review In late September Apple released an iPhone with the features most people seemed to want from an iPhone: A larger screen and support for the 4G mobile networks which are springing up like weeds. But in a year where Australia appears swamped in great smartphones, does Apple’s venerable iPhone line continue to hold up against the competition? Read on to find out.
At first glance the new iPhone doesn’t look much different from the old iPhone. It’s still a flat black or white oblong, in the same rectangle with rounded corners which Apple founder Steve Jobs loved so much, right from the formation of the company. The same round home button sits beneath its rectangular touchscreen, and the same power button sits on top. The same volume controls and ringer mute buttons sit on its left-hand side, and overall you just know it’s an iPhone, when you pick the iPhone 5 up. Perhaps no other company has as much design consistency as Apple right now.
When I first saw the iPhone 5 demonstrated in online videos, the impression I had of the handset was that it was boring. After all, we live in an era where companies such as HTC, Samsung and Nokia are setting smartphone design alight right now, with vibrant colours and sensuous polycarbonate which caresses the hand; an age where significantly larger screen sizes are rapidly becoming the norm and manufacturers are openly drawing inspiration from artistic concepts such as ‘nature’ and ‘water’ to bring life to their hand candy. Do we really need another flat black oblong iPhone, I asked myself?
However, when spending time with a review unit of the iPhone 5 over the past several weeks, I’ve come to understand why so many reviewers have stipulated that you don’t know what you’re dealing with when it comes to the iPhone 5 unless you’ve held it.
Having been an iPhone 4 user for several years, I’m familiar with how the iPhone line looks and feels in the hand. However, what is remarkable about the iPhone 5 is that it takes every single element of previous iPhone designs and makes it better. The iPhone 4 and 4S’s glass backing and steel frame becomes anodised aluminium on the iPhone 5, and the feeling of this futuristic material is every bit as nice as the polycarbonate I’ve come to love on HTC’s One XL handset, or the slick smooth plastic of Samsung’s Galaxy S III model. The iPhone 5 is noticeably thinner than the iPhone 4S – 7.6mm compared with 9.3mm – and you notice this difference in your hand and in your pocket. It’s also quite a bit lighter – 112g compared with 140g. The headphone socket has been moved to the bottom of the screen, alongside speakers and the new, smaller Lightning connector.
The width of the iPhone 5 is the same as that of the iPhone 4 and 4S, but it’s slightly longer, to accommodate its larger 4” screen and accompanying 16:9 aspect ratio and resolution (1136×640). Yet, unlike the 4.7” and 4.8” screens which are becoming common with Android manufacturers these days, the iPhone 5’s screen is not so large that you have problems reaching all of its corners with your thumb when holding it in one hand. And perhaps one of the nicest elements of the iPhone 5 is the chamfered edges where its sides meet its back and front plates. Apple says these have been cut with “crystalline diamond”, and they certainly look and feel lovely.
It’s this culmination of small improvements which makes the iPhone 5’s design so different from that of the iPhone 4 and 4S before it. It’s really hard to show in a video, but the impression I got from using the two different designs side by side was that the iPhone 5 was a much more highly sophisticated evolution of the iPhone 4/4S design. Once you’ve played with it, you’ll probably find it hard to go back to an iPhone 4/4S; the iPhone 5 just feels that nice in the hand. We particularly loved the larger screen coupled with the iPhone 5’s new lightness for the experience of reading eBooks on the iPhone 5 (although for video viewing, when you definitely want a larger screen, the larger 4.7″/4.8″ screens of the Galaxy S III and HTC One XL trump the iPhone 5).
To sum up, as mentioned, I was initially a critic, but following testing of an actual unit, I have no doubt that Apple’s statement that it re-engineered the iPhone 5 from the ground up is accurate. This feels like an entirely new device – not a reworked iPhone 4/4S. It fits perfectly in the hand and in the pocket, and you’ll find it hard to use any other smartphone after a week with the iPhone 5. Its build quality is second to none right now, as is its hardware component integration.
