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.
Since 2007, iLounge has independently tested every iPhone model, annually purchasing multiple phones, conducting numerous and time-consuming tests, and bringing together the sometimes differing opinions of our team of editors. There have been some memorably exciting moments over the years—various phones arrived with the first truly amazing iOS games, the first really great photos and video recordings, the first Retina screen and first FaceTime calling abilities—as well as numerous small steps of progress; we’ve also conducted countless hours of rote battery, wireless, and nitty gritty testing that ultimately get summed up as dry statistics. We can’t make the test results seem more exciting than they really are, but they matter: Apple’s performance claims aren’t always spot-on, and especially when they’re not, prospective customers need to know as much.
This year, Apple broke with tradition by releasing two new iPhones as replacements for last year’s iPhone 5. One is the iPhone 5c (full review here), which is nearly identical in functionality to the iPhone 5, but offered at lower $99-$199 prices in one of five colored plastic shells instead of the prior metal and glass frame. The other is the iPhone 5s ($199/16GB, $299/32GB, $399/64GB), which looks nearly identical to the iPhone 5 but offers four key differences: speed, a tweaked rear camera, a fingerprint scanner, and new color choices. Buyers of the prior iPhone 5 should understand each of these models to be so modestly different from last year’s phone that trading up to either one would be all but pointless, but they go in different directions: the iPhone 5c is a downgrade, at least on the outside, while the iPhone 5s is an upgrade, primarily on the inside. Neither of them delivers one of those memorably exciting moments, but the iPhone 5s comes closer, and has a better prospect of doing so in the future.
Rather than repeating last year’s review, we’re going to stick largely to discussing what’s new in these phones. They certainly aren’t the most exciting new iPhone updates Apple has offered, but as history has demonstrated, small tweaks to already good and great products can be enough to keep sequels viable for another year. Read on to see why the iPhone 5s merited our A- rating and high recommendation, as the iPhone 5c drops to a B+ rating and general recommendation.
The Big Picture: iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c + iOS 7
Understanding the growing appeal of the iPhone family begins with an acknowledgement of Apple’s established design philosophy: Apple creates both the hardware and the operating system software for its devices, separately iterating upon both sides of the equation each year. There hasn’t been a truly “revolutionary” iPhone since the original model debuted in 2007; rather, every version has taken several steps forward (and typically one step back) to refine and improve upon the same concept. Apple doesn’t expect or even strongly encourage customers to buy a new model each year—instead, the company uses a “tick-tock” strategy that spreads major hardware improvements out over the two models introduced during a two-year period, paralleling the typical two-year subsidized phone contracts offered by most U.S. carriers. Its goal is to entice existing customers to upgrade every two or three years, as well as to bring new customers in with each version. The 2008 iPhone 3G, 2010 iPhone 4, and 2012 iPhone 5 became the “base” models with redesigned bodies, while sequels called iPhone 3GS (2009), iPhone 4S (2011), and iPhone 5s (2013) improve a bit upon their predecessors’ formulas. Breaking modestly with tradition, this year’s iPhone 5c is merely a less expensive replacement for the iPhone 5, and not a step forward.
Although hardware is only half of the iPhone story, it’s an important part because it needs to be compelling enough to tempt customers to commit hundreds of dollars up front and a thousand or more dollars to cellular service contracts over the next two years. This year, Apple’s strategy is to offer the glass and metal iPhone 5s as its flagship model, the plastic and glass iPhone 5c as its mid-range model, and the smaller, less powerful metal and glass iPhone 4S as its entry-level model—outside the United States, the aged iPhone 4 is being offered at even lower prices for some customers, as well. Too similar to the iPhone 5s and 5c to keep around, the iPhone 5 was discontinued, using the 5c’s cheaper colored chassis to creating a larger perceived gap between the top and middle of the iPhone line.
At the same time as Apple is working on hardware improvements, a mostly separate team is iterating upon iOS, the operating system software that runs on all iPhones. Each year’s major iOS update is offered free of charge to owners of prior-generation iPhones, and each iPhone typically works with three major releases of iOS—say iOS 7, iOS 8, and iOS 9. Consequently, iOS updates give an old iPhone two opportunities to feel somewhat new again, enabling mid-contract customers to enjoy an improved experience without buying new hardware.
