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.
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Historically, Apple’s “S” models have been virtually identical to their immediate predecessors: the iPhone 3GS merely added metallic text to the iPhone 3G’s plastic back, and the iPhone 4S arrived in both black and white versions after the white iPhone 4 model was substantially delayed for quality control reasons. For the iPhone 5s, Apple has preserved the 4.87” tall by 2.31” wide by 0.3” deep metal and glass body it introduced in the iPhone 5, making only two changes to the back and one change to the front.
First up are the new color options—the iPhone 5s’s most obvious change from the iPhone 5. Last year’s model came in bright silver metal with white front and back glass, which has been preserved for the iPhone 5s, as well as dark charcoal-colored “slate” metal with black front and back glass.
The iPhone 5s loses “slate” in favor of a lighter gunmetal tone called “Space Gray,” which when paired with black glass looks close enough to the original iPhone to evoke nostalgic memories.
Apple has also added a third iPhone 5s color, which mixes champagne gold-colored aluminum with white glass. This is the first time Apple has released a gold device since the once-unpopular iPod mini color was unceremoniously discontinued in early 2005. While gold is a nice color for the 5s, Apple manufactured far too few units to meet any reasonable expectation of launch day demand, a failure so blatant that it appeared to have been staged to create “golden ticket” headlines. Thousands of customers left Apple Store lineups disappointed, and new units aren’t expected to be delivered until October or later.
Second, Apple has replaced the rear iSight camera system with substantially new components. While the lens hole is roughly the same size as before, there’s a thinner ring around the slightly larger glass lens, adding a little additional wide-angle performance and light-gathering capability. These changes are discussed more thoroughly in the camera section of this review. Apple has also shrunk the microphone hole from a tiny pill shape down to a smaller dot, and doubled the footprint of the LED flash from a single light to two, switching from a circular shape to a much larger pill. These tweaks aren’t major, but the taller flash does make the iPhone 5s rear look a little less visually balanced than its predecessor.
Last but certainly not least, Apple has substantially altered the classic Home Button, a part that has remained unchanged over six prior iPhone generations. Rumored for years, Apple has replaced the historically concave button with a new Touch ID fingerprint scanner, discussed further in the next section of this review. Impressively, the Touch ID scanner fits within the prior Home Button’s footprint, adding new functionality without changing the Home Button’s old functionality. Pushing down on the button is just as responsive as before, and though the out-of-box clicking sound was initially a little louder, it became quieter after two days of use.
For Touch ID, Apple has surrounded a Sapphire glass touch surface with a chamfered stainless steel ring that matches the color of the iPhone 5s’s rear shell—a particularly nice visual element on the gold model—with only the glint of metal offering a visual clue to the interruption in the glass. Because of the new ring, the iPhone 5s Home Button feels closer to the slightly reduced size of an iPod touch Home Button, though perfectly flat, and recessed less than a millimeter below the edges of the ring. To give the scanner full visibility, Apple removed the Home Button’s traditional rounded square icon, bringing the black-faced iPhone 5s even closer to looking like a slab of glass. Like many of Apple’s recent design changes, this one isn’t huge, but we like the way it looks.
Each iPhone 5s ships in an unremarkable white cardboard box, now featuring a flat front-of-iPhone 5s image that shows iOS 7 and indicates the color of the device you’ve purchased. One pair of EarPods, a Lightning to USB Cable, and a 5W USB Power Adapter are inside, along with stickers, a warranty booklet, and a single sheet of get-started instructions. Apple has removed the prior, longer Quick Start Guide found in the iPhone 5 package, pointing instead to an online manual—most likely because iOS 7 was not complete enough to offer a more detailed look at the device’s features. In the United States, most iPhone 5s units will come with a nano-SIM Card pre-installed in the device’s side tray, and may or may not come with a SIM tray ejection tool.
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