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iPhone 5 review

Apple's latest smartphone gets a bigger screen, LTE, and more power — but does it keep the crown?

iPhone 5 main

Ah, to review the iPhone 5; what a blessing, and what a curse. It's actually funny to think that there was a time not that long ago that the iPhone wasn't even a thing, let alone an iconic part of pop culture. A time when an Apple-made phone was just a fantasy; a blogger's fever-dream; a secret glimmer in the eye of Steve Jobs and his team of engineers and designers.

But the iPhone has become very real. In fact, it's grown up, moved out, and taken over the world. Well, half the world anyhow. These days the iPhone isn't just components on a breadboard in a lab in Cupertino, it's the device by which all others are measured. And that makes for some interesting measuring indeed.

The new iteration of Apple's phone is everything it should be: faster, smarter, thinner, and lighter. It boasts LTE data speeds, improved cameras, a larger screen with a higher resolution, and a design which — while not groundbreaking — is unquestionably beautiful. But it's also very much the iPhone you've seen before. Apple's iOS 6 software is not a leap forward, but a small jump, and the phone design is an evolution of the iPhone 4S, not a revolutionary new spin.

So does the new iPhone 5 retain its title as MVP in smartphones, or is it just another contender in a big, big game? Read on for my full review and find out.


Video Review

Video Review

Design

Design and hardware

Until you've held it, you haven't seen it
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You may think you've seen this device before, but trust me: until you've held the new iPhone, you really haven't seen it at all. While the basic design of the phone mimics the look of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, the actual components, materials, sizing, and weight make it seem like another device entirely.

The iPhone 5 retains nearly the exact shape of the iPhone 4, with its rounded corners, glass-covered façade, and metal band running around the edges of the device. Where the 5 differs is its brushed aluminum backing capped by glass on the top and bottom and the placement of the screen and back within the housing. Previously, both sat above the metal band, pushed off the surface of the phone. Now they're integrated and flush with the band, removing the harsh step from one surface to the other. It's a minor detail, but one you sense immediately when you're holding the phone.

You'll also immediately sense how little it weighs. The iPhone 5 feels extremely light in your hand, weighing just 3.9 ounces (compared to the iPhone 4S's 4.9 ounces). That makes for a device that almost doesn't seem heavy enough when you first pick it up — in fact, when I first handled it after the announcement, it nearly went flying out of my hands.

Truly something to behold

The phone is also thinner and of course taller. Combined with the lighter weight, it feels somehow smaller in your hands despite that new 4-inch display.

Apple moved the headphone jack to the bottom of the phone, which is a welcome change in my opinion. It also slightly tweaked some of the details on the device, like the grid on the speakers and the more polished, streamlined beveled edges on the sides of the phone. The mirrored, angular rims give the phone a glint akin to jewelry (something I noted in my first hands-on with the device).

In all, while the iPhone 5 might look familiar, the sheer attention to fit and finish in its build lends it a sense of quality and craftsmanship that far too many devices lack. The new design — particularly the black version, which has a kind of sinister simplicity to it — is truly something to behold.

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Specs

Specs, display, sound

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In the past, Apple has often treated "feeds and speeds" as an afterthought — something that seemed like an annoyance rather than an opportunity. The company appeared to be leaving the specs race behind in its march towards the Post PC future it's been designing. But the folks in Cupertino have come out swinging with the latest iPhone (even though Apple demurred on some facts, like clock speed).

Inside the iPhone 5 you'll find a new dual-core A6 CPU running at a reported 1GHz, 1GB of RAM, between 16GB and 64GB of storage (I tested the 64GB version), and an assortment of radios supporting Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, 3G and LTE on both CDMA and GSM networks, and a GPS chip. Of course.

LTE speeds were excellent on the device, and general performance seemed excellent — easily surpassing what I'm accustomed to on the 4S, which is no slouch (more on both of these points later).

The device also features new cameras; an 8 megapixel shooter on back and a 1.2 megapixel version around front, and sports a compass, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, gyroscope, and accelerometer.

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Display

As you may have heard, Apple has increased the size of the display on the iPhone 5 to 4 inches (at an 1136 x 640 resolution), as opposed to the 3.5-inch screens that have dominated every other model in the line. Prior to the release of the new phone, there were many people who argued that the 3.5-inch display was scientifically perfect — having been engineered to match the average reach of a thumb — and a larger screen would create all sorts of usability problems. Undoubtedly those poor individuals are undergoing surgery as we speak in the hopes that they may someday be able to reach the upper left corner of the iPhone 5's screen with their right-hand thumb. I can tell you I've had no such troubles, but then again I have huge, monster-like hands.