Given how far smartphones have come over the past several years, it should be no surprise that the iPhone 5’s list of improved features is relatively small. Frankly, the years where we can expect amazing new features with every new smartphone release are probably gone, at least for the short-term; until radical new technologies come into play.
However, the iPhone 5 does what it needs to do to keep up with the competition. Both HTC and Samsung have had smartphones supporting 4G networks in Australia for many months; HTC’s support for Telstra’s flagship 4G network (one of the best in the world by any measure) in particular dates back almost a year at this point. In this context, Apple’s iPhone has languished behind the competition. This is one of the main reasons why I personally switched to a HTC One XL earlier this year.
The iPhone 5 rectifies this, adding support for the 4G (LTE) networks of Telstra and Optus on the 1800MHz band; the same band which Vodafone is planning to launch its 4 network on in 2013. When you’re in a 4G area with an iPhone 5, the ‘LTE’ label will come up on the screen, replacing ‘3G’, signalling you are able to take advantage of the dramatically faster speeds.
Probably the second major feature which many iPhone fans have been crying out for is a larger screen. Although the iPhone 5 doesn’t go as far as HTC and Samsung have, with their 4.7” and 4.8” models, it does significantly improve on the 3.5” size Apple has used as standard since the first iPhone launched in 2007; taking that display up to 4” by lengthening it. In practice this means the iPhone shifts to a 16:9 movie aspect ratio, from the previous 3:2 ratio, while maintaining Apple’s pixel density of 326 ppi. It’s still a “Retina Display”, to use the marketing term ;) In practice, you get an extra row of icons on your homescreen, and apps have a little more room.
Aside from these two hero features, there are a slew of other minor improvements. Apple’s new A6 processor is included, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi is there, and Apple is also claiming better battery life due to a more power-efficient setup. Apple’s traditional 30 pin data and power connector never seemed particularly large, but the iPhone 5 comes with the much smaller Lightning socket, which is a solid improvement and bring the iPhone into line with the industry standard microUSB sockets used for charging and synching on virtually every other smartphone these days.
Perhaps the other major feature included with the iPhone 5 isn’t actually part of the iPhone – it’s Apple’s new EarPods: New and improved headphone earbuds which Apple says delivers an improved sound over its old models, including noise-cancelling technology to wipe out background noise.
And, as is usually the case with Apple releases, Apple has improved the camera in the iPhone 5; focusing on delivering panorama shots, cutting the speed of photo capture and enhancing the 1080p video recording. The front-facing camera for video calling has also been boosted to ‘FaceTime HD’ levels.
The other new feature which the iPhone introduces is version 6 of Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, although the software can be deployed to previous iPhone models, so it’s not specifically a feature of the iPhone 5. iOS 6 introduces a host of improved small features, such as improvements to the Siri voice assistant, integration of Facebook throughout iOS, improvements to photo sharing, a new e-ticket feature dubbed Passbook (for plane tickets and so on), and the ability to make FaceTime video calls over mobile networks, instead of just over Wi-Fi networks. There’s a bunch of new features; too many to list in this review, and many of them appear to work best with the iPhone 5. But even owners of previous generation iPhones (for example, we upgraded our iPhone 4 to iOS 6 and have been enjoying the experience there) will benefit from iOS 6.
However, it is perhaps the removal of some traditional iPhone features which is most notable with the upgrade to iOS 6. This is the first time for many years that we’ve had to write in a review about features being removed for a software “upgrade”; let’s hope we don’t have to do that too often.
Here we’re talking about the removal of several services previously provided by Google – the YouTube and Maps apps, thanks to what appears to be a disagreement between Cupertino and Mountain View. You can get YouTube back, thanks to a separate app developed by Google, but there’s no such fix for Google Maps; Google hasn’t provided its own app to remedy that functionality yet. Apple has developed its own native replacement option; we’ll go into the limitations and improvements of that service later in this review.
