Pros: Apple’s fastest and most capable iPhone yet. The first iPhone to include a 4” screen, LTE cellular support, and two truly impressive cameras. Improved screen and camera color accuracy, plus dramatically improved low light camera performance. Excellent noise cancellation capabilities noticeably improve phone call quality; headphone port and speakers both feature sonic enhancements, as well. Solid iOS 6 software foundation includes polished built-in apps, third-party apps with varying degrees of support for new screen and processors. Enhanced 3-D graphics capabilities and CPU power increase frame rates and speeds of numerous power-hungry apps. Thinner, lighter new aluminum body designs reduce risk of shattered rear glass; relocated headphone port makes device easier to protect with cases.
Cons: Battery performance too often falls below Apple’s best case estimates, particularly for cellular calling and data. LTE service remains inconsistent between neighborhoods, cities, and countries, with widely varying data speeds and availability; some users will see no cellular speed improvements over the iPhone 4S. CDMA versions still can’t talk and access cellular data at same time. Some iOS features, such as FaceTime Over Cellular and HD Voice for phone calls, remain unavailable or limited on certain cell networks due to carrier limitations. New Lightning connector breaks physical compatibility with all past docking iPhone accessories; adapters are not included or initially even available in stores for testing, nor are new third-party Lightning accessories. Aluminum body is easily scratched and dented; some iPhone 5s shipped from factories with modest damage, and inconsistent screen brightness.
Officially released on September 21, 2012, Apple’s iPhone 5 is actually the company’s sixth-generation smartphone, following the 2007 iPhone, 2008 iPhone 3G, 2009 iPhone 3GS, 2010 iPhone 4, and 2011 iPhone 4S. Lighter and thinner than its predecessors, it is the first iPhone to replace the classic 3:2 aspect ratio and 3.5″ diagonal size of prior screens with a taller 4″ 16:9 display, preserving the “Retina” definition of 2010-2011 models while increasing the resolution to 1136 by 640 — enough extra pixels to add a fifth row of icons to the Home Screen. Apple has also improved the screen by increasing its color-rendering capabilities and accuracy. The iPhone 5 is also the first iPhone compatible with LTE cellular networks, following the release of the LTE-equipped third-generation iPad, as well as the first with 802.11n 5GHz dual-band support and Apple’s A6 processor, all features that enable the new device to perform at faster speeds than its predecessor. Apple has also added a 1280 by 720-resolution FaceTime HD front-facing camera to the iPhone 5 while preserving the 8-Megapixel resolution of the rear-facing iSight camera, making other under-the-hood tweaks to improve low-light performance and color balance. iLounge will have a comprehensive review of the iPhone 5 in the very near future.
“Boring.” “Predictable.” “Iterative.” After releasing the legitimately “revolutionary” original iPhone in 2007, Apple has faced annual accusations of overzealously marketing strictly evolutionary sequels, but the reality isn’t so simple. Rather than antiquating each prior iPhone with something hugely different, Apple has instead employed a tick-tock strategy, debuting a fully new body style every two years while staggering various internal improvements annually. Since many iPhone customers are locked into two-year cellular contracts, this strategy works particularly well, and long-time users have generally followed one of two different upgrade paths: some went from the iPhone to iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4S, while others have moved from the iPhone 3G to iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, occasionally with a zig or zag in the middle. It’s now a truism that every new phone becomes the “best iPhone yet” overall, so potential customers are left with only two questions: are a given year’s improvements collectively compelling enough to secure a purchase, and are there any serious problems that might justify waiting for the sequel?
Since Apple’s iPhone 5 ($199/16GB, $299/32GB, $399/64GB) is the biennial model with a new body design, it’s harder to dismiss as purely iterative. It looks different than past iPhones, is considerably faster, and includes a screen and cameras that are decidedly better than before. Yet it surely is evolutionary relative to its predecessor, taking only a few small steps forward from the nearly year-old iPhone 4S, while making a bigger jump past the two-year-old iPhone 4. Consider for a moment the following chart, which provides an oversimplified but useful summary of the key differences between these three models.
In short, while there are several meaningful improvements in the iPhone 5 relative to the iPhone 4S, virtually every major technical feature of the iPhone 5 is markedly superior to the iPhone 4. Some of these differences are things you’ll immediately see and feel—a larger screen, a stretched but overall lighter and thinner body, and snappier performance—but others are less obvious “quality of life” tweaks that make an already great product even better. Not a single change makes the iPhone 5 so completely different that you must run out and buy one now, but taken together, all of the improvements make Apple’s latest smartphone its most appealing yet: by design, it guarantees all but complete satisfaction for at least one, if not two more years of active use.
There’s far more to discuss with the iPhone 5 than mere numbers and specs, and as is generally the case, not everything has improved. On the hardware side, Apple has switched to a new accessory connector, breaking compatibility with thousands of past products—at least, for now. Battery life remains a concern, an issue exacerbated by the iPhone 5’s lack of recharging solutions. And on the software side, the otherwise impressive iOS continues to exhibit issues with marquee features such as Siri and Maps. So while this is Apple’s best iPhone, it’s still not the perfect iPhone, and understanding both its pros and cons up front will improve your experience should you decide to buy one.
