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iPhone 5 Review: Apple's Best iPhone Yet
Date: Sep 22, 2012
Author: Ray Willington
Introduction and Specifications
The iPhone 5 is available, but only for those who pre-ordered right away on September 14th and were willing to stand in line at an Apple Store or pay big bucks on an auction site. For the second year in a row, Apple decided to unveil a new iPhone in the run-up to the fourth quarter, instead of in June at WWDC. Last Q4, Apple saw record revenues as the iPhone 4S hit store shelves. It seems as if the company is hoping to strike gold two years in a row as we head into the all-important holiday buying season.

Apple iPhone 5

Strangely, Apple's calling this latest model the iPhone 5, while the most recently released iPad dropped the number designation and was branded only with "new." However, on the rear of the handset, there's only "iPhone" printed. It's clear that Apple's intentions are to make just one flagship product per year (for now, anyway), and the company is going so far as to call this iPhone the biggest thing to happen to the iPhone line-up since the original. That statement is true in two ways.

For one, the iPhone 5 is the first major overhaul since the iPhone 4 was released. Yes, the 4S added Siri, a new camera and a faster CPU, but it was essentially the same design. And when it comes to Apple products, design matters big time. Second, this is the first iPhone ever, since the original was introduced in 2007, where a display is employed that isn't 3.5-inches diagonally. There's a 4" (1136x640 resolution) display in the iPhone 5, along with LTE support, a new A6 processor, an all new dock connector called Lightning, and an all new operating system (iOS 6).

First Let's take look at the device in action, then cover the specs and we'll move on to the deep dive with benchmarks.

Apple iPhone 5 Specifications
Specifications & Features
CPU Speed Apple A6 silicon (dual-core 1.02GHz ARMv7 as told by Geekbench)
Platform iOS 6
Memory Flash 16GB/32GB/64GB + 1GB RAM
4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 inches  (LxWxT)
Weight 3.95 ounces with battery
Display 4" Retina Display with 1136x640 resolution; 326pp; Multi-Touch; 800:1 Contrast Ratio; 500 cd/m2 max brightness (typical); Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating on front, in-layer touch panel
Network GSM model A1428: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 4 and 17); CDMA model A1429: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900, 2100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, 25); GSM model A1429: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5)
Navigation All touchscreen
GPS Internal GPS and GLONASS antennas
Sensors Digital compass, Proximity sensor, Ambient light sensor, Three-axis gyro, Accelerometer
Connectivity Bluetooth 4.0
Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi (802.11n 2.4GHz and 5GHz)
3.5mm stereo audio jack
Apple Lightning Connector
Camera 8-megapixel iSight rear camera with auto focus and 1080p video capture (up to 30 frames per second with audio); LED Flash; FaceTime HD front camera with 1.2MP photos and HD video (720p) up to 30 frames per second
Audio formats supported: AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX, and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV
Video formats supported: H.264 video up to 720p, 30 frames per second, Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) up to 35 Mbps, 1280 by 720 pixels, 30 frames per second, audio in ulaw, PCM stereo audio in .avi file format
Battery Rechargeable Lithium-ion battery
Talk time: Up to 8 hours on 3G/14 hours on 2G
Standby time: Up to 225 hours
Internet Use: Up to 8 hours on 3G or LTE; 10 hours on Wi-Fi
Audio Playback: Up to 40 hours
Video Playback: Up to 10 hours
Expansion Slot None
In-Box Content Main unit, Apple EarPods with Remote and Mic, Lightning Connector to USB Cable, USB Power Adapter, Documentation

Many pundits will say that the new iPhone is perhaps a little bland. The device is just now hitting specs that Android phone makers hit a year ago. There's no NFC and no wireless charging.  There are no cutting-edge bells and whistles that aren't widely available elsewhere. However, the iPhone has never truly been about matching specs with other smartphones; it has always been about an elegant UI and experience that "just works". Is the iPhone 5 a continuation of that legacy?  We'll discuss all of this and more in the pages ahead.
Design and Hardware
If you're looking for the iPhone 5 to dominate its competition in terms of its technical specifications, don't. LG, HTC, Samsung, Motorola and other Android phone makers have Apple outgunned in that department. The allure of the iPhone comes mostly from the elegance of it all. And that starts with hardware and design.

Apple's design team is world class, and they have the awards to prove it. The company went into painstaking detail to explain that the iPhone 5 has been precisely crafted, down to nanometer tolerances. The iPhone line has always been considered iconic in its design, and the iPhone 5 continues the trend somewhat. It's not a drastic departure from the design aesthetic found in the iPhone 4, though many hoped it would be. The iPhone 3GS-to-4 leap was significant, as the entire design approach changed. The iPhone 4 was a complete departure from the previous generation.

