iPhone 5S First Impressions: So, About That Fingerprint Thing

By Kyle Wagner on at

For once, there's actually something new to talk about with an iPhone.

Well, sort of. There isn't that much difference between an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 5S. Physically, the only thing that separates them is that the home button is now much flatter, with chamfered edges. It's clickier than before, and pressing it is satisfying in the way that pressing a button is supposed to be. That's important because of how much you use the home button, and a detail Apple got right here.

The rest of the phone shares virtues and vices with the 5: Thin, light, great screen, slightly overly delicate, colouring that you just know is going to chip off in a hurry if you don't use a case, but overall strong build quality. And then there's the fingerprint scanner.

OK, fine, Touch ID is nice. I was skeptical! Unlocking your phone with just your fingerprint is kitschy, and gimmicky, but more important than that: It's highly conducive to abject laziness. That's all you really want out of anything in tech, really, added convenience without any sacrifice. (It remains to be seen what this looks like from a privacy standpoint, obviously, regardless of Apple's assertions, but for now we're just talking about functionality.) It's a handy feature that, from an hour or so of using it, actually works well.

While setting up your iPhone, you'll be asked to press your finger onto the scanner repeatedly. And then you just stick your finger on the button, over and over, in a few different positions, until it's satisfied that it knows what your fingerprint looks like. You can go into settings later on and add more fingers, in case you want to unlock your phone with your pinky because you are an asshole. I added both of my thumbs twice, just in case that helps it recognise them (it probably doesn't, I'm just dumb).

There's one immediate problem, though: The scanner is in the wrong damn place. Why? The power button is on the top of the iPhone. The scanner is at the bottom. When you use your index finger to power the phone on, doing so drifts your thumb up the side of the phone. So you're left wriggling your finger back down in order to get in place to stick your thumb on the scanner. This wasn't a problem when you were just using a passcode, since a thumb along the side of the screen is exactly where you want it if you're going to be using the touchscreen, but it's an ergonomic trainwreck as it is now. Convenient things shouldn't go in inconvenient places!

You can just use your other thumb to reach it, but "Hey use two hands to unlock your phone now!" isn't exactly the picture of convenience. You're going to see a lot of people dropping their iPhones as they try to wriggle their hand down to fingerprint scan one-handed. This is softened by the scanner thankfully recognising your thumb or finger from weird angles, like off from the side, but it still feels dumb as you're using it.

iPhone 5S First Impressions: So, About That Fingerprint Thing

Of course, the biggest difference you'll see is iOS 7. We reviewed the new OS this week, but in short, there's a new, more colourful design, and a lot of new functions. It's convenient in ways that iOS 6 wasn't, but unpolished in similar fashion. The way that the fingerprint scanner is integrated into some secure "unlocking" functions (like app store purchases) but not all of them, for example.

As for the rest? We'll have a detailed camera test shortly, comparing the 5S to ever major flagship smartphone with a good camera. But for now, I'll say the camera is fast, handles low light pretty well, and the flash—the thing I was looking forward to the most on this, having loved the Lumia 928's—is good, but not mindblowing. Here's a link to a hasty but full-sized sample shot.

The processor is fast enough that I didn't see any lag in any of the everyday apps I was using—and that's probably enough to go on. I didn't play any taxing games, but we've got a thorough breakdown of the A7 chip and its performance coming as well. Spoiler: It did very well. Not that you'll necessarily notice in everyday usage.

Audio quality was fine, and the microphone picked up conversational speaking from across a conference room on speakerphone mode.

So the verdict? The iPhone is still nice. It's philosophically aligned with a lot of the other great phones out right now, like the Moto X, in pushing toward convenience and immersion. But it's also still, mainly, an iPhone.