Historically, iOS also saw iterative changes from year to year, but this year, Apple introduced iOS 7, which is largely the same under the hood as its predecessor, but looks almost completely different. iOS 7’s cartoony, oddly-designed Home Screen has been called into question by many people (including us), but its core functionality is superb, radically simplifying everything from phone calling to photo and video recording to sharing content. Our complete guide to iOS 7 and iOS 7 review provide additional information on the software, which will surely evolve during 2014 and 2015.
Beyond its built-in features, iOS 7 offers a huge advantage over competing smartphone platforms: a treasure trove of high-quality, affordable downloadable software called “apps.” As of this writing, over 1 million iOS apps have been released into Apple’s App Store—roughly 900,000 still available for download—with well over 50 billion downloads. This month, Apple announced that some of its own best-of-class iOS apps would become free for new iPhone users, so the awesome photo editor iPhoto, video editor iMovie, and iWork productivity apps Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are now offered as free downloads when the iPhone 5c and 5s are used to visit the App Store for the first time. Apple also offers previously free apps iBooks, iTunes U, Podcasts, Find My Friends and Find My iPhone automatically at the same time. Together, these apps let iPhone 5s and 5c users create office documents, improve photos and videos, read books, locate lost devices, and find iPhone-toting family and friends. Apple’s apps are generally excellent, and as free downloads, they give every new iPhone user a ton of great tools to play with. When iOS device users talk about being “locked in” to Apple’s ecosystem, apps like these are a major incentive not to switch to rival platforms.
What’s Changed In The iPhone 5s: Design + Colors
Historically, Apple’s “S” models have been virtually identical to their immediate predecessors: the iPhone 3GS merely added metallic text to the iPhone 3G’s plastic back, and the iPhone 4S arrived in both black and white versions after the white iPhone 4 model was substantially delayed for quality control reasons. For the iPhone 5s, Apple has preserved the 4.87” tall by 2.31” wide by 0.3” deep metal and glass body it introduced in the iPhone 5, making only two changes to the back and one change to the front.
First up are the new color options—the iPhone 5s’s most obvious change from the iPhone 5. Last year’s model came in bright silver metal with white front and back glass, which has been preserved for the iPhone 5s, as well as dark charcoal-colored “slate” metal with black front and back glass.
The iPhone 5s loses “slate” in favor of a lighter gunmetal tone called “Space Gray,” which when paired with black glass looks close enough to the original iPhone to evoke nostalgic memories.
Apple has also added a third iPhone 5s color, which mixes champagne gold-colored aluminum with white glass. This is the first time Apple has released a gold device since the once-unpopular iPod mini color was unceremoniously discontinued in early 2005. While gold is a nice color for the 5s, Apple manufactured far too few units to meet any reasonable expectation of launch day demand, a failure so blatant that it appeared to have been staged to create “golden ticket” headlines. Thousands of customers left Apple Store lineups disappointed, and new units aren’t expected to be delivered until October or later.
Second, Apple has replaced the rear iSight camera system with substantially new components. While the lens hole is roughly the same size as before, there’s a thinner ring around the slightly larger glass lens, adding a little additional wide-angle performance and light-gathering capability. These changes are discussed more thoroughly in the camera section of this review. Apple has also shrunk the microphone hole from a tiny pill shape down to a smaller dot, and doubled the footprint of the LED flash from a single light to two, switching from a circular shape to a much larger pill. These tweaks aren’t major, but the taller flash does make the iPhone 5s rear look a little less visually balanced than its predecessor.
Last but certainly not least, Apple has substantially altered the classic Home Button, a part that has remained unchanged over six prior iPhone generations. Rumored for years, Apple has replaced the historically concave button with a new Touch ID fingerprint scanner, discussed further in the next section of this review. Impressively, the Touch ID scanner fits within the prior Home Button’s footprint, adding new functionality without changing the Home Button’s old functionality. Pushing down on the button is just as responsive as before, and though the out-of-box clicking sound was initially a little louder, it became quieter after two days of use.
