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.
Camera improvements have been banner attractions in Apple’s annual iPhone updates, though it’s hard to know beforehand whether the changes will be big, trivial, or somewhere in the middle. Having made a fairly big leap with the iPhone 5, Apple’s upgrades in the iPhone 5s are collectively closer to the “small” end of the scale this time, but the impact they’ll have may be significant for certain users.
Front FaceTime Camera: The most trivial update to the iPhone 5s is a slightly improved front camera, which has historically been called the “FaceTime Camera.” While the resolution remains unchanged at 1280 by 960 (1.2-Megapixels) for still images or 1280 by 720 (720p) for video recording, Apple notes that the camera has been bolstered with a “new backside illumination sensor” to improve its performance in low-light conditions. The difference isn’t huge, but it’s readily apparent in direct comparisons with the prior-generation sensor in the iPhone 5: there’s enough added light to help 5s video callers distinguish dark brown hair from a medium-dark red background, see slightly brighter and more subtle gradations in skin tones, and made out additional background details. The iPhone 5 front camera is the left photo in the above sample shot, with the iPhone 5s on the right. That said, the low resolution of this camera is fine for self-portraits and FaceTime, but nowhere near as powerful as the rear iSight camera.
On a related software note, it’s worth a brief mention that Apple is now explicitly disclaiming the resolution of the FaceTime service. For the first time since introducing FaceTime HD cameras, Apple lists FaceTime as streaming video at only 480x368 resolution for calls over Wi-Fi, down from a prior peak 1280x720 resolution. This isn’t a limitation of the iPhone 5s hardware, but rather the apparent consequence of a patent lawsuit recently lost by Apple. It remains to be seen whether FaceTime will go back to HD video in the future.
Rear iSight Camera: For the last decade, still camera manufacturers have been locked in a “Megapixel race,” fixating on increasing the number of dots recorded in each picture—a number that becomes decreasingly important after exceeding certain pixel counts for certain print or screen sizes. Rather than pushing further, Apple has reasonably settled upon the 8” by 10” print-ready resolution of 8-Megapixels for recent iPhone cameras, and focused on improving the quality of those pixels between generations. The pixels are now 1.5 microns in size versus 1.4 microns, coupled with a slightly larger f/2.2 lens—up from an f/2.4 aperture in the iPhone 5/5c—plus an improved rear flash.
As small as these changes are, they contribute to a claimed 33% increase in light sensitivity that helps in specific situations. In very low light, the iPhone 5s can snap a photo at the equivalent of ISO 2500 when the iPhone 5 or 5c would use ISO 3200, markedly reducing the amount of noisy grain in a dark image.
Given somewhat better light, the iPhone 5s has a better chance at snapping an image with less motion blur, and can record more subtle gradations in the colors of somewhat dim objects. In bright light, the differences may be more subtle, but captured color may be a little more accurate. Thanks to improvements in the iPhone 5s’s autofocus system, we noted that comparison shots were more likely to be properly focused for sharpness, as well.
Apple has also added a burst mode that grabs 8-Megapixel images at 10 photos per second—just like the now 3 photo per second iPhone 5/5c under iOS 7, you hold down the shutter button and the images are captured automatically at 10 per second until you release the button. Unlike the iPhone 5/5c, Apple has gifted the iPhone 5s with the ability to clump those images together, analyzing the block to suggest which of them is sharpest and possibly shows a person with open eyes.
In our testing, the suggested images weren’t necessarily the best compositionally, but rather just had the least motion. This isn’t a big surprise, and may be helpful under some circumstances, but we found ourselves needing to page through big clumps of images rather than just having fewer options. Apple’s interface for comparing photos is only okay, far weaker in portrait orientation than landscape, and the storage footprint for big bursts of 1.5/2-Megabyte, 8-Megapixel photos is predictably high.
One change that hasn’t been advertised is a tweak to the lens’s effective width. Apple has never called an iPhone’s rear camera “35-millimeter-equivalent” or “28-millimeter-equivalent,” but has instead occasionally and gradually changed the lenses over time. A 35mm lens is considered by many photographers to be ideal for close-range portraiture, focused on one or two faces, while wider-angle 24mm and 28mm lenses are better for landscapes or large groups of people. The iPhone 5s’s width now appears to be in the 29/30mm-equivalent range, a compromise that works well for many types of photos. Apple’s promotional images have shifted from narrow shots of single faces to broader landscapes and pictures of people with their surrounding scenery.
