New iPhones tend to be rather boring. Not the pricey Pro models that get most of the fancy new features — I’m talking about the regular versions that are ideal for most of us. Apple has historically taken a trickle-down approach to its mainline phone, adding components and features from the previous year’s Pros as part of the annual update. That’s primarily what we’re dealing with on the iPhone 15, which starts at $799. However, the combination of those hand-me-downs, a revamped camera and the switch to USB-C make this year’s regular iPhone a worthy upgrade.
Apple hasn’t made sweeping changes to the “regular” iPhone design in years, opting instead for subtle tweaks that only a careful observer will notice. For the iPhone 15, the company kept the aircraft-grade aluminum frame but gave it a more contoured edge. For this reason, the new model is more pleasant to hold, but you’ll only enjoy that if you aren’t using a case.
- Upgraded camera
- Solid performance
- Dynamic Island is handy
- USB-C is finally here
- Overall design is getting stale
- No high-refresh rate display
- USB-C is limited
- Colors are underwhelming
Apple also made a significant tweak to the back of the iPhone 15, choosing “color-infused” glass with a matte finish that it says is a first for smartphones. The issue for me here is the colors. Apple’s selection of black, blue, green, yellow and pink lack the pop of previous iPhone generations and are quite pastel in real life.
This isn’t a problem if you’re a fan of those shades, but they’re not for me. They’re muted to the point I thought I still had a protective covering on the back of the phone. There’s no white, gold or silver option, so you’re only left with the black – that’s really more of a dark gray – if you want something less Easter-y. The iPhone 15 is just as durable and water-resistant as its predecessor, so there’s no upgrades there. You’ll still get a Ceramic Shield display up front for added protection and an overall IP68 rating.
If a distinguishing factor on the iPhone 14 was the lack of a SIM tray, this year you’ll want to venture to the bottom edge. Apple has finally made the change to USB-C, a slightly larger and more pill-shaped port than its Lightning jack. Of course, there’s still no SIM tray as last year’s model ushered in the era of the eSIM, making transferring your number to a new phone much easier and giving you the option for multiple lines on the same device.
Apple’s decision to not upgrade the iPhone 14’s display last year was disappointing, and while the company didn’t go as far as I’d like on the iPhone 15, there are some worthwhile changes. There’s a new Super Retina XDR display that offers 2,556 x 1,179 at 460 ppi on the iPhone 15 (2,796 x 1,290 on the 15 Plus). That’s not much different from the iPhone 14, which also had a Super Retina XDR panel. But, Apple now offers 2,000 nits of peak brightness and 1,600 nits of peak HDR brightness – both increases over the previous model. Colors continue to be rich and you’ll get plenty of crisp detail, none of which is surprising.
Unfortunately, we’re still saddled with a 60Hz refresh rate on the iPhone 15s; the higher refresh rate is once again reserved for the Pros. Unless you’ve used a phone with a 120Hz display, you can probably live without it, but it’s worth noting that other companies have given their base model phones a higher rate. The Pixel 8, for example, has a 120Hz display, as does the Galaxy S23. And as my colleague Cherlynn Low pointed out last year, when you go from a Pro model iPhone to the “regular” version, the choppiness of the display becomes apparent when scrolling. Of course, the always-on display is limited to the iPhone 15 Pros, too, so you don’t get ever-present time, widgets and wallpapers on the iPhone 15.
The biggest change to the display is the Dynamic Island. This particular feature debuted on the iPhone 14 Pro last year, when Apple replaced the notch with the handy, informative area around the front-facing camera. Just like it does on the Pro models, Dynamic Island on the iPhone 15 provides easy access to alerts, Live Activities and apps that are running in the background.
When music is playing, you’ll see tiny album art and either an audio waveform or an icon for where the audio is broadcast (HomePod, speaker, etc.). Press and hold and you’ll get playback controls similar to what you typically see on the lock screen – only docked at the top of the display. Live Activities can show you things like flight statuses or Lyft arrival times, and Apple says its dedicated API will allow developers to expand how their apps harness the Dynamic Island. Coming from my iPhone 14 I’ve enjoyed having the extra info or controls always just a long press away. It’s one of this year’s trickle-down features that makes life easier.
One of the biggest changes on the iPhone 15 is the new camera. Apple has replaced the 12-megapixel dual-camera with a 48-megapixel setup and quad-pixel sensor. The company said that its photonic engine combines the low-light performance of 12MP images with large quad pixels with the detail of a 48MP version composed of individual pixels. The result, and the default setting, is a 24MP image with increased clarity and better shots in dim lighting. There’s also a new 2x optical-quality telephoto preset, so the iPhone 15 now has three preselected zoom options.
The headline feature of the new camera is portraits in regular photo mode. The iPhone 15 now captures depth information whenever it detects humans, cats or dogs “prominently” in the frame. This allows you to apply the portrait mode effect afterwards with the editing tools in the Photos app. You no longer have to select it before shooting. An “f” icon will appear whenever the camera is capturing depth and tapping it will allow you to preview and activate portrait mode before you shoot. For photos you’ve already taken, opening the editor will show you an obvious portrait button for all shots where depth info is stored. There’s also a shortcut to activate portrait mode for compatible images when you’re viewing a single photo, so you don’t have to jump into the full edit view.
