Apple in September, 2013 returned to their yearly cycle, introducing the iPhone 5S. It’s joined by the low-cost iPhone 5c, that will now serve to attract buyers interested in an iPhone, but looking for a smartphone that is more affordable. Apple’s upgrade scheduling has shifted from summer being the months that we can expect to see new iPhones to the fall. It started with the iPhone 4s and has followed that schedule ever since. Since the inception of the original iPhone in 2007, Apple has typically reserved major design changes for every other new iPhone release. The iPhone 3G, iPhone 4 and last year’s iPhone 5 offered vastly different hardware designs, going from plastic to glass to aluminum. People naturally have a higher excitement level during those years. Be it the new shape or materials used; out of the box, they have a vastly different look and feel. The years in between, we’ve seen Apple release ‘S’ models – focusing on improving the internal components. Despite what might be perceived as a higher interest level during model change years, sales of every new iPhone have always eclipsed the previous model. This year is on track for continuing that trend, with Apple announcing record sales of 9 million iPhones over the launch weekend. People are excited about the iPhone 5s, but should you be? Read on for our comprehensive iPhone 5s review, where I hope to answer that question and more about Apple’s latest smartphone.
The outward appearance of the iPhone 5s is virtually identical to the iPhone 5, save for the home button. For the first time since the original iPhone, the home button is changing. It now boasts a new fingerprint scanner, which works with Apple’s Touch ID software built-in to iOS 7. The dimensions of the cut-out are identical, so screen protectors should align without an issue. The older home button had white or gray outline (depending on the color of the face). It had become synonymous with ‘apps’. Home buttons on older models and the new iPhone 5c have a noticeable ridge when you run your finger from the display to to the home button, feeling like two distinctly different parts. The home button recessing spherically make it comfortable to position your finger and press. The iPhone 5s sheds the ‘app icon outline’ and the home button also feels entirely different. There is a chamfered edge and the actual home button is flat. Apple uses sapphire, which is highly resistant to scratches and feels like glass. Clicking the home button feels no different, compared to the 5c. On the back, the ‘iPhone’ lettering uses a different font that is thinner and taller.
The specifications on the display is the same across all of their 4-inch smartphones, a retina display featuring 1136-by-640-pixel resolution at 326 ppi. The iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c displays look identical. Both had a noticeably warmer display as compared to last year’s model. Whites were whiter on the iPhone 5, with the newer displays having a yellow tint to them. Unless directly comparing displays, it’s not a reason for any concern, but still worth noting. This could certainly vary based on different production runs.
The aluminum exterior helps to make for a device that screams premium. If you take a moment and peruse the exterior, it’s hard not to be thoroughly impressed with the meticulous attention to detail. This looks and feels like an expensive device. The aluminum helps keep the weight down to 112 grams, making it incredibly light. I wouldn’t call the corners sharp, but the boxy design doesn’t make the iPhone 5s the most comfortable phone to hold.
This is the year of the colorful, not only with the 5c, but we get a semi-new collection of colors for the iPhone 5s. The silver/white option is back, with the slate/black from last year has been replaced with Space Gray. For those of you who had the original iPhone, this new color will bring back fond memories. Having spent the last year with the slate/black color, the gray is nice change of pace. When you catch it in the right light, the chamfered bezel gives off a nice platinum highlight. It frames the display nicely and offers a nice accent to the black glass sections.
The iPhone 5s is available in a new gold color. It’s a look we’ve yet to see from Apple. There have been gold smartphones before, but this is a gold iPhone. Like its silver sibling, it’s not bold, rather delivering a look that is elegant, fashionable and at the same time reserved. As someone who reviews phones for a living, my fashion credentials are lacking. Judging by rapid sellouts and rabid interest, with latter to some extent helping to drive the former, customers are finding gold as a welcome addition among the color choices.
The new look home button has a matching surround to your color choice. Both the silver and gold models are more pronounced, due to their being set against a white front. This helps make them look like new iPhones, if that’s important to you. The home button on the Space Gray is not as obvious.
New this year is the addition of Touch ID. Apple’s hope is that by integrating a fingerprint sensor into the home button, it will be a boost to the security of your device, as well as offer the convenience of quick access not offered when having to enter a passcode.
During the initial setup process, iOS 7 will repeatedly scan your finger as you press down in succession, changing your grip throughout. This helps the software get an accurate reading of your fingerprint. The setup was easy enough, taking no more than a minute or so. Apple allows up to 5 fingerprints, so you can add multiples for yourself or allow access to family members.