But with the iPhone 5, it's clear that Apple is evolving a successful product. It's not necessary to redesign the wheel every year, despite what some users have hoped for. The iPhone 5 is the definition of an evolutionary product. It's an iPhone, evolved to be more in line with the times. Steve Jobs famously said a few years ago that people didn't want "big phones," referring to the initial trend of 4" and 4.3" Android phones. But indeed, people do want big phones. They're selling like crazy, and even huge phones like the Galaxy Note and Note II are doing well. So, Apple evolved.

The overall design is beautiful and elegant. Apple seemed to straddle the line of staying true to the iPhone's roots and advancing things with this particular 4" Retina display. The width of the display is the same as the iPhone 4 and 4S and offers the same 640 pixels. Only the height changed, pushing the pixel count to 1136 vertically and creating (roughly; it's one pixel off) a 16:9 aspect ratio. This is ideal for those who enjoy watching widescreen movies and shows on their iPhone, and by keeping the width the same, the phone feels roughly the same in your hand compared to the 4S.

The most striking thing about handling the iPhone 5 is the weight. It's actually lighter than the 4S, despite being larger (taller). It almost feels hollow, but not quite, because hollow implies "cheap." The iPhone 5 shaved a few ounces by ditching the glass on the rear in exchange for aluminum and moving to an in-cell touch-screen, which eliminates a layer from the front glass. The fit and finish is ridiculously good. The precision is obvious. Because of the metal and glass build, the lightness of the phone doesn't make it feel chintzy. Instead, it feels like a premium product, as you'd expect an iPhone to feel.

Apple's offering the iPhone 5 in two color options: white / silver and black / slate. Each one has a two-tone backside, which actually brings back memories of the silver / black backside on the original iPhone. It's a nice touch, and the materials feel great in the hand. We'd recommend investing in a case, but it'll be tough to wrap anything around such a fine piece of machinery.

In fact, it's easy to argue that mechanical design is the one area where all of the other smartphones simply fall short when compared to the iPhone. You can argue specs (and probably win), but no plastic phone in the universe is going to have the same level of premium feel like the iPhone.

Around the edges, you get a power button up top, nothing on the left side, two speakers, a 3.5mm headphone port and a Lightning port on the bottom, and the usual volume buttons + mute switch on the right side. The new Lightning connector is a bit of "lightning rod" actually. Consumers generally resist change that they see as unnecessary. You could argue that the Dock Connector would be good for a few more years, but there will come a point where Apple has to switch out connectors. Now is as good a time as any.

The new connector doesn't support USB 3.0, which is odd, and Apple would have saved itself a lot of heartburn had it included at least one free adapter in each box to aid those with a boatload of "old" iPhone accessories with dock connectors.

Then there's the issue of NFC, or contact support of any kind. With a Galaxy S III, two users can bump playlists, or a number of other things, to one another. With a Galaxy Nexus, users can use Google Wallet to pay for things without a credit card. Why isn't Apple getting with the times?

If you ask Apple, it's because NFC is a big mess right now. Apple isn't fond of solutions that don't "just work" and the same is true for mobile payments. These, too, are fraught with issues at the moment. Few businesses accepts the same payment types, there's entirely too much fragmentation, and merchants aren't educating their staff on how to deal with errors.

Apple doesn't want to tie itself to a technology that isn't fully mature. When Apple puts its stamp on something, there's a lot of weight behind it. Consider LTE. Apple didn't put LTE in the iPhone 4S because it would have negatively impacted battery life to a point where they weren't happy with the end result. Now, that's solved, and LTE is in there.

Apple can't offer a lackluster phone. Unlike the rest of the Android gang, Apple releases only one phone per year. It has to be as flawless as possible, at least in Apple's eyes, which in turn leads to less risk on the hardware front. We can't say that's a good excuse, but it makes sense if you put yourself in Apple's shoes for a moment. The reality is this: people who are thinking about buying an iPhone 5 won't likely avoid it due to the lack of NFC. In fact, the lack of NFC probably hurts NFC proponents more than it hurts the iPhone 5.
User Interface (iOS 6)
We've covered most everything about iOS 6 in a separate article here. It's an entirely new OS, so that warranted a dedicated chunk of digital editorial and analysis. But it's important to discuss how iOS 6 interacts with the iPhone 5 in particular. You see, iOS 6 can also be installed on the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, the newer iPod touches and the iPad 2 / new iPad. Each one treats iOS 6 differently.

