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September 18th 2012 12:19 pm

The iPhone 5 isn't exciting. Or boring. It's just plain better.

I've been thinking lately about something Steve Jobs once said on stage. "Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. One is very fortunate to work on just one of these in their career. Apple's been very fortunate that it's been able to introduce a few of these into the world." He identifies the Mac in 1984. The iPod in 2001. And then he introduces the world to the very first iPhone.

That's it.

Not even the iPad got that introduction.

Well, maybe you heard that Apple announced another new iPhone last week. And cue the annual chorus of tech press who immediately took to calling it boring, ho hum, meh, yet another. (Great roundup here: curiousrat.com­/home­/2012­/9­/17­/boring.html)

Here's the thing: most of these folks are actually whip-smart. Like me, they do this stuff for a living, and they've seen it all. They're looking for something fresh that will really pop with their audience.

And that's the problem, right there. Blink and you'll miss it.

Before I explain, let's take a quick look at some of the marquee features that marked the evolution of each new model since the introduction of the first iPhone:

iPhone 3G
  • Faster data (3G)
  • GPS
  • (And global availability, if you call that a feature.)
iPhone 3GS
  • Even faster processor / graphics
  • Better battery life
  • Better camera
iPhone 4
  • Retina display
  • New slimmer design
  • Even faster processor / graphics
  • New, vastly improved camera.
iPhone 4S
  • Even faster processor / graphics
  • Even better camera
  • Better antennas
  • Faster data
  • Siri
iPhone 5
  • New slimmer, lighter design
  • Larger screen
  • Even faster processor / graphics
  • New, vastly improved camera
  • Faster data
Besides maybe the introduction of 3G (which I still hold should have been a feature of the first iPhone) and the Retina display, there probably isn't a single item on this list could be considered "exciting" (or whatever your definition of the opposite of "boring" is).

So it figures why we're told year after year the latest iPhone isn't all that interesting, and that the iPhone 5 is no different. Yet we also know that each successive iPhone has sold more -- and faster -- than its predecessor.

So where's the disconnect?

How does the customer validation -- in this case, record-setting sales and industry-topping user satisfaction ratings -- seem to so consistently differ from the pundits' collective yawns?

Here's the thing: most products aren't exciting. Or boring. They're just to varying degrees better. Year in and year out, they improve. And then eventually they'll start to get stale, and are invariably disrupted by something totally new and novel. Something we haven't seen before. Something exciting. (Or, if you prefer, something not "boring".)

That kind of product invents -- or reinvents -- an entire product category. Sometimes it even causes us to step back and revel in our collective human achievement.

These products are rare. Like, only-once-every-few-years rare. They're almost never made by the same company (see: The Innovator's Dilemma - www.amazon.com­/gp­/product­/0062060244­/ref­=as­_li­_tf­_...). And they never go back to back with another product in the exact same space -- that kind of lightning just doesn't strike twice.

The trick isn't to ship the most advanced product. Advanced has almost nothing to do with it. In fact, too often the most technologically advanced products are poorly executed, or wind up doomed to the bin of failures labeled "ahead of its time."

The products that break the game open aren't playing the specs game or the iteration game -- that comes later, if they're lucky. It's about vision. It's right place, right time. It's execution. And it's super rare.

These product don't always look revolutionary on day one. In fact, they can even be pretty hard to spot at first blush. But they're always easy to identify in hindsight -- once they've fundamentally changed how we do something, once they've caused us to question how we ever went without them.

But the buzz inevitably wears off, and the long haul sets in. We remember the magic of our first WiFi router or microSD card -- but now that stuff has become totally pedestrian. The game-changers make way for mature new product categories, which in turn produce mature new products.

And mature products -- like cellphones -- aren't supposed to be reinvented every year. That's the point -- if they were under constant, complete reinvention, you wouldn't be able to call them mature. (Remember what Steve said about products that change everything?)

Well, here's the kicker: smartphones have gotten mature in the last five years. Very, very mature.

So now you're starting to see why it's almost impossible for there to be a whole lot of novelty. Is it any wonder why the next best selling device is such a snore when you're a technology critic looking at your 400th cellphone this year?

It's exactly in this way that mainstream consumers see things in ways that technology enthusiasts often don't, or can't.

So let me propose a new way to look at this. Consider whether a product is thoughtfully and humanely designed. Consider whether it's superior to its predecessor in meaningful ways. Consider whether it's a good value. These are the questions we ask when we give a product its gdgt Score, or when making it a Must-have.

Expecting every single product to be utterly exciting is bullshit. Ask: it a great product?

Zoom out. Stop staring at our beautifully laid out product spec pages for a second. Is it a great product?

The Kindle Fire HD has great WiFi, a better screen, and a killer price.

Fine. But is it a great product?

Motorola's (not at all ostentatiously named) DROID RAZR MAXX HD has ridiculously great battery life.

