iPhone 5s Review: The Smartphone Goes 64-bit
Design and Hardware
The Touch ID sensor is perhaps the biggest leap forward for Apple's iPhone line. The company has been relatively averse to adding third-party hardware. For some time, it avoided LTE chips reportedly due to their power consumption. Then, it ignored NFC while most of the Android world flocked to it. With megapixel counts on cameraphones swelling (Nokia's 41MP Lumia 1020 comes to mind), Apple has retained the 8MP resolution on the 5s. So, without question, a new wrinkle in the hardware is getting a ton of attention.
The Home button has long since been viewed as hallowed on the iPhone. While the exterior of the iPhone line has changed numerous times over the years, the constant was that single toggle button. Apple wouldn't change such an iconic piece of its overall iPhone image without good reason, but the Touch ID feels like an excellent update. In the middle of 2012, Apple shelled out $356 million for a little-known company called AuthenTec. The firm's forte? Content and data protection, primarily in the realm of fingerprint sensors and contactless payment.
At the time, hardly anyone batted an eye. That's pocket change for Apple, and honestly, the company quietly acquires a few smaller outfits each year it seems. As it turns out, this one was big. A year later, that technology is baked into the most prominent button on the iPhone, and it's a bigger risk than some may realize. Security has been a huge pain point in the cloud computing sector. Everyone from Evernote to Sony and even Apple itself has been hacked within the past 18 months, and while the damage has been minimal, it's proof that the digital world is still a volatile one. The Touch ID sensor pairs with a dedicated hardware chip within the iPhone, which can store up to five fingerprints. In reality, even the iOS software doesn't know your fingerprint's identity. It's a great security measure, and moreover, the sensor itself actually detects a layer directly under your skin. In other words, would-be thieves have a long way to go to hack into the new iPhone 5S.
The process of training the phone takes around three to five minutes, and then you're done. By supporting up to five fingers, you're able to program your spouse's finger in there as well in case they need to access your dialer in an emergency. It works like a charm. In fact, it's shockingly fast, and it eliminates the need to enter a conventional PIN number to unlock your phone. After just a day of use, we found it cumbersome, comparatively, to unlock Android and Windows Phone products that lack a fingerprint sensor. You could say that Apple's likely starting a trend here, but in fact, it's one that was already started. Motorola's Atrix had a fingerprint sensor baked in back in early 2011, but its erratic behavior soured so many customers that Moto has yet to embed such a sensor into any of its phones since.
Moving on to the display, the same 4" (1,136 x 640) Retina Display is on board. There was a time where that pixel count felt impressive, but today, the iPhone is facing a slew of Android phones that boast 1080p panels. Of course, it's safe to say that the iPhone 5s display is still striking. Colors are perfectly displayed, viewing angles are excellent, and it's clear that iOS 7 was engineered to look its absolute best at this screen resolution. Could Apple have offered a higher-resolution display? Sure, but the company probably opted to hold steady in order to not diminish battery life -- and that's a choice that many should be okay. However, some of us on the team here that have been using 4.7 - 5-inch devices can never go back and the iPhone 5S just feels too small in comparison.
Internally, there's still only 1GB of RAM. While the phone is blisteringly fast as-is, this limit really hampers what could be possible with third-party apps. We would've loved to have seen 2GB (or even 4GB), as is becoming common in flagship Android handsets. Particularly with the 64-bit processor, additional RAM would have helped the iPhone 5s's benchmarking prowess to show even more impressively in certain workloads.
While we're talking internals, Apple's A7 chip and its 64-bit architecture have led Apple to claiming that it's some 2x faster than the previous generation in both CPU and graphics performance. It has an all-new image signal processor, supports OpenGL ES 3.0, and for the first time ever, is paired with what Apple calls its "M7 co-processor." This companion chip collects motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass, and thankfully, Apple has opened up the API for the M7 in order for third-party app developers to tap into it. Already, Nike is updating one of its fitness tracking apps to monitor when you're moving and when you're at rest. While the M7 won't be tapped into much at launch, the possibilities here are interesting to consider. Perhaps we won't even need additional hardware on our wrists in order to track fitness stats and the like; we'll have to wait and see what developers do to take advantage of the new silicon.
On the iPhone 5s backside, there's a refined 8MP camera with an enlarged ƒ/2.2 aperture. The new sensor is larger, with pixels measuring 1.5 microns. Combined, these two improvements allow the iPhone 5S to boast 33 percent greater light sensitivity. Apple has also rethought the flash; the "True Tone flash" figures out exactly how much light your shot needs instead of blindly blasting the subject. What it means is more evenly-lit shots with better white balance. In our testing, we still didn't find that it made us any more likely to use the flash, but technically, it's an improvement.
We'd also like to point out that Apple has yet to up the maximum internal storage available in its flagship phone. Yes, we know that the cloud is the go-to point of access, but local storage still matters. Particularly on phones, having offline access to music, apps, articles, navigation, personal documents, and prized photos is important. We'd argue that with unavoidable data caps and tiers, local storage is even more important now than ever before. Having 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB available in the iPhone 5s would have easily distanced Apple's flagship smartphone from the lower-end iPhone 5c as well as the competition.