Gallery: iPhone 15 camera samples | 17 Photos
Gallery: iPhone 15 camera samples | 17 Photos
It’s nice to be able to apply or remove the portrait effect later on from certain shots. Whether you add the effect in edits or while shooting, the results are pretty consistent. Apple’s portrait mode struggles at times with the edges of faces, so there were some pictures where my ears or my beard were blurry. But overall, photos taken with the effect enabled and those with it applied afterward look the same.
Most photos from the iPhone 15 weren’t obviously different from those taken with the iPhone 14. Low-light shots from this year’s model are slightly warmer and more detailed as it handles things like the glare from street lights better. That’s likely due to the way the iPhone 15 combines 12MP and 48MP images. On well-lit or outdoor photos though, it’s hard to distinguish between stills from the two phones without peeking at the metadata or zooming in to see that the iPhone 15 is better with things like hair and textures.
You’ll want to use those new 48MP shots via the HEIF MAX mode sparingly though, opting for these means increased file size and will quickly eat up your phone’s storage. 12MP low-light images are around 1MB each, 24MP stills clock in at about 2.5MB and the 48MP photos are around 5.5MB. So, when shooting at maximum quality, your snaps will be just over double that of the default setting. Thankfully, Apple gives you one-tap access to HEIF MAX on the main camera UI, but you’ll have to enable resolution control in the camera settings to see it in the top right corner.
Performance and battery life
Another hand-me-down the iPhone 15 received from last year’s Pro is the A16 Bionic. The chip powers all of the “advanced features,” including Dynamic Island, increased outdoor display brightness and the 48MP main camera. Additionally, the A16 Bionic packs a six-core CPU that uses 20 percent less power than the A15 Bionic on the iPhone 14 and a five-core GPU with 50-percent more memory bandwidth than the previous combo. Lastly, the A16 Bionic’s 16-core neural engine is the extra oomph behind features like the updated portrait mode, live voicemail and better autocorrect.
During everyday use, the iPhone 15 performed quickly and smoothly, handling all of the tasks I threw at it without a stutter. That’s doing a mix of Instagram, Gmail, Apple Music, calls, texts and some YouTube TV streaming – all with an Apple Watch connected. The only time I noticed the phone running warm was whenever I was multitasking while streaming video or live TV via picture-in-picture. Even then, the iPhone 15 never got too hot to handle.
Apple has given the iPhone 15 a second-gen Ultra Wideband chip that powers Precision Finding. What’s more, the company has expanded it to Find My friends, so you can get pinpoint directions to someone for the times you might be in a dense crowd. You’ll have to share your location with each other, which can be disabled at any time, and Find My can notify the friend you’re looking for them. I haven’t been able to test this with a fellow iPhone 15 user yet, but having just been to a music festival I can see it replacing the constant barrage of “Where are you?” texts.
In addition to Find My, Apple continues to offer safety features like satellite-powered roadside assistance and emergency SOS, which it introduced last year. The company is making those services free for two years with iPhone 15 so you can still contact AAA via text when you’re out of reach of a cellular signal. Like the previous models, theiPhone 15 also features car crash detection and can also notify your emergency contacts from the Health app. Crash detection also works with emergency SOS via satellite, so it will still contact first responders if there’s no cellular or Wi-Fi connection available. Thankfully, I haven’t had the opportunity to try these. They’re items I’m happy to have, but hope I never use.
The change to USB-C is a welcome one, albeit long overdue. In addition to giving you a more universal connection consistent with iPad and Mac, you can charge your Apple Watch, AirPods and other compatible devices with the iPhone 15. This came in handy a few times when my Apple Watch Series 7 was running on fumes. It has also been nice to top up my AirPods Pro while in transit if I forgot to charge them before leaving the house. Plus, it’s been nice to remove one cable from my travel stash.
The disappointing thing about USB-C is that Apple has limited data transfers to USB 2.0 speeds of 480 Mbps. I can’t see a scenario where you would use your phone for transporting lots of files, but the low speed does hamper things like transferring data to a new phone. As expensive as the base iPhone is, a faster connection here would be nice.
In terms of battery life, Apple’s claims of “all day” use still hold true. After a day that started at 7AM, the iPhone 15 still had 28 percent left when I plugged it in just before 1AM, with some moderately heavy Instagram scrolling between 8PM and midnight. Even at a music festival where I was constantly using the phone, I never went below 25-30 percent. That’s over three days of running low-power mode for more than 15 hours while shooting a mix of Instagram Stories, photos and video. And in both scenarios, I had an Apple Watch and a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor connected and constantly in use.
Apple says a 20W power adapter can charge the iPhone 15 in about 30 minutes. The phone also supports MagSafe wireless charging with compatible accessories. Despite the shift to USB-C, nothing has changed from the iPhone 14, so if you were hoping for faster charging, that’s not happening (yet, anyway).
With the iPhone 15, Apple offers enough to make this year’s device a worthwhile upgrade. That’s not always the case, and it certainly wasn’t last year. However, the revamped camera works well, offering higher-quality shots when you need them, and Dynamic Island is genuinely useful. USB-C, even though it’s limited, is a welcome addition too. And since you’re likely going to slap a case on the thing anyway, you can probably live with Apple’s color chemistry experiment if those hues don’t quite excite you. And while it’s nice that the iPhone 15 is a more significant upgrade than we’ve gotten in years, here’s hoping that a complete overhaul is coming soon.
Gallery: iPhone 15 review | 12 Photos
Gallery: iPhone 15 review | 12 Photos