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.
In addition to the aesthetic and material changes that are obvious from the front and back, Apple has made some noteworthy changes to the iPhone 5’s top, bottom, and sides, as well. Apple has pulled both the headphone port and noise-canceling microphone from the top of the iPhone 4/4S, leaving only the Sleep/Wake Button up there. This change parallels the designs of recent iPod touches, and enables protective cases to fully cover the new iPhone’s top, a positive that will be obvious to anyone who has tried to protect an iPhone in poor weather conditions.
Consequently, this is the first time an iPhone has had its 3.5mm headphone audio port next to its charging and synchronization port, a change that will initially throw long-time iPhone users, then become natural; your phone can now be placed upside down in your pocket and pulled out with the screen in the right viewing position. Location aside, the headphone port is virtually identical to the ones on past iPhones, and the only thing limiting headphone plug compatibility will be the shape of the case you choose. Apple’s headphone port continues to include support for accessories with integrated three-button remote controls and microphones—the same ones that work with past iPods, iPhones, and iPads.
Tested with an ultra high-end pair of JH Audio JH16 Pro earphones, the iPhone 5 generally exhibited even better sound quality than the iPhone 4S, with an even lower static floor and slightly enhanced clarity—details that will likely only be noticeable to users of relatively expensive headphones, but are upgrades nonetheless. A series of very quiet clicks can be heard upon initial connection, once again solely with high-end headphones and if you’re listening for them. That aside, listening to music on the iPhone 5 is a joy: powerful, clean, and convenient, particularly if you subscribe to Apple’s iTunes Match service. Having all your iTunes library’s music available at virtually any time turns out to be a great convenience.
Ten small holes alongside the headphone port ventilate one of the iPhone 5’s three microphones, while 16 holes do the same for the bottom speaker. Apple’s latest speaker offers small but welcome improvements in quality, rather than volume or range. Users upgrading from the iPhone 4S can expect the iPhone 5 to deliver smoother sound at the same volumes: lower distortion means that you’ll hear less scratchiness in the audio, particularly at the iPhone 5’s virtually identical peak amplitude. Apple appears to have taken the very highest-frequency edge off a little, reducing an occasionally unwelcome sharpness. There’s just a hint less bass, too, but not enough to impact audio in any negative way. Any speaker improvement at all is particularly impressive given the now thinner chassis.
Apple’s new microphone system offers bigger improvements: there are actually three mics in the iPhone 5, one previously mentioned on the bottom, another now hidden on the front, and a third newly sitting between the rear camera and LED flash. Together, these microphones form an advanced noise-cancellation system that is unquestionably the best we’ve ever heard on an iPhone or accessory.
Telephone calls made in handset or speakerphone mode are far clearer and more intelligible on the iPhone 5 than on the iPhone 4 and 4S, impressively screening out ambient noises ranging from a restaurant’s overhead music to the din of a crowded shopping mall and even a dump truck on the streets of metropolitan Toronto. Callers on both ends of iPhone 5 calls noted marked improvements, while Siri voice recognition and dictation remained unaffected by noisy environments. There’s only a single related disappointment: no accessories, including Apple’s packed-in earphones or wireless speakerphones, seem to be able to take advantage of the noise-filtering technology. This isn’t surprising, but if callers mention a stark difference between the way your iPhone 5 sounds during some calls, you can be sure that accessories are to blame.
Next, a small, pill-shaped hole rests between the bottom speaker and microphone grilles. That’s the new Lightning port, which replaces Apple’s nine-year-old, 30-Pin Dock Connector with a supposedly better alternative. Most notably, Lightning plugs are reversible, so you can connect them without worrying which side is up or down, and small—roughly the same size as Micro-USB at under 0.25” connector width, but a little more solid-feeling. Apple has suggested that this will be its device connector for “years to come,” and hinted that the change is based on the need to further shrink its products.
We discuss the current accessory implications for the iPhone 5 in a later section of this review, but a few points need to be made about the Lightning port up front. First, at least as it’s currently implemented, the iPhone 5’s Lightning port won’t net you hugely faster transfer speeds than the prior iPhone 4S Dock Connector port over USB 2.0. Not including iTunes’ “Preparing to Update” time, it took 53 seconds to transfer a 1GB video file to the iPhone 4S, versus 1 minute and 1 second for the iPhone 5. After noting that a 2GB video file required 2 minutes and 52 seconds to transfer to the iPhone 4S, versus only 1 minute and 40 seconds on the iPhone 5, we tried a 1.5GB video file and found them evenly matched: 1 minute 18 for the iPhone 4S, 1 minute 20 for the iPhone 5. Results will vary between computers, versions of iTunes, and other factors, but in any case, Lightning transfer speeds aren’t necessarily incredible, and Apple doesn’t claim that they are.
That’s just one of several reasons that Apple’s switch to the Lightning connector is justifiably controversial. As of today, Lightning offers users few serious benefits over the prior 30-Pin connector—putting aside the questionable speed differences, it doesn’t improve connectivity options, or come at a lower price. Second, it prevents the iPhone 5 from working with thousands of perfectly useful accessories that have been released for years—including many that were thoroughly and expensively engineered specifically to work with iPhones. As of right now, there’s literally only one available accessory, a Lightning to USB Cable, which can be used for synchronization and/or charging, though readers and iLounge editors have discovered that it’s not even available in some stores. Third, the change adds obvious and hidden costs to the new iPhone, requiring consumers to foot the bill and wait around for developers to get new connectors, authentication chips, and possibly other parts. Apple-developed Lightning Adapters will start at $29 and climb from there, most offering literally nothing to users besides the ability to keep using devices they previously purchased. They won’t be available until October, notes Apple, so early iPhone 5 adopters can’t even figure out what will and won’t work.
It would have been easy for Apple to include one Lightning Adapter in the iPhone 5 package, or as an option for requesting customers, but it hasn’t—instead, it expects consumers to bear all the costs of making their prior “Works with iPhone” accessories work with the iPhone 5, or go out and buy new ones. Even though some Apple apologists have downplayed the Lightning transition as inevitable and trivial, it has wide-reaching and expensive consequences for both developers and consumers who have invested money in home, car, travel, and office accessories that no longer work properly or at all with the iPhone 5—without any obvious benefit. As with all of Apple’s past connector transitions, this one will likely be a distant memory a year from now, but for the time being, it’s one of the two most serious problems with the new iPhone.
Last but not least, Apple has once again changed the SIM card format supported by its latest iPhone: the iPhone 5 now uses a “nano SIM” that it helped to create. Apart from the fact that the SIM card tray on the iPhone 5’s right side is smaller than the iPhone 4’s, little needs to be said about this even tinier SIM card. Most iPhones sold in the United States will ship with the new card pre-installed, while some will need to be installed by or purchased at cellular carrier stores. For the time being, these cards are far less common than their predecessor sizes, which may temporarily limit the iPhone 5’s availability for some carriers and customers. That said, larger SIM cards can be manually cut down to nano SIM size in a pinch, assuming that you’re careful and use the right tools.