Apple iPhone 15 and 15 Plus Review: A Big Leap From Older iPhones
With the Dynamic Island and USB-C, the iPhone 15 gains "pro" features and easier charging. But the changes are most noticeable coming from an aging iPhone.
Updated Sept. 19, 2023 6:00 a.m. PT
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Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
After using the iPhone 15 for a few days, there's one thing I can say with certainty: It's a major upgrade for older iPhone users.
The biggest new addition is the USB-C charging port located where the Lightning connector used to be. That means you can use the same cable to charge your Mac, your iPhone and many of the other non-Apple devices in your life. (Although I'll have to admit, I accidentally tried plugging a Lightning cable into my iPhone 15 on my first night with the phone just out of habit.)
Watch this: iPhone 15 Review: A Big Upgrade for Older iPhone Owners
There's also a new second-gen ultra-wideband chip inside the phone, enabling it to pinpoint the precise location of friends and family members that are also iPhone 15 users. And the camera now captures enough depth data in the regular photo mode to create a portrait image after you took the picture.
The iPhone 15 and 15 Plus also heavily draw from the iPhone 14 Pro's influence, giving users who can't splurge on Apple's pricier phone a taste of last year's "pro" features. That includes the Dynamic Island, a dedicated area near the top of the screen for viewing time-sensitive data like your Uber's ETA, and the A16 Bionic processor. While the iPhone 15's camera technically isn't the same as the one on the iPhone 14 Pro, they each have a 48-megapixel main sensor.
Overall, these changes come together to make the iPhone 15 feel like a big step forward for those upgrading from an aging iPhone. (That includes me, an iPhone 12 owner.) But it's not a dramatic difference from Apple's previous generation phone. Rather, it feels like an extension of the iPhone 14 Pro, which can make it hard to recommend over last year's premium iPhone if you can still find it at a discount.
The iPhone 15 starts at $799 (£799, AU$1,499) for the 6.1-inch model and $899 for the 6.7-inch Plus model. And if you're curious about the "Pro" line Apple is launching, check out my colleague Patrick Holland's review of the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max. All four new iPhones are available now.
iPhone 15 gets USB-C and a new look
Say goodbye to your Lightning cable. The iPhone 15 is the first iPhone to support USB-C charging, a move that complies with new rules from the EU mandating smartphones sold in Europe to adopt the common charging standard. A USB-C charging cable is included in the box instead of a Lightning cable.
USB-C has essentially been standard across most gadgets (laptops, tablets, phones, wireless earbuds) for years. But the iPhone's transition is significant because it has been the one major outlier when it comes to USB-C. Even other recent Apple gadgets, like newer iPads, have the charging port.
For iPhone 15 owners, the biggest benefit you'll get is a charging experience that's more convenient, and in some cases faster. The standard iPhone 15 can replenish its battery up to 50% in 30 minutes with a 20-watt adapter, but it'll charge at an even faster 27W if you plug it into the charger that comes with your Mac.
Faster data transfer speeds, however, are reserved for the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max, which support USB 3. The iPhone 15 supports USB 2 transfer speeds, just like the Lightning port on last year's iPhone 14 and 14 Pro.
But there's another way to put the iPhone 15's new charging port to use. You can use the iPhone to charge other gadgets. I charged the AirPods Pro 2, which Apple now sells with a USB-C case, by connecting the case to my iPhone 15 via USB-C.
The switch to USB-C may not feel immediately convenient, especially if you own other Lightning-powered products, like AirPods or an older iPad. But it'll be helpful in the long run.
In addition to supporting Apple's MagSafe magnetic charging system, the iPhone 15 is also compatible with the new Qi2 wireless charging standard. That should make it easier to align the iPhone 15 correctly on non-MagSafe Qi2 wireless chargers when those accessories eventually launch.
There's also some good news for those of you who prefer not to use a phone case. The iPhone 15's new finish feels more premium and doesn't gather as many fingerprint smudges. Apple says the back glass has been infused with color, giving it that cloudy look. It almost reminds me of the Galaxy S23, which also has a matte look, although its edges are glossy while the iPhone's are aluminum.
I've so far been brave enough to use the iPhone 15 without a case, and I haven't had to wipe away fingerprint smudges once.
The Dynamic Island, that tiny cutout for viewing sports scores and controlling Spotify, is no longer exclusive to Apple's Pro iPhones. It's now available across the entire iPhone 15 family, making it a part of the standard iPhone experience rather than an extra feature for niche "pro" users. The Dynamic Island's expansion also marks the end of the notch screen cutout, which debuted in 2017 on the iPhone X, on new flagship iPhones.
