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.
Five years ago, the very idea that an iPhone could compete with a standalone digital camera was laughable—Apple’s early iPhones were only a little better-equipped than midrange cell phone cameras of their times, and between the simplicity of Apple’s Camera app and the lack of zoom capabilities, there wasn’t much evidence to suggest that iPhones would close the gap any time soon. No improvements were made to the camera for the iPhone 3G, and relatively modest enhancements followed in the iPhone 3GS. Only in 2010 did Apple began to take imaging seriously with the iPhone 4, and it then went even further with the iPhone 4S; today, those iPhones are the most popular cameras on Flickr.
While its on-paper specifications don’t suggest that much has changed from its predecessor, the iPhone 5 is certainly better, and as close to a pocket digital camera replacement as anything Apple has yet released. Still possessing an 8-Megapixel (3264x2448) sensor, and adding only small software features such as a new Panorama mode that are also found on the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 rear camera nonetheless renders colors more accurately than its predecessors, more quickly acquires accurate focus locks, and offers dramatically enhanced low-light performance. To quantify each of those improvements:
Outdoor and indoor pictures taken with the iPhone 5 routinely are at least a little better in contrast and color saturation than the iPhone 4S’s, which look a little washed out or faded when placed side by side.
Colors are important, but so are fine details. A camera’s detail level might theoretically improve just by adding more pixels to the sensor, but 8MP is enough for most pocket cameras, and more pixels also means more grain and noise. Another alternative is to improve the lens or autofocus systems so that the pixels you do capture are as sharp as possible. That’s happened here—the iPhone 4S did a pretty good job with this, but the iPhone 5 is even better, sharply capturing even the legs of ants and the fuzz on a pumpkin blossom.
The difference between the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 for low light shots is nearly as profound as “night and day.” We were astonished to see that the iPhone 5 can stand toe-to-toe with other pocket cameras, reaching up to ISO 3200 in dim lighting conditions—for pictures that are grainy but completely in focus and respectably colorful, though noisier than with very good to great Canon PowerShots from last year. In the exact same room and lighting conditions, the iPhone 4S taps out at ISO 800 while creating an image that’s unusably dark—seemingly in shadows. Professional photographers should never ditch their cameras for the iPhone 5, but any photographer—pro or amateur—will see better results under poor lighting conditions than with any prior iPhone.
This comparison shows how the iPhone 4 and 4S have evolved to the iPhone 5. Note that while the iPhone 4S shot has better optical resolution than the iPhone 4, its color rendition is a little more muted, while also avoiding blowing out highlights. The iPhone 5 combines the best characteristics of the prior cameras, adding improved iPhone 4-like color saturation to the higher resolution of the iPhone 4S, plus superior light gathering capability. These differences are even more pronounced in the full-resolution versions of these images.
Apple has also used the taller iPhone 5 screen to increase the size of the shutter button to a more useful circular shape, mimicking an improvement previously rolled out for the iPad. Turnaround time for the iPhone 5 camera shutter is even faster than before, allowing you to snap your second photo almost immediately. A panorama capture feature found in iOS 6 is also new, while the iPhone 5 gains the unique ability to snap still pictures during recording of videos. Unlike regular photos, these are capped at the same 1920x1080 resolution as videos, and are cropped relative to the sensor’s complete frame.
Video performance of the rear camera is closer. While videos shot on the iPhone 5 were a little better than the ones on the iPhone 4S, they had far more in common than not. Video resolution remains at 1080p, but the iPhone 5’s color rendition is a little better, with enhanced ability to lock onto subjects automatically, and slightly better image stabilization—factors that contribute to sharper and more watchable videos.
Apple’s new front-facing camera has also taken strides forward. For the first time in any iOS device, Apple has included what it calls a “FaceTime HD camera,” capable of snapping 1280x960 stills and 1280x720 (720p) videos. When recorded directly to the iPhone 5’s Camera Roll, both stills and videos are considerably more detailed than ones recorded with the iPhone 4S’s 640x480 FaceTime camera. Images have a slight yellow tint, and considerably more grain than ones shot with the rear camera, but are far better for self-photography than before.
Surprisingly, however, the differences during FaceTime calls are not as profound. Despite the “FaceTime HD” billing, we were unable to get the iPhone 5 to display markedly higher-quality video than a traditional FaceTime call, regardless of whether it was on a high-bandwidth Wi-Fi connection or on Verizon-supported FaceTime Over Cellular. It appeared obvious that both the iPhone 5’s front and rear cameras were recording video that was optically better than they could send over the FaceTime connection. That said, both of the iPhone 5’s cameras appear to use better sensors than their predecessors, as they produce less obvious noise/grain in low light conditions, which helps your face or other objects become more visible during video calls. The iPhone 5 also fills the screen with FaceTime video in either portrait or landscape mode rather than using letterboxing.
In sum, the iPhone 5’s cameras are considerably better than the iPhone 4S’s, having made tangible improvements in situations that both amateur and professional photographers will appreciate. While the iPhone 5 still lacks for an optical zoom lens, it’s not a stretch to say that it’s otherwise such a competent camera that the days of standalone digital cameras and camcorders appear to be numbered. Conveniences such as a persistent Internet connection, ultra-simple controls, and frictionless sharing of content over private and public social networks are becoming increasingly critical for photography, and the better the iPhone becomes at taking pictures, the more popular it will grow. We can’t wait to see what Apple does next.