iPhone 5 Review: Apple's famous smartphone, refined

Reviews 16:35, Oct 03 2012

We look at the evolution and refinement of Apple's sixth iPhone

The iPhone 5 has arrived and continues the progression of the Apple smartphone line. Since the release of the original iPhone in 2007, Apple has continued to improve and refine its vision of the perfect smartphone, and the iPhone 5 is the embodiment of such evolution. The device is impossibly thin and nearly devoid of any heft. Its design is simple and elegant, containing few, if any, unnecessary elements. The iPhone 5 is also a dichotomy of sorts: Everything about the device seems to be designed to get out of your way, yet you can't help but do the opposite and relish such a natural design, taking time to admire Apple's engineering efforts.

To say that the device isn't perfect almost comes down to personal preference, and what you're willing to live with and without. But if I were looking for a beautiful smartphone that, by design, doesn't interfere with my life -- How often do we pause when dealing with poorly designed gadgets to ask, ‘Why in hell was it designed that way?’ -- and still gets things done, the iPhone 5 is it.

If you're looking for a bullet list of hardware specs and benchmark performance or comparisons, you might want to look elsewhere. This isn't one of those smartphones that hangs its hat on having better specs than the smartphone that launched a few weeks before it; this is a smartphone that you know will give you reliable service throughout your wireless contract.

We will talk about its hardware and its general performance: What is it like to live with this phone? How does the iPhone 5 fit into my life compared with previous iPhone models, Android devices and Windows Phone handsets? I want you to have an idea of what it's like to have the iPhone 5 with you every day, and by the end of this review I hope you'll have enough information to know whether it's the right buy for you.

 


I.


I've just about gushed uncontrollably over the iPhone 5's hardware, but I can't be dishonest or nitpicky just to avoid accusations of bias. When riding the subway home, brand new iPhone 5 in tow (yes, I bought this device for myself), my mind was already racing over everything I've heard about the phone. Is it really as lightweight as everyone claims? Is the fit and finish really comparable to that of a fine timepiece? As I carefully pulled it out of the box, trying not to become one of those unfortunate souls who see their device plunging to the ground the second it leaves its packaging, everything I'd been ruminating over came to a halt. Wow. Was I holding a shell of a smartphone? It's awfully thin and even a shade longer than the iPhone 4S. The screen is four inches diagonally, which is new, compared to the 3.5-inch displays on every other iPhone ever. But how is it so lightweight (112 grams versus the iPhone 4S's 140 grams)? Speaking of the display, Apple says it’s more saturated than the iPhone 4S display, and it's true. Some colors, like the text message bubbles or in some games, look comically exaggerated. If you shoot and edit photos on your iPhone, what you see may not represent reality.

I carefully examined the bezel, the new speaker grill and the new Lightning port -- a connecting port about the size of a micro USB port, replacing the antiquated, 30-pin connector that every iPhone used before this one. On the back, I looked closely at the new aluminum cover. In between the 8MP camera and LED flash, I noticed a tiny hole where a new microphone had been added. If anything on the device was imperfect, if there were any seams, holes, bezels, buttons or switches that were slightly off, I didn't notice them. It turns out that maybe all the excitement I'd read about wasn't just hyperbole.

 



There are also bits of hardware that can't be examined on the outside, so they have to be experienced, really. The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone equipped with an LTE radio, and on AT&T's network it is fast --almost mind-blowingly fast had I not already experienced these speeds with my HTC One X. Any action that required Internet connectivity happened without a hiccup or a flinch; if patience is a virtue, the iPhone 5 becomes a vice. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I saw speeds of up to 42Mbps download and 14Mbps upload.

And then there is the new A6 processor. Apple promised nearly double the speed and performance of the iPhone 4S, and that feels about right. Applications opened up very quickly, games on the iPhone 5 were ready to play just a few seconds ahead of its predecessor, the camera fired up quickly and I was able to take shots in multiple succession without much lag. The A6 processor also helps the iPhone 5 reduce noise in low-light images, but we'll get to more of that later.

Another bit of hardware worth noting is the new speaker. Normally, I wouldn't give a damn about a phone's speaker, but the iPhone 5 has something pretty special. I'm not quite sure how it works in a device that is 7.6mm thin, but it is amazing. Now I know how Christina Aguilera's first producers felt -- how could something so incredibly tiny be so incredibly loud? At full volume, sound is clear and without distortion.

