Review: Apple iPhone 5 (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: Apple’s fastest and most capable iPhone yet. The first iPhone to include a 4” screen, LTE cellular support, and two truly impressive cameras. Improved screen and camera color accuracy, plus dramatically improved low light camera performance. Excellent noise cancellation capabilities noticeably improve phone call quality; headphone port and speakers both feature sonic enhancements, as well. Solid iOS 6 software foundation includes polished built-in apps, third-party apps with varying degrees of support for new screen and processors. Enhanced 3-D graphics capabilities and CPU power increase frame rates and speeds of numerous power-hungry apps. Thinner, lighter new aluminum body designs reduce risk of shattered rear glass; relocated headphone port makes device easier to protect with cases.
Cons: Battery performance too often falls below Apple’s best case estimates, particularly for cellular calling and data. LTE service remains inconsistent between neighborhoods, cities, and countries, with widely varying data speeds and availability; some users will see no cellular speed improvements over the iPhone 4S. CDMA versions still can’t talk and access cellular data at same time. Some iOS features, such as FaceTime Over Cellular and HD Voice for phone calls, remain unavailable or limited on certain cell networks due to carrier limitations. New Lightning connector breaks physical compatibility with all past docking iPhone accessories; adapters are not included or initially even available in stores for testing, nor are new third-party Lightning accessories. Aluminum body is easily scratched and dented; some iPhone 5s shipped from factories with modest damage, and inconsistent screen brightness.
Because cell phones have become incredibly important tools—communication and information-gathering devices with photographic, mapping, and entertainment capabilities—the results of battery tests are absolutely critical to us; a short-lived iPhone battery can cause you to miss important calls, be unable to find your way home, or compromise your ability to document an event. At the same time, we understand that battery performance is a compromise, particularly with a multi-functional device. It’s not realistic to expect a phone to have a bigger screen, ultra-fast processors, and smaller frame without suffering from shorter run times. Something has to give.
The good news is that the iPhone 5 is in the same general ballpark as its predecessor in terms of run time. Leaked parts and later teardowns confirmed that the batteries inside the iPhone 4S and 5 are nearly identical in capacity, putting the onus on component and software efficiencies to eke out extended life in the new iPhone. Apple’s own comparisons claimed that there were improvements, particularly in the browsing department, so we were a bit disappointed to see both losses and gains this time out.
Cellular Data: Apple claimed “up to 6 hours” of 3G Internet use on the iPhone 4S, so it was exciting to see that the iPhone 5 promise “up to 8 hours” of LTE or 3G Internet use. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a best case scenario: if you’re using your iPhone 5 in places a with a very strong (4- to 5-bar) LTE or 3G signal, your cellular battery life may approach that number, but if not, the cellular antenna will struggle to maintain a signal, and fall well short. Because LTE and 3G/4G towers are in a state of build-out flux right now, our tests suggest that many LTE users won’t come close to Apple’s promised numbers.
Each with 2 bars of LTE signal—the best our phones could achieve in the primary location where we’ve tested every past iPhone—our AT&T iPhone 5 achieved a meager 4 hours and 44 minutes of continuous cellular data browsing in our standard Internet test, while a Verizon iPhone 5 hit 5 hours and 15 minutes, well below Apple’s rosy estimates. Both numbers were below the just-shy-of-6-hour run times of the AT&T and Verizon iPhone 4S models when they were on 3G/4G networks last year, though it needs to be said that both iPhone 4Ses had 3G/4G signals in the 3- to 4-bar range. By replacing some 3G/4G tower capacity with LTE, carriers have reduced signal strength on their older networks, impacting speeds while causing battery drain to be higher. If you live in an area with strong LTE or 3G/4G signal strength, your numbers will be closer to Apple’s claims.
Wi-Fi Data: Apple claims “up to 10 hours” of Wi-Fi Internet use for the iPhone 5, up from 9 promised hours on the iPhone 4S, which actually achieved 8 hours and 30 minutes in our test last year. With its cellular antenna turned on (but without actually making or receiving any phone calls), a Verizon iPhone 5 ran our standard Internet test for only 6 hours and 24 minutes. Wth the Wi-Fi antenna on and cellular antenna off, the same iPhone 5 ran for 8 hours and 26 minutes. As we saw in the cellular tests, it’s obvious here that the iPhone 5 eats battery life at a brisk pace when cellular signal strength is low, and does better when it’s not struggling to communicate with a cell tower.