Apple introduced the Dynamic Island on the iPhone 14 Pro as a way to keep tabs on time-sensitive updates and manage music playback without having to switch between apps. I don't think it's a game changer, but the Dynamic Island does bring some convenience. For example, I use it to keep an eye on my fantasy football team's score and skip tracks in Spotify without opening the app. I could see it being especially helpful when I use my lunch break to squeeze in a workout, since I can control my Spotify playlist and keep Slack open on screen at the same time.
The Dynamic Island alone isn't a reason to upgrade. But I appreciate that it makes the iPhone better at multitasking, which is important considering the iPhone lacks the split-screen mode found on Android phones. Since the Dynamic Island works automatically for the most part, there's no learning curve.
Apple also increased the iPhone 15's display brightness compared to the iPhone 14. It now matches the iPhone 14 Pro's brightness, marking another similarity. This was noticeable in direct sunlight when I viewed both the iPhone 15 and iPhone 14's screens side-by-side, although the iPhone's screen was already bright enough to see comfortably in the sun.
The iPhone 15 should have an always-on display, too
But the iPhone 15 is missing one "pro" feature that I was hoping to see: an always-on display. Starting with last year's iPhone 14 Pro, Apple's pro devices have the ability to show information like the time and date even when the screen is turned off. This makes it easier to see bits of data at a glance without actually having to pick up your phone and unlock it.
In iOS 17, that always-on display has become even more useful thanks to a new feature called Standby mode. When your iPhone is charging and situated in landscape orientation, it will display large widgets and clock faces -- essentially turning it into a miniature smart display. But without an always-on display, the iPhone 15 turns eventually into a black rectangle instead of persistently showing the clock and my calendar.
It's reasonable that some features should remain exclusive to the iPhone 15 Pro, but I don't think the always-on display should be one of them. There are plenty of other features to distinguish the iPhone 15 Pro from the 15, such as a titanium build, a dedicated telephoto lens, the new A17 Pro processor and the Action button for programming shortcuts. Like the Dynamic Island, the always-on display feels like it belongs baked into the standard iPhone experience, especially since most competing Android phones in this price range and cheaper have the feature.
The iPhone 15 gets a camera upgrade
The standard iPhone is finally getting a bump in camera resolution. While the last several generations of the regular iPhone have had a 12-megapixel camera system, the iPhone 15 has a new 48-megapixel sensor that snaps 24-megapixel photos by default. This combined with the iPhone 15's improved dynamic range brings a big boost in image quality compared to older iPhones like the iPhone 12.
The iPhone 15's default 24-megapixel photos look rich, sharp and colorful. While you can't always see the difference at first glance compared to the iPhone 14, the improvements become clearer when zooming in. I noticed the iPhone 15's new camera at work most prominently when taking photos of people. The iPhone 15's camera captures crisper details in the face and hair, as you can see in the photo below of my husband.
You won't have to look twice to see the difference if you're upgrading from an older model like the iPhone 12. Just about everything looks better shot on the iPhone 15 compared to the iPhone 12 when capturing images of people. Take a look at the photo of my friend Jamie below, and you'll notice there's just so much more detail in her face and hair. It's especially impressive considering I took this photo in low light at an outdoor restaurant at night.
Apple clearly had portrait photography in mind for the iPhone 15. You no longer have to manually switch to Portrait Mode to shoot an image with a bokeh effect. The iPhone 15 can capture depth data automatically when shooting a person, cat or dog so that you can apply the effect afterwards. It's a fun addition that provides more flexibility when shooting and editing. It's refreshing to see Apple adding more editing options like these to the iPhone, considering that's typically been one of Google's strong points with its Pixel phones.
Take a look at the photos below to see the same photo with and without the portrait blur effect.
iPhone 15 (Without portrait effect)
iPhone 15 (With portrait effect)
Even though the iPhone 15 captures 24-megapixel pictures by default, you can also shoot at the full 48-megapixel resolution. But this is most useful for photos that you might want to print since the difference in quality isn't very noticeable to the naked eye.
When I compared the same photo side-by-side -- one shot at 24 megapixels and the other at 48 megapixels -- I could only see the 48-megapixel photo's extra clarity when I zoomed in very closely. If I had a hard time noticing the difference on my 21-inch monitor, you certainly won't be able to see it on your phone's tiny screen.
That said, those minute details will likely be noticeable if you plan to order large prints of your iPhone photos. The 48-megapixel file was too large to upload for this review, but here's a look at a photo I captured at the 24-megapixel resolution.
iPhone 15 (24 megapixels)
The iPhone 15's new camera sensor also brings another trick: better zoom. There's a new 2x telephoto option in the camera app, which is frankly a much-needed upgrade considering Samsung has been far ahead in this regard. While you'll get a much higher quality zoom on the iPhone 15 Pro since it has a telephoto lens, the iPhone 15 uses the camera sensor's middle 12 megapixels to achieve a clearer 2x zoom.
