By John Gruber
Turn your developer product into a movement. Get your DX Checkup.
On Tuesday, Ming-Chi Kuo published a short post under the headline “The iPhone 15 Pro Series Overheating Issues Are Unrelated to TSMC’s Advanced 3nm Node”:
My survey indicates that the iPhone 15 Pro series overheating issues are unrelated to TSMC’s advanced 3nm node. The primary cause is more likely the compromises made in the thermal system design to achieve a lighter weight, such as the reduced heat dissipation area and the use of a titanium frame, which negatively impacts thermal efficiency. It’s expected that Apple will address this through software updates, but improvements may be limited unless Apple lowers processor performance. If Apple does not properly address this issue, it could negatively impact shipments over the product life cycle of the iPhone 15 Pro series.
That was the whole post. The post clearly implies that iPhone 15 Pro models have a design flaw related to their titanium frame that leads to overheating, and that since the flaw is related to the hardware design, Apple will be forced to throttle the CPU and GPU, and thus sales of the 15 Pro models will suffer.
Kuo is very influential, and thus his report drove Apple’s stock price down noticeably. Kuo’s influence stems not from his intuition but from his sources, but that’s the problem with an allegation like this one. Kuo’s narrative gained enough traction that Apple has issued a statement, repeated in its entirety below:
We have identified a few conditions which can cause iPhone to run warmer than expected. The device may feel warmer during the first few days after setting up or restoring the device because of increased background activity. We have also found a bug in iOS 17 that is impacting some users and will be addressed in a software update. Another issue involves some recent updates to third-party apps that are causing them to overload the system. We’re working with these app developers on fixes that are in the process of rolling out.
Not only is the titanium frame of the iPhone 15 Pro models not an issue, cooling-wise, but Apple told me — and I have no reason to doubt — that the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max are better at heat dissipation than any previous iPhone that used a stainless steel frame (iPhone X, XS, and 11–14 Pro). There is absolutely nothing wrong — and in fact much that is good — with the heat dissipation of the titanium frame, and Apple has no plan to in any way throttle the A17’s performance. They have bugs to fix in iOS 17, that is all.
It’s long been true that iPhones sometimes get warm/hot during the first few days after setup (or complete restore): all sorts of large libraries (like Photos) get synced in the background, and all sorts of on-device processing takes place. There are also often performance-related bugs in the first release of the major new iOS version each fall — and per Apple’s statement, this year is no exception.
As for the problematic third-party apps, one of them is Instagram, which has apparently just this week released a version fixing a bug that was so egregious that it was burning through iPhones’ battery life at a rate of 1 percent/minute just sitting idle. YouTuber Faruk “iPhonedo” Korkmaz posted a video this week showing the buggy version of Instagram heating two different iPhones to 100°F: one an iPhone 15 Pro, the other a year-old iPhone 14 Pro. Exact same overheating issue. (I question here why iOS allows any app to consume so many resources that it makes the device too hot to hold comfortably, but the bug was apparently Instagram’s. Same too with Uber. Real shocker that two apps made with a Frankensteinian mishmash of web and native UI toolkits would run amok, resource-wise.)
Ming-Chi Kuo obviously has some remarkable sources within Apple’s Asian supply chain. But he’s still sometimes very wrong. And — unlike Mark Gurman — Kuo’s sources seemingly never come from within Apple itself. His post on this overheating issue is almost transparently a leak from TSMC — a sort of “Whatever is going on with the iPhone 15 Pro heat dissipation, it has nothing to do with our 3nm process”. Blaming it on the new titanium frame was just wild speculation on Kuo’s part, and by all evidence is completely wrong.
If Kuo has any respect for accuracy or truth, as I’m sure he does, he’ll issue a full retraction. ★
Aaron Tilley and Yang Jie, reporting for The Wall Street Journal under the not-at-all-clickbait-y headline “Inside Apple’s Spectacular Failure to Build a Key Part for Its New iPhones” (News+ link):
The new iPhone models unveiled last week are missing a proprietary silicon chip that Apple had spent several years and billions of dollars trying to develop in time for the rollout. The 2018 marching orders from Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook to design and build a modem chip — a part that connects iPhones to wireless carriers — led to the hiring of thousands of engineers. The goal was to sever Apple’s grudging dependence on Qualcomm, a longtime chip supplier that dominates the modem market.
The above lede sets the stage correctly, and if anything, undersells the contention between Apple and Qualcomm. Qualcomm does dominate the modem chip market, but that might even be putting it too mildly — they’re effectively the only game in town for good 5G cellular modem chips. And Apple’s reliance upon Qualcomm for cellular modems is more than just begrudged — it is despised. Even if Apple and Qualcomm got along, Apple would have a problem with its reliance upon a single company for a core technology. But Apple and Qualcomm do not get along, at all.
But everything that follows the above lede is dubious at best, and in parts, a nonsensical and rather transparent hit piece. It reads like it was fed to Tilley and Jie by Qualcomm, and they bought it hook, line, and sinker — despite obvious glaring problems.
Apple had planned to have its modem chip ready to use in the new iPhone models. But tests late last year found the chip was too slow and prone to overheating. Its circuit board was so big it would take up half an iPhone, making it unusable.