As always, iLounge’s comprehensive 10-page review of the iPhone 5 has been assembled without any involvement from Apple, and is based upon our independent testing of multiple actual production units. Many hours of active testing, debate, and consideration have gone into this review. Enjoy it.
iPhone 5: The Redesigned Body + Colors
Historically, Apple has so obsessively sought to miniaturize devices that millimeter-measured reductions have been trumpeted as profound accomplishments. Yet a new iPhone’s reduction in one dimension is often accomplished while increasing another, and the iPhone 5 follows that lead. Overall, it’s volumetrically smaller than its predecessors, but you wouldn’t guess as much on your initial glance—when laid alongside an iPhone 4 or 4S, it actually looks larger: obviously taller and only a little thinner. The height’s now 4.87” versus 4.5”, and the thickness is 0.3” versus 0.37”, with the same width of 2.31”.
Pick up the iPhone 5 and you’ll notice that it’s lighter, now 3.95 ounces versus the 4.8 ounce iPhone 4 and 4.9 ounce iPhone 4S. The brick-like density is gone, and though the shape is the same as before, the weight is distributed across a surface that feels more metallic than glass. Fingers running across the now aluminum sides will discover virtually identical bar-shaped ringer switch and circular volume button controls to those on the iPhone 4 and 4S, though with obviously less thickness above and below them, thanks to thinner front glass and a completely redesigned back.
If you’re accustomed to using black iPhones, your eyes will likely be drawn immediately to the color differences in the black iPhone 5’s body. For the first time ever, Apple has turned its black iPhone model into a near monolith, utterly eliminating any trace of silver or chrome from the design. Instead, the subtle interplay of matte metal and glossy finishes are nearly the only contrasts in the black iPhone 5 design, as nearly black camera lenses, a lighter gray Home Button icon, and white-yellow rear LED flash constitute the only obvious breaks in the otherwise stealthy design. The “slate” metal isn’t the darkest black Apple has ever produced—its second-generation iPod nano was nearly jet black—but it’s close. In dim light, the black iPhone 5 looks all-black, while better lighting accentuates the gray tones in the metal.
One of our editors called this iPhone “almost too black,” but the others preferred it to the white version, noting that it goes even further towards Apple’s vision of focusing users squarely on the screen, while all but eliminating Apple branding and other elements from view. It’s a bold move for Apple’s design team, and though people will have different opinions as to whether the prior models’ silver accents added more class, this version is distinctive on its own merits. Even if it doesn’t last forever, we like it.
The white iPhone 5 provides a hint as to why Apple eliminated contrasting colors from the black version: because it could. Having been criticized for the iPhone 4 and 4S’s fragile glass backs, Apple went back to the drawing board for a new enclosure design that—for the first time ever—incorporates small glass rear antenna windows within the otherwise aluminum frame. Despite all the metallic colors Apple has developed over the years, it has never created a purely white metal, so the iPhone 5 instead pairs white glass panes with silver aluminum.
Whether it’s due to a difference in the actual metal or in the sandblasting processes, this silver sometimes looks just a little brighter than on Apple’s computers and peripherals, and contains glossy Apple and iPhone logos, with matching mirrored beveling. While the white plus matte silver plus glossy silver result isn’t bad in any way, and looks extremely similar to the white iPhone 4 and 4S from the side, the back is a little unusual. Over time, it will become the “new normal,” but for now, it suffices to say that the iPhone 4 was a cleaner-looking design.
Durability has long been a concern with iPhone bodies, and the iPhone 5 has its own set of tradeoffs relative to prior models. On a positive note, the elimination of the fully glass rear panel should eliminate half of the shatter risks iPhone 4/4S models faced—a welcome improvement. However, the iPhone 5’s aluminum isn’t as damage-resistant as the stainless steel iPhone 4/4S core, and is more susceptible to both scratches and dents. We and numerous readers have noticed tiny marks and dents in the metal of freshly opened units, particularly around the mirror-finished edges. Some of the marks aren’t worth getting worked up over, but larger ones obviously detract from the new iPhone’s appeal. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the iPhone 5’s front glass remains as fingerprint-susceptible as ever, though still coated with an oleophobic layer to make wipe-downs easier.
iPhone 5: Port, Microphone, and Speaker Changes, Including Lightning
In addition to the aesthetic and material changes that are obvious from the front and back, Apple has made some noteworthy changes to the iPhone 5’s top, bottom, and sides, as well. Apple has pulled both the headphone port and noise-canceling microphone from the top of the iPhone 4/4S, leaving only the Sleep/Wake Button up there. This change parallels the designs of recent iPod touches, and enables protective cases to fully cover the new iPhone’s top, a positive that will be obvious to anyone who has tried to protect an iPhone in poor weather conditions.
Consequently, this is the first time an iPhone has had its 3.5mm headphone audio port next to its charging and synchronization port, a change that will initially throw long-time iPhone users, then become natural; your phone can now be placed upside down in your pocket and pulled out with the screen in the right viewing position. Location aside, the headphone port is virtually identical to the ones on past iPhones, and the only thing limiting headphone plug compatibility will be the shape of the case you choose. Apple’s headphone port continues to include support for accessories with integrated three-button remote controls and microphones—the same ones that work with past iPods, iPhones, and iPads.
