Apple iPhone 5 Review: Worth The Price, Worth The Upgrade, Worth The Wait

OPINION

  @redletterdave on September 21 2012 5:27 PM
Apple Releases iOS 6.0.2 For iPhone 5, iPad Mini To Fix Wi-Fi Bug
On the heels of rolling out iOS 6.1 Beta 4 for its registered developers Monday, Apple released an incremental iOS 6.0.2 firmware update Tuesday, exclusively for the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini to fix Wi-Fi bug on both the devices. Reuters

 

It’s been the topic of most smartphone conversations for the past two years, but on Friday, Apple finally released the long-awaited iPhone 5.

Fans and customers actually expected this exact iPhone model last October, back when rumors and reports claimed Apple would release an upgrade to the iPhone 4 (which turned out to be the iPhone 4S), and an all-new model with a taller form factor and thinner build at its media event scheduled for Oct 4.

Fans were disappointed when the iPhone 5 wasn’t unveiled last year, and while the iPhone 4S still managed to break Apple’s previous sales records, there was a large contingent of customers that refused to buy a voice-enhanced iPhone 4, and simply decided to wait until Apple released its mythical 4-inch smartphone.

After months of rumors, reports, fake-outs and prototype leaks, the iPhone 5 is finally here. So is it everything an Apple fan could dream of?

iPhone 5 Review: Design

Each year, we expect hardware technology to get thinner and lighter while being faster and even more effective and efficient than before. The iPhone 5 delivers on all of these hardware promises, and while each addition (or subtraction, depending on how you look at it) is minor, they all add up to a big redesign and a completely new iPhone experience altogether.

The very first thing I noticed this morning when I picked up the iPhone 5 for the first time, like most customers, was its weight -- or lack thereof. Even though the iPhone 5 is only 18 percent lighter than the iPhone 4S, the difference feels substantial when holding it, especially after owning an iPhone 4 or 4S after awhile. Even early reviewers of the phone said it felt like a knock-off when lifted.

“You pick it up and it almost feels fake,” said MG Siegler of TechCrunch. “That’s not to say it feels cheap; because it doesn’t — quite the opposite, actually. It just doesn’t seem real. Certainly not to someone who has been holding the iPhone 4/4S for the past two years. It feels like someone took one of those devices and hollowed it out. … If, like me, you carry your iPhone in the front pocket of your pants, both the trimness and the weight of the iPhone 5 are most welcome additions (subtractions?).”

Not only is the iPhone 5 thinner than before, but the design is significantly more sleek and slick. The familiar features on the iPhone 5's face are still there, but with chamfered edges and a new anodized aluminum back, the phone feels like a completely new device entirely. Gone is the James Bond-style glass back, but what’s left in its stead is a luxurious look that adds texture and character to the overall design.

Users have complained about the durability of this new aluminum design, but while we wouldn’t recommend carrying the iPhone in the same pocket as your keys (unprotected), the phone is still very rugged in its own right. The iPhone 5 performs much better than the Samsung Galaxy S3 in a drop test, which should certainly please anyone who’s had a rough Saturday night.

iPhone 5 Review: Performance

Apple only upgraded a few hardware elements from the iPhone 4S in the iPhone 5, but these minor upgrades add up to give the phone a major boost, especially when it comes to speed.

The iPhone 5 is the first Apple smartphone to feature the Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network, which is characterized by superfast download and upload speeds. Apple had reportedly been developing LTE for the iPhone 4S, but decided to dump the feature since its inclusion would’ve forced designers to increase the phone’s thickness to accommodate a larger circuit board and a bigger battery to boot. As Apple CEO Tim Cook noted in acompany earnings conference call in April 2011, "first-generation LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises."

After testing the network on the new iPad earlier this year, Apple finally delivered LTE on the iPhone 5, and it is a blast.

LTE is nothing new for Android users, but when paired with the lightning fast speeds accomplished by the new custom-built A6 processor from Apple, LTE on the iPhone 5 simply makes everything faster and more fluid. Videos load quicker, and webpages load almost instantaneously. There is a big jump in overall Web performance from the iPhone 4S.

The A6, the chip that makes the LTE experience fluid, also acts like a lubricant for the entire operating system on the iPhone 5. The system was fast before, but the A6 effectively removes any leftover friction between the user and the interface.

iOS 6, which just launched this Wednesday, features more than 200 new features for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, but the operating system is extremely nimble and smooth on the new iPhone 5. Applications are far more responsive, and games in particular are lightning-fast and lag-free.