This simply makes no sense at all. It’s an impossible scenario. It sounds like something from an anonymous troll on Twitter/X, not a report in The Wall Street Journal. But it was reported by the Journal, so let’s ponder just how ridiculous this one paragraph is.
First, the timeline just doesn’t add up. We’re supposed to believe not just that Apple was only testing the feasibility of a modem chip for the iPhones 15 “late last year”, but also that the chip “was so big it would take up half an iPhone, making it unusable”. It’s true that a modem chip that “takes up half an iPhone” would be unusable, but so why would such a chip even be considered for possible use in this year’s phones? It could be the best-functioning 5G modem in the world — faster performance and more efficient — and it simply couldn’t be used if it were that big. It’s not even close. Look at the teardown from an iPhone 14 to see how small Qualcomm’s X65 modem chipsets are.
It’s certainly possible that “late last year” Apple tested a prototype for an Apple-designed cellular modem, and that prototype was large, performed slowly, and ran too hot. That’s how component development works: functionality comes first in early large prototypes, miniaturization comes after. You don’t have to be a systems engineer to see how that makes sense. Why waste time on miniaturization for a component that isn’t known to work well enough?1
But there’s no way they were testing such a thing for this year’s iPhones. The lead time on hardware is years not months. And because Apple needs to produce hundreds of millions of new iPhones each year, the lead time for iPhone hardware designs is longer, not shorter, than most products. Apple not only knows today the cellular modem that will be in next year’s iPhone 16 models, they probably already have decided on the modems, along with just about everything else, for the iPhone 17 two years from now.
Apple — which hasn’t publicly acknowledged its modem project, much less its shortcomings — is estimated to have paid more than $7.2 billion to Qualcomm last year for the chips.
Apple press release from 2019: “Apple to Acquire the Majority of Intel’s Smartphone Modem Business.” I’m not sure how they could acknowledge the project more clearly than that.
Back to the Journal:
Engineering teams working on Apple’s modem chip have been slowed by technical challenges, poor communication and managers split over the wisdom of trying to design the chips rather than buy them, these people said. Teams were siloed in separate groups across the U.S. and abroad without a global leader. Some managers discouraged the airing of bad news from engineers about delays or setbacks, leading to unrealistic goals and blown deadlines.
Here’s where the Journal’s story starts to smell like a planted narrative from Qualcomm. We can’t know that Qualcomm is behind this, but we do know that Qualcomm threw shade at Apple’s modem efforts with a press release about a renewed deal between the companies the day before the iPhone announcement event. How better to follow that up than a new story painting a picture of technical ineptitude and managerial chaos inside Apple’s modem team, set to appear the day before the iPhones 15 hit customers’ hands? This narrative especially suits Qualcomm if they’re concerned about their own engineering talent defecting.
“Just because Apple builds the best silicon on the planet, it’s ridiculous to think that they could also build a modem,” said former Apple wireless director Jaydeep Ranade, who left the company in 2018, the year the project began.
The Journal’s first named source is a former Apple employee who admittedly left the company before they even began their own modem project, and his keen insight is that a company that is good at one thing might not be good at an altogether different thing.
Apple isn’t expected to produce a comparable chip until late 2025, people familiar with the matter said. There could be further delays, these people said, but the company believes it will eventually succeed.
If Apple isn’t expecting to produce a 5G modem chip comparable to Qualcomm’s until “late 2025”, why would they have been testing a chip in 2022 hoping to put it in today’s iPhone 15? A project that is not yet four years old suddenly slipped an additional four years behind schedule? The story refutes itself.
Apple found that designing a microprocessor, essentially a tiny computer to run software, was easy by comparison. Modem chips, which transmit and receive wireless data, must comply with strict connectivity standards to serve wireless carriers around the world.
“These delays indicate Apple didn’t anticipate the complexity of the effort,” said Serge Willenegger, a former longtime Qualcomm executive who left the company in 2018 and doesn’t know the current state of the Apple chip. “Cellular is a monster.”
The second named source is a retired executive who spent his entire career at Qualcomm, and whose keen insight is to emphasize that the field where Qualcomm is the undisputed industry leader is very difficult.
Apple’s push to build more of the various semiconductors used in its products stretches back more than a decade. In 2010, the company began using its own processing chips in iPhones and iPads. The chips helped Apple outperform many of its Android rivals, which relied on chips from Qualcomm, Taiwan-based MediaTek and other makers.
Apple silicon outperforms “many Android rivals”? Please do share the ones it does not outperform. But those A-series chips are “easy”.
The company in 2020 began replacing processor chips from Intel, used for years in Mac computers, with a proprietary chip that allowed its laptops to run faster and generate less heat, improvements that helped boost flagging Mac sales. The Apple chip also saved the company an estimated $75 to $150 on every computer.
Apple’s universally hailed M-series chips are certainly helping Mac sales, but it’s wrong to say Mac sales were “flagging” on Intel. In fact, the final quarter of Mac sales before the debut of Apple silicon models — the third calendar quarter of 2020 — was, at the time, the best sales quarter the Mac had ever had. This, despite the fact that the Apple silicon transition had been announced in June that year at WWDC. The Mac was breaking all-time sales records before the switch.
Apple code-named its modem chip project Sinope, after the nymph in Greek mythology who outsmarted Zeus. It began taking shape in 2018, following the directive of Cook, Srouji, and others for Apple to build its own wireless components, said Chris Deaver, a former Apple human-resources executive and co-founder of BraveCore consultants.
