and is so much fun to play around with. It’s filled with subtle haptic feedback, a super-detailed rendering of your phone’s Action button, and lovely animations. It’s 100% overkill, and I’m completely obsessed with it.
Thankfully, the Action button itself is equally great! The press-and-hold gesture has been perfectly reliable, and you get a pop-up in the Dynamic Island that corresponds to whatever you’ve assigned the Action button to do. I’ve been using it to open the camera so far, which has been a massive upgrade compared to fiddling with the camera shortcut on the lock screen.
My biggest complaint so far is that the Action button is limited to one action, as you’re restricted to just the press-and-hold gesture. Having double- and triple-press options would quite literally double or triple the button’s usefulness, and I hope that’s something Apple seriously considers adding in the future. Even without those other options, though, the Action button has been a wonderful replacement for the ring/silent switch. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a change I’m thrilled to see.
More thoughts on the iPhone 15 Pro Max soon
While that may sound like a lot of thoughts on the iPhone 15 Pro Max, there’s still so much more to dig into. Is the A17 Pro really as big of an upgrade as Apple’s claiming it to be? Will battery life be any better than the mediocre performance we got on last year’s Pro iPhones? How will the titanium frame hold up after prolonged use?
Those are all questions that’ll be answered in due time when my complete iPhone 15 Pro Max review is ready. What I will say now, though, is that Apple has made an incredible first impression with the 15 Pro Max. It’s easy to look at the phone as an insignificant update to the iPhone 14 Pro Max, but based on my first few hours with it, I really don’t think that’s the case. The changes this year may be subtle, but they seem to make a pretty dramatic difference in actual use.
The iPhone 15 Pro Max has been a phone I find myself not wanting to put down, and as far as first impressions go, I think that’s about as good of one that a phone can make.