Tested with an ultra high-end pair of JH Audio JH16 Pro earphones, the iPhone 5 generally exhibited even better sound quality than the iPhone 4S, with an even lower static floor and slightly enhanced clarity—details that will likely only be noticeable to users of relatively expensive headphones, but are upgrades nonetheless. A series of very quiet clicks can be heard upon initial connection, once again solely with high-end headphones and if you’re listening for them. That aside, listening to music on the iPhone 5 is a joy: powerful, clean, and convenient, particularly if you subscribe to Apple’s iTunes Match service. Having all your iTunes library’s music available at virtually any time turns out to be a great convenience.
Ten small holes alongside the headphone port ventilate one of the iPhone 5’s three microphones, while 16 holes do the same for the bottom speaker. Apple’s latest speaker offers small but welcome improvements in quality, rather than volume or range. Users upgrading from the iPhone 4S can expect the iPhone 5 to deliver smoother sound at the same volumes: lower distortion means that you’ll hear less scratchiness in the audio, particularly at the iPhone 5’s virtually identical peak amplitude. Apple appears to have taken the very highest-frequency edge off a little, reducing an occasionally unwelcome sharpness. There’s just a hint less bass, too, but not enough to impact audio in any negative way. Any speaker improvement at all is particularly impressive given the now thinner chassis.
Apple’s new microphone system offers bigger improvements: there are actually three mics in the iPhone 5, one previously mentioned on the bottom, another now hidden on the front, and a third newly sitting between the rear camera and LED flash. Together, these microphones form an advanced noise-cancellation system that is unquestionably the best we’ve ever heard on an iPhone or accessory.
Telephone calls made in handset or speakerphone mode are far clearer and more intelligible on the iPhone 5 than on the iPhone 4 and 4S, impressively screening out ambient noises ranging from a restaurant’s overhead music to the din of a crowded shopping mall and even a dump truck on the streets of metropolitan Toronto. Callers on both ends of iPhone 5 calls noted marked improvements, while Siri voice recognition and dictation remained unaffected by noisy environments. There’s only a single related disappointment: no accessories, including Apple’s packed-in earphones or wireless speakerphones, seem to be able to take advantage of the noise-filtering technology. This isn’t surprising, but if callers mention a stark difference between the way your iPhone 5 sounds during some calls, you can be sure that accessories are to blame.
Next, a small, pill-shaped hole rests between the bottom speaker and microphone grilles. That’s the new Lightning port, which replaces Apple’s nine-year-old, 30-Pin Dock Connector with a supposedly better alternative. Most notably, Lightning plugs are reversible, so you can connect them without worrying which side is up or down, and small—roughly the same size as Micro-USB at under 0.25” connector width, but a little more solid-feeling. Apple has suggested that this will be its device connector for “years to come,” and hinted that the change is based on the need to further shrink its products.
We discuss the current accessory implications for the iPhone 5 in a later section of this review, but a few points need to be made about the Lightning port up front. First, at least as it’s currently implemented, the iPhone 5’s Lightning port won’t net you hugely faster transfer speeds than the prior iPhone 4S Dock Connector port over USB 2.0. Not including iTunes’ “Preparing to Update” time, it took 53 seconds to transfer a 1GB video file to the iPhone 4S, versus 1 minute and 1 second for the iPhone 5. After noting that a 2GB video file required 2 minutes and 52 seconds to transfer to the iPhone 4S, versus only 1 minute and 40 seconds on the iPhone 5, we tried a 1.5GB video file and found them evenly matched: 1 minute 18 for the iPhone 4S, 1 minute 20 for the iPhone 5. Results will vary between computers, versions of iTunes, and other factors, but in any case, Lightning transfer speeds aren’t necessarily incredible, and Apple doesn’t claim that they are.
That’s just one of several reasons that Apple’s switch to the Lightning connector is justifiably controversial. As of today, Lightning offers users few serious benefits over the prior 30-Pin connector—putting aside the questionable speed differences, it doesn’t improve connectivity options, or come at a lower price. Second, it prevents the iPhone 5 from working with thousands of perfectly useful accessories that have been released for years—including many that were thoroughly and expensively engineered specifically to work with iPhones. As of right now, there’s literally only one available accessory, a Lightning to USB Cable, which can be used for synchronization and/or charging, though readers and iLounge editors have discovered that it’s not even available in some stores. Third, the change adds obvious and hidden costs to the new iPhone, requiring consumers to foot the bill and wait around for developers to get new connectors, authentication chips, and possibly other parts. Apple-developed Lightning Adapters will start at $29 and climb from there, most offering literally nothing to users besides the ability to keep using devices they previously purchased. They won’t be available until October, notes Apple, so early iPhone 5 adopters can’t even figure out what will and won’t work.
It would have been easy for Apple to include one Lightning Adapter in the iPhone 5 package, or as an option for requesting customers, but it hasn’t—instead, it expects consumers to bear all the costs of making their prior “Works with iPhone” accessories work with the iPhone 5, or go out and buy new ones. Even though some Apple apologists have downplayed the Lightning transition as inevitable and trivial, it has wide-reaching and expensive consequences for both developers and consumers who have invested money in home, car, travel, and office accessories that no longer work properly or at all with the iPhone 5—without any obvious benefit. As with all of Apple’s past connector transitions, this one will likely be a distant memory a year from now, but for the time being, it’s one of the two most serious problems with the new iPhone.