Deaver, the third named source in the Journal report, worked at Apple in human resources from 2015-2019, and co-authored an upcoming book whose pre-order description reads, “From the thought leaders who helped Tim Cook transition Apple from ‘thinking different’ to ‘working different together’ — a timely guide that helps leaders be more creative and creatives be better leaders”. You will never guess the color palette of the book jacket.2
Srouji flew to Munich to greet Apple’s newly acquired Intel wireless employees in December 2019. He told a gathering that the modem-chip project would be a game changer for Apple, the next step in the company’s evolution, said people who watched the meeting. He said the chip would distinguish Apple devices, as Apple’s processors had done.
As Apple filled the project’s ranks with Intel engineers and others hired from Qualcomm, company executives set a goal to have the modem chip ready for fall 2023. It soon became apparent to many of the wireless experts on the project that meeting the goal was impossible.
So it was in 2019, not “late last year”, that Apple hoped for its own cellular modems to be suitable for the iPhones 15 this year. Again, this is all from the same WSJ report.
Apple found that employing the brute force of thousands of engineers, a strategy successful for designing the computer brain of its smartphones and laptops, wasn’t enough to quickly produce a superior modem chip.
The implication here is that Apple silicon is designed by the proverbial infinite monkeys typing on infinite typewriters — in complete contradiction of Brooks’s Law.
Modem chips are trickier to make than processing chips because they must work seamlessly with 5G wireless networks, as well as the 2G, 3G and 4G networks used in countries around the world, each with its own technological quirks. Apple microprocessors run software programs designed solely for its iPhones and laptops.
Again and again, this story emphasizes that SoC’s — comprising CPUs, GPUs, neural processing units, and more — are easy, but cellular modems are uniquely difficult. The nonsensical spin in this paragraph is that cellular modems are made difficult by the variety of networks around the world, and Apple’s CPUs are made easier by the fact that they need only execute software “designed solely for its iPhones and laptops”. Let’s leave aside the fact that this clunky phrasing omits form factors like watches, tablets, and desktop computers, and instead consider that Apple silicon is so performant that, via Rosetta 2 translation (technology that I’m sure was also easy to make), the slowest Apple silicon Mac ever made (an M1 MacBook Air with 8 GB RAM) runs software compiled for Intel processors faster than any Intel Mac Apple ever shipped. Apple silicon not only doesn’t exclusively run software “designed” for it, it runs software compiled for Intel chips better than Intel’s own chips do.
Apple executives who didn’t have experience with wireless chips set tight timelines that weren’t realistic, former project engineers said. Teams had to build prototype versions of the chips and certify they would work with the many wireless carriers worldwide, a time-consuming job.
The second sentence here implies that Apple’s modem project executives didn’t expect that they’d need to build prototypes or that worldwide carrier certification would be time-consuming — because I’m sure Apple had no difficulty getting the iPhone certified across all supported carriers prior to the start of this project in 2019.
Executives better understood the challenge after Apple tested its prototypes late last year. The results weren’t good, according to people familiar with the tests. The chips were essentially three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip. Using them threatened to make iPhone wireless speeds slower than its competitors.
The company scratched plans to use the chips in Apple’s 2023 models, and the planned rollout was moved to 2024. Eventually, Apple executives realized the company wouldn’t meet that goal either. Apple instead opened negotiations with Qualcomm to continue supplying the modem chips. Apple’s licensing deal with Qualcomm expires in April 2025, though it can be extended for another two years.
I cannot emphasize enough how goofy the idea is that “late last year” Apple was still hoping to use its own cellular modems in this year’s iPhones.
Here’s what the Journal is declaring a “spectacular failure”: High-end cellular modems are essential components that are very difficult to engineer, and Qualcomm owns the entire market. Apple bought Intel’s second-tier modem business for $1 billion in 2019 and set an ambitious goal of producing its own modems that match or surpass Qualcomm’s by 2023. They missed that best-case-scenario target and thus are still buying modems from Qualcomm and will continue to for at least the next year or two. Not only is this not a “spectacular failure”, not a word of it is news.
Apple has the cash and the desire to keep pursuing its modem chip, according to people involved with the project. “Apple isn’t going to give up,” said Edward Snyder, a managing director of Charter Equity Research and a wireless industry expert. “They hate Qualcomm’s living guts.”
Finally, a named source in this cursed story who said something accurate. ★
For example, consider this passage from a February report by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman about Apple’s progress to invent a blood glucose monitor for Apple Watch:
Apple’s system — more than 12 years in the making — is now considered to be at a proof-of-concept stage, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the project is confidential. The company believes the technology is viable but needs to be shrunk down to a more practical size.
Engineers are working to develop a prototype device about the size of an iPhone that can be strapped to a person’s bicep. That would be a significant reduction from an early version of the system that sat atop a table.
