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.
More than anything else, the iPhone 5 will be remembered as the first pocket-sized iOS device to drop Apple’s classic 3:2 aspect ratio and 3.5” diagonal size—both locked in place since 2007—in favor of something different and better. While there’s room to debate whether Apple made all the right choices with the new screen, particularly given that it’s effectively setting a standard that will be followed by future iPhones and iPod touches, it’s certainly an improvement over what came before. Here are the critical differences between the iPhone 5’s screen and the displays used on the iPhone 4 and 4S:
Shape and Size. The iPhone 5 screen measures 4” diagonally—3.5” tall by 1.95” wide—versus the iPhone 4 and 4S’s 3.5” diagonal, 3” tall by 1.95” wide display. We discuss the user interface and experience tweaks below, but it suffices to say here that most adult hands and fingers will not struggle in any way to adjust to the additional portrait mode real estate, while the wider landscape mode lets eyes benefit a little from larger videos and larger text in regular web pages.
Resolution. Apple has kept the pixel density of the iPhone 5 constant at 326 pixels per inch, boosting the resolution solely by adding 176 additional pixels of height across the display— an additional 112,640 tiny dots. While the iPhone 5 now has a 16:9 Retina display, with so many little pixels (1136 by 640) that you can’t see them individually, it falls short of HD television standards such as 1280 by 720 (720p) or 1920 by 1080 (1080p), so videos recorded at those resolutions are downscaled to fit the screen. Only the most spec-obsessed users would suggest this is a real shortcoming of the device, since boosting the resolution further would lead to imperceptible “improvements” that would consume additional processor power, likely impacting battery life.
Color Rendition. As impressive as prior iPhone screens were in resolution and pixel density for their times, their ability to accurately render colors wasn’t phenomenal—better than iPod touches and MacBook Airs, but less impressive than MacBook Pros and the Retina-capable third-generation iPad. That’s been fixed for the iPhone 5: the new screen promises enhanced color saturation and iPad-caliber accuracy.
Images shown on the iPhone 5 screen look different and better than on earlier iPhones. Colors are richer and contrast is improved: every photo we tested looked at least a little more balanced overall, with individual colors that were more nuanced and less blown out on the iPhone 5. Individual pictures display more vivid blue, green, red, pink, orange, and yellow tones, plus slightly darker blacks, while games become more neon-like and intense. Photo browsing is only slightly diminished by the iPhone 5’s renditions of skin tones, which now have a slightly more yellow tint.
Other Factors. Due to changes in both the screen and glass technology used in the iPhone 5, glare has been modestly reduced, a change that may be noticeable outdoors at certain angles. Most likely due to different component suppliers, we noticed iPhone 5 screen brightness variations from unit to unit, with a black AT&T iPhone 5 having a slightly lower top brightness than white and black Verizon iPhone 5 units, which were equivalent to the iPhone 4S in illumination. There were no apparent differences in off-angle viewing relative to the iPhone 4S; the iPhone 5 remains very viewable from off angles.
The key point that needs to be made about the iPhone 5 is that the user experience is so similar to the iPhone 4S—and all previous iPhones, for that matter—that the transition from using one to the other is effectively effortless. Apple has made a grand total of two major user interface tweaks for the iPhone 5, lengthening the Home Screen to include 24 icons rather than 20 at a time, and allowing apps to have access to the aforementioned 176 extra pixels of height. Consequently, the changes in most iOS 6 apps are tiny, subject of course to later and more considerable revision.
Home Screen: An additional four apps fit on the screen, enabling iPhone 5 users to have nearly as many apps on screen (24) as any iPad (26 max). Notably, since folders can now hold 16 items rather than 12, you can now access a maximum of 384 apps from a single Home Screen without swiping to other pages. This is one of those small but welcome “quality of life” improvements: former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously sought to reduce the number of taps needed for everything, and this makes quick app access even faster.
Old iPhone/iPod touch Apps: Rather than scrunching old apps at the top or bottom of the new 4” display, or manually stretching them in some way, Apple is having every developer rework its own apps to fit the new screen. If they do nothing, the old app will remain in a 960-pixel-tall or -wide window, centered on the 1136-pixel display. This sometimes even includes the old top-of-screen status bar in its prior location, with black letterboxes above and below it. When the app is reworked, it can occupy the full 4” height in any way the developer prefers.
Every pre-installed Apple iOS application has already been rewritten for the new display, most with few meaningful changes. Calendar now displays five weekdays at once rather than three and a quarter. Every other app has more room for text, menu lists, buttons, or graphics to scroll by in portrait mode. Landscape mode gives videos a little more room to spread out—movies are notably now presented in a forced letterboxed view, some without zooming capabilities—while slightly reducing finger cramping on the wide keyboard, and presenting traditional 4:3 photos with big letterboxes.
iWork and iLife applications give you a little extra space; GarageBand now gives you 9.5 white piano keys rather than 8 and more space to tap on existing drums. In short, none of these changes is a big deal—certainly not as disruptive as some pundits had claimed a 16:9 version of iOS would be, nor as earthshatteringly positive as long-time 16:9 boosters might have hoped. No app is worse for the transition, but then, no app is markedly better, either.
