Review: Apple iPhone 5

by on October 19, 2012

It was a Tuesday afternoon when I handed the young lady my almost-pristine iPhone 4. I asked, “Do you need the AC adapter, too?” and she simply replied no. After a quick once-over, she told me that everything checked out and would draw up the paperwork. A bit of sadness came over me, since this was the gadget that has been with me daily since June 2010. My car, job, home, and a number of friends had all changed in that time. Still, I knew I wouldn’t need it anymore and it was offsetting my purchase price.

While I could have gotten more money selling it privately, I opted to try Target’s trade-in program. The pricing is fairly competitive with other sell-your-gadgets services, like Gazelle. Before leaving home, I made sure everything was backed up to my computer (how 2007!) and iCloud. Once I had the new iPhone in-hand, it was as easy as entering my credentials and waiting a bit for everything to be downloaded. I made sure I was on a decent Wi-Fi connection for the sake of time and not eating my valuable AT&T data. After about twenty minutes, everything was restored, save for my photo library. There was a sense of familiarity, as these were my apps, icon arrangement, wallpaper, and data, but it all felt different at the same time.

Reviewing devices like the iPhone is a tough process, since an unqualified, “This is the best iPhone ever,” may not matter to someone who would be more than happy picking up an iPhone 4 or 4S for light mobile data usage, the occasional photo, text messaging, and, of course, telephone calls. When the iPhone 5 was introduced, I wasn’t in a hurry to upgrade from my tried-and-true iPhone 4, which I had been using for a little over two years. However, after some consideration, I made the jump to a brand-new iPhone 5 and wanted to share my thoughts as prior iPhone 4 user, much like Matt compared and contrasted the iPhone 4 and 3G. If you’d much rather read about the specific changes and how the technology compares, AnandTech has put together an exhaustive review of the iPhone 5, complete with benchmarks against prior iPhones and other current smartphones. Since your guess is as good as mine where my iPhone 4 is, most of these impressions are anecdotal.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 4, I thought it was an amazing product—an innovative design, great materials & build quality, the Retina Display, and powerful internal components to match. It’s no wonder that Apple is still selling it as the free-on-contract model on a number of carriers, replacing the ancient and GSM-only iPhone 3GS. When the iPhone 4S was released about a year ago, many in the press felt that Siri, the better camera, and the extra horsepower were great headlining features, but complained that it still looked like the iPhone 4.

While I had no issue with the iPhone 4S sharing a similar, but improved design, with the 4, the folks who want to brag about their new toy would be disappointed. I think that this was the same issue with the iPhone 5: while it is thinner and has a different design, it looks more like the iPhone 4/4S than the iPhone 4 looked liked the 3G/3GS. I’ve been able to use it around coworkers and acquaintances and not have the obligatory, “Is that the new iPhone?” conversation.

Apple iPhone 5 Apple iPhone 5 Apple iPhone 5
Apple iPhone 5 Apple iPhone 5 (Closeup of Display) Apple iPhone 5 (Closeup of Lightning Port)
Apple iPhone 5 (Closeup of Light Sensor, Earpiece, and Camera)) Dock Connector vs. Lightning Connector iPhone 5 + iPod 3G

In using the iPhone 5, especially going from an iPhone 4 running iOS 6, the biggest changes are in the hardware. The display, now 4 inches diagonally with a 16×9 aspect ratio (moving up from a 3.5 inch display with a 3×2 aspect ratio, featured on all prior iPhones and iPod touches) has kept the horizontal resolution at 640 pixels, creating a longer iPhone with a vertical resolution of 1136 pixels. Apple shrunk the “forehead” and “chin” resulting in a phone that is only about a half inch longer than its predecessor. After a few days of using mine, I was used to the bigger screen, which at first just looked proportionally odd. Apple also improved the color saturation on the display, allowing it to fall under the sRGB color profile. While I can’t verify this specifically, it is a better display than the already superb iPhone 4S display. The touch sensors and display have also been laminated into one unit, further bringing the pixels closer to your fingers. While these changes won’t necessarily blow you away, as the Retina Display did in contrast to that found on the iPhone 4’s predecessors, they are a satisfying update and demonstrate that Apple is still working to improve the experience.

