In what was likely the most anticipated iPhone release in recent history, the iPhone 5 (sixth generation) brings with it a larger frame and subtle improvements throughout. It has been described by some as boring, as nothing more than the 4S with a taller display. Does the change adversely affect one-handed use and are the subtle improvements enough to provide real world benefits? Read on for our comprehensive iPhone 5 review as we take a complete look at the new iPhone 5.
Progression of Build Quality
When you ship as many phones as Apple does each year, economies of scale provide you with greater leverage with parts suppliers and lower costs. The first iPhone cost $599 for an 8GB model and that was with a contract. To their credit, the focus was not on creating a good, cost-effective device. They set themselves on a course for insanely great. Initially, the reduction in cost to expand their market could be seen in later generations that while still premium among smartphones, utilized materials that helped with the bottom line. Both the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS had a heavy dose of plastic, a trend which continues with Samsung phones, even their top of the line Galaxy S III. They are both durable and inexpensive, both great options for manufacturers. To this day, I still love the way the iPhone 3GS looks and feels, despite the plastic feel. In order for the product to evolve and differentiate, improving quality was imperative.
The iPhone 4 saw a return to higher quality build materials fused with industrial design. In direct comparison with the previous generation, there simply was no comparison. The iPhone 4 felt incredibly solid with meticulous design, that was so incredibly well though out. If there was an achilles heel, the glass backplate was easily shattered resulting in costly repairs. How many stories have you heard about someone shattering their iPhone? I’ve heard no shortage of Apple Store trips that resulted in a happy ending. Those take their toll on the bottom line and Apple shifted their flexible repair policy late last year, requiring either an existing warranty or AppleCare. If your iPhone 4/4S had an untimely meeting with a hard surface, the result was either a costly trip to the Apple Store or a warranty claim. Customer and manufacturer both lose in these scenarios. It’s no surprise that Apple utilized an aluminum backing on the iPad.
There were noticeable improvements to internal components when the iPhone 4S (see review) released on October 14th, 2011. It was faster, took pictures that rivaled even the best point and shoot cameras. Comparing the two side to side revealed no differences in their physical appearance. Simply put, the iPhone 4S was a better iPhone 4. Nothing more, nothing less. So where do they go from there?
The iPhone 5 was the first major change in the physical appearance since the release of the iPhone 4 on June 24th, 2010, well over two years ago. It’s familiar, yet radically different. The power, volume and mute switch all look as if they came from the same parts supplier for the previous generations. Apple once again proving that their interest does not lie in change for the sake of change. I don’t remember taking issue with any of the buttons on my iPhone 4, 4S or the 5. The original design of Jony Ive worked well, allowing for iterative updates to the iPhone, which still stand out in the marketplace. Familiarity also helps the iPhone 5. When you first hold it, having these familiar buttons allows for a certain level of comfort. The slings and arrows of the tech press calling the design boring is simply no contest for customers finding a comfort level when using an entirely new iPhone.
Make no mistake, this is an entirely new design. Earlier I used the word radical to describe it. Smartphone manufacturers across the board are focused on creating devices that are thinner and lighter. It’s an incredibly daunting task, given the need to focus on battery life, usability and host of factors. Companies have had varying success, notably the Droid RAZR line. Despite a thinner profile, in some ways the iPhone 4 appeared thicker than the 3G/3G in part to its tapered edges. Apple certainly could have gone in that direction with the iPhone 5, with the rumored tear drop design, but perhaps that’s not a proper evolution of the product. Instead, they’ve take elements from what worked with the fourth and fifth generation iPhones and fused them with ideas that result in real world benefits. The result of which is an iPhone that is both remarkably thin and light. While the marketing focus of this particular generation will be around the larger display, which I’ll get to later in the review, the true wow factor is the moment you hold it in your hand. Have you’ve ever found yourself at a cellphone kiosk at your local mall and handled a non-working dummy phone? Ever pick up a phone that was missing it’s removable battery? The iPhone 5 is that light.
Had Apple gone back to using hard plastics, they certainly could have made the new iPhone both lighter, more durable and amped up profit margins. There are no shortcuts to great design. Apple chose to utilize anodized aluminum on the side and backplate of the iPhone 5. They managed to retain the high quality feel of the hardware, familiarity people love with previous generations, yet improve the phone in ways that offers an immediate impact to how we use our phones. The new frame makes the iPhone 5 is great to hold in your hand, jeans or shirt pocket. It’s the perfection of the slab design, personified.
