Review iPhone 5S: Small screen, Same look, big potential.
The good: The iPhone 5S delivers an improved camera, a nifty fingerprint sensor, and a next-gen CPU and motion-tracking chip. Apple throws in the iWork app suite for free. iOS 7 adds some nice step-ups, too, including AirDrop file transfers and the Android-like Control Center.
The bad: External design is identical to that of the iPhone 5, including a 4-inch screen that looks downright tiny next to Android competitors. For now, the fingerprint sensor only works with Apple apps. The 64-bit A7 processor and M7 motion-tracking chip don’t have killer apps yet. iOS 7 differences are potentially jarring for longtime iPhone users.
The bottom line: The iPhone 5S is not a required upgrade, but it’s easily the fastest and most advanced Apple smartphone to date.
I’m tempted to call the iPhone 5S the iPhone 5P, for “potential.” This is Apple’s half-step year, a rebuilding year. It’s telegraphed by the name itself: adding an “S” versus giving the phone a whole new name. The 5S introduces technologies that could transform the future of iOS as a computing platform, and maybe pave the way for future products in 2014. But it doesn’t manifest these changes right off the bat. Its promises haven’t come to fruition yet.
Last year’s iPhone 5 was the best iPhone we’d ever seen. It met nearly all our wishes and expectations. It added tons of new features. It had LTE. What did Apple do this year as an encore? It added…a few new improvements. Enter the iPhone 5S, which along with the iPhone 5C mark the first time Apple’s delivered two new iPhones in one year. But the 5C is really the iPhone 5 in color plastic. There’s really only one new iPhone, and that’s the 5S.
We wanted a bigger screen, an improved camera, and better battery life. Apple gave us a fingerprint sensor, an improved camera, and a faster processor. Faster is better, especially when battery life doesn’t suffer, but the 5S doesn’t feel like a shocking new product.
Apple does this every other year with iPhones — see the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S. It’s a common occurrence in iPads and MacBooks, too: take a familiar form, and repeat. But, in a phone landscape dominated by rapid change, it can feel frustrating, even for a product we loved just 12 months ago. Even iOS 7, Apple’s graphically overhauled operating system, feels different but not really all that shocking. Even the new colors — gold and “space gray” — are subtler than you realize.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t changes, but many of them seem like roadwork for the future; a cleverly ingenious under-the-home-button fingerprint sensor, a clearly better camera, majorly upgraded graphics, a motion-tracking M7 co-processor, and a new A7 processor capable of 64-bit computing are a lot of under-the-hood tweaks. But, after a week of using the iPhone 5S, it’s hard to find situations that currently take advantage of these features, except for the fingerprint sensor and camera.
Check back in two months; after new apps emerge, maybe the iPhone 5S will start seeming like a truly new iPhone. But, for now, it’s more of refined improvement. The iPhone 5 has gotten better. How much better depends on how fast apps and services can take advantage of the features…or whether we’ll be waiting until iOS 8 to see them truly take shape.
iPhone 5 and 5S. Can you tell the difference?
Design: Take the iPhone 5, and add gold (or ‘space gray’)
The iPhone 5 was a somewhat subtle but completely thorough redesign of the iPhone, from screen size to headphone placement. It introduced an aluminum frame, a thinner and lighter build, and came in two colors.
The 5S is a carbon copy, with some new color variations. You can get last year’s white/silver color, or “space gray,” which matches black glass and a darker gray anodized aluminum. And, yes, there’s gold. But it’s not like a prop from Liberace’s home: it’s mellow gold, more a champagne, or a light bronze. Paired with white glass on the back and front, you might have a hard time noticing the gold in the wild unless it was held in the sun. Of the three colors, I liked gray the best: the metal tones might do a better job hiding scratches, too, a problem I saw pop up on last year’s all-black iPhone 5.
A year later, the iPhone 5S still feels sleek and high-end, great in the hand, and more compact than most competitor phones. But, it also has a smaller screen (4 inches) than most of its Android cousins. I love using a more compact phone, but competitors have found a way to make larger-screened 4.7-inch phones with excellent feel, like the Moto X, which has nearly edge-to-edge screen across its face. The iPhone 5S has a lot more bezel framing the display, and I couldn’t help wondering if that screen couldn’t be just a bit bigger.
