Now that the retail units of the iPhone 5 have reached the market, independant reviews are trickling in and this is our stab at providing a review of the iPhone 5 that actually lists the pros and cons of Apple’s latest smartphone. The iPhone 5 came with great anticipation, and we take it that everybody who “absolutely wanted one” have probably pre-ordered or has lined up to get one last Friday. Now the interesting part starts and we’re trying to help people who are on the fence, or first-time users.
If you are reading this review, you are probably wondering if you should jump on the iPhone 5 wagon (as a first-time user), upgrade from your existing smartphone (iOS or not), or simply wait for something better. In the end, this is a personal decision, but I hope that this review will give you with enough information to form an educated opinion. Ok – let’s see what the iPhone 5 is really made of.
First, it’s nice to give you a technical overview of the phones that I would myself consider for my primary smartphone: the iPhone 5, the Galaxy S3, the Galaxy Note 2 and the Lumia 920. The specs are not important to the point that I would choose a phone based on that, but this is a nice refresher and I would encourage you to look at those (and more devices cited in this review).
|iPhone 5||Galaxy S3 (U.S)||Lumia 920||Optimus G|
|Display||IPS (1136×640)||S-AMOLED (1280×720)||IPS (1280×768)||IPS (1280×768)|
|Processor||Apple A6||Snapdragon S4||Snapdragon S4||Snapdragon S4 Pro|
Context (good to know…)
We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with my smartphone(s): I typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all.
On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager and random apps (<20), but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive like video editing. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…
Finally, I’ve setup the iPhone 5 with a backup of my iPhone 4S so that we run nearly in identical situations for the various comparisons.
Industrial design (high-quality)
The iPhone’s success is due to many things, but industrial is clearly a huge part of it. Looking at the photos does not always convey what the phone actually looks like and definitely does not tell you how the iPhone 5 feels like in use.
At first glance, the iPhone 5 is simply a little bit taller – that’s the obvious thing that most people see at first sight (I also got a lot of “oh, this is narrower than the old one”). The realization of the increased thinness comes next, then finally, it is the weight which is noticeably lower than the iPhone 4S’.
Although I was definitely expecting the phone to look like I described above, the new height does look a bit weird – this is more striking in the real-world than it is with the photos. I’d like to have your feedback on that in the comment section – this is a matter of personal preference, so I won’t dwell too much on this.
The lighter weight (3.95oz vs. 4.8oz) is very (very!) nice. I previously mentioned that the iPhone 4S was relatively heavy for its size, and it’s ironical that back then iPhone-lovers (if not fanatics) said “I prefer heavy because it feels solid!”. Now the same folks are upgrading and are saying “lighter is so much better!” — in any case, I’m glad that it is noticeably lighter, and I think that anyone who carries a phone in their pants or shirt pocket will be very pleased with this (except that the phone may now stick out of the shirt pocket…)
The sides are very similar to the iPhone 4S. The only notable difference is that the 3.5mm audio jack is at the bottom vs. the top. The SIM tray has moved a little bit too, but who cares? The new speaker design is really nice I think, much nicer than the iPhone 4S which was good too.
We have the white version here, and I’m not a big fan of the aluminum back – BUT I’ve received multiple reports from my friends that the black version scratches more easily (they bought it, and those who complained got scratches on day 1). Obviously there is always the option of buying a case, which kind of ruins the design…
It would have been nice if there was a little curve in the back (like the original iPhone), and the white bands at the top and bottom are a “un-Apple-like” in my opinion. They are present because aluminum blocks radio waves, so Apple has to include those bands to allow the signal to go through. It’s a common problem that Apple was able to work-around in previous iPhones.
Still, if you liked the previous iPhone 4/4S designs, this is a relatively close evolution so chances are that you will like this too. Also, it’s hard to argue that the iPhone 5 does not have a great build quality and materials, even if the iPhone 4S remains Apple’s best design work in my view and we think that the “endless pursuit of thinness” may have deprived the iPhone 5 of greater features such as 2X battery life and next-gen camera stabilization. What do you think? Drop a comment below.
