iPhone 15 Pro Max Review

It's all about the new camera
Published: 6 October 2023
The massive rear triple camera array. SIMON COCKS

Apple just unleashed a quartet of new iPhones upon the world. You’ve got the standard lineup of the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus, in addition to the premium iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max. So far, so expected. But is it time to trade in your trusted companion for a new titanium powerhouse? That’s what we’re here to help you decide.

While we can’t say we’re that surprised about any of the announcements – there’s been a new model every September for over a decade, and much about these ones was rumoured – we’re happy to report that, after going hands-on, we can say there are appreciable and noticeable upgrades to every phone in the new lineup.

We’ve been testing every new Apple phone and there’s nothing that we’d call a mere “S” model here. But, if you want all the most eye-catching changes, there’s likely only one that you’re lusting after: The iPhone 15 Pro Max.

The 15 Pro Max will feel large, though, if you’re used to a smaller phone. SIMON COCKS

iPhone 15 Pro Max Design and Refinements

It’s all about titanium in 2023. Light, strong, and ready for space exploration. Across the board, Apple has made its Pro phones less weighty. The 14 Pro was 206g, and the 14 Pro Max came in at 240g on the scale. With the 15 lineup, the 15 Pro is 187g and the 15 Pro Max is 221g – it is a big difference that you can actually notice.

Beyond that, though, all of these phones continue to look just like other iPhone models. You’ve got the same look with the massive triple camera setup on the back, and the “Dynamic Island” at the top of the display, housing the front lens and clever face recognition sensors. It’s worth mentioning that both this and the 15 Pro have the thinnest bezels ever witnessed on an iPhone, shaving crucial millimetres off the body of the handset and making it feel slightly smaller when held.

If you like your phone to live without a case, then Apple has some changes you’ll appreciate. It’s not only the reduced weight of the thing, but it now also has these lovely contoured edges and a slightly more matte finish to the back glass. It makes it feel less like you’re going to drop it, so it’s now a realistic option without a case (as long as you’ve got insurance).

The iPhone 15 Pro Max in Apple’s FineWoven case. SIMON COCKS

Speaking of cases, Apple has ditched leather in an environmental push and replaced those cases with its “FineWoven” lineup. We do like the suedelike look and feel of these, but they feel a little overpriced and if protection is your focus, we reckon you’ll prefer highly durable designs like the ones from British brand Mous. If you like a soft touch, the FineWoven ones do feel lovely, though. Want to show off the colour of your phone? Look at Apple’s clear case.

On those colours, the Pro range now comes in four minimal shades: black titanium, white titanium, blue titanium and natural titanium. We’re aware of the critiques that these are all a bit similar, especially the white and the natural, but having seen them all in person in Cupertino, we think they’re easy to distinguish from each other. We think the blue and the natural titanium (the colour of our review unit) are especially appealing.

The iPhone 15 Pro Max action button. SIMON COCKS

iPhone 15 Pro Max Action Button

Let’s be honest, none of us were ever using that mute switch on the left side of our iPhones, were we? Ours has been left on silent since at least the iPhone 4, so it’s essentially useless. That’s why we’re so glad that Apple has replaced the toggle with a fully customisable “action button” on the side of the Pro devices.

By default, a long press of this button still changes your handset between audible alerts and silence, but you can hop into settings and alter it to quickly launch the camera, switch on the torch, put on “do not disturb”, record a voice memo, or do whatever you like with a “Shortcut” – effectively, this launches any app or does almost any action you can imagine. Want to press the button to start your podcast queue, hit play on a workout playlist or launch a third-party camera app? It’s all possible. Not enough of you are taking advantage of the power of shortcuts, so now’s the time to start.

We love this little button, but if we were being picky, we’d say that we’d appreciate even more customisation. Imagine if you could control what it does in different apps or if it could have different functions depending on your focus mode. We’re just throwing out ideas here, but with per-app functions, we’re picturing features to turn it into a way to hop back to the camera when browsing your photos app, while having it still be a way to control something else once in a different app.

