preview With a fingerprint sensor for security and a bevy of improved specifications, the iPhone 5s is the new top dog on the Apple smartphone circuit. But will this incremental but expensive upgrade do enough to keep the Apple faithful happy? Read on to find out.
Note: This article represents an advanced look at the design, features and likely performance of this product, but we haven’t actually tested or played with it extensively ourselves it yet. A follow-up full review will be published when we have.
If you’re familiar with the already stellar design of the iPhone 5, then you pretty much know what to expect from the iPhone 5s. If you need a reminder, the iPhone 5 is a symphony in high-quality aluminium and top-notch components. Most of the device’s controls and inputs are in the same place as the previous iPhone 4 and 4S line (volume buttons and volume/screen aspect toggle on the left-hand side, on/off button on the top, USB connector on the bottom and so on), but the whole phone had been redesigned to feel radically improved. We wrote in our review of the iPhone 5:
“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.”
The iPhone 5 is also one of the lightest and thinnest smartphones on the market, and given its featureset, it’s no surprise it was an absolute winner in the market, with Australians lapping up the unit to the tune of hundreds of thousands of devices within months of its launch. Telstra alone sold over 500,000 iPhone 5 units in just a few months to the end of 2012.
In this context, the design of the iPhone 5s represents only a small evolution over the iPhone 5. Apple has added a new colour — ‘gold’ — to the line, and its black model has become ‘space grey’, but in general the iPhone 5s appears to look and feel precisely as the iPhone 5 did. This isn’t a bad thing: In fact, in our opinion, the iPhone 5 is still one of the best-looking and feeling handsets available today. However, if you didn’t like the design of the iPhone 5, just a heads-up: You’re probably not going to like the iPhone 5s either.
Perhaps the only real noticeable change to the iPhone 5s, apart from the colour changes, is that the home button on the iPhone 5s has changed to reflect its new additional function as a fingerprint sensor. The button looks subtly different and is now composed of “laser-cut sapphire crystal”, with a simple stainless steel ring around it. It doesn’t materially change the design of the iPhone 5s, but it’s something to note.
Obviously the real new hero feature which the iPhone 5s brings is the fingerprint sensor, which performs a variety of functions for the iPhone. Firstly and most obviously, after a little setup, you’ll be able to unlock your iPhone using the sensor, instead of swiping to open it or entering a PIN as many people currently do.
However, Apple is also integrating this ‘Touch ID’ functionality into its software in a broader sense — you can now use your fingerprint to approve purchases from the iTunes music, app and book stores, without having to enter a passport. You don’t have to be holding the iPhone 5s any particular way, either — entering your fingerprint sideways or upside down still works, and you can also store multiple fingerprints on your iPhone 5s, so that family members such as children can also use your phone. Critically, also, your fingerprint data is not stored with Apple centrally, but only on the iPhone 5s itself, to protect privacy.
Other new features with the iPhone 5s include its new 64-bit A7 processor, which is being billed as being substantially faster than the previous model, a new dual_LED flash and reworked camera (with a larger sensor, bigger pixels and a different aperture — all designed to “let in more light”), and a ‘M7’ co-processor which is designed to more efficiently measure motion data from the smartphone’s included accelerometer, gyroscope and compass, taking effort away from the phone’s central CPU. The front-facing camera on the iPhone 5s has also been upgraded.
Critically for Optus, which is now operating two 4G/LTE networks, there is a model which supports its 2300MHz 4G network just launched in major Australian metropolitan areas, as well as the existing 1800Mhz frequency already used by Optus on its existing network, as well as by Telstra and Vodafone.
For the iPhone 5s, Apple has also designed a series of in-house cases specifically made for the unit, in six colours. Apple describes the new cases as follows:
“Made from premium, hand-selected leather, each one looks and feels luxurious. And because it’s precision crafted for iPhone 5s, your phone still feels incredibly slim even with the case on. The leather is deliberately shaped to cover the volume buttons, the on/off switch, and the chamfered edge of iPhone. Holes for the iPhone speaker are cut with a high-speed drill normally used for circuit boards. Inside, a soft microfiber lining protects the exterior of your iPhone. Outside, you see color that’s more than surface deep, thanks to a dye that’s infused into the leather.”