Display (very good)
Obviously, the screen is 0.5” longer, which allows Apple to add one more row of icons and more screen real estate. I’ve already talked about the aesthetics, so if we put that aside, what are the repercussions on the usability and user interface?
Well, after using the iPhone 5, the good news is that this doesn’t affect the phone negatively. The bad news is that it doesn’t make the user experience a whole lot better neither.
Of course, having “more pixels”is a “good thing”. However, the increased size doesn’t make the screen any easier to read, much better to watch movies on, or faster to type with. Those aspects are extremely important, and are the main drivers of the rapid “display arms-race” that the rest of the industry is engaged in. Being able to see one more line or row is “not bad”, but it doesn’t change the user experience either.
That said, I did appreciate the extra space in the photo app, and it also makes 16:9 movies a bit better, but I unfortunately don’t watch movies on my smartphone as the user experience is “so so” on the small screen (if you do, you may have a different opinion, drop a comment).
In terms of image quality, the new display has better contrast and color range than the iPhone 4S’ which was already very nice. This makes photos “pop” more and movies will surely look better as well. On the other hand, I noticed that the color of my unit was a bit yellow-ish, and seemed a bit too saturated, OLED-style.
I don’t think that the general public will mind the slightly over-saturated colors, but those who really liked the iPhone for its lack of over-saturation (vs. Samsung’s displays) may be a bit bummed about this. Overall, I’d still say that the display is “very good”, but comes short of “excellent” because, there are more impressive screens out there.
4G LTE (fast!): clearly LTE was way overdue, so this is a very important addition, especially for the Verizon iPhone customers that were still stuck with “3G” while AT&T folks had access to an already much faster HSPA+ network. On AT&T you still get to fall-back to HSPA+ if LTE is not available, but on Verizon, it drops from LTE to 3G, so this is something that you need to keep in mind when you figure out which carrier to choose. We’ve learned recently that the Verizon model comes unlocked, so an AT&T nano-SIM will work in it, although LTE may not. That’s pretty cool, and we don’t know it this will last…
From a historical perspective, while it’s true that early LTE devices were way too power-hungry when LTE was just introduced by Verizon. However, that problem mostly went away with the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 and in early 2012. Unfortunately, the timing didn’t line up with Apple’s iPhone 4S design cycle.
4G LTE “global” capability myths & facts: while the iPhone 5 will be sold in worldwide markets, don’t expect your particular handset to be LTE-compatible with all (or even “most”) LTE carriers worldwide. It has been reported that this was a “global LTE traveler phone”, but we warned before the launch that this was a gross iPhone 5 misconception. There are at least 41 LTE bands (frequencies) in the world (more information on LTE bands worldwide), and the iPhone 5 can support between 2 and 5 LTE bands depending on which model you have. According to Apple’s iPhone 5 specs:
- iPhone 5 GSM model A1428*: LTE Bands 4 and 17 (AT&T)
- iPhone 5 CDMA model A1429*: LTE Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, 25 (Verizon)
- iPhone 5 GSM model A1429*: LTE Bands 1, 3, 5
Now, there is often a fallback to 3G or HSPA+ when LTE is not available, and your luck will vary depending on the country you are visiting. I just want to make sure that I set the expectations right because the Apple Keynote was definitely not clear about this, and some of the subsequent press coverage wasn’t either.
Apple A6 chip: Apple’s new system on a chip (SoC) is much faster than the iPhone 4S chip. We’ll get back to more specific performance numbers later in the review, but here’s the perceptual stuff: the general user interface feels very similar to the iPhone 4S, maybe a tad snappier. However, tasks that need more “muscles” like photo processing or gaming should feel faster. App loading gets a moderate boost (this may be due to faster storage) and so far my app that seems to benefit the most from the iPhone 5 is… Facebook. Yes – weirdly enough, Facebook is much faster (I run the same version on my 4S) and I’m sure that LTE helps a lot too.