A larger screen would have really helped this year: not because the competition has it, but because Apple’s newest features and apps would put it to good use. I found editing and appreciating the improved photos and video recording, and even playing games, to be challenging; the better that graphics and camera quality get, the more you need a larger screen to appreciate them.
There’s no 128GB iPhone this year; you’ll have to once again pick between 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, at the same $199/$299/$399 prices. In the US, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon are the three carriers to offer the iPhone 5S under contract; T-Mobile sells the iPhone 5S in an unlocked, contract-free version that costs $649 for 16GB, $749 for 32GB, and $849 for 64GB.
All versions come with the same A7 processor and 1GB of RAM.
Touch ID: The party-trick tech on the 5S
See that little home button down there? It doesn’t have a square on it anymore. It’s also flat and recessed, not concave. That’s practically the only outward-facing indication the iPhone 5S offers to the world, but lurking under the button is the most interesting piece of iPhone tech in quite some time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do as much right now as I wish it could.
“Touch ID” is Apple’s fingerprint sensor, a secret sauce of clever scanning technology that amounts to a home button that’s now both capacitive and clickable. The fact it does both can be a little disorienting at first, but the clicking is what the home button normally does, while gently touching the sensor activates the fingerprint scan.
Touch ID’s simple round button works on a simple press, versus a “swipe” gesture on a lot of previous fingerprint readers. The scanning technology, when it registers your fingerprint, encourages you to press from a variety of angles, so your fingerprint can be read even on its side or on an edge. It’s fast: a simple click on the button and the phone unlocks, the scan happening invisibly. Most people won’t even know it scanned them, but try another finger and you’ll see that it worked.
A few previous smartphones have added fingerprint sensors before, like the Motorola Atrix, but those were more awkward bars that needed finger-swiping. The Touch ID-enabled home button feels invisible; it works with a tap, can recognize your finger from many angles, and feels like it has less of a fail rate than fingerprint sensors I’ve used on laptops. It’s impressive tech. It worked on all my fingers, and even my toe (I was curious).
Its only limitation, really, is how little Apple has employed Touch ID into the iPhone experience at the current moment. Scanning your finger takes the place of entering a passcode in most instances, or entering a password every time you purchase something from the App Store or iTunes. But, that’s all Touch ID does for now: it doesn’t remember your other passwords on various cloud services, or link to your credit card, or pay for movie tickets via Fandango.
In fact, you’d better remember whatever passcode you used to lock your phone, because Touch ID isn’t a pure replacement. If you restart your iPhone, or turn it off and on, or don’t use it for 48 hours, it’ll ask for your passcode again before allowing fingerprint recognition. That’s potentially useful as an extra deterrent for would-be fingerprint thieves, but it proved a little quirky over a week of use. I never knew when the 5S might insist I enter my passcode again.
Worried about a kid pressing his finger down over and over and erasing your phone’s memory? Never fear. Touch ID cleverly defaults to asking for a passcode after three fingerprint attempts, and after five bad tries, it requires it. Then you still have 10 passcode attempts before any “erase contents after 10 passcode failures” setting you’ve possibly enabled kicks in.
How much time does it save? A little, especially since this process skips the “swipe to unlock” gesture. You’ll also save a few seconds over entering a passcode. But, in terms of convenience, I really only appreciated it during the day, in those little moments when I quickly needed to hop on my phone.
I have a bigger dream for Touch ID, of its fingerprint scan acting as a password replacement for third-party apps or even a way to make payments, or check in to flights. It could be a mobile wallet killer app, and a companion to Apple’s somewhat dormant PassBook app that launched with iOS 6. But those extra features won’t be coming anytime soon. Apple currently intends Touch ID and your fingerprint — which gets encrypted as mathematical data, according to Apple, not an image — to stay on the A7 chip of the iPhone 5S, out of reach of third-party apps or cloud services. That could be good for added security, but it means Touch ID isn’t a magic remember-every-password savior or credit card replacement yet.
That being said, I expect Touch ID to make its way onto every Apple device: iPads next, and eventually Macs. Why not? It’s easy to use.