That’s how prototypes work. But no one is proposing, with a straight face, that an iPhone-sized blood glucose monitor might go in next year’s Apple Watch. ↩︎
Deaver announced the book on LinkedIn a month ago, and one of the comments on his post reads, “Thank you for the early peek into your book Chris 🙏🏽😊 It’s very insightful 👏🏽👌🏽”. That comment is from ... Jaydeep Ranade, the second named source in the WSJ report. It’s enough to make a cynical person think that Aaron Tilley fishes for disgruntled former employees willing to be named sources by just clicking around on LinkedIn. But I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that one of the four named sources in the story happened to comment on the LinkedIn post of another. ↩︎︎
Blah blah blah, something something something about how most people don’t upgrade their phones every year, so we ought not review new ones based on year-over-year comparisons. But, I get a new iPhone every year. A lot of you probably do too. So let’s just lean into a direct comparison between the iPhones 15 Pro and last year’s 14 Pro. After just under a week testing them, with the iPhone 15 Pro Max as my primary, I’ve got four reasons to consider upgrading.
I’m putting this first, even above the camera. Camera improvements are objective. The differences between titanium and the previous material for top-tier iPhones, polished stainless steel, are in many ways subjective. But the reduction in weight and better feel in hand are just so dramatic. Everyone uses their phone in different ways. There are some people out there who never take photographs or shoot video with their phones. But everyone carries and holds their iPhone. Making it a nicer object in hand is a huge win for a handheld tool.
We shy away from admitting it, at least of late, but gadget lust is real. People are drawn to exquisite objects and premium materials. New cars, new cameras, new watches (or newly-purchased old watches). Phones have been playing this game since long before Apple entered the industry. If you’re old enough, you remember the first time you saw a Motorola Razr. The way they snapped shut. The cool buttons. I remember thinking, Damn that’s cool. And before that era, this was cool.
I don’t think there’s any reason Apple used stainless steel for six generations — 2017’s iPhone X through last year’s 14 Pros — other than the fact that it looked cool, and looked premium. As I wrote last year, reviewing the iPhones 14 Pro, “It certainly looks nice that it’s polished to a high gloss, but steel is just so damn heavy.”
Our long national nightmare of too-heavy iPhones is over.
Titanium is an upgrade in every way. First, it makes for dramatically lighter devices. I’ve been testing all four new iPhone models, Pro and non-pro alike, and while the Pro models are a few grams heavier than the corresponding non-pro models using aluminum frames, the weight difference in hand is negligible. To compare cameras side-by-side, I’ve been walking around with three phones — the new iPhone 15 Pro Max and regular 15 Pro, and my year-old 14 Pro — and I had to put cases made from distinct materials on the phones to tell them apart in my pocket, because the new 15 Pro Max feels about the weight of last year’s regular-size 14 Pro. It’s not the same weight, but it’s surprisingly close: 221g vs. 206g. The new regular-size 15 Pro weighs just 187g, compared to the aluminum iPhone 15 at 171g. But those numeric weight values don’t do justice to the feel. These new titanium iPhones Pro just feel strikingly lighter and better-balanced than the stainless steel iPhone Pro models they replace.
I also strongly prefer the way these new titanium frames both look and feel to the touch. My review unit 15 Pro Max is in natural titanium, and the 15 Pro is blue. Both are quite handsome. (And the blue titanium is a close match to the Midnight MacBook Airs.) Polished stainless steel is nice, of course, but it never jibed with my conception of the iPhone as a tool, like a traditional camera. You don’t see high-end cameras made from stainless steel — too heavy, too polished. The finish on the titanium frames of the iPhones 15 Pro is just terrific. It’s elegant, not industrial, but it conveys a certain let’s get to work seriousness. For pure hand feel alone, I’ve preferred the non-pro iPhones in the 11–14 models. Now, I clearly prefer the feel of the 15 Pro models. It’s the best feel of an iPhone in hand since the lovely iPhone 5 and 5S, way back when iPhones were little slivers of a thing a decade ago. Looks-wise, the textured titanium is somewhat reminiscent of the brushed stainless steel of the iPhones 4 and 4S.
The buttons — side, volume, and Action — all have great clickiness and no wiggle. The button edges are crisp but not sharp.
Even if you, like many people, put your iPhone in a case the day you buy it and never see or feel the titanium again until the day you take it out of the case to trade it in for a new one, you win, because your iPhone 15 Pro will be so much lighter and better balanced. The titanium look and feel is a subjective win for those of us who go caseless most or even just much of the time. But it’s an undeniable win in weight reduction even for the always-cased.
Apple first used titanium in a product back with the 2001 PowerBook G4, the laptop that defined the basic roundrectilinear shape and metallic finish of Apple’s laptops to this day. That machine still looks remarkably modern for a 22-year-old computer, but it didn’t take long for Apple to abandon titanium for aluminum. Apple’s material science chops weren’t ready for titanium then — those PowerBooks were painted, and the paint flaked over time. I’d argue they aged well, developing a patina, as watch collectors say, but they aged, and aged quickly.
Apple is fundamentally a computer company, but materials engineering is an essential arm of the company. How many years did we listen to Jony Ive-narrated introductory videos talking about aluminium and unibody construction? We take unibody laptop frames for granted now — they’re just the way almost all high-quality laptops are made across the entire industry — but it was a revolutionary technique at the time of introduction.
