updated 09:24 pm EST, Sat November 30, 2013
Apple's future phone takes on the Google phone
Two of the hottest smartphones on the market right now come from two companies that were once close allies, but have been divided by Google's decision to enter into the smartphone market with a very similar product. While Apple may or may not have legitimate grievances about what transpired depending on your view, there can be little question that consumers have benefited as a result of what transpired. While their current respective flagship smartphones offer similar functionality, the Apple iPhone 5s and the Google Nexus 5 are both symbolic of how the two companies differ fundamentally in their approach to winning customers. So which is best?
I will start by saying that I own both the Apple iPhone 5s and the Google Nexus 5. I own both devices, because as I tech writer, I am a lover of technology first and foremost and want to know the technologies that I write about. That has meant, however, that I have tended to steer towards Apple products because in my view, Apple typically only puts a product on a market that have been thoroughly conceived and executed. However, as a lover of technology, I am relatively platform agnostic and love to get my hands on all kinds of devices from a wide range of manufacturers running a wide range of operating systems.
When we reviewed both the iPhone 5s and the Nexus 5, we awarded them five stars and four and a half stars respectively. However, it is true to say that we arrived at those scores for different reasons. If you take price out of the equation, there is little doubt that the combination of the iPhone 5s design, choice of materials, fit and finish along with cutting edge 64-bit technology and a completely revamped operating system is the standout piece of kit. This not to say, however, that the Nexus 5 isn't a highly desirable device in its own right; it is, although for quite different reasons. It's combination of leading 32-bit technology, stock Android, large high res display and slender design also make it the object of desire for Android aficionados. While it does not have the design and finish of the iPhone 5s, its starting price of $349 off-contract evens out its shortcomings considerably.
The iPhone 5s has a 4-inch IPS LCD display with 326ppi, which a two to three years ago, would have been quite acceptable even in the Android world. Tens of millions of expected sales will also stand testimony that to the fact that for many people it remains more than acceptable, even preferable, when compared with Android devices reaching and exceeding 5-inches in size. The Nexus 5 has a 4.95-inch 1080p IPS LCD display with 445ppi, which has become the default screen size for most flagship Android devices in the past 12 to 18 months. In terms of display quality, my preference is for the iPhone 5s display, which to my eyes has better contrast and better color reproduction. Although the Nexus 5 has a higher pixel density, there is no telling the two displays apart with the naked eye when it comes to sharpness.
I have long been one to question the usability of 5-inch Android smartphones, but as Android devices have become thinner and lost their physical home buttons, one-handed operation has become a realistic and comfortable proposition. When you find the right grip and adjust to it, one-handed operation of 4.7-inch to 5-inch smartphones becomes quite normal. Which is perhaps why Apple is rumored to be at least considering bringing a 4.7-inch or 5-inch iPhone to market next year, including the possibility of a 5.5-inch 'phablet' variant. There are suggestions that it has been working on a ways to keep at least the 4.7- to 5-inch variant suitable for one-handed operation by even those with smaller hands. Although Apple has the clever 'Reader' function in Safari to make reading webpages easier on its iPhones, overall, my preference is for the larger Nexus 5 display. For content rich experiences, along with reading webpages and other text, it is simply more comfortable to look at.
Apple stunned the competition when it revealed its custom-designed 64-bit A7 chip with M7 Motion Coprocessor. According to ARM's official schedule, 64-bit mobile chips are due to go into mass production in late 2013 for devices starting to ship in Q1 2014 at the earliest. This remains true, but only for every other vendor except Apple. Although not official, it appears that Apple has struck a deal with ARM, a company it originally co-founded, to get early access to its 64-bit designs and bring the technology to market before its competition. This has left Qualcomm (and Samsung for that matter, even though it fabricates the A7 chip for Apple) forced to continue with 32-bit designs and forced to rely on higher clock speeds and more cores to deliver better performance. To some extent, it is this lack of optimisation that led to the every increasing size of Android devices, although these soon proved to be popular with users.
In our Geekbench 3 benchmarking tests, we have seen that the iPhone 5s comes out well on top of the Android competition when it comes to single-core performance. As we have previously outlined, this is a far better measure of real-world device performance than multi-core tests as most apps use only one core. The additional cores are more for marketing purposes than offering any real benefit to users, at least at this stage in the evolution of mobile devices. So while the Snapdragon 800 chipset in the Nexus 5 is an excellent performer, it is now superseded technology. Added to this, the iPhone 5s' PowerVR 'Rogue' based GPU also outperforms the Adreno 330 in the Nexus 5, although this is by a narrower margin. The iPhone 5s delivers 2014 technology today, with a 64-bit OS and 64-bit built-in apps, so from this perspective it is the clear winner. Touch ID is also a great piece of authentication technology, brilliantly executed.
The iPhone 5s and the Google Nexus 5 both combine software with hardware to achieve some interesting capabilities that will keep users happy. On the surface, both devices have very similar optical specifications with both possessing 8-megapixel sensors combined with optical image stabilization for less blurry shots, although that is as much as Google specifies. Apple's specifications also show that its 8-megapixel sensor has large 1.5µ pixels and increased the aperture to a large f/2.2 ensuring that it captures more light than ever before and continues with a five-element lens. It also added the True Tone flash that pairs a white LED with an amber LED for producing more natural looking flash photography.
