The first reviews of the iPhone 5 are out and everyone's in unison: the larger screen, the impossibly thin (and light!) body, and the increased speed all make for the best iPhone ever. But is it the best smartphone and is it for you?
There’s no denying that the iPhone 5 is a lovely thing, and the best iPhone to date. It could well be Apple’s best-selling unit ever.
But a lot has changed in a year, and the current crop of Android superphones – and the incoming Windows Phone 8 handsets – have closed the gap. For nearly every “new” feature announced at the Keynote, there was a Samsung, Android, Windows, Nokia, Sony or HTC fan saying “my phone already does that.”
First off, you're going to be shocked at how light this phone is. It's the lightest iPhone, even though it's longer and has a bigger screen. After a few days with it, the iPhone 4S will feel as dense as lead.
Secondly, the screen size lengthening is subtle: but, like the Retina Display, you're going to have a hard time going back once you've used it. The extra space adds a lot to document viewing areas above the keyboard, landscape-oriented video playback (larger size and less letterboxing), and home-page organizing (an extra row of icons/folders). Who knows what game developers will dream up, but odds are that extra space on the sides in landscape mode will be handily used by virtual buttons and controls.
The move to 4 inches feels right for the iPhone, though it looks like a dwarf side-by-side with the 4.8-inch display on the Samsung Galaxy S III, arguably the best of the Android breed. I was able to display more than four extra paragraphs reading the same newspaper article on the Samsung as opposed to the iPhone 5. On the other hand, the iPhone screen appears sharper and brighter, and the phone is easier to carry.
Consider the windshield wipers on a car, and how, because they swing circularly, they can't reach the passenger-side top corner. Using the iPhone 5 is like that. There are two specific touch targets where this gives me trouble, both of which I invoke frequently. First, back buttons in the top left corner. I keep mis-tapping underneath them with my fully-outstretched thumb and then need to subtly re-grip the phone so that my thumb can reach. Second, tapping the status bar to scroll to the top of the current view. The top-left back-button issue is only a problem when holding the iPhone 5 one-handed in my right hand, but, I'm right-handed and so that's the hand I tend to use it with.
Ditching the glass back and reducing the thickness of the glass panel on the front has affected the design of the metal band around the edge of the iPhone. It is now chamfered and while that looks pretty, we've already noticed that on the black model the edge has started to wear, revealing the shiny silver aluminium metal underneath the "slate" coloured coating and, indeed, we've witnessed it on two separate models, ruling out a fluke manufacturing error.
These small scuffs will catch the light and make the phone look visibly worn. We suspect that it won't be as noticeable on the white model because the metal edging is silver, so that's worth bearing in mind when you come to order your colour choice.
In fact, the iPhone 5 truly rivals a dedicated point & shoot in its camera abilities. Stills are crisp and bright, using a new spacial noise reduction system that can identify any outlier pixels – such as a rogue green dot in among an otherwise blue sky – and iron them out. There's also a low-light mode that promises a roughly two f-stop improvement in brightness and sensitivity by scaling down the end resolution and combining the data from four adjacent pixel clusters into each final dot in the frame.
The camera is among the best ever put into a phone. Its lowlight shots blow away the same efforts from an iPhone 4S. Its shot-to-shot times have been improved by 40 percent. And you can take stills even while recording video (1080p hi-def, of course)...
There's a new panorama mode for the camera, too, that comes in handy more often than you might expect. As you swing the phone around you, it stitches many shots together into a seamless, ultra-wide-angle, 28-megapixel photo. Unlike other apps and phones with panorama modes, this one is fully automated and offers a preview of the panorama that materializes as you're taking it.
Starting the phone, loading apps, or taking photos - everything is faster on the iPhone 5. Benchmarking with the Geekbench app has shown that the iPhone 5 is not just faster than the iPhone 4S but it also outperforms Samsung's Galaxy S3.
