Most people anticipated seeing the iPhone 5 surface last year but, of course, Cupertino had different plan, instead opting to beef up the iPhone 4’s internal hardware and leave its chassis virtually untouched. Apple received a lot of criticism for this decision, though that didn’t dampen sales, as the iPhone 4S kept Cook and company near the top of the proverbial food chain for yet another year.
The sixth-generation iPhone has finally landed following months of rumors and speculation, and this time there are plenty of changes internally and aesthetically. It addresses a number of concerns that critics have raised over the past year, but as with any high-profile launch (and especially with Apple products), new complaints have already surfaced. We’ll investigate these and more as we put the iPhone 5 under the microscope.
Apple has almost completely redesigned the iPhone’s exterior, yet it still looks very much like the iconic handset everyone is familiar with. For the first time in the iPhone’s history, Apple bumped the screen size up — albeit slightly. The 4-inch display retains the same 326 PPI density as its predecessor with an effective resolution of 1,126 x 640. Even so, the iPhone 5 has a small display compared to some other devices on the market.
The display’s width remains unchanged by design. Apple said it wanted users to still be able to hold and operate the phone with one hand — an obvious jab at larger handsets like the upcoming 5.5-inch Note II. The extra real estate is immediately evident when surfing the web, writing an email or texting. Unfortunately, developers will have to rework their apps to fully support the new resolution and as of writing, there aren’t many apps that are 100% iPhone 5-compatible.
Desired screen size will largely come down to user preference, but I approve of the boost. The idea of having an even larger screen is appealing but my smallish hands and similarly-sized pockets certainly appreciate the continued narrowness of the iPhone 5.
Despite its increased screen size, the iPhone 5 is 18% thinner and 20% lighter than the 4S — a not so subtle change that becomes obvious as soon as you pick it up. Apple has replaced the solid-glass back with a combination of glass and aluminum for the rear shell. The band around the perimeter of the handset has been darkened (on the black model) and tapered while the front glass panel is noticeably thinner. There’s no plastic to be found on the iPhone 5.
Even with the iPhone 5 installed in an OtterBox Defender case, it only feels roughly as heavy as a bare iPhone 4. Without a case, the phone feels unusually light — almost as if it’s just a fake demo unit you’d find tethered at a retail store. It’s a pretty remarkable feat that highlights Apple’s engineering efforts.
Apple has moved the headphone jack to the bottom of the iPhone in a move that I initially assumed had something to do with internal hardware placement. It wasn’t until I actually used the jack that I began to appreciate the move. It’s nice not having the earphone cable coming out of the top and potentially getting in your way when interacting with the device. There are a few instances where this could be a drawback, however, such as when you’re on the treadmill and want to stand the phone upright while listening to music. It’s not likely to be a problem most of the time but it’s something to be aware of.
Many people seem to be bothered by the new Lightning connector, which replaced the 30-pin connector that’s been a staple on the iPhone since day one, because old dock accessories will no longer work unless you purchase a $29 adapter. I’m probably one of the few people that will say this, but I like the new Lightning connector. Not only is it many times smaller than the legacy solution, but it can be plugged in regardless of its orientation, so it’s easier to use in the dark.
Critics argue that this USB 2.0 implementation is slow and that Apple should have used a more common micro-USB connector instead — a valid point, though there does seem to be anything stopping the company from adding USB 3.0 or even Thunderbolt support in future revisions. The only issue I foresee is that I can no longer use the same cable to charge my iPad.
The iPhone 4S shipped with one of the best cameras in a mobile phone and now it’s even better. Apple reduced the size of the iSight camera by 25% while making it 40% faster. It still shoots at 8 megapixels but results are said to be better thanks to a new sapphire crystal on the lens and backside-illuminated sensor.
There’s also some pretty impressive image processing built into the A6 processor that reduces noise in low-light environments. Apple has also added a panorama feature that lets you to capture up to 240 degrees in a single photo — perfect for that lovely sunset or massive reunion. You just have to rotate the camera on a guided line and the iPhone handles the rest and produces a high-quality 8,640px-wide image. Of course, this is a feature that some Android handsets have shipped with and it’s even been possible via third-party apps on previous iPhones, but that doesn’t take too much thunder away from Apple’s native offering in my opinion.