Last but not least, Apple has once again changed the SIM card format supported by its latest iPhone: the iPhone 5 now uses a “nano SIM” that it helped to create. Apart from the fact that the SIM card tray on the iPhone 5’s right side is smaller than the iPhone 4’s, little needs to be said about this even tinier SIM card. Most iPhones sold in the United States will ship with the new card pre-installed, while some will need to be installed by or purchased at cellular carrier stores. For the time being, these cards are far less common than their predecessor sizes, which may temporarily limit the iPhone 5’s availability for some carriers and customers. That said, larger SIM cards can be manually cut down to nano SIM size in a pinch, assuming that you’re careful and use the right tools.
iPhone 5: Packaging + Pack-Ins
The iPhone 5’s box is actually longer and a little wider than the iPhone 4 and 4S packages—a first, and offset only by a slightly shorter height. Otherwise, very little has changed from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5 in packaging; like the iPad and unlike most iPods, all iPhones remain packaged in thick cardboard boxes rather than see-through hard plastic, perhaps due to cardboard’s higher perceived value, or as a theft deterrent for stores.
Black iPhone 5s are shipped in jet black matte boxes, using glossy ink for the Apple and iPhone 5 logos that appear on its sides, while white iPhone 5s arrive in white matte boxes with silver foil branding. An iCloud logo that appeared on last year’s package has disappeared, and the iPhone 5’s slender profile has been emphasized with both a narrowed front-of-box photo and thinner Myriad Pro branding text on the sides. We’d characterize the packaging design as fine rather than impressive in any way; something new would be welcome next year.
On the other hand, plenty has changed inside the box. Apple now packages the iPhone 5 with a boxed set of its EarPods with Remote and Mic, which were released one week earlier, and as noted our our review represent a major improvement over the earlier Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic. While serious listeners will still want to invest in or continue to use fancier models, this is an even better starter set than before. Apple includes a hard plastic carrying case with the EarPods, as well.
Still inside is Apple’s diminutive iPhone wall charger, which was recently renamed the 5W USB Power Adapter, yet looks and works exactly the same way as before: it supplies 1 Amp of power to the iPhone 5, enough to let the device’s battery refuel even while it’s being used for most purposes. Apple has replaced the classic 30-Pin Dock Connector to USB Cable with a new Lightning to USB Cable, more fully discussed here. Like the EarPods, the USB Power Adapter and Lightning to USB Cable are predominantly white with gray and silver accents, each using glossy plastic that’s attractive-looking but very narrowly tailored, and slippery to the touch.
Inside a cardboard sleeve, Apple also includes a conversationally written, photo-illustrated Quick Start Guide titled “Hello,” notably making zero reference to the iPhone 5 name, as well as an ultra-thin single-page regulatory and warranty page. Two large Apple logo stickers are also inside the sleeve, but one thing—a SIM card removal tool—was not, at least with the multiple U.S.-purchased iPhones we tested. To eject the iPhone 5’s SIM card tray and new “nano-SIM,” which is functionally identical to prior SIM cards but smaller and physically incompatible, you’ll need to self-supply a paperclip or find an old Apple removal tool, instead. International iPhone customers, including Canadian iPhone 5 buyers, will likely find this tool included with their devices, and it looks basically the same as the original version Apple shipped years ago.
iPhone 5: Screen Changes, Performance + User Experience
More than anything else, the iPhone 5 will be remembered as the first pocket-sized iOS device to drop Apple’s classic 3:2 aspect ratio and 3.5” diagonal size—both locked in place since 2007—in favor of something different and better. While there’s room to debate whether Apple made all the right choices with the new screen, particularly given that it’s effectively setting a standard that will be followed by future iPhones and iPod touches, it’s certainly an improvement over what came before. Here are the critical differences between the iPhone 5’s screen and the displays used on the iPhone 4 and 4S:
Shape and Size. The iPhone 5 screen measures 4” diagonally—3.5” tall by 1.95” wide—versus the iPhone 4 and 4S’s 3.5” diagonal, 3” tall by 1.95” wide display. We discuss the user interface and experience tweaks below, but it suffices to say here that most adult hands and fingers will not struggle in any way to adjust to the additional portrait mode real estate, while the wider landscape mode lets eyes benefit a little from larger videos and larger text in regular web pages.
Resolution. Apple has kept the pixel density of the iPhone 5 constant at 326 pixels per inch, boosting the resolution solely by adding 176 additional pixels of height across the display— an additional 112,640 tiny dots. While the iPhone 5 now has a 16:9 Retina display, with so many little pixels (1136 by 640) that you can’t see them individually, it falls short of HD television standards such as 1280 by 720 (720p) or 1920 by 1080 (1080p), so videos recorded at those resolutions are downscaled to fit the screen. Only the most spec-obsessed users would suggest this is a real shortcoming of the device, since boosting the resolution further would lead to imperceptible “improvements” that would consume additional processor power, likely impacting battery life.
Color Rendition. As impressive as prior iPhone screens were in resolution and pixel density for their times, their ability to accurately render colors wasn’t phenomenal—better than iPod touches and MacBook Airs, but less impressive than MacBook Pros and the Retina-capable third-generation iPad. That’s been fixed for the iPhone 5: the new screen promises enhanced color saturation and iPad-caliber accuracy.