WiFi-N: as you may have seen, the new iPhone 5 has been updated to the latest and fastest WiFi-N standard (from WiFi-G). While the theoretical speed improvement may be interesting, in the real-world, your internet is definitely not fast enough to saturate event WiFi-G. However, WiFi-N may have better range at the router level. It’s great but don’t get too excited about it.
WiFi issue: symptom: the WiFi just “spins” … I’ve bumped into regular WiFi issues: every once in a while, the WiFi stops working and download don’t happen. I have to reboot the phone to “fix” this issue… this is VERY annoying. Drop a comment if you’ve heard/seen of similar issues. I don’t remember seeing this covered by “Apple accredited press” during the pre-launch period, but you can track this on the Apple support forums where people post remarks like “This is driving me NUTS!” — for now, I’ll work under the thesis that this is a fixable software problem and that it doesn’t plague ALL units. Update: our WiFi woes mostly went away when we switched to a 5GHz network. Good luck.
I usually use this section for stand-alone apps but I will also lump-in some iOS apps in here because I don’t think that iOS 6 requires its own paragraph because unless you have some old hardware (3GS?) you should, and will, probably upgrade anyway, so let’s stick with the critical stuff and feel free to ask a question in the comments section. I will be happy to reply.
Apple Maps (Mapocalyptic!): As you may have seen, the Maps application went from using Google Maps to Apple maps. We were quite impressed and excited when Apple presented this to the world. However it turned out to be disappointing when we took it in the field. A lot of users have reported gross accuracy problems (there’s even a tumblr site dedicated to this), but I’ve bumped into problems with seemingly simple requests: in San Francisco, typing “sutter st and bush st sf” yields “Not found” with Apple Maps, while m.google.com finds a location that is close enough. Apple maps is really bad at guessing when you make a typo, and we all know that typing on tiny virtual keyboards does not yield typos, right?…
It’s not yet clear how this will affect you day to day usage of maps, but things do look fairly bad. And it gets worse: there are thousands of apps that rely on the same flawed maps via the iOS Map API. Now, we’re talking about Apple Maps contagion.
Also, the support for public transportations has gone away. Of course, it is possible to download a separate application from the bus/metro/tram company, but it is also true that a tight integration in the Map application is much better. What’s sad is that the old Google-powered Map application that iOS had did not evolve for years, so we were anxiously waiting for an upgrade, which turns out to be a FAIL.
From what I understand, there is a rather big problem with the Maps data: it is not accurate, and Apple has apparently been relying on computer algorithms to check it. But Google has been employing thousands of humans to check their data. That is why it’s so much better.
I think that Apple should have had waited or introduced an Apple Maps “beta” as a separate application. Users could have chosen between the Google-powered one or the Apple-powered one, based on merit. Heck, they could even ask their community to help and provide feedback… on second thoughts, “asking for what customers want” would not be Apple-like, I guess.
Yet, making sure that mapping works properly would have meant putting the users interests first. The good news is that Google is planning to release Google Maps as an app, and my hope is that the iOS version will finally (!) catch up with the Android version which is -by far- the best mapping application (with map caching and all). This cannot come soon enough. If you agree, drop a comment below. For my part, I’m even ready to pay for it. Update 9/25: Google has confirmed that a Google Maps app for iOS was NOT in the works right now.
Updated phone app: the Phone app now has a “do not disturb” function that allows you to quickly decline a call and send a pre-baked message at the same time. This is not really a new feature on other platforms, but it’s nice to have and that can come in really handy. Better late than never!
Virtual keyboard: Ironically, despite having hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal, most users still refer to text-based communication as being the “critical” application for them. That’s why you must not underestimate the importance of a virtual keyboard. The more productive you want to be, and the more likely this element may get in the way.
