Apple needs a Vision Pro-level risk for phones — and the iPhone 15 isn’t it

iPhone 15 Ultra concept
(Image credit: Concept Central/YouTube)

Throughout its history, Apple has had a habit of releasing products that you can describe as risky. Some of those products succeeded, like the Mac or the iPhone, while others were complete disasters, like the Lisa or the Newton. The Apple Vision Pro headset is another one of those risky products, and at this early stage we still don’t know which camp it will fall into.

Still, risks can be good, and it feels like Apple has been playing it safe for far too long. The iPhone is probably one of the best examples of that, particularly when you’re looking at the launch of the iPhone 14. Unfortunately, despite the changes we’re expecting to see with the upcoming iPhone 15 series, Apple still seems to be playing it safe for another year.

Honestly, it’s about time that changed. The iPhone needs a Vision Pro-level risk to help kick the brand back into gear. And launching an iPhone Ultra is just the way to do it.

Modern iPhones play it safe — and the iPhone 15 sounds like no exception

The iPhone 14 faced widespread derision after it was announced, on account of the fact it was barely an upgrade over the iPhone 13. Looking at the iPhone 14 vs iPhone 13 specs side-by-side, it's easy to see why people had such a problem with the newer flagships. The specs made the two models look so similar that they feel almost like the same phone.

There were some slight differences, like minor improvements to battery life and an extra core in the A15 Bionic chipset. But that doesn’t change the fact that all the significant upgrades were held over for the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max. We're talking features like the 120Hz LTPO always-on display, the pill-shaped notch and Dynamic Island, a 48MP main camera, the telephoto lens and so on.

But even then, a lot of those features weren’t exclusive to the iPhone, and could be found on just about any flagship smartphone. There are exceptions, such as the Dynamic Island which is very cool idea. And even with the coming iOS 17 updated bringing a bunch of software features that can make certain Android users jealous, the list of things that makes the iPhone truly standout as one of the best phones feels like it’s getting smaller with each passing generation.

From what we’ve heard about the iPhone 15, there will be changes to the phones arriving this fall. The Dynamic Island is tipped to appear on the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Plus, while the entire range looks set to swap the Lightning cable to USB-C for the first time ever. The iPhone 15 Pro Max is also expected to get a periscope telephoto lens for the first time, expanding its optical zoom capabilities far beyond the horizontal lenses employed until now.

Useful upgrades, to be sure, but they're hardly exciting. They’re certainly not the kind of features that will have die-hard Android users scrambling to the Apple Store on release day — especially since those features are, again, rather common among premium Android flagships.

In fairness to Apple, it’s not alone here. Stagnated upgrade cycles have been a common issue in the smartphone business for a long time. Phone launches are nowhere near as exciting as they used to be, and exceptions to that are rare. Even foldables, like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 have become another part of the yearly upgrade cycle.

But the iPhone Ultra presents an opportunity for Apple to offer an iPhone people can get really excited about again.

iPhone Ultra should be a no-holds barred smartphone

There had been rumors that Apple would rename the iPhone 15 Pro Max as the iPhone 15 Ultra, presumably to help differentiate it from iPhone 15 Pro. Then we heard rumors that the Ultra would be a separate device, meaning Apple would have five flagship iPhones on sale instead of the usual four.

Things have changed slightly, and word is the iPhone Ultra won’t launch until next year at the earliest. But if it is true that Apple will launch it as the fifth iPhone in its lineup, this rumored Ultra model presents an opportunity for the company to go completely nuts with the phone — and without alienating its usual customer base.

It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. Back in 2017, Apple launched the iPhone X alongside the usually-scheduled iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. At the time it was a big leap in what the iPhone had to offer, debuting with a full-screen OLED display with Super Retina resolution, Face ID, a stainless steel frame, Portrait mode and countless other upgrades that became the standard for new iPhones going forward.

All this cool new stuff also meant the price went up, as the iPhone X was the first Apple handset to start at $999. That raised a few eyebrows at the time, but the key part was that this upgrade didn’t come out of nowhere. The regularly scheduled iPhone was still available, offering more than the iPhone 7 but not quite as much as the X.

A bunch of iPhone Ultra rumors we’ve heard bear some similarities to the iPhone X launch. The titanium casing rumor is particularly noteworthy, and would prove to be a serious upgrade over the stainless steel that’s become standard in flagship iPhones. 

But that’s not to say Apple couldn’t take things even further, and produce an iPhone that is the epitome of the phrase “money is no object”. If flagship foldables can inch closer to $2,000, there’s no reason why Apple couldn’t justify the same thanks to the inclusion of a bunch of expensive tech. Just so long as they don’t opt for frivolous things like gold plating or encrusting the device with precious stones. We need it to be more Apple Watch Ultra, and less Apple Watch Edition.

I’m talking features like a 4K display (or close enough), ultra-fast wired and wireless charging, insanely powerful cameras that would put the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra to shame and maybe even ditch the USB-C port in favor of that portless design that Apple has reportedly been working on for so many years. 

The possibilities are endless, especially if Apple goes all in on showing us what an iPhone can do when price is no object — a template for what the iPhones of the future will be striving for too, but ideally without the price tag. 

Bottom line

We’ve seen what Apple is capable of when it decides to throw a bunch of resources into a single device that absolutely destroys the competition. Or so it seems at this pre-release stage. The Vision Pro may be set to cost 7x more than the Meta Quest 3, but I have no doubt that it will be able to handle a heck of a lot more as a result. Or at least it will for the people willing to shell out quite so much money.

The iPhone Ultra is an opportunity for Apple to take that shame philosophy and apply it to the iPhone. It’s a risky move to be sure, especially if the phone's price tag is high enough, but it could be what Apple needs to add some fireworks to its smartphone family. And lord knows it needs that pretty quickly.

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Tom Pritchard
UK Phones Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's UK Phones Editor, tackling the latest smartphone news and vocally expressing his opinions about upcoming features or changes. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining about how terrible his Smart TV is.