Apple is proud enough of its use of titanium in the iPhones 15 Pro that an entire segment of the keynote last week was presented by Isabel Yang, a materials science engineer. It’s a significant breakthrough, especially at the scale with which Apple needs to produce all iPhone models, particularly the Pro ones. I’ve long suspected that the Edition models of Apple Watch have been a testing ground for materials they might someday use in high-production-quantity devices. Ceramic made for arguably the most beautiful watches Apple has ever made, but seemingly didn’t go anywhere — it was never even rumored as a potential material for the iPhone. The titanium Edition watches from Series 5–7, however, strike me as the devices that paved the way for last year’s Apple Watch Ultra and, now, the kings of the Apple lineup, the iPhones Pro.
It’s a rousing success that makes for the best feel in hand, by far, of the modern (post-X) iPhone era, and is unmatched by any competing phone maker. Top-tier Android phones are made from aluminum, Apple’s mid-tier material. Titanium is better functionally — it’s stronger — and just as importantly, it’s just fucking cool.
There are three major new camera features in the iPhone 15 models this year.1 First is a significant upgrade to the main camera (the one that covers the ranges 1×-2× optically). Second, Portrait mode has seen its biggest year-over-year improvement since the feature debuted. Third, and exclusive to the 15 Pro Max, is a new 5× telephoto camera, with a 120mm equivalent field of view. (The regular 15 Pro’s telephoto remains at 3×/77mm; the non-pro iPhones 15 have no telephoto lens.)
Main camera first. Last year Apple introduced a new 48 megapixel sensor for the 14 Pro main camera. It still produced 12MP images by default, clustering the 48MP sensor into a matrix of “quad pixels”. Each 2×2 square of 4 native pixels on the sensor was used to create 1 pixel of the image. This technique traded detail for extra light sensitivity. You could opt to shoot ProRAW to get 48MP images with the iPhone 14 Pros, but that really is a professional feature. I consider myself a semi-serious prosumer photographer, but when it comes to shooting formats, I shoot very simply — using the built-in Camera app, and the default format (HEIF). I care a lot about my photos, but I really do just point and shoot.
Last year the iPhone 14 Pro offered four “lenses” from the three back cameras: 0.5×, 1×, 2×, and 3×. 0.5× was the ultra wide hardware camera. 3× was the telephoto. Both the 1× and 2× “lenses” were from the same main camera, though. At 1× the camera system quad-binned the entire 48MP camera sensor; at 2× it used a 12 MP crop from the center of the camera sensor. The result is that for 2× photos, you still got a 12MP image, with far more detail and resolution than you’d get from shooting at 1× and then cropping to the center of the image in post.
This year with the iPhones 15 Pro, the ultra wide and telephoto situations are similar, except that on the Pro Max the telephoto is 5× instead of 3×. But the “Photonic Engine” image processing pipeline for the main camera on both 15 Pro models is more advanced this year. Here’s how Apple describes it:
The Photonic Engine uses a new 48MP frame in our image pipeline, enabling iPhone to combine the best of low light — 12MP images with large quad pixels — with the best of detail — a 48MP image with individual pixels. This approach is an industry first, and it enables a new default resolution for the Main camera — a 24MP image with more detail, great low-light performance, and all the features users expect from an iPhone camera — Deep Fusion, Smart HDR, Live Photos, and zero shutter lag.
Take photos at 1× and compare to 12MP photos of other phones — you see more details when you zoom in, especially when looking at hair, skin, or the texture of clothing.
Effectively, this is a next-generation step into computational photography. With quad pixels, you can easily see how the iPhone 14 Pro generated 12MP images from a 48MP sensor. It’s grade school division: 48 ÷ 4 = 12. But there is no 24MP sensor in the 15 Pro main camera. The Photonic Engine takes several images from the sensor for each photo, including a 48MP one for detail, and a 12MP quad-pixel one for low-light and noise reduction, then computationally fuses them together to produce a single 24MP image. Apple is having its cake and eating it too, merging the benefits of a sensor with many small pixels with the benefits of a sensor with fewer large pixels. You don’t need to know that this is happening, you just get more detail in your photos from the main camera.
I mentioned above that both the 1× and 2× “lenses” on the iPhone 14 Pro use the same physical main camera. With the iPhones 15 Pro, Apple has added additional virtual lenses:
When shooting HEIC or JPEG (i.e. when you’re not shooting ProRAW), all focal ranges from 1.0 to 1.9 produce 24MP images. It’s effectively using computational photography to do optical zoom in this range from a the fixed-length main camera. In a certain sense it’s cropping, but it’s far removed from any simplistic cropping. There’s nothing magic about these particular stops between 1× and 2× other than the fact that 28 and 35mm equivalents have long been very popular focal lengths in traditional photography. You can “zoom” to any focal length between 1–1.9× and you’ll still get a 24MP image: 1.4×, 1.7×, 1.9×, whatever. 1.2× and 1.5× get special treatment in the Camera app simply because 28 and 35mm equivalents are so popular, and I believe Apple’s image processing pipeline is optimized for these lengths. [Update: I originally wrote that you get 24MP images from 1.0–2.0×, but that was slightly mistaken — once you go from 1.9× to 2.0×, resolution drops to 12MP, presumably because at 2.0× the iPhone is using a precise center crop of the 48MP sensor.]