For Touch ID, Apple has surrounded a Sapphire glass touch surface with a chamfered stainless steel ring that matches the color of the iPhone 5s’s rear shell—a particularly nice visual element on the gold model—with only the glint of metal offering a visual clue to the interruption in the glass. Because of the new ring, the iPhone 5s Home Button feels closer to the slightly reduced size of an iPod touch Home Button, though perfectly flat, and recessed less than a millimeter below the edges of the ring. To give the scanner full visibility, Apple removed the Home Button’s traditional rounded square icon, bringing the black-faced iPhone 5s even closer to looking like a slab of glass. Like many of Apple’s recent design changes, this one isn’t huge, but we like the way it looks.
Each iPhone 5s ships in an unremarkable white cardboard box, now featuring a flat front-of-iPhone 5s image that shows iOS 7 and indicates the color of the device you’ve purchased. One pair of EarPods, a Lightning to USB Cable, and a 5W USB Power Adapter are inside, along with stickers, a warranty booklet, and a single sheet of get-started instructions. Apple has removed the prior, longer Quick Start Guide found in the iPhone 5 package, pointing instead to an online manual—most likely because iOS 7 was not complete enough to offer a more detailed look at the device’s features. In the United States, most iPhone 5s units will come with a nano-SIM Card pre-installed in the device’s side tray, and may or may not come with a SIM tray ejection tool.
What’s New In The iPhone 5s: Touch ID
For more than a decade, iLounge has tried to strike a fair balance between expressing genuine enthusiasm for new Apple products and exercising appropriate skepticism regarding the company’s sometimes overzealous marketing.
Especially in recent years, this has required us to sift through quite a bit of hype—some Apple-created, some media-created—regarding supposedly amazing features or terrible issues in new products, honestly reaching our own conclusions rather than relying upon whatever the prevailing mood might be. For that reason, the iPhone 5s presented us with an interesting challenge: putting its new color options aside, two of its three biggest new features fall into the “nice, but what does it actually do for me?” category. The first of those features is Apple’s new fingerprint sensor, Touch ID.
If you’ve ever used a fingerprint scanner before, or if you actively use the Lock Screen password protection feature on your iPhone, you’re probably going to love Touch ID. Typical fingerprint scanners—even industrial ones—tend to be larger-than-finger-sized plates, prone to damage over time, somewhat time-consuming, and unreliable. It’s highly common for scanners to require two or three reads of a few seconds each, and the ones we’ve seen have frequently been in need of repair for one reason or another. No one’s sure whether Touch ID will work reliably for years, but Apple reportedly chose Sapphire Crystal glass to protect the sensor from degradation; it remains to be seen whether that works.
Ambiguous longevity aside, Touch ID eliminates all of the friction points commonly associated with fingerprint scanners. Apple acquired fingerprint specialty companies to build the feature, and in typical Apple style has delivered something that’s impressively simple despite its conceptual complexity. When you’re initially setting up your phone, you can choose to scan a single finger, a sub-one-minute process that requires no more effort than touching the Home Button, lifting your finger, touching it again, and repeating until an on-screen fingerprint-style progress meter shows that a piecemeal scan of your fingerprint area has been completed.
The scan begins with high-resolution imaging of the surface of your finger, but supposedly also looks to sub-dermal layers, reducing the prospect of fraud using photographs or other images of your fingerprint. A hacking group took only two days to claim that it could fool the Touch ID system, but the procedure goes beyond anything seen in Mission: Impossible movies, requiring everything from a 2400dpi photograph of the user’s fingerprint to a 1200dpi laser printer, a smear of wet latex or woodglue, and a hint of moisture to fool the scanner. Unless your iPhone 5s is stolen by a secret agent with all the necessary equipment waiting in an unmarked van nearby, you have a better chance of remotely wiping the phone before it’s unlocked than losing your data to the thief.