Images shown on the iPhone 5 screen look different and better than on earlier iPhones. Colors are richer and contrast is improved: every photo we tested looked at least a little more balanced overall, with individual colors that were more nuanced and less blown out on the iPhone 5. Individual pictures display more vivid blue, green, red, pink, orange, and yellow tones, plus slightly darker blacks, while games become more neon-like and intense. Photo browsing is only slightly diminished by the iPhone 5’s renditions of skin tones, which now have a slightly more yellow tint.
Other Factors. Due to changes in both the screen and glass technology used in the iPhone 5, glare has been modestly reduced, a change that may be noticeable outdoors at certain angles. Most likely due to different component suppliers, we noticed iPhone 5 screen brightness variations from unit to unit, with a black AT&T iPhone 5 having a slightly lower top brightness than white and black Verizon iPhone 5 units, which were equivalent to the iPhone 4S in illumination. There were no apparent differences in off-angle viewing relative to the iPhone 4S; the iPhone 5 remains very viewable from off angles.
The key point that needs to be made about the iPhone 5 is that the user experience is so similar to the iPhone 4S—and all previous iPhones, for that matter—that the transition from using one to the other is effectively effortless. Apple has made a grand total of two major user interface tweaks for the iPhone 5, lengthening the Home Screen to include 24 icons rather than 20 at a time, and allowing apps to have access to the aforementioned 176 extra pixels of height. Consequently, the changes in most iOS 6 apps are tiny, subject of course to later and more considerable revision.
Home Screen: An additional four apps fit on the screen, enabling iPhone 5 users to have nearly as many apps on screen (24) as any iPad (26 max). Notably, since folders can now hold 16 items rather than 12, you can now access a maximum of 384 apps from a single Home Screen without swiping to other pages. This is one of those small but welcome “quality of life” improvements: former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously sought to reduce the number of taps needed for everything, and this makes quick app access even faster.
Old iPhone/iPod touch Apps: Rather than scrunching old apps at the top or bottom of the new 4” display, or manually stretching them in some way, Apple is having every developer rework its own apps to fit the new screen. If they do nothing, the old app will remain in a 960-pixel-tall or -wide window, centered on the 1136-pixel display. This sometimes even includes the old top-of-screen status bar in its prior location, with black letterboxes above and below it. When the app is reworked, it can occupy the full 4” height in any way the developer prefers.
Every pre-installed Apple iOS application has already been rewritten for the new display, most with few meaningful changes. Calendar now displays five weekdays at once rather than three and a quarter. Every other app has more room for text, menu lists, buttons, or graphics to scroll by in portrait mode. Landscape mode gives videos a little more room to spread out—movies are notably now presented in a forced letterboxed view, some without zooming capabilities—while slightly reducing finger cramping on the wide keyboard, and presenting traditional 4:3 photos with big letterboxes.
iWork and iLife applications give you a little extra space; GarageBand now gives you 9.5 white piano keys rather than 8 and more space to tap on existing drums. In short, none of these changes is a big deal—certainly not as disruptive as some pundits had claimed a 16:9 version of iOS would be, nor as earthshatteringly positive as long-time 16:9 boosters might have hoped. No app is worse for the transition, but then, no app is markedly better, either.
Typing: Our only gripe with the iPhone 5’s screen is its still nearly 2” width, and then solely for a software/user experience reason; Apple could have added a little additional finger real estate in both directions, but didn’t, instead deciding to avoid widening the device. We can understand and appreciate Apple’s reasoning here, but it does have a consequence: the cramped portrait keyboard remains unchanged when it could have been better. Moreover, since Apple doesn’t change iOS screen sizes or aspect ratios often, it’s reasonable to assume that the current portrait keyboard is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Leaked iPhone parts last year suggested that Apple was considering a 3.7” iPhone 4S display that would have gone taller and wider at the same time, but the company obviously had second thoughts and went with this design instead. As a result, the iOS landscape keyboard has become even wider, even though it didn’t need the extra space as much as the portrait keyboard.
CPU/GPU Performance: The iPhone 5 isn’t a sea change from the iPhone 4S in functionality—it still runs iOS 6, and has no pre-installed apps that aren’t found on last year’s phone. That said, there are some obvious performance improvements in the apps, and they’re attributable to the new Apple A6 Chip, a two-core CPU with a three-core graphics processor that sits roughly between the iPhone 4S and third-generation iPad in overall horsepower. The A6 also benefits from more and faster RAM than the iPhone 4S, while consuming less energy.
[If you’re not spec-focused, skip the next two paragraphs. According to early teardowns of the A6 chip, Apple custom built a dual-core 1GHz variant on the ARMv7, capable of running at speeds from 800MHz to 1.2GHz as needed, with a triple-core PowerVR SGX543MP3 for graphics. This is a jump from the dual-core 800MHz ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and two-core SGX543MP2 graphics processor in the iPhone 4S, and down from the four-core SGX543MP4 in the third-generation iPad, while similar to its dual-core 1GHz Cortex-A9 CPU.
