iPhone 15 Pro Max first impressions: Lights, camera, action button

A closer look at the new action button, zoom lenses and USB-C.

Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Apple's iPhone 15 event today saw the company spend a lot of time (and money) talking about its "Apple 2030" vision for carbon neutrality and environmental responsibility. The irony is, Apple wants you to buy more iPhones, and to do so, it's introducing new models with slightly different features so you'll spend your money. With the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro this year, Apple is also beginning to comply with EU regulations that mandate every new device made by the end of next year support USB-C charging. While that's good news for most people, it does mean that those who might not have already a compatible wire will have to, once again, get a new charger.

In addition to the new port (farewell, Lightning!), the iPhone 15 Pro Max gets a zooming lens thanks to a tetraprism system, as well as a so-called Action button that replaces the slider switch on the side. On the base iPhone 15 and 15 Plus, we're also bidding goodbye to the notch and saying hello to the Dynamic Island. It looks like with the iPhone 15 series, we're leaving a lot of things in the past, hopefully for better things.

The most intriguing of these changes is the Action button, which can be programmed to do one of many things. By default, it will still switch between Silent and Ring modes. But by going into the settings, you can customize it to start a voice recording, open the camera, switch focus modes and more. Within each shortcut, you can get more precise about what the action button does. Say you choose the Camera shortcut. You can tap a dropdown list to choose whether it launches in regular photo mode or in selfie, video or portrait.

One thing worth noting about the Action button is that, aside from the default mode, you'll have to long-press it to actually start your shortcut. If you just press it, you'll see an onscreen indicator next to the button that tells you to hold it down, while the Dynamic Island changes to indicate what will launch. I thought it would be annoying to have to long-press the button to actually trigger what I want, but in spending a bit more time with it I felt it might be too easy to set the action off. While I don't think a long-press will necessarily prevent accidental pushes, it's at least less likely to happen than a simple tap. This is clearly something I'll have to test in the real world by throwing into my purse or fanny pack to see how annoying it will be.

I was able to quickly check out the new zoom lens on the iPhone 15 Pro Max by taking pictures of media personalities from far away. I used my iPhone 14 Pro to get a picture of Michael Fisher (aka The Mr Mobile) from across the giant demo area, pushing my camera to its maximum 15x zoom. Then, with a demo iPhone 15 Pro Max, I snapped a pic of another person from slightly farther away, using the maximum 25x zoom. Not only were images from the newer phone a lot closer, they also seemed a bit brighter and clearer.

Of course, that's not something I can properly evaluate until a real world side-by-side comparison with fairer setups, but I can already tell you that on the iPhone 15 Pro Max, you'll get a little window at the top left to show where in the frame you're zoomed in on. This is basically how all phones with extreme zooms (like the Pixel and Galaxy flagships) do it, too.

An iPhone 15 Pro held in mid-air.
An iPhone 15 Pro held in mid-air. (Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget)

Most of the other changes to the iPhone 15 Pro line weren't things I could test at the demo area, like the performance of the new A17 Pro processor, the second-generation ultra wideband (UWB) chip and battery life. I did get a sense for how smooth the hardware-accelerated ray tracing looked as an Apple staff member played a bit of Diablo Immortal for me to see. I also couldn't plug a USB-C cable into the new port, of course, but I did spend a few minutes gawking at it while taking pictures.

I do like the way the new titanium material feels, though. The iPhone 15 Pros feature a brushed metal finish, and the Pro Max that I spent time with definitely felt noticeably lighter than its chonkster of a predecessor. The iPhone 14 Pro Max always felt like it would crush my skull if I dropped it on my face while reading in bed, while the new model felt like it would only gently dent my cranium.

I also briefly fondled a case made from Apple's new FineWoven material, which is meant to replace leather as the company ceases to sell items made from that. The case felt slightly furry, sort of like suede, and though no one said if this would change, it's the sort of texture I could see Apple tweaking over time. The idea is that suede also feels somewhat premium like leather, and though I prefer the feeling of leather over FineWoven, I can live with it if it means better things for the environment.

A pink iPhone 15 held in mid-air with its screen facing the camera.
A pink iPhone 15 held in mid-air with its screen facing the camera. (Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget)

iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus first impressions

Of course, the Pros weren't the only new phones unveiled today. The iPhone 15s may be slightly less interesting, but they did get some potentially useful updates, too. They now feature 48-megapixel main cameras on their rear, supporting 24-MP default resolution pictures, and ditch the longstanding notch for the pill-shaped Dynamic Island cutout that was introduced last year.

I'm a fan of the new colors on the iPhone 15 series, as well as the way they've been infused into the back glass. It gives off a slight frosted effect that makes the pastel pink, blue, green, yellow and black hues look classy as opposed to cute. The phone's enclosure is also slightly different than the iPhone 14, with a contoured edge that makes the device feel slightly thinner.

I was taken by how much thinner the bezels on the iPhone 15s looked, too. Together with the contoured edges, brighter screens and losing the notch, the handsets feel refreshed and definitely like a bigger change than last year's models were.

There wasn't a lot more about the iPhone 15 line that I could check out at the demo area, but for all the details on what's new this year, check out our article laying out all the updates.

Follow all of the news live from Apple's 'Wonderlust' event right here.

Update, September 13, 12:30PM ET: Correction: The game that was being played on the iPhone 15 Pro Max was Diablo Immortal, not Diablo IV.

Update, September 20 2023, 2:26PM ET: Read our full review of the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max, which is now live on Engadget.