The Convenience of Security
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of passcodes and against my own advice, I often go without one. Whether you’re the CEO of major company or a student, you most likely have information in the form of emails, photos, passwords or other personal data that if compromised, could seriously impact your life. When you lose a wallet, you cancel a few credit cards and head to the DMV. Have you ever stopped to think of what’s inside your phone? Each day we enter personal information in our phones, never thinking that one day, it could fall into the wrong hands.
I’m guessing I have a fair amount of company, with many people who throw caution to the wind when it comes to security of their iPhones. Like myself, you feel that while security is important, you’re willing to take the risks for convenience. The Touch ID software is a no compromise security solution for everyone. When you wake your iPhone, assuming you’re using your thumb to press the home button, it takes less than 2 seconds to enter your home screen. You effectively bypass the ‘Slide to unlock’ by using the fingerprint sensor. You also bypass the laborious process of entering your passcode.
During my tests, the Touch ID worked well. At times, it can be a bit quirky if you are not holding your iPhone in the same way as during setup. When it doesn’t work, albeit very infrequently, it can be frustrating. I should note that problems are likely the result of a ‘pilot error’ on my part. If you place your finger as you did during the scan, it works flawlessly. Most users will setup either one or both thumbs. During the initial scans, I’ve found that using multiple positions (tip, flat) can improve scans.
With a maximum of five fingerprints, it can be limiting if you share your device with family members. Between my wife, daughter and requirement of having three fingerprint access, I’m maxed out. It would be nice to see support for a greater number of fingerprints and I’m unaware of any reasons as to why Apple would set such an arbitrary number.
A7 and M7 Processor: Processors For the Future, Today
Apple packs not one, but two processors in the iPhone 5s. The A7 chip is the first smartphone chip to boasts desktop class 64-bit architecture. Apple has built support for 64-bit processing into iOS 7, which Apple claims can provide up to two times the CPU and GPU performance. We tested the iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c and iPhone 5 using Geekbench 3.
The iPhone 5s had the best scores, across the board. The cumulative single-core score was 1358 compared to 689 on the iPhone 5c and 721 on the iPhone 5. The multi-core score showed the iPhone 5s with a score of 2381 compared to 1272 for the iPhone 5c and 1298 for the iPhone 5.
Numbers are great, but how do they translate to real world use. If you are someone who regular plays graphically intense games, both GPU and CPU gains are going to be important to you. The 64-bit architecture of the chipset means we will likely see more complex visuals in games. This move to 64-bit came as a bit of surprise to developers, so there will be a wait until they are able to take advantage of this powerhouse. Apple has pushed the envelope on the speed front, always welcome news for developers who can now pursue effects that weren’t before possible.
All the stock apps are built with 64-bit compatibility. Apple specifically points out that in the camera app, you’ll see ‘up to 2x faster autofocus’. Using both the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5 in tandem, I did notice an advantage to the 5s. These speeds are small, yet appreciable gains, also reflected when opening the camera app. The speed of 64-bit iPhone 5s didn’t prove to offer any significant benefit when opening other stock apps.
The iPhone 5s gains a secondary chip, the M7 motion coprocessor. It’s a low-power consumption chip that can interact with the A7 chip. It monitors motion data which will enable a new class of health and fitness apps. The M7 will sense motion by monitoring the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass.
The motion coprocessor chip is promising as we start to see greater support for the M7. Data appears to be stored in the chip. Argus has one of the few M7 compatible apps in the App Store. Once installed, it had steps data for the previous days. With the iPhone 5s is sleep mode, the M7 is still tracking movement. It effectively makes your iPhone 5s double as a FitBit or Nike Fuel, accessories that cost $100 plus. Since it’s power efficient, the M7 should not impact battery life. A problem with fitness trackers is that you constantly have to remember to charge them and not leave them in your pocket when doing the laundry. We’re sufficiently programmed to charge our iPhones, so you can keep consistent with your tracking data.
This is just one application of the M7 motion coprocessor. I suspect we’ll see some exciting new areas of app development specific to this new chip. Like the 64-bit processing of the A7, you’re buying into the future with the M7.