Voice Calling: Last year, the iPhone 4S promised 8 hours of calling time, and achieved 7 hours and 16 minutes over AT&T’s network, versus 8 hours and 27 minutes on Verizon’s. The iPhone 5 promises the same 8 hour number, but both versions fell short in our tests this year, hitting 6 hours and 15 minutes for the AT&T phone versus 6 hours and 6 minutes for Verizon. While the lower numbers may again be attributable to the weaker AT&T and Verizon signal strengths we saw during testing—both were at 2-3 bars during testing—and battery life may well be higher where users get more bars of service, this is a real consequence of diminished service in some areas. Note that standby time is now promised at 225 hours, up from 200 on iPhone 4S and down from 300 on iPhone 4.
FaceTime Video Calling: While the iPhone 4S hit 3 hours and 15 minutes of continuous video calling on this test, the iPhone 5 ran for 3 hours and 2 minutes—in the same ballpark, and just a hint below the iPhone 4’s 3 hours and 10 minutes.
1080p Video Recording: Last year, the iPhone 4S ran for 2 hours and 20 minutes of continuous rear camera video recording at 1080p resolution. The iPhone 5 did slightly better, running for exactly 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Video Playback: Apple promises up to 10 hours of video playback with the screen and speaker each at 50%, and the iPhone 4 exceeded that with an 11 hour, 14 minute performance, versus 10 hours and 32 minutes for the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5 went for 11 hours and 7 minutes on our standard video test, handily beating Apple’s estimate.
Audio Playback: We noted that the iPhone 4 and 4S matched or exceeded Apple’s 40-hour promise of audio playback, and began a test to see how the iPhone 5 would do under the same conditions—namely, with the screen off and the volume set to 50% with headphones connected. The iPhone 5 missed the 40-hour figure, hitting 37 hours and 3 minutes of run time when connected to cellular and Wi-Fi networks as per Apple’s test methodology. On a separate test, we put the iPhone 5 into Airplane Mode, just to see how it would do. Three hours after the test began, the iPhone 5 had lost only a single percentage point of power. While the battery meter isn’t entirely linear, and earlier tests are based upon the iPhone having its cellular and Wi-Fi antennas on, the iPhone 5’s run time for pure audio playback without a wireless connection is astonishing.
Recharging: Recharging a completely dead iPhone 5 from a 1-Amp power source took 2 hours and 17 minutes. Unlike the third-generation iPad, which became markedly power-hungrier due to major screen and chip changes, the larger-screened iPhone 5 exhibited no recharging issues whatsoever with the same USB wall and car adapters that we’ve used in the past. It continues to draw only 1-Amp from compatible USB ports, or fall backwards to 500mA when that’s all an outlet can supply.
Final Thoughts On The iPhone 5 Battery
As much as we’d love to be able to say that the iPhone 5 is an “all day” phone, it’s still not: just like most of its predecessors, Apple prioritized new thinness and speed over battery life. Consequently, it’s advisable to keep a charging cable nearby, lest you find yourself out of juice at or before 5pm. This isn’t terribly different from the iPhone 4S, and your mileage will vary depending on local cell tower strength, but it was certainly disappointing for us—battery life is certainly one of the two biggest issues with the iPhone 5.
Because of the iPhone 5’s tendency to run low on juice just when the night’s getting started, heavy users and frequent travelers will once again find themselves in need of spare battery packs and chargers. While third-party developers came up with all sorts of solutions for prior iPhones, such as Mophie’s Juice Packs and Incipio’s even better OffGrid Pro, the iPhone 5’s Lightning port will demand considerable re-engineering, likely delaying similar accessories until at least early 2013. The lack of charging docks will also be a pain point for users, forcing people to rely upon Apple cables or adapters until solutions are available.
Our best advice at the moment is to consider carrying a high-capacity Just Mobile Gum Plus with a Lightning to USB Cable as a backup solution. This battery offers users the ability to refuel any iPhone multiple times on a single charge, looks great, and is quite resilient. It will do as a solution until comparably-priced battery cases become available.