Or maybe that if we’re in our “Reading” focus mode it’ll automatically open Reeder or Instapaper, without changing its main use when not in that mode. We’re aware some of this would be complicated to implement, but it’s exciting that there are possibilities and future upgrades could make this button even more useful. So long, mute switch.

High resolution shot. SIMON COCKS

iPhone 15 Pro Max Camera Upgrades

We should be clear that we already adore the performance of the camera on the iPhone 14 Pro. And, if you’re not a discerning photographer, it’s true that it’s also getting harder to notice the increasingly gradual changes between versions.

But there are clear reasons why the 15 Pro series is yet another big step up. It’s a larger main sensor, with reduced lens flare, improved portraits in night mode and, well, just upgraded portraits overall. But there’s one last trick up the sleeve of the 15 Pro Max, and that’s an expanded zoom range. Say goodbye to the 3x zoom, and hello to a 5x reach.

First up, though, portraiture. Look, we can’t be the only ones here who appreciate the notion of the creamy bokeh-licious background blur of a portrait mode but find we barely ever remember to switch it on. Apple gets it. With all the iPhone 15 models, the portrait mode is automatic in photos with people and certain animals (yes to cats and dogs, but no to hedgehogs – sorry, we don’t make the rules).

Telephoto camera. SIMON COCKS

This is going to make it much easier to fill your camera roll with pro-looking portraits, and we’ve already found it simple to use. It works every time with people but is a little more hit-and-miss with animals – it may have just not gotten along with the Shih Tzu we met in the park, but it worked for the Cockapoo we encountered in the pub. We’re fans of the depth control on all the shots, and how you can change the focus point after the shot. You’re getting a huge amount of creative control in a compact package here.

We tested out the longer 5x zoom on the Pro Max too, and we like the crisp and detailed shots from this third lens. We know Samsung fans swear by the absurd zoom length on the S23 Ultra, but we just don’t find it useful and the results are inconsistent, crunchy and too unnatural.

The iPhone is the better pick for consistency between the lenses and more true-to-life reproduction of details and colours. This system is a fantastic option for mobile photographers – we’d say if you lean more towards wildlife, outdoor events or field trips, the 15 Pro Max’s long 120mm equivalent zoom is better, but for a classic portraiture focal length, the 77mm telephoto of the 15 Pro is the one to pick.

Zoom range. SIMON COCKS

Both Pro models also give you a new ability to choose your standard lens and switch between the 24, 28 and 35mm focal lengths. We’ve already seen some commentators confuse this with a digital zoom, but there’s actual computational wizardry going on here too.

You can tell because the output of each option is at the same 24-megapixel resolution, and the results do come out looking terrific. Where we can see this coming in handy is if we want to match the focal length of our main camera (a 35mm-equivalent Fujifilm X100V) while shooting and want to include a few iPhone snaps without them sticking out like sore thumbs.

Overall, we’re left feeling like there’s little that this camera can’t do for most photographers – it’s an absurdly capable piece of kit that delivers quality shots from every lens.


iPhone 15 Pro Max Charging and Connectivity

Rejoice, Apple has caught up with the rest of the industry and the direction of its own gadgets by finally adding a USB-C port to every iPhone 15. Everyone doesn’t always remember this detail, but Apple was in fact the first brand to put USB-C on a laptop back in 2015, when it added it to its 12-inch MacBook. So, it’s a bit of a shame that it’s taken this long to reach the phones (USB-C iPads have been sold to the masses since 2018), but we’re not about to complain.

At last, your iPhone can charge using the same cord that you use for every other gadget in your house, whether that’s your headphones, MacBook, portable speakers, or wireless mechanical keyboard – it also means you’ll have one fewer cable to remember to bring with your power bank when you leave the house, or when you pack for your travels.

We’ve been testing what this port can do, and it’s good news that it’s not locked down like Lightning. We’ve connected third-party memory card readers to access photos and videos taken on our camera, a powerful USB-C to 3.5mm DAC to drive our wired headphones playing music from high-res music streaming services, and to recharge the phone with the same charger we’d use for our laptop or iPad.