In a nod to recent concerns about government spying on citizens, Apple claims that Touch ID only stores an abstract reference to your fingerprint rather than the actual print, and stores the abstract locally rather than over the Internet. While it’s unclear at this point whether iCloud backups or other techniques will let unauthorized users remotely gain access to your stored information, it’s obvious that Apple doesn’t want users to fear using Touch ID due to privacy concerns; rather, it’s designed primarily to be a privacy-increasing mechanism for the iPhone 5s.
Once the scan has been done once, Touch ID takes less than 2 seconds to match your fingerprint to the stored record, most often matching in under 1 second—so quick, yet so accurate in eliminating false positives, that there is little chance that an unauthorized user will accidentally be let in without a sophisticated hack. If Touch ID doesn’t get a match quickly, you’ll be prompted to re-scan, which is as easy as quickly moving a scanned finger onto the sensor. Up to 5 fingerprints can be recorded for access under Settings > General > Passcode & Fingerprint; a four-digit numeric or multi-character alphanumeric passcode must be enabled as a backup or alternative to fingerprint recognition. If you turn the passcode off, Touch ID is turned off, as well.
Our biggest issue with Touch ID is that it does too little at this point to justify an iPhone 5s purchase. Beyond serving as a password substitute, it also lets you confirm iTunes Store and App Store purchases that would otherwise have required a password. That’s it. In a recent iLounge survey of nearly 1,600 readers, only 16% said that they would use a fingerprint scanner solely for device unlocking; over three times as many readers (53%) wanted the feature to be used for secure transactions, as well. Letting Touch ID confirm iTunes Store purchases feels like a token “okay, it needs to do something else” step rather than a real feature.
What’s missing? A proper payment system. If Apple’s really confident in Touch ID, it should be using the feature to facilitate all sorts of transactions beyond its digital stores, including replacing credit cards and offering authentication access to third-party developers. This much has been obvious for years—as long as an Apple fingerprint scanner has been rumored—and shortly after the iPhone 5s’s launch, an interview with CEO Tim Cook revealed that he knows as much. Yet it feels like every time Apple adds a new and potentially exciting feature like this, the software or service side isn’t quite “done,” so the company drops hints that it’s taking baby steps towards bigger things. The problem is that no one knows when the bigger thing will actually arrive. Siri took two years to come out of beta, Passbook has gone almost nowhere since it launched in iOS 6, and Maps has similarly spent a year delivering underwhelming results. As enthusiastic as we’d like to be about Touch ID, we’re waiting for it to do something more meaningful.
A second issue with Touch ID is its odd need of repeated typed reassurance about your identity. Currently, the fingerprint sensor requires you to re-authenticate yourself using a typed password every time you restart the iPhone, which hopefully won’t be too often. iTunes Store and App Store purchases can be fingerprint-confirmed, but again, only after you’ve typed the password once—odd because your device stores passwords for everything from email to Home Sharing without requiring reconfirmation. If Touch ID is supposed to provide added security and convenience, we have to wonder why it so frequently requires old-fashioned password input rather than just a supposedly secure fingerprint.
What’s Changed In The iPhone 5s: The Front + Rear Cameras
Camera improvements have been banner attractions in Apple’s annual iPhone updates, though it’s hard to know beforehand whether the changes will be big, trivial, or somewhere in the middle. Having made a fairly big leap with the iPhone 5, Apple’s upgrades in the iPhone 5s are collectively closer to the “small” end of the scale this time, but the impact they’ll have may be significant for certain users.
Front FaceTime Camera: The most trivial update to the iPhone 5s is a slightly improved front camera, which has historically been called the “FaceTime Camera.” While the resolution remains unchanged at 1280 by 960 (1.2-Megapixels) for still images or 1280 by 720 (720p) for video recording, Apple notes that the camera has been bolstered with a “new backside illumination sensor” to improve its performance in low-light conditions. The difference isn’t huge, but it’s readily apparent in direct comparisons with the prior-generation sensor in the iPhone 5: there’s enough added light to help 5s video callers distinguish dark brown hair from a medium-dark red background, see slightly brighter and more subtle gradations in skin tones, and made out additional background details. The iPhone 5 front camera is the left photo in the above sample shot, with the iPhone 5s on the right. That said, the low resolution of this camera is fine for self-portraits and FaceTime, but nowhere near as powerful as the rear iSight camera.