In other areas, a new treatment has been utilized on the display which Apple claims produces brighter colors as well as deeper blacks while reducing display thickness. In a side-by-side comparison with the iPhone 4S, it did look better to my eyes, though next to the excellent screen of the higher-resolution HTC One X, the improved imaging was less apparent.

Other than the additional row of visible icons and some extra emails in view, the new screen size is put to weirdly little use in the software. Yes, apps show more information, but nowhere in the OS is the additional screen real estate utilized for anything that would make sense... you know, like an area for notifications that doesn't interfere with other onscreen activities (more on this below as well).

Sound and reception

The sound on the new iPhone is crystal clear for both incoming audio on the earpiece or speaker, and outgoing audio from the mic on the device (or at least that's what callers told me). Apple has included three microphones on the new device to pick up sound as well as help with noise reduction, and it seems to be working.

The speaker was especially loud and clear for calls and playing back audio, but never distorted or otherwise bad sounding in a way that made me feel life wasn't worth living.

As far as reception was concerned, I had only one noticeable dropped call, but it occurred while riding in a cab through Manhattan — not exactly the best place in the world to make and receive cellular phone calls. Overall I was happy with the results.

EarPods

Apple has included a new type of earbud with the iPhone 5 called EarPods. The partially in-ear headset seems considerably more robust than the previous throwaway pair that Apple included with older devices. Sound from the odd looking, white semi-spheres was clear, though a bit bass heavy. The buds still don't fit in my ears and do feel as if they're going to fall right out when I'm walking around — a problem I had with the older versions as well. However, the warm throb they produce is markedly better than before. I think I still prefer the cheap RHA MA-350 earbuds you can buy on Amazon for around $40, but as the bundled free pair, the EarPods do a fine (though not revolutionary) job.

Cameras

Cameras

The camera is stunning
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The new camera on the iPhone 5 is absolutely stunning. Let me be clear, it's one of the best cameras I've ever used on a smartphone — and a fine camera by point-and-shoot standards. The pictures from the iSight shooter on the back of the device look crisp, clear, and ultra-defined. The depth of field is shallow enough that you're able to produce shots that look dramatic without verging into parody. Wider shots looked fantastic as well, and macro performance was excellent. As I expected, color reproduction was a little bit blown out compared to other devices (though actually somewhat better than the 4S, as it's less artificially saturated). I wouldn't say the exaggerated hues are a dealbreaker by any measure.

As expected, the full HD video was no slouch either — capturing mostly shake-free content that looks just as good as still images. Video processing seemed especially speedy on the phone, and uploads on LTE were, of course, totally awesome.

The new front-facing camera was surprisingly good at snapping the hundreds of self portraits I took while testing the phone. The camera didn't improve my looks, but I was able to study the increasing amount of gray hair and wrinkles each iPhone review gives me in painstaking detail.

On the software side, not much is new save for the much-touted panorama mode. If you don't understand panorama photography, it allows you to pan across a large scene at a constant pace, snapping photos as the phone's software stitches them together in one big... panoramic picture. iOS implements this mode better than most devices, though the guided movement isn't novel — many current dedicated cameras and even Android devices contain similar functionality. That said, the results produced by the iPhone 5 were markedly better than most (though low-lighting did cause some noticeable noise), and depending on how slowly and smoothly you move your hand you can take shots as high as 30 megapixels.

If you're used to the iPhone 4S camera, the new shooter won't seem like a massive change in quality, but side-by-side there's definitely a bump in definition and clarity in the images the iPhone 5 produces. Perhaps challengers like Nokia's Lumia 920 will be able to knock Apple off of its throne here, but right now the iPhone 5 is the device to have in your pocket if you're leaving the point-and-shoot at home.

Lightning port

Lightning port

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The new Lightning port Apple introduced caused something of a stir in the world of accessory makers, as well as users who've collected countless iPhone add-ons over the years — all of which utilize the now-old 30-pin dock connector. Though Apple will make adapters available, some functionality will be lost in translation: the new connectors won't support video out or iPod-out, which will render some setups non- or partially-functioning. This is particularly true for automakers, some of whom have already released statements noting reduced operation when the adapter is in use.

The port itself, which is roughly the size of a Micro USB jack, but position agnostic (you can insert the plug either way) doesn't bring much new functionality either. It's USB 2.0 on the other end, so sync speeds won't suddenly crank up. The use of the smaller plug seems to be almost entirely about downsizing components, which is fine, though in the short term it's sure to annoy a handful of customers.