To be honest, we don’t really like the case colours Apple is offering for the iPhone 5s, but that’s obviously purely a matter of personal taste, and there are obviously plenty of third-party options available.
Lastly, with the iPhone 5S and its sibling the 5c, Apple is introducing a new version of its iOS operating system, iOS 7. In fact, iOS 7 will also be available as a free upgrade today to owners of other iOS devices such as recent iPhones and iPads.
It would be a bit hard to go into all the new features and design included in iOS 7 as part of this review. However, suffice it to say that the platform feels radically different in terms of its user interface than the previous version, iOS 6, with Apple having revamped its imagery, icons and user interface elements along more modern lines. From what your writer has seen of the new interface, it’s fantastic, slick and represents a solid step ahead for Apple, although the colours strike us as being a bit bright and ‘fluoro’ at times.
In terms of features, Apple has introduced countless improvements in iOS 7, from ‘Control Centre’ — quick, Android-like access to controls such as Wi-Fi, volume and brightness from any screen — to a new notification centre, to better multitasking, to a massively improved camera app, to improvements to included apps such as Photos, Safari, Siri and others. The popular ‘AirDrop’ feature from Mac OS X, which lets you quickly and easily send another device files if they’re close by, makes an appearance, and there are also new security features to prevent iPhone thieves from erasing the device or turning off the ‘Find My iPhone’ functionality.
Organisations which have corporate iOS fleets also get improvements with iOS 7 — from setting per-app VPNs, to App Store licence management, new mobile device management configuration options, enterprise single sign-on, third-party app daya protection and so on.
In general, what we see from the iPhone 5s, on both the hardware and software front, is not the attempt to push new technical specifications to their edge that we see from many other smartphone manufacturers. It’s not all about speeds and feeds, per se. Instead, with the featureset of the iPhone 5s and iOS 7, it’s all about gradual evolution that massively deepens the advantage Apple enjoys over its competition. There’s no need to add a 16 megapixel camera to the iPhone 5s — when the eight megapixel model found on the iPhone 5 already produces (according to our testing) the consistently best photos of any smartphone on the market. Instead, it’s useful to iterate that model better in a more sophisticated manner.
Although some, including myself, prefer the user interface of Android, especially the default ‘Nexus experience’ found on some models, right now, in terms of the depth of its features, there still is no going past iOS as a mature operating system. With iOS 7, the platform gets a revamped user interface that keeps it fresh and modern, while also retaining its depth of features and adding sophisticated new ones.
All in all, it’s really hard to go past the featureset of the iPhone 5s as a top-line smartphone in mid to late 2013. Samsung’s pushing the boundaries continually, but from a featureset point of view, Apple’s iPhone 5s and iOS 7 likely have pretty much all of the competition beat.
It’s always hard to guess at the performance of a smartphone before actually testing it, but given the already strong performance of the iPhone 5 and expected excellent performance of the iPhone 5s hardware in areas such as its camera, we’ll be looking to test three specific areas on the iPhone 5s in depth.
To start with, there’s the fingerprint sensor. Is it accurate? Is it quick? Is it actually useful? We want to know whether this is a gimmick or not. We can see it being tremendously useful for both individuals and businesses, but it has to work perfectly or else it will get annoying.
Secondly, there’s iOS 7. Apple’s design chief Jony Ive has historically focused more on hardware than on software, and notes of caution have been rung by many commentators regarding what they have seen as the less than ideal design of iOS 7’s UI elements. It will be interesting to see how iOS 7 performs on the iPhone 5s, and whether it gets in the way of user behaviour or not. Apple doesn’t always make good software choices, and we’ll be examining the iPhone 5s closely for signs that Apple’s not trying to force us into using our smartphone the way it wants to — and not giving us enough flexibility.
