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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Unlike the iPhone 5c, the iPhone 5s will work with nearly all of the cases and accessories that have been released over the last year for the iPhone 5, as well as Lightning port-specific accessories. Although the Touch ID feature below the Home Button won’t work through the rubber or plastic button covers found on a handful of cases, we’d estimate that 95% to 98% of cases either have no screen protection or screen protectors with Home Button holes. Similarly, although there is some potential for the iPhone 5s’s larger rear flash to reflect off of narrowly tailored camera holes in some cases, cases built with flash diffusers or Apple’s official iPhone 5 Case Design-recommended large keepout zones should have no issue. Given Apple’s design documents, it’s somewhat remarkable that Apple’s own just-released iPhone 5s Case has a very narrow camera hole—one way smaller than holes in cases Apple has previously rejected for non-conformance.
Other accessories should generally be mostly trouble-free, though small differences between the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5 will lead to variations in electronic and optical performance. As noted earlier in this review, the iPhone 5s may take a little longer to recharge than the iPhone 5, and battery packs that delivered a 100% iPhone 5 charge may fall short of that mark on the iPhone 5s—though the phone may in some cases run longer without assistance. By comparison with the iPhone 5c, which has a different shape that renders it incompatible with camera accessories such as Olloclip’s Telephoto + Circular Polarizing Lens and 3-in-One Photo Lens, the iPhone 5s physically fits both lenses. However, some vignetting is obvious at the corners of the telephoto lens, while the 3-in-One’s wide-angle lens takes shots with jet black corners due to a mismatch with the iPhone 5s’s larger lens size.
For all intents and purposes, the iPhone 5s screens are the same as ones in iPhone 5 and 5c models—brightness, color rendition, viewing angles and resolution were virtually identical between the units we tested. Apple now sources screens for each iPhone model from multiple vendors, and many displays over the years have varied between slight cool (blue) or warm (yellow) tints; nothing is different there in the units we tested. At times, we thought that the touch surfaces on the iPhone 5c and 5s appeared to be just a little peppier with finger input than the iPhone 5.
Just like the iPhone 5c, headphone audio from the iPhone 5s sounds a little better than the iPhone 5. Direct comparisons we ran between the models using extremely high-end Ultimate Ears earphones suggested that the iPhone 5s produces slightly cleaner audio—lower distortion across the spectrum—plus just a little extra treble and bass, resulting in songs that sound modestly smoother and more dynamic than with the iPhone 5. We’d characterize the differences as too small to be evident in lower-end earphones, such as the ones packed-in with the iPhone 5s, but they’re there to reward audiophiles. Speakerphone and general phone calling performance was effectively identical across all three phones during our testing; the bottom speakers sound equally loud and clear on the iPhone 5, 5c, and 5s, and callers told us that we sounded the same to them, as well. It’s worth a brief mention that the Verizon iPhone 5s still does not let users make phone calls and use cellular data at the same time.
Wireless tests of the iPhone 5, 5c, and 5 units started with what appeared to be identical speed performance on downloading and uploading tests over Wi-Fi, hitting the 20Mbps/2Mbps caps of our residential testing location; faster performance is possible with faster broadband packages. It’s worth a note that Apple has kept 802.11a/b/g/n hardware in the new units rather than pushing forward to the increasingly popular 802.11ac standard. Similarly, cellular speed tests over 4G and LTE revealed no real performance differences between the models. In an area with reported 4-5 bar LTE strength, the iPhone 5c and 5s models both achieved AT&T download/upload speeds in the 15Mbps/10Mbps range, versus Verizon download/upload speeds in the 10Mbps/5Mbps range, markedly down from last year when the companies’ LTE networks were new and comparatively unsaturated with customers. Just as with the iPhone 5, it’s possible to find areas where each phone will hit download speeds four to five times higher than these numbers.
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