The new Maps application in iOS 6 has been a real sticking point with some users, but on the iPhone 5, the best feature of that particular app – Flyover – really shines on the new phone. The dynamic, real-time rendering of 3D images as you fly over your city in Satellite mode is absolutely stunning, and this particular mode is a great indicator of the difference between the iPhone 5 and its predecessor, the 4S. On the 4S, the new Maps application is beautiful but sluggish, and Flyover maps take some time to load as the user flicks around in real-time. On the iPhone 5, there’s very little lag, and you can see areas on the map load at a pretty quick clip. Rotating the maps and getting directions on the fly is also very quick and easy.

The A6 also helps improve the speed of the iPhone 5’s newly-enhanced camera infrastructure, which can now take photos almost 40 percent faster. The images themselves are crystal clear thanks to precision lens alignment and a new sapphire lens cover, but while the colors are more vibrant in photos taken from the iPhone 5, the cameras themselves aren’t too much of an upgrade. The camera still contains that same 8-megapixel sensor with a five-element lens and f/2.4 aperture, but the difference is the entire structure is a whopping 25 percent smaller than before.

And of course, one of the star features of iOS 6, Siri also gets a big upgrade in the iPhone 5. She doesn’t have any other features on the iPhone 5 that other iOS users don’t have, but she’s noticeably faster and quicker to respond. Again, this is all possible with the dual-core processing of the A6 chip, paired with the lightning-fast connection speed of LTE.

iPhone 5 Review: The Big Picture

Apple didn’t add much to the iPhone 5 in terms of exclusive software, but what Apple did achieve was a rare combination of design and function.

The bigger screen, while nothing new, is a certainly welcome addition to the iPhone. Android users get a wide variety of smartphone screens to choose from, but big screens are new to Apple users. For a long time, it was widely believed that the form factor of the iPhone 4/4S was nearly perfect. It fit the palms of nearly every hand, making it a highly accessible device.

The iPhone 5 isn’t a big stretch – literally or figuratively – but it’s enough of an upgrade to make a difference. The longer screen isn’t utilized often in applications – more developers will update their software soon to take advantage of the free space – but when it’s needed, it’s there. For instance, videos are significantly better now that they fill the screen. Emailing and word processing is also much easier, now that the user can see more of the screen above the virtual keyboard. The iPhone 5 calendar can now accommodate viewing for the full five-day workweek. The screen is great because its size isn’t always apparent, but when you need a big screen to enjoy videos or play games, it’s there for you.

The screen is bigger, but the phone itself feels smaller and more agile because of its ultra-thin form factor. By being so thin, the phone becomes easier to hold in your hand, making it easier to reach the corners of the newly-enlarged screen. It’s thinner, it’s lighter, and it’s less of a load in your pocket. In other words, Apple’s most mobile device is now much more mobile.

The software is nothing revolutionary – Apple customers are used to the features of iOS by now – but it’s certainly a homerun. The new iOS 6 platform has very few truly “new” features, but it has so many enhancements that it’s fitting to call the software upgade “the most polished to-date.” In the same way, the iPhone 5’s operating system mirrors the actual hardware.

Earlier this year, Apple’s lead designer Jony Ive was asked what design, of the many he’s responsible for, he’d like most to be remembered by. Ive told The Telegraph that he’d like to be remembered by Apple’s “current project” at the time, which we can now assume was the iPhone 5. Ive had every right to be proud of the phone. It may not be a revolution itself, but it has taken the original concept of the 2007 iPhone, which was highly revolutionary at the time, and made it the best it’s ever been.

The screen is big and bold. The form factor is thin and sexy. Its insides are lightning fast, and its individual applications are polished beyond compare. The iPhone 5’s components, when broken down, are nothing too special, but as the case with most Apple products, it’s the entire solution that wows us.

As an owner of the iPhone 4S, I didn’t think I needed to upgrade to the iPhone 5. I had all of the same software (iOS 6 and Siri) and most of the same hardware features (frontside and backside cameras). Yet, holding the iPhone 5 in your hands, you immediately understand why everyone wants this phone. It’s the original iPhone, almost perfected.

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