Apple has updated the camera just slightly from the 4S. Most of the specifics are pretty in line from the 4S, and indeed, the images are outstanding. The software is quick, taking multiple photos in a row is excellent, and the new Panorama mode is excellent. There's a line in the middle that adjusts in real time as you sway, and the goal is to keep your phone as close to that line as possible as you pan.

That said, Apple falls short on options here. You can turn on the grid or HDR, and tap to focus, but otherwise your camera options are nil. Why? This is one of the world's best cameraphones, yet you can't tweak the ISO, can't adjust shutter speed and can't adjust aperture. It makes no sense. This has long since been possible on Android, and it would behoove Apple to showcase the iPhone 5 camera's potential even more by giving people the option to tweak the settings. Not saying that many would use it, but some of its photo-minded users would appreciate it.

Siri also works really well, particularly over LTE. LTE is supported on the Sprint, AT&T and Verizon models, with Verizon's existing LTE network being the broadest at present. Siri also does a lot more than she used to, including finding eateries nearby (using Yelp's database), making reservations (using OpenTable), looking up sporting scores and finding movie reviews. However -- and this is a huge however -- most of Siri's features, even the new ones, aren't available outside of the United States. Take a look at this chart to see what Siri features are available where. Clearly, Apple needs to school Siri if it hopes for her to gain momentum outside of its home market.

Siri is also still only partly useful. You can open apps with it, but it's unsatisfying. Siri needs to be able to understand statements like: "Siri, open Navigon and route to 783 Miller St. in Lansing, Michigan." Why is there no open API for Siri integration in third-party apps? It's been a year; this should be a huge priority for Apple.

We also harped on Maps in our iOS 6 piece, but it's worth restating: this is the biggest step backwards for the iPhone 5. For city dwellers -- and there are a ton of those who will be interested in the iPhone 5 -- the native Maps app doesn't support public transit directions. The existing Maps app has a clunky option to download third-party guidance for mass transit; that's very unlike Apple. Worse still, Google has yet to release a standalone iOS Maps app, giving you no real alternative to the way things are in iOS 5. Let's be clear: Apple put out a worse mapping product on its own instead of bending to Google's demands and sticking with them for mapping data.

Perhaps you could argue either way, that Apple shouldn't continue to rely on Google, but Maps is a let down. Yes, it's pretty and turn-by-turn is okay. But TomTom, the company Apple partnered with for Maps, is a lackluster bedfellow. Garmin's mapping data is superior, and TomTom's interfaces have been historically subpar in our opinion. But alas, this is what we're stuck with. We're hoping that Apple updates Maps in short order with mass transit, or that Google comes to the rescue with its own mapping app.

The other knock is that Apple's new mapping application uses Yelp for destinations. It's hard to overstate how much better Google's location database is than Yelp, particularly outside of America. Users who are used to leaning on Google's logic to figure out points of interest in Maps will be pretty upset when they realize those features no longer work.

That aside, iOS 6 hums on the iPhone 5. It does everything iOS 5 did, but with a more polished effort. But it must be said: iOS 6 looks a lot like the original iPhone OS. Since 2007, most of iOS has remained the same. Updates and new features have been added, but the overall feel is the same. iOS is about due for a new look. Look at Android 1.0 compared to 4.1. The updates are significant, and they weren't done for the heck of it; they're useful ones. Hopefully iOS 7 will usher in some newness to an OS that's beginning to look and feel dated. And not by changing design for the sake of it, but by doing some fundamental things better.
Camera, Earpods, Battery Life

iPhone 5 Camera Performance -

As mentioned, we think the iPhone 5's camera is capable of a lot, but Apple has hamstrung the options. That said, the automatic mode on the iPhone 5 is snappy and usually accurate, though we did see it struggle to expose the shot properly on occasion while indoors and facing a blaring amount of sunlight in the background. Overall, the camera is worthy of praise, and it'll suit most everyone looking for high quality shots from their phone. In fact, the camera is so solid we just kept wishing that Apple would unlock more advanced controls so we could have even more impact on how exactly the shots turn out. Here are a few samples -- judge for yourself. (Click each for a high-res version.)




The iPhone 5's New Earpods -

Before we dig into performance characteristics of the iPhone 5, Apple's new EarPods are worth a mention. Apple supposedly took three years to engineer these, but in the end, they're still $29 earbuds.

iPhone 5 Earpods

Yes, they stay in your ears a bit better, and the inline remote is quite useful, but they still lack the flexibility of multiple eartips that your basic set of $49 in-ear buds provide. These are an improvement over the prior, flatter earbuds, but if you're serious about sound, you're much better off dropping $50 on a set of Sony earbuds, or $100 on a set from Shure, Klipsch, etc.

