Apple has offered a new phone every year since 2007, and yet when you look at the first iPhone and the iPhone 5, there’s not that much difference. Each new generation refines the overall piece that is the iPhone, and yet the iPhone 5 is the biggest advancement yet. When taking individually, the new iPhone 5 features aren’t the grandest, but when taken collectively you realize that Apple refined every single part of the iPhone. The result is a device that is more enjoyable to use on a daily basis.
The biggest enhancement is the overall design which offers a thinner and lighter profile. The percentage difference are just numbers, but holding this thinner and lighter iPhone is a true treat. You notice the lighter feel instantly because the device is taller, so the weight is further distributed across the body of the device allowing for less density. The iPhone 4S never felt heavy before, but now it has considerable heft after using the iPhone 5 for the past few days. The thinner profile is also noticeable as it takes up less space in your pocket and hand.
The iPhone 5 is less noticeable sitting in your pocket thanks to the thinner and lighter design, and that’s something you will notice every day. In your hand it’s even more significant as there’s less to hold throughout the day. Since the device is thinner, your fingers wrap further around it simply because there’s less device to reach beyond to touch the screen. This is a significant change due to the new taller 4” screen with touch targets at a higher level. Your thumb can reach further across the device, because it’s thinner, so you’re reaching over less side panel, even if it’s a subtle amount.
The entire device fits extremely well in your hand, though it does require a slight shift downwards into the pit between your thumb and index finger as compared to older iPhones. The design of the device also incorporates a new aluminum back panel that feels different than the all glass back of the iPhone 4S/4. The feel is smoother and lighter to the touch, and is reminiscent of touching the aluminum shell of the Macbook Air. The device also feels more solid in your hand, despite the lighter device, as there seems to be greater strength of the overall more compact offering.
The first thing you notice though, when opening up the box is the taller screen. If you’ve used any iPhone before, the new 4” screen will instantly seem significantly bigger. On paper, it’s only 176 pixels taller, but to your eyes there just appears to be so much more screen. The most noticeable difference has been reading anything, with just seemingly so many more words while you’re scrolling. On old iPhones, my thumb was always on screen ready to scroll some more, and now it feels as though I’m reading slower as I read more before scrolling. The one drawback of the taller screen at this early stage is that you really notice all of your favorite apps that haven’t been updated yet, simply in comparison to the ones that have.
Every time you unlock your device, you notice the taller screen, and the extra size makes it seem closer to the iPad than the iPhone 4S/4 despite just a subtle overall increase. The entire device is just a little bit taller, but that may be why there seems to be so much more screen, as the borders on the top and bottom have been reduced. I would peg my hands at average size, and have had no problems reaching the upper right corner with one hand, and yet the device is more enjoyable to use with two hands for various games and apps that require more than one finger on screen. The screen size is nice to see, but the extra room for gestures may be an even bigger change as there’s just more room to maneuver and touch. The screen clarity has been improved as well, and the naked eye test just makes the colors on older iPhone retina displays look duller.
Powering the screen is Apple’s new A6 chip which shows significant gains in benchmarks, but the real question is real world use. How much faster can minimalistic apps possibly open? The main difference here is that apps are ready to use almost the instant they launch, especially under fast app switching. The iPhone 4S is plenty powerful, but the iPhone 5 offers no hesitations so the apps are ready for touch input right away. The main big gains are for games, photo editing, and video processing so Lili, iPhoto, and iMovie all run smoother than they even do on the new iPad. Blast-A-Way (3D physics puzzle) for example offers explosions that render finer and quicker than the new iPad or iPhone 4S. iMovie can processes videos a bit faster at first glance, and iPhoto and process effects and edits immediately.
The iPhone 5 has a new camera as well that has the same feature set, but is redone to be smaller. The camera also harnesses the power of the A6 processor to let you snap photos almost consecutively like a true burst mode. There’s also greatly improved low light handling, so our test photos at dusk came out with remarkably less noise without even relying on the flash. The camera results also seem improved due to the wide angle shooting and greater clarity of the 4” screen.
The panorama mode is on the iPhone 4S with iOS 6 as well, but the iPhone 5 version is all we have tested, and it’s even easier than the plethora of panorama apps in the App Store. You simply hold the iPhone in portrait, and sweep from left to right trying to hold the iPhone level, and the phone crafts the entire panorama with straight edges and seamless transitions. The front facing camera has always been poor, and not even worth using due to the quality. The new front camera removes all of the noise that has been on old iPhones, and you can actually make video calls that don’t look atrocious, and take self portraits actually worth sharing.
