Mobile

iPhone 5: the smartphone perfected (review)

Apple’s iPhone 5 may not look like a major update at first glance — it’s only 20 percent thinner, and its screen is only a half-inch taller than the iPhone 4S’s — but altogether, the seemingly minor changes add up to something huge.

This isn’t just a revamped iPhone — it’s the ideal iPhone.

That may be tough to believe if you haven’t had the chance to use it yet, especially since popular Android phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S III — with its massive 4.8-inch screen, NFC support, and removable battery — seem to dominate the iPhone 5 in terms of features.

But as Apple has repeatedly shown throughout the years, a great product isn’t made from a checklist of specifications. Instead, it comes from building a great experience, something that Apple has paid significantly more attention to than any other consumer electronics company.

The iPhone 5 is by far the best experience I’ve ever had using a smartphone, even if it’s not the first to feature a 4-inch screen and LTE 4G connectivity. It’s the culmination of everything Apple has been trying to accomplish since it stepped into the mobile industry — the only question now is, where can the company go from here?

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The good: Almost everything

Holy crap, is this thing thin and light. Yes, everyone is saying it, but I can’t help but add to the chorus. It could be particularly noticeable because I’ve been using the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S over the past two years, both of which have always felt a bit hefty (mostly due to the glass front and rear).

With the iPhone 5, Apple went for a sturdier anodized aluminum back, which not only makes the phone much lighter — it weighs 112 grams, while the iPhone 4 weighs 137 grams — but also makes it feel less fragile overall. (The iPhone 4 is actually 4 grams heavier than the Galaxy S III, a figure that’s particularly shocking considering the Galaxy has a huge 4.8-inch screen, while the older iPhone has a 3.5-inch display.)

The 25 gram difference between the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4 is immediately apparent when you first pick it up, and it makes going back to my iPhone 4S feel painful. The lighter weight also makes a big difference in general usage — prolonged reading on the iPhone feels more comfortable, and there’s no stress on your wrist when playing games.

The iPhone 5’s light weight, coupled with its incredibly thin 7.6 millimeter width (a small, but noticeable, difference from the 9.3mm wide iPhone 4), makes it easy to forget you’re holding a powerful smartphone. At the same time, the iPhone 5 doesn’t feel as flimsy as Android competitors with plastic cases.

That sturdiness is a good thing, as you have even more screen to potentially break with the iPhone 5. Evolving from Apple’s traditional 3.5-inch mobile display size, which has so far remained the same since the first iPhone (though other improvements, like the iPhone 4’s Retina Display helped keep the smaller screens fresh), the iPhone 5 features a 4-inch display.

Sporting a 1,136 by 640 pixel resolution, the display isn’t any wider than previous iPhones, but it’s much taller. Now you can watch widescreen movies without black bars on the iPhone’s screen. Text-heavy apps like Instapaper and CNN’s news app feel almost paperback-like with the newer screen. Color accuracy seems slightly improved from the iPhone 4S.  On the home screen, you also get an added row of app icons.

Overall, the bigger screen gives the iPhone 5 and iOS much more room to breathe. It’s still smaller than many Android competitors (indeed, 4-inch Android phones are considered mid-range now), but I think it’s a wise balance between screen size and portability. The taller screen also allows the iPhone 5 to rest more firmly in your hand (though the skinny jeans contingent may have trouble pocketing and retrieving the phone).

It’s all about speed

I was impressed even before turning the phone on, but once you do, Apple’s methodical polish becomes even more apparent. Thanks to the revamped A6 processor, even the most intensive games load quickly. Epic’s Infinity Blade II, for example, took less than two seconds to load from the title screen to gameplay, while it took the iPhone 4S around 20 seconds (!) to do the same. That sense of speediness extends across everything you do on the iPhone 5: apps open faster, multitasking is seamless.

There’s simply no more waiting.

Just how fast is the A6 chip? The hardware gurus at Anandtech put it through a string of tests, and not surprisingly it beat out every other high-end smartphone in most. On average, the iPhone 5 performed around twice as fast as the iPhone 4S. In my usage though, it felt even faster.

With such a powerful processor, it’s fitting that Apple finally made the jump to LTE 4G with the iPhone 5. The new wireless technology promises speeds five to ten times faster than 3G, but just as significant, it offers greatly improved response times. So even if you’re not getting ridiculously fast LTE speeds, the iPhone 5 will still feel zippier than the iPhone 4S when relying on the cellular network, and it’s also better suited for fast-paced online gaming.

Using AT&T’s LTE network in Brooklyn and Manhattan, I saw speeds between 2 megabits per second and 9 Mbps for both uploads and downloads. The 4G network was particularly hammered on the iPhone 5’s launch day with download speeds below 1 Mbps in Brooklyn, but things have picked up since then. While faster than typical 3G, AT&T’s LTE speeds disappointed me because I’m used to seeing download and upload figures between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps on Android phones. Just like how AT&T’s 3G network crumbled under the onslaught of the iPhone, I’m worried that the carrier’s LTE network is similarly unprepared.

On Verizon Wireless, which had almost a year-long headstart on building its LTE network, iPhone 5 owners in New York City that I’ve talked to reported download speeds around 15 Mbps and upload speeds around 10Mbps. It could just be that AT&T’s LTE network isn’t as mature in the areas I’m testing, but the speed disparity is enough to make me considering jumping to Verizon when I get my own iPhone 5.

Even with my disappointing LTE speeds, the phone still feels zippier than the iPhone 4S. And once I hit killer LTE speeds, the iPhone 5 feels indistinguishable from a home Wi-Fi network (and at times, it performs even better than many home broadband setups).

Next: Battery performance, camera, and the trouble with iOS 6

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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