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.
Apple’s iPhone battery philosophy has remained pretty much unchanged for years: the company prioritizes improved processing performance and reduced device size over major gains in run time, so no iPhone has truly delivered all-day battery life for reasonably active users. Each year’s model stays mostly the same as its predecessor across a handful of measured categories, but Apple occasionally touts an hour or two of supposed improvement, sometimes accurately and sometimes not.
The iPhone 5s’s battery is a 1560mAh cell—just over 8% larger than the 1440mAh battery in the iPhone 5, and 3% larger than the 1510mAh cell in the iPhone 5c. While one might assume that a bigger battery necessarily means superior run times, the iPhone 5s also has a new A7 processor inside, which is more efficient under some conditions than others. Additionally, Apple’s just-released iOS 7 operating system sometimes appears to be draining the battery more aggressively than iOS 6.
Cellular Data: Apple claimed “up to 8 hours” of LTE or 3G Internet use for the iPhone 5, which we noted last year was a best-case scenario—closest to accurate in places with strong signals. For the iPhone 5s, Apple promises “up to 8 hours” on 3G, and “up to 10 hours on LTE.” Once again, Apple’s numbers were optimistic, assuming ever-strong 3G and LTE signals that in the real world are highly variable, resulting in higher battery drain and much lower cellular speeds than carriers advertise.
Using our standard continuous web page loading test, the iPhone 5s running at 2-3 bar signal strength on Verizon’s LTE network achieved a run time of 5 hours and 39 minutes, up 24 minutes from last year’s result on Verizon’s network. An iPhone 5s running at 3-bar strength on AT&T’s 3G/4G network ran for 5 hours and 26 minutes. Both numbers were higher than last year’s, but not hugely, and not enough to match Apple’s estimates.
As we generally note, results will vary by location; network differences and network strength can both swing each number by significant margins. We also mentioned last year that AT&T and Verizon were still in the process of building out their LTE networks, sometimes replacing some 3G/4G towers with LTE—a change that has reduced signal strength and increased battery drain for phones on older networks. If you live in an area with strong LTE or 3G/4G signal strength, your numbers will be closer to Apple’s claims; if not, your numbers will be closer to the results above.
Wi-Fi Data: Just like the iPhone 5, Apple claims “up to 10 hours” of Wi-Fi Internet use for the iPhone 5s. With its cellular antenna turned on (but without actually making or receiving any phone calls), a Verizon iPhone 5s ran our standard Internet test for 7 hours and 56 minutes, versus only 6 hours and 24 minutes for the iPhone 5. While this falls short of Apple’s advertised figure, we saw a two-hour jump last year when the iPhone 5’s cellular antenna was turned off, and would expect the same with the iPhone 5s—in other words, this version can roughly hit the mark the last one missed.
Voice Calling: Last year, the iPhone 5 promised 8 hours of talk time over 3G, but actually was only modestly over 6 hours with the AT&T (6:15) and Verizon phones (6:06). This year, Apple actually promises “up to 10 hours” on 3G, but our test results didn’t bear that out at all. Our AT&T iPhone 5s delivered a brutally low 4 hour and 20 minute talk time in one test, which we repeated out of astonishment with a 4 hour and 46 minute second result. The Verizon phone ran substantially longer, hitting 6 hours and 12 minutes, but was still significantly below the 10-hour estimate. We’re at a loss to explain the numbers, but they were far below expectations—even more disappointing than shortfalls we noted with the iPhone 5c. Once again, these were real-world numbers we saw based on medium-level AT&T and Verizon signal strengths; battery life may well be higher where users get more bars of service. Standby time for the iPhone 5s is now rated at 250 hours, versus 225 hours on the iPhone 5.
FaceTime Video Calling: The iPhone 5 ran for 3 hours and 2 minutes of continuous video calling on this test on iOS 6, versus a re-tested time of 3 hours and 8 minutes under iOS 7 this year. The iPhone 5s on iOS 7 ran for 3 hours and 42 minutes, which was 22 minutes better than the iPhone 5c.
1080p Video Recording: Last year, the iPhone 5 ran for 2 hours and 30 minutes of continuous rear camera video recording at 1080p resolution. The iPhone 5s delivered 2 hours and 48 minutes, a small improvement over the iPhone 5, and 5 minutes longer than the iPhone 5c.
Video Playback: For several years, Apple has promised up to 10 hours of video playback with the screen and speaker each at 50%, and last year’s iPhone 5 went for 11 hours and 7 minutes on our standard video test. Under iOS 7, the iPhone 5s significantly underperformed the latter number, hitting only 9 hours and 37 minutes, versus 9 hours and 16 minutes for the iPhone 5c. This isn’t far off Apple’s estimate, but it’s lower than we would have expected given the generally positive trajectory of past iPhone video tests.
Game Playback: We typically try to see how long each new iPhone can continuously play a flagship game before running out of juice—a particularly demanding test because it pushes the screen (on 50% brightness), speaker, CPU, and graphics processor at the same time with whatever a top developer can throw at the hardware. This year, we selected Epic Games’ Infinity Blade III, which as noted earlier in this review was separately optimized for the iPhone 5 and 5s just before the new iPhones came out. The iPhone 5 ran it for 3 hours and 32 minutes, versus 3 hours and 42 minutes on the iPhone 5s, and 3 hours and 55 minutes on the iPhone 5c. We’d attribute the difference between the iPhone 5 and 5c to the latter’s larger battery, and the iPhone 5s’s slightly lower-than-5c number to the power the A7’s graphics processor requires for additional special effects. In any case, the differences aren’t major.
Audio Playback: Based on past testing results, we’ve opted not to continue testing Apple’s “up to 40 hour” estimate for iPhone audio playback, which has remained the same for years. As we noted last year, an iPhone 5 in Airplane Mode (with the screen off and the volume set to 50% with headphones connected) lost only a single percentage point of power after three hours of audio playback, but the same iPhone 5 with cellular and Wi-Fi networks connected ran for 37 hours and 3 minutes, falling just below Apple’s estimate using its testing methodology. While we would expect a small gain from the 8% larger iPhone 5s battery, the takeaway point here is that audio playback takes very small sips from the battery pack; it’s really the passive use of wireless antennas that impacts run time.
Recharging: Last year, we mentioned that recharging a completely dead iPhone 5 from a 1-Amp power source took 2 hours and 17 minutes—a test we re-ran under iOS 7 with a slightly faster 2:04 result. The iPhone 5s under iOS 7 took 2 hours and 19 minutes, within a similar range despite the larger battery pack. Note that iPhones are able to draw 1-Amp power only from compatible wall adapters and USB ports, falling backwards to 500mA half-speed charging when that’s all a port or adapter can supply. The 5W USB Power Adapter Apple provides with the iPhone 5s recharges the device at its full speed; using faster 2.1-Amp/10W iPad adapters doesn’t result in any improvement in charging time.
In sum, despite the slightly larger battery, users should not expect the iPhone 5s to last for an entire day of active use without requiring a recharge or assistance from an external battery pack—particularly if they’re planning to make a lot of telephone calls, a significant area where iOS 7 appears to be introducing additional battery drain. While we did see improvements to the prior iPhone 5 performance in other areas, they aren’t huge, and suggest that post-release optimizations to iOS 7 might squeeze out further improvements to the battery performance. The real-world impact of the M7 motion tracking processor discussed in the prior section of this review is currently unknown.