Last week, I took the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra to London for a full-on camera test.
This is, after all, the flagship smartphone battle most people care about. Certainly, whenever a new iPhone is launched, my audience wants to know how it compares against Samsung’s best offering.
The differences between these two devices continue to reduce in an era where we really have reached peak smartphone innovation.
But there are differences, and the iPhone 15 Pro Max and S23 Ultra have very defined audiences.
However, there was one huge disappointment that took me be surprise during this comparison, which I’ll get to later.
15 Pro Max vs S23 Ultra – general observations
Let’s start with the displays.
The iPhone 15 Pro Max display is superb. It’s bright, sharp, colourful, and super fast thanks to that 120Hz ProMotion tech. But it isn’t the S23 Ultra’s display which still takes the crown.
Like it or lump it, Samsung still opts for vibrancy and saturation over anything else when it comes to the display on its flagship devices. It’s not for everyone, but I absolutely love it. The S23 Ultra’s display also feels far more expansive thanks to the lack of anything remotely resembling the Dynamic Island.
The OS is a personal preference, which is why I rarely go into detail on that element during these comparisons. That said, I remain welded deeply within the Apple ecosystem thanks to my reliance on the Mac and iPad elsewhere in my business. So, for me, iOS always pips it, but that doesn’t make it better than Android, and Google’s operating system shines on the S23 Ultra.
Both phones are serious performers, too – as they should be. I don’t undertake benchmarks, but the iPhone 15 Pro Max and S23 Ultra never disappoint when it comes to their speediness and ability to get any task done without a sniff of a jitter.
Battery life? The S23 Ultra wins. Still. The iPhone 15 Pro Max appears to have a bit more stamina than the iPhone 14 Pro Max (which, in my experience, had noticeably worse battery life than its predecessor). During my London camera test, the S23 Ultra comprehensively beat the iPhone, retaining 70% of its battery life by 2PM, versus the 50% remaining on the 15 Pro Max (they were both undertaking the same tasks). But it’s the standby time where the S23 Ultra continues to smash the iPhone.
Just like the camera performance, the look and feel of these two smartphones is entirely subjective. Regardless, I think they both fly the flagship flag perfectly. The iPhone 15 Pro Max just pips it in terms of build quality and looks (in my opinion) but buy either of these devices and you won’t feel shortchanged.
But what about that camera system?
15 Pro Max vs S23 Ultra – camera comparison
The iPhone 15 Pro Max and S23 Ultra have vastly different camera systems and what’s nice about this comparison is that they produce vastly different photos, too.
That means there’s a defined audience for both because the opinions on the example photos I’m showing you from London in this review will be split straight down the middle.
The S23 Ultra continues to lean heavily on sharpening techniques and oversaturated colours (greens, blues, and reds get the biggest treatment in that regard) to make its photos ‘pop’ on on that beautiful display.
The iPhone produces warmer photos and doesn’t crank the sharpening dial up quite as much as the S23 Ultra. Once again, the one you prefer will be based entirely on your preference for photography.
The iPhone still wins when it comes to capturing fast-moving objects. Due to the S23’s slow reaction times in certain scenarios, capturing your kids playing or that perfect snap of your dog’s face is much harder than it is on the iPhone.
I experienced this again in London when I attempted to take a photo of this red London bus. I wanted to add some movement to the image to make it interesting. The iPhone nailed it. The S23 Ultra was… late.
But the biggest difference between these two is the focal lengths on offer from the optical zoom range. The iPhone 15 Pro Max has introduced a new 5X zoom, which is equivalent to 120mm and it is an inspired choice.
By comparison, the S23 Ultra offers 3x and 10x – both of which are impressive and occasionally useful, but it’s the iPhone’s 5x that I found far more handy during my time in London, and on the Samsung, that’s a digital zoom. The result? Well, when things get dark, the iPhone absolutely smashes the S23 Ultra in that 5x zoom range.
I’m not going to tell you which one of these two smartphones takes the best photo because it is entirely up to you. For me, the iPhone still wins because of the lack of over-sharpening and the reassurance it offers in terms of always nailing the shot. Despite this, they both take wonderful photos – you’re not going to be disappointed.
As for video performance, I’d recommend watching my full YouTube video comparison where I show exactly how they compare.
The big disappointment
I wanted my camera test between the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Galaxy S23 Ultra to be of the point-and-shoot variety. That’s why I didn’t work with massive RAW files and simply lifted the images straight out of the devices without editing them.
This is how most people use these phones, after all. They spot something that deserves photographing, whip out their phone, hit the shutter button and admire the result.
I approached the video test in the same way. The YouTube version of this comparison was shot entirely on both phones, which meant relying on their mics to capture my voice. And this is where the biggest disappointment raised its ugly head for me.
They both really struggled when it came to the mic performance. Cities are challenging conditions for mics, granted – there’s an ever-present wind of some description, traffic noise, people shouting, and the constant banging and clanging from construction workers.
That doesn’t excuse what I experienced during the production of my video. In 2023, we should be getting smartphone mics that can cope with those scenarios and use their ridiculously powerful processing capabilities to deliver the best audio.
That simply isn’t the case. The audio produced by both of these phones was awful. Just like the imagery, I didn’t change any settings or undertake any post-processing (bar rolling off everything sub 30Hz to save my audience’s speakers and headphones). The result was a vocal track that waves between central, left, and right in the stereo field, and some really weird noise suppression and compression (I think) that consistently removed all dynamics from the audio track in a ham-fisted attempt (I think) to isolate the vocal.
It’s horrible. On both phones. In fact, in places, it is almost unusable. This was by far the biggest disappointment for me during the comparison. I left the audio as it was in the video because that was the point of the comparison, but as a content creator, I could never rely on either of these phones to capture audio for any other video.
I’m an iPhone guy. I’m ‘stuck’ in Apple’s ecosystem. This is why the iPhone 15 Pro Max remains my main smartphone.
But I’m also a two-phone kinda guy – because I do this for a living. That means I’m always carrying an Android device in my other pocket. The S23 Ultra remains one of those devices that I always miss whenever I have to switch Android phones – not least because of that beautiful display.
The one you prefer will be based entirely on your preference for the brand and operating system; I cannot tell you which one is ‘the best’, I’m afraid.
One thing I do know, is that we absolutely need better mics on future flagship phones. The performance of the iPhone 15 Pro Max and S23 Ultra in that regard was totally unforgivable during this test.