If we were to sum up the new features included with the iPhone 5, we’d have to say that Apple has done what is needed here, but doesn’t appear to have innovated past its competition. High-level smartphones such as the HTC One XL, the 4G Galaxy S III and the upcoming Nokia Lumia 920 are all neck and neck with the iPhone 5 in terms of feature parity. Each manufacturer offers little tidbits and extra features on its own platform to try and get ahead of the others, and certainly Apple does this a lot more than the others, but by and large if you’re after a major feature in a smartphone, you can get it on the iPhone or you can get it from a competing model; there’s not a huge amount of difference in the market right now on the big ticket features.
There are probably four major elements which you’re interested in when it comes to the iPhone 5’s performance; and by and large, for many people, especially technology early adopters, these areas need to be up to par, especially considering the strength of the competition arrayed against Apple at the moment. To our mind, they are 4G support, battery life, software support and generally, how the handset feels and works in the hand (we’ve already gone through this last area: the iPhone 5 is fantastic in this regard).
In the first and most important aspect, 4G speeds, the iPhone 5 clearly delivers. We tested the handset around Sydney on Telstra’s 4G network, and regularly achieved speeds every bit as good on the iPhone 5 as we’ve seen on competing handsets such as the HTC One XL and 4G Galaxy S III (up to 40Mbps or so). Have no worries about the iPhone 5’s 4G support; it’s solid. This plays out in instant Internet access to virtually anything, including streaming video.
Secondly, there is the related question of how the iPhone 5 delivers in terms of battery life. With handsets such as the HTC One XL, it’s been evident that early support for 4G speeds required a bit of a battery hit; our HTC handset rarely makes it through a long day in the office and out at night these days without needing a top-up. Turning off 4G speeds helps this quite a bit, but we’ve always been leery about making this compromise, given access to 4G speeds was a key reason for buying the handset in the first place.
Thankfully, despite the addition of 4G support to the iPhone 5, we didn’t see any significant hit to the handset’s battery life. You can still expect to get through several days of normal use (including 4G) before you will want to consider hooking the iPhone 5 up to a charger, although if you’re constantly streaming video from a site like YouTube over 4G or using your iPhone for Wi-Fi tethering, the battery will go much quicker; you’ll see the bar gradually sinking over a period of several hours with this kind of usage. If you leave the iPhone 5 on a desk and walk away, you can expect it to last the best part of a week, but we didn’t think it had quite the longevity that we’ve seen from models such as Nokia’s recent Lumia line, which is a standout in this regard.
In general, we felt that despite the addition of 4G support and a larger screen to the iPhone 5, that it performed about on par with the previous generation iPhone 4 and 4S models. That is, it has solid battery life, amongst the best in the industry, but that if you’re using it for certain tasks – playing graphics intensive games such as Infinity Blade or streaming video over 4G, the battery will certainly head south rapidly. In this sense, the battery improvements touted by Apple for the iPhone 5 seem to keep it on par with previous models; an achievement in itself, when you consider the battery-sucking new features found in the handset. You can find other views on the iPhone 5’s battery life here and here.
Software support is probably the area of most contention in the new iPhone. In general there are two statements to be made here; both related to iOS 6. The first and most obvious one is the incomplete nature of Apple’s new Maps service.
In our usage, Apple’s new Maps app is actually pretty great for the basics. It feels smoother than the previous version, and it didn’t have any problem finding addresses around Sydney that we wanted, or giving directions between locations. However, when you start looking for that layer of metadata on top that Google does so well – such as the locations of cultural hotspots such as restaurants, cafes, businesses and so on – it didn’t so well. Some of the data was just out of date, and there was quite a bit missing. The other aspect is the missing Street View feature which we’ve come to know and love with Google Maps; and internationally wider problems have been well-documented, with Apple infamously destroying famous landmarks in cities such as New York.