Primate Labs’ app Geekbench 2 provided aggregate computational benchmarking scores of 1390 for the iPhone 5, 628 for the iPhone 4S, and 322 for the iPhone 4—each roughly doubling the performance of its predecessor, with the iPhone 5 rising a little above that. Interestingly, the third-generation iPad rated only a 754 despite its larger processor and more capable GPU, possibly because it has a much higher-resolution display to fill with pixels. Regardless, other benchmarking apps have shown marked improvements in the iPhone 5’s web rendering speeds and ability to handle various types of tasks, all in the 2-3x performance range.]
Putting all the numbers aside, the iPhone 5’s performance improvements are tangible. Apps load at least a little and sometimes noticeably faster on the iPhone 5 than on the iPhone 4S: even unoptimized apps such as Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3 boot two or three seconds faster, and have higher frame rates. Early optimized titles such as Asphalt 7 boot faster, run smoother, and occupy the entire 4” display rather than just its center. With the exception of games, however, it’s rare to see truly major differences in 3-D apps besides frame rate improvements: Apple’s Maps application, for instance, is smoother in rotating its 3-D renditions of cities than the iPhone 4S, but that’s about it. This will surely change and improve over time.
The only major software problems with the iPhone 5 are ones that were previously known to iOS 6 upgraders: the turn-by-turn functionality, graphical issues, and location inaccuracies of Maps, and to some extent continued problems with the virtual voice assistant Siri. Just as is the case with the iPhone 4S, Maps on the iPhone 5 has problems correctly locating destinations, and can provide somewhat unreliable guidance when you’re driving. And also like the iPhone 4S, Siri still stumbles repeatedly on certain oft-repeated words it should have learned, has processing hiccups attributable to failed data connections and server problems, and sometimes undertakes completely ridiculous searches based on misinterpretations of speech. Both cloud-dependent services could be hugely improved with even limited on-device databases that don’t require data access, but we suspect those and other fixes will wait until iOS 7 at the earliest. For now, iPhone 5 users can content themselves with the fact that these features are a little snappier on this device, and do better with voice commands when the iPhone’s built-in microphones are being used.
Thus far, the only other disappointments we’ve seen in performance have been related to streaming certain AirPlay content to an Apple TV. Because the iPhone 5’s screen is taller than its predecessor, AirPlay Mirroring occupies even less space on an HDTV when in portrait mode, leaving most of the screen filled with black bars. In widescreen mode, Apple places black bars on all sides of the screen, rather than filling the entire HD display with upscaled content.
While streaming movies and TV shows to the Apple TV from an iPhone 5 worked properly, AirPlay Mirroring streaming frame rates exhibited significant problems, with FaceTime and game streaming becoming choppy and de-synchronized during even brief sessions.
Just as most third-party developers couldn’t finish their iPhone 5 compatibility updates in time for the launch, it looks like even the Apple TV will need an update to smooth things out with the new phone.
iPhone 5 Cellular (3G/4G/LTE) Performance
In an ideal world, we could offer a very clear assessment of the iPhone 5’s cellular capabilities—a single “pick AT&T” or “go with Verizon” or “expect greater speeds, no matter what” statement that would be broadly accurate. Unfortunately, after quite a bit of testing, this is the best bright line guidance we can offer:
If you’re lucky enough to live or work near a Long-Term Evolution (LTE) cell tower with relatively few other connected devices, you’re going to be blown away by the iPhone 5’s cellular transfer speeds, regardless of the carrier you select. Should you be further away but still within reach of the tower, you’ll get at least modestly better speeds than the iPhone 4S. And if you’re not within a tower’s reach, prepare to be sad. Possibly very sad.
To provide some necessary background, the entire world is currently in the midst of a significant cellular network upgrade that will likely continue for at least the next year, possibly longer depending on where you live. Carriers across the globe are transitioning from “3G” to “LTE” technology, the latter with a peak theoretical bandwidth of 100Mbps—7 to 10 times faster than common home broadband connections. Generally, carriers are repurposing their older, slower 3G towers with LTE hardware, either cutting 3G bandwidth partially or entirely in the process. Some carriers temporarily opted to install 3G hardware that was 1/3 to 1/2 as fast as LTE, calling the feature “3.5G” or “4G,” but LTE is the future, and will become more pervasive over the next several years.
The switch to LTE is fundamentally changing the cellular landscape, generally for the better. When we tested the iPhone 4S last year, we noted that there was a consistent pattern with cellular speeds: wherever we tested multiple phones, AT&T’s 3G/“4G” network handily trumped Verizon’s, which maintained a small edge over Sprint’s. And Canadian carriers such as Rogers and Bell trounced even AT&T’s performance—a sign that millions of U.S. iPhone customers were unknowingly living with slower data speeds than their neighbors to the north.
Two things have changed for the iPhone 5’s release this year. First, LTE networks have grown in the United States: Verizon currently has the largest LTE network, purportedly covering 3/4 of the United States’ population* with around 370 total markets, followed by AT&T with roughly 65, and Sprint is in a distant third place with under 20. [* Note: Verizon’s claim regarding the footprint of its LTE coverage refers to population rather than geography; as reader Nathan Daniels points out, the actual land area covered by Verizon LTE towers is considerably lower. Additionally, because of Sprint’s laggard performance with the iPhone 4S and its tiny LTE network, which is not available in the areas where our editors live and work, we opted not to purchase or test Sprint iPhones this year; we may revisit this if and when the company’s LTE network becomes competitive. In areas without Sprint LTE service, the iPhone 5 will see cellular speeds nearly identical to the Sprint version of the iPhone 4S—slow.]
