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You could call the iPhone 15 Pro models the most aggressive set of iPhone upgrades since the 10th anniversary iPhone X in 2017. I got my first look at both the iPhone 15 Pro and the iPhone 15 Pro Max in the Steve Jobs Theater after the Apple Event in Cupertino on Tuesday and my first impressions were very favorable -- especially the lighter weight, slightly thinner build, and the tactile feel of the new brushed titanium.
Last year's iPhone 14 Pro Max was the best-selling phone in the iPhone lineup, so we might expect this year's version to extend that winning streak since it adds even more exclusivity with the addition of Apple's new 5x telephoto lens. However, the standard iPhone 15 line is very impressive this year, as ZDNET's Kerry Wan and I noticed when we tried all four of the new iPhone 15 models at the event on Tuesday. Kerry wrote about it in his article, I went hands on with the standard iPhone 15 and didn't envy the Pro models.
Nevertheless, the iPhone 15 Pro -- and especially the Pro Max -- offer key improvements and I can see several reasons to upgrade. Let's look at the ones that will have the biggest impact on everyday life with an iPhone.
The iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max look and feel different this year. Gone is the shiny stainless steel chassis. It's replaced by brushed titanium and it has a matte finish with a textured feel that is more tactile.
But even more noticeable than the texture of the titanium is how much lighter the Pro models are in your hand. It weighs 221 grams, which is 8% less than the 240g of last year's iPhone 14 Pro Max. Apple calls the Pro and the Pro Max the "lightest Pro models ever."
Considering the Apple Watch Ultra is already made out of titanium and Apple has a crack team of metallurgists on staff to help innovate products with material upgrades, it's easy to be confident in this new titanium finish.
Recent models of the iPhone have gotten pretty heavy, so anything that makes it easier to operate the iPhone with one hand is a good thing. And if the phone becomes less slippery and easier to use without a case, then that would be an added bonus.
2. 5x telephoto means much better photos from a distance
The iPhone has long been rumored to be getting a true telephoto lens ever since Samsung and Huawei started adding it into their phones several years ago. Well, it's finally here with the new 5x zoom that's exclusive to the iPhone 15 Pro Max. That is the equivalent of a 120mm focal length on a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Those kinds of lenses can often be 8-10 inches long and full of heavy glass, so Apple had to pull off engineering magic to shrink it into a circle the width of several small coins.
Telephoto photography has been one of the last frontiers for the iPhone camera to conquer. The iPhone has effectively sidelined most point-and-shoot cameras and even taken the place of fancier professional cameras for some situations, especially wide angle shots. However, one area where the iPhone still hasn't been able to touch mirrorless and DSLR cameras has been telephoto zoom shoots.
To be clear, the 5x zoom on the iPhone 15 Pro Max matches the zoom on the Google Pixel 7 Pro but falls short of the 10x optical zoom pioneered by Samsung and Huawei. I carry a Samsung as my work phone and have been using its telephoto lens since the first one was released in the S20 Ultra. The crispness and the clarity of photos taken at 5x-10x with the Samsung zoom lens have been significantly better than anything the iPhone could take for years.
While the iPhone 15 Pro Max doesn't match the length of Samsung's zoom, I'm very interested to test it to see how it stacks up when it comes to image quality. Stay tuned for my full review for more on that.
3. Action button means quick access to your favorite tasks
Apple has replaced the Ring/Silent switch with a new Action button. This is being imported from last year's Apple Watch Ultra, which introduced the feature as a bright orange button that is user-customizable with seven different sets of functions. The iPhone version takes it even farther.
By default, the Action button remains a mute button that puts your phone into Silent Mode. But with the new Action button section in Settings you can easily switch that to Focus Mode, Camera, Flashlight, Voice Memos, Magnifier, Shortcuts, or an Accessibility feature. With Shortcuts you can basically set up a shortcut to launch any app on your phone, which gives the Action button almost limitless flexibility.
I look forward to setting the Action button for instant camera access and to use it as a physical shutter button to take photos. On the iPhone, it still takes several seconds to get the camera app open when the phone is locked, while on my Samsung I can double-click the power button to access the camera a lot more quickly. I've taken over 80,000 photos with the iPhone since 2007, so I average about 5,000 a year. I'm confident I'll take even more and miss fewer shots when I can open the camera with the Action button.
4. USB-C means a lot more versatility and speed
The most widely expected change to all of the iPhone models this year was the switch from Apple's Lightning charging port to the more universal USB-C. Of course, the European Union mandated this to save money for consumers and reduce electronic waste. Lots of Apple competitors have been using USB-C in their phones for years to get better charging speeds and faster data transfers than the iPhone.
Capture Apple ProRAW photos in 48 megapixels and automatically transfer them to a Mac via USB-C
Shoot ProRes video and record directly to an external drive such as an SSD
Connect an external 4K monitor to your iPhone
The challenge is that most of the things mentioned above -- except for charging your AirPods or Apple Watch from the iPhone's USB-C port -- require a USB 3 cable and the Apple cable that comes in the box with the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max only supports USB 2. So you'll need to buy a third-party USB 3 cable to tap into these capabilities.
Of course, the most obvious benefit from the USB-C switch is that you'll now be able to use the same charging cable for iPhone that you use for MacBook or iPad -- along with other non-Apple accessories like cameras, headphones, the Nintendo Switch, etc. However, it also means that your existing Lightning cables and accessories will no longer work for your iPhone, although you'll still need them to charge lots some Apple accessories and lots of older iPhones, iPads, AirPods, etc.
5. A17 Pro chip means computer-like performance
The chip that powers the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max got a nice leap forward this year with the launch of the A17 Pro. This is one of the first devices in the world powered by a next-generation 3nm processor. If you don't care about the details of chips, just know that the iPhone is now powered by one of the fastest, most efficient, and most advanced chips available.
It's that extra speed and power that allows the Pro phones to push so much data so quickly down the new USB-C pipeline. It also gives them extra oomph to run console and desktop-class gaming. It even includes Ray tracing, which the most advanced video games use to provide more a photorealistic environment. The fact that the iPhone 15 Pro Max can now handle one of the most advanced gaming graphics features that has traditionally been the realm of the latest Xbox, PlayStation, and gaming PCs tells you what you need to know about how powerful it is. And hopefully, creative professionals will get ways to use that power in their favorite apps as well.
The one disappointing thing about the way Apple implemented the A17 Pro was that it used all of its new capabilities to increase performance and didn't use any of it to increase battery life. Many users have seen the iPhone 14 Pro experience intermittent battery issues. And in general, even the bigger battery of the iPhone 14 Pro Max isn't enough to power through a full day of heavy use in a crowded urban area or a remote location where your mobile connection has to work harder.
We're going to have to wait a year and hope that Apple focuses on increasing battery life in next year's iPhone 16 Pro models.