Apple may be looking to try something different with next year's iPhone 15 release. Rumors suggest the company might come out with a device some people are calling the iPhone 15 Ultra — a super-sized iPhone packed with the very best features available to Apple's phones and commanding a premium price.
"Isn't that what the iPhone 14 Pro Max is supposed to be?" you may be wondering, and you're correct — the iPhone 14 Pro Max currently sits atop Apple's smartphone lineup, offering you a fast-refreshing 6.7-inch display, high-end A16 Bionic processor and superior cameras, all for a starting price of $1,099.
The thing is, apart from the large screen, the iPhone 14 Pro offers those same features. For next year's models, Apple may be looking to further differentiate its Pro versions, just as it made the iPhone 14 vs. iPhone 14 Pro differences more stark for its recent release. Hence, the move to an iPhone 15 Ultra, which would drive home the point that this is more than a rebranded iPhone Pro Max by packing in more substantial features.
We're a long way from finding out whether the iPhone 15 Ultra is really part of Apple's 2023 phone plans. Indeed, some Apple watchers have already panned the idea of Apple rolling out an Ultra version of its phone in lieu of an iPhone 15 Pro Max. But there are enough rumors from enough credible sources to at least entertain the possibility of an iPhone 15 Ultra — and wonder how it might differ from a Pro Max model.
The definitive answer to that last question won't come until next fall when Apple officially shows off its iPhone 15 lineup. For now, though, there are enough iPhone 15 rumors combined with some of our own speculation to make some early guesses as to how the iPhone 15 Ultra could stand out from the iPhone 14 Pro Max.
A faster processor
it used to be safe to assume that new Apple phones would feature the company's latest mobile silicon, but then the iPhone 14 came along sporting a variation of the A15 chipset that powered the previous year's phones. Nevertheless, we'd anticipate an iPhone 15 Ultra would run on a new system-on-chip.
In this case, that's assumed to be the A17 Bionic, and it should deliver quite a boost over the already impressive A16 Bionic that powers the iPhone 14 Pro Max. That's because the A17 Bionic is expected to be built on a 3-nanometer process versus the 4nm A16 Bionic. A 3nm chipset can accommodate more transistors thaan 4nm silicon, boosting performance and power efficiency.
The bigger question is whether the iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Ultra would use the same chipset or if the version powering the Ultra would feature more cores. With the iPhone 13, Apple used a different version of the A15 Bionic for the Pro models that included an extra core in the GPU. (That's the A15 that's powering the standard iPhone 14, incidentally.) It will be interesting to see if Apple uses that same approach to further distinguish the iPhone 15 Ultra.
Different ports — or none at all
The Lightning port's days are numbered, at least when it comes to the iPhone. The European Union has passed a law requiring a standard charging technology across mobile devices. While the law doesn't go into effect until 2024, it's anticipated Apple will get ahead of that by replacing its proprietary Lightning port with USB-C for the iPhone 15 lineup.
But that change would affect all the iPhone 15 models, not just the iPhone 15 Ultra. Some rumors suggest Apple might take it one step further by dropping ports entirely from its Ultra phone, meaning you'd depend entirely on wireless charging to keep the Ultra juiced up. (Headphone ports are long gone from the iPhone, so be prepared to grab a pair of AirPods if you haven't already.)
Rumors of a portless iPhone have circulated for years, so we're not certainly how much stock to put into this latest incarnation. For now, count on the iPhone 15 Ultra to swap out the iPhone 14 Pro Max's Lightning port with USB-C ... and we'll see if the portless iPhone rumor has any legs this time around.
A more durable body
The iPhone design has remained fairly static since the iPhone 12 — flat edges, metal frames, and the occasional tweak to the rear camera array to accomodate bigger sensors. That's about as long as Apple likes to go with iPhone designs before changing things up, so we'd anticipate some new approaches with the entire iPhone 15 lineup.
One rumor suggests that the high-end iPhone 15 could turn to a titanium alloy as a new material. Titanium would be more durable than the stainless steel that the iPhone 14 Pro Max uses. The new alloy could also make the iPhone 15 Ultra lighter than its predecessor, which would be ideal since the iPhone 14 Pro Max packed a little weight.
This is another rumor that's been floating around for a while — the iPhone 14 Pro was tipped to get a titanium alloy at one point — so we're not sure how much credence to give it. But if Apple is serious about this Ultra label, a lighter, more durable material would be in line with that philosophy.
Here's another rumor that's almost as predictable as the new iPhone getting an improved processor. Cameras are critical to the iPhone's success, so naturally, the iPhone 15 lineup will be in line for a tweak or two — and that's especially true of the most expensive model in the lineup.
To that end, the iPhone 15 Ultra could be in line to get a periscope-style lens that would boost its zoom capabilities beyond the 3x optical zoom the iPhone 14 Pro Max supports. It's unclear if that feature would also be available to the iPhone 15 Pro or whether Apple would treat it as an Ultra exclusive.
Some analysts have tipped the iPhone 15 Pro models, including the Ultra, to get an eight-element lens, an upgrade from the seven-element lens found in the iPhone 14 Pro Max. More elements allow a phone's camera to absorb more light and minimize distortion. However, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo doesn't think an upgrade to an eight-element lens is going to happen.
There's one other iPhone 15 Ultra camera rumor, and it relates to the front camera — or rather, cameras. One leaker is tipping the iPhone 15 Ultra to feature a second front lens. That could be related to Apple's ambitions toward augmented reality, as a second camera could help with overlaying virtual objects on the Ultra's viewfinder.
Now we're moving away from the realm of rumors into pure speculation and what we'd expect to see from an iPhone 15 Ultra. That starts with storage, particularly the amount Apple includes in the base model of its phones.
Buy any iPhone 14 model, and the entry-level version will sport 128GB of storage, which is pretty standard among smartphones these days. (It's also a new development for Apple — as recently as the iPhone 12, Apple was still pretending that 64GB was an adequate starting point.) But if you're going to stick the Ultra label on a device, its specs should go above and beyond the standard for other phones. That means a minimum of 256GB in our minds.
It's not a point phone makers agree with. Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra starts with 128GB of storage, and we'd expect the Galaxy S23 Ultra to do the same when it arrives in early 2023. But that's all the more reason for Apple to go big with storage on the iPhone 15 Ultra.
Apple Pencil support
Speaking of the Galaxy S23 Ultra, it's all but certain to ship with a built-in S Pen, the second year in a row Samsung will have offered that feature. (And the Galaxy S20 Ultra offered S Pen support even if you had to spring for the stylus separately.) In contrast, Apple's phones continue to ship without an included stylus, even though there's one readily available.
That would be the Apple Pencil, which Apple has restricted to use with the iPad Pro, iPad mini, iPad Air and 10th Gen iPad. (In the case of that last tablet, you can only use the original Apple Pencil and not the 2nd gen model.) There's absolutely no reason why that stylus shouldn't work with a 6.7-inch phone — especially if you're going to tout that phone as the ultimate productivity device.
Whether Apple agrees with that assertion or not remains to be seen. But adding Apple Pencil support to the iPhone 15 Ultra would certainly make this rumored phone a distinct improvement over the iPhone 14 Pro Max.
iPhone 15 Ultra outlook
With the next round of iPhones not expected until September 2023, it will be some time before we know if any of these rumored features pans out — or if the iPhone 15 Ultra even exists. But the fact that there's half-a-dozen ways such a device could distinguish itself from the iPhone 14 Pro Max suggests that an iPhone 15 Ultra would represent more than just a name change.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.