iPhone 5 review

Thinner. Lighter. Faster. Simpler. The moment the iPhone 5 was unveiled we knew that it was checking off all the right boxes, folding in all the improvements and refinements people have been demanding over the past year -- yet plenty of folks still went to their respective social networks to type out their bitter disappointment. iPhone upgrade ennui seemed to be sweeping the nation, a sentiment that appeared to quickly dissipate when it came time for people to vote with their wallets.

The iPhone 5 is here -- or will be soon, anyway -- and it's every bit the device that people were asking for when the iPhone 4S came out. Its new design has less mass yet leaves room for a larger display and LTE wireless, all while increasing battery life. In nearly every respect, this is an upgrade over the 4S that came before, though it arrives almost a year later than many had hoped. Is it too late to keep pace with the rapidly iterating Android offerings, or is it so good it was worth waiting for? The answer lies below.

Gallery | 32 Photos

iPhone 5 review

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Apple

iPhone 5

Pros

  • Beautiful, sophisticated design
  • Thinner, lighter
  • Larger screen, still easy to hold
  • Great performance
  • Impressive battery life

Cons

  • Lightning connector incompatibilities
Summary

Apple's iPhone 5 is an amazing performer with great battery life wrapped in a delicious shell. It's a top-shelf device.

Hardware

Clearly, the company is confident that it's knocked it out of the park again when it comes to the design of the latest iPhone, and we have to agree.

Apple introduced the iPhone 5 to the world by elevating it from a hidden pylon, rising from the floor and literally sitting on a pedestal for the world to admire while precisely focused lights made the thing gleam like a jewel. Clearly, the company is confident that it's knocked it out of the park again, and we have to agree. But, that new design isn't perfect -- not quite a grand slam, if you'll allow us to continue the metaphor.

The iPhone 5 is a clear evolution of the stark, industrial design introduced two years ago with the iPhone 4. That collection of square edges and raw materials was a huge contrast to everything else the company was producing and, frankly, everything else on the market. It was like an artifact from another dimension where ergonomics lost out to purity of vision, and Apple saw no reason to compromise that purity for the 4S nor, as it turns out, for the 5.

Visually, much has stayed the same, but the biggest change is impossible to see. Pick up the iPhone 5 and you're immediately struck by the reduction in weight. At 112 grams it's 20 percent lighter than the 4S, a figure that doesn't seem like it would make much of an impact. It does -- so much so that it's the lightness, not the bigger display or the thinness, that nearly everybody praises when first getting a chance to hold the iPhone 5 in their own hands.

Gallery | 8 Photos

iPhone 5 vs. iPhone 4S

Meanwhile, the changes in dimensions are surprisingly difficult to detect. That's largely thanks to the iPhone 5 being exactly as wide as the 4 and 4S that came before. This continuity of proportions on the x axis brings familiarity, while a slight increase on the y axis adds functionality. The iPhone 5 measures 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.3 inches (124 x 59 x 7.6mm), making it about a third of an inch (nearly 1cm) taller than before. Since all the extra room happens outside of your grip you hardly notice it, and this also shifts the phone's center of mass away from the center of your hand, which we think helps augment the perception of lightness.

Visually much has stayed the same, but the biggest change is impossible to see.

The new height makes room for that 4-inch, 1,136 x 640 display -- the most progressive change by a long shot. Steve Jobs famously said that the 3.5-inch screen size is the "sweet spot" and, frankly, it was about time Apple added a little more sugar. The new height results in a phone with more usable space and better presentation for HD content (the iPhone is finally 16:9). Yet, it's still easy to use with one hand. Each corner is comfortably reachable by thumbs of nearly all sizes.

iPhone 5 review

That reachability is also helped by the decrease in thickness: 7.6mm, down from 9.3mm on the iPhone 4S. It isn't the world's thinnest smartphone that Apple claimed it was (the original Droid RAZR is thinner, among others), but this is still an impressively svelte device.

An all-new aluminum construction extends around the back, which is either anodized black or left raw depending on whether you opt for the darker or lighter of the two offerings. The white phone is bright and clean-looking; the black, dark and menacing. We'll let you draw conclusions about personality based on color preference, but we will say that the black surface seems to suck up fingerprints that are difficult to clean. Even so, we're glad the all-glass back has been retired, though traces of it remain: two slivers of the stuff punctuate the top and bottom of the back sides. These glossy bands break up the matte uniformity, but help boost antenna performance.