Fine. But is it a great product?

The Paperwhite has a backlit, capacitive E-Ink screen.

Fine. But is it a great product?

iPhone 5 has a 4-inch display and LTE.

Fine. But is it a great product?

I think most people don't need to see the sales numbers to be able to tell.

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83 replies

I think most pundits and even most regular people's view of innovation is flawed. They expect something which cannot exist: a product iteration which is also revolutionary. There are all these complaints that the 5 isn't innovative enough, yet if you ask people what they would have liked to see, generally all they can contribute is NFC or some other minor feature which would itself have been a small iteration.

Put simply: If there is going to be another mind blowing, industry changing announcement from Apple, it will not be at the yearly iPhone press conference - it will be a completely new product.
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From the other comments here I can see another reason people are disappointed by these announcements - they expect Apple to stray from their vision for products and specifically their vision for the smartphone as realised in the iPhone.

Apple will not stray. You can see it by the way they talk about each new iPhone as "the best iPhone we've ever made." It's not something new. It's simply the best version of their initial concept. They will continue to focus on build quality and user experience and the features which they believe to be important.

Rather than be disappointed the iPhone does not match other platforms spec for spec, I think the more appropriate response is to be glad Apple are providing an alternative in this market which they have created. They've never really been ahead on specs with any product they've created so, though it no longer surprises me, it is surprising people continue to expect them to be.

Spec matching is not innovation. Apple will continue to be Apple.
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You, like the author of the article, "get it"! Great comments!
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You had me at "blink and you'll miss it." I think you're right on. I'm moving from a Galaxy Nexus back to the land of iPhone (preordered the 5).

In terms of hardware, iPhone is second to none. And I enjoy iOS more than Android. There are a few features I'm going to miss though, but not enough to keep me from moving.
1) Jelly Bean's word suggestions or other keyboards, like Swype.
2) Jelly Bean's docked screensaver clock mode
3) I will also slightly miss Google Now, or, well, the idea of it. It doesn't update sports scores fast enough and it doesn't work for my commute (I take a train but it doesn't seem to know that).
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Excellent! I hope more people think along these lines when looking at or reviewing products; not just gadgets but products. I would suggest two words to add onto the question for people planning on making a decision: for you.

Is it a great product, for you?

Because, in the end, that is what matters most.
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Yeah, fair point! Of course, from my side of things (i.e. the side of tech critics, pundits, publications, reviewers, etc.), it's impossible to answer that for every single person. But we can do at least two important things here, and I hope we do them well:
  1. Tell folks whether a product is, in general, great. (See: gdgt Score, Must-have, Conclusion)
  2. Give people enough detailed information to help them determine whether it's right for them. (See: detailed critic + user review data and user criteria comments, product comparisons / specs, prices + price alerts, etc.)
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That is why I like the site because you consistently do both of those things and you do them well with a great community.

Gdgt provides a great starting point by asking, is it a great product.

Keep up the great work.
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I never really thought about things that way, and it's absolutely right. Awesome products don't grow up and become awesome products, they just get better. There's a ton of products out there that have the potential to be as awesome as the first iPhone was (see: Google Glass), but until it actually happens, we all need to dial it down a notch and realize what is really there.
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"The products that break the game open aren't playing the specs game or the iteration game -- that comes later, if they're lucky. It's about vision. It's right place, right time. It's execution. And it's super rare."

I think this pretty aptly describes the first iPhone and its effect on the mobile industry.

But as far as iPhone 5, I think the boredom stems from all the various leaks that came out before the announcement. I couldn't help but feel a bit underwhelmed when the actual device was being introduced either.

Once I took that step back though and looked at how improved this is over the previous model, I realized how great the iPhone 5 is (or seems to be, since I don't have one).
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What a great article I just read. Thank you for sharing your perspective ryan! :)
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I completely agree that we can't or at least shouldn't expect another leap forward like the iPhone from Apple. At the same time that doesn't mean that the hardware could not stay at or near the forefront for the category. There has almost always been at least one feature that Apple could hang their hat on as superior and I don't know what that would be this time.

That leaves the ecosystem and I wouldn't begin to argue that anyone is yet their equal there, but Android is gaining ground and Microsoft is looking to get their second eighth wind. Just as we are seeing with the hardware this is a lead that Apple could eventually squander.

By all appearances it's a great product again this year, but long term I don't know that playing it safe as they have been will be a winning strategy.
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I listened to the pundits too and found there to be a disconnect with what "real people" think....

I was sat watching my son's karate class with all the karate moms. I'm usually the only dad there. All moms, without exception, talked about the iPhone 5 and that they would sign up for one (this was last Thursday, the day before signing up was available). One mom snuck out of watching her son in class to check if she was eligible for the upgrade. She came back pissed as she would have to wait until the end of November.