The front-facing camera has also been upgraded to 720p resolution for improved video quality over FaceTime — a feature that’s now available over cellular (with an eligible data plan on AT&T, of course).
Connectivity and Performance
Apple has finally added 4G LTE support after being heavily criticized last year when the iPhone 4S lacked the feature. Most believe they wanted to wait until the technology was refined and perfected enough to reduce power consumption, a common complaint on earlier LTE-enabled phones. It’s an excuse that didn’t sit well with many and likely resulted in some customers defecting to Android where LTE phones have been commonplace for some time.
Wi-Fi will still be the go-to connection for many users at home and it’s another area where the iPhone 5 has been updated. The new handset now features 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi with 802.11n supporting dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Bluetooth 4.0 is back in addition to GPS and GLONASS for location services.
Carriers are still actively rolling out LTE, and this is expected to continue for the next couple of years. My carrier (AT&T) unveiled LTE near me just three days before the iPhone 5 launched and if you’ve never used an LTE-enabled phone, you’re in for a real treat. Using the speedtest.net app, I topped out at 22.47Mbps / 9.25Mbps in the Memphis, Tennessee area.
The rumor mill accurately predicted the iPhone 5’s new A6 processor, which is Apple’s first entirely custom ARM chip design. A recent report from chip consultant Linley Gwennap suggests Apple started developing the A6 in 2008 when they acquired PA Semi. Since then, it’s estimated they have dumped over $500 million into the project in an effort to create a chip that balances processing power with die size constraints.
In an age of quad-core processors, Apple was able to engineer a dual-core 1.03GHz chip that is capable of outperforming almost every phone on the market today. This alone is perhaps one of the most fascinating and overlooked achievements of the iPhone 5 in my opinion.
The A6 also contains three GPU cores and two 32-bit LPDDR2 memory channels. Apple bumped the overall RAM capacity up to 1GB, double the amount in last year’s model. When it’s all said and done, you end up with a ridiculously fast phone. Our testing shows an overall Geekbench score of 1597 while SunSpider testing reveals a total score of 979.3ms.
But it’s not really the benchmarks that are telling as much as it is the overall experience in iOS 6. Everything from surfing the web and checking email to stitching together panorama photos and playing games is snappy. I’ve been using a 16GB iPhone 5 extensively since the day it was released and I’ve yet to experience any slowdown or lag regardless of what I throw at the phone.
CSR Racing, Infinity Blade II, Asphalt7 and Offroad Legends all look and play very smoothly, although only two titles (Asphalt7 and CSR Racing) have been optimized for the new 4-inch display.
Apple says users can expect up to eight hours of 3G talk time, 3G browsing and LTE browsing. Furthermore, the iPhone 5 is said to be good for up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing and video, 40 hours of music and up to 225 hours on standby. Unfortunately, these are claims I haven’t been able to verify yet. I’ve had to give the phone’s battery a bit of extra juice each day, but this isn’t a fair assessment simply because I’m using it much more than I normally would. I’ll report back on average battery life once I have a better baseline of how it performs during a typical day.
Usage Impressions and Conclusion
When using the iPhone 5 as a phone (people still do that, right?), call quality was clear. I didn’t experience any dropped calls even in areas when I only had one or two bars. Apple’s AntennaGate seems to be a thing of the past. I didn’t experience any unusual drops in signal regardless of how I held the phone.
Wireless web surfing was also pleasant although there was a time or two when I seemed to lose my Internet connection as I transitioned from LTE to standard 3G service. I was back up and rolling in less than a minute but the transition certainly wasn’t seamless in my experience.
Each iPhone 5 ships with a set of Apple’s new earbuds, now called EarPods. Apple spent three years working on the redesign and it shows. In addition to sounding better than the original earbuds, the EarPods are more comfortable and actually fit properly in my ears. With the old earbuds, I could never really get the left one to sit properly. They also never really felt secure. Granted, the EarPods aren’t necessarily one-size-fits-all.