That said, the antennas still comprise the rim of the device, thinner now and the gap between them filled with a material whose color matches the body -- yet more evidence of the design team's attention to detail. These are the same sort of dynamically reconfiguring antennas used on the 4S and, as with that phone, we weren't able to death grip our way into any sort of signal issues.

The face of the device is still fashioned out of glass (no surprise there) and while Apple wouldn't confirm whether that front is indeed the sort of primate-proof silica produced by Corning, we'd hazard a guess that it is. With the metal back now sitting flush to the chamfered edge of the device, the slightly elevated glass surface gives the profile view of the phone a bit of unfortunate asymmetry -- it's now thicker on top than on the bottom.

iPhone 5 review

But that elevated glass does mean your finger doesn't hit any rough edges or unfortunate surfaces when tracing the edges of the panel. The front-facing FaceTime HD camera now sits centered, directly above the earpiece. The Home button, meanwhile, has moved a fraction of a millimeter down and its resistance feels slightly different than that on the 4S, a touch more progressive with a more definitive detent. Hopefully the internal mechanism will prove more durable over time.

The position and design of the other buttons is likewise largely unchanged from the 4S, with the discrete, circular volume up and down buttons on the left just below the (slightly thinner) toggle switch. The headphone jack now moves to the bottom, a change that will cause some to modify their well-established pocket-retrieval mannerisms. But, as users of the iPod touch will tell you, having that jack on the bottom feels quite natural, and we agree. This is a good move.

The phone's speakers are also positioned on the bottom, playing out through a series of 26 holes that flank another major change in the iPhone 5: the Lightning connector.

Lightning

iPhone 5 review

Goodbye, venerable Dock connector. Hello, Lightning. For nearly 10 years the 30-pin Dock connector has been ubiquitous, sprouting out of accessories small and large, but ever since iPods started getting thinner we all knew its days were numbered. The giant, clunky connector is a painful legacy of an earlier time that needs to be removed from the ecosystem and, with the iPhone 5, Apple decided it was time to rip off the Band-Aid. Indeed the Dock connector must go and we won't miss it, but Lightning doesn't always feel like a confident step forward.

First, the good: the Lightning connector is infinitely easier to connect. It slots in nicely and does so regardless of orientation, plugging in right-side-up or upside-down. We were able to drive it home without looking the first time, and every time thereafter. (If only the same could be said for the USB connector on the other side.) It's also small, seems infinitely more durable than its flimsy-feeling elder and even stronger than micro-USB alternatives.

Superficially, it hits all the right marks, but Lightning comes up short in a number of important areas.

Superficially, it's hitting all the right marks, but Lightning comes up short in a number of important areas. It is, of course, incompatible with the roughly 350 million billion iPhone and iPod accessories currently on the market -- a problem mostly rectified by a $30 adapter. But, that's not a perfect solution, as even that won't support iPod Out, the specification used in some cars (most notably BMW and Mini) to enable in-dash control of an iPod or iPhone.

iPhone 5 review

That's an admittedly low number of users left with no way forward, as the adapter will provide the power and analog audio that the vast majority of docks and accessories (and cars) in the world need, but it's still disappointing to see those automotive users, owners of some of the most expensive iPod docks on the planet, left out in the cold.

More problematic is the speed of this new connector. Lightning's name comes as a cheeky play on the Thunderbolt connector, yet Lightning is, at least for now, wholly independent from that standard. In fact, the implementation that comes with the iPhone 5 is based on USB 2.0, meaning that theoretical maximum data transfer rates are no faster than what came before. In practice, though, we were surprised to actually find a tangible difference between the two phones.

To test this we lined up an iPhone 4S next to an iPhone 5 and ran both through a number of syncs with large files. Pulling 5.5GB of data from iTunes to the iPhone 4S took five minutes and six seconds on average. Syncing those same files to the iPhone 5 took three minutes and 57 seconds on average. So, nearly 20 percent faster, but we're not sure how much of this is due to the new connector and how much can be attributed to faster internals in the phone itself.

