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.
Cases. Like every other redesigned iPhone before it, the iPhone 5 is incompatible with virtually all of the cases and film protectors that were previously released, requiring newly elongated and thinned accessories. To say that this is no surprise is an understatement this year: so many of the iPhone 5’s parts leaked out of Apple over the past several months that the device was literally being publicly assembled from its constituent components well before it was formally introduced on stage. Case makers had completely accurate prototype cases two months before the iPhone 5 went on sale, and most of the early cases we’ve tested fit the device perfectly. This is great news for iPhone 5 owners, who needn’t wait until later this year to start protecting their phones against damage.
Electronic Accessories. Without dwelling further on this point, it goes without saying that the iPhone 5’s electronic accessory compatibility will be a sore spot for many users. Because of its transition to a Lightning connector, this is the first iOS device to be physically incapable of connecting to past “Works With iPhone” and “Made For iPhone” accessories with Dock Connector plugs, which have become so ubiquitous that you’ll only realize how much you’ve lost when you try to carry your iPhone 5 around. Walking from room to room of a house where things used to just work—speaker in family room, alarm clock charger by bed, dock near office—will lead you to the realization that they can’t be used any more. Unless you have Lightning adapters, which aren’t yet available, and will cost $29 each. As such, this part of our review will remain subject to an update when the adapters become available, and if there’s any as-yet-undisclosed further pain point for consumers, we’ll revisit our rating of the iPhone 5 and discuss it further here.
If there’s any silver lining in Apple’s switch to Lightning, it’s the fact that both consumers and developers have had at least a year of foreshadowing that a transition was going to happen, during which time wireless and USB-based wired accessories really began to pick up steam. Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers have become more numerous, capable, and affordable, and new car buyers have had the option to start migrating towards stereo interfaces that aren’t Dock Connector-dependent. So for some people, using the iPhone 5 in a car will be as simple as buying a second $19 USB cable or using Bluetooth to pair a new device; for others, a considerably more expensive upgrade may be necessary.
Bluetooth 4.0. Like the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 supports the latest Bluetooth 4.0/Bluetooth Smart wireless specification, and is backwards-compatible with several older generations of Bluetooth devices. There are literally thousands of different Bluetooth accessories in the marketplace today, and retesting them all with every new iOS device is impractical, so we now test a handful of different types of items to see how they do. All of the Bluetooth accessories we tested, including the Bluetooth 4.0-equipped SuperTooth Disco 2, the Bluetooth 3-based Bluetrek Carbon Headset, and Bluetooth 2.1-enabled Jawbone Era Headset paired instantly with the iPhone 5 and worked without obvious issues, as did the Bluetooth phone calling system in a Toyota Highlander, and the calling/streaming functionality of a Porsche Cayenne.
802.11 Wi-Fi and AirPlay. In addition to supporting the 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n networks of its predecessor, the iPhone 5 adds 802.11a support and 802.11n 5GHz support. In our testing with a mid-2012 Apple AirPort Express router with dual-band 802.11n support and a 15Mbps broadband package, we observed no differences between data speeds when iPhones were using the 5GHz 802.11n network or 2.4GHz b/g/n network—both were able to take full advantage of the broadband’s peak speeds. But we did note that our test iPhones fell off of the 5GHz network at shorter distances from the router, as expected. If your 2.4GHz network is particularly bogged down by older devices, or if you have a huge amount of cable bandwidth, you may see a benefit from moving the iPhone 5 to a 5GHz network. Otherwise, the difference won’t be major or even necessarily positive.
After testing several AirPlay accessories ranging from speakers to Apple TVs, we didn’t notice any differences between the iPhone 5’s streaming performance versus a test iPhone 4S; AirPlay streaming to speakers still has the buffering and other responsiveness delays we’ve seen before. Additionally, as noted earlier in this review, the Apple TV has not as yet been updated to a new version, and we noticed significant AirPlay Mirroring frame rate and synchronization issues that appeared to be related to iOS 6. These issues will likely be fixed when the Apple TV is updated, and are almost certainly not attributable to any flaw in the iPhone 5. The same Apple TVs worked flawlessly for regular video and audio streaming from the iPhone 5.
USB Wired Devices. Wired devices with USB ports will generally continue to work with iPhone 5, as well. Earlier iPhone wall chargers, USB port-equipped speakers, and obviously computers all worked just fine to communicate with and charge the iPhone 5 so long as Apple’s Lightning to USB Cable was used to connect them. In a good sign that there won’t be any shenanigans with the iPhone 5’s camera functionality, we were even able to plug the phone into an iPad using the iPad Camera Connection Kit and transfer photos off without a hitch. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Apple won’t introduce annoying “this accessory was not designed to be compatible with your iPhone” dialogue boxes akin to the ones that plagued users of the original iPhone.