Typing: Our only gripe with the iPhone 5’s screen is its still nearly 2” width, and then solely for a software/user experience reason; Apple could have added a little additional finger real estate in both directions, but didn’t, instead deciding to avoid widening the device. We can understand and appreciate Apple’s reasoning here, but it does have a consequence: the cramped portrait keyboard remains unchanged when it could have been better. Moreover, since Apple doesn’t change iOS screen sizes or aspect ratios often, it’s reasonable to assume that the current portrait keyboard is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Leaked iPhone parts last year suggested that Apple was considering a 3.7” iPhone 4S display that would have gone taller and wider at the same time, but the company obviously had second thoughts and went with this design instead. As a result, the iOS landscape keyboard has become even wider, even though it didn’t need the extra space as much as the portrait keyboard.
CPU/GPU Performance: The iPhone 5 isn’t a sea change from the iPhone 4S in functionality—it still runs iOS 6, and has no pre-installed apps that aren’t found on last year’s phone. That said, there are some obvious performance improvements in the apps, and they’re attributable to the new Apple A6 Chip, a two-core CPU with a three-core graphics processor that sits roughly between the iPhone 4S and third-generation iPad in overall horsepower. The A6 also benefits from more and faster RAM than the iPhone 4S, while consuming less energy.
[If you’re not spec-focused, skip the next two paragraphs. According to early teardowns of the A6 chip, Apple custom built a dual-core 1GHz variant on the ARMv7, capable of running at speeds from 800MHz to 1.2GHz as needed, with a triple-core PowerVR SGX543MP3 for graphics. This is a jump from the dual-core 800MHz ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and two-core SGX543MP2 graphics processor in the iPhone 4S, and down from the four-core SGX543MP4 in the third-generation iPad, while similar to its dual-core 1GHz Cortex-A9 CPU.
Primate Labs’ app Geekbench 2 provided aggregate computational benchmarking scores of 1390 for the iPhone 5, 628 for the iPhone 4S, and 322 for the iPhone 4—each roughly doubling the performance of its predecessor, with the iPhone 5 rising a little above that. Interestingly, the third-generation iPad rated only a 754 despite its larger processor and more capable GPU, possibly because it has a much higher-resolution display to fill with pixels. Regardless, other benchmarking apps have shown marked improvements in the iPhone 5’s web rendering speeds and ability to handle various types of tasks, all in the 2-3x performance range.]
Putting all the numbers aside, the iPhone 5’s performance improvements are tangible. Apps load at least a little and sometimes noticeably faster on the iPhone 5 than on the iPhone 4S: even unoptimized apps such as Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3 boot two or three seconds faster, and have higher frame rates. Early optimized titles such as Asphalt 7 boot faster, run smoother, and occupy the entire 4” display rather than just its center. With the exception of games, however, it’s rare to see truly major differences in 3-D apps besides frame rate improvements: Apple’s Maps application, for instance, is smoother in rotating its 3-D renditions of cities than the iPhone 4S, but that’s about it. This will surely change and improve over time.
The only major software problems with the iPhone 5 are ones that were previously known to iOS 6 upgraders: the turn-by-turn functionality, graphical issues, and location inaccuracies of Maps, and to some extent continued problems with the virtual voice assistant Siri. Just as is the case with the iPhone 4S, Maps on the iPhone 5 has problems correctly locating destinations, and can provide somewhat unreliable guidance when you’re driving. And also like the iPhone 4S, Siri still stumbles repeatedly on certain oft-repeated words it should have learned, has processing hiccups attributable to failed data connections and server problems, and sometimes undertakes completely ridiculous searches based on misinterpretations of speech. Both cloud-dependent services could be hugely improved with even limited on-device databases that don’t require data access, but we suspect those and other fixes will wait until iOS 7 at the earliest. For now, iPhone 5 users can content themselves with the fact that these features are a little snappier on this device, and do better with voice commands when the iPhone’s built-in microphones are being used.
Thus far, the only other disappointments we’ve seen in performance have been related to streaming certain AirPlay content to an Apple TV. Because the iPhone 5’s screen is taller than its predecessor, AirPlay Mirroring occupies even less space on an HDTV when in portrait mode, leaving most of the screen filled with black bars. In widescreen mode, Apple places black bars on all sides of the screen, rather than filling the entire HD display with upscaled content.
While streaming movies and TV shows to the Apple TV from an iPhone 5 worked properly, AirPlay Mirroring streaming frame rates exhibited significant problems, with FaceTime and game streaming becoming choppy and de-synchronized during even brief sessions. Just as most third-party developers couldn’t finish their iPhone 5 compatibility updates in time for the launch, it looks like even the Apple TV will need an update to smooth things out with the new phone.