We confirmed with Apple that the iPhone 5 itself only supports USB 2.0, so a faster interconnect on the other end wouldn't help anything (and it's unclear whether the internal storage could consume data more quickly if it were there), but there's nothing stopping the company from expanding the Lightning standard to work with Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 in the future. For now, at least, the new connector remains confusingly at odds with Apple's own next-generation and similarly named data interconnect. That's no problem if you're using one of the many and myriad wireless ways to pull content directly onto the device (hello, iCloud), but if you're still pushing your media over a cable from your main iTunes library, it's still going to take awhile.

Internals

iPhone 5 review

The heart of the iPhone 5 is the new A6 processor, a chip that Apple wasn't too keen to describe other than it being "twice as fast" as the last-gen A5 and "22 percent smaller." Thankfully, we have ways -- namely, Geekbench, which identifies this as a dual-core 1.05GHz processor paired with 1GB of RAM.

Why not tell this up front? It's clear the folks in Cupertino are sick of people trying to draw conclusions based on core count and gigahertz goals, so they're just sitting this one out. Apple isn't alone, with Intel emphasizing names like Core i5 and Core i7 over raw clock speeds, and Qualcomm and NVIDIA using iterative designations like S4 and Tegra 3 for their respective processors. Still, none have gone so far as to stop publishing key specifications altogether.

We've long-since departed from a time when clock speed or core count could be directly correlated with performance.

Maybe they should. We've long since departed from a time when clock speed or core count could be directly correlated with performance across CPU architectures and, with Apple constructing its own, custom SoC for the A6, that's doubly true. Why, the dual-core A5 chip in the iPhone 4S shows as 800MHz, so looking purely at numbers this new phone should only be 25 percent faster, not twice as fast. We'll put that to the test a little later.

For storage you have a choice of 16, 32 or 64GB models priced (on contract) at $199, $299 and $399. Unsurprisingly, storage is not expandable, but hey, dig that iCloud.

iPhone 5 review

Apple has also greatly improved the iPhone's wireless connectivity options, with the addition of LTE being the biggest talking point. Across the regional variants that will be sold around the world, 700MHz AWS bands for LTE for AT&T in the US are supported, plus Rogers, Bell and Telus in Canada and various carriers in Europe and Asia using bands 1, 3 and 5. Meanwhile, a CDMA version handles Verizon and Sprint LTE in the US plus KDDI in Japan using Bands 1, 3, 5, 13 and 25.

That's a lot of spectrum to cover -- and we haven't even broached the GSM/EDGE, UMTS/HSPA+, DC-HSDPA support in the GSM model, nor the CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B support in the other. What remains to be seen is just what will be open and what will be locked by the various carriers and whether international LTE compatibility truly means international LTE usability. That, in the short term, seems unlikely -- at the very least until the new nano-SIM standard becomes a little more available.

The choice of CDMA vs. GSM will likely come down to which carrier you're on, and which carrier you'd like to be on. In the US, it's naturally AT&T offering the GSM model, Sprint and Verizon with CDMA. Beyond the availability of bands, an important distinction is the ability to do simultaneous voice and data. None of the iPhone 5 models can handle Voice over LTE, so when doing voice calling the phone falls back to either GSM or CDMA, and CDMA doesn't support simultaneous voice and data. So, if you absolutely need to talk and surf at the same time, you're stuck on AT&T in the US.

On top of all that is an expanded selection of WiFi connectivity options. The iPhone 5 adds 802.11a support to complete the set of a/b/g/n compatibility. That connectivity is now dual-band as well, so you can step up out of the crowded 2.4GHz into the clear air at 5GHz. Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and GLONASS support all return. Looking to get directions up the Road of Bones? You're covered here.

Display

iPhone 5 review

The iPhone 4S already has one of the best displays on the market with regard to pixel density, brightness and contrast, and the iPhone 5 brings that up another notch.

The iPhone 5 uses a new 4-inch display that provides a half-inch of additional diagonal extent compared to those iPhones that have come before. Massive difference? Absolutely not, but it does give the phone enough surface area to stay competitive without sizing it beyond the thumb reach of your average consumer. In fact, its four corners seem just as attainable as before, helped by Apple shifting the display down just a few millimeters to get it closer to the center of your hand.