The Lightning port doesn't bring new functionality
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Performance

Performance

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Faster performance on the iPhone 5 was not exactly unexpected. Every year, Apple bests itself in the speed of operation for its phones, and I had no doubt the company would accomplish a bump in the new device. After touting what the A6 processor and its GPU could do on stage at its event two weeks ago, I knew that the iPhone 5 would feel faster than its predecessor. My only surprise was that the increase in speed wasn't quite as noticeable between the 4S and the 5. That may have more to do with the still-excellent performance of the iPhone 4S (particularly with iOS 6) than it does with the A6.

When running graphically-intensive games, there are clearly some improvements in frame rates, as well as a noticeable lack of stutter on the iPhone 5. General multitasking and app performance was superb. In particular, the new Maps 3D Flyover view pushed the phone hard, and the differences between the older and newer models was clear. Basically — there's not much to complain about when it comes to speed on the new phone. It's really, really fast.

A noticeable lack of stutter
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Battery Life

One of the most amazing feats Apple pulled off in the thinner, lighter iPhone 5 is that the battery life is not only as good as the previous phone... it's actually better. Even when using LTE data!

During my time testing the phone, I did find that the battery life was improved over the 4S, though lately my 4S levels have been dipping at an alarming rate. The iPhone 5 managed to stay with me through a typical day of heavy use (web browsing, loads of email and Twitter, some gaming, music playback, and occasionally watching videos), though the meter was often near zero when I placed the phone back on the charger in the evening. Part of the battery drain can definitely be attributed to iOS's confusing and poor handling of lock screen notifications, which bizarrely wake the display up every single time a new notification comes in. That's fine if you're a casual user, but I get enough email and mentions on Twitter that the alerts seemed to be affecting battery life. When I turned off email and Twitter notifications on the lock screen, I did a little bit better.

Still, the long and short is that the iPhone 5's battery lives up to Apple's claims. You should have no fear about getting through a reasonable day, even with LTE data flowing in and out — but for heavier users, you're going to want to keep a wall charger handy.

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Data speeds

The LTE data on the iPhone 5 is absolutely fantastic. I tested the AT&T version of the phone, and saw some of the strongest download and upload speeds yet on the network. In midtown Manhattan, I managed to score between 5 and 10Mbps downstream, and weirdly, much higher numbers up (all the way up to 14Mbps). In Brooklyn, where I saw fewer bars, the speeds generally hovered between 5 and 10Mbps — certainly better than anything I see on standard AT&T 3G. Excuse me, I mean "4G."

In most situations, the speed was enough to go without Wi-Fi if I wanted, though of course that kind of throughput can result in nasty bills if you're not careful. I'm certain the meager 4GB of monthly data I pay for will be whisked away if I don't keep watch on what I'm doing — LTE is just too easy to spend bits on.

I will say this: the LTE performance coupled with that improved battery life is possibly reason enough to buy this phone. It's just very, very good.

Software

Software

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There's much to be said about the latest version of iOS present in the new iPhone (and present in the old iPhone, and the iPad) — and we've actually got a full review of the software itself. Still, I have some personal thoughts on the older pieces of the stack, as well as new additions Apple has added to the mix.

The new iOS is everything you would expect. Clean, simple, fast, and easy to understand. It is the very best that iOS has ever been.

But it's crucial to point out that the gulf between iOS 5 and iOS 6 is extremely narrow for most users. True to form, Apple is making nips and tucks, tweaks, stylistic edits — not reinventing what the OS does or how it does it. There are some wonderful new flourishes in the operation system — the kinds of things Apple is known for, such as reflections on your music controls that change when you tilt the phone, or the mutating pull-to-refresh animation now present in the Mail app. The company has added some really great little touches, like reply with text when you refuse a call (present in other phone OSes, but nice to see here), and Do Not Disturb, which lets you set a time window when only the most important people can get through to you. Ah, silence.

Overall, though, this is still the same iOS you know, and all the steps you took to get things done in the last OS, or in iOS 4, or iOS 3 even — well those are pretty much the same too.

And some of those steps are maddening, or poorly thought out. In particular, Apple's implementation of "unobtrusive" notifications while you're using the phone stands out as one the weaker components of the system. Originally I saw Notification Center as a welcome relief from Apple's pop-up messages and alerts, but the way the company handles these beacons can now be nearly as annoying as the previous version. As I mentioned, instead of utilizing that new, taller screen to give you notifications removed from areas of the phone you regularly need to access (you know, like menus in apps), the notifications continue to pop down over the upper portion of the screen. The result is that you feel trapped, waiting for the message to disappear before you can access buttons you need to get to, or forced to swipe to the left on the message — a hidden function which scurries the dropdown away.

