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 an ideal world, we could offer a very clear assessment of the iPhone 5’s cellular capabilities—a single “pick AT&T” or “go with Verizon” or “expect greater speeds, no matter what” statement that would be broadly accurate. Unfortunately, after quite a bit of testing, this is the best bright line guidance we can offer:
If you’re lucky enough to live or work near a Long-Term Evolution (LTE) cell tower with relatively few other connected devices, you’re going to be blown away by the iPhone 5’s cellular transfer speeds, regardless of the carrier you select. Should you be further away but still within reach of the tower, you’ll get at least modestly better speeds than the iPhone 4S. And if you’re not within a tower’s reach, prepare to be sad. Possibly very sad.
To provide some necessary background, the entire world is currently in the midst of a significant cellular network upgrade that will likely continue for at least the next year, possibly longer depending on where you live. Carriers across the globe are transitioning from “3G” to “LTE” technology, the latter with a peak theoretical bandwidth of 100Mbps—7 to 10 times faster than common home broadband connections. Generally, carriers are repurposing their older, slower 3G towers with LTE hardware, either cutting 3G bandwidth partially or entirely in the process. Some carriers temporarily opted to install 3G hardware that was 1/3 to 1/2 as fast as LTE, calling the feature “3.5G” or “4G,” but LTE is the future, and will become more pervasive over the next several years.
The switch to LTE is fundamentally changing the cellular landscape, generally for the better. When we tested the iPhone 4S last year, we noted that there was a consistent pattern with cellular speeds: wherever we tested multiple phones, AT&T’s 3G/“4G” network handily trumped Verizon’s, which maintained a small edge over Sprint’s. And Canadian carriers such as Rogers and Bell trounced even AT&T’s performance—a sign that millions of U.S. iPhone customers were unknowingly living with slower data speeds than their neighbors to the north.
Two things have changed for the iPhone 5’s release this year. First, LTE networks have grown in the United States: Verizon currently has the largest LTE network, purportedly covering 3/4 of the United States’ population* with around 370 total markets, followed by AT&T with roughly 65, and Sprint is in a distant third place with under 20. [* Note: Verizon’s claim regarding the footprint of its LTE coverage refers to population rather than geography; as reader Nathan Daniels points out, the actual land area covered by Verizon LTE towers is considerably lower. Additionally, because of Sprint’s laggard performance with the iPhone 4S and its tiny LTE network, which is not available in the areas where our editors live and work, we opted not to purchase or test Sprint iPhones this year; we may revisit this if and when the company’s LTE network becomes competitive. In areas without Sprint LTE service, the iPhone 5 will see cellular speeds nearly identical to the Sprint version of the iPhone 4S—slow.]
Secondly, the iPhone 5 has added LTE support, and our tests of both AT&T and Verizon iPhones and iPads had some surprising results. In our main office in East Amherst, NY, the AT&T iPhone 5 struggled to maintain an LTE signal indoors or outdoors, disconcertingly switching back and forth from AT&T’s “4G” network, generally settling on 4G rather than LTE. While on 4G, the AT&T iPhone 5 scored poorly on Speedtest benchmarks—commonly less than 2Mbps down and 0.2Mbps up. When we could get it to connect to LTE, the download speeds were higher, 10-12Mbps, while upload speeds hovered in the 0.4 to 1Mbps range, but the LTE signal fell off frequently. In short, there are places where the AT&T iPhone 5 will do no better than the iPhone 4S, and both will do worse than last year due to diminished “4G” tower capacity.
But the plot thickened as we continued testing elsewhere. Thirty minutes away by car, the same AT&T iPhone 5 hit a remarkable 63Mbps peak download speed, routinely offering 11Mbps uploads, sometimes as high as 17Mbps. Another AT&T iPhone 5 we tested in Buffalo, NY crested along with 14-18Mbps downloads and 12-19Mbps uploads. And an iPhone 5 we tested in Toronto, Canada hit 30-40Mbps down and 21-29Mbps up on Bell’s LTE network. The Canadian iPhone 5 also struggled to remain on LTE, but saw plenty fast “3G” speeds of 17-25Mbps down and 4-5Mbps up even without LTE support, thanks to Bell’s strong backup DC-HSPA+ network—also in use in some European countries as a precursor to LTE. We also began to notice during testing that both AT&T and Verizon iPhone 5s tended to lock onto a marginal LTE signal faster and more reliably than the AT&T and Verizon iPads we were using.
By comparison, Verizon’s LTE performance wasn’t as fast as AT&T’s best, but it was more consistent—at least, initially. Every time we turned on our Verizon iPhone 5s at the East Amherst office, they were on LTE, not on Verizon’s older 3G network. Our average in-office testing speeds for Verizon LTE were in the 11 Mbps download range and 2.4 to 2.7 Mbps for uploads, while just walking outside saw jumps to 13.5 Mbps down and 3.5 Mbps up. The best test results over several days saw over 17 Mbps for downloads and 13 Mbps up, huge jumps for old Verizon iPhone 4/4S customers, and enough speed to switch over some former AT&T users. We had to force the Verizon iPhone 5 to fall back to the company’s older network to get it to perform at the miserable 0.3-0.6Mbps download and 0.1Mbps upload speeds we had seen with earlier CDMA-only iPhones.
Unfortunately, Verizon’s network began to experience issues of its own. LTE network speeds dropped into the 4-8Mbps range for downloads and 1Mbps range for uploads; at one point, uploads basically locked up for hours at a time. The Verizon LTE performance we were seeing wasn’t much better than AT&T’s pre-LTE “4G” network. And it came with a major consequence: Verizon’s iPhone 5 (and Sprint’s) can’t make phone calls and use cellular data at the same time. If you take a Verizon phone call while driving and using Apple’s Maps application, Maps will run out of data as soon as you miss a turn, and become unable to recalculate an alternative route. On the other hand, Verizon is better than AT&T about offering data services such as tethering and FaceTime Over Cellular to customers, without forcing them to incur additional charges. And Sprint tries to make up for its omissions by offering unlimited data without a cap, so long as you’re willing to put up with the speeds.
So the decision between LTE networks remains challenging and entirely personal, much as it was with the release of the third-generation iPad. Pick Verizon’s network and you have a better chance of getting an LTE signal anywhere you may be traveling in the country, and therefore faster speeds than the iPhone 4S. However, if you’re outside of Verizon LTE coverage—something that’s far less likely now than six months ago—you’ll fall back to dog slow data performance, and you shouldn’t expect the peak high speeds of AT&T at its best. With AT&T’s network, you’ll have less chance of being in an area with excellent LTE coverage, but if you are, you may see significantly better performance. When you fall back to 3G/4G coverage, your speed will be a lot worse, but not as bad as Verizon or Sprint 3G. And you won’t have to give up cellular data during voice calling with AT&T.
On a related note, we will briefly mention that we saw clear evidence of cellular antenna attenuation, specifically a marked drop in cellular data speeds attributable to holding the iPhone 5 regularly in a hand. Apple admitted to attenuation issues with the iPhone 4, but shrugged off the problem as virtually unavoidable in cellular phone designs—then took steps to improve the antenna design of the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5 still has issues.
It’s also worth noting that callers told us that we sounded a little better when making calls through Verizon iPhone 5’s—more rich, vocally—while AT&T calls were described as intelligible but occasionally a little more mechanical. None of Apple’s U.S. partners supports an optional iPhone 5 feature called HD Voice, a higher-bandwidth voice calling service that should make some phone calls sound even better. Some Canadian and other international operators are adding support, and we’ll update this review with additional details shortly.