The main aspect of any smartphone is the network because almost everything you do is predicated on an internet connection. There’s no point to have a bigger screen just to show more of a loading screen, and that’s where LTE comes in. It’s not new technology, but it’s new to iPhone users, and more importantly for me I switched from AT&T to Verizon. The coverage is night and day even at my house where I could barely complete calls, and internet speeds of about 0.25Mbps on AT&T. The Verizon iPhone 5 provides crystal clear calls and 3Mbps at my house in the foothills, and about 10Mbps in most areas of Southern California I’ve traveled over the past few days. It’s amazing to have, and even on LTE all day, I didn’t even have to think about the battery.
The iPhone 4S couldn’t make it through the whole day when I was busy, and required a battery case back-up. I haven’t put the iPhone 5 through any official tests, but charging it overnight, and using it all day in my normal routine has not brought out a red indicator yet. It’s a big difference because no matter what your iPhone can do, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a charge. Even using LTE, running the A6 chip with Lili, Blast-A-Way, and iMovie has not depleted the device’s charge during the day.
Apple has refined the audio system in the iPhone 5 as well with brand new speakers on the bottom of the device, that provide greater clarity if you don’t have headphones in. If you do, there’s the brand new EarPods which are included at no extra cost with the iPhone 5, and are so much better than the existing Earbuds. It’s not even funny, when you listen to the same sequence of a song switching between the new EarPods and old Earbuds. The EarPods offer greater depth to the bass, and you end up hearing new subtitles to the music not available with the Earbuds. They’re not as good as $200 Beats by Dr. Dre, but they retail for $30, are included for free, and sound much closer to the Beats than they do the old Apple Earbuds. The EarPods also fit snugly in the ear, as I was thinking they would require special placement, and instead they just slide right in to offer a great feel.
Apple has also added a third microphone to the iPhone 5 for better voice quality on calls and use with Siri. A few people I’ve called has said it’s much easier to hear me (maybe because of Verizon instead of the third mic), but Siri also recognizes me much better (maybe enhancements after a year of user tests instead of the third mic). No matter how you look at it, there’s improved daily use in everyday tasks, and another instance of Apple refining every part of the device.
Apple changed the connector, though it seems like a sideways move rather than an actual improvement. Don’t get me wrong, the smaller size and reversible connector is nice, but if Apple’s going to make the change, you want them to offer more benefits. It’s amazing the 30-pin connector lasted nine years, but it would have been nice for Lightning to live up to its name with faster speeds. There seems to be no increase in syncing speed (though the iTunes behemoth is still waiting until October to be updated). The port itself isn’t capable of faster Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 speeds, though charging times appear to be a bit shorter (which could be from the new battery). The new connector is there, and the change could use some more benefits beyond size.
The white iPhone was practically forced upon me due to the great rigamarole on launch day and pre-order canceling. It turned out to be a good thing, as the white and silver looks outstanding with the reflective tapered edges, sliver siding, white seams, and silver black panel that blends with the white at various angles. The black model on the other hand features slate side panels which reduce the sheen of the previous model and the niceness described above, and the slate back is also prone to scuffing which reveals the silver back of the white model anyway.
We reviewed iOS 6 in full, but it’s worth mentioning again in how it fits with the iPhone 5. The new Maps app is much smoother in navigation and Flyover with the iPhone 5 thanks to the added processing power. The Maps run effortlessly on the iPhone 5, and if they work in your area (in the US), you can tell how they were designed for the iPhone 5, and simply ported to older models. There’s also more room to use the various gestures to go into Flyover, and move the camera 360 degrees. The Siri enhancements benefit from an improved home button that you can tell is more solid on first tap for a more distinct click. Passbook is also finer with more room for passes, and the higher clarity screen for better barcode reading.
The iPhone 5 ($199, 16GB) isn’t a list of features or one stand-out must have item, and instead refines every single part of the iPhone 4S. Each new advancement is a subtle change, but they all work together to enhance the entire device to give you more to see, faster speeds for processing and online, and less to hold and carry around. When you take everything together, you can’t help but see how Apple has done more in this generation than any other making it the best iPhone upgrade yet.