Elsewhere, Apple is still making users jump through hoops to perform simple tasks, like switching to a private browsing window or clearing the cache in Safari. It takes no less than six button presses and home key taps to make that happen while browsing. Settings in general are a mess — wonderful when you first set up the phone ("hey! everything is in one place!") but frustrating later when you have dozens of apps ("hey... everything is in one place"). Multitasking remains a black box, not representing app states and forcing what should be "always on" applications like IM clients into a constant state of shutdown warnings. Twitter won't update in the background (nor will clients like Tweetbot), meaning that you're always playing catchup with "realtime" services. (Mind you, on Android the Twitter app will load updates in the background, meaning that even if you're disconnected you'll likely have new content to view.) It sounds minor, but when taken as a whole and spread across multiple applications, it makes the OS feel claustrophobic, mysterious, and downright unhelpful at times.

There are also missed opportunities. Apple has opened social sharing options up to Twitter and Facebook, which is wonderful, but everyone else is out in the cold. Want to save a file to a Dropbox folder? Read an article later using Pocket? Post a picture to Tumblr right from the browser? Sorry, that's not possible. There may be some hacky bookmarklet to accomplish the task, but I can't imagine anyone believes that a kludgy line of JavaScript is the most elegant way to accomplish those tasks. And by the way, these are things I do every day on my phone, and things that I know lots of other people do. They may be fringe to Apple's target user, but they are a real part of the market at large. They are the part of the market pushing what smartphones are capable of and what they mean to users.

Apple also leaves developers empty-handed on widgets. It provides the minimally useful weather and stock widgets for the notification drawer, but isn't opening up that space to anyone else. And I must mention this — the fact that the weather icon continues to read 73 degrees and sunny when it is clearly possible to have icons update with at least some information (see the calendar icon) is now laughable at best, and sad at worst.

And what about actionable notifications? Notifications in Jelly Bean can be acted on without having to jump into an app, which is a fantastic addition to Android. I use them all the time. I would have loved to see Apple innovate in this area — especially considering the fact that iOS multitasking still doesn't represent an "always on" experience.

Don't get me wrong, iOS is a beautiful and well-structured mobile operating system — but it's begun to show its age. It feels less useful to me today than it did a couple of years ago, especially in the face of increasingly sophisticated competition. I always have this sense now in iOS of not knowing where I am, what my status is — constantly having to load things and reload them. It feels tiring.

Maybe you'll call me an Android fanboy for saying this, or maybe it's because much of my business utilizes Google apps and its communication tools, but it didn't take me very long with the iPhone 5 to start thinking about getting back to the Galaxy Nexus and Jelly Bean (Android 4.1). For what I do, I think it's a more effective, more elegant, and more powerful OS right now. What it may lack in polish and consistency, it makes up for in power and flexibility.

Maps

The new Maps application in iOS 6 is really handsome. It's smooth, fast, and now provides free turn-by-turn navigation. The new Maps also shows off some of Apple's new technology, partnerships, and acquisitions with its 3D Flyover mode, Yelp integration, and hooks into and out of Siri.

But for me, and for many people I know, the new Maps application is a big step backward for iOS — a "downgrade," as John Gruber called it in his review of the iPhone 5 — and one that will take time, perhaps years, to become great again. It's not impossible to see Apple building its Maps into something stellar, but the company needs data that it simply doesn't have right now.

Apple previously relied on Google's mapping prowess to power this application on the phone. That relationship has ended — linked undoubtedly to the ever-growing animosity between the two companies — and that has left iOS users with a vastly inferior product. In fact, the product becomes even more inferior in the face of the latest Android Google Maps app, which continues to build on Google's rich mapping data and content partnerships.

The new Maps can be great at times, mind you. Turn-by-turn worked very well for me, and its interface is smartly and cleanly laid out. I had a couple of issues where the GPS seemed to lose signal or navigation stalled out altogether, but that's happened on other phones, so I don't know how much it's the fault of the iPhone 5 or Maps. TomTom is powering the navigation, and it seems like there are still kinks to be worked out. Traffic data, for instance, was scarce when compared side-by-side with Google Maps.

