iPhone 15 Ultra vs iPhone 15 Pro Max — will Apple do enough to justify the new name?

iPhone 15 Ultra concept
(Image credit: Jonas Daehnert)

Update: Check out our Apple Event live blog for the latest from Cupertino on the iPhone 15 and more.

We're about to find out what's in a name, at least if a new rumor about the iPhone 15 Pro Max proves to be accurate. A new report suggests that Apple could ditch the Pro Max name when the phone makes its likely debut at the Apple September event, instead calling the device the iPhone 15 Ultra.

The reason for the name switch? Well, it would certainly set apart Apple's most premium phone from the rest of the lineup — even from the iPhone 15 Pro with which it's likely to share many high-end features. For that to happen, though, Apple's going to have to do more than change around the Pro Max model's name. It's going to have to deliver new features worthy of the Ultra moniker.

That's a pretty tall order given how far along we are in the iPhone 15 rumor cycle. Let's take a closer look at what Apple needs to do if it wants the iPhone 15 Ultra to be more than just a name.

The iPhone 15 Ultra backstory

You probably remember hearing something about an iPhone 15 Ultra late last year, when rumors suggested Apple might introduce a new model as part of its 2023 phone lineup. The iPhone 14 launch had already introduced the idea that Apple's Pro models came with some big features not found on the standard iPhone, and the Ultra was seen as a continuation of that idea. If people are willing to pay more for an iPhone Pro with premium features, maybe they'd pay even more for the Ultra iPhone.

The thinking seemed to match what Apple's already doing with smartwatch, where the Apple Watch now comes in good (Apple Watch SE), better (Apple Watch) and best (Apple Watch Ultra) configurations. And while many of the features found on that Apple Watch Ultra model weren't going to appeal to the majority of users — that Depth app on the Ultra is beneficial to deep-sea divers but not the rest of us — you'd happy pay the premium for that device if you were among the select few to find those capabilities worthwhile.

Apple Watch 8 vs. Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Watch 8 and Apple Watch Ultra (Image credit: Future)

"If it's good enough for the Apple Watch," the thinking behind the Ultra name seemed to go, "it should be good enough for the iPhone."

Some time this spring, though, the iPhone 15 Ultra talk began to cool down. Rumors still touted an iPhone 15 Pro Max model, while Bloomberg's Mark Gurman reported that no name change was imminent. Apple was looking to come out with an Ultra version for the iPhone, Gurman concluded, but that model likely wouldn't show up before 2024.

That ended talk of an iPhone Ultra right until it didn't. AppleInsider's Andrew O' Hara recently cited unnamed sources who've told him the iPhone 15 Ultra is a go, with that model replacing the iPhone 15 Pro Max at the top of Apple's lineup for the fall. "Multiple sources have told me Apple will indeed use the “iPhone 15 Ultra” monicker for the plus-sized pro phone," O'Hara tweeted.

iPhone 15 Ultra rumored features

iPhone 15 Pro Max renders by Alpha Tech

(Image credit: Alpha Tech)

As you'd imagine, Apple has big plans for its iPhone 15 Pro models, with plenty of new features slated for the 6.1-inch iPhone 15 Pro as well as the 6.7-inch model, whatever its name turns out to be. For starters, both phones will be among the first to run on a 3nm mobile processor, as Apple's likely to include the A17 Bionic chipset in the iPhone 15 Pro as well as the iPhone 15 Ultra/Pro max. That would translate to a big power boost and potentially better battery life thanks to enhanced power management.

Likewise, the Pro models are tipped to get a titanium frame. That material's lighter and more durable than the stainless steel used by the current Pro models. While every iPhone 15 is expected to make the switch to USB-C connectivity, only the Pro models might see faster charging speeds because of it. And existing features like the ProMotion displays and their adaptive refresh rates figure to remain exclusive to the Pro phones.

But as for Ultra-specific features, those are few and far between. The main iPhone 15 Pro vs. iPhone 15 Pro Max difference besides screen size figures to be the zoom lens on the more expensive model. Rumors have suggested a periscope-style lens for the iPhone 15 Pro Max, and the name change to the iPhone 15 Ultra would make such a change even more likely.

With a periscope lens, phone makers can stack components vertically, giving them more room to work with inside a phone. That means better optics and a more powerful zoom. Most zoom lens rumors surrounding the iPhone 15 Pro Max tipped the phone to get a 6x optical zoom, though O'Hara's iPhone 15 Ultra rumor puts the zoom at 10x. Either way, it's an improvement over the 3x zoom the iPhone 14 Pro Max currently provides.

There's one other potential change for the iPhone 15 Pro Max/iPhone 15 Ultra, though it's not the kind people usually like to see. Whatever it's called, the new phone is expected to cost more than the iPhone 14 Pro Max — maybe by $100, maybe by $200. That would put the top-of-the-line iPhone 15 model in the $1,199 to $1,299 range — which is Ultra, indeed.

iPhone 15 Ultra: Can Apple offer anything else?

I have no idea if Apple sticks with the Pro Max name or not at this point, but I'd guess that if Apple is going to market this phone as the iPhone 15 Ultra — and charge more for it — it's got to offer something more than just an improved telephoto lens. 

The trouble is, we haven't heard much in the way of rumors about what those features could be, and with a September launch date likely, we're running out of time for those rumors to emerge. A larger battery in the new iPhone coupled with the A17 Bionic silicon could deliver a big boost in battery life, which would certainly be keeping in line with the Ultra branding. The Apple Watch Ultra, for instance, promises double the battery life of the Apple Watch Series 8. Apple could also include Thunderbolt connectivity via the USB-C port on the Ultra exclusively to give it an edge over the iPhone 15 Pro. 

But these are just guesses. And if they were good guesses, chances are we would have heard something about them by now from someone a little bit sourced than me.

iPhone 15 Ultra: Outlook

For that reason, I still think the previous rumor — that we'll see an iPhone Ultra one day, though not as part of the iPhone 15 launch — is still the one I'd back. And If I'm wrong, I hope there is more to the iPhone 15 Ultra than just a name change and a fancier zoom lens. I hope Apple really does spell out its vision for the ultimate iPhone.

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Philip Michaels

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.