But we've talked enough about how it works in the hand. How does it look? Fantastic, frankly. The iPhone 4S already has one of the best displays on the market with regard to things like pixel density, brightness and contrast, and the iPhone 5 brings that up another notch -- and not just because it has an additional 176 rows of pixels. Putting both under the microscope, indeed, shows the same basic subpixel structure.

iPhone 5 review

If there was one complaint about the 4S display it's that it suffered from a somewhat greenish hue. The 5 fixes that -- if anything, extending just a smidgen to the warm side, but displaying imagery that's much more chromatically neutral than before. The phone also moves up to full sRGB coverage, meaning it can accurately represent every color provided by that spectrum, a claim to fame few smartphones can match.

Apple also promises fewer layers sandwiched between the subpixels and the surface of the glass, the idea being greater contrast when you're outside. Sure enough, the iPhone 5 is a great device for using out in direct sunlight, though to be fair it's a minor improvement over the 4S, which likewise doesn't fear the sun.

Cameras

The iSight camera here is basically unchanged from the 4S. The overall mechanism has been pared down a bit to fit within the tight confines of the iPhone 5, and the protective bit of glass on the outside has been replaced with a 6mm disc of crystal sapphire for durability, which we rather regrettably did not have a chance to put through a torture test.

So, that means we have an 8-megapixel, backside-illuminated sensor shooting through a five-element, f/2.4 lens. And, with the bigger screen, we now have a larger shutter release button, which is slightly easier to tap by big thumbs.

iPhone 5 review

Whether or not you actually want a higher-quality front-facing camera depends on just how much time you spend putting your face on before getting your FaceTime on.

Image quality is still among the best out there for a cameraphone, unimproved but quite impressive in varying conditions. What has improved, though, is the speed. Tap that big ol' thumb as quick as you can and the iPhone 5 will keep up, whereas the iPhone 4S eventually fell behind. It's at least on par with the Galaxy Nexus, which also has a ridiculously quick shooter.

So, while the camera on the back is minimally improved, the one on the front is a big step forward. Replacing the VGA FaceTime camera is a 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD unit capable of capturing 720p video. Resolution is obviously massively increased, but so too is overall image quality, with far more accurate color reproduction. Of course, whether or not you actually want a higher-quality front-facing camera depends on just how much time you spend putting your face on before getting your FaceTime on.

New with iOS 6 is Panorama mode, where you can tap one button and just sweep the phone around to create a massive image. Resulting files are something like 11,000 x 2,500, with the exact resolution varying based on how smoothly you panned from left to right. If you wander up or down the display will warn you to keep in line, and you'll want to, as every time you stray you're effectively cropping the resulting image.

The file is captured in one seamless motion and the final product is almost always free of the sort of glitches and visual aberrations typically found in these self-stitching panoramas. That said, it isn't totally error-free. We took one panorama inside the New Museum in New York City, a room full of thin black lines against a white background. It's about as tough a test as Panorama mode will ever see and indeed you can make out some slight glitches in those lines, but in normal cityscapes and country scenes we struggled to find signs of artifacting. The results are almost always very impressive.

Video capture remains the same on the rear-facing camera -- 1080p30 maximum and offering bright contrast and colors plus the same digital image stabilization that we saw before, which results in reasonably smooth shots even when you, yourself, aren't so smooth.

Performance and battery life

iPhone 5 review

Two times faster? Twice the graphics performance? Better battery life? Actually, yes. The iPhone 5 over-delivers on all those promises.

Two times faster? Twice the graphics performance? Better battery life? Actually, yes. The iPhone 5 over-delivers on all those promises. Running the Geekbench test suite on the iPhone 4S gave us an average score of 634. The iPhone 5 netted an average of 1,628. That's more than twice as fast and, while you won't necessarily see such huge increases in day-to-day usage, apps do load noticeably quicker, HDR images are processed in half the time and tasks like video rendering in iMovie are equally expedient.