Lastly, there’s battery life. When we first tested the iPhone 5, we didn’t see any real hit to its battery life from its improved features and 4G support, but after owning a unit and using it consistently, we can definitely say the iPhone 5 suffered from similar battery life problems as other 4G models. We’ll be looking to Apple, with the iPhone 5s, to improve battery life over the previous model. This is something we consistently test for in smartphones, and we’re yet to see a smartphone which has really excellent credentials in this area. Ideally, we’d like to see a model that goes 2-3 days of moderate usage without needing a charge.
Look, it’s pretty hard not to back Apple on this one from a pure quality and featureset point of view. We haven’t tested the iPhone 5s yet, but given that it’s an incremental upgrade on the already excellent iPhone 5, we expect it to perform very well and stand its ground in terms of challenges from rival smartphone manufacturers. The iPhone 5s is looking like it will lead the top end of the market in almost every area, from camera to battery life to features to software. In our opinion, Apple still makes the most complete, well-rounded package on the market in terms of its models’ features and build quality, and we don’t expect this to change with the iPhone 5. If you want to buy the most full-featured, best-performing smartphone, odds are that for the next little while, that’s going to be the iPhone 5s.
Some caveats are that we’re keen to test out the smartphone’s fingerprint sensor and battery life, and we still retain some concerns regarding iOS 7, which won’t be alleviated until we can test the new operating system ourselves.
However, when considering whether to actually buy one of these things, there is also the matter of price. At RRP price points of $869, $999 and a staggering $1,129 for the iPhone 5s 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models, the iPhone 5s will be one of the most expensive smartphones available in Australia, and it doesn’t get a lot cheaper when paired with mobile plans from the likes of Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.
Pretty much any other competing model — from the Samsung Galaxy S4 to the HTC One to the Nokia Lumia 925 — is going to be substantially cheaper than the iPhone 5s. The Lumia 925, for example, sells for only $699 RRP in Australia and is very strong in one area that Apple has long counted as a strong point for its iPhones — photography.
If you are in the market for a new iOS device specifically, and you want to remain on the bleeding edge, then this is your baby. You’re not going to be able to take full advantage of iOS 7’s full functionality, including fingerprint detection, unless you have an iPhone 5s. You’ll pay through the nose for the privilege, but then many people will be happy with that.
However, if you are in the market for a new iOS device, and you don’t really need the absolute high-end specifications which the iPhone 5s offers, then you may want to look at the iPhone 5c instead, which we’ll be previewing tomorrow, as it offers pretty much the same specifications as the previous iPhone 5 in a colourful package, and at a substantially cheaper price than the iPhone 5s. Alternatively, you could also look at picking up an iPhone 5; there are still plenty of those around, and the price of the iPhone 5 should be coming down due to the launch of the new Apple handsets. Make no mistake: The iPhone 5 is still a fantastic handset, and it will support Apple software upgrades for the forseeable future.
It’s in the situation that you don’t need an iOS device, however, that things start to get interesting. We still rate one of the best handsets on the market as being Google’s Nexus 4 unit, which is currently selling for as low as $249 online. $249! That’s a little over a quarter of the price of a 16GB iPhone 5S. Sure, you don’t get 4G speeds, but you get virtually everything else you want from a modern smartphone handset, including very good photography. I own an iPhone 5, but I mainly use my Nexus 4 at the moment.
The iPhone 5s is a great device. Die-hard iOS loyalists will love it and pay through the neck for it. But for everyone else, and anyone who doesn’t need all the new features Apple has built in to its new smartphone, price will definitely be a factor here, and for our money, it pays to shop around. When you can get fantastic handsets such as the Nexus 4 for cheap as chips and other great models for several hundred dollars less than the iPhone 5s, one wonders whether more Apple users will look at jumping ship this year. After all … who really needs a fingerprint scanner in their phone? So many of Apple’s new features are ‘nice to have’, rather than a ‘must’, at this point.
And great smartphone quality is no longer only available in the top price brackets in the market; a fact Apple would be wise to remember.
Image credit: Apple