By default, when you repeatedly tap the 1× focal length button in the Camera app viewfinder, it cycles between 1.0/1.2/1.5×, and momentarily shows you the traditional equivalent after switching (24/28/35mm, respectively). You can adjust these options in the Camera section of the Settings app, including changing the default from 1× to 1.2× or 1.5×. For example, to simplify your options, you might consider turning off the preset for 1.2×/28mm, so that the 1× button in the viewfinder just toggles between 1.0 and 1.5×. I’m not sure what I want to do yet, personally, but I’m leaning toward keeping all three available, but changing my default to 1.5×/35mm, which I consider generally more natural looking for scenes and more flattering to human subjects.
You could always get the equivalent of these focal lengths by “zooming” to 1.2× or 1.5× in the Camera app, but now you keep more native resolution from the image sensor.
It’s also worth noting that this improvement to the Photonic Engine comes to the non-pro iPhones 15 too, on their main camera, which also now sports a 48MP sensor. However, the non-pro iPhone 15 models don’t get the feature that treats 1.2×/28mm and 1.5×/35mm as discrete “lenses”. And the hardware story is not as simple as “This year’s non-pro iPhone 15 gets the 1× camera system from last year’s iPhone 14 Pro”. The 1× lens on the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus is a 26mm equivalent focal distance; the 1× lens on the iPhone 14 Pro (and this year’s 15 Pro models) is a 24mm equivalent. In my brief testing, the 1× hardware lens on the iPhone 15 models is noticeably inferior (or, if you prefer, less pro) to that on the Pro models, including last year’s iPhone 14 Pro. Shooting side-by-side in the same lighting, images from the iPhone 15 look flatter and lack vibrancy and contrast compared to those from the iPhone 15 (or 14) Pro. The camera system on the non-pro iPhones 15 seems fine, but if you care about photography, you want to get an iPhone Pro. It’s not just that the iPhones Pro have a telephoto lens and the non-pro ones don’t; the images from the main camera are noticeably better on iPhones Pro.
Another significant improvement this year is a much-improved Portrait mode. Apple claims improvements that boost detail and dynamic range, but the main improvement is that you no longer need to manually select Portrait mode before capturing. You can simply capture images using the regular still photo mode, and if a person, dog, or cat is detected, Portrait mode will be available via an “ƒ” button in the viewfinder, and you can toggle it off and on while shooting, and make adjustments to the background blur and focal distance in post. You get the same on-the-fly Portrait mode with the front-facing camera, too, on all iPhone 15 models.
I expect this to make a significant practical difference in my photography. In many situations, shooting candid pictures of friends and family, I just take out my iPhone, open the Camera app, frame the image, and start shooting — quickly and discreetly. When the moment feels fleeting, I don’t feel like I have time to futz with a manual switch to Portrait mode. A quick check of my Photos library shows that out of about 2,800 photos I shot with the iPhone 14 Pro in the last year, 233 were in Portrait mode. Those are some of my favorite photos of the last year, but I expect to wind up with way more Portrait mode photos this year, thanks to the dynamic on-the-fly application of Portrait mode. It’s a can’t-lose feature, because if you’re ever unhappy with the way a picture looks in Portrait mode, you can simply turn it off in post, and you’ll wind up with the same image you would have had even if this automatic Portrait mode feature didn’t exist.
Lastly, now seems like a good place to reiterate that these new features all work with zero shutter lag. To date this has been a hard and fast rule for Apple’s Camera team — everything happens instantaneously, and can be previewed live in the viewfinder before you capture. It’s intriguing to ponder what features Apple could enable if they allowed iPhones to “develop” photos for a few seconds after capture, but I think I understand why they don’t. Once you allow some features to take post-capture processing time, it’s a slippery slope to an overall camera experience that feels slow and laggy. The iPhone camera has always felt fast and snappy, and the iPhone 15 lineup is no exception.
That brings us to the elephant in the room: the 5× lens exclusive to the iPhone 15 Pro Max. If you prefer a larger iPhone, well, you’re in luck, because you get that lens with the iPhone size you prefer. But if, like me, you prefer the regular-size iPhones, but, all things considered, would prefer the longest available telephoto lens, you have a decision to make.
Qualitatively the new 5× lens seems about as good as the recent 3× telephoto iPhone Pro lenses. Which is to say it’s fine, for a telephoto lens on a tiny (relative to “real” cameras) phone, but it’s nowhere near as good as the main camera. The 3D sensor-shift module seems to work like a charm to keep things stable — a real challenge at focal lengths like this. If you find yourself frequently wishing for more than 3× optical zoom with your current iPhone camera, you’re probably going to like this 5× lens a lot.
Me, though, I just don’t shoot many telephoto lens pictures or videos. Again, looking at my personal Photos library (and using Smart Albums to sort images by camera and lens), out of roughly 2,800 photos I’ve taken with my iPhone 14 Pro, only 170 used the 3× telephoto lens. As a point of reference, 417 were shot with the ultra wide 0.5× lens, which includes all macro shots. Tallying up my lens usage for the last year reiterates my gut feeling: my ideal hypothetical iPhone might be an iPhone 15 Pro Mini, even if that meant having only two camera lenses instead of three, if those two cameras were the same 0.5× ultra wide and 1× main cameras as the actual iPhone 15 Pro models.
The biggest potential problem I might have with that hypothetical iPhone 15 Pro Mini of my dreams would be battery life, not the missing telephoto lens. I do occasionally use the telephoto lens I have, and I’m sure I will again this year, but not enough to justify an overall larger phone. Your mileage, of course, may vary. Some people love shooting with long lenses. Me, though, even when shooting with standalone cameras that use interchangeable lenses, I’ve only ever bought prime lenses in the 28mm to 50mm range. I zoom with my feet.
