The iPhone 5--the sixth smartphone from Apple--represents the biggest step forward for the company, but also its biggest step sideways. It is a worthy successor and upgrade from the iPhone 4S, but also falls short of the competition in some respects.
If you weren't one of the initial 5 million people to scoop one up in the last week, should you consider buying one now? Let's talk.
The iPhone 5 is a different animal from the iPhone 4S, its immediate predecessor. When looking at the hardware, it is better than the iPhone 4S is almost every respect.
-- Hardware. Apple trades the glass and stainless steel sandwich design of the iPhone 4S for an aluminum body and glass front. The iPhone 5 is lighter, thinner, and easier to hold and use all day long. The attention to detail of the iPhone 5's manufacture--scuffed paint aside--is incredible. It's a well-designed and well-built device that's less breakable than its predecessor.
-- LTE 4G. The LTE 4G radio, whether it be for AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon Wireless, puts the iPhone in the same class with its chief competitors in mobile broadband. It's a significant step up in speed, especially for Sprint and Verizon customers, who've been limited to their carriers' slower 3G networks. We're talking a 10-fold increase in wireless data speeds. Yes, it's that dramatic.
[ What's inside? Apple iPhone 5 Teardown: Visual Tour. ]
-- A6 processor. Apple hasn't provided too many details about its newest mobile processor. Labs that have torn the iPhone 5 apart discovered that it has a triple-core CPU clocked at about 1.3 GHz each and a dual-core GPU paired with 1 GB of RAM. Techie jargon aside, it truly delivers a huge boost in speed. Absolutely nothing dents the iPhone 5's speed. It is a noticeable improvement over the already-speedy iPhone 4S.
-- Call quality. The iPhone 5 uses new noise-canceling technology and other audio voodoo to improve the quality of phone calls. Whatever Apple did under the hood to the phone, it worked. The iPhone 5 is one of the best devices I've used this year. Not only is the quality good, calls are much easier to hear thanks to the significantly louder speaker.
What's Merely Evolved
There's plenty about the iPhone that is different from the iPhone 4S--and competing devices--but some of these features could have been improved even more.
-- Screen. The iPhone 5 stretches the old 3.5-inch Retina Display of the iPhone 4S and gives it a larger diagonal measurement of 4.0 inches. Pixels improve from 960 x 640 to 1136 x 640. It's still a Retina Display, and is certainly larger, but it's not a competitive size. Screens that measure 4.3 inches offer the best mix of usability and visible real estate combined with device size. Personally, I prefer screens that measure between 4.6 and 4.8 inches. The iPhone 5's screen lets you see more emails, more of your Twitter feed, more of that text messaging conversation, but that's about it. Additionally, the pixel count is just odd. Apple should have gone all the way and given the iPhone 5 a 1280 x 720p HD display, which is what many other manufacturers are choosing to do. I understand the implications this would have for developers, but c'mon; Android supports various screen sizes and aspect ratios ranging from 2.8 inches all the way up to 10.1 inches. You can't tell me Apple iOS developers aren't up to the challenge.
-- Battery. The iPhone 5 has a bigger battery than the iPhone 4S to offset the LTE 4G radio, larger screen, and faster processor. Despite the power-draining abilities of the 4G, screen, and A6 chip, the iPhone 5's battery still manages to get through an entire day, though just barely. I find that the iPhone 5's battery is sinking below the 40% mark by about dinner time. It's frustrating to think how much better battery life could have been if Apple made the iPhone 5 even 1mm thicker.
-- Camera. The camera rates the same 8 megapixels as the iPhone 4S's camera, but it makes improvements in low-light performance. Images are better, but only slightly. The iPhone 4S's camera was one of the best to appear in a smartphone. The iPhone 5's camera produces better results, especially in low light, but the improvements aren't always noticeable. The best things about the camera is that it is significantly faster than before, and offers a cool Panorama feature for capturing wide vistas.
Things That Go Sideways
Apple apparently will always be Apple and do things its own way.
-- Lightning port. The Lightning port is a dramatic shift for Apple. It has left behind the 30-pin connector port for a new, smaller port on the iPhone 5. It did this in part to make room inside the iPhone 5 for other components. For anyone purchasing their first iPhone, the Lightning port doesn't matter much. It's just a port for a cable that comes with the phone. The Lightning port will matter to people who've invested money in accessories for their Apple devices. The number of third-party products that use Apple's older 30-pin connector number in the thousands. The Lightning port and iPhone 5 are incompatible with all of them unless paired with a $29 adapter. It's an annoyance for faithful Apple fans, and doesn't fall in line with the micro-USB port used by every other smartphone maker.
-- SIM card. The iPhone 4 and 4S were the first to really popularize the use of micro-SIM cards. The SIM cards in the 4/4S were smaller than the SIM card in every other phone. This made it hard for frequent phone changers or world-roaming travelers to switch out their SIM card for another. The iPhone 5 decreases the footprint of the SIM card even further to a new nano-SIM size. It's the first device to use this new, smaller SIM card. The nano-SIM eventually will be the standard SIM for all phones, but at the moment it makes it nearly impossible to switch SIMs with other devices easily. This will probably only matter most to those who take their phones overseas.
-- iOS 6. iOS 6 probably deserves more than a bullet point, but this much is certain: it's an incremental update that does not make any sweeping changes to the look and feel of the operating system. iOS 6 adds more features, but doesn't make any great leaps in usability or appearance. The improvements to Siri are appreciated, but still far short of Google Now's capabilities. Passbook has promise, but a bit of a hassle to use. The improvements to email, Safari, and other features are all good, but still only incremental.
-- Apple Maps. It's simply not as good as the alternatives. It's not a horror, but there's no doubt that it's a bit sparse on detail and inaccurate in some places. It will get better. In the meantime, use it to do 3D fly-overs of Manhattan. That's all sorts of fun.
The iPhone 5 is an improvement upon its predecessors, but verifies that Apple will likely only ever offer incremental updates to its hardware and software over the years. The iPhone 5 adds much-needed features, such as a bigger screen and LTE 4G, but plays it safe in bleeding-edge tech by leaving out features such as NFC.
I wouldn't recommend you sell your soul and pay full price for the iPhone 5--unless, of course, you're some sort of Apple/tech addict. If you happen to be eligible for an upgrade, though, it's a good buy, especially if you're already invested in Apple's ecosystem.
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