The result is a cleaner zoomed shot that preserves more detail at 2x compared to the iPhone 14. But again, this is only truly noticeable when zooming in. To show you what I mean, I cropped in closely on the palm trees in the photo below, which was captured using the new 2x telephoto setting, to illustrate how the iPhone 15 captures more detail at the pixel level. On the iPhone 14, I manually zoomed in at 2x using the pinch-to-zoom function.
Original Photo (iPhone 15, shot at 2x)
iPhone 15 (Cropped shot)
iPhone 14 (Cropped shot)
Samsung, however, still has Apple beat when it comes to zoom photography. The $800 Galaxy S23 has a dedicated telephoto lens with a 3x optical zoom, offering sharper images and more flexibility when shooting. Take a look at the same portion of the image shown above shot on the Galaxy S23 Plus at a 3x zoom.
Galaxy S23 Plus (Shot at 3x, cropped in)
Overall, the iPhone 15's new camera will feel like a huge step up from older generations. While the camera upgrades are noticeable compared to the iPhone 14, it's not a big enough leap to justify upgrading just yet. But it'll feel like a night-and-day difference for those coming from older phones.
Take a look at the gallery below to see some other photos I shot on the iPhone 15.
The iPhone 15 has the same chip as the iPhone 14 Pro
The iPhone 15 inherits the iPhone 14 Pro's A16 Bionic chip, which the company claims brings general performance improvements and enables faster machine learning, which is important for features that rely on language processing like iOS 17's voicemail transcriptions.
The A16 Bionic processor isn't Apple's newest mobile chip, but it's powerful enough for many of the things iPhone 15 owners are likely to be doing on their phones. That includes playing mobile games, scrolling through Instagram, editing photos and making video calls. The differences will be more noticeable if you're upgrading from a phone that's more than two years old.
And I should know, because I've been using an iPhone 12 as my primary phone before reviewing the iPhone 15. Everything on the iPhone 15 feels lighter and faster compared to the iPhone 12. But taking photos in dim environments, like an outdoor restaurant at night, felt noticeably faster.
The iPhone 15 lineup also has Apple's second-generation ultra-wideband chip, which enables a new feature for finding friends and family members in a crowd. After sharing their location with you in the Find My app, your iPhone 15 will be able to show how far away the person is from your current location and point you in the right direction. It's like using your phone to find an AirTag.
The catch, however, is that this only works within the iPhone 15 lineup. So unless you and your friends are all planning on upgrading your iPhones, you likely won't be putting this feature to use anytime soon.
The iPhone 15 is rated for the same battery life as the iPhone 14 according to Apple's claims. That's up to 16 hours of streamed video playback for the iPhone 15, and up to 20 hours of video streaming for the iPhone 15 Plus.
I had 35% of my iPhone 15's battery left after roughly 13 hours of use on a day that involved taking a lot of photos and uploading files to Google Drive. That suggests the iPhone 15's battery is enough to get through a full day with ease, but you'll want to pack a charger if you anticipate a long day that could involve taking a lot of photos and videos.
After running CNET's anecdotal usage test, which involves playing mobile games, taking a video call, streaming video and scrolling through social media over the course of 45 minutes with the screen brightness set to 50%, the standard iPhone 15's battery dropped from 100% to 95%. That's an improvement from the iPhone 14, which saw a drop from 95% to 85% during the same test. The iPhone 15's results also match those of the iPhone 14 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Plus.
We'll update this review with more battery tests for both the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus shortly.
iPhone 15: Final thoughts
The iPhone 15's similarities to the iPhone 14 Pro gave me some deja vu. But those coming from an aging iPhone model will find a lot of value in this upgrade, from the new USB-C port to its higher resolution camera, the Dynamic Island and fresh design. As someone who's been using an iPhone 12 for the past three years (when I'm not reviewing other phones, of course), I can say this feels like a big upgrade. That said, if you have an iPhone 14, or even an iPhone 13, you can likely wait a little longer, unless you're super eager to get USB-C or the Dynamic Island.
Apple no longer sells the iPhone 14 Pro through its website, but you may be able to find it through third-party retailers and carriers. I recommend checking for a discounted iPhone 14 Pro before making your decision. It has a lot in common with the iPhone 15, but also includes a dedicated telephoto camera, extras like the always-on display and a high variable refresh rate for smoother scrolling. Just keep in mind you'll miss out on the USB-C port, which is an important consideration if you don't like packing extra cables.
All told, the iPhone 15 feels like a leap forward from older iPhones. It's almost like an iPhone 14 Pro Lite, showing that Apple's "pro" iPhones are having a bigger influence on the regular models.
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