The durability of the iPhone 5 is a mixed bag. Early reports indicate that it’s prone to scratching. News that made worse by the lack of availability of iPhone 5 cases on launch day, which is an unfamiliar misstep, uncommon for Apple. The good news is that with the sixth generation, we can say goodbye to costly trips to the Apple Store to replace shattered backplates. These first world problems are also easily resolved by purchasing a case or even a body shield from the usual suspects (SGP Steinheil, ZAGG, Wrapsol).
Getting Back To Radical
Improved build quality. Precision craftsmanship. Lighter, thinner. All this has been achieved while including a larger display. The one constant since 2007 has been the 3.5-inch display. The industry around Apple continued to go big, likely a way to differentiate and also due to demand. A good number of consumers want bigger displays or perhaps they think they want bigger displays. When you go wider and taller, there reaches a point where you forgo the ability to use your phone with one hand. Smartphone owners either might not have had that experience, or perhaps they mind the tradeoff. They do correctly assume that a larger display means more real estate for movies, photos, gaming, reading and so on. The one thing that’s missing is navigation using one hand. If you have hulk hands, then you’ll have not problem navigating the Samsung Galaxy Nexus with one hand while you shuffle through a busy airport or doing something as mundane as grocery shopping. Me personally, while shopping for groceries, I like to check email, Twitter and Facebook. Truth be told, it’s never anything riveting, but I like so many suffer from the inability to detach myself from my smartphone. The point here is there is that smartphone usability is greatly affected by the size of the display. Had this been anticipated, operating systems could have potentially prepared for the transition. As it stands now, that’s not case, iOS included.
The challenge is to create a larger display, yet retain one-handed use. Apple chose to increase the height of the display, while keeping the width the same as previous generations. Take an iPhone 4S and move your thumb to the front-facing camera. Now attempt to do this, but to an imaginary area to the left of the mute switch. It makes for a difficult, near impossible task.
Apple’s done a good, but not perfect job in providing an iPhone that offers both a larger display while retaining one-handed use. Before you ask, let me say that I never thought of myself as having anything but ordinary sized thumbs. During my testing, one-handed use was often dictated by the app, with pain points being the top left menu items. Resting the bottom on my pinky, my tendency has been to cup the phone in order to reach those areas. It doesn’t feel natural and it certainly isn’t effortless. I’d blame it on all of these years using a 3.5-inch display, but I’ve used a number of devices over the years with larger displays.
Part of the reasoning for the change to taller, rather than taller and wider, was to allow for developers to easily modify their apps for compatibility with the iPhone 5. It also allows for current apps to fit nicely in a letterbox format, with black bars at the top and bottom. Apps not optimized for the taller screen perform no different and using the black model, you almost forget they are not using the expanded real estate.
The display is 1136 x 640, 326ppi (pixels per inch) it’s every bit a retina display. Dare I say, it’s actually improved. I found the display to be similar, with the display on the newer iPhone providing slightly darker, richer colors due to the 44 percent improvement in color saturation Side to side, you can appreciate the improvements.
There are some practical app organizational benefits to having a larger display
- Folders can now hold up to 16 apps.
- You can have up to 5 rows apps for a total of 20 apps.
Applications that were optimal in landscape previously will stand to benefit most from the wider display. Games like Real Racing, Jet Pack Joyride, Asphalt among others shine on the larger display. While one-handed use is not optimal, the same cannot be said about gaming, with the larger device creating a more natural and immersive gaming experience. When it comes to apps, gamers stand to benefit most from this upgrade, at least initially.
Common use apps including Mail and Safari will show you more messages, more of a webpage, all without scrolling. In Mail, you’ll see two additional messages. Nothing that’s game changing, but it’s an appreciable gain.
Between the announcement and launch, developers haven’t had a chance to do much else, other than optimizing their apps for iPhone 5. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent, if any, that developers are able to provide specific new features targeted to this device. Apps that are not optimized will appear in a letterbox format, with black bars surrounding them. They work without issue and with the black iPhone 5, they seem to blend in nicely with the device to where it’s not terribly apparent. Below is an example of a non-optimized Slingbox app and Asphalt 7, which has been optimized for the larger display.