Most recent videos play on the iPhone 5 at full-screen, with pillarboxing for older, 4×3 videos, much like broadcast television. On the prior iPhone displays, you usually had to deal with letterboxing or cropped video. The other not-so-obvious benefit of a 16×9 display is that the iPhone 5 is perfect for AirPlay Mirroring, filling up the display on a high definition television when in landscape mode. I think gamers and those who share media will find this to be a fantastic change from the iPhone 4S.

Besides the screen, the iPhone 5 takes everything that made the iPhone 4 and 4S great and fine-tunes it. Rather than using a stainless steel frame and a big, shatter-prone glass back, both are now one aluminum, unibody component, much like the rest of Apple’s lineup. On the black iPhone 5, this aluminum is anodized and tinted to a “slate” color. On the white one, it’s the natural silvery grey color, which should be familiar to anyone who has used an iPad or Mac. I was always careful with my iPhone 4, so I will miss the scratch-resistant glass back, but for weight and durability, aluminum makes sense.

At the top and bottom of the back of the iPhone, there are glass inlays that serve as the antenna windows and the cutout for the camera. These work much like the plastic “window” on the cellular iPads. For cellular networks, Apple has kept antenna-around-the-edge design from the 4/4S. These inlays really do feel like an intentional part of the phone, not some stuck-on component that might fall out over time. Marketing hubris aside, Apple seems proud of them, too:

Never before has this degree of fit and finish been applied to a phone. Take the glass inlays on the back of iPhone 5, for instance. During manufacturing, each iPhone 5 aluminum housing is photographed by two high-powered 29MP cameras. A machine then examines the images and compares them against 725 unique inlays to find the most precise match for every single iPhone.

A New SoC

Traditionally, Apple has released a new version of a system on a chip (SoC) with each new iPad release. The original iPad introduced the A4, later found in the iPhone 4, and the iPad 2 introduced the A5, later found in the iPhone 4S. This year’s iPad featured an A5X, which was an A5 with some extra graphics horsepower. Apple completely designed the iPhone 5’s A6 in-house, and it shows—not only are the “twice as fast” claims very believable, but it’s also very energy-efficient (not that the A4/A5 weren’t). The thing that surprised me was that early benchmarks put it in the 1600 range with Geekbench, downright smoking the third-generation iPad, and beating almost every PowerPC Mac in existence. If you really think about it, apart from the slightly-higher hard drive capacities of that era, the iPhone 5 packages all the capabilities of those older Macs, but with better wireless connectivity to boot. That’s pretty amazing how far we’ve come in only about eight years.

LTE, Carriers, and Networking

Adding LTE to this new iPhone was an expected step from Apple, and I’m rather impressed that battery life didn’t take a hit. Then again, the third-generation iPad also achieved this feat, requiring the bigger battery for the new display, not the LTE radio. AT&T did require me to change my data plan to one that included LTE, but it was the same capped data amount and price ($30/3GB), so I don’t suspect anything nefarious there. According to those who kept their unlimited data plans, the cap for LTE data maxes out around 5GB before things get slow, up from the 3G/”4G” 2GB. As with my third-generation iPad review, here’s a rather unscientific test of the data transfer speeds with the new silicon (both the LTE and HSPA+ “4G” tests were done in the same location, and Wi-Fi networks are for perspective):

Download Upload Ping
AT&T Wi-Fi (Starbucks) 0.92 Mbps 0.68 Mbps 172 ms
AT&T “4G” HSPA+ 4.20 Mbps 1.02 Mbps 97 ms
AT&T 4G LTE 40.60 Mbps 12.77 Mbps 67 ms
Eric’s Apartment Wi-Fi 7.67 Mbps 8.07 Mbps 16 ms

As mentioned, my iPhone was an AT&T model. It seems that these are in short supply in my area, moreso than Verizon or Sprint models, probably because there are a lot of iPhone 4 customers who have been off-contract and were waiting to upgrade. The only differences between models are if the SIM slot is locked and if the phone allows data and calls at the same time. Currently AT&T’s network is the only one that allow this, as all iPhone 5s roll back to the prior-generation networks for actual voice calls. This phenomenon is known as “circuit switched fallback” (CSFB) and Ben Brooks has put together a great article on the topic and call quality on cellular networks. Until we’re in a purely-LTE world, CSFB will be the standard situation for most users.

