Whether you love or hate Apple’s iOS operating system, you undoubtedly pay attention to the company’s yearly release of the iPhone because it changes the industry for months to come. Some may argue that this industry-changing force has lessened over the years, but make no mistake about it: the iPhone is the phone with which every other phone competes. It’s the single most popular phone in the world.
The iPhone 5 is not just an incremental update, like the 4S was compared to the 4. It’s got a new design, a new CPU, a new operating system, new radios, and even a new connector on the bottom. While very new in many ways, the iPhone 5 is familiar. It’s a strange balance that Apple has rolled into the latest iPhone so as not to radically change what has already proven successful, while giving people a reason to say “yes” to upgrading or to buying an iPhone for the first time.
So while the iPhone 5 might be the best iPhone yet, is it the best phone on the market? Read on for the answer.
The iPhone 5, running on iOS 6, has Apple’s new custom dual-core A6 32nm CPU running at around 1.0-1.2GHz, versus a dual-core A5 800MHz-1.0GHz CPU found in the iPhone 4S. Graphics have been improved on the A6 with a tri-core PowerVR SGX543MP3 running at 266MHz, versus a dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 running at 200MHz on the iPhone 4S. The screen has been increased by half an inch to 4.0″, and resolution has been bumped to 1136×640, compared to 3.5″ and 960×640 on the iPhone 4S. Also increased is RAM, which has been doubled to 1GB from the 512MB in the 4S. As was the case with the 4S, consumers can choose from 16, 32, or 64GB capacities. Inside, the iPhone 5 packs as many radios as the 4S, but adds LTE networking and dual-band WiFi. The camera on the back is mostly unchanged and can take 8MP photos and 1080p video, while the front-facing camera is higher resolution at 1.2MP, and can record 720p video. To keep pace with the increased power requirements, the battery capacity has been slightly increased from 1430mAh to 1440mAh, and apparently the battery chemistry has also changed a bit.
The iPhone 5 looks very much like an iPhone; it’s got that unmistakable look. The taller screen doesn’t lend to a much different design, probably because the height of the iPhone 5 has been increased by only 8mm. From here, we can see that the front-facing camera and the proximity sensor have changed places versus where they were on the iPhone 4S.
At last! No more black bars while watching 16:9 content. However, unlike recent Android devices that have full 1280×720 resolution, the iPhone 5 can’t play native 720p HD video. It must down-sample the video for the non-standard 1136×640 resolution, which the user won’t notice.
Closer in at the top we can see the lens of the 1.2MP front-facing camera, which can take video at 720p video. FaceTime can now take advantage of the higher number of pixels if you’re doing a video call with another iPhone 5; the image is indeed higher resolution.
The back of the iPhone 5 is gorgeous. The alumninum used on the metal portion has a smooth texture, and with this white model, it actually looks different in various lighting conditions. For example, in bright light, it looks silver. In dim light, it looks gray. The metal is flanked by two small pieces of glass on the top and bottom. No other phone looks like this! It’s gorgeous and unique. From this view we can also see the metallic Apple logo, which unfortunately scratches easily. Also back here is a the 8MP camera with a new microphone for noise cancellation and a larger flash. The camera on the 5 has a sapphire crystal lens, making it extremely scratch resistant. That’s important if you plan on keeping your phone for a while.
The metal on the back appears to be fingerprint and scratch-resistant. As we can see here, the iPhone 5 has a beautiful beveled edge that is shiny and chrome. Unfortunately, this edge is prone to fingerprints and even chipping.
In fact, out of the box, our iPhone 5 came with a nick in this beveled edge! If this happens to you, take a picture of the damage and go to an Apple store for an exchange.
The iPhone 5 uses the new nanoSIM standard. If you want to cut your microSIM to nanoSIM size, you can do so.
On the other side we have the silent switch, which is about a millimeter further away from the volume + button, compared to the iPhone 4S.
The bottom of the iPhone 5 is beautiful, if you don’t mind asymmetry. Down here we see the 3.5mm headphone jack, microphone, new Lightning connector, and speaker. We found the speaker to indeed be louder than on the iPhone 4S.
The new Lightning connector, shown in the back right, is about the same size as a microUSB connector, but it has an advantage: it’s reversible. Of course the main disadvantage of Lightning is that none of your existing accessories or cables will work with it.
The Lighning connector inserts into the iPhone 5 with a satisfying “click”. And while we are indeed frustrated that all of our old iDevice connectors don’t work with the iPhone 5, and that Apple is charging an egregious $29 for a smaller port, Apple’s move to a smaller connector will be applauded in the long term, as the old 30 pin was cumbersome, ugly, and not-reversible. It is what it is.
Here’s how the iPhone 5 looks compared to the 4S. Be sure to check out our thorough comparison of these two devices. In terms of design, the 5 and 4S are the exact same width. The iPhone 5 is 8mm taller and 1.7mm thinner. As you can tell in the video, color saturation is improved on the 5. Take a look at the Facebook icon, for example, which appears to be a deeper blue on the 5.
The Galaxy S III looks funny next to the iPhone 5 with its much larger screen, which is not to say that a larger screen (or a smaller screen, for that matter) is a bad thing–we’re just making an observation. These devices are obviously intended for different audiences. Check out our comparison of these two models if you want to see their differences in detail.
The same can be said about the Galaxy Nexus: it’s intended for a very different type of user. Check out our detailed comparison of Android Jelly Bean and iOS 6.
The HTC One X has an incredible display, but is it better than that of the iPhone 5?
