Apple may be mulling a new addition to its iPhone lineup in the form of an iPhone 16 Ultra, at least according to reports from earlier this year claiming that a high-end iPhone could debut as soon as 2024. And if that happens, that handset will face on big question upon its debut whenever that may be: Just what will an iPhone Ultra phone offer than an iPhone Pro Max doesn't already?
That's a question Apple is no doubt thinking about behind closed doors in Cupertino, though we're unlikely to hear what the company's official answer is until an ultra iPhone arrives on the scene. Still, that's not going to stop us from mulling over potential answers of our own as we try to unpack how an iPhone 16 Ultra might differentiate itself from the Pro Max models that came before it.
We're making an assumption here — that any iPhone Ultra that sees the light of day would be an all-new device that extends the capabilities of Apple's smartphone platform instead of just serving as a rebranded iPhone Pro Max with a more compact name. It's possible that Apple does precisely that, but it's a lot more fun to think about the ways the company can make the iPhone Ultra even more premium than before.
Here's the steps I think Apple should make to ensure that the iPhone 16 Ultra stands out as its own unique device.
The Ultra goes big
If you append the word Ultra onto a product's name, it had better be the ultimate version. And to my mind, that means super-sizing everything you can short of making your product comically oversized.
The iPhone 15 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch screen? The iPhone 16 Ultra's should be bigger. Apple puts 8GB of RAM into the Pro Max? The Ultra should have 12GB. Refresh rate? Storage? Charging speed? All those specs need to be bigger.
That even goes for the optical zoom on an iPhone 16 Ultra, which could prove a challenge, as Apple just redesigned the iPhone 15 Pro Max's telephoto lens to offer the longest zoom ever on one of its handsets at 5x. But as the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and its 10x zoom prove, there's room for Apple to go bigger here.
It's very possible at least one of those features could come to fruition with the phones it releases in 2024. There's a rumor the iPhone 16 Pro Max could get a 6.9-inch display — if that's the device Apple actually winds up rolling out next year.
The Ultra loses the buttons
Rumors of a button-free iPhone feel as old as time itself, and an iPhone completely devoid of any buttons sticking out from its smooth edges would certainly be unique. But it doesn't sound very practical.
Instead, there's a possibility of an iPhone Ultra picking up on a rumored feature that was apparently dropped from the iPhone 15 Pro models — replacing the physical buttons with solid-state buttons. In this instance, the buttons wouldn't move but rather use haptic feedback to register a press. The Action button on the iPhone 15 Pro sort of works this way, but an Ultra model would take things a step farther.
Truly solid-state buttons didn't appear on the iPhone 15 Pro because of production problems implementing the features on a mass scale — or so the rumor goes. Perhaps this is something Apple figures out in time for an iPhone 16 Ultra. It would certainly make the phone more appealing.
It's not a button per se, but the port could theoretically disappear from the iPhone 16 Ultra, with Apple relying completely on wireless charging to power up the device. Wireless charging pads are certainly more prevalent than they were a few years ago, and getting rid of the port removes another potential failure point for the phone. (My last two iPhone upgrades have been triggered by Lightning port on those models no longer working.) Then again, with wireless charging speeds no match for wired charging, maybe this is something Apple doesn't follow through on.
The Ultra adds power
A couple of recent iPhone 16 rumors made me think of ways that Apple could make a theoretical Ultra model stand out from the rest of the lineup. First, there's the report that every iPhone is going to run on new A18 silicon — but that the higher-end phones in the lineup could benefit from more powerful variants of the system-on-chip. Who's to say that the fastest, most power efficient version of the A18 doesn't wind up inside an iPhone 16 Ultra.
The other rumor that caught my attention was the suggestion that iOS 18 will introduce even more AI-driven features to the iPhone, and not just because such a move figures to make the next major iPhone software update a game-changer for Apple's handsets. Rather, it's a rumor that the iPhone 16 models may have on-device AI capabilities that could turn out to be exclusive; older iPhones may not have the processing power to support them.
If that's the case, why wouldn't Apple look to make some of those AI features even more exclusive? To put it another way, if you were going to offer people the ultimate iPhone, you'd want to make sure it could do things no other model could do. AI seems like one way to achieve that.
Since part of the iPhone lineup's is that the many of the software features work just as well on less expensive models as they do on the Pro and Pro Max hardware, I'm not sure Apple would be willing to take that step with the iPhone 16 Ultra. Then again, it's not exactly unprecedented that Apple restricts features to select models, as anyone who's tried to use the StandBy Mode in iOS 17 on an iPhone without an always-on display can tell you.
iPhone 16 Ultra outlook
I should emphasize that all of this is speculation on my part, and none of it could come to pass. Heck, we don't even know for sure if an iPhone Ultra model is a real thing for either the iPhone 16 lineup or beyond.
But if an iPhone 16 Ultra is in Apple's immediate plans, it's going to want to convince people that this isn't just a Pro Max model. Tackling some of the above upgrades would more than fit the bill.
More from Tom's Guide
Get the BEST of Tom’s Guide daily right in your inbox: Sign up now!
Upgrade your life with the Tom’s Guide newsletter. Subscribe now for a daily dose of the biggest tech news, lifestyle hacks and hottest deals. Elevate your everyday with our curated analysis and be the first to know about cutting-edge gadgets.
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.