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.
As we noted early in this review, it’s now a truism that the latest iPhone is the best ever—a claim that Apple has also made with every generation of iPods, but not always achieved. Unlike the iPod shuffle, which once disasterously saw all of its buttons discarded, and the iPod nano, which has changed shapes and colors at a hyperkinetic pace, the iPhone has become Apple’s anchor: a product too popular to risk screwing up. Consequently, Apple’s strategy of linear improvements and tick-tock upgrades is perfectly suited to both current and prospective customers, delivering a new body every two years for aesthetes, and relying on annual performance boosts that may appeal to people who thought the last version fell a little short of their needs.
All of this is to say that we wouldn’t characterize the iPhone 5 as either “safe” or “boring.” The core is certainly familiar enough, and the version of iOS 6 it runs is so similar to the iPhone 4S that there are barely differences beyond their form factors and horsepower—this is actually a great thing given Apple’s history of holding back software features for new devices. Holding iOS 6 steady has actually given the iPhone 5 the opportunity to shine on its own bold merits. The bigger, more color-accurate screen. Considerably better front and rear cameras. Better incoming and outgoing sound quality. And cellular performance that some users will find astonishingly improved over their prior iPhones. All of these changes add up to a new iPhone that iPhone 4 and prior iPhone customers will find thrilling; only iPhone 4S users may be able to resist the temptation to upgrade, and even then, we suspect many will jump into the iPhone 5 as soon as subsidies are available.
In light of the above context, it’s worth underscoring that the overall iPhone 5 user experience is excellent because of both the bold new additions and the polished underbelly. Even if we’re not in love with the redesigned enclosure, it’s an obvious attempt to improve upon issues that were identified in prior iPhones by delivering something better: the overly plasticky iPhone 3G/3GS body and easily shattered iPhone 4/4S back have given way to more metal, harkening back to the original iPhone that everyone lusted after. Is it iterative? Yes. But there’s no crime in iterating upon greatness.
Unfortunately, the iPhone 5 isn’t without clear flaws. Interrelated issues with the battery longevity and LTE service reduce the new model’s appeal to some users despite its stronger performance for others; it is painful for some of us to upgrade to this phone with the knowledge that we’re not getting the same performance as friends and family nearby. We also saw firsthand smaller but non-trivial issues of screen brightness and chassis damage. Then add to that the new Lightning connector, which like the introduction of MagSafe 2 earlier this year feels a little ahead of actual Apple needs and consumer benefits, and there’s a compelling case to be made for waiting until next year to see what settles out. These issues will lessen as LTE and Lightning become more ubiquitous, but for now, one of our editors is seeing only marginal cellular performance improvements, and we’re all scrambling to find ways to make our new iPhones work in our cars, offices, and homes.
On balance, however, the iPhone 5 clearly merits our A- rating and high recommendation. Since roughly 75% of the United States’ population is within reach of Verizon LTE service, and other carriers are now highly incentivized to deliver the quick, dramatic enhancements they’ve promised for their small LTE footprints, it’s obvious that most people in this country—and elsewhere in the world—will be able to enjoy a better iPhone experience right now or very soon. Unless you’re seriously concerned about battery life or accessory compatibility, both of which will likely wind up requiring additional expenditures beyond the cost of the device itself, you’ll find the iPhone 5 to be a fantastic new model. Pass on it only if you’re willing to wait until next year to see what new magic Apple has up its sleeve then.