iPhone 5 Review: Apple's Best iPhone Yet

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.

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