Review: iPhone 5

iPhone finally brings larger display and LTE (September 24th, 2012)

After months of persistent rumors and Apple's high-profile unveiling, the iPhone 5 has finally arrived on the market. The sixth-generation device is billed as "the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone," and its transition to a four-inch display arguably represents the most significant change to the overall design. In our full review, we attempt to determine if the new iPhone deserves to be crowned king of all smartphones.

Electronista Rating:

ratingratingratingratingrating

Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $199 subsidized

The Good

  • Larger display
  • LTE radio
  • Extremely fast
  • Thinner
  • Lighter

The Bad

  • Apple Maps
  • Scratch prone
  • No NFC

After months of persistent rumors and Apple's high-profile unveiling, the iPhone 5 has finally arrived on the market. The sixth-generation device is billed as "the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone," and its transition to a four-inch display arguably represents the most significant change to the overall design. In our full review, we attempt to determine if the new iPhone deserves to be crowned king of all smartphones.

Design

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, we believed the iPhone 4 represented the epitome of smartphone design. Aside from complaints of poor antenna performance and structural integrity when dropped, the fourth generation upheld the "form follows function" mantra without sacrificing beauty. We were not surprised that Apple decided to focus on internal improvements for the iPhone 4S.

In the build-up to the iPhone 5 unveiling, we had been pondering how Apple might be able to improve the external design. Critics have long called for a larger display, as each of the previous generations has maintained the 3.5-inch spread while competitors continue to blur the line between tablet and smartphone. Like all of Apple's design specifics, 3.5 inches was not an arbitrary choice; the company believed that anything wider became cumbersome for single-handed use.

The iPhone 5 brings a compromise between single-hand usability and the push for more screen real estate, stretching the display to four inches by extending the vertical measurement. The change moves the aspect ratio to almost 16:9, perfect for HD videos, though the 640x1136 resolution falls short of the latest industry-leading specs.







The glass back and stainless steel frame of the iPhone 4 have been replaced with aluminum and colored glass inlays. We were surprised by this shift for several reasons: hardened aluminosilicate glass, such as Gorilla Glass, is much more resistant to scratches than aluminum, and the new glass inlays may still prove sensitive to impact.

Apple promotes the frame material as the same 6000-series aluminum that is found in unibody MacBooks, however the notebooks' rubber feet protect the devices from abrasive contact that is unavoidable with a pocketed cellphone. Even if the iPhone 5 utilizes the more extreme "hardcoat" anodization, its surface is unlikely to measure much more than 400 on the Vickers hardness scale, compared to 600 or higher for Gorilla Glass.

The aluminum unibody construction may have been necessary to shave weight and heft from the iPhone 5, which is 18 percent thinner and 20 percent lighter than its predecessor. We did not think the iPhone 4S was too heavy, though the reduction in thickness is certainly welcome. The "20 percent lighter" claim admittedly sounded insignificant, until we actually handled the phone. It subjectively feels approximately 30 to 40 percent lighter, as the taller build led our mind to anticipated a 20 percent increase in weight. Just like the earlier iPhones, the new model easily slides into a pocket without feeling cumbersome.







Rather than embracing a two-tone finish for both white and black variants, the former features silver anodized aluminum with white ceramic glass on the front and back, while the latter eschews silver accents in favor of black anodization on all aluminum exposures and pigmented glass on the facade and back inlays.

Technical details aside, the iPhone 5 offers a refined design that serves as a modest evolutionary step from its predecessor. The iPhone 4, in contrast, marked a drastic departure from the first three generations, with an unprecedented aesthetic and a 960x640 display that was far ahead of the competition. We have seen this pattern with most Apple products; when Jony Ive and the rest of the design team create something revolutionary, they don't subsequently jump into the spec wars that seem to define winners and losers on other platforms.







Display

Despite the stretch from 3.5 to 4.0 inches, the iPhone 5 display maintains the same 326 pixels-per-inch density as the Retina panel on the iPhone 4 and 4S. The longer screen is no wider than previous generations, simplifying the transition for the hundreds of thousands of third-party apps, which are displayed in the center with black bands across the unused space on the top and bottom. The extra height also perfectly fits a sixth row of icons on the home screen, without departing from what Steve Jobs described as the "sweet spot" for smartphone width.