All of these cameras are among the best in the smartphone category. When comparing them, there wasn’t a bad photo among them. The new iSight camera includes a larger 2.2ƒ aperture (an increase from the 2.4ƒ in the iPhone 5/iPhone 5c), larger sensor and larger pixels that measure 1.5 microns, up slightly from 1.4. The result is more light, the importance of which cannot be understated. As mentioned earlier, the A7 chip resulted in faster focus times throughout our tests.
The smaller the number, the higher the aperture and the more available light. For my test, I use a restaurant setting. While it wasn’t dimly lit as I would have preferred (and I might update images at a later date), it did clearly show the differences in image quality in low light. The iPhone 5s is able to capture details, where in the darker areas (upper left), he other 5c shows pixelation.
The Panorama feature is now easier to access in the iOS 7 camera app by swiping right. Taking panorama photos on the iPhone 5s is easy and the results are stunning. All three cameras produced bright, vivid imagery. Upon close analysis, I found the iPhone 5s to be the best of the bunch, by only by a slight margin. Darker highlights (notice water by the boats) and rich details (dock) outpaced the other cameras. Full size panoramic images [ iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5].
The iPhone 5s shooter does a wonderful job with daytime photography. Shooting all three in HDR mode, with ample daylight, it’s tough to discern any significant advantages of the larger sensor and aperture. The differences here, if any, are minimal and likely offset by the users photography skills.
Capable of 10 photos per second, the burst mode feature is also an iPhone 5s only feature. If you keep your finger on the shutter, the iPhone 5s will take photos in rapid succession. The software will actually analyze the images behind the scenes and keep only the best image in your camera roll. Only the best image will show up in your camera roll. It worked as advertised. When you import your images to iPhoto, all the shots will be available for download, so you don’t lose any image data.
The dual-led ‘true tone’ flash combines a white LED and an amber LED to provide for more natural skin tones when using flash photography. When you absolutely cannot get enough light, flash photography becomes a necessary evil. On the iPhone 5s, this flash system combines with software to provide more natural results. As you can see in the images shot below, the results were very good. It was dusk outside and there were no lights, so the flash can certainly help capture images while avoiding harsh skin tones.
The front-facing or FaceTime camera benefits from larger pixels and an improved backside illumination sensor. During my tests, I found the skin tones to more accurate and colors to be slightly more rich when compared to the other iPhones. As you can from the inset photo, enabling HDR makes a huge difference, showing the blue sky and details that more accurately portray the setting. Improvements from enabling HDR can be seen from all these cameras.
Slo Mo Video
Using the Slo Mo video option, the iPhone 5s is capable of shooting video at 120fps. This allows on device editing where you can slow down a specific portion of a scene to create breathtaking movie-like slow motion effects with little effort. After you shoot in Slo Mo mode, a slider allows you to select specific start and end points for the effect. The feature worked as promised and it’s only available on the iPhone 5s. If you shoot videos with any regularity on your iPhone, this is killer feature that will get plenty of use.
Wireless & LTE
The iPhone 5s offers the same wireless support, with Apple not opting to add support for 802.11ac just yet. Wireless speeds will remain unchanged across all of the iPhone 5 devices. Where the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c get a bump is in LTE performance, at least on paper. There is an increase in supported LTE bands, theoretically meaning improved coverage in more areas translating to speeds that are consistently faster. The iPhone 5s doesn’t offer LTE-A support, so if you’re in a strong area, the results will be no different.
I have LTE in my area, but it’s typically weak. I get two circles (the new bars). Using Speedtest, WiFi disabled, I ran successive speed tests on the three iPhones. There was a natural variation in speeds, but nothing stood out. In fact, at times the iPhone 5s scored the lowest of the group. The improved support for bands can offer a greater chance at improved coverage, but your mileage will vary. While I’m including the test in our review, it’s hard based on the variability of these tests to come to any conclusive result. More bands will help, it’s just not clear to what extent.
Software: iOS 7
iOS 7 features sweeping aesthetic changes, immediately noticeable by the splashes of vibrant colors present in the home screen icons, all part of a new color palette that is both distinct and jarring. While it has enjoyed the fastest adoption rate of any mobile OS, the response has not been overwhelming positive. App experiences have been completely revamped, with the design offering copious amounts of white space and a modern typeface throughout. As you open or close apps, new animations provide a more fluid and dynamic interaction. iOS 7 uses layering effects that create pseudo 3d-like experience that is nothing short of amazing in its subtlety and execution. It feels alive. It’ll makes you want to interact with your iPhone, either by opening an app or simply titling the screen to accentuate the depth effect. Your wallpaper selections are instantly rewarded with each translucent overlay. This software update is not about just a fresh coat of paint. There are new features and improvements abound. It’s the first mobile operating system designed to support 64-bit chips. Here’s where Apple flexes their muscles, being able to control both hardware and software development.