On a related software note, it’s worth a brief mention that Apple is now explicitly disclaiming the resolution of the FaceTime service. For the first time since introducing FaceTime HD cameras, Apple lists FaceTime as streaming video at only 480×368 resolution for calls over Wi-Fi, down from a prior peak 1280×720 resolution. This isn’t a limitation of the iPhone 5s hardware, but rather the apparent consequence of a patent lawsuit recently lost by Apple. It remains to be seen whether FaceTime will go back to HD video in the future.
Rear iSight Camera: For the last decade, still camera manufacturers have been locked in a “Megapixel race,” fixating on increasing the number of dots recorded in each picture—a number that becomes decreasingly important after exceeding certain pixel counts for certain print or screen sizes. Rather than pushing further, Apple has reasonably settled upon the 8” by 10” print-ready resolution of 8-Megapixels for recent iPhone cameras, and focused on improving the quality of those pixels between generations. The pixels are now 1.5 microns in size versus 1.4 microns, coupled with a slightly larger f/2.2 lens—up from an f/2.4 aperture in the iPhone 5/5c—plus an improved rear flash.
As small as these changes are, they contribute to a claimed 33% increase in light sensitivity that helps in specific situations. In very low light, the iPhone 5s can snap a photo at the equivalent of ISO 2500 when the iPhone 5 or 5c would use ISO 3200, markedly reducing the amount of noisy grain in a dark image.
Given somewhat better light, the iPhone 5s has a better chance at snapping an image with less motion blur, and can record more subtle gradations in the colors of somewhat dim objects. In bright light, the differences may be more subtle, but captured color may be a little more accurate. Thanks to improvements in the iPhone 5s’s autofocus system, we noted that comparison shots were more likely to be properly focused for sharpness, as well.
Apple has also added a burst mode that grabs 8-Megapixel images at 10 photos per second—just like the now 3 photo per second iPhone 5/5c under iOS 7, you hold down the shutter button and the images are captured automatically at 10 per second until you release the button. Unlike the iPhone 5/5c, Apple has gifted the iPhone 5s with the ability to clump those images together, analyzing the block to suggest which of them is sharpest and possibly shows a person with open eyes.
In our testing, the suggested images weren’t necessarily the best compositionally, but rather just had the least motion. This isn’t a big surprise, and may be helpful under some circumstances, but we found ourselves needing to page through big clumps of images rather than just having fewer options. Apple’s interface for comparing photos is only okay, far weaker in portrait orientation than landscape, and the storage footprint for big bursts of 1.5/2-Megabyte, 8-Megapixel photos is predictably high.
One change that hasn’t been advertised is a tweak to the lens’s effective width. Apple has never called an iPhone’s rear camera “35-millimeter-equivalent” or “28-millimeter-equivalent,” but has instead occasionally and gradually changed the lenses over time. A 35mm lens is considered by many photographers to be ideal for close-range portraiture, focused on one or two faces, while wider-angle 24mm and 28mm lenses are better for landscapes or large groups of people. The iPhone 5s’s width now appears to be in the 29/30mm-equivalent range, a compromise that works well for many types of photos. Apple’s promotional images have shifted from narrow shots of single faces to broader landscapes and pictures of people with their surrounding scenery.
Because of this change, a photo taken with the iPhone 5s at the exact same distance as an iPhone 5 or 5c will capture a little more of the same scene, as well as more light—a boon for food photographers who have strained to get everything into a shot while sitting at a dimly-lit table, but a small challenge for users who wanted to focus on one or two faces rather than a background. We’d call the change positive, though reasonable people may disagree on this point.
LED Flash: Apple has also added a new twin-LED flash (“True Tone”) to the iPhone 5s—the first time any Apple device has sported such a feature. The flash has two benefits: it increases the quantity of illumination available to an iPhone 5s user, as well as the quality. One of the lights is white, and the other is amber, with the iPhone’s Camera application automatically controlling their simultaneous use for still photography. The specific improvement achieved by the dual flash is an improvement in color balance for photographs taken in dim light; the iPhone appears to preview the scene, make determinations on the content of what it’s shooting, then fire the flash with one of over 1000 color and brightness combinations of white and amber light.