We had been using an Android handset with a 4.3-inch display as our daily driver, making the 3.5-inch spread on the iPhone 4 seem frustratingly small at times. When typing, however, we quickly achieved a faster pace on the iPhone 5 than we had experienced on the wider Android phone. In our minds, and with our medium-size hands, this gives credence to Steve Jobs' assertion, and the extra vertical space does not leave us feeling shortchanged.

We've been impressed with the 1280x720 displays that have become popular on Android handsets, such as the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S III. The HD format makes sense, as does the aspect ratio, though we were admittedly unable to perceive any discernible difference between 720p videos downscaled on the iPhone 5 and an Android handset capable of native 720p presentation.

Although Apple no longer leads in terms of total pixel count, the iPhone 5 represents one of the first phones to feature in-cell touchscreen technology. The design essentially removes the dedicated touch layer from the assembly, instead equipping the pixels with touch-sensitive electrodes. The sandwich of display components consequently drops in thickness by 30 percent, helping to slim the phone as a whole. The pixels are so close to the facade surface that they appear to be nearly flush when the phone is viewed from wide angles.

The new display is also claimed to bring improved clarity and 44 percent greater saturation, completely filling the sRGB color space. The clarity claim is difficult to gauge, but we can confirm that the saturation is now competitive with OLED displays. The LCD does not suffer from OLED's oversaturation, though it lacks comparable deep blacks. Sunlight readability also appears to be slightly improved over the iPhone 4/4S.



Performance

The first five iPhones were all extremely competitive in terms of raw performance, and Apple claims the iPhone 5's new A6 chip is twice as fast as the A5 processor in the iPhone 4S. The system-on-chip (SoC) is said to have been designed in-house, though it still uses the same ARM architecture that serves as the basis for most smartphone processors.

Samsung's flagship Galaxy S III packs a quad-core 1.4GHz ARM-based CPU, which sounds considerably faster than the dual-core 1.05GHz A6. We ran the iPhone 5 through the Geekbench 2 benchmark tests and achieved a score of 1646, only slightly behind the Galaxy S III's 1764 score quoted by Beekbench developer Primate Labs. Separate tests suggest the iPhone 5 handily beats the dual-core 1.5GHz Galaxy S III variant that most customers are purchasing in North America.



Running the SunSpider browser benchmarks via Safari fetched a score of 944ms, significantly faster than the 1400+ scores we've seen for the quad-core Galaxy S III. Browsermark tests showed a score of 189336, still higher than the S III.

We try to avoid putting too much emphasis on benchmark tests, especially when comparing different platforms, but the iPhone 5 results nonetheless show that Apple's dual-core 1.05GHz chip keeps up with the top contenders in the Android crowd.

In real-world tests, the iPhone 5 is clearly much faster than its predecessor and on-par with the best of its Android competition. Websites load with haste, while apps open and close without the slightest hesitation. Touchscreen responsiveness is also fantastic, thanks in part to the phone's dual touchscreen controllers.



LTE, battery life

Apple was the among the last phone makers to embrace LTE, the 4G standard that has proven troublesome for many users who need their battery to last all day. The Droid Razr Maxx is one notable exception, though the larger "Maxx" battery adds 2mm to the thickness of the basic Droid Razr.

The iPhone 5 is claimed to provide comparable battery life wether connected to LTE networks or the slower 3G standard. We hit nine hours of mixed use via LTE before needing a recharge, so the promise appears to be accurate. Video playback is said to reach 10 hours, or users can expect to chat away for up to eight hours.

We took a short drive to try out the LTE radio in several situations. With full Verizon signal in a metro area, we reached peak download speeds just shy of 30Mbps, average download speeds of approximately 19Mbps, and average upload speeds around 12Mbps. Even in fringe areas with weak signals, our download speeds stayed above 9Mbps.

The phone did not seem to have any problem switching between 3G and 4G while on the go, and we did not notice any of the antenna issues that plagued the iPhone 4. The phone even stayed connected to Verizon towers in a particular fringe area where most phones automatically switch to closer towers in Canada.



