Mobile Technology

Review: iPhone 5

Review: iPhone 5
Does the iPhone 5 live up to the hype?
Does the iPhone 5 live up to the hype?
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Does the iPhone 5 live up to the hype?
1/6
Does the iPhone 5 live up to the hype?
Not only is the display taller, but the pixels are closer to the surface.
2/6
Not only is the display taller, but the pixels are closer to the surface.
The camera isn't a dramatic upgrade, but Apple improved it in at least one important area.
3/6
The camera isn't a dramatic upgrade, but Apple improved it in at least one important area.
The iPhone 5 (bottom) is 1.7mm thinner than the iPhone 4S.
4/6
The iPhone 5 (bottom) is 1.7mm thinner than the iPhone 4S.
Apple's redesigned earbuds deliver on the promise of better fit and better audio.
5/6
Apple's redesigned earbuds deliver on the promise of better fit and better audio.
Games like Real Racing 3 are inching closer to console-quality.
6/6
Games like Real Racing 3 are inching closer to console-quality.

Buzz for the iPhone 5 began way back in 2010. Many then assumed that the iPhone 4's sequel would be a major redesign; instead we got the incrementally-updated iPhone 4S. It brought a much-improved camera, a faster chip, and Siri, but it wasn't a breakthrough update. We would have to wait a full 27 months after the iPhone 4 to get our hands on the next big refresh.

Now that it's here, was the iPhone 5 worth the wait? To sum this review up in one word: absolutely.

Design

The iPhone 5 (bottom) is 1.7mm thinner than the iPhone 4S.
The iPhone 5 (bottom) is 1.7mm thinner than the iPhone 4S.

When discussing the iPhone 5, you have to start with design. It may not appear to be a radical departure from the appearance of the iPhone 4/4S, but the beauty here is in the details.

The most significant detail: weight. This iPhone is light – 112 grams to be exact. The iPhone 4 and 4S never felt heavy to me, but they do now. Much like the first Retina Display made the previous iPhones' 480x320 resolution look antiquated, the iPhone 5 makes Apple's prior handsets feel like bricks.

The second most striking design detail is thickness. Apple shrunk the iPhone 5 down to 7.6 mm, way down from the last two iPhones' 9.3 mm. Apple claims that it's the thinnest smartphone ever, and it probably is (the Droid Razr measures 7.1 mm, but that spec conveniently ignores its protruding hump). Regardless of the competition, the iPhone 5 is razor-thin.

Of course the iPhone 5 also sports a longer design (8.6 mm longer than the last iPhones, but the same width) and a longer display. The new shape feels great in the hand. Apple scrapped the glass back this year and replaced it with a unibody aluminum backing. The sides of the phone harken back to the 4/4S's external antenna frame – only this time it too is aluminum (previously it was stainless steel).

Beauty can't necessarily be objectified, but it's hard not to appreciate the unified design of the iPhone 5. It may be Jony Ive's best work yet.

Display

Not only is the display taller, but the pixels are closer to the surface.
Not only is the display taller, but the pixels are closer to the surface.

The 4-inch display works better than I expected. The 16:9 aspect ratio makes for a more oblong window into your digital world, but Apple uses it well. Landscape videos play in their native aspect ratio, you can see more of your emails when typing, and you get an extra row of apps on your home screen.

There are some areas where the 16:9 frame feels a little wonky. Photos have black letterboxes in both portrait and landscape mode (until you zoom in). App Store apps that haven't yet been updated for the new display also get letterboxed, though that will soon be a moot point. Browsing Safari in landscape mode could also feel a bit cramped, but Apple added a new full-screen mode to iOS 6, which works brilliantly.

The resolution is 1136x640, with the same sharp 326 pixels per inch (ppi) as the last two iPhones. In the iPhone 5, Apple moved those 727,040 pixels closer to the surface by moving a layer of touch electrodes. The resulting appearance is a welcome change. It's moving closer to the Hogwarts parchment illusion: ink moving on paper.

Apple claims that the iPhone 5 has 44 percent greater color saturation than the last iPhones, and, though I have no way of testing that, colors do look better. It's almost indisputably the best smartphone display on the market.