One hitch with the iPhone Pro Max having a 5× telephoto lens is that if you really want a 3-4× focal length for framing, it needs to be digitally zoomed from the main camera. In my testing this doesn’t seem to make much difference, but more talented photographers might disagree. I tend to think that when I do want a long lens with extra reach, I might as well go really long.
In past years when the Plus-sized iPhones have had exclusive camera lenses, those lenses made their way down to the regular-size iPhones in the next model year. So I suspect Apple’s plan is for next year’s iPhone 16 Pro and Pro Max to both have 5× telephoto cameras based on this tetraprism design. I hope so, but if that doesn’t happen and 5× remains exclusive to the Max, so be it. The main camera is where the action is for me — and that main camera has seen another terrific year-over-year upgrade with the 15 Pro models.
It’s a little thing, literally, but I dig the new Action button.
A decade ago I was bewildered by the fact that of all the things Android phone makers had shamelessly copied from the iPhone, the mute switch wasn’t one of them. But then the iPad dropped its physical mute switch, and I could see the trade-off inherent to a physical switch: software control. With a physical mute switch, silent mode can’t be controlled by software, because software can’t flip the physical switch. (Carmakers, to name one common example, face this same dilemma with dashboard knobs and switches.) If a hardware button, knob, or switch has state, then that statefulness can’t be controlled by software unless the software can push, twist, or flip the physical controls.
If you just want a mute toggle, the new Action button is, I think, as good if not better than the old mute switch. No matter what action you assign to the button, it activates with a long-press, but that long-press delay is pretty short — it’s just long enough to avoid accidental activations, and is short enough that it never feels slow. When assigned to toggling silent mode, you get a quick series of haptic taps when it goes into silent mode, and one haptic tap when it goes out of silent mode. It’s easy to tell the haptics apart, if you’re using it without looking at it (like, say, if your iPhone is in your pocket or purse).
Because I’ve been spending a lot of time testing the new cameras, I’ve spent most of the last week with the Action button assigned to the Camera app. For many years now Apple has offered a shortcut to jump into the Camera app from the lock screen. There’s a button you can long-press in the lower-right corner of the lock screen, but the quickest way is to swipe right-to-left anywhere on the lock screen. I went into this thinking I might leave my Action button set to toggle silent mode, on the grounds that we already have these shortcuts for jumping into the Camera app, but one thing that’s become clear to me these past few days is that assigning the Action button to Camera is super useful when you want to jump to the Camera app while your iPhone is unlocked because you’re already using it. It’s cool and useful to have a button that always jumps you right into Camera no matter what state your iPhone is in.
So at the moment, I’m a bit torn between assigning my Action button to act as a mute switch or as a Camera launcher. Which brings me to another intriguing option: Shortcuts.
I created a simple workflow in Shortcuts that shows a menu with three options: Photo, Video, and Mute/Unmute. The Photo and Video options jump you to the corresponding shooting mode in the Camera app, and the Mute/Unmute option reverses the current setting for Silent mode. Shortcuts has built-in actions to enable and disable Silent mode on the device, but doesn’t have a built-in way to get the current Silent mode state. For that, my shortcut uses an action from the excellent free (and aptly-named) Actions utility by Sindre Sorhus. When Silent mode is engaged, the command is “🔊 Unmute”; when Silent mode is off, the command is “🔇 Mute”. (Now that there isn’t a physical switch to inspect, when Silent mode is engaged, the iPhones 15 Pro show a bell-with-line-through-it icon in the status bar, in the top left corner next to the time or carrier name. But it felt clever to make the menu item in my shortcut dynamically reflect the current state.) Here’s the shortcut, if you’re interested, and here’s a screenshot showing it in, err, action.
Is a menu like this a good use of the Action button? I’m not sure yet, but it sure is fun. The iPhones 15 Pro now have a dedicated hardware button that anyone can program using Shortcuts. I love it. One DF reader emailed me last week wondering if you can assign the Action button to act like an old-school Home button. You can, with Shortcuts. I can’t wait to see what others come up with.
[Update: I made a better version of this shortcut. Instead of showing a menu you need to choose from, it opens the Camera app unless the phone is face down or upside down, in which cases it toggles the state of Silent mode. I’ve been using it this way for two days now and love it.]
The overwhelming consensus seems to be that Apple only switched from Lightning to USB-C with the iPhones 15 due to the regulatory mandate from the EU. And, conversely, that Apple stayed with Lightning this long — and if not for the EU regulation would stay with it for years to come — because they’re rolling in revenue from MFi licensing fees.
To the first part of that — that Apple only switched because the EU forced their hand — I say Well, maybe. It’s obviously a factor. The EU is too big a market for Apple to walk away from. But the USB-C mandate doesn’t kick in until next year, and existing devices from 2023 and earlier will still be allowed when the regulation does kick in. So the iPhones 15 could have had Lightning ports and remained available in the EU for years to come. It’s next year when Apple would have to switch.