SunSpider scores average at 924ms, which is more than twice as fast as the 2,200ms the iPhone 4S manages and still quite a bit quicker than the 1,400ms scored by the Galaxy S III and the 1,700ms managed by the HTC One X. More important than numbers, web pages load very quickly, snapping into view as fast as your data plan can shovel the bits into Safari and, once there, smoothly reacting to your gestures.

Naturally, we'd be telling just half the story if we only talked performance. There's an important question that's left: what kind of battery life can you expect? Power is nothing without longevity and, shockingly, the iPhone 5 copes amazingly well. In a day of heavy usage with LTE, GPS and WiFi all enabled, we managed 14 hours and 18 minutes before the phone succumbed to the elements.

On our standard battery rundown test, in which we loop a video with LTE and WiFi enabled and social accounts pinging at regular intervals, the iPhone 5 managed a hugely impressive 11 hours and 15 minutes. That's just 10 minutes shy of the Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx.

When it comes to wireless performance, the iPhone 5 didn't disappoint either. We tested a CDMA variant on Verizon's network, going between 3G and 4G connectivity as we traveled about this great nation. Overall, the iPhone 5 did an excellent job at finding and keeping signals, and call quality is quite good. Callers came through loud and clear and said we sounded great as well -- though most of the time we sadly couldn't tell them what we were calling them on. Data transmission speeds were at or above comparable Android LTE devices held nearby, usually in the 10-20 Mbps range both up and down.

Software

iPhone 5 review

The iPhone ships with Apple's latest mobile operating system, and for our full take on that we'll direct you toward our full iOS 6 review. But, let's discuss a few things that are particularly applicable to smartphones. It's the new Maps app that will have the biggest impact on most users, and in general we found Maps beautiful and fast, a smooth and very aesthetically pleasing way to get from place to place.

But, it isn't nearly as comprehensive as Google's offerings on Android. The biggest drawback is the unfortunate lack of public transportation directions. If you haven't quite mastered New York City's subway system, you won't get any help from your iPhone 5. Curiously, the app offers to give you public transportation directions, but should you choose that option it pops you straight into the App Store with a search for "Routing Apps." Right now, there are zero results.

It also lacks the detailed layering that you can apply in Google Maps and Google Navigation, showing you whatever you want to see. Maps will list some important POIs -- mostly gas stations and convenience shops -- but if you want to see all Mexican restaurants on your route you'll have to dig deeper. Finally, while Maps does show traffic, we never saw it give a warning about traffic along a route currently being navigated. That's important information for road trippers.

Passbook is similarly incomplete. This is Apple dipping its toes into the virtual wallet space, providing the ability for companies to write custom apps that will slot in here and provide access to things like movie tickets and value cards. But, as few major players have pledged to deploy their services here, this serves as a framework for something that will be cool rather than something that actually is right now. We're expecting good things.

The new Shared Photo Streams feature, however, is a welcome addition. Here you can select a few pictures from your roll, or indeed a new picture you just snapped, and share it with one or more friends -- or post it in the public for all to see. New photos added to the stream popped up within about 30 seconds and, while it isn't quite as seamless and fun as Google+ Events, it's a nice way to share photos with friends.

In general, iOS 6 has seen some nice nips and tucks where it needed it. iCloud integration is tighter, Safari is better and the overall experience is more polished. But, it isn't a major step forward in any regard. Suffice to say, conservative iPhone users won't have to worry about anyone moving their cheese, but if you didn't like iOS before, you still won't today.

Wrap-up

iPhone 5 review

The iPhone 5 is a significant improvement over the iPhone 4S in nearly every regard, and in those areas that didn't see an upgrade over its predecessor -- camera, storage capacity -- one could make a strong case that the iPhone 4S was already ahead of the curve. Every area, that is, except for the OS. If anything, it's the operating system here that's beginning to feel a bit dated and beginning to show its age.

Still, the iPhone 5 absolutely shines. Pick your benchmark and you'll find Apple's thin new weapon sitting at or near the top. Will it convince you to give up your Android or Windows Phone ways and join the iOS side? Maybe, maybe not. Will it wow you? Hold it in your hand -- you might be surprised. For the iOS faithful this is a no-brainer upgrade. This is without a doubt the best iPhone yet. This is a hallmark of design. This is the one you've been waiting for.

Zach Honig and Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.

Engadget HD Podcast 316 - 09.18.2012