The Flyover mode I mentioned is a nice effect, but compared to what Google now offers — extensive Street View, indoor maps for some stores or museums — it's hard to be too impressed by detailed renderings of buildings. It's beautiful, but not exactly useful.

But perhaps the biggest issue with the new Maps is its complete lack of transit data. This may not be an issue in other parts of the world, but in New York, having up-to-the-minute subway info can be seem like a matter of life or death on some days. Apple seems to be relying on developers to provide apps that will handle this data, and there are some apps that do the job decently right now, but it seems like a cheap and counterintuitive way out of this problem. Since when does Apple choose to let developers pick up the slack of its first-party applications on the iPhone?

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Email

Mail is largely unchanged, save for a few new features. Firstly, you're able to pull down to refresh, which is a nice addition. Secondly, Mail now boasts a "VIP" inbox, where you can assign specific contacts, sort of like Google's "Priority Inbox," but much more manual. It's also easier to flag messages in Mail, though it never seemed like too big of a hassle for me in the first place.

Most of the changes are for the better, if subtle. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is Mail's inability to search message content. It didn't do it before, and it doesn't do it now. That can be a little trying when you're on the go and need information, but don't know the best way to get at it — it seems like a minor addition to index those messages, so I'm not sure why Apple isn't doing it. Is it to hurt us? A future update? Who can say.

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Siri

I'm happy to report that Siri — while still not out of beta — seems far more capable on the iPhone 5 (and frankly, on the updated 4S) than ever before. Not only can the new Siri now do things like Tweet and post to Facebook for you, open applications, give you sports scores and detailed information on movies, but she generally just seems to be better and faster at finding all kinds of information.

A number of times while testing the iPhone 5, I used Siri to handle tasks that I didn't have my hands free for. The service responded quickly and got the correct information I was looking for or carried out the requested task on the first try. A noticeable improvement from the previous generation, though I'm certain that the LTE connectivity when out and about is helping Siri get connected much faster.

Passbook

Passbook is kind of like an answer to a question no one asked. At least, I'm not asking it. Maybe this is the kind of thing that will be really hot somewhere that I don't hang out very often — like the South? Okay, I just checked; one member of The Verge team is really excited about this idea.

Regardless, the new app — which collects the QR codes and vital info from plane tickets, Starbucks cards, movie tickets, etc. — is certainly novel. Right now, Passbook feels as if it could be very useful... or it could be the next Ping. An experiment gone horribly wrong.

Only time will tell, as many of the apps which utilize the functionality don't seem to be working yet for me (Fandango, for instance). Apple reps assured me that many services are going live on launch day, so everyone will have a better opportunity to roadtest the new tool.

iOS 6, in closing

There's a lot more to iOS 6 than I could fit in this review (at least, reasonably fit), and a lot of it (most of it) belongs not just to the iPhone 5, but to older devices as well. For the full breakdown of what the new software can do, I highly recommend that you read our full iOS 6 review.

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Wrap-Up

Apple has crafted a beast of a phone

The iPhone 5 is unquestionably the best iPhone ever made, and for the mass market, it's the best smartphone, period. Between the new design, blazing fast LTE, and excellent battery life, there's little to not like here. It's a competent, confident, slick package, certainly made better by most (but not all) of the updates and changes in iOS 6. Despite the Maps issues and some questions about whether Passbook will be a viable product, there's no doubt that Apple has crafted a beast of a phone — a fine machine that is a worthy new entry in the most innovative line of products the company has ever made.

But there's also another segment of the market, of which I consider myself a part. That segment thinks that there's still a lot of work to be done in mobile devices; still a lot of innovation to come. And that's not innovation for the sake of innovation. I mean real innovation in the way we use our phones, in the flexibility of those operating systems, in how those devices become an extension of ourselves. For that segment, I think the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 fall short. There's a lot more work to be done, but right now Apple seems to be in a holding pattern, too comfortable or too scared to take real chances.

I'll be eagerly awaiting the moment that Apple joins the messy fray again. I have no doubt it will happen. But until then, thank goodness for competition.

Compare this: iPhone 5 vs. Galaxy S III vs. Lumia 920 vs. One X and more!

GOOD STUFF

  • Incredible industrial design
  • Gorgeous display
  • Blazing fast LTE service
  • Solid battery life

BAD STUFF

  • New Maps app a step backwards
  • Bigger screen size not utilized at all
  • iOS 6 a retread of familiar territory

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 9
  • Display 9
  • Camera(s) 8
  • Reception / call quality 9
  • Performance 9
  • Software 8
  • Battery life 8
  • Ecosystem 10
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