As for tonal quality, they're effectively exactly like the prior earbuds, but with a semblance of bass. Mids are a bit thicker than they should be, highs can be shrill on lower bitrate recordings and the bass accuracy can't compare to even $50 in-ear alternatives. But at this point, we're nitpicking. You shouldn't reasonably expect any "factory included" earbuds to be exceptional, perhaps outside of the Beats buds that shipped with a few HTC handsets. These sound fine as a backup set, or as a headset used primary for listening to conference calls, but in general, versus higher-end alternatives, music just sounds a little too hollow to recommend these outright.

iPhone 5 Battery Life -

In our standard web browsing rundown test, which regularly reloads a Web link while cellular data is active, Wi-Fi is on and Mail / Twitter / Facebook are set to update every 15 minutes, we saw the battery peter out on the iPhone 5 after 10 hours and 57 minutes. That's excellent. The iPhone 5 is thinner than the iPhone 4S, and includes a battery-sucking LTE radio, yet it lasts even longer. In average use, which wouldn't have the LCD on constantly, you could absolutely expect this phone to last between 14 and 16 hours. For an LTE smartphone, this is impressive.

Apple Phil Schiller - Battery Life

But here's the thing. While it's fine to heap praise on Apple for squeezing more life out of an even thinner phone, it still feels to us that this is the wrong approach. Did anyone really feel that the iPhone 4S was fat and chubby? Imagine an iPhone 5 that retained the same thickness as the iPhone 4S, yet offered a few more hours of battery life than the existing model does today. With a bit more room and a higher capacity battery, Apple could have become the first major smartphone maker to produce an LTE handset that could last up to 18 - 24 hours with Web usage. Yes, that battery would've been more expensive, but we really wish companies would start thinking of things from this perspective, instead of racing to offer the thinnest possible phone.
Performance Benchmarks
Performance is always a delicate topic when it comes to Apple. Comparing the iPhone 5 to Android phones and Windows Phone is can be like comparing apples to oranges. However, there are few benchmarks you can look at across platforms, where equal conclusions can be drawn.

On the surface, it would appear Apple is behind the times with the A6 processor powering the iPhone 5. The 1.02GHz dual-core A6 (ARMv7) processor is slower in terms of clock speed, and many Android phones are already shipping with 1.5GHz chips. 1GB of RAM is included in the iPhone 5, which is half of what many flagship Android phones possess. But here's the thing: Apple is vertically integrated and they can hand-tuned their SoC architecture and OS to take excellent advantage of each other. You will not find a more optimized CPU/OS pair in the market today, than the A6 and iOS 6.

Looking at Geekbench, we netted an overall score of 1638. That breaks down to an integer score of 1254, a floating point score of 2090, a memory score of 1865 and a stream score of 949. For the sake of comparison, we also ran an in-house iPhone 4S through the Geekbench gauntlet. As a refresher, that device has an 800MHz A5 CPU and only 512MB of RAM. The score? A paltry 611, breaking down as such: integer (517), floating point (724), memory (743), stream (289).

Android phones use an OS from Google and a processor from any number of companies. They work together, but there are inefficiencies that Apple can more efficiently deal with. In other words, Apple makes the absolute most of its SoC. Apple can squeeze every drop of performance out of it, and also design future SoCs to better alleviate what Apple considers bottlenecks in iOS.  You could also argue that the A6's lower clock speeds help when it comes to battery life.

The simple fact of the matter is that the iPhone 5 is much faster than the iPhone 4 and 4S. In average use, browsing the web and flipping through the usual complement of apps, the speed increase feels about like that between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. Page flips are slightly quicker, apps load slightly faster. But there's additional graphical horsepower in here too, so games that are updated to make use of the extra pixels won't see any slowdowns.

iPhone 5 SunSpider Benchmark Results

Web browsing on the iPhone 5 is very quick. And our SunSpider test rings up at a staggering score of 941ms, which is over twice as fast as the iPhone 4S (which sported scores of around 2,200 in our testing) and even quicker than two of the newest Android rivals: the Galaxy S III and HTC One X, which ranged between ~1,600 and 1,800.

The other browser-based benchmark we ran was Browsermark, which netted a score of 182435. That smokes the 108304 score from the Galaxy S III: and even on the tablet side, it beats out the Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF201 (106275) and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (89673). We also ran our iPhone 4S through Browsermark, and it scored 103286.