As for the other changes, this iPhone now features a 5GHz radio for 802.11n Wi-Fi, which should improve performance and decrease chances of interference if you’re connected to such a network. The only devices on the 2.4GHz band on my home network now are my TiVo and a Power Mac G5.

Cameras

Both the front-facing (FaceTime) and rear-facing (iSight) cameras received an update with the iPhone 5. The front is now “HD” (720p/1.2MP), allowing people to really see the pores and blemishes on your face during FaceTime calls (hooray?!). It’s still not great for pictures, but should be better for quick snaps that are destined for your social network du jour. The rear camera is still the same 8MP resolution found in the 4S (a big upgrade from my 4’s 5MP shooter), but has been tweaked and improved for better color accuracy and low-light photos. While I took a lot of pictures on my iPhone 4, the improved quality will make me think twice if I ever need to take a dedicated point-and-shoot camera along.

As far as the camera’s quality goes, Andy Ihnatko spent an entire piece on just the camera, comparing it to other devices. Flickr also has a number of people uploading shots from their new iPhones. Currently, I have been playing with the panorama mode a lot, and I think this quick shot of Indianapolis’s Monument Circle really demonstrates the quality of the iPhone 5’s camera, although with a few random errors due to stitching (click to load full-size 9MB image and see if you can find them).

Indianapolis

Lightning

The Lightning port is a great evolution of technology and a pain in the butt, due to having years of legacy Dock Connector accessories. It’s amazing how tiny it really is tiny and should be much more durable long-term. The cable clicks into place very satisfyingly, and makes me wonder why Apple didn’t ditch the Dock Connector sooner. Due to Apple’s control over it, and summit on the topic coming in November, everyone is still figuring out how to use older accessories (I’m going the Bluetooth route with some, while others will inevitably get the just-recently-shipped adapters). We had a similar thing happen when the third-generation iPod was released back in 2003, replacing the second-generation iPod’s FireWire connector with the 30-pin Dock Connector. I’m guessing by this time next year, we all will have adjusted and hopefully not too many speaker docks end up in landfills.

It’s worth noting that there currently are no video-out accessories that work with Lightning, even with a Dock Connector adapter, so if you use your phone for mission-critical, wired video output, you might want to wait a bit before upgrading. Apple plans to have some in the coming months.

Odds and Ends

Another change is that the headphone jack has been moved to the bottom of the device, a first for the iPhone, lampooned by Samsung, but a longstanding “feature” of the iPod touch. For me, it took a bit of getting used to, just as when I transitioned to the iPhone from an iPod touch. This not only allows for the top of the phone to be much cleaner, but also reduces the risk of an errant raindrop landing just right in the top of your phone, and keeps the headphone cord away from the camera. Apple’s EarPods are a big improvement over their predecessors, and are identical to the ones sold in retail packaging.

I think a lot of tech pundits have gotten into the mindset that Apple needs to completely redesign the iPhone every year (or every other year) and make it radically different, and this has led to complaints that the platform has gotten stale. Instead, I think Apple is sticking to a formula that works—keep things familiar, but take some safe risks, and further simplify and improve the product. I almost feel like going from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5 is a lot like someone going from a mid-’90s luxury sedan to a newer version—simple, well-designed, but still familiar even amongst all the new technology. It’s a great evolution and still keeps the iPhone feeling like a premium product.

In summary, the iPhone 5 is a great update, moreso for those still using iPhone 3GSes or 4s and have yet to take advantage of iOS 6 features like panorama photos, Siri, or navigation. Due to the new Lightning connector, new screen aspect ratio, and A6 chip, there will be some growing pains, but are all related to external issues, not the phone itself. This should only really frustrate early adopters. Furthermore, with the excellent resale value of prior iPhones, you could almost cover the cost of a 5 with a trade-in and new two-year contract.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

While the iPhone 5 may seem like a minor update from the iPhone 4 or 4S, it represents a number of new technologies and will be a satisfying upgrade for any owner of an iPhone 4 or older.

Pros: Bigger screen, LTE, much more powerful, excellent design and build quality
Cons: New connector = new accessories/adapters, aluminum more scratch prone than glass, will take some time for all developers to utilize new display

The Facts

5/5Product: iPhone
Company: Apple
Two-Year Contract Price: $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB), $399 (64GB)
Unsubsidized Price (Approx): $749 (16GB), $849 (32GB), $949 (64GB)

This post has been filed in iDevices, iPhone and Reviews