Because the iPhone 5 display has the same width as the iPhone 4S, the keyboard is exactly the same as it was. It is very responsive which is great (only the Windows Phone keyboard is more responsive in my opinion). While it is possible to achieve relatively high typing speed (for a virtual keyboard), the smaller keyboard requires more muscle control from the hand/fingers. That’s why large virtual keyboards are so much more comfortable to type on. For short sentences, the voice recognition works reasonably well if you use words found in the dictionary.
Email: The biggest change in the email app is that it is now possible to attach a photo or a video while you are editing the message. Before that, you had to go to the gallery and create an email from there. Yes, it’s fairly ridiculous that it took so long for Apple to fix this, but it’s finally here. Note that only photo and video attachments are supported. Other types of files are not. (I tested this with a hosted Exchange account).
Calendar: No new features here. The good old iOS calendar works “OK”. Because the screen is too narrow, you don’t get the “week” view in portrait mode, but you can turn the phone 90 degrees to see it in full-screen in landscape mode – not bad. Also, in portrait mode, you can see a couple more hours in the timeline. In one of the few instances where the larger screen is obviously useful.
Facebook apps + OS integration: iOS 6 finally gets Facebook integration. This adds some basic sharing and calendar+contacts sync features. This is a welcome addition that Android and Windows Phone users have been mostly able to enjoy for quite some time now. Not really rocket science, but now you don’t need to go to the Facebook app to share a photo… you can do it directly from the gallery app (duh, right?).
Skype: Skype works very well both for audio and video calls. Audio is typically never a problem, but outgoing video may be. I’m glad to report that outgoing video is quite crisp (see image below), and incoming video is very clean as well. Of course, that assumed good bandwidth. Facetime works similarely, so you have multiple choices when it comes to video chat. Facetime is one of the things that I find to be very well implemented, and yet it has a hard time getting traction because Apple thinks of it as one of the eye-shiny candy stuff that would sway people into the Apple “walled garden”. Apple should create a Windows version like it did for iTunes.
Web browsing: Safari has been updated with iCloud tabs, which keeps track of your tabs over several devices. It’s handy if you want to continue browsing whatever page you had open on that desktop computer you used last. This competes with existing alternatives from Firefox or Google Chrome. Overall, I like the Chrome browser better, but Safari has a cool Offline Reading mode that I want to test the next time I fly.
Video playback: it is most definitely not a problem. Our standard 1080p MP4 files were synchronized over iTunes without any issues, but keep in mind that iTunes won’t accept all the video formats, and it’s very difficult to upload files that iTunes doesn’t like to your iPhone 5. This has been one of the major point that Android users often point out.
With Android, it is possible to manage your files as if your phone was a USB drive, so you can upload anything you want, and install an app to read those files later on. The Android OS does not try to approve everything you do, which I like.
The only thing that I find frustrating with videos on iDevices is how slow iTunes is. When I travel I need to “plan” which movies I’m going to download HOURS in advance if not on the day before because it takes forever to download stuff.
Gaming (excellent!): As you will see later on, the iPhone 5 has excellent capabilities and has the fastest graphics processor among smartphones. Thanks to this powerful setup, the iPhone 5 is capable of running the most demanding games, and many of the older titles will run at a solid 60FPS. I thought for a moment that Infinity Blade II would also run at 60FPS, but not really: it’s more like 30FPS, which is still very good. I’m impressed by the gaming capabilities.
Speaker-quality (very good): Since the iPhone 4, Apple has used good speaker hardware. This is no different and the sound here is very good. I think that of all the handsets, only the HTC One X is better (with a fuller sound). The Samsung Galaxy S3 is close, but a bit behind the iPhone 5 in my opinion.
Imaging (very iPhone 4S-like, very good)
Photo: in terms of photography, the iPhone 5 was touted by some as a clear improvement over the iPhone 4S, but I did not see much of a difference, especially in terms of photography. I have uploaded full-size pictures from both phones so that you can compare for yourself.