The EarPods include an integrated remote to adjust volume, control media and answer or decline phone calls just like the old version. Overall this is a good addition, especially considering the convenient carrying case, although I’m not sure they’ll replace the Logitech Ultimate Ears 500 as part of my travel kit.
I won’t spend too much time talking about iOS 6 as it could be the subject of its own review, but I do want to touch on some of the more prominent new features and the OS in general. Most controversial of all is the new Maps application that replaces Google’s offering. By this point we’ve all heard complaints about the new service and its myriad of errors — so much so that Apple has publically addressed the issue.
In my experience, Google’s version is much better. I do like the flyover map overlays that are available for select cities and the turn-by-turn navigation is nice, but overall, the level of detail simply isn’t there. Furthermore, if you live in a large city like New York or San Francisco and rely on public transit, note that there aren’t any maps or directions for you. This won’t be a concern for many, but some will certainly miss it from Google Maps. These are all things that Apple will no doubt be working on for quite a while and we’ve even heard rumors that Google could submit its own maps application to the App Store “soon”.
The latest version of iOS no longer carries a native YouTube app, although a standalone version is available for download should you choose to do so. Passbook, Apple’s first attempt at a virtual wallet, allows you to load things like boarding passes, movie tickets, store gift cards and coupons on your phone. There aren’t a ton of vendors participating in the program yet, but I did find big names like Ticketmaster, Walgreens and Target onboard. This service will likely gain momentum, but right now it isn’t too useful.
Apple has also implemented a shared photo stream that lets you to share pictures with a group of friends privately or in public. Each user that subscribes to the photo stream can leave comments on or “like” photos you’ve shared. The service worked flawlessly in testing, as I was able to see my friend’s photos almost instantly and vice versa. It’s kind of like a private version of Instagram in a sense and could be useful if you typically send the same picture to several different people.
Apple has also added Do Not Disturb to iOS 6, allowing you to get through an important meeting or a full night of sleep without being bothered. Your phone won’t ring, vibrate, light up, or produce any other sort of disruption when DND is activated. Instead, all calls, messages and notifications will be stored in the Notification Center where you can check them the next time you turn the phone on.
The service can be controlled on a schedule or toggled manually in the Settings although take note of the latter because it could be pretty easy to forget it’s enabled. Of course, you can categorize contacts as VIPs to override the feature so you won’t ever miss a call or message from certain people.
Additionally, the Mail client now has a pull-down feature to refresh (although it still very annoyingly lacks a Select All feature to mass delete messages) and the lock-screen camera is now accessed by swiping the screen up rather than just tapping the camera icon.
Overall iOS 6 is an incremental update that doesn’t really bring a lot of innovation to the table. Apple made some minor improvements here and there that help the overall experience and won’t require users to learn a completely new system. That also means there’s still plenty that iOS can’t do, so if you’re coming from Android, that’s something to keep in mind.
Apple has stuck with the same familiar pricing model: a 16GB iPhone 5 is $199, a 32GB model costs $299 and a 64GB version will set you back $399 — all with a two-year contract, of course. This pricing is in line with other flagship handsets like the 16GB Galaxy S III ($199) but may actually be cheaper than the upcoming Note II.
The iPhone 5 is the handset that many people have been waiting for. It’s lighter, thinner, faster and more durable that previous versions. It may not be as open as Android and it doesn’t have the largest screen, but Apple has once again proved why it’s among the most innovative consumer tech companies in the world.
If you’re coming from the 4S, it’s worth evaluating how important things like a larger screen, more processing power and 4G LTE are to you. With iOS 6, the 4S gains features like FaceTime over cellular, panorama pictures, turn-by-turn GPS and Passbook. Conversely, iPhone 4 users have a lot more to gain as many iOS 6 features don’t carry over and the speed increase will be more noticeable. Meanwhile, Android and Windows Phone user might be surprised at how well rounded the iPhone 5 is if they give it an honest try.
Pros: Super fast, larger display, thinner body, solid battery life, LTE, improved camera.
Cons: Some apps still need to be updated for the larger screen, if you’ve invested in iPhone accessories you’ll need a $30 Lightning adapter to use them, Apple Maps feels half-baked — though this is an iOS 6 feature and a Google Maps app is coming.