Secondly, the iPhone 5 has added LTE support, and our tests of both AT&T and Verizon iPhones and iPads had some surprising results. In our main office in East Amherst, NY, the AT&T iPhone 5 struggled to maintain an LTE signal indoors or outdoors, disconcertingly switching back and forth from AT&T’s “4G” network, generally settling on 4G rather than LTE. While on 4G, the AT&T iPhone 5 scored poorly on Speedtest benchmarks—commonly less than 2Mbps down and 0.2Mbps up. When we could get it to connect to LTE, the download speeds were higher, 10-12Mbps, while upload speeds hovered in the 0.4 to 1Mbps range, but the LTE signal fell off frequently. In short, there are places where the AT&T iPhone 5 will do no better than the iPhone 4S, and both will do worse than last year due to diminished “4G” tower capacity.
But the plot thickened as we continued testing elsewhere. Thirty minutes away by car, the same AT&T iPhone 5 hit a remarkable 63Mbps peak download speed, routinely offering 11Mbps uploads, sometimes as high as 17Mbps. Another AT&T iPhone 5 we tested in Buffalo, NY crested along with 14-18Mbps downloads and 12-19Mbps uploads. And an iPhone 5 we tested in Toronto, Canada hit 30-40Mbps down and 21-29Mbps up on Bell’s LTE network. The Canadian iPhone 5 also struggled to remain on LTE, but saw plenty fast “3G” speeds of 17-25Mbps down and 4-5Mbps up even without LTE support, thanks to Bell’s strong backup DC-HSPA+ network—also in use in some European countries as a precursor to LTE. We also began to notice during testing that both AT&T and Verizon iPhone 5s tended to lock onto a marginal LTE signal faster and more reliably than the AT&T and Verizon iPads we were using.
By comparison, Verizon’s LTE performance wasn’t as fast as AT&T’s best, but it was more consistent—at least, initially. Every time we turned on our Verizon iPhone 5s at the East Amherst office, they were on LTE, not on Verizon’s older 3G network. Our average in-office testing speeds for Verizon LTE were in the 11 Mbps download range and 2.4 to 2.7 Mbps for uploads, while just walking outside saw jumps to 13.5 Mbps down and 3.5 Mbps up. The best test results over several days saw over 17 Mbps for downloads and 13 Mbps up, huge jumps for old Verizon iPhone 4/4S customers, and enough speed to switch over some former AT&T users. We had to force the Verizon iPhone 5 to fall back to the company’s older network to get it to perform at the miserable 0.3-0.6Mbps download and 0.1Mbps upload speeds we had seen with earlier CDMA-only iPhones.
Unfortunately, Verizon’s network began to experience issues of its own. LTE network speeds dropped into the 4-8Mbps range for downloads and 1Mbps range for uploads; at one point, uploads basically locked up for hours at a time. The Verizon LTE performance we were seeing wasn’t much better than AT&T’s pre-LTE “4G” network. And it came with a major consequence: Verizon’s iPhone 5 (and Sprint’s) can’t make phone calls and use cellular data at the same time. If you take a Verizon phone call while driving and using Apple’s Maps application, Maps will run out of data as soon as you miss a turn, and become unable to recalculate an alternative route. On the other hand, Verizon is better than AT&T about offering data services such as tethering and FaceTime Over Cellular to customers, without forcing them to incur additional charges. And Sprint tries to make up for its omissions by offering unlimited data without a cap, so long as you’re willing to put up with the speeds.
So the decision between LTE networks remains challenging and entirely personal, much as it was with the release of the third-generation iPad. Pick Verizon’s network and you have a better chance of getting an LTE signal anywhere you may be traveling in the country, and therefore faster speeds than the iPhone 4S. However, if you’re outside of Verizon LTE coverage—something that’s far less likely now than six months ago—you’ll fall back to dog slow data performance, and you shouldn’t expect the peak high speeds of AT&T at its best. With AT&T’s network, you’ll have less chance of being in an area with excellent LTE coverage, but if you are, you may see significantly better performance. When you fall back to 3G/4G coverage, your speed will be a lot worse, but not as bad as Verizon or Sprint 3G. And you won’t have to give up cellular data during voice calling with AT&T.
On a related note, we will briefly mention that we saw clear evidence of cellular antenna attenuation, specifically a marked drop in cellular data speeds attributable to holding the iPhone 5 regularly in a hand. Apple admitted to attenuation issues with the iPhone 4, but shrugged off the problem as virtually unavoidable in cellular phone designs—then took steps to improve the antenna design of the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5 still has issues.
It’s also worth noting that callers told us that we sounded a little better when making calls through Verizon iPhone 5’s—more rich, vocally—while AT&T calls were described as intelligible but occasionally a little more mechanical. None of Apple’s U.S. partners supports an optional iPhone 5 feature called HD Voice, a higher-bandwidth voice calling service that should make some phone calls sound even better. Some Canadian and other international operators are adding support, and we’ll update this review with additional details shortly.
iPhone 5: The New Cameras
Five years ago, the very idea that an iPhone could compete with a standalone digital camera was laughable—Apple’s early iPhones were only a little better-equipped than midrange cell phone cameras of their times, and between the simplicity of Apple’s Camera app and the lack of zoom capabilities, there wasn’t much evidence to suggest that iPhones would close the gap any time soon. No improvements were made to the camera for the iPhone 3G, and relatively modest enhancements followed in the iPhone 3GS. Only in 2010 did Apple began to take imaging seriously with the iPhone 4, and it then went even further with the iPhone 4S; today, those iPhones are the most popular cameras on Flickr.