Steve Jobs once said that interfaces which spawned a lot of windows meant that "you get to be the janitor" – a post he didn't relish. Android lets you be the janitor, air-conditioning chief and managing director; the iPhone lets you be the user. It's a key difference in philosophy. You can't do as much on the iPhone – but sometimes fewer choices mean faster decisions. Siri in particular is a revelation; expect to hear much more of its C#-listening-to-G#-acting pings around you.
As for the iPhone 5, it's a lovely piece of equipment. Boring? Lacking wow? With its market value now crossing $700bn and iPhone 5 pre-orders through the roof, Apple might disagree.
Apple says its new A6 dual-core processor has twice the power of the previous A5. In benchmark tests using the PassMark app, that certainly appears to be true. The iPhone 5 does everything - from computations to 3D rendering to opening apps - faster than the 4S, in some cases at double the speed.
To test [the Lightning connector] we lined up an iPhone 4S next to an iPhone 5 and ran both through a number of syncs with large files. Pulling 5.5GB of data from iTunes to the iPhone 4S took five minutes and six seconds on average. Syncing those same files to the iPhone 5 took three minutes and 57 seconds on average. So, nearly 20 percent faster, but we're not sure how much of this is due to the new connector and how much can be attributed to faster internals in the phone itself.
Using an iPhone 5 on the LTE network in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., I averaged almost 26 megabits per second for downloads and almost 13 megabits per second for uploads. Download speeds peaked at 42 megabits per second. These speeds are more than 10 times the typical speeds I got on an iPhone 4S running on the slower 3G network and are faster than most Americans' home Internet services. While LTE affects only data, voice calls I made on the iPhone 5 were clear, better than in the past. I had no dropped calls.
The iPhone 5's battery lasted between 9 and 12 hours every day, in mixed use. For most people, the phone would last the day without recharging.
If there is one problem I had with the iPhone, it would be with the apps that weren't designed for the larger screen. We're used to going to the bottom of the screen for the menu, but because the older apps are centred on the screen, the menus aren't there. I tap a few times before I realise I have to move my thumb up a little bit.
It's a minor quirk that will go away as soon as the developers up their apps.
Testing the maps these last few days, I've come away impressed. No, I don't think they're as good as Google Maps, but they're not bad by any stretch of the imagination. I've looked up local venues and found them all. I've looked up places overseas and found them too. I've played with the 3D stuff, which is pretty, but probably not all that useful day-to-day. And, of course, I've used directions.
I used turn-by-turn fairly extensively on the highway one day and it worked well. It's great to have it on the lock screen and even better that it works even as you're in other apps (it will pop up alerts as you travel). This is a welcome addition.
A non-welcome subtraction is transit direction - as in, they no longer exist natively in the app. Instead, Apple is saying they will partner with other app makers on this, but none are live just yet so I couldn't test it out. If you live in a city where public transportation is key, this sucks.
Moreover, the rear of the phone grew noticeably hot when the GPS system was in use for an extended period, though I didn't notice any undue impact on the phone's battery life or performance.
Apple says some heat buildup is to be expected given the demands of the GPS system, and that my experience with the app's inaccuracy was unusual; it provided me with a second unit that seemed to do better. Still, users should be wary until they're convinced the new app is as good as the one being booted out to make way for it.
But the slickest think about the new Maps is one of the most spectacular things that Apple, or anybody else, has ever put on a gadget: Flyover... Flyover melds 3D models with photos shot from airplanes to recreate urban worlds with unprecedented realism.
Not surprisingly, Flyover seems to be very, very data-intensive: It took a while for those gorgeous scenes to pop up into place when I viewed them. But it was worth it.
So, is the iPhone 5 worth the money? Absolutely. And has Apple done enough to reclaim the top smartphone spot with the iPhone 5? It has, but not quite in the imperious style of the past. Android has gained so much in the last 12 months that the iPhone went from being unbeaten in years to being beaten twice in the space of a few weeks, and its live widgets and open platform will continue to sway people towards the Samsung Galaxy S3 or HTC One X.