Camera

The new camera is not vastly different from the iPhone 4S, though there are a few notable improvements. The primary camera is now protected by sapphire crystal, taking inspiration from high-end wristwatches. Sapphire is best known as a blue gemstone, however the mineral is particularly hard--9 on the Mohs Scale, just below diamond. Transparent synthetic sapphire provides the same hardness. Leaving the iPhone 5 in a pocket full of sand and taking a jog will maul the aluminum, however the camera lens should remain unscathed.



Shooting in most lighting conditions will result in similar shots between the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5, however the latter brings additional optimizations for dim lighting. We headed out at night to catch a fireworks show, and we were impressed by the iPhone 5's ability to capture a dark scene without blurring the handheld shots or leaving excessive noise in the images. HDR performance also appears to be improved.


[Without HDR]


[With HDR]


Macro shooting is similarly enhanced, reducing the focus time for close subjects, while lag between consecutive shots has also been slashed. Colors seem to be more accurate than we have seen on the iPhone 4S, taming the automatic processing and resulting in images that appear to be more natural.

The new panorama shooting mode is not a new feature for smartphones, but, like many details, Apple has done a great job with the iPhone 5 implementation. Users can slowly rotate the phone up to 240 degrees, or any lesser angle, guided by an arrow to keep the horizon level. The phone quickly composes a panorama picture up to 28 megapixels in size, depending on how fast the user rotates through the scene.


[Full-size image - download]


Video recording benefits from most of the same enhancements, reducing shake and noise. The primary camera still shoots 1080p video, while the front-facing camera has stepped up from VGA to 720p quality, and still images can now be captured during video recording.

Although the primary sensor is essentially the same eight-megapixel component from the iPhone 4S, the minor improvements will help the iPhone 5 keep its position among the best cameraphones for some time.


[Full-size image - download]


Electronista's iPhone 5 video test from Justin King on Vimeo.



Lightning

While the rest of the cellphone industry long ago decided to adopt the Micro USB connector format across all devices, Apple remained steadfast in its use of the 30-pin dock connector. Many had hoped that the 30-pin connector would have been replaced years ago, however the company waited nearly a decade before biting the bullet.



The new standard, known as Lightning, is 80 percent smaller than its 30-pin counterpart--yet another necessary element in the iPhone 5's thinness. The size is now similar to Micro USB, but Apple's new standard, like MagSafe, has the added benefit of symmetry for connection in either orientation.

Many customers have been irritated to learn that their accessories are no longer compatible. An adapter is available, but it will be clumsy or unworkable for many accessories that actually serve as a "dock" by supporting the bottom of the phone. Despite the temporary frustration, few could argue that the 30-pin connector has not been long due for replacement.

The only notable drawback to Lightning is the lack of support for faster computer-side standards such as USB 3.0 or Apple's own Thunderbolt technology. We suspect such capabilities may be on the way in the future, though Apple has yet to make any public commitments.



iOS 6

We've already taken a look at iOS 6, which arrived a few days ahead of the iPhone 5, but there are a few details that are important to reiterate. With more than 200 new features, we would have expected the update to complement the new hardware. Does iOS 6 improve the iPhone experience? Well... no. The minor tweaks have been overshadowed by a gigantic drawback: Maps.

For many people, smartphones have all but eliminated the need for a standalone GPS navigation device. Apple had partnered with Google to provide a maps utility for iOS, enabling iPhone users to take advantage of the search giant's well-rounded and unparalleled geolocation services. As the companies delved into a legal war, however, the Maps app remained a core iOS feature controlled by the enemy.

iOS 6 breaks that bond, eliminating Google's app and replacing it with Apple's own alternative. The new utility adds several features, including turn-by-turn directions--a feature Google reserved for Android--however it loses public transit routing, pedestrian directions, Street View, and a number of other features.

Worse yet, most of the capabilities that replicate Google Maps are inferior in the iOS 6 app. Pervasive cartographical errors have become an ongoing joke, as users report misplaced/misspelled major cities, nonsensical categorizations, outdated road placements, and a general lack of data surrounding points of interest.

We welcome Apple's foray into the maps business--competition would be good for Google, in the same way Android has kept Apple on its toes. Google's Maps apps are not without their drawbacks, leaving an opening for rivals, but Apple's Maps app hardly comes close to matching the same basic functionality.

Apple boldly claims it may have created "the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever." We would have preferred if power took priority over beauty. The 3D "Flyover" feature arguably looks better than Google Earth, however both features are novelties that rarely serve any practical purpose in day-to-day use.