If you watch movies or TV shows on your iPhone with any level of regularity, the transfer of 16 x 9 formatting displays perfectly on the widescreen. Movies in HD are vibrant, crisp and look fantastic. The bump up in size also makes viewing photos that much more enjoyable. Side by side, photos appear super-sized on the newer display.
The New Lightning Dock Connector
The 30-pin dock connector has been with us since 2003, when it replaced firewire on iPods and continued as the default connector on iPhones and iPads. In order for Apple to achieve their goal of attaining a thinner, lighter device; they needed to abandon a technology that was almost 10 years old. The new iPhone 5 includes a radically smaller connector which is branded as the Lightning Dock Connector, not to be confused with Apple’s Thunderbolt which appears on desktops, laptops and other devices. The name implies that along with a smaller connector, we’d see faster speeds. Based on USB 2.0, the Lightning Dock Connector is not going to offer blazing-fast synchronization. The once a decade update is woefully deficient given that it’ll barely eclipse speeds achieved on the age-old 30-pin dock connector. Apple would argue that wireless syncing will supersede physical connections, but I cannot help but see this a missed opportunity.
It’s not all bad. This connector is small, but in no way is it frail. It’s not orientation specific, so there is no incorrect way to plug-in the Lightning dock connector. You can hold your iPhone 5 from the cable and it will stay secure. I wouldn’t advise doing this at home. It offered a firm connection, but did have a surprising amount of wiggle to it. Nothing of consequence, but worth noting since we’re going to be attached at the hip to this new connector for quite some time.
Consequences of Change
Millions of devices and countless numbers of accessories will require a pricey adapter in order to work with the new iPhone. Apple offers a Lightning to 30-pin adapter for $29.95. Picking up a 30-pin to Thunderbolt connector cable will set you back $39.95. There will no doubt be a steady stream of third-party knock-offs that may or may not work as intended. With no adapters ready for launch, I was unable to do any level of testing on how Apple’s adapter will work. I suspect it will work with most audio docks, car chargers and the like. If you purchased a vehicle specifically for the iPod Out feature, which sends video signal to your automobile’s video system, the adapters will not work. I imagine this incredibly frustrating for some, as you cannot exactly swap out your 40k BMW.
Depending upon your investment in 30-pin dock accessories, this could prove to be a painful (read: costly) decision for some. Let’s take a scenario where you own an audio dock and a car charger. Are you going to haul around the dock adapter to ensure compatibility with your accessories? Probably not, the move is either to invest in multiple adapters or new accessories. At $30 per adapter, a new car charger should be added to the cost of your iPhone 5.
Everyone will have their take on Apple’s decision. Mine is that it was inevitable and technology getting left behind while painful, was necessary. I don’t claim to know the teardown cost of the adapters, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s not nearly anywhere near $30. Third-party companies are selling them for under $10. Getting back to economies of scale, I’m guessing Apple has some leverage when it comes to sourcing these and could have offered them at $9.95 while retaining a fair profit margin.
The specifications of the rear iPhone 5 camera is largely the same as its predecessor. The surface of the camera, now dubbed the iSight camera, is sapphire crystal. This enhances durability according to Apple. We took the cameras out on a bright, sunny Long Island day. The results of which are below, in both video and photos. There is a slightly richer tone in the new iPhone photos, but it was dependent upon the subject. The major difference between these two cameras occurs in low-light, where it was no match. The camera on the iPhone 5 was nothing short of remarkable in low-light settings.
Both camera shoot 1080p HD. For my tests, I used shot video on a crisp, clear day. Both cameras excelled in their ability to minimize shake. Despite my steady hand, the wind did cause some movement, which is not detectable in the video. I found the colors in the iPhone 5 video to be more saturated and a bit more detailed. Overall, a slight improvement. Videos taken with the iPhone 5 are marginally improved. Unless your engaging in direct comparisons, you likely won’t find yourself shooting video thinking, “This is a world of difference.”
In iOS 6, taking panoramic photos is made easy. Select the ‘Panorama’ option, tap the camera icon and slowly move left to right or right to left (tapping on arrow changes the direction). While more an iOS feature than hardware, the results were phenomenal. If you focus on the rocks at the left, you’ll notice more saturated colors in the shot taken with the five.
