updated 10:18 pm EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
Apple iPhone 5s is the most forward-compatible iPhone ever
If the rumor mill is correct, Apple will launch a 4.7-inch iPhone 6 on September 19, which is less than 100 days away (it may also launch a larger 5.5-inch model at or around the same time). Typically, as the anticipated launch event gets closer of any product, sales of the previous generation model begin to taper. So is it worth hanging on for Apple's next-generation smartphone, or should you jump in and grab an iPhone 5s now anyway? For some people answer to the question is a no-brainer -- wait, and get the next iPhone because it is literally going to be bigger and better. However, there are a few considerations that might still make you want to jump in now and grab and iPhone 5s anyway.
There have been a number of commentators who have called the iPhone 5s an 'incremental update' over the iPhone 5, apparently just because it carries a similar design. Personally, I don't know how anyone can not see the iPhone 5s as anything other than a massive technological leap over its predecessor. It carries the first fully 64-bit mobile chip in the Apple designed A7 processor while also running the world's first fully 64-bit mobile operating system in iOS 7. As I wrote in my review at the time, in delivering the iPhone 5s in August 2013, Apple was offering 2014 technology in 2013. It's 64-bit internals caught the competition completely off-guard. In fact, it won't be until late this year that 64-bit ARM designs will be available from competitors, highlighting the competitive advantage that Apple has gained in developing both its own chips and operating system.
The only other mobile chip player who has subsequently launched 64-bit mobile processors is Intel, although it has yet to gain any significant traction in the mobile segment. To make its 64-bit Atom processors relevant, it has had to take on the job of porting Android to its x86 architecture. It was only at Google I/O 2014 during the past week that Google indicated that it has begun the work necessary to support 64-bit chips when Android L launches later this year, which could be around October. Given how competitive the smartphone market is, it is an amazing achievement by Apple to have stolen a 1 year lead in both hardware and software system architecture. Although not all users will necessarily appreciate this, but it does mean that the iPhone 5s is a special case in a rapidly changing technological landscape.
Put simply, the iPhone 5s is Apple's most forward-compatible iPhone ever. While naysayers have argued that Apple's transition to 64-bit did not mean as much because the iPhone 5s carries 1GB of RAM and not 3GB or more, the performance benchmarks say otherwise, in part thanks to ARM v8 instruction set that is a feature of the new 64-bit ARM-based architecture in the A7 chip. Testing shows that compared to the leading the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800/801 (used in many current Android flagships), Apple is able to achieve more than double the processing single-core performance with the A7 chip clocked at just 1.3GHz. By comparison, the 32-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon chips with twice the clock speed at anywhere up to 2.5GHz and with two or three times as much system RAM are outgunned in this, the most important of performance metrics. Hardly results that one might call a 'gimmick.'
Even if you want to argue that moving to a 64-bit chip design in and of itself was less significant than the newer, more efficient ARM v8 instruction set that came with the move, this level of performance was only ever going to be achieved by Apple switching to the 64-bit architecture early. Still, the ARM v8 instruction set is also designed to take advantage of the greater bandwidth that is inherent in the new 64-bit A7 design with its increased number of pipelines and registers. Whichever way you look at it, the performance results speak for themselves. Apple has been able to deliver a full-powered, battery efficient, smartphone in a compact 4-inch package as a result of its decision, and technical capability, to make the transition to a 64-bit design. For the average end user, there are many, many benefits in Apple doing this, not least of which is that the iPhone 5s will still be a potent smartphone even after the iPhone 6 launches in a just over two months.
One of the most interesting aspects about the iPhone 6 rumors is that there has not been any mention of an iPhone with a 4-inch display like the iPhone 5s that might carry Apple's next-generation A8 chip. All indications are that Apple is set to drop the 4-inch design as its default display size and adopt a 4-7 inch form factor moving forward, likely to be joined by a larger still 5.5-inch model. Given that Apple has sold literally hundreds of millions of iPhones with either 3.5-inch displays, that is quite significant. If you're a fan of the more compact 4-inch form factor, it looks as though you might as well jump in and grab an iPhone 5s now, rather than sticking it out. Also, if you are fan of the all-metal design of the iPhone 5s, you might also want to grab one while you still can. Remember that when Apple introduced the iPhone 5s, it dropped the aluminum iPhone 5 in favor of the plastic iPhone 5c. It might do something similar again, although who knows what iPhone 5s internals in a plastic case might be called.
The iPhone form factor question is an interesting one. There is no doubt that Apple will continue to offer a 4-inch iPhone for the time being, and certainly for some time, I was of the view that 3.5- to 4.0-inch smartphones were an ideal form factor. I explored this issue a couple of months ago, asking how Apple would manage the one-handed usability of a larger iPhone. As I argued at the time, although smartphones with larger displays (and their success) has been a happy coincidence, smartphones with displays 4.5- to 5-inches have become easier to operate one-handed as they have become thinner. Personally, I think that the 4.7-inch display is currently the ideal form factor for a smartphone. In particular, I can point to the sadly overlooked Motorola Moto X having hit a sweet spot for overall display size, general comfort and overall usability.
If you look at the 4.7-inch Moto X pictured next to the iPhone 5s, it isn't actually much larger in terms of its overall footprint. Its edge-to-edge display, coupled with relatively narrow top and bottom bezels makes it highly usable, while also offering additional screen real estate. Yet at the same time, Apple has worked hard to get the absolute maximum out of every pixel on the 4-inch iPhone 5s, and iPhone 5c for that matter. iOS already has the excellent, but somewhat underutilized 'Reader' function in Safari that automatically converts a compatible webpage into a much more legible format. Dynamic text resizing is also an option in the Settings, that allows you to adjust font size system wide, completely taking potential eye strain out of the equation. iOS 7 also works hard to make push content forward by dynamically reducing the size of the toolbar in Safari, while redesigning other apps with a similar approach. Even if Apple's rumored 5.5-inch iPhone may carry some additional features that power users may appreciate, it seems likely that the expected 4.7-inch iPhone will be the volume seller - at least outside of Asia.
Given the trend towards increasing consumer adoption of smartphones with larger displays, Apple could not afford to wait any longer before introducing an iPhone with a larger display. But if you buy an iPhone 5s now, you'll miss out on being part of the hype and excitement when it launches. While the choice is ultimately up to the individual, there are several good reasons why you might still want to jump in and grab iPhone 5s now in full confidence that you will continue to enjoy a great user experience even after the iPhone 6 launches. All the advertised features of OS X Yosemite , which is launching this fall on the Mac, will bring fantastic new capabilities to iPhone 5s users who also own a Mac. In fact, Apple assures us that all of the features announced in iOS 8 that are designed to work on its next iPhone will also work perfectly on the iPhone 5s. The company also highlights the fact that iPhone 5s users are will enjoy at least two years of compatible and free software updates and is quick to point out that iPhone 4S, which launched in 2011, is also compatible with iOS 8.
So what do you think; would you hold off an wait for the iPhone 6, or would you be just as happy to get an iPhone 5s now, even at this relatively late stage in its current tenure as Apple's flagship smartphone?
By Sanjiv Sathiah