So there is excitement. Just not from those that seem to cover the news.

And yes, I ordered mine too.
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Yep just no excitement from people who actually are aware of/care about what other companies are doing. If you are stuck trapped in a world where Apple and iPhone are the only devices you care about then every incremental improvement is a big deal. Sadly this describes the American market. Outside of America the world is starting to reject iPhone pretty seriously. In the last year iPhone lost 9% market share in Germany, lost 10% market share in Australia. and over 5% market share lost in Italy, Spain, and France. Meanwhile in America iPhone gained over 8% market share. Americans have eaten up the Apple marketing and brand hook line and sinker. In Europe iPhone lost as much market share in the last year as BlackBerry. In China the iPhone isn't even allowed on the world's biggest carrier and even Windows Phone had more market share after just two months.

Source: www.kantarworldpanel.com­/dwl.php­?sn­=news­_downloads...

Outside of America, people are not tolerating the lack of innovation coming from Apple. And the Bay Area tech writers can make all the excuses in the world for Apple, stay in your bubble and stick your head in the sand, the world is moving on from iPhone even if you don't.
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"Outside of America, people are not tolerating the lack of innovation coming from Apple. "

Nonsense. You lose all credibility for whatever point you're making when you say that.

Samsung, for example, has never in it's history made a product that 'changes everything.' They make good products but their design strategy is 'copy'. They did it first with Blackberry and now with iPhone.

You may not like Apple, but I challenge you to point to any competitor that truly innovates more.
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I stated this above but using market share as a basis of competition amongst iPhone and other devices is pretty weak. You can't compare something that is being released on hundreds of devices a year versus something is released once a year.
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But, Ryan, the problem is that Android IS reinventing the phone every year or so (exaggeration, of course). This whole "the market is mature" angle just isn't true. I have not seen any slowdown from Android and WP, with Google Now, better screens, better keyboards, more intuitive OS features. People still ARE excited about Android and WP.

The real question is not whether it is boring, but whether it is sufficiently appealing to regain marketshare. In an expanding market, just setting new sales records means nothing. OF COURSE it will sell more than any other iPhone, the market is just that much bigger. They could grow in sales each iteration and still end up with a shrinking marketshare. And marketshare is everything since it represents the total possible sales, so every decrease in marketshare is a decrease in potential sales.

The iPhone 5 IS beautiful, it is getting more and more refined, but here is my bottom-line:

iOS feels like a once sexy, but now aging, aunt whereas Android now feels like a hot girlfriend.
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I think the final point Vance makes here is what encapsulates all of this conversation. It is Apple iOS vs Google Android at the same time it is Apple vs. Samsung/Motorola/Google/HTC. Is it all about the hardware? Is it all about the software? My sense is some people are more frustrated with iOS than with iPhone. Lets be honest -- the iPhone 5 (on its own) is a nice slab of tech (NFC or not).

Of course, I think the two are inextricably intertwined. Apple iPhone IS iOS and vice versa. Apple doesn't license. If Apple doesn't bless it, it doesn't exist. On the other side of the fence, you have a half-dozen handset manufacturers all racing to outsize the next or up the memory ante. They have some latitude to do what they want, but even Google is reining that in to some degree.

Rational conversations about the merits of hardware and/or software (especially, open sw/hw development vs closed loop hw/sw development) are hard to find. Is there merit to one company to marry the hardware to the software and optimize the hell of it? Is the Android community helped or hampered by the growing weight of Samsung. Those are the conversations I LIVE for.... but blanket comments by jaded fan boys or agenda driven writers looking to uncover the next "big bang" moment (not saying you are one, Ryan), hurt the conversation. Writing off the iPhone as "boring" or "meh" dismisses away years of refinement to well established product.

"Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication" - Leonardo da Vinci
"Change is easy, improvement is far more difficult." - F.A. Porche
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Great post and fitting quotes. Couldn't agree more.
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Nateman99, I support what you're saying, and I'll take it even further. It's not just about iPhone for me, it's about iPhone + iOS + iCloud + Mac + OSX + Apple TV + iPod + iTunes + App Stores. That is a formidable ecosystem combination.

Yes, Samsung has a few nice hardware features... But have you used Kies? Awful.

Yes, Google is finally getting Android to a usable state with Jelly Bean, but the hardware fragmentation + carrier control means creates big problems for distribution of new software.

Yes, you can create end-end digital ecosystems by combining hardware, apps and services from many vendors, but it's a DIY project, with all the risks and benefits that go along with that.

Time is my most precious commodity. They aren't there yet, but I like that Apple is focused on creating a complete end-end ecosystem that just works, so I don't have to. Also, our proverbial mothers would not be up to the job of creating their own Android ecosystems...yet.
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Google Now was very clearly a reaction to Siri, and the screen improvements in Android phones have been much more incremental than the huge jump that Apple made from the 3GS to the 4. In fact, I would argue that even today there are few (if any) Android phones with screens comparable in quality to that found in the iPhone 4/4S (let alone the 5).