Low Light Photography
While neither of the photos below are particularly good, I took them to illustrate the capability of the iPhone 5 camera in low-light. Although it is grainy, the iPhone 5 was still able to capture a viewable image. Photography of any sort is made easier with light, which isn’t always feasible. Using the flash can cause harsh effects that might affect your ability to properly capture the moment.
The front facing camera received a major bump to offer 1.2 megapixel photos and the ability to shoot in 720p HD. In previous years, it’s been the rear camera, which gets the love. Not this time around. To be honest, the previous camera was not terrific, so any upgrade here would have made a world of difference. As video chat via FaceTime becomes more prevalent, having an HD capable front-cam is a bonus. It also helps with those impromptu self-portraits, although I recommend using caution when taking photos with bed head. No camera can help this unfortunate looking guy.
Utilizing the A6 processor, Apple’s iPhone 5 offers performance that up to twice as faster when compared to the A5 chip. From mundane tasks of navigating, opening apps to graphics intensive gaming, it feels faster. The fifth generation model was also plenty fast and at some point we’ll reach a point where processor gains are negligible. As I experienced during my testing, we’re not there yet. The processor gains shine throughout, so this offers real world impact on your daily usage. Everything feels faster. I found some apps opening at a clip of 4-5 seconds faster than with the A5. (Real Racing HD 2). The good news for those upgrading is that processor was designed to enhance battery life, necessary with the addition of LTE and the increase in pixels needing to be powered.
There are a number of factors which can determine battery life, with options in iOS that will certainly help. Apple lists the iPhone 5 has being rated for:
- Up to 8 hours talk time
- Up to 8 hours LTE browsing time
- Up to 10 hours video playback time
In the real world, we use our phones for all the above and then some. Typical users would be classified as mixed use. During my testing, I drained the battery to its death and then charged it to 100%. I then used it as if I would any phone. Email, web, Twitter, light gaming, video playback, a wide assortment of data hungry app usage and a few phone calls to boot. My primary area is devoid of LTE. While I managed to cross into Queens to test LTE speeds, battery life numbers are based on using a 3G data connection.
Wireless & LTE
Wireless companies have done themselves an injustice to referring to HSPA+ as 4G, with many iPhone users receiving a software update were miraculously jetted into a new wireless spectrum offering ultra-fast speeds. That’s simply not the case and the current iPhone is also an offender if you are not in the proper coverage area.
“4G does not always equal LTE.”
LTE stands for ‘long term evolution‘. All you need to know is that it’s fast. Faster than your home wireless network. The trouble with LTE is coverage. As we noted in outlining the available iPhone 5 Plans, the coverage maps pale in comparison to 3G. With the iPhone 5, selecting a carrier that offers LTE in your area will make a world of difference. Despite my better judgement, I stuck with AT&T, which currently does not offer LTE on Long Island. With 4/5 bars, using Speedtest.net, my download speeds were around 2.00 Mbps and uploads at quarter of that. Wireless speeds reached 20.00 plus Mbps and even better upload numbers reached 25.00 and greater.
LTE Is A Beast
I ventured about 30 minutes into Queens, NY where AT&T offers LTE. The numbers were unbelievable, with the cap hitting 45.69 Mpbs download and 10.66 Mpbs upload. While the upload numbers are less than half of what you can expect from a WiFi network, I’d argue that download speeds are most important to the majority of iPhone users. My home network which uses Apple’s AirPort Extreme and Verizon’s 30/10 FIOS plan. Faster plans are often reserved for businesses and are quite costly. My iPhone 5 in an LTE coverage area smoked my home network. It’s twice as fast and then some. It’s ruined 3G (fauxG) for me. Going from 2.00 Mbps to 45.00 Mbps redefines my expectations. Everything you do on your iPhone 5 that entails connecting to your wireless network is bound to improve when using LTE. All this and my plan did not change. I’m paying the same exact for my data plan, but can potentially reach numbers that obliterate everything I’ve come to expect from data speeds on my iPhone.
