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.
The final signature feature in the iPhone 5s is its new main processor, which Apple has named the A7 chip and touted as the first 64-bit processor in a smartphone. While we considered a deeper, potentially mind-numbing discussion of the A7’s various complexities, we concluded that the following points were most worth noting.
* The A7 is the world’s first 64-bit smartphone processor. Anyone familiar with decades of video game console or computer “wars” will recognize “bits” as a favorite sparring topic between competing factions—“my Sega Genesis has 16-bits and your Super NES is really only 8-bits,” or “my Atari Jaguar is 64-bits and your Sony PlayStation is only 32-bits!”—but one that ultimately wasn’t as important to people as the software developed for the machines. While there are very real technical reasons for developers to prefer a great 64-bit processor over a great 32-bit processor—in short, faster computation of numbers and the ability to address more RAM than is in the iPhone 5s—there are other reasons that the distinction might not matter to their customers. Many past battles over “bits” boiled down to abstract and arguably pointless specsmanship, designed to encourage an endless cycle of spending on arguably unnecessary upgrades and replacement hardware. Optimized software is needed.
* That said, changes between Apple’s A6 (iPhone 5) and A7 (iPhone 5s) processors make the latter undeniably more powerful than the former. Despite retaining 1GB of general RAM and a CPU with two 1.3GHz cores, the A7’s cores are substantially more advanced than the A6’s, with a new instruction set and twice the special purpose RAM for L1 instruction and data caches. Apple claims an “up to 2x” improvement in both the CPU that powers all iOS software, and the same boost to the graphics processor (GPU) that is used for graphics.
* While the differences generally aren’t pronounced within the iOS operating system, iOS 7 does feel a little quicker moving from app to app—a change that would have been far more obvious if not for iOS 7’s lengthy transition animations—and a number of under-the-hood improvements to apps such as Camera and Maps will be apparent to techies.
* On paper, early benchmarks bear out Apple’s claims. Recently-released Geekbench 3 software rated the iPhone 5s at 2560 overall versus the iPhone 5 at 1269 and iPhone 5c at 1268. Even when using only one of each phone’s CPU cores, the iPhone 5s (1418) nearly doubled the performance of the iPhone 5 (715) and iPhone 5c (697). These are huge performance leaps for the iPhone, and though they’ll likely be eclipsed by the next iPad and iPad mini, they’re impressive by smartphone standards. On the other hand, Apple has referred to the A7 chip as a “desktop-class 64-bit processor,” but Geekbench tests suggest that the iPhone 5s’s performance compares to Apple’s early 1.6GHz to 1.8GHz MacBook Airs or 2010-vintage Mac minis, rather than current-generation desktop computers.
Despite all of A7’s future potential, there’s some bad news to share. Apart from a very small number of apps—notably including the reprogrammed 64-bit versions Apple built into iOS 7—virtually nothing in the App Store takes advantage of the A7’s special capabilities yet. Worse yet, some apps are experiencing glitches unlike any we’ve seen during prior iPhone transitions. Certain apps won’t load, and others have graphical or other timing problems. While history will almost certainly repeat itself, such that some optimized apps will be available by year’s end and more will follow in early 2014, buying the iPhone 5s early on expecting software improvements may yield disappointment.
Epic Games’ just-released Infinity Blade III is a prime example of how 64-bit optimization can mean almost nothing to users. Presented alongside the iPhone 5s at an Apple launch event, the game was supposedly the first to be optimized for the 64-bit A7 processor—a post-launch update specifically noted that iPhone 5s optimizations were included. Yet the game is all but indistinguishable on the iPhone 5s from the iPhone 5. If you look really closely, you may see subtle differences in shading on some pixels, but if you’re expecting night and day differences in smoothness, detail, or special effects, you just won’t find them. Textures are seemingly identical, most likely due to the 5s’s lack of additional RAM, and polygon counts appear to be unchanged as well. There’s no way in which Infinity Blade III is worse on the iPhone 5s than on the iPhone 5, but it’s not markedly better, either.
A different example is Vector Unit’s excellent futuristic jetski-racing game Riptide GP2, which has been optimized for the iPhone 5 but not the iPhone 5s. While it’s very obvious from the game’s crazy fast pacing on the iPhone 5s that there’s plenty of extra power in the new phone, Riptide GP2 suffers from uneven frame rates that frequently seem to be well in excess of those on the iPhone 5; a number of other 3-D games have seen their speeds jump on the new model, as well.
One last example is Sega’s After Burner Climax, a universal iOS game that has run properly on the iPhone 5 and other iOS devices since debuting earlier this year. On the iPhone 5s, a number of the game’s textures and special effects don’t work properly, leading to intermittent graphical corruption while you’re flying your plane and shooting down targets.
While the issues vary from title to title, the takeaway point here is that the iPhone 5s’s A7 processor is going to require additional optimizations beyond what we’ve come to expect from past iPhones and iOS devices. Apps that “just worked” from generation to generation may break in some ways on this phone, and Apple has already asked developers to compile new versions of their old 32-bit apps for the new 64-bit processor. It’s expected that the new versions will be at least a little larger than before, but if properly optimized, they should also be able to run better.
Additionally, Apple has touted a new chip inside the iPhone 5s called the M7, which offloads tracking of accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer/compass sensors onto a discrete processor rather than the A7. Thanks to the M7, which apparently is not an Apple-developed part, motion sensor data can be accessed by upcoming motion-tracking apps with less battery drain than before. To the extent that tracking the orientation and movement of the iPhone itself is desirable—which it may well be for certain fitness and transportation apps—the M7 is intriguing. But the only announced M7 app, Nike+ Move, is not yet available in the App Store. Once again, we’ll have to see what happens with this new chip in the future.