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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Although the iPhone 5s superficially appears to be a modest upgrade from last year’s iPhone 5, the truth is somewhat more complicated. The typical iPhone 5 user will find little to no real reason to consider buying an iPhone 5s, as Apple this year has made the individual upgrades seemingly trivial relative to last year’s features—arguably moreso than in any “S” model, at least for early adopters. Unless you have a hankering for gold metal or a love for incremental camera improvements, there’s nothing here worth lining up or trading up for… yet. Thanks to the 64-bit A7 chip, which currently has almost no software optimized to take advantage of its performance improvements, and the similarly very real future potential of the Touch ID fingerprint scanner for electronic transactions, this phone’s best days are certainly ahead of it.
That having been said, the iPhone 5s continues Apple’s tradition of jumping considerably over its two-year-old predecessor, so there’s certainly enough here to justify an upgrade for iPhone 4S and 4 users. From the chassis to the 4” screen, LTE, CPU, GPU, and cameras, literally every feature introduced in either the iPhone 5 or 5s will look and feel like a major upgrade. Barring unforeseen manufacturing difficulties, we would predict that iPhone 5 and 5c users will feel the same way about next-year’s flagship model, as well, but there are millions of 4 and 4S users who have been holding out for a replacement, and we certainly wouldn’t suggest that they pass this one up if the features appeal to them. Apple’s camera improvements alone will be game-changers for many iPhone 4 and 4S users, and to the extent that the 5s rear camera is certainly Apple’s best yet—albeit by a small margin—we would enthusiastically recommend this model to photography buffs.
The only serious problem with the iPhone 5s is one that can’t be easily shaken right now, and might be impossible in any year with an “S” model: the perception that Apple hasn’t done enough to innovate this year. Apple’s favorite bloggers have certainly rallied to its defense on this charge, suggesting that “real” innovation is small and workmanlike, but the simple fact is that the iPhone 5s makes a weak case for user-facing progress. At a point in time when international demand for larger-screened phones is unmistakeable, Apple isn’t yet ready to move forward, nor are there any earth-shattering outside-the-box features here; two of this model’s biggest selling points are at best nascent. So too does the iPhone 5s deliver only small gains in battery life—leaving aside the confusingly poor AT&T talk time results we saw—and Apple hasn’t used this year to bump its flagship model’s storage capacity or drop pricing. To the extent that Apple is experiencing sell-outs, it might not care, but we suspect that that the problems may be on the supply side, as evidenced by woefully inadequate units for two of the three 5s colors. Each of these issues can be written off as shop talk or irrelevant to most users, but they collectively make a pretty good case for bigger jumps in 2014.
Although it leaves next year’s model plenty of obvious opportunities to improve, the iPhone 5s is just great enough to continue to earn our high recommendation and A- rating. Unless you have a particular need for a larger-screened device, more battery life, or greater storage capacity, there are very few reasons to consider current or near-term rival phones instead. Similarly, the superior chassis, rear camera and processor all make the iPhone 5s a better investment than the iPhone 5c, except for the most budget-conscious of users. iOS 7 may need some cosmetic assistance, but it’s a superb operating system under the hood, and the suite of iLife and iWork apps now included with an iPhone 5s purchase starts users out with an unbelievable collection of great software for free. With this model, it’s not just one feature that should seal the deal, but rather the excellent overall quality of the experience.
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