Performance

Games like Real Racing 3 are inching closer to console-quality.
Games like Real Racing 3 are inching closer to console-quality.

This baby zips. I didn't notice a dramatic difference at first, but I soon saw it flying through tasks that would have bogged down the 4S. Most notable is the camera app, where I could go from sleep mode to snapping a picture in under three seconds. You can fire a burst of shots with no hesitation. It also flies through the new Flyover (3D aerial) feature in Maps; panning, zooming, and rendering of bird's-eye views happen instantly.

What will developers be able to do with games on the iPhone 5? At the iPhone 5 event, EA offered an impressive preview of Real Racing 3, and that could just be scratching the surface. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft should take notice: the gap between mobile devices and consoles is rapidly shrinking.

LTE

After four generations of 3G, the iPhone 5 jumps into the land of 4G (sorry, AT&T, but I don't count HSPA+ 14.4). Those who live in an area with LTE coverage will see data speeds that may match or better their home broadband connections.I haven't yet been able to test LTE on the iPhone 5, but LTE Android phones have been around long enough for us to know what speeds expect. Apps will download quickly, videos will stream instantly, and VoIP apps like Skype will sound near-perfect.

In the US, Verizon has – by far – the most expansive LTE network, followed by AT&T, and then Sprint. Sprint is the only US iPhone carrier that still offers unlimited data, though, so everyone else will need to monitor their usage.

Camera

The camera isn't a dramatic upgrade, but Apple improved it in at least one important area.
The camera isn't a dramatic upgrade, but Apple improved it in at least one important area.

The iPhone 5's camera is only a minor improvement over the iPhone 4S, but it outperforms it in the most important area: low-light shooting. In my tests, indoor and poorly-lit shots looked much brighter and clearer than they did on the 4S.

EarPods

Apple's redesigned earbuds deliver on the promise of better fit and better audio.
Apple's redesigned earbuds deliver on the promise of better fit and better audio.

Apple's redesigned earbuds ("EarPods") are a big improvement. In this case, the company's marketing is right on: they fit much more snugly and comfortably in the ear, and the sound is greatly improved. They won't replace $400 TripleFi premium earphones, but they're excellent economy headphones for most people.

Bundled for free they're a steal, and, for the $30 price for a standalone pair, you can do much worse.

Lightning

The new smaller Lightning connector is tiny and convenient (its reversible design is a subtle but nice touch), and it allowed Apple to make the iPhone 5 so thin. There is, however, one big issue: unless you shell out $30 for an adapter, all of your old iPod/iPhone accessories will be useless.I don't know how much it costs Apple to make the 30-pin to Lightning adapters, but $30 is a steep admission fee just to continue using your old docks and speakers. Even if Tim Cook & Co. couldn't bundle the adapter with the iPhone 5, it would have been nice to see it come in under $20. If any company can afford to eat a little cost for the customer's convenience, it's Apple.

Summing up

The iPhone 5 is a terrific phone. If you're looking for the best smartphone on the market, you'd have to at least start here. On paper, it doesn't bring much that hasn't been done before, but it integrates those elements (performance, larger screen, LTE) into a seamless package. Above all, it's a pleasure to use.Combine that with iOS's balance of power, simplicity, and elegance (see our in-depth look at iOS 6), and the iPhone 5 is like a remastered version of a classic movie. It's a familiar experience, but its refinements are in all the right places.

