Apple iPhone 15 and 15 Plus review: It doesn't have to be flagship to be good
Note: This feature was first published on 9 October 2023.
A better regular iPhone
Context is important but we have poor memories. So let’s take a brief trip down memory to set the stage for this review. When Apple first started selling regular non-Pro and Pro iPhones, the regular iPhones came dangerously close to the Pro iPhones. This was true for the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12. In my reviews, I said the Pro phones didn’t do enough to differentiate themselves.
The TL;DR version:
The regular iPhones received substantial and important improvements this year and could be the models to have if you can live without some niceties, such as an always-on and high refresh rate display.
@hwztech Your first look at the iPhone 15 in all five finishes. #hwz #hwzsg #apple #iphone15 #wonderlust #iphone ♬ original sound - HardwareZone
Apple realised this and decided to create more separation between the regular and Pro iPhones with the iPhone 13 and then to a greater extent with the iPhone 14. I said the iPhone 14 and 14 Plus were “great phones on their own” but try to get an iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max if you can. In truth, Apple went a bit too far and held back the iPhone 14 and 14 Plus too much.
So for 2023, Apple decided to give the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus more substantial upgrades. The most notable ones are the new displays with Dynamic Island, a new 48-megapixel main camera, a slightly tweaked chassis, and USB-C connectivity.
The iPhone 15 may be the cheaper iPhone, but its build quality is irreproachable. In the hands, it feels rock solid and expensive. The body is still aluminium, but like the Pro iPhones, they now have rounded edges so they feel less boxy and are more comfortable to hold.
Glass is still used for the backs, but the colour is now directly infused into it. It’s supposed to be harder to manufacture and I can appreciate that, but the end result is, to put it kindly, subdued. Last year’s iPhone 14 had richer colours. Speaking of colours, there are five to choose from: Blue, Pink, Yellow, Green, and Black. Pink and Blue are my favourites because they look slightly more lively.
Though the body is mostly the same, the display has some significant changes. It’s still OLED and it still comes in two sizes – 6.1 and 6.7 inches – but it gains the Dynamic Island that was first seen on last year’s Pro iPhones. It’s a clever way of hiding the front-facing cameras and it’s getting increasingly useful now that more apps are making use of it.
The displays get brighter too. Maximum typical brightness is up by 200 nits to 1,000 nits and it can get as bright as 1,600 nits for HDR content and 2,000 nits when outdoors under glaring sun. This is very noticeable especially when you are viewing HDR content and when you are outdoors. Compared to the iPhone 14, photos viewed on the iPhone 15 look more vivid and punchy.
Although these displays are generally very good, some problems persist. Their refresh rates are still a measly 60Hz. This is painfully obvious side by side with the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max or even any other decent mid-range Android phone. These must be the most expensive phones you can buy with a 60Hz display. Granted, the majority of the iPhone 15’s target audience probably won’t care, but for the people who do, scrolling through webpages and photos feels less smooth, which creates the impression that the phone isn’t as responsive.
The display isn’t always on either. Personally speaking, this isn’t as big of a deal as its slow refresh rate. But it does mean that the display will eventually go to sleep even if you put it in iOS 17’s new StandBy mode, which kind of defeats the purpose of this mode.
Of course, like the Pro iPhones, the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus now have USB-C ports too. However, unlike the Pro iPhones which support USB 3.0 speeds, transfer speeds on the iPhone 15 are limited to USB 2.0 speeds, that is 480Mbps. It’s disappointing for sure, but we have to remember that the iPhone 15 is powered by the A16 Bionic chip, which wasn’t designed to support USB 3.0 speeds. More important is the fact that the transition to a USB-C port makes the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus more convenient to charge, particularly if you already own newer MacBooks and iPads, which have USB-C charging ports.