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.
For more than a decade, iLounge has tried to strike a fair balance between expressing genuine enthusiasm for new Apple products and exercising appropriate skepticism regarding the company’s sometimes overzealous marketing. Especially in recent years, this has required us to sift through quite a bit of hype—some Apple-created, some media-created—regarding supposedly amazing features or terrible issues in new products, honestly reaching our own conclusions rather than relying upon whatever the prevailing mood might be. For that reason, the iPhone 5s presented us with an interesting challenge: putting its new color options aside, two of its three biggest new features fall into the “nice, but what does it actually do for me?” category. The first of those features is Apple’s new fingerprint sensor, Touch ID.
If you’ve ever used a fingerprint scanner before, or if you actively use the Lock Screen password protection feature on your iPhone, you’re probably going to love Touch ID. Typical fingerprint scanners—even industrial ones—tend to be larger-than-finger-sized plates, prone to damage over time, somewhat time-consuming, and unreliable. It’s highly common for scanners to require two or three reads of a few seconds each, and the ones we’ve seen have frequently been in need of repair for one reason or another. No one’s sure whether Touch ID will work reliably for years, but Apple reportedly chose Sapphire Crystal glass to protect the sensor from degradation; it remains to be seen whether that works.
Ambiguous longevity aside, Touch ID eliminates all of the friction points commonly associated with fingerprint scanners. Apple acquired fingerprint specialty companies to build the feature, and in typical Apple style has delivered something that’s impressively simple despite its conceptual complexity. When you’re initially setting up your phone, you can choose to scan a single finger, a sub-one-minute process that requires no more effort than touching the Home Button, lifting your finger, touching it again, and repeating until an on-screen fingerprint-style progress meter shows that a piecemeal scan of your fingerprint area has been completed.
The scan begins with high-resolution imaging of the surface of your finger, but supposedly also looks to sub-dermal layers, reducing the prospect of fraud using photographs or other images of your fingerprint. A hacking group took only two days to claim that it could fool the Touch ID system, but the procedure goes beyond anything seen in Mission: Impossible movies, requiring everything from a 2400dpi photograph of the user’s fingerprint to a 1200dpi laser printer, a smear of wet latex or woodglue, and a hint of moisture to fool the scanner. Unless your iPhone 5s is stolen by a secret agent with all the necessary equipment waiting in an unmarked van nearby, you have a better chance of remotely wiping the phone before it’s unlocked than losing your data to the thief.
In a nod to recent concerns about government spying on citizens, Apple claims that Touch ID only stores an abstract reference to your fingerprint rather than the actual print, and stores the abstract locally rather than over the Internet. While it’s unclear at this point whether iCloud backups or other techniques will let unauthorized users remotely gain access to your stored information, it’s obvious that Apple doesn’t want users to fear using Touch ID due to privacy concerns; rather, it’s designed primarily to be a privacy-increasing mechanism for the iPhone 5s.
Once the scan has been done once, Touch ID takes less than 2 seconds to match your fingerprint to the stored record, most often matching in under 1 second—so quick, yet so accurate in eliminating false positives, that there is little chance that an unauthorized user will accidentally be let in without a sophisticated hack. If Touch ID doesn’t get a match quickly, you’ll be prompted to re-scan, which is as easy as quickly moving a scanned finger onto the sensor. Up to 5 fingerprints can be recorded for access under Settings > General > Passcode & Fingerprint; a four-digit numeric or multi-character alphanumeric passcode must be enabled as a backup or alternative to fingerprint recognition. If you turn the passcode off, Touch ID is turned off, as well.
Our biggest issue with Touch ID is that it does too little at this point to justify an iPhone 5s purchase. Beyond serving as a password substitute, it also lets you confirm iTunes Store and App Store purchases that would otherwise have required a password. That’s it. In a recent iLounge survey of nearly 1,600 readers, only 16% said that they would use a fingerprint scanner solely for device unlocking; over three times as many readers (53%) wanted the feature to be used for secure transactions, as well. Letting Touch ID confirm iTunes Store purchases feels like a token “okay, it needs to do something else” step rather than a real feature.
What’s missing? A proper payment system. If Apple’s really confident in Touch ID, it should be using the feature to facilitate all sorts of transactions beyond its digital stores, including replacing credit cards and offering authentication access to third-party developers. This much has been obvious for years—as long as an Apple fingerprint scanner has been rumored—and shortly after the iPhone 5s’s launch, an interview with CEO Tim Cook revealed that he knows as much. Yet it feels like every time Apple adds a new and potentially exciting feature like this, the software or service side isn’t quite “done,” so the company drops hints that it’s taking baby steps towards bigger things. The problem is that no one knows when the bigger thing will actually arrive. Siri took two years to come out of beta, Passbook has gone almost nowhere since it launched in iOS 6, and Maps has similarly spent a year delivering underwhelming results. As enthusiastic as we’d like to be about Touch ID, we’re waiting for it to do something more meaningful.
A second issue with Touch ID is its odd need of repeated typed reassurance about your identity. Currently, the fingerprint sensor requires you to re-authenticate yourself using a typed password every time you restart the iPhone, which hopefully won’t be too often. iTunes Store and App Store purchases can be fingerprint-confirmed, but again, only after you’ve typed the password once—odd because your device stores passwords for everything from email to Home Sharing without requiring reconfirmation. If Touch ID is supposed to provide added security and convenience, we have to wonder why it so frequently requires old-fashioned password input rather than just a supposedly secure fingerprint.