37 comments
Erik Bosch
The best smartphone? It's everything but the best smartphone. It has still outdated hardware and is way overpriced. 200 dollars to produce and sold for 6 to 800. Low mp camera, can't upgrade memory, no standard connector. Can't believe how easy people are fooled.
Ronnie Kwan
@Erik Bosch Read the whole sentence carefully before you jump to hasty conclusions like that. He said "you'd have to AT LEAST start here...".
I_heart_tech
Who wastes their money on this crap?.. $800? really? If you want a high def screen get a 42" led!!
Shawn Anderson
How is the hardware outdated? In ALL benchmarks it out performs every other phone on the market. Look it up. 8MP is low??? News to me. MP means nothing in the digital photography world. It's the size of the pixels, low-light resolution, f-stops, and speeds that count. More megapixels DOES NOT mean it takes better photos.
Vince Pack
Erik, dude, it's a smartphone. If it's the "best" for the author, who are you to question that? It may not be the best for you - so don't buy one. Your apparent dislike for Apple products doesn't make them bad - only bad for you. Go chill somewhere with your favorite device and be happy.
Everydream
Erik, I think you need to put your consumer hat on for a moment. The hardware specs do not matter to most people. They just want a phone that works and is easy to use. Just because the "specs" are better doesn't mean you should buy it - it should be how it works. If you are talking about pure speed of the processor again this is becoming less important. Apple is developing their own architecture. This will matter significantly in the future as they will be able to control the power consumption of their products and integrate other processes into it while maintaining the speed needed for their products. Finally, the pricing for the iPhone is somewhat high without a contract. "200 dollars to produce" is just the parts for assembly. That does not include research and development and the creation of the manufacturing equipment that will ultimately make the device, plus royalties for patent holders, and more. The iPhone costs just as much as the S3 with a new contract. As a designer myself I was blown away by the build quality of the new iPhone. I would suggest you watch the movie on their front screen to better understand the processes that are used to create just the exterior of the iPhone5. Is made from aluminum and glass instead of S3s polycarbonate. It comes down to preference. I understand your point of view and why you would rather buy an android (for its quasi-"open" stance) or windows phone (I think the Lumia looks interesting)... but your arguments against the iPhone are stale and lack overall understanding of what a "normal" non-tech consumer wants and the processes and economics of product development.
MikeFromHC
"This iPhone is light – 112 grams to be exact. The iPhone 4 and 4S never felt heavy to me, but they do now." 25 grams or about 0.85 ounces is the difference. About five teaspoons of water.
Rich Paine
I think Apple are insulting their loyal customers. They expect their customers to pay $30 for a cable that was originally speculated to be given away free. It's known that there is huge profits in cables are they are produced so cheaply. Apple will make huge profits on the cable alone, let alone the high price on a phone with standard update. Add to that their own obsession with being a single entity and losing the far superior Google maps in favor of their own broken and outdated version. Is all of this putting their loyal customer first? I'm going nowhere near Apple!
Ct
Good Apple Ad. No mention of the new Apple maps which I read is not very good at all. No comparison of battery life with new larger screen and faster processor. But none of anything matters, as Apple fans will buy it no matter what it does or doesn't do and Adnroid fans won't.
Cherokee Warrior
I find it interesting to read comments from others about how technology isn't something they expected to be. I'm not an apple only person nor any other brand. I choose products that bring the most function or services for the price I'm willing to pay. it's silly to conclude that a manufacture disrespects the consumer by forcing them to purchase an adapter so their legacy products still function. All technology changes over time and for the most part in a positive move forward. Computers are a prime example, used to be huge, only had ps2 ports for keyboards, then ther is the video port that is constantly evolving along with the internal changes in memory dimm and accessory slots. Its enough to make your head spin. Remember what cell phones were just 5 to 10 years ago. WOW, the changes from then to now are amazing. People forget that certain technology isn't available to make the next huge leap forward which will radically change form an function. For example, power cells. Batteries have come a long way but without a radical change in power storage these phones are not going to be able to get thinner an lighter. Same goes for the cable connector. I would prefer absolutely NO cables, no external buttons, a sheet of polymer that has a display on either side that is mere millimeters thick, an when I put it in my pocket the phone syncs up with my sunglasses which has heads up displays with retina tracking so I don't even need to take the phone out of my pocket. Yeah that tech isn't here yet. But the mobile phone wasn't either just a short time ago. I guess what I'm saying is. Change is coming an we need to be a little patient while new technologies are developed and eventually integrated into the products we love so much. Not sure if I'm getting the 5. I think IOs6 on my 4s will be fine for some time. Or maybe I'll check out the next gen Samsung coming soon. Peace