Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max review: Many small steps together compose a giant leap

A broader look at Apple’s efforts with the iPhone 15 phones puts things in perspective. It is a measure of where the iPhone 15 Pro Max is, as it tries to match up to the always-increasing user expectations and proficient competition. What’s new can be categorised into three distinct types, major updates, minor improvements and the unavoidable. Along the way, that helps with differentiation between the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus too.

The iPhone 15 Pro Max has shaved off a few millimeters in height and width, while the big changes include a new Action Button and USB-C (HT Photo/Vishal Kant)
The iPhone 15 Pro Max has shaved off a few millimeters in height and width, while the big changes include a new Action Button and USB-C (HT Photo/Vishal Kant)

It may not be an overstatement to look at the evolving iPhone 15 Po Max as a pivotal moment. Similar to an entirely new direction of approach which the iPhone X achieved, in 2017. Few such moments mark a decade.

A more powerful processor, a titanium build, an action button instead of the ring mode toggle and camera updates are the big steps forward. Still, evolutions rather than any full-blown revolution. Though, how much weightage you give to the fairly significant weight reduction as a result of different metals being used, may vary. Camera improvements and a brighter display, are the derivative improvements. In parallel, the USB-C transition is dictated by necessity more than anything else.

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You’ll need to contextualise this with the price increase the iPhone 15 Pro Max gets, compared with what the iPhone 14 Pro Max cost at launch. You’ll now be parting with 1,59,900 for 256GB, 1,79,900 (512GB) or 1,99,900 (1TB). The entry price has a significant upside compared with the 1,39,900 entry price point last year. What does that extra heft on the price tag, get you?

There are several things the iPhone 15 Pro phones are doing better than last year. collectively, that’s still a substantial step forward. Ergonomics, for instance. The iPhone 15 Pro Max, at 221 grams, is 19 grams lighter than the iPhone 14 Pro Max. Numbers, for once, do not betray a significant, real-world difference. It is now lighter than the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra (234 grams) and the Xiaomi 13 Ultra (227 grams).

This weight reduction isn’t only because of the titanium frame. If it had been, the result would’ve been an unbalanced in-hand feel (since it’d have been on the edges). The chassis, which is the phone’s skeleton, uses a new composition of recycled aluminium. That’s lighter than before too. You’ll also notice a few millimetres have been shaved off with the height and width, compared with the iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Borders around the display are thinner. Makes the Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max that much more comfortable to hold. Mind you though, titanium doesn’t make the iPhone any more scratch-resistant. If you’re like me, a bit worried about scrapes and dings on the frame (or the glass; the new frosted matte glass looks gorgeous, particularly in blue), a case will still be your port of call.

Another design element is the Action Button. It replaces the toggle we had to quickly switch between ring and silent modes. It’ll take some getting used to, but the enhanced versatility certainly sweetens the deal. Press and hold still does that, but this can now be customised for a few other tasks. Turning on the flashlight, quickly opening the camera app or even the upcoming Translate feature. The thing is, this button can be configured for one action only. There isn’t the option for long press, double press etc.

We can thank the European Union regulators for making this happen. Finally. All four iPhone 15 devices have USB-C. The Apple iPhone 15 Pro phones unlock the faster standard though, that’s up to 10 Gbps (Gigabits) speeds for data transfer. Since the Camera enables Apple ProRes videos at 4K 60fps when recording directly to external storage, these speeds will be worth paying extra for a “Pro” iPhone this time around. That in itself is an innovative use case, quite likely to be used extensively, since even cinematic releases are being shot on iPhones, in this era.

Also, this port can reverse charge other USB-C devices at 4.5 watts of power. That’ll be useful for juicing up the Apple Watch or AirPods, for instance. Or pretty much any smartwatch or wireless earbuds.

While there is no power adapter in the box by default, a method Apple decided upon a while ago (and many in the Android space have followed through on too), you’ll find a woven charging cable nevertheless. This might be good news for some folks. Interestingly enough, this cable that Apple bundles does not support 10Gbps. For all the “pro” use cases such as writing camera recordings to external solid-state drives, you must buy a faster cable. This seems like a miss since these aren’t exactly phones on a budget.

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This got us thinking. Can the Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max be connected to an external display, such as a TV, for video out? The answer is a resoundingly affirmative. Apart from AirPlay, that is, up to 4K resolution with HDR (or high-dynamic range). We were able to get this working, with two different Ultra HD TVs using a USB-C to HDMI cable. You’ll need one that does 3840 x 2160 resolution at 60Hz and HDR by default; it became clear soon enough that many of the older generation third-party adapters will likely not work as well as you’d hope.

