Review: Apple iPhone 5s (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: An improved sequel to the iPhone 5, which was Apple’s best iPhone to date. Retains the same 4” screen, LTE cellular support, and form factor, while offering three chassis color options and adding a fingerprint sensor. Hardware tweaks improve low light performance of both cameras, incorporate a dual-LED rear flash, increase the rear camera’s angle width and aperture; software adds tricks including slow-motion video recording and 10 frame per second burst mode for stills. Features slightly improved headphone port audio, and still solid iOS 7 software foundation, newly augmented by a collection of excellent free iWork and iLife apps. Major boosts to 3-D graphics capabilities and CPU power can increase frame rates and speeds of numerous power-hungry apps. Compatible with past iPhone 5 cases and batteries; offers better battery life than iPhone 5 under some conditions.
Cons: Despite a larger battery, real-world battery performance too often falls below Apple’s best case estimates, with potentially major problems in cellular calling talk time, and similar drain with cellular data. LTE service remains inconsistent between neighborhoods, cities, and countries, with widely varying data speeds and availability. LTE service remains inconsistent, now with not only widely varying data speeds and availability, but also increased user saturation in areas with “strong” signals. Verizon users still can’t talk and access cellular data at same time. FaceTime HD support has apparently been dropped in iOS 7 software for 720p video calling. Due to marketing or manufacturing issues, gold versions are effectively unobtainable at press time, and silver versions are in very short supply. No capacity bump over prior models.
Understanding the growing appeal of the iPhone family begins with an acknowledgement of Apple’s established design philosophy: Apple creates both the hardware and the operating system software for its devices, separately iterating upon both sides of the equation each year. There hasn’t been a truly “revolutionary” iPhone since the original model debuted in 2007; rather, every version has taken several steps forward (and typically one step back) to refine and improve upon the same concept. Apple doesn’t expect or even strongly encourage customers to buy a new model each year—instead, the company uses a “tick-tock” strategy that spreads major hardware improvements out over the two models introduced during a two-year period, paralleling the typical two-year subsidized phone contracts offered by most U.S. carriers. Its goal is to entice existing customers to upgrade every two or three years, as well as to bring new customers in with each version. The 2008 iPhone 3G, 2010 iPhone 4, and 2012 iPhone 5 became the “base” models with redesigned bodies, while sequels called iPhone 3GS (2009), iPhone 4S (2011), and iPhone 5s (2013) improve a bit upon their predecessors’ formulas. Breaking modestly with tradition, this year’s iPhone 5c is merely a less expensive replacement for the iPhone 5, and not a step forward.
Although hardware is only half of the iPhone story, it’s an important part because it needs to be compelling enough to tempt customers to commit hundreds of dollars up front and a thousand or more dollars to cellular service contracts over the next two years. This year, Apple’s strategy is to offer the glass and metal iPhone 5s as its flagship model, the plastic and glass iPhone 5c as its mid-range model, and the smaller, less powerful metal and glass iPhone 4S as its entry-level model—outside the United States, the aged iPhone 4 is being offered at even lower prices for some customers, as well. Too similar to the iPhone 5s and 5c to keep around, the iPhone 5 was discontinued, using the 5c’s cheaper colored chassis to creating a larger perceived gap between the top and middle of the iPhone line.
At the same time as Apple is working on hardware improvements, a mostly separate team is iterating upon iOS, the operating system software that runs on all iPhones. Each year’s major iOS update is offered free of charge to owners of prior-generation iPhones, and each iPhone typically works with three major releases of iOS—say iOS 7, iOS 8, and iOS 9. Consequently, iOS updates give an old iPhone two opportunities to feel somewhat new again, enabling mid-contract customers to enjoy an improved experience without buying new hardware.
Historically, iOS also saw iterative changes from year to year, but this year, Apple introduced iOS 7, which is largely the same under the hood as its predecessor, but looks almost completely different. iOS 7’s cartoony, oddly-designed Home Screen has been called into question by many people (including us), but its core functionality is superb, radically simplifying everything from phone calling to photo and video recording to sharing content. Our complete guide to iOS 7 and iOS 7 review provide additional information on the software, which will surely evolve during 2014 and 2015.
Beyond its built-in features, iOS 7 offers a huge advantage over competing smartphone platforms: a treasure trove of high-quality, affordable downloadable software called “apps.” As of this writing, over 1 million iOS apps have been released into Apple’s App Store—roughly 900,000 still available for download—with well over 50 billion downloads. This month, Apple announced that some of its own best-of-class iOS apps would become free for new iPhone users, so the awesome photo editor iPhoto, video editor iMovie, and iWork productivity apps Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are now offered as free downloads when the iPhone 5c and 5s are used to visit the App Store for the first time. Apple also offers previously free apps iBooks, iTunes U, Podcasts, Find My Friends and Find My iPhone automatically at the same time. Together, these apps let iPhone 5s and 5c users create office documents, improve photos and videos, read books, locate lost devices, and find iPhone-toting family and friends. Apple’s apps are generally excellent, and as free downloads, they give every new iPhone user a ton of great tools to play with. When iOS device users talk about being “locked in” to Apple’s ecosystem, apps like these are a major incentive not to switch to rival platforms.