Mobile

iPhone 5: the smartphone perfected (review)

Killer battery performance

Perhaps more than anything else on the iPhone 5, I was shocked by its strong battery performance. Most LTE Android phones have trouble lasting throughout a normal day of use (and many now include large batteries to make up for that deficiency). But the iPhone 5 performed just as well as the iPhone 4S, even though its battery is only slightly bigger and performs at a slightly higher voltage.

After I charged the phone completely in the morning, it generally survived a full day’s worth of LTE browsing, app downloads, video streaming, and more without dropping below 20 percent (the point where the iPhone starts warning you to charge it soon). And even when the battery got low at night, the phone still held onto a bit of power until the next morning.

Apple touts its intimate knowledge of the iPhone’s hardware and software as a big reason why it was able to get a handle on LTE battery life, a company representative told me as I was picking up my iPhone 5 review unit. That may sound like marketing fluff, but after reviewing plenty of LTE phones, there’s definitely something remarkable about what Apple has accomplished.

Simply put, LTE battery performance on the iPhone 5 is a revelation. And it’s something competitors will have a tough time matching, since no other company has full control over its mobile hardware and software (save for RIM, but good luck there).

Camera, Lightning connector, and EarPods

Among other worthwhile improvements, the iPhone 5’s camera has been slightly upgraded, even though it still takes 8-megapixel shots. Photo quality seems sharper than with the iPhone 4S, and the iPhone 5 can also take better photos in low light. (Check out some sample shots below.)

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To my surprise, Apple’s new Lightning connector was also a nice upgrade, even though it means we’ll have a decade of yet another proprietary Apple connector. It’s incredibly small, especially compared to Apple’s previous wide-mouthed connector, and it’s also nice that you can plug it in any direction. Unfortunately, Apple only includes one Lightning USB cable in the iPhone 5’s box, and to make things even worse, there are no dongles to convert old accessories to the Lightning connector (those cost $30 to $40 separetely).

Apple also finally updated its crummy headphones — its greatest crime against consumers for a decade now — with the funky new EarPods. They sound better than Apple’s previous stock headphones (that’s not hard), but I had a very hard time keeping them in my ears. It’s nice to see Apple finally offer a decent option in the box, but I think you’ll still be better served with a separate pair of $20 to $40 headphones.

The bad: iOS 6 fails to keep up

Above: The Hoover Dam, according to Apple’s Maps app

For all of the the innovation and polish we see in the iPhone 5’s hardware, iOS 6 feels almost like a let down. The latest version of Apple’s mobile OS adds Facebook integration, an Apple Maps app with turn-by-turn directions, and many other improvements — but it still looks pretty much the same as before, and there’s no killer new feature like the virtual assistant Siri. iOS 6 doesn’t include any attempt to spice up the home screen, like we see on Android and Windows Phone with live-updating widgets and tiles; instead iOS still looks like a big wall of apps. (And it’s an even bigger wall now, thanks to the taller screen.)

Apple is known for obsessively polishing its operating systems without making any major visual changes — heck, OS X still looks almost the same today as when it was first released a decade ago. But given that its competitors are constantly innovating on their mobile platforms (arguably, to attain an iOS-level of polish), I’d just like to see Apple continue to raise the bar in iOS. I was fine with iOS 6’s small upgrades on my iPhone 4S, but given the level of excellence in the iPhone 5’s hardware, I think it deserved something more.

Last year we got Siri, but this year the biggest news from iOS 6 is how much Apple’s map app stinks. Apple likely expected Maps to be its iOS 6 crown jewel — both its 3D building view and turn-by-turn directions are nice additions — but the company ended up dramatically underestimating the work that goes into building an accurate map app. Since iOS 6 landed last week, users have complained about a slew of errors on Apple’s Maps. In New York City, for example, the 3D view doesn’t include landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge. The mapping issues have even inspired a page on Tumblr, a sign that Apple’s troubles are reaching meme-worthy levels.

The map issues aren’t going away anytime soon, according to mapping expert Mike Dobson, a former SUNY geography professor. Now it seems clear that Apple was in a mad rush to bump Google off of iOS, even if its own map solution was half-baked. Apple may have gotten its wish at the expense of its users, who are now stuck waiting for Google to release its own Google Maps app on iOS (currently expected before the end of the year).

Wrapping up: The new standard for smartphones

While Android and Windows Phone makers continue to pump up screen size and a checklist of hardware features, Apple has simply polished everything great about the iPhone with the iPhone 5. That likely won’t win over dogmatic Android fans, but for everyone else in the world, the iPhone 5 is difficult to resist.

The only other intriguing new phone coming this holiday season is the Lumia 920 Windows Phone — but thanks to Nokia’s ingenious planning, we still don’t have a price or release date for that phone.

After using the iPhone 5 for several days, I’ve begun to wonder just where Apple may take its iconic smartphone in the future. The screen may get slightly bigger, but I can’t imagine Apple would move far beyond 4.3-inches. And after a point, the phone simply can’t get much thinner. The iPhone 5 may just mark the point where Apple’s iPhone design plateaus.

That may sound pessimistic, but I think it just proves how much Apple got right: The iPhone 5 is as good as smartphones get.

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