From a software perspective, Google adds a new HDR+ mode that automatically snaps a rapid burst of photos and merges them to create an optimal shot, while it also includes Photo Sphere for some amazing looking 360 degree panoramic shots. Both smartphones also include some handy on board editing tools and integrated social network sharing. The iPhone 5s is not without its optical tricks either and has perhaps the coolest feature of the two devices in that it can also shoot slow-motion video at 720p/120fps producing outstanding results. Although Google says it is working on a patch to further optimize its photo shooting quality, the iPhone 5s is a clear winner in the camera stakes producing sharp, low noise images in a wider range of contexts.
iOS 7 is a much bigger upgrade to the iPhone operating system than is Android 4.4 'KitKat,' which is much more incremental. While Android users will be quick to point out that Apple has been relatively slow to add headlining features to its operating system, iOS 7 changes things considerably. Conversely, Apple users will be quick to point out that while Android eventually caught up with iOS and then overtook it from a feature perspective, it came at the expense of stability and system performance - Android 4.4 changes things considerably in this regard too, by becoming the most stable and lag free version of Android yet.
From an end-user perspective, iOS 7 is still the easiest and most intuitive to use on a daily basis, but it getting the most out of it is starting to get more complicated as Apple adds more features and settings controls. Android 4.4 is Google's best effort yet in simplifying and de-cluttering the interface but does offer users more flexibility and customizability. However, Apple has laid a stronger foundation for the future in re-architecting iOS into a fully-fledged 64-bit operating system, laying the groundwork for some very exciting possibilities moving forward. Technically, Apple has pushed the mobile operating system further forward this generation and has taken a substantial lead in the process. The icing on the cake is that it has also redesigned all of its built-in apps, and outstanding iLife apps and iWork apps, while also making these free as well.
As for the 'open' versus 'closed debate, it really is a furphy. There is no moral high ground as, although Google isn't making much money from Android directly, it is still in the mobile game for the money - it has just adopted a radically different model to Apple. While it matters to some people, at the end of the day, this does not make a difference to the end user experience for the vast majority of users. Users simply want something that works and works the way that suits them the best. As for security, the more 'locked down' nature of iOS has its benefits. While no operating system is bullet-proof, iOS 7 is a lot less vulnerable to malware than Android. Again, for most users, this is not going to be an issue provided that they take some small amount of care. On another software note, the built-in swipe keyboard on is one area where Android is a clear winner. The iPhone 5s keyboard is improved, but Apple really needs to add a similar option soon, while also adding better text input prediction.
Apple's iOS ecosystem is simply outstanding and is the most cohesive and integrated entertainment delivery platform ever seen for any product. It had a head start in that it was working on iTunes long before the rise of smartphones, so it had a great foundation ready to build on. When it opened the iPhone to developers around a year after the iPhone was first introduced in 2007, it sparked a multi-billion dollar app industry that has turned numerous developers into millionaires and even billionaires, creating tens of thousands of jobs around the world in the process. I don't buy into the criticism of iTunes and accusations of it being an Apple money grab. It costs a lot of money to host and serve entertainment through iTunes, and while it now generates billions in revenue and profit for Apple, it was never created to make money for the company. It was created to sell hardware, and in the process of selling hundreds of millions of iOS devices, it has become a juggernaut. There is also plenty of free content on there too, including the outstanding iTunes U collection. And while people may gripe about the prices of certain content through the store, Apple doesn't set the prices for music or movies sold through iTunes - the studios do that. Long gone too is the need to plug in your iDevice into iTunes - iCloud and wireless syncing ended that.
By contrast, Google Play has evolved into a very strong ecosystem for Android users as well. Switchers will have to suffer through repurchasing apps and movies, but music sold through iTunes has been long DRM-free. Google takes a similar cut from content it serves through Google Play, while apps and other content are similarly priced. Content delivery is done completely through the cloud with no similar iTunes native desktop app equivalent. Good old-fashioned drag and drop is how to get the local content on your device otherwise, which is not my preference, although from time-to-time I have wished that Apple would allows iOS users to do the same. As far as smartphone apps go, there is little that separates the two platforms, while Google Play Music and Play Movies are compelling services. I prefer Play Music to iTunes Radio as I like to listen to full albums rather than random tunes most of the time, but Google has now offered iOS users the same service nullifying any advantage (as it now works properly after a buggy launch). Nexus 5 users won't want for content, but the iTunes ecosystem and overall depth and range of content is unbeatable and may never be surpassed by its competitors, as good as their respective offerings are in their own right.
Starting from $349, the Nexus 5 is the best value smartphone on the market by a long way. The iPhone 5s is the best premium smartphone on the market, but it comes at a premium price, starting from $649. In practice, the difference in performance and function between the two devices is nowhere near as wide as the pricing might suggest. In fact the Nexus 5 delivers a near equivalent end user experience in just about every regard, although there is plenty of cost cutting if you scratch beneath the surface. Its camera performance, call quality and speaker quality is a rung below the iPhone 5s. However, if you like buying your devices off-contract, the Nexus 5 is the easy choice. On-contract, the iPhone 5s bests the Nexus 5 in every key way and is the most future-proof of the two devices.
Apple would argue that its premium pricing is justified on several grounds, and the astronomical sales of the iPhone 5s suggest that millions of users agree. However, Google and its partner LG, have done a fine job of delivering a high-quality smartphone experience to a wider audience. For me, I'm in the fortunate position to enjoy both devices. While a lot of Apple users are happy with the 4-inch display, I would really like to see Apple offer users at least the choice of a larger display. After all, it sells its iPad in two sizes (and may possibly introduce a third) and it also sells three sizes of its MacBook range. The larger display size of the Nexus 5 has me reaching for it quite a lot, while I also love its swipe keyboard. The iPhone 5s offers the best overall end-to-end customer experience, but you can't really go wrong with the Nexus 5, which punches well above its weight. Perhaps it is best summed up like this: the Apple iPhone 5s is the best smartphone that money can buy, while the Nexus 5 is the best smartphone you can buy for your money.
By Sanjiv Sathiah