I'm not a gambling man by nature — never bet on anything that can talk is good advice to live by — and I'm certainly not foolhardy enough to guess what Apple may or may not do in the coming months. But if you asked me to make one prediction for the coming year that I was pretty confident about, it would involve the iPhone 16 Ultra — specifically, that I don't think that phone's coming out in 2024.
In case you've forgotten, the iPhone Ultra is supposedly in development at Apple as a possible extension to the iPhone lineup. Much in the same way that the Apple Watch Ultra offers a premium smartwatch experience in terms of battery life, durability and features, an Ultra version of the iPhone would pack in the very best capabilities available to Apple's smartphones.
iPhone Ultra rumors first surfaced in late 2022 when no less a source than Bloomberg's Mark Gurman suggested that Apple might apply the thinking behind the Apple Watch Ultra to its smartphone lineup and replace the top-of-the-line Pro Max phone with an Ultra version. Earlier this year, Gurman reported that Apple was "working towards an even higher-end Ultra model for as early as 2024 in addition to adding more exclusive features to the Pro Max."
It's the "2024" bit of that sentence that people have seized on, glossing over the "as early as" part. The mention of a specific year would seem indicate that an Ultra is on its way, though the latter part acts as a reminder that it could happen later rather than sooner.
Put me in the camp of people who think that the arrival of an Ultra model isn't going to happen any time soon. I hope that I'm wrong — an Ultra would represent a new kind of iPhone from Apple, and writing about new iPhones is inherently exciting — but the evidence so far doesn't point to a big shift in the iPhone lineup happening next fall. Here's why.
There's plenty of iPhone 16 rumors... but not many iPhone 16 Ultra-specific ones
Assuming another fall launch for the iPhones in 2024, we're still more than nine months away from seeing any new models. And yet, iPhone 16 rumors appear with such frequency that we're already getting a preliminary idea of what to expect.
We've been told what kind of chipset could power this falls phones. (It's apparently different variations of A18 silicon for every model.) We've heard what iPhone 15 Pro features might migrate to the standard iPhone. (Get ready for that Action button.) Even early camera rumors are starting to appear.
But not many of these rumors mention an iPhone 16 Ultra. In fact, any iPhone 16 Pro rumors usually mention the iPhone 16 Pro Max by name. When word got out that Apple may increase the size of its Pro displays, it's the iPhone 16 Pro Max that's tipped to get a 6.9-inch panel and not the iPhone 16 Ultra.
That could just be force of habit, with more Ultra-specific details possibly surfacing in the new year. Or it could be an indication that Apple has found a phone lineup — standard model, Plus model and two Pro models — that it's happy with for now.
The rumored changes to the iPhone 16 Pro lineup sound somewhat incremental
You'd imagine that if Apple replaces a Pro Max phone with an Ultra model, the move would be more than just a name swap. Rather, there'd be some feature or enhancement that would elevate the new phone above the Pro lineup.
So far, iPhone 16 Pro rumors don't really point to that kind of addition. The Action button currently on the Pro models may be joined by a Capture button, too. There's talk that the iPhone 16 Pro Max might get a telephoto lens with a longer focal length and that the size of the image sensor could increase to capture more light. But most of the camera rumors concern the iPhone 16 Pro adopting the iPhone 15 Pro Max's tetraprism telephoto lens for 5x zoom support or the Pro models featuring an ultrawide angle lens with a higher resolution.
It's possible that whatever version of the A18 winds up in the top-of-the-line iPhone 16 model has enough processing muscle and power efficiency to back up an Ultra name change. But barring a barrage of more substantial rumors, it sound like the iPhone 16 lineup will be headed up by a Pro Max model once more.
The biggest rumor we've heard so far isn't happening in 2024
There has been one iPhone rumor that would have marked a significant change for Apple's phones — an entirely new look. Earlier this year, a prototype surfaced showing an iPhone with an under-display FaceID camera, requiring only a single camera cutout on the phone's display.
That certainly sounds like the sort of thing you'd see on an iPhone Ultra, but you're not going to see it this year. Even the person showing off the prototype doesn't expect that design change until the iPhone 17 at the earliest.
Apple's focus is likely to be on AI
We've heard about another significant change that seems more likely to reach the iPhone 16 lineup — but it's software-based and not hardware. An early iOS 18 rumor tips the 2024 software update to put AI capabilities front and center — including an Apple-built chatbot. While those features should be available to more iPhones than just the 2024 models, it's likely that only the A18 chipsets in the different iPhone 16 variants will have the horsepower to handle more sophisticated AI features on the phone itself as opposed to through the cloud.
Now Apple's a big company with more than enough resources to develop AI features on the software side and an Ultra model on the hardware end of things. Still, the early impression is that AI's role on the iPhone is going to be a significant focus in the coming year — so much so that maybe development on Ultra phone takes a backseat for a little bit.
iPhone 16 Ultra outlook
None of this is to say there won't be an iPhone Ultra one day — just that all the signs and portents suggest it's not happening in the near term. Obviously, we're far off enough from the iPhone 16 launch date where things could change, and more iPhone 16 Ultra-specific rumors appear. And when that happens, no one will be happier than me, provided I agree right now not to bring up anything I wrote here. Still, given the state of iPhone rumors to date, I'm not blocking out time to eat my words come the fall.
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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.