Now put this in context. First and foremost, the processor is now “Pro” and not “Bionic”. Make of it what you will. With the new A17 Pro chip returning 10% faster CPU and 20% faster graphics than the A16 Bionic, performance benchmarks which have remained unmatched by any competition from Qualcomm or MediaTek, have now been pushed even further.

Some AAA console gaming titles are arriving on the iPhone. Resident Evil Village, Resident Evil 4, and Death Stranding will be released later this year, while Assassin’s Creed Mirage will be available in the first half of 2024. Now imagine the potential of pairing a game controller with the iPhone, that’s connected with a 4K TV. That, or you could simply get one of the accessories such as a Backbone One, for gaming.

It is not just more power to put the Android competition at an even bigger disadvantage. Battery life seems improved too. After the first 48 hours of post-setup routine was done, including a full discharge cycle, the iPhone 15 Pro Max returned with around 30% battery at the end of a typical workday. That is, after 6 hours and 15 minutes of screen time. Your mileage will vary depending on brightness, and specific uses such as camera or gaming, but this builds from the consistency of the iPhone 14 Pro Max.

Some heating on the back panel, is still quite apparent, from time to time. Yet, there isn’t a trend we can illustrate. That makes this all the more perplexing. While this iPhone can get through extensive multitasking and camera use without a hint of a tepid back panel, at other times, a five-minute scroll on Instagram or simply using wireless CarPlay for 30 minutes can make it uncomfortably warm. There isn’t a definite list we can make, of what occasionally strains the A17 Pro chip, and why.

Apple doesn’t talk about it much, but the wired charging speeds on the iPhone 15 Pro Max have been boosted to 27 watts. No comparison with now triple-digit speeds that some Android phones juice up with. But you’ll save some time if you use a 30-watt charger.

While differentiation is very much on the agenda for Apple, it remains a tad perplexing that while the iPhone 15 Pro Max gets 256GB storage as the starting point, the iPhone 15 Pro has to make do with 128GB as the entry spec. Expectation is, more creators are expected to use the two Pro phones. You decide whether that’s an infallible approach or not, but the extra storage would be quite useful since the updated camera has a few tricks up its sleeve. Apple calls this the new Photonic Engine, but let’s not get bogged down by the naming.

On the hardware front, there’s a new 5x telephoto lens, replacing the 3x zoom from last year’s iPhone 14 Pro Max. Mind you, the iPhone 15 Pro still has the 3x optical zoom, and physical space inside a phone still plays a role. This isn’t at all a game-changer for smartphones, but photographers now get much more versatility to work with when shooting a subject at a distance. Can be used in portrait mode too, the worth of which will be apparent as you click more.

Apart from optical zoom and up to 25x digital zoom, there are three focal length options to manually select for shooting. That’s 24mm, 28mm and 35mm, tapping on the 1x zoom option (not the easiest to find, mind you). These aren’t to be confused with digital zoom since they use a new image processing pipeline, working with data from a 48-megapixel primary sensor. If you are still to think of these in zoom terms, these would be similar to 1x, 1.2x and 1.5x.

Default photo resolution has been increased from 12-megapixel to 24-megapixel, with pixel binning improvements. The overall size is an increase of 1MB per image, from 2MB to 3MB. But there’s more detailing that you’d appreciate, including sharper highlights, improved dynamic range and less lens flare. That said, rogue green dots still show up in some photos, particularly ones that have a light source looking at the camera.

Android phone users will claim they’ve enjoyed the wider USB-C ecosystem for years. Or that optical zoom isn’t anything new for them. But there’s a collective wisdom which is likely to be coming true here as well – when Apple finally does something, they do it better than everyone else. The 5x photos on the iPhone 15 Pro Max capture more details than the Google Pixel’s 5x zoom photos, and is at par with the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra (this takes the lead with 10x zoom, a stage later).

We are now firmly in an era wherein revolutions with annual smartphone refreshes are no longer a reality. It is more a case now of different approaches, incremental forward steps and the hope that collectively, they mean something. That’s exactly where we are at with the iPhone 15 Pro Max, with Apple hoping exclusivity enhances appeal. For anyone on an iPhone earlier than the iPhone 14 Pro Max, this does seem akin to a significant upgrade. Perhaps the nudge towards USB-C will unlock more, something we’ve had our first whiff of with regard to gaming.

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