If you love iOS, much of the same functionality is present. Apple has also included great new features like Control Center, smarter multitasking, an all new notification center, a vastly improved Camera app, AirDrop and so much more.
The App Store features hundreds of thousands of applications for the iPhone. 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. Despite Google being the company behind Android, all of their best apps are available on iOS.
iPhone 5s Review Pros & Cons
- Slow motion video effects are movie quality
- Touch ID is marriage of convenience and security
- A7 ensures your iPhone is fast next year
- M7 motion coprocessor creates entirely new category of apps based on motion
- Build quality is second to none
- iOS ecosystem still offers the best in class apps
- Screen feels small compared to competition
- Speed gains are not immediately noticeable during normal usage
Each year, it is growing increasingly difficult for Apple and other smartphone manufacturers to offer innovative features that drive customers to upgrade. In essence, they have become a victim of their own success. Take last year’s iPhone 5 as a prime example. It performed admirably in our photo tests, its A6 processor is plenty fast and it boasts the same design as the newer iPhone 5s. Apple smartly introduced two new colors (gold, space gray), a marketing tactic that has worked across many different products. For some, it’s less about the specifications and more about having a fashion forward accessory. In the case of the iPhone 5s, it offers the best of both worlds. World class, precision design and it comes in gold.
But color alone is not enough to woo buyers and the iPhone 5s offers significant innovation, even if presented in a somewhat evolutionary form. The A7 chip will allow game developers to deliver complex graphics and visual effects that to date, has been reserved for desktop computers. Apple’s new iOS 7 is optimized for 64-bit processing and it was noticeable when using the camera app. It was faster to focus, faster to capture images and the new burst mode will shoot 10 images per second. Some apps, despite being optimized for the new 64-bit chip, did not show any noticeable speed gains or improvements. Unless you are directly comparing these iPhones head to head, the actual real-world experience can be negligible. When Apple inevitably ships iOS 8 next year, having the A7 chip should future-proof your purchase, allowing you to take advantage of new features without having to buy a new iPhone.
By including the M7 motion coprocessor, this years iPhone will see a selection of apps that can tap into the motion data. Some apps have already appeared in the App Store that track steps, effectively allowing the iPhone 5s to serve double-duty as a FitBit or Nike Fuel band. Like the A7 processor, it remains to be seen in what ways developers will be able exploit the unique features of the power efficient M7 and how they will evolve app experiences. The A7 and M7 coprocessor provide a tandem that should serve you well for years after your purchase.
Innovation on the iPhone 5s comes in the form of the new home button that will scan your fingerprint, enabling a new level of convenience and security. The setup process might result in less than optimal results, which can translate to the scanner not working as intended. When setup properly, the feature works flawlessly. With Touch ID, there is no reason not to secure your iPhone with a passcode/fingerprint.
Improvements in image quality from the iPhone 5s camera are noticeable in low-light conditions, where it can benefit from the increased aperture and true-tone flash. Burst mode should help those looking to capture the best action shot and that can help parents with kids that are constantly in motion. The camera benefits from the A7 processor which helps with faster focus and allows for incredible slow motion video effects.
Should You Upgrade From An iPhone 5 to iPhone 5s?
Apple once again proves that they don’t have to change the design of an iPhone to change the overall experience. The iPhone 5s is the picture of refinement, providing a phone that looks much like last year’s phone, but performs at all new levels, thanks to new internal components anchored by the A7 chip and new m7 processor. The decision to upgrade from the previous generation iPhone 5 is tougher than in previous years and it’s highly contingent upon what you value most from your smartphone. This year is primarily about speed, security and that oh-so-cool slow motion video. At $649 off-contract, you might be advised to wait until next year, when we might see Apple decide to make an iPhone 6 with a bigger screen.
For anyone considering the iPhone for the first time or upgrading from an iPhone 4S or lower, your decision starts and ends with gold, silver or gray. iOS 7, the ecosystem of apps and best in class design puts the iPhone 5s in class by itself.
1 thought on “iPhone 5s Review: The year’s iPhone is super charged with awesome”
Not biased at all.