We would hardly care if Apple simply released a half-baked service as a beta for continued development. The new Maps app isn't the problem; the decision to give the boot to Google's existing app was premature and misguided. Rumors suggest Google may have already resubmitted a copy of its Maps app to serve as an optional download, though we are left wondering if Apple might resist the move. Even if users are finally allowed to download Google's app while Apple fixes its own, there is no guarantee that Google's native APIs will be permitted in other third-party apps.

Apple has called on third-party developers to help fill out the features in the iOS 6 Maps utility. After selecting a point of interest in iOS 6 Maps, for example, users will be able to instantly switch to a third-party app, such as Garmin's Navigon app, to receive public transit routing.

We're still waiting to see how Apple responds to the maps debacle. In the meantime, we'll be checking out some of the third-party navigation apps and using the browser-based Google Maps as a clunky workaround if necessary.



EarPods

With our previous iPhone reviews, we haven't even mentioned the included earbuds. This was a conscious omission, as the 'buds seemed more of a symbolic inclusion rather than something Apple actually intended to be used. In stark contrast to the iPhone's uncompromising focus on quality, the earbuds were no better than any cheap knockoff.



Step forward to 2012 and Apple finally starts talking "comfort" and "acoustics," introducing the EarPods after three years of research and development. The company makes quite a bold claim: "The overall audio quality is so impressive ... they rival high-end headphones that cost hundreds of dollars more."

The design is quite unique compared to most earbuds; the circular ellipsoid design has been distorted into a nearly teardrop shape, with two driver ports and several smaller vents. Interestingly, the larger of the driver ports exits the edge, oriented nearly forward when inserted, rather than facing directly inward. One might assume the configuration utilizes dual drivers, however both ports accommodate a single-driver setup.

We usually avoid earbuds in favor of in-ear earphones, which tend to offer superior audio quality, customizable fit, and passive isolation. Surprisingly, the EarPods proved extremely comfortable in our difficult-to-fit ears, even after hours of listening. At first the buds feel so light in the ear that they might fall out, but we couldn't dislodge them even after a bit of shaking with our head completely tipped to the side.

Ergonomics aside, we were more concerned with audio quality. In this regard, the EarPods are much more refined than their predecessor. The port layout appears to help widen the soundstage, while improving detail across the frequency range. Bass has been greatly improved, though we found the midrange to be a bit muddy at times.

We were delighted to find consistent performance when the volume was pushed high. The previous earbuds quickly distorted the sound at moderate volume levels, but the new design can be push much harder.

Are the new EarBuds an improvement over the previous garbage? Absolutely--finally good enough to be truly usable. Are they just as good or better than $200 headphones, or even $100 headphones? The answer to this question is a bit more complicated. As a $29 standalone accessory, the EarBuds may bring the best price-to-performance ratio that we've tried. Among competitors in the specific earbud niche, which lack a seal in the ear canal, the EarBuds are competitive in the sub-$100 category. In the broader market, however, alternative in-ear earphones, such as Etymotic's $149 ef5, still prove far superior.



Final thoughts

The iPhone 5 has stepped forward with a long list of refinements and improvements, clearly surpassing its predecessor and the majority of its competitors. The screen stretch may not be enough to convince many Android owners to defect, and the phone lacks nascent tech such as NFC, Wi-Fi direct and water-resistant internal coating.

Despite our frustration with Maps, which will likely be sorted out in the near future, the sixth-generation iPhone is hard to beat. The design is aesthetically pleasing and compact, the LTE radio promises fast downloads, the camera takes great pictures, and the battery life is great for most users.

Is it the perfect phone? No--we haven't handled anything deserving of that title, but the iPhone 5 is pretty close. iPhone hardware has continued to advance in leaps and bounds, leaving us waiting for the operating system to move farther forward. Google's "open" platform is refreshing in this regard, however we have yet to see an Android device that has surpassed Apple's polish. This is still a two-horse race, running neck-and-neck for the foreseeable future.



Until November 11th, 2012 you can win an unlocked iPhone 5! MacNN has teamed up with iSkin to offer one iPhone 5 and five runner up prizes from iSkin, click here to find out how you can win.

by Justin King


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