Touch ID may be getting all the headlines lately, but the iPhone 5S’ improved camera is probably its biggest selling point. Cameras are no longer afterthoughts on smartphones: they’re becoming the most important feature, for many, as they slowly but surely replace point-and-shoot cameras.
If you’re getting a new iPhone for its camera, get the 5S. A suite of new and useful upgrades help make the already-good iPhone 5 camera into something even better…but, in a landscape riddled with increasingly impressive phone cameras, the iPhone stands out a little less than before.
Unlike many megapixel-packing smartphones (41-megapixel Lumia 1020, I’m looking at you), the iPhone 5S camera stays at 8 megapixels, the same on paper as last year and even the year before. The sensor, as Apple will proclaim, however, is 15 percent larger: the pixels are physically bigger (1.5 microns), even if there are the same number of them. The camera’s aperture is larger (f/2.2). All of these elements add up to better low-light exposure.
Newer A7-driven processing also enables true burst-mode shooting: hold down the shutter button and you’ll snag as many shots as you desire. The iPhone 5 could take multiple shots with quick taps, but the iPhone 5S can capture rapid-motion activities like sports events (or, in my household, random baby tricks). Instead of spamming your Camera Roll with identical-looking images, the new iOS 7 camera app cleverly bundles them in a subfolder, and even autopicks what it considers the best shots. This decision is based on image crispness and other factors; sometimes it’s on the money, but I also saw it pick a blurry image of my 7-month-old over a sullen but crisp side profile. You can pick your own favorites easily, and delete the rest at the touch of a button.
I took a bunch of shots in a ton of conditions, from indoor photos in a zoo’s reptile house to still-lifes of flowers and colorful kitchen accessories. Close-up photos show off pretty incredible detail and a shallower depth-of-field effect, which feels more “SLR-like.” See this rug picture, for instance.
Close-up of fabric, coming right up.
Kid photos were less blurry when magnified, a common problem I’ve seen on many of my iPhone 5 photos that look good enough on-phone, but don’t hold up quite as well via Apple TV on a 59-inch display. These pictures looked a lot better, and more consistently so.
Local garden photo
Apple credits this to a new image signal processor (ISP) on the iPhone 5S’ A7 processor. It does result in quicker autofocus, faster snapshots, and less blur all around. Considering how shaky the average person’s hand is when taking casual phone shots, it’s a necessary improvement.
Apple has made a big change to the built-in LED flash, too, doubling its size and creating an intelligent “True Tone” flash that senses the photo environment and serves up the appropriate flash tone from separate white and amber LEDs.
It’s a splashy endeavor, but the results do look significantly better, and warmer, than the iPhone 5’s flash pics. I avoid flash on my smartphone whenever humanly possible, but this year’s improvements may have changed my opinion.
The 1080p video recording also gains a little more digital stabilization, 3x digital zoom thanks to iOS 7, and there’s a new Slo-Mo recording mode, which is separately toggled in the camera app. The iPhone records 720p video at 120 frames per second, and applies the slow-motion effect afterward, playing at 30 frames per second.
You can readjust the start and stop points of slow motion with your fingers, much like editing a video clip. It looks great, but the slowed-down footage retains the audio track. You could always edit over it in iMovie (which is a free app, now, anyway). This type of ultrafast recording could earn the iPhone 5S a spot on a skateboarder’s helmet or a skydiver’s gear in place of the popular GoPro camera.
Now, how different is all of this from competing high-end phones boasting better cameras? The iPhone 5S suffers on physical megapixel count, but its speed/quality ratio are hard to beat. Adding slow-motion recording is gimmicky but works really well, and the improved flash technology is nice to have. But, overall, it’s the extra speed and hardware-software-processor integration on the iPhone 5S that produced the best results. The camera is really the iPhone 5S’ biggest improvement and feature, even without added megapixels…but it doesn’t feel like as dramatic a leap as last year’s iPhone 5’s camera.
A7 processor: A beast on paper
We’re in a pretty great time for mobile phone processors. Much like laptops and PCs a few years ago, impressive year-over-year gains in speed are becoming the norm. The iPhone 5 was more than twice as fast as the iPhone 4S, and true to Apple’s claims based on every benchmark we could find, the iPhone 5S and its new A7 processor seem at least twice as fast as the 5 and its A6.