Because of this change, a photo taken with the iPhone 5s at the exact same distance as an iPhone 5 or 5c will capture a little more of the same scene, as well as more light—a boon for food photographers who have strained to get everything into a shot while sitting at a dimly-lit table, but a small challenge for users who wanted to focus on one or two faces rather than a background. We’d call the change positive, though reasonable people may disagree on this point.
LED Flash: Apple has also added a new twin-LED flash (“True Tone”) to the iPhone 5s—the first time any Apple device has sported such a feature. The flash has two benefits: it increases the quantity of illumination available to an iPhone 5s user, as well as the quality. One of the lights is white, and the other is amber, with the iPhone’s Camera application automatically controlling their simultaneous use for still photography. The specific improvement achieved by the dual flash is an improvement in color balance for photographs taken in dim light; the iPhone appears to preview the scene, make determinations on the content of what it’s shooting, then fire the flash with one of over 1000 color and brightness combinations of white and amber light.
Are the results better? Yes. Flash-assisted pictures of people taken with the iPhone 5s’s rear camera look more naturally colored—a little warmer, with “little” being the key word. Only the white light is used for iOS 7’s new flashlight feature, but it’s a bit brighter than the single white LED in the iPhone 5c and iPhone 5, just enough to be noticeable in a dark room. Given the option between the old flash and the new flash for the same price, we’d pick the new one, but the changes are often subtle enough that you need to do direct comparisons to notice the improvement.
Video + Slo-Mo Video Modes: For years, Apple has treated video recording capabilities as linear: a new iPhone’s rear camera is locked to a specific resolution, often better than the last one, and you’re given one button to start and end recording. Apart from turning the rear flash on or off, there are no obvious controls or settings: point camera, press record, and that’s it. Should you decide to tap somewhere on the screen, you can adjust focus and/or the white balance using that spot; there’s also now an on-screen shutter button for snapping stills during video recording. Otherwise everything is automated.
With the iPhone 5s, Apple is doing something different by offering separate “video” and “Slo-Mo” modes. Apart from the slightly wider lens angle, video mode is highly similar to the iPhone 5’s, locked at 1080p resolution and 30 frames per second. A 3x live zoom feature has been added to video mode, which is entirely welcome and works nicely with pinch gestures to let you focus on specific subjects during recording; the iPhone 5 and 5c also gained this feature in iOS 7.
Slo-Mo mode drops to 720p resolution, but records at four times the speed—120 frames per second. In other words, rather than snapping a new picture 30 times each second, Slo-Mo snaps 120 pictures per second, continuously. Since 30 frames per second is very close to the limit of a person’s ability to perceive changes, grabbing 120 frames in the same time enables the iPhone 5s to capture split-second details you’ve probably never noticed before.
The iPhone 5s’s recording interface also changes in a new way when Slo-Mo is activated: you’ll probably notice that the video is almost hyper-realistic, as it’s displaying at 60 frames per second—twice the normal speed of the iPhone interface, including regular video mode. There still aren’t any recording controls to worry about, but the recording button is now ringed with dashes to make sure you’re aware you’re in Slo-Mo mode.
There’s also a change to playback mode: below the preview timeline, a dashed line indicates which segments will be played at full speed—lots of dashes together—and which single portion between them will be played slowly, as indicated with fewer dashes. You can run your finger across the dashed line to move, expand or contract the fewer-dashed segment, matching it against the preview timeline to coincide with whatever segment of your recorded video needs extra drama. Hit the play button, and the iPhone 5s will play “regular” video at 60 frames per second, falling to 1/4 speed and 30 frames per second during the drama segment. While the interface could use a little extra fine-tuning to improve initial intuitiveness, it’s really pretty cool.
As of right now, Slo-Mo videos don’t appear to stream properly to the Apple TV, and it’s unclear whether they will ever be supported with AirPlay. The videos can be played back on a computer, but without any slow-motion controls; under OS X Mountain Lion, they look like 60fps videos. They could also benefit from deeper post-production assistance from Apple’s iMovie app, which currently doesn’t let you do anything special with the extra recorded frames. Our expectation is that all of these issues will be addressed in the relatively close future. On the other hand, you won’t get away from the large file sizes of slow-motion videos—25-40 Megabytes for 10 seconds of 120fps 720p recording, versus 13-20 Megabytes for 10 seconds of 30fps 1080p recording—and you’ll need to decide in advance whether something you’re filming will be better off with extra resolution or extra frames. But even with these limitations, Slo-Mo is a much more compelling camera trick than some of the iPhone 5s’s other new features. We’re looking forward to playing more with it in the future.