In Australia, mapping support for features such as public transport directions and times as well as 3D landmark imaging has never been fantastic to start with, so I feel as though Australians will be less impacted by the removal of Google Maps from the iPhone than our American cousins will be. We’re used to getting less Down Under, after all, even though we don’t like it. To sum up: Apple’s new Maps isn’t the best it can be, but we have no doubt that it will improve and that Google will eventually launch its own iOS Maps effort. With this in mind, and the fact that Maps does the basics well, we don’t have a huge problem with the app.
The second aspect of software support which we feel is lacking on the iPhone 5 is the freshness of iOS as a whole. In a world which has the vibrancy of Android (especially with add-ons such as HTC Sense) and the slick sliding menus of Windows Phone 8, iOS is looking dated. It’s the most functional mobile operating system on the planet, but it’s no longer the most beautiful; and it’s not hard to see why when you consider that the iOS user interface was designed more than half a decade ago. Things have moved on since then in mobile OS UI, and we’d like to see some of this new dynamic thinking come to iOS. The iPhone 5’s hardware is stellar; its app support unparalleled; but it’s basic user interface needs some more vibrancy to get us excited all over again.
All of the other features of the iPhone 5 perform strongly, as you’d expect. It’s the fastest iPhone we’ve ever used, the camera is great (see some comparison shots below) and the quality of the EarPod headphones is very strong (and they’re comfortable). The speakers are good for a smartphone and we really like the new Lightning connector. But then, you kind of expect all of this from an iPhone; you’d be surprised if these things weren’t satisfactory. The truth is that there was nothing wrong with most of these aspects of the iPhone in the iPhone 4S, and they’ve been moderately improved in the iPhone 5, as you would expect.
Click the photos below to see larger versions (all taken on the same day at the same time).
Apple iPhone 5:
HTC One XL:
Motorola RAZR HD:
Right now, in Australia’s smartphone market, buyers have a plethora of great options from manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC, Nokia and even Motorola. All of these companies have great handsets with awesome touchscreens, support for 4G speeds, great cameras, modern mobile operating systems and so on. So what sets the iPhone 5 apart – why would you buy it instead of one of its rivals?
The main reason to buy an iPhone 5 is if you’re already invested in the Apple ecosystem and don’t want to leave it. Put simply, if you already have any previous iPhone and like it, then you should be thinking about upgrading to the iPhone 5. This handset is a fundamental reworking of the iPhone’s design and adds enough new features (such as 4G support and larger screen) that even those who own its predecessor, the iPhone 4S should look at upgrading. If you want an iPhone, this is the best iPhone, and it’s worth picking it up.
If you’ve made the switch to Android or Windows Phone, then there’s probably no reason to switch back to the iPhone 5; it doesn’t really have any amazing features that the other operating systems don’t, apart from better app support. The iPhone 5 is more about catching up to Apple’s rivals, particularly when it comes to a larger screen and 4G speeds, than it is about exceeding them. And you’ll have more choice of handset design on either rival platform, plus the likelihood of enticing new models being disclosed at CES in January and Mobile World Congress a few months later. But if you are thinking of switching back, now is a very good time to do so; the iPhone 5 is a very strong handset.
For those that don’t yet have a smartphone (and there are surprisingly a lot of these people out there), the iPhone 5 is probably the handset which you should look at picking up. It’s got a bigger app ecosystem and a gentler learning curve than rival models, and everyone knows how to use an iPhone by now. The iPhone 5 represents the ideal introduction to smartphone life.
In our personal pantheon (bearing in mind that we haven’t tested the Lumia 920 yet), we consider the iPhone 5 as one of the two best handsets in Australia at the moment, with the other being Samsung’s 4G Galaxy S III (look out for our review of that model tomorrow). The two handsets are neck and neck for features, performance and build quality, in our opinion, with only personal preference and third-party app support really dividing them. With such great models on the market, it’s a great time to be a smartphone buyer.
Image credit: Apple