Apple iPhone 5s review

I’m sure that you all know by now that Apple has announced their latest addition to their smartphone lineup – the iPhone 5s. As ever with Apple, there has been a lot of hype surrounding this launch, and that has resulted in the fact that some of the sites that have reviewed it haven’t really understood what the phone is about, or what it is trying to be. Some put it down for its “bad” specifications. Others fawned over the device just because it was sent down by the Apple gods from above.. Even though I’m pretty late with this review, hopefully I’ll be able to give my thoughts on the device, and while doing that tell you what this device is really about.

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The iPhone has always been a masterpiece of design, and the iPhone 5s is no exception. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Apple is like the Porsche of the tech industry. They relentlessly refine their designs to perfection. It gets a lot of hate, and you see the same sort of thing in comment sections everywhere – “It’s just the same as last year”, “Why do you iSheep keep buying this crap”. I personally think that this endless distillation is great – the consumer gets a well engineered product at the end of it. So, in typical Apple fashion, this ’S’ upgrade looks very much like an iPhone 5 externally. This is not a bad thing at all – you still get the thin metal body, beautiful chamfered edges and the metal and glass two-tone finish on the back. It’s very much subjective – I personally love the design but I’m sure there are plenty who prefer that of the older iPhone 4/4S, and of competing Android and Windows Phones. Even if you don’t find it attractive, it’s hard not to appreciate the level of craftsmanship employed here. You also get the small size of the iPhone – diminutive when compared to it’s huge competitors. This is, again, a personal preference. I am indifferent but for many it is far too small a phone.

There are a few key hardware differences between the iPhone 5 and 5s. The first, most obvious one when looking at the phone are the colour changes. While the Silver/White model remains the same, the Slate Black iPhone 5 has been replaced by a new ‘Space Grey’ model on the 5S. I believe Apple’s mentality here was to prevent the iPhone scratching and fingerprinting. As far as I am concerned, it looks much nicer, and it also seems to do what they intended it to. There is also a new Gold/Champagne model which looks pretty horrible in pictures, but actually isn’t too bad in real life. I much prefer my Space Grey model though. The second is the new home button – a unadorned sapphire glass circle surrounded by a metal ring. The change comes about due to the new technology built into it – Touch ID. This is Apple’s new fingerprint scanner technology (from Authentec) that reads your finger in very fine detail to act as a very secure password to your phone. I’ll get into that later on. The third major hardware difference is the elongated hole for the camera flash – this houses Apple’s new TruTone LED flash which I will get into in the Camera section.

So, the iPhone 5s should be a familiar package to anyone who has seen an iPhone 5 before. If you’ve been living under a rock and somehow haven’t, I urge you to go to an Apple store and hold one. There is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’, and your phone is a 1 or 2 year investment. You don’t want something that you don’t like.

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One of the most important parts of a phone is its display, and it’s safe to say the iPhone doesn’t disappoint. This is actually one of the things that really annoyed me about many reviews or comments. They focused on the size (4”) and resolution (1136×640) – using this as an excuse to call it a sub-par display when in all honesty it is far from it. It’s incredibly well calibrated – the only thing that comes close is the Super LCD panel on the HTC one. This calibration gives you vibrant (but not over-saturated) colours, and relatively deep blacks for an LCD screen. It also contributes to the amazing battery life while remaining relatively pixel dense (326 ppi) due to the small size of the screen. Viewing angles are also fantastic, and consuming media is a great experience despite the small screen. Calibration is actually something I love about Apple – they take the time and effort to do it well unlike many other manufacturers.

However, this does not by any means mitigate the resolution problem. In the coming years I would like to see Apple introduce a new, more pixel dense resolution – or simply double their current 1136×640 on a larger screened device. This would put them on par or higher than their 440+ PPI competitors.

The small size of the screen has fast become one of the actual selling points of this phone. Android phones have quickly become larger and larger to accommodate bigger batteries and faster processors. This has left a distinct lack of small flagship phones – a space which the iPhone is happy to fill. People are clamouring for phones that can be used in one hand by everyone – and only a few manufacturers seem to be catching on. Apple is one, Motorola is another. The Moto X solves this problem in a different way, with a larger screen in a smaller body. I quite like this approach, to be honest – a 4.3” display could probably be shoved into the current iPhone body. Let’s hope for the iPhone 6. If you want some hardcore display stats, I would take a look at Anandtech’s comprehensive display section on their review.

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The iPhone is not “underpowered”. Cores do not automatically equal better performance. The A7 chipset inside the iPhone is classic Apple – optimised for battery life and performance. It is also designed by them, which means that Apple control the entire experience to make it perfect. Included is a monster GPU in the form of a PowerVR Series 6, besting everything on the market apart from the Nexus 5 and more recent MWC announcements like Sony’s Xperia Z2 and Samsung’s Galaxy S5. And you can bet that it will use every inch of it. That is a major advantage of iOS – because there is only one device to build for, developers can optimise their games and apps to use all of the performance available. It’s the same reasons consoles that are basically 4 year old PCs can play games that look almost on par with their modern PC counterparts. The CPU paints a similar story. Even though it is ‘only’ a 1.3 GHz dual core processor (codenamed Cyclone) it bests everything on the market apart from Intel’s Bay Trail tablet chip due to iOS’ optimisation. That is insane performance from a phone – and it really shows.

iOS is super snappy, even with all the flashy animations of iOS 7 – apps load and run quickly and there isn’t a hint of lag anywhere. The A7 really shines through in gaming though – games run buttery smooth at a steady frame rate. This was one of my biggest complaints with Android – even with a very powerful device like the Galaxy S4, games would still lag and stutter. People don’t seem to make a very big deal out of this, but it’s very important to the core iOS experience – that being, everything works exactly how it’s supposed to work. With that experience, you miss some of the customisability of Android or the live information of Windows Phone – but you end up with a smoother and more cohesive experience overall.

