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.
Historically, Apple has so obsessively sought to miniaturize devices that millimeter-measured reductions have been trumpeted as profound accomplishments. Yet a new iPhone’s reduction in one dimension is often accomplished while increasing another, and the iPhone 5 follows that lead. Overall, it’s volumetrically smaller than its predecessors, but you wouldn’t guess as much on your initial glance—when laid alongside an iPhone 4 or 4S, it actually looks larger: obviously taller and only a little thinner. The height’s now 4.87” versus 4.5”, and the thickness is 0.3” versus 0.37”, with the same width of 2.31”.
Pick up the iPhone 5 and you’ll notice that it’s lighter, now 3.95 ounces versus the 4.8 ounce iPhone 4 and 4.9 ounce iPhone 4S. The brick-like density is gone, and though the shape is the same as before, the weight is distributed across a surface that feels more metallic than glass. Fingers running across the now aluminum sides will discover virtually identical bar-shaped ringer switch and circular volume button controls to those on the iPhone 4 and 4S, though with obviously less thickness above and below them, thanks to thinner front glass and a completely redesigned back.
If you’re accustomed to using black iPhones, your eyes will likely be drawn immediately to the color differences in the black iPhone 5’s body. For the first time ever, Apple has turned its black iPhone model into a near monolith, utterly eliminating any trace of silver or chrome from the design. Instead, the subtle interplay of matte metal and glossy finishes are nearly the only contrasts in the black iPhone 5 design, as nearly black camera lenses, a lighter gray Home Button icon, and white-yellow rear LED flash constitute the only obvious breaks in the otherwise stealthy design. The “slate” metal isn’t the darkest black Apple has ever produced—its second-generation iPod nano was nearly jet black—but it’s close. In dim light, the black iPhone 5 looks all-black, while better lighting accentuates the gray tones in the metal.
One of our editors called this iPhone “almost too black,” but the others preferred it to the white version, noting that it goes even further towards Apple’s vision of focusing users squarely on the screen, while all but eliminating Apple branding and other elements from view. It’s a bold move for Apple’s design team, and though people will have different opinions as to whether the prior models’ silver accents added more class, this version is distinctive on its own merits. Even if it doesn’t last forever, we like it.
The white iPhone 5 provides a hint as to why Apple eliminated contrasting colors from the black version: because it could. Having been criticized for the iPhone 4 and 4S’s fragile glass backs, Apple went back to the drawing board for a new enclosure design that—for the first time ever—incorporates small glass rear antenna windows within the otherwise aluminum frame. Despite all the metallic colors Apple has developed over the years, it has never created a purely white metal, so the iPhone 5 instead pairs white glass panes with silver aluminum.
Whether it’s due to a difference in the actual metal or in the sandblasting processes, this silver sometimes looks just a little brighter than on Apple’s computers and peripherals, and contains glossy Apple and iPhone logos, with matching mirrored beveling. While the white plus matte silver plus glossy silver result isn’t bad in any way, and looks extremely similar to the white iPhone 4 and 4S from the side, the back is a little unusual. Over time, it will become the “new normal,” but for now, it suffices to say that the iPhone 4 was a cleaner-looking design.
Durability has long been a concern with iPhone bodies, and the iPhone 5 has its own set of tradeoffs relative to prior models. On a positive note, the elimination of the fully glass rear panel should eliminate half of the shatter risks iPhone 4/4S models faced—a welcome improvement. However, the iPhone 5’s aluminum isn’t as damage-resistant as the stainless steel iPhone 4/4S core, and is more susceptible to both scratches and dents. We and numerous readers have noticed tiny marks and dents in the metal of freshly opened units, particularly around the mirror-finished edges. Some of the marks aren’t worth getting worked up over, but larger ones obviously detract from the new iPhone’s appeal. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the iPhone 5’s front glass remains as fingerprint-susceptible as ever, though still coated with an oleophobic layer to make wipe-downs easier.