Numbers are great, but what does speed really mean in a phone? Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate. Boot times aren’t all that much faster between the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C, and iPhone 5 — 26.3 seconds for the 5S, and 31.7 for the 5C (and anyway, how many times do we even boot our phones?). Games and applications load up quickly and play smoothly, but the iPhone 5 felt the same way last year, and the iPhone 5C still feels pretty fast for everyday phone tasks.
The types of games and applications that can really take advantage of the iPhone 5S and its faster, more graphics-rich A7 processor aren’t here yet at the time of this review, but expect them soon. I’m just sensing, perhaps, that there will be a limit as to how much pop you’ll truly notice on a 4-inch display.
Is the iPhone 5S faster than other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One? Based on every benchmark we could throw at the 5S, the answer is yes. How much? That depends on the test. Linpack suggests that the iPhone 5S is a lot faster — and about twice as fast as the iPhone 5C. Geekbench 3, which recently updated its app to allow for 64-bit testing, suggests a nearly 3x gain over the iPhone 5C’s A6 processor.
The 64-bit computing potential of the iPhone 5S and its A7 chip is, at the moment, largely theoretical. It could pave the way to more computer-like experiences on our phones, or even a future merge between Mac OS X and iOS.
Apple’s core apps on the 5S are 64-bit optimized, but I didn’t anecdotally appreciate huge gains in most of them…except for the camera. It’s hard to tell how the A7 will make the iPhone 5S better, even if you can sense the speed. The killer apps don’t seem to be here yet.
Gaming and the iPhone 5S
Using downloaded gaming-benchmark apps, which are never that clear of a real-world test for a phone’s abilities, the iPhone 5S still scored an impressive 13,858 using 3DMark’s Ice Storm Unlimited test, compared with 5,691 on the iPhone 5C; the 5S ran the graphics tests at 101 and 61 frames per second, versus 27.1 and 19.7 seconds on the iPhone 5C. Apple claims at least 2x graphics improvement over the iPhone 5 and 5C’s A6 processor, but it looks like that gap could be even wider. These numbers are better than the Samsung Galaxy S4 and any other recent Android phone we’ve tested, making the iPhone 5S a theoretical paper champion for mobile gaming.
Giving XCom a go: It loads quickly.
Real-world proof of the A7’s prowess is, for the immediate moment, harder to come by. No current games take advantage of the new chip, but expect a lot to come any moment, like Infinity Blade III, and many more. Current graphics-intensive games like Riptide GP2, Need for Speed Most Wanted, and XCom: Enemy Unknown loaded quickly and played well, but didn’t look very different from the way they played on the iPhone 5/5C. But you could imagine great games that not only take advantage of the A7, but use forthcoming iOS 7-compatible game controller cases and future Apple TV AirPlay compatibility to make for experiences that could feel gaming-console-quality. In fact, I’d say that’s the plan that’ll be in play soon enough, based on how Infinity Blade III’s demo footage looks and what we can gather about iOS controller capabilities. Stay tuned as we play these games and see how good the 5S can be. At the moment, it’s hard to judge, but the future seems very bright.
The M7 processor: Future of motion (and the iWatch?)
There’s another new processor onboard the iPhone 5S, and its presence might be a wink to iPods and wearable tech to come. The M7 consolidates the collection of motion-sensing data from the iPhone’s accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass without taxing the A7 processor.
It could be a gateway to a new generation of improved health-tracking and motion-aware apps that work without significant battery drain, much like Bluetooth 4.0 allows for connected wearable devices like the Fitbit and Pebble Watch. Could it also be a processor that sneaks its way into a future iWatch, and even the next generation of iPods, which were conspicuously absent from Apple’s September event? I’d bet solid money on it.
At the moment, the M7 seems to help with power management, which could help eke more battery life out despite a faster processor. It didn’t add up to something I could immediately appreciate. The new iOS 7 Maps app automatically senses whether you’re driving or walking to deliver the correct presentation on the fly, but I didn’t see this in effect (or couldn’t tell if it was in effect) while using turn-by-turn directions to drive to the local zoo.
Both the iPhone 5C and 5S come preinstalled with iOS 7, Apple’s latest version of the mobile operating system. Much like the iPhone 5 was to iPhone hardware last year, iOS 7 is a soup-to-nuts graphical and design overhaul: familiar apps have new layouts, Siri has been greatly enhanced to do more and show more, and there are even new ringtones and alert sounds to play with.