However, it is important to look past that “64-bit” nomenclature. As impressive as it is, at this particular moment in time it offers minimal performance gains compared to 32 bit systems. I believe Apple has made the switch early so app developers can optimise their apps before the next generation of devices that can really use the added functionality and power of all those extra bits. Still, it’s a welcome addition.

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The camera on this phone is fantastic. No doubt about it. It really shows how much work is put into the iPhone camera – that I am able to pull this phone out and get an almost perfect picture from it every single time (with the exception of low light). Part of this is due to the great Sony camera sensor, part to do with the A7 chip and also partly due to the camera app and it’s fantastic post-processing. I’m no expert, but I’ll try and explain.

It is ridiculously fast. It launches fast and taking photos happens in a blink, and you can quickly reel off hundreds of photos using the burst capture mode, which takes 10 photos every second. Focusing is also really good – it almost always focuses on exactly what you want it to focus on. It is unmatched on anything else in terms of speed. Photos appear vibrant – vivid but not overly saturated – and very realistic. It’s easier to show than to tell, so here is a gallery.

The phone utilises the A7s raw power when taking photos – one example is that when you take a photo, the phone really takes 4 photos very quickly, then intelligently merges them all into one perfect photo in real time. HDR is also much quicker than it was before, although there is still a slight delay when taking them.

The 5s also has bigger 1.5 micron pixels – this increase in size should allow more light in making your nighttime shots better. I personally noticed a slight improvement, but the lack of optical image stabilisation means it can’t beat the reigning champions that are the Lumia 920 and HTC One. The other major low light improvement comes in the new “TruTone” flash. This new assembly has two different coloured LEDs – the iPhone intelligently detects what combination of white and amber to use to provide the best lighting for a situation. It works very well, but I have noticed that the flash takes a tad longer to work and sometimes it won’t focus in the dark.

Overall, the iPhone is the second best all round camera in a phone on the market. The Lumia 1020 beats it in sheer size and pixels, but honestly I would much rather have the iPhone. As impressive a technical feat as it is, I’m never going to use 41 megapixels and the iPhone takes photos much faster. I think a certain editor in chief might disagree with me here.

Of course, the best way to review a camera on something is to show you actual photos, so I made a gallery to show some I took.

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Software is a big part of the experience on any smartphone, and it is quite controversial here. At WWDC 2013 Apple unwrapped their latest mobile operating system, iOS 7. It was polarising to say the least. People either loved it or hated it – ‘fixed’ versions of it circulated on Dribbble and Twitter for months. The debate still rages on now – it’s very much a personal choice.

I like it. I think there are areas where it could be improved (like some icons), but on the most part I like all of the new transparency and flat design. I think it fits in with their clear hardware design – no doubt because of Jony Ive’s (Apple’s hardware guru) new position as head of iOS design. The most impressive part to me was how quickly developers embraced the new design guidelines and updated their apps to follow suit – all the apps on my home screen are iOS 7 ready apart from one, which is being updated very soon. And most haven’t just been reskinned – they have been redone in such a way that the experience is fundamentally different and better. One of the best examples of this has to be Tweetbot 3, a fantastic Twitter client that has tons of bouncy animations and nice details that make the experience unbeatable. You honestly have to try iOS 7 to see if you like it. I think most people do.

One of the new main features of the 5s is the new Touch ID sensor. This is a fingerprint sensor that has been integrated (rather well actually) into the home button – this is why the home button now has the stainless steel ring around it. It works like magic. I expected it to only work about 70% of the time, but it works very close to perfect. It has rejected my thumb on a couple of occasions when they were cut or greasy, but that is to be expected. It’s also startlingly fast. This is quintessential Apple. Somebody once said, ‘good design is obvious, great design is invisible’. This holds true to Touch ID. You don’t notice it’s gone until you use something that doesn’t have it – then it feels painfully clunky. Apple need to bring Touch ID to the iPad ASAP.

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So, a conclusion. Apple has made a fantastic phone for 2013 and 2014 alike. Is it for you? That depends on what you want. If you don’t mind sacrificing customisability for stability then it’s for you. If you want a great camera then the 5s for you. If you like iOS 7 there isn’t really any other option other than the 5c. I think that if you have an iPhone 5 there isn’t much point upgrading unless you really want to stay on the cutting edge – there are many improvements but I personally wouldn’t be able to justify upgrading. If you’re on the iPhone 4s or earlier – or if you want to give iOS a shot – then there is no better phone.