I cannot drive 30 minutes in order to use my iPhone, so I’m stuck in what is now what I consider the slow lane. This rollout will take time, but including this on the iPhone 5 will certainly encourage carriers to move at a quicker pace. Inclusion of LTE on a smartphone isn’t anything new, with Android phones offering this for quite some time now. Even if you don’t have coverage in your area, think of an LTE iPhone as an investment into the future, then contact your carrier pleading for the fast lane.
Software: iOS 6
Unlike other platforms, Apple doesn’t hold their latest operating systems hostage with new hardware. All of the features in iOS 6 were made available to iPhone 4S users prior to the availability of the iPhone 5. Not all features made it to the 3GS/4. Depending upon what’s important to you or not, you could find yourself glancing at the compatibility matrix and not missing much, if anything at all.
To avoid disruption to users and developers, iOS 6 continues on the evolutionary path of tweaking the experience. Siri is a year older, still earns the beta tag, but can provide movie, restaurant and sports information in beautifully formatted cards. The tightly integrated Yelp reviews and mapping is nicely done. Despite what you’ve heard, Maps can be either a glass half full or glass completely full scenario. Turn-by-turn voice navigation is a major benefit, but lack of mass transit and questionable mapping data are pain points. The integration of Facebook makes it easier than ever to interact with our friends and family – sharing photos, liking apps, websites and music.
As I’ll touch on in our upcoming iOS 6 review, this update is filled with refinements. It represents the continued maturation of an operating system that is familiar, functional, but no longer groundbreaking. This is a ship that size of the Titanic, but with no iceberg in sight. It’s not easy to change course and perhaps Apple is perfectly content with yearly updates which layer, rather than reinvent. The end result of which is a highly refined user experience,which if anything lacks in the ability for customization. iOS 6 is simple, easy to use and continues to get better. Thus the widespread appeal of the operating system. When you buy into the iOS ecosystem, the benefits torch the competition. History shows that you’ll receive day one updates for a minimum of three years. When Apple released iOS 6, the iPhone 3G released over three years ago received the update.
The App Store features over 700,000 applications for the iPhone. That’s plenty. If you happen to own an iPad, purchasing universal apps means that your app investment will allow you to use them on either device. Other platforms are reaching app availability numbers in the hundreds of thousands, but it’s been my experience that the quality of app in iOS consistently trumps that found on competitive platforms (Maps app excluded).
- New larger display
- LTE network is blazing fast
- New lightning connector is easier to use
- Camera offers improved low-light photos, slightly improved color saturation
- Impeccable design results in a thinner, lighter and overall better crafted iPhone
- Unbeatable ecosystem
- Older 30-pin dock accessories require costly Lightning to 30-pin adapter
- One-handed operation can at times be difficult
- Lightning connector does not provide any speed significant when syncing
- More prone to scratches than previous model
- Despite inclusion of turn-by-turn navigation, mapping data is questionable
The iPhone 5 runs a highly evolved operating system in iOS 6, guaranteed to receive the next big software update, with access to over 700,000 apps making the App Store both the leader in quantity and quality. It brings with it support for 4G LTE, with wireless speeds that will shatter 3G data speeds and likely best your home WiFi network. The completely redesigned iPhone 5 retains retina quality, but pushes additional pixels in a new 4.0-inch display, the result of which provides a more immersive experience for photos, movies, games and apps. It runs faster thanks to the A6 chip, which also assists in offering excellent battery life for a device this capable. Improvements to low-light photography help the iPhone retain it’s crown as the world’s best smartphone camera, one that continues to rival some of the best point & shoot cameras. The transition from the 10-year 30-pin connector to a new smaller Lightning connector could be costly depending upon your stable of iPhone accessories and the lack of any appreciable speed gains in syncing is disappointing for a once in a decade transition. It doesn’t offer NFC, a technology for purchasing products, services with your phone that has yet to gain any sort of mainstream acceptance. Apple’s Passbook, which some might see as a software solution, does little if not confuse users.
The shift to the smaller Lightning connector is one of the steps that allowed for Apple to create an iPhone that is both remarkably thin and light, making the iPhone 4S released only 10 months ago feel heavy and dated. It’s not so much a commentary on the iPhone 4S, as opposed to the wow factor I found with the 5.
Years of refinement have resulted in a device that exemplifies excellence in product design and execution at its finest. As a result, Apple’s iPhone 5 is the best smartphone available today.