II.

Hardware isn't even half the story since everything you do takes place within a 1136 x 640 display. Getting used to the taller screen took a while, and picking and choosing new icons to add to the new row on my home screen took some time, too. The iPhone 5 runs iOS 6, which will be incredibly familiar to anyone moving over from iOS 5, with some notable exceptions. Google Maps is gone. It has been replaced by a less-than-ideal app called Apple Maps. While Apple Maps shows some promise, and has cool 3D features, it's not as rich or mature as Google Maps, and it's a huge turnoff. The YouTube app is also missing, but you can download a new YouTube app from the iTunes App Store. I'll miss Google Maps, but even with these new changes I was still able to get around New York City and watch some lip-syncing to awful pop songs.

 



Facebook joins Twitter in iOS 6 integration. You'll be able to upload photos to Facebook and create status updates without having to open the application. I don't use these features often, but for Facebook addicts, it's a nice addition, I'm sure.

Siri has also been improved, but the experience on my iPhone 4S left a bad taste so I haven't used it much. You can make dinner reservations and ask for movie times, but some simple requests turn up unusual results. In one instance, a day care center popped up when I was looking for food nearby.

Overall, iOS 6, paired with the iPhone 5's A6 processor, is fluid and stable. I've yet to experience any crashes, hang-ups or anything else that might drive the average user nuts. Like the hardware, the software is here to do what you need it to do without getting much in the way.

 

 

 

 

III.

A good number of iPhone users have turned into shutterbugs, so they may be happy to know that the iPhone 5 takes great images. It's essentially the same camera that's in the iPhone 4S, so any differences in image quality are negligible. I did notice that some images are slightly warmer on the iPhone 5, even though they're a little less saturated. The iPhone 5 also has a tendency to blow out highlights in low-light situations, and while noise is reduced in low-light images, details tend to get smeared or blurred. Again, the differences are negligible, but if I were going to pick nits, I think I prefer the iPhone 4S camera. Oh, and don't worry about scratching the camera on the iPhone 5, either -- it has a sapphire crystal lens, so you'll have to take a diamond to it if you tried to ruin it.

While out and about in New York, it was easy to pull out the iPhone 5, open up the camera and take quick snapshots. It's maybe a second faster than the iPhone 4S, but if capturing a photo means grabbing a moment, a critical slice of time that will never, ever happen again, the small difference in speed is actually quite huge.

I don't shoot a lot of video, but the video quality on the iPhone 5 is great. And with the new 16:9 ratio, you get to see everything you're recording on screen. The record button and everything else becomes transparent so nothing blocks your view. Apple says image stabilization has been improved, but honestly, it's still a smartphone camera that you're holding in your hand, and if you drink as much coffee as I do then no image stabilization features will ever save you.

I think the iPhone 5 has the best smartphone camera for stills and video on the market right now. We'll see if the coming Lumia 920 can dethrone Apple.

 

IV.

I'd like to say that in the end, a smartphone is a smartphone and since so many of them are really good, that on the high end it almost doesn't matter. But a smartphone isn't just a smartphone. For many of us, it's an extension of ourselves. We keep in touch with the rest of the world through our smartphones. We talk, we share photos, we share our feelings, we consume news and we kill time on our handsets -- some of us much more than others, obviously. So for those of us who live by our smartphones, it's difficult to settle for less. It's why I can take a leisurely stroll through New York, hop in a subway, spend an hour in a coffee shop and see nothing but iPhones everywhere I go. That says a lot about what the iPhone is as a total package, and I'm telling you that the iPhone 5 is a refinement of every facet of that package.

Phone calls sound loud and clear, battery life is unbelievably good for an LTE device and the overall software performance is great. The camera is really good at taking stills, and videos are equally good -- that microphone in the back even helps pick up better sound from the direction in which you're recording. The iPhone 5, for all that it can do in such a thin and lightweight package is truly a feat of engineering. I've heard my fair share of complaints about the device, but I feel like it's coming from a place of either unrealistic expectations or people’s inability to realize what they're holding in their hands. Does that sound harsh? Maybe. But is the iPhone 5 really that good? Definitely.


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