Are the results better? Yes. Flash-assisted pictures of people taken with the iPhone 5s’s rear camera look more naturally colored—a little warmer, with “little” being the key word. Only the white light is used for iOS 7’s new flashlight feature, but it’s a bit brighter than the single white LED in the iPhone 5c and iPhone 5, just enough to be noticeable in a dark room.
Given the option between the old flash and the new flash for the same price, we’d pick the new one, but the changes are often subtle enough that you need to do direct comparisons to notice the improvement.
Video + Slo-Mo Video Modes: For years, Apple has treated video recording capabilities as linear: a new iPhone’s rear camera is locked to a specific resolution, often better than the last one, and you’re given one button to start and end recording. Apart from turning the rear flash on or off, there are no obvious controls or settings: point camera, press record, and that’s it. Should you decide to tap somewhere on the screen, you can adjust focus and/or the white balance using that spot; there’s also now an on-screen shutter button for snapping stills during video recording. Otherwise everything is automated.
With the iPhone 5s, Apple is doing something different by offering separate “video” and “Slo-Mo” modes. Apart from the slightly wider lens angle, video mode is highly similar to the iPhone 5’s, locked at 1080p resolution and 30 frames per second. A 3x live zoom feature has been added to video mode, which is entirely welcome and works nicely with pinch gestures to let you focus on specific subjects during recording; the iPhone 5 and 5c also gained this feature in iOS 7.
Slo-Mo mode drops to 720p resolution, but records at four times the speed—120 frames per second. In other words, rather than snapping a new picture 30 times each second, Slo-Mo snaps 120 pictures per second, continuously. Since 30 frames per second is very close to the limit of a person’s ability to perceive changes, grabbing 120 frames in the same time enables the iPhone 5s to capture split-second details you’ve probably never noticed before.
The iPhone 5s’s recording interface also changes in a new way when Slo-Mo is activated: you’ll probably notice that the video is almost hyper-realistic, as it’s displaying at 60 frames per second—twice the normal speed of the iPhone interface, including regular video mode. There still aren’t any recording controls to worry about, but the recording button is now ringed with dashes to make sure you’re aware you’re in Slo-Mo mode.
There’s also a change to playback mode: below the preview timeline, a dashed line indicates which segments will be played at full speed—lots of dashes together—and which single portion between them will be played slowly, as indicated with fewer dashes. You can run your finger across the dashed line to move, expand or contract the fewer-dashed segment, matching it against the preview timeline to coincide with whatever segment of your recorded video needs extra drama. Hit the play button, and the iPhone 5s will play “regular” video at 60 frames per second, falling to 1/4 speed and 30 frames per second during the drama segment. While the interface could use a little extra fine-tuning to improve initial intuitiveness, it’s really pretty cool.
As of right now, Slo-Mo videos don’t appear to stream properly to the Apple TV, and it’s unclear whether they will ever be supported with AirPlay. The videos can be played back on a computer, but without any slow-motion controls; under OS X Mountain Lion, they look like 60fps videos. They could also benefit from deeper post-production assistance from Apple’s iMovie app, which currently doesn’t let you do anything special with the extra recorded frames. Our expectation is that all of these issues will be addressed in the relatively close future. On the other hand, you won’t get away from the large file sizes of slow-motion videos—25-40 Megabytes for 10 seconds of 120fps 720p recording, versus 13-20 Megabytes for 10 seconds of 30fps 1080p recording—and you’ll need to decide in advance whether something you’re filming will be better off with extra resolution or extra frames. But even with these limitations, Slo-Mo is a much more compelling camera trick than some of the iPhone 5s’s other new features. We’re looking forward to playing more with it in the future.
What’s Changed In The iPhone 5s: The Apple A7 + M7 Processors
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.
What’s Changed In The iPhone 5s: Battery
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.