And if Apple really wanted to stick with Lightning, they could, in theory, make USB-C iPhones only for the EU market, and limit them all to the same USB 2 transfer speeds as Lightning. That would make for a supply chain hassle, to be sure, but it seems like less of a hassle than making iPhones with two SIM card trays just for the Hong Kong and Chinese markets.
As for the second part of the consensus thinking on why Apple has stuck with Lightning — that it’s an MFi licensing money grab — I say Hogwash. Multiple sources have confirmed for me that MFi licensing revenue for Lightning devices and cables is negligible, just a rounding error by Apple’s standards. But consider the arrogance of thinking that Apple would spitefully hold the iPhone back just for a bit of licensing revenue. That Apple would knowingly make the iPhone worse for no benefit other than their own financial bottom line. That’s bonkers. I think the opposite is true: Apple pulls no punches when it comes to making the iPhone as good as it can possibly be for the most customers, even to the detriment of Apple’s other devices. For one thing, it would make more sense for bleeding edge Apple silicon to be designed first for the Mac, and to trickle down to the iPhone in subsequent years. But instead, Apple silicon is designed for and ships first for the iPhone, and then flows up to the Mac and iPad. The iPhone gets Apple’s best silicon (now on a 3nm process, the first in the world for any consumer product), best displays, and best materials (now titanium). It is the best device Apple can possibly make given the constraints of reasonable pricing and the inordinate scale at which it needs to produce them. No effort is spared — year after year after year. And nothing, not even a global year-plus-long pandemic, could knock it off its annual schedule. Apple loves all its products, but it loves the iPhone most.
And but we’re supposed to believe that Apple deliberately made the iPhone’s charging and data port worse, for years, for a fistful or two of dollars? My god, the sheer arrogance it takes to believe that Apple takes for granted an iota of the iPhone’s success and enduring popularity.
The simple fact is that Apple kept all iPhones on Lightning while it thought staying on Lightning was the best choice for the most customers. I know that there have been engineers inside Apple — engineers who helped invent both Lightning and USB-C — who’ve been advocating for the iPhone to switch from Lightning ever since USB-C debuted in MacBooks in 2015. Maybe Apple should have switched sooner. But there were good reasons not to, mostly surrounding the trust involved in building an ecosystem. When they switched from the 30-pin connector to Lightning, Phil Schiller said it would be the connector for “the next decade”. That was the iPhone 5 in 2012.
In actual use, I have to say it is a little weird having USB-C on the iPhone. I got curious and connected an iPhone 15 Pro to my iPad Pro to see what would happen. The first time, the iPhone started charging the iPad. That wasn’t what I expected, and from what I gather, isn’t supposed to happen. I unplugged the cable and tried again, and the same thing happened: the iPhone charged the iPad. I unplugged the cable and swapped one side of the cable for the other, and this time the iPad started charging the iPhone, as though the cable had a direction for charging. Craziness. I tried again and the iPad (a 2018 11-inch iPad Pro running iPadOS 17) crashed. I expect Apple will straighten this out, but I’m surprised it’s buggy at the moment.
Overall, though, it just isn’t that big a deal. It’s nice to know that 10 Gbps USB 3 transfer speeds are available for the iPhones 15 Pro — 20 times faster than the USB 2 limit of 480 Mbps (which remains the cap on the non-pro iPhone 15 models). But it’s irritating, as with all things related to “USB-C” cables, that you’ll need special (and more expensive) cables to achieve those transfer speeds, and there’s no way to identify which cables support which transfer speeds just by looking at them, unless they have the Thunderbolt logo on the connector — but expensive, thick Thunderbolt cables are overkill for USB 3 data transfer. The cables that ship with all iPhone 15 models are nice, white2 braided cables, but are not high-speed USB 3 cables. (These cables from Monoprice are good options.)
The reason Apple opposed (and continues to oppose, even as their product line falls into compliance) the EU’s USB-C port mandate isn’t because they wanted to stick with Lightning forever. Why did they start migrating the iPad lineup from Lightning to USB-C back in 2018 if they were all-in on Lightning forever? The big problem isn’t that they’re required to ship USB-C ports in all products next year — it’s that they’ll be required to continue shipping USB-C ports in perpetuity until the regulation is revised or rescinded, and regulations like this tend never to be revised nor rescinded. If you think USB-C is a “forever port” that will never be bettered by a superior design, you’ve got nothing to worry about. But Apple doesn’t think that way. Someday there will be a port that’s better than USB-C, and that’s when this EU regulation is going to pose a problem, because that future port is almost certain to be a proprietary one, not an open standard from the USB consortium, among whose members there exists but one company that I know of that had the good taste never to ship a single product using the gross Micro-USB or Mini-USB ports. Which of those companies is pushing for something better than USB-C?
There will be a successor to USB-C eventually. It’ll probably be invented by Apple. The best we can hope for is that that successor will be inductive, or even over-the-air wireless, and thus not subject to the EU’s plug mandate. ★
There’s a fourth major new camera feature this year for the 15 Pro models: shooting spatial video, ideal for consumption on the forthcoming Vision Pro. But shooting spatial video on the iPhone 15 Pro is “coming later this year”. Apple has not made available to reviewers pre-release software that enables it, nor was it available to demonstrate last week at the event in Cupertino. So not only have I not been able to try shooting it, I haven’t even been able to see what a spatial video looks like when played back on an iPhone display. So, a mere footnote it is for this feature. ↩︎