The devices will negotiate the required amount of power, and as long as you’re not buying weirdly cheap third-party chargers from no-name brands on Amazon there isn’t a risk because USB-C is a standard, and that’s why this change is such a welcome addition. Apple talks about how it can charge the new USB-C AirPods and an Apple Watch with the necessary cable, but it actually goes much beyond that.

This battery will last several hours more than your old 12 Pro Max. SIMON COCKS

We tested several connections and it can pass power over to another iPhone 15 with less remaining battery via a USB-C to USB-C cable – it’ll do the same to an older iPhone via a USB-C to Lightning cable or to the older AirPods. It appears to work to give a little charge to non-Apple wireless earbuds too. This is all super helpful if you’re low on power, and it’s something we’d use in a pinch. It’s also good news for Pro users that this port supports rapid USB 3 data transfer, allowing you to quickly move files to attached USB-C thumb drives or fast solid-state drives.

When it comes to overall battery life and recharging, we’re looking at essentially the same story as last year. The 15 Pro Max offers up to 29 hours of downloaded video playback and up to 25 hours of video playback over streaming, continuing to offer the fastest maximum charging speeds of a 27W to 29W peak that matches its predecessor.

We need a little more time with the phone to see if it delivers the quoted battery life, but we’d expect to get just over a day of regular use, depending on screen brightness and data use. You should find it hits about half full in 30 minutes, which we tend to think is fast enough for most people, especially as it also offers convenient wireless charging via both MagSafe (up to 15W) and Qi (up to 7.5W) stands and pads.

Just about the thinnest bezels on any smartphone we’ve seen. SIMON COCKS

iPhone 15 Pro Max Verdict

If you appreciate a bigger screen, bigger battery and all the latest features, the iPhone 15 Pro Max is a tremendous option. It feels innovative rather than iterative and brings some long-overdue features and some seriously impressive additions to the Pro iPhones.

Sometimes, we do find it a little too large to use one-handed but if you’re worried about that, the 15 Pro is a great phone with the vast majority of the features you get in the bigger model. However, if that far longer 5x zoom is calling out to you, we’d pick the iPhone 15 Pro Max. We love the performance of this camera setup, the capabilities of the USB-C port and the gorgeous brushed titanium design.

iPhone 15 Pro Max: The Need-to-Know

  • Display size and resolution: 6.7-inch, 2796 x 1290 pixels
  • Cameras: 48MP main, 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP 2x telephoto, 12MP front-facing, 12MP 5x telephoto
  • Battery life: Up to 26 hours
  • Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
  • Weight: 221g
The iPhone 15 Pro Max camera in use. SIMON COCKS

iPhone 15 Pro Max: Other Rivals to Consider

  • iPhone 15 Pro: There are a couple of pluses and minuses to switching to the smaller 15 Pro, you’ll get a bit less battery and less zoom range but as we’ve mentioned we do find the Pro Max a little tricky to use one-handed and find that the 77mm telephoto is better for traditional portraits. It depends on what works for you, but we’ve been testing both of these handsets and both impress.
  • iPhone 14 Pro Max: Last year’s phone? With its Lightning port and lack of action button? Yes, we still highly recommend this model if you want many of the same powers present in the 15 Pro now at a lower price. It’s a brilliant option for its screen size, performance, high-resolution camera abilities and “Dynamic Island” feature – if you’re coming from an older model, it’s a terrific upgrade. But we’d encourage you to go for the latest and greatest in the 15 Pro Max.
  • Samsung S23 Ultra: If all you care about is zoom, then it’s true that Samsung’s flagship gives you more to work with and gets you much closer to far-away subjects. It’s just worth noting that the computational stuff is much more heavy-handed (yes, those moon photos are, controversially, a bit faked) and there’s less consistency between the lenses. But otherwise, this is fast, efficient and powerful, and we’d say, one of the best Android phones that you can buy in 2023.

Originally published on Esquire UK

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