GLBenchmark specifically focuses on the graphics performance of the graphics core in a given mobile test device.  This benchmark measures OpenGL graphics performance across a number of rendering workloads. "The benchmark contains high-level 3D animations and low-level graphic measurements. GLBenchmark Egypt HD is the upgraded version of the old Egypt 2.1 test: it is more complex, uses more and higher resolution textures and is optimized for 1080p."

It's another impressive showing for the A6 SoC in the iPhone 5.  Here the A6 clearly demonstrates a massive fillrate advantage, a traditional strong suit for Apple since the iPhone 4S.  The Egypt HD Offscreen test shows the A6's graphics engine offering over two times the frame rate of some of the fastest competitive Android smartphones on the market, in this test.

Make no mistake: the iPhone 5 is no marginal improvement over the iPhone 4S in terms of raw speed. It more than doubles the speed in practically every test we threw at it, and it will surely show off its muscle as more and more apps are built to take advantage of the extra oomph provided by the A6 and its healthier allotment of 1GB of system RAM.  Beyond elegant functional and mechanical design, the new Apple A6 processor clearly demonstrates Apple's design prowess when it comes to base silicon technologies as well.
Summary and Conclusion
The iPhone 5 is the best iPhone ever. If you're working with an earlier iPhone, and you're eligible for a contract upgrade, don't hesitate to grab an iPhone 5 if you plan to stick with Apple. The iPhone 5 is everything the iPhone 4S was, but better. The iPhone 5 has a higher resolution screen, LTE, and a lighter, thinner  frame with better battery life. It also come close to or doubles the performance of the iPhone 4S in virtually every benchmark we threw at it. If you're already an iOS fan, you'll likely love the iPhone 5.

But here's the question for everyone else: is the new iPhone 5 a serious rival to smartphones like Nokia's upcoming Lumia 920, the Samsung Galaxy S III, or HTC's newest line-up of Windows Phone and Android handsets? The answer to that question depends on which platform you want to align yourself with.

Smartphones wars are not solely about specifications and features. The fact of the matter is that Apple's iPhone 5 is fast. Perceptually, it runs iOS 6 as fast as the Galaxy S III runs Android and the Lumia 920 will likely run Windows Phone 8. Speed isn't the only factor to consider though. Smartphone users must also consider the entire ecosystem. If you're enamored by things like Google Wallet, Android's high degree of tweakability or Microsoft's WP8 interface, there's nothing the iPhone 5 adds to the equation that'll sway you, other than a wider assortment of apps perhaps.

Its 4" display, LTE radio and availability on three of the major U.S. carriers is nothing new or revolutionary. Android and Windows Phone handsets have had these features for months and months. In fact, the iPhone 5 is arguably on the lower-end of the spectrum as far as its specifications go. But the iPhone 5 really isn't about converting Android loyalists. If you're a fan of ICS or Jelly Bean, you have plenty of excellent handsets to choose from, including the Galaxy Nexus which is selling for a relatively cheap $399 off-contract. And of course, HTC and Nokia have an amazing slate of Windows Phone products planned for the holidays. It has never been a better time to shop in the booming smartphone market.

But, for those in the iOS arena, the iPhone 5 is a major upgrade in almost every way. You may recall analysts having a tough time deciding on whether the iPhone 4S was worth the update from the iPhone 4. But this decision is much easier. If you're on the iPhone 4, you will likely be impressed with the iPhone 5's snappy performance, larger screen and faster LTE cellular connection, so long as coverage is available in your area. If you're an existing iPhone 4S owner, and you aren't eligible for an update, you probably should wait. iOS 6 is available for the iPhone 4S, and it brings all of the bells and whistles save for the larger screen and LTE radio. Even the Panorama camera mode is there.

The best part of the iPhone 5 is a combination of not only the hardware, but also the software. Though the hardware side of the iPhone 5 excellent, it's the software that may sway you or turn you off.  And if you're already into iOS (assuming you are, if you're a 4S owner), just keep your existing handset and download iOS 6. You can take the next opportunity for an upgrade promotion with your carrier of choice or you might even be happy you waited when the iPhone 5S lands next year (if that's what it's called).  Regardless, no matter how you slice it, the iPhone 5 puts Apple on much better footing with the top smartphones in the market from any camp and its performance, build quality, fit and finish are second to none.

  • Truly elegant / light design
  • High-speed LTE radio
  • Double the performance vs. iPhone 4S
  • Strong graphics performance
  • Refined UI with iOS6
  • Beautiful 4" display
  • Issues with current Maps app
  • New Lightning connector to deal with
  • No NFC

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