Apple PR has been pushing reviewers for a favourable comparison with “point and shoot” cameras, you can see that in many reviews (from Apple-accredited media). Most likely, the idea is “why would you buy a point and shoot camera when you can get an iPhone 5 for $199 with contract?” Well, maybe because we don’t need to pay $80-$100/mo in subscription fees for a point and shoot camera…
Overall, Apple has kept the same settings they had before: the iPhone 5 tends to over-expose and crank the ISO, so it trades low-light visibility for additional noise in the photo. This is a sound trade off, especially when the end game is to share photos etc. As long as you don’t print them, chances are that photos will be downsized or viewed on a small display, both of which will hide the noise.
The real photographic function that was added was the Panorama, which I like very much. The quality of the stitching is very high and the camera app uses a single aperture, which helps a lot. I found the image to be quite distorted, even for a moderately wide panorama, but other than that, this is a very good introduction to Panoramas for iOS users. that was about time because those were already very fun on my Galaxy S2…
Video: The video quality is very similar. Apple has announced that the video stabilization has been much improved over the iPhone 4S. It may be so, but the difference was not obvious during my tests. I may have to go back and build a more elaborate test, but this just proves my point: it’s not obvious. In any case, I’ve shot a couple of video in relatively dim lighting with the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S3. The difference was again not obvious, and I think that most people would say that they are comparable. Here’s the iPhone 5 video sample on YouTube, and the corresponding Galaxy S3 clip. See for yourself.
Still, the relative performance of the iPhone 5 is very good, so is the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy Note 2. Right now, the Lumia 920 seems to be the only game-changer in town when it comes to optics. Keep an eye out for that one.
Geekbench: The synthetic benchmark show us that the CPU (general purpose computing) side of the Apple A6 chip is effectively 2X better than the previous iPhone 4S. However, to keep things in perspective, the iPhone 4S was also largely outgunned by TI, Qualcomm, Samsung or NVIDIA for a while now.
Also, keep in mind that Geekbench is largely focused on floating point operations that are used in scientific computations, and polygonal 3D games. It doesn’t really scale with additional (4) cores. Interestingly floating point instructions are usually not the ones to be the most executed for an average user. I’d love to find another integer-focused benchmark, so please drop a comment if you have a suggestion.
With that in mind A6 CPU architecture is just barely better, or slightly worse than what Qualcomm or Samsung have (many Galaxy S3 users get 1700+ in this benchmark, but our unit got 1455). The real shine of the Apple A6 is the outstanding graphics performance. If you play mobile video games, this is clearly a winner. Check this:
GLBenchmark 2.5: with a score of 25 FPS (offscreen, 1080p), the iPhone 5 and its A6 chip takes the lead when it comes to “polygonal graphics performance”. Because Apple doesn’t mind spending more money on the chip die size, it has added more graphics pipeline to its GPU, and the performance simply scales nearly linearly to the additional horsepower available – that is the magic of computer graphics. The iPhone 5 graphics performance here is impressive, it’s as simple as that.
Perceived performance: Synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is the user experience is smooth and responsive (responsiveness is not always solved with brute-force processor power). In the end, what good is raw performance if you can’t perceive it?
The iPhone and and iOS 6 provide excellent performance and responsiveness. On the surface, most users won’t feel the difference when just scrolling around. The apps loading time seem better, but it won’t change your life. I’ve noticed meaningful improvements with the email app, but Facebook is the app that has benefited the most of the combination of fast chip, storage and LTE network.
Battery life (good)
With an overnight depletion of 5%, the iPhone 5 stays within the normal iPhone norm. This is pretty good given the small battery capacity and the fact that LTE was ON (although chances are that the phone uses WiFi when in the office anyway). 60mn of iTunes HD video took about 15% of the battery (display at 50%, WiFi ON).
Frankly, I’m pretty impressed by what Apple can squeeze off the small 1430 mAh battery. The iPhone 5 has about the same battery life than my iPhone 4S, which does comparatively well against other competitors. That makes me want to see iPhone with a 3000mAh battery even more. As it is I can easily get by a normal day, but during more “intense” periods (tradeshows, travel) the battery is likely to last an 8-hr day or so.