There are a lot of people already running around with developer builds on their phones; the final version feels largely the same. As an operating system, iOS 7 runs smoothly on the iPhone 5S, but its aesthetics sometimes feel like a mixed bag. New display-maximizing layouts in many apps like Safari are a huge plus, but these come along with sometimes-confusing new interfaces and menus. Much like a Facebook redesign, I think many longtime users will find themselves suddenly (and hopefully temporarily) confused. Some additions, like an expanded Notifications pull-down screen, are welcome; others, like a new, confusing Calendar app that lacks appointment lists, will throw hard-core iPhone users off their game.
Luckily, iOS 7 does have its distinct advantages: AirDrop for local person-to-person wireless file sharing; crisp and excellent-sounding FaceTime audio calls, which don’t use up much bandwidth and can be used to make calls over Wi-Fi for free; and also the brilliant flip-up Control Panel, which puts many necessary settings and controls at your fingertips at any time. Siri is smarter and can do more things, like turn on Bluetooth or play requested movie trailers.
AirDrop creates a little local area network for sharing documents, and it pings anyone you want to reach who has AirDrop turned on: a specific person, personal contacts, or even perfect strangers. It should be interesting to see how AirDrop ends up playing out in the wild.
iTunes Radio, a free streaming-music service similar to Pandora, comes baked into the Music app. Make-your-own artist-generated playlists had a good selection of content. The streaming is ad-supported, but iTunes Match customers get the experience ad-free. Considering it’s free either way, it sounds pretty good and is nice to have, but unsurprising.
Redesigned Camera and Photo apps are part of the iOS 7 package, and both feel like big improvements. Digital zoom for video and added photo filters, plus an Instagram-esque “square” photo-crop mode, come built-in. The Photo app presents previous photos in a large timeline organized by year and location. It’s a great way to sift through thousands of photos, but this level of presentation feels better-suited to a Mac version of iPhoto. That archive-style presentation would be a lot better if iCloud enabled full syncing and uploading of Mac/PC photo libraries. But, as I said before, the Photo app’s elaborate presentation practically begs for a larger screen.
Apple is also offering its core suite of iWork and GarageBand/iMovie iOS apps for free with new device purchases, a nice little package of tools that finally gives iOS devices the type of productivity software that’s increasingly being bundled on competing mobile products.
Display and speakers
The 1,136×640-pixel 4-inch 326ppi Retina Display on the iPhone 5S is the same as the one on the iPhone 5. It’s bright, color-accurate, and extremely responsive to touch. But, it’s feeling just a tiny bit small compared with the screens on the competition. Many smartphones now boast 1,920×1,080-pixel displays, and have more screen real estate.
Now, not everyone wants a mega-large phone, and the iPhone has always had a smartly discrete feel, but more Android phones have gotten a sweet spot right with 4.3- and 4.7-inch displays, like the Moto X, which feels great and is still pretty compact. The iPhone 5S screen could be a little bit bigger.
Audio is still pumped out through the speaker grille on the right side of the Lightning connector on the bottom: it’s possible to accidentally cover it up and muffle playback with just a single finger. Even though there aren’t stereo speakers per se, audio playback still sounds loud enough to enjoy videos and movies without headphones…but I’d generally choose the headphones.
Antenna and wireless connectivity
The iPhone 5S has dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, just like the iPhone 5, along with Bluetooth 4.0. Apple’s AirDrop technology in iOS 7 allows for local file sharing, perhaps minimizing the omission of NFC in the iPhone, but it’s worth noting that NFC still isn’t in any Apple device. Both the iPhone 5C and 5S also lack faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which has been introduced in many products including 2013 MacBook Airs and AirPort routers. It’s a surprising omission on the otherwise feature-packed 5S.
Last year, the addition of LTE cellular broadband in the iPhone 5 resulted in dramatically faster Web browsing. For the most part, your experience won’t change here: you’ll browse about as fast in the US, but Apple has added more carrier support for international compatibility.