While its on-paper specifications don’t suggest that much has changed from its predecessor, the iPhone 5 is certainly better, and as close to a pocket digital camera replacement as anything Apple has yet released. Still possessing an 8-Megapixel (3264×2448) sensor, and adding only small software features such as a new Panorama mode that are also found on the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 rear camera nonetheless renders colors more accurately than its predecessors, more quickly acquires accurate focus locks, and offers dramatically enhanced low-light performance. To quantify each of those improvements:
Outdoor and indoor pictures taken with the iPhone 5 routinely are at least a little better in contrast and color saturation than the iPhone 4S’s, which look a little washed out or faded when placed side by side.
Colors are important, but so are fine details. A camera’s detail level might theoretically improve just by adding more pixels to the sensor, but 8MP is enough for most pocket cameras, and more pixels also means more grain and noise. Another alternative is to improve the lens or autofocus systems so that the pixels you do capture are as sharp as possible. That’s happened here—the iPhone 4S did a pretty good job with this, but the iPhone 5 is even better, sharply capturing even the legs of ants and the fuzz on a pumpkin blossom.
The difference between the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 for low light shots is nearly as profound as “night and day.” We were astonished to see that the iPhone 5 can stand toe-to-toe with other pocket cameras, reaching up to ISO 3200 in dim lighting conditions—for pictures that are grainy but completely in focus and respectably colorful, though noisier than with very good to great Canon PowerShots from last year. In the exact same room and lighting conditions, the iPhone 4S taps out at ISO 800 while creating an image that’s unusably dark—seemingly in shadows. Professional photographers should never ditch their cameras for the iPhone 5, but any photographer—pro or amateur—will see better results under poor lighting conditions than with any prior iPhone.
This comparison shows how the iPhone 4 and 4S have evolved to the iPhone 5. Note that while the iPhone 4S shot has better optical resolution than the iPhone 4, its color rendition is a little more muted, while also avoiding blowing out highlights. The iPhone 5 combines the best characteristics of the prior cameras, adding improved iPhone 4-like color saturation to the higher resolution of the iPhone 4S, plus superior light gathering capability. These differences are even more pronounced in the full-resolution versions of these images.
Apple has also used the taller iPhone 5 screen to increase the size of the shutter button to a more useful circular shape, mimicking an improvement previously rolled out for the iPad. Turnaround time for the iPhone 5 camera shutter is even faster than before, allowing you to snap your second photo almost immediately. A panorama capture feature found in iOS 6 is also new, while the iPhone 5 gains the unique ability to snap still pictures during recording of videos. Unlike regular photos, these are capped at the same 1920×1080 resolution as videos, and are cropped relative to the sensor’s complete frame.
Video performance of the rear camera is closer. While videos shot on the iPhone 5 were a little better than the ones on the iPhone 4S, they had far more in common than not. Video resolution remains at 1080p, but the iPhone 5’s color rendition is a little better, with enhanced ability to lock onto subjects automatically, and slightly better image stabilization—factors that contribute to sharper and more watchable videos.
Apple’s new front-facing camera has also taken strides forward. For the first time in any iOS device, Apple has included what it calls a “FaceTime HD camera,” capable of snapping 1280×960 stills and 1280×720 (720p) videos. When recorded directly to the iPhone 5’s Camera Roll, both stills and videos are considerably more detailed than ones recorded with the iPhone 4S’s 640×480 FaceTime camera. Images have a slight yellow tint, and considerably more grain than ones shot with the rear camera, but are far better for self-photography than before.
Surprisingly, however, the differences during FaceTime calls are not as profound. Despite the “FaceTime HD” billing, we were unable to get the iPhone 5 to display markedly higher-quality video than a traditional FaceTime call, regardless of whether it was on a high-bandwidth Wi-Fi connection or on Verizon-supported FaceTime Over Cellular. It appeared obvious that both the iPhone 5’s front and rear cameras were recording video that was optically better than they could send over the FaceTime connection. That said, both of the iPhone 5’s cameras appear to use better sensors than their predecessors, as they produce less obvious noise/grain in low light conditions, which helps your face or other objects become more visible during video calls. The iPhone 5 also fills the screen with FaceTime video in either portrait or landscape mode rather than using letterboxing.
In sum, the iPhone 5’s cameras are considerably better than the iPhone 4S’s, having made tangible improvements in situations that both amateur and professional photographers will appreciate. While the iPhone 5 still lacks for an optical zoom lens, it’s not a stretch to say that it’s otherwise such a competent camera that the days of standalone digital cameras and camcorders appear to be numbered. Conveniences such as a persistent Internet connection, ultra-simple controls, and frictionless sharing of content over private and public social networks are becoming increasingly critical for photography, and the better the iPhone becomes at taking pictures, the more popular it will grow.