Apple has a funny way of paying attention to things that most people don’t think much about. Take the earphones; every phone comes with a set. Anyone that cares about good sound tosses them aside and uses their own (much higher fidelity) pair. Apple includes these new “EarPod” earphones with all iPhone 5s, and you know, they’re great. They provide a level of bass and midrange that just wasn’t found in any out-of-the-box earphones we’ve ever tested.
Most people that own an iOS device now run iOS 6, so we’re not going to cover all of the major features (though it wouldn’t take very long given the relatively brief list of changes versus iOS 5). Instead, we’d like to highlight some areas where iOS 6 improves the experience on the iPhone 5.
Flyover: whether you love or hate the new maps in iOS 6, you have to admit that the new flyover feature is beautiful, even if it’s not particularly useful. On the iPhone 5, flyover benefits from the brawny processing capabilities of the A6, plus the higher resolution screen. It’s pretty impressive.
FaceTime: with iOS 6’s FaceTime-over-cellular option, plus LTE and a higher resolution front-facing camera, FaceTime is better on the iPhone 5. Unfortunatley, in our tests, we often got the above connection error problem, even when on a strong WiFi connection.
Camera: while the camera software is the same across all iPhones now, on the iPhone 5, the camera takes pictures extremely fast thanks to the beefier internals. Not only that, but the resulting pictures and video look a lot better, as you’ll see later in this review.
Web Browsing: Our tests have shown that the iPhone 5 has the fastest web browser of any phone we can put against it. Couple the fast browser with a wider screen and full-screen viewing, and you have one of the best internet browsing machines that can fit in your pocket.
Here’s a look at how the 5 compares to the 4S outdoors. As you can see, there is less noise in the sky in the picture taken with the 5. Also, the trees appear a bit more sharp.
Macro shots also come out more in-focus. Note how the green of the knife in the picture taken with the iPhone 5 appears more green, but only by a little bit.
New in iOS 6 is the ability to take panorama shots on the iPhone 4S and 5. Other smartphone platforms have been panorama-capable for years. How did the iPhone 5 do? Well, if you’ve got relatively steady hands, plus good lighting conditions, the resulting 8640×1865 panoramas can look quite beautiful. Click the image for a full resolution.
Here are a handful of samples taken with the iPhone 5. We have an indoor low light with flash, outdoor macro, outdoor bright, indoor low light no flash, and indoor macro, respectively. In almost every scenario, the iPhone 5 performs amazingly. Click on any of the images for full resolution.
Here’s a look at hope 720p HD video recorded with the front-facing camera looks.
And finally, 1080p HD video recorded with the back camera looks terrific. In this video, I wasn’t particularly steady with my hands, but the image stabilization did a great job at smoothing things out.
Even the iPhone 4S would exhibit some lag when pushed to the edge. The iPhone 5 responds to your every touch, even if you try to slow it down by rapidly opening then closing a ton of different apps. Gaming performance is better than we’ve seen on any device, with high framerates and beautiful textures in even the most demanding games. Also, we found the iPhone 5 to have the best web browsing performance of any phone we’ve tested, even the Galaxy S III. It’s a beast.
The iPhone 5’s battery life improves after several charge cycles. After several days of charging, we were able to get quite terrific battery life out of the iPhone 5, even under heavy use. With many web browsing sessions on LTE and WiFi, plus many calls, and a few gaming sessions, our iPhone 5 went from 100% to 20% between 8am and 11pm. Not bad.
We tested the iPhone 5 on AT&T. While AT&T’s LTE isn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as Verizon’s, we like that the fallback network HSPA+ speeds are still plenty fast, compared to Verizon and Sprint’s fallback 3G network, which is rather slow. Really, your choice of carrier will come down to economics (are you on a family plan? how much data do you use?), and coverage in your area.
Over AT&T LTE, we were able to clock some extremely impressive down speeds of 25-50Mbps, and up speeds of 10-15Mbps. In a lot of cases, running LTE on the iPhone 5 is faster than WiFi. That’s amazing. Speaking of WiFi, the iPhone 5 has dual-band support. In our tests, WiFi performance was slightly better (in terms of speed and signal strength) than the 4S.
- + Incredible hardware: thin, lightweight, beautiful, different
- + Amazing camera
- + Gorgeous display with fantastic outdoor visibility
- + Uncompromising performance
- + Great call quality
- + LTE connectivity
- + Terrific battery life
- + Lightning connector is small, reversible
- + Included EarPods have great sound
- – iOS 6 is generally more of the same
- – Polished metal edges are prone to chipping and scratching; Apple logo on back scratches easily
- – Lightning is proprietary and adapter isn’t cheap
The iPhone 5 is available now (though you might have to wait a few weeks to get one) through the Apple store, or through most local carriers. It’s selling for $199, $299, and $399 depending on your choice of capacity (16/32/64GB). If you have the dough, we recommend getting at least 32GB of space, because app sizes are only getting bigger, and panorama images are about 4MB each.
The iPhone 5 does everything well. It’s beautiful, super fast, has great battery life, is tied to the best app store out there, and it takes incredible photos and video. There’s no reason you wouldn’t want an iPhone 5, unless of course you desire the flexibility and choice that only an Android phone can provide. If you’re in the latter camp, we recommend the Galaxy S III which has a much larger screen, great hardware, and also-great camera, plus the terrific customizability of Android. We almost might be inclined to recommend a Windows Phone 8 device if you’re looking for a top-notch iPhone 5 alternative, but at the time of this writing, no Windows Phone 8 devices are available.