With a larger battery, Apple would have a shot at burying the competition. On the other hand, this sets the bar for everyone else to optimize their software. Consumers on all platforms will win. In the meantime, just consider that this is about the same as the iPhone 4S.
Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the display is ON.
So what’s the fuss about?
I’m not sure why people have to fight over which phone their friends buy/use, but it is clear that smartphone are extremely personal devices and in some ways, people think that it reflects on themselves and how cool they (the folks) are.
It is true that most of the new iPhone 5 features have in general been widely available on other platforms for some time. Yet, many of them are really, genuinely, useful features. It’s normal that iOS users do get excited about some them.
With iPhone 5, Apple catches up and raise the bar in the iPhone product line just enough to keep the competition at bay (the Galaxy S3 was the best-selling smartphone in America for a moment), and does a good job of protecting and even growing its eco-system. The timing is good too: Oct-December is when smartphone sales are going through the roof.
Storage (limited, or expensive)
It used to be that 16GB was good enough, but with games fetching 1GB (Infinity Blade II), and HD movies weighing 4.5GB each, things can add-up quickly. Heck, I even managed to have 11GB of photos and videos that I shot with the internal camera of my iPhone 4S. Don’t underestimate the amount of storage that you will need.
When it comes to the iPhone 5 pricing, it comes down to one thing: storage. Apple makes huge margins (80%+?) on storage upgrades. For example, if you go from 16GB to 32GB (+16GB), it costs $100 more. Jump to 64GB and it costs $200 more than the base model. It is not possible to extend the iPhone 5 (or any iPhone) storage with an add-on. high-markups for storage is a fundamental pillar of Apple’s business. For reference, a Sandisk 16GB micro-SD card costs about $6 on Amazon, and the 32GB card costs $20.
If you need more storage for HD movies (5GB each) and photos (3.5MB each), you can save a substantial amount of money by buying a smartphone with a microSD card. Not only it is much cheaper, but you can also extend it further down the road as microSD cards continue to grow in size. Finally, you can probably re-use the same microSD in your next phone/tablet or even camera (with an SD adapter).
Saying that the iPhone 5 is “the best iPhone yet” is technically true, it is also horribly unhelpful. It is obvious that a newly introduced product will be better than the one released last year.
Depending on your point of view, I suppose that you may take away from this review that the iPhone 5 “is better, but not *that* much” better”. To me, this is mainly a performance upgrade (4G LTE, CPU, GPU) and while the new design is nice, its best feature is the much lighter weight.I find the WiFi issues to be a bit disturbing, but I’m not sure how widespread this is yet, so I’ll keep monitoring the support forums.
If you have an iPhone 3GS or and iPhone 4, are happy with Apple, iTunes and iOS, and can get a carrier upgrade, this is a no-brainer: just do the upgrade and you will obtain a new iPhone 5 which feels like the old one, but better in every way. If you can get the carrier subsidy, just go for the iPhone 5 and don’t try to save $100 by getting an iPhone 4S. If you already have an iPhone 4S, I don’t think that it is worth breaking your contract ($250?) and paying for a new device ($200+), but ultimately, this is up to you.
If your horizon expands beyond the Apple walled garden, you may certainly find options that are very attractive elsewhere. If Android is of interest, you can get the Samsung Galaxy S3 which is nice, bigger and with a microSD slot. The HTC One X has the best sound system and an overall nice design. The Galaxy Note 2 is hugely comfortable and has a pen which can sense pressure. If you want a huge battery capacity (3300mAh), you can check the new Motorola RAZR Maxx HD. Finally, if you care about photography, I would recommend looking at the Nokia 920 which promises to be the best camera phone and the best Windows 8 of 2012.
I hope that this review gave you a good feel for how it is to use the iPhone 5, and that it properly sets your expectations about the pro and cons. Now it is up to you to choose if it deserves your hard-earned money! If there is something that I have not covered, or if you have additional questions, please drop a comment below, and I will do my best to reply in a timely fashion. Thanks for reading it!