Trying it out anecdotally in my office, I got around 20.7Mbps download and 2.5 Mbps upload over AT&T’s network at three bars of service, compared with 18.3 and 4.1 on the iPhone 5C. You shouldn’t see a difference.
Over days of average use, the iPhone 5S feels like the same call-quality experience as on the iPhone 5. I had the same average level of missed/dropped calls, and the audio seemed similar on my AT&T review model. That’s no surprise: the 5S has the same fundamental design.
FaceTime audio calls made over Wi-Fi on iOS 7 do sound a lot better and more present, and could be the start of a lot of people opting to make FaceTime phone calls versus standard calls.
Using a video playback battery test that looped CNET content as a music video in the iOS Music app, in Airplane mode and half-brightness, the iPhone 5S lasted exactly 11 hours. That’s after one initial test; stay tuned for our final results. Nevertheless, the iPhone 5S fared better than the iPhone 5C, which lasted 10 hours and 16 minutes after a first run. Both look like a small step above last year’s iPhone 5. Apple claims a small step forward over last year’s iPhone, too.
Of course, you won’t be using your iPhone in Airplane mode looping nonstreaming video. Over normal full-day use, I found I could get to the end of the day with about 20 percent charge left — unplugging around 8 a.m., and looking for an outlet around 8 p.m. I’ll need to use it even more to get a better sense, but it’s roughly equivalent performance to what the iPhone 5 had during my first week of using it. This isn’t the iPhone-with-superpowered-battery that I sometimes dream of, but at least the newer, faster A7 processor hasn’t hurt battery life at all — in fact, it seems a little improved.
From left: HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, Moto X, iPhone 5S.
iPhone 5S versus its competition
Versus its fiercest competition, the iPhone 5S stands on shaky ground. With Touch ID as its only compelling hardware innovation, Apple opens the door wide for Samsung (Galaxy S4), Nokia (Lumia 1020), HTC (One), and LG (G2) to woo customers with an array of phones that include bigger screens, exciting design, and advanced camera offerings.
Likewise, software parity on the big-ticket items — compared with Android especially and with Windows Phone to some extent — means that Apple has very little to offer that’s different or new beyond iOS 7’s glossier look.
Customers will choose the iPhone 5S for many reasons: because they trust the brand, because they like the phone, because they’re already entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem — but not because it can do a lot of important things that other phones can’t. Time will tell whether Touch ID becomes a new standard in smartphone security, or if the M7 processor ushers in a new era of connected wearable tech and apps, or if 64-bit mobile computing will be a phase shift. None of those elements is currently positioned to be major difference-makers.
Bottom line: if you want a splashier, larger screen, expanded storage capabilities, or a camera with a larger lens and physical zoom, well…don’t look for an iPhone.
Which do I get: iPhone 5S or 5C?
If you’ve waited for an iPhone all this time but skipped a generation or two, get the iPhone 5S. You’ll appreciate the better camera and the cover-your-bases future-proofing. But, if you just want a basic and very good smartphone that works well, the iPhone 5C will do just fine. There are few, if any, critical features that it doesn’t have.
Upgrade or wait?
Whether you believe in the future potential of the iPhone 5S’ embedded offerings amounts to a leap of faith. Will Touch ID spread out to work with all sorts of apps and services? Will the M7 processor reinvent health apps on phones and context-aware mobility? Will 64-bit computing turn out to be a huge step forward in iOS history?
All you can really count on for sure with the iPhone 5S is that it has a noticeably better camera, is faster, and has better graphics punch. The rest is “future stuff.” Odds are that Apple will make good on many of these claims, but it’s never a guarantee. For the immediate now, the impact is incomplete. As the iPhone 5S and its apps evolve, so will this review.
The iPhone 5S feels like a “pro” phone more than ever, the iPhone equivalent of the MacBook Pro. Its features don’t feel as immediately consumer-understandable. For many, the iPhone 5C will do just fine. The biggest wished-for features — a MacBook Air-level battery life improvement and an even larger screen — aren’t on either new iPhone yet.
If you’re deep in the Apple ecosystem, the 5S could be the first step toward some new directions. Its improved speed, graphics, and elements of battery efficiency make it a better phone than the iPhone 5, in case you’ve waited to upgrade.
But if you already have an iPhone 5, I’d say it’s not a bad year to just wait.