Google may be adding features to Android at a more rapid rate than Apple is to iOS, but to quote Jobs again:

"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully."

Apple thinks very carefully about which features will actually improve the OS in a meaningful way. If they just added every feature they could think of it would very quickly become a bloated, confusing mess, which I would argue is a lot of the reason people (especially non-techies) prefer iOS over Android in the first place.
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I didn't say the "market is mature". The mobile market is pretty mature, there are over five billion mobile phones in use today. The smartphone market, however, is still fairly early. Most mobile phone owners, statistically, don't own smartphones.

But the reason that is changing so quickly -- especially in the developed world -- is because in the last few years, the smartphone product category has become very mature. Smartphone products are fast, easy to use, and priced within reach of the mass market. That's how it works. Early, groundbreaking products → mature products → mass-market adoption. It never starts at the mass-market. Remember how many years it took Android to actually get a foothold?

Now, you said a lot of other stuff in that comment. I'm dubious. I don't really think you know what you're talking about. Are you saying with a straight face that setting a new world record for the sales of the world's best selling product "means nothing"? Do you think the global high-end smartphone market has doubled in the last year, which conveniently explains why the latest iPhone sold 2x the pre-orders as the last one?

I don't even get what you're talking about with regard to market share. A decrease in market share is not a decrease in "potential sales"; in a growing market, it marks inability to grow at the rate of the market, or an actual decrease in sales (or both). Thus, a decrease in market share is actually an increase of potential future sales (i.e. more room to grow).

Sorry, but none what you're saying there holds any water.
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Well, of course, there is hyperbole in it "meaning nothing". Yes, it means more money. Here is an extreme example of my point: The fact that there are more deaths by automobile today than, say, 1930, is not a very relevant statistic. My point is that the growth in the smartphone market has been dramatic enough that the significance of the greater sales could be offset in an important way. If there are, say, twice as many smartphone purchases over the next year and the iPhone captures only 20% of them (entirely made up numbers for discussion purposes), rather than the % of the market they had at their peak, then the fact that they sold more total iPhones than the last iteration becomes less of a marker of success.

I am not predicting what WILL happen, I am simply pointing to what markers of success should be considered. They could sell more iPhones than ever before and still consider that a major disappointment.
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My issue with using marketshare as a basis of success is that you're looking at 3 devices versus an countless number of Android phones (I'm using Android because that always is the basis of comparison). Of course something that is flooding the market will have a larger market share. Especially in regions markets where it's common place for sub $100 phones that use pre-paid.
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Android is NOT reinventing the phone every year. It is iterating, as is everyone else at this stage.

Market share is not everything. Sustainable profits are more important. Apple will gamble with losing some market share to continue to produce products which it believes are better in order to maintain its values and brand image. These are the things which have led Apple to it current position. A large market share is relatively new to them.

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The user interface of Windows Phone 7 introduced a radical new UI paradigm — just like the original iPhone did. The fact that it hasn't changed much is, I think, a testament to how well designed it really was in 2007. Either way, it's all about the apps.

Better screens/keyboards and more intuitive OS features? A reinvention of the phone, how?
Sans a better keyboard, what you listed is exactly what iPhone 5 and iOS 6 is all about.

Oh and people are still excited about the iPhone, otherwise we wouldn't be commenting on this post.
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....what has Android invented or reinvented? They've introduced a few obvious concepts but invented? That's a little strong.
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Notification Center was apparently so popular with Apple that they made an inferior copy of it (seriously, why do I have to tap more than once to clear all my notifications?!?!?)
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"huge jump that Apple made from the 3GS to the 4"

Apple had to respond, within months of the 3GS release with it's 320x480 (163ppi) display Motorola launched the Droid with the 854x480(265ppi) display.
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I for one have never found Android as an operating system as sexy. Unfortunately, when it comes to "tech sex appeal", Google hasn't be able to synch this one, especially since sex appeal from an inanimate object usually alludes to it's physical characteristics... Even the naming conventions for the different versions are based on whimsical dessert items like donuts and jelly beans.

Android, as much as Apple, is merely updating - not reinventing - smartphones periodically since the original iPhone's release. And "expanding market" is not exactly what I could call the US smartphone market at this point in time. It's somewhat saturated. Mobile operating systems are merely competing with Apple's dominance. Thankfully people replace their smartphones about every two years, or whenever they break them.
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Specs are dead for the most part but so many people are still caught up in the game. Some meaningful numbers still exist like how much storage a device has, but they are increasingly irrelevant.

I had a friend who wouldn't buy an iPhone 4S because "it doesn't have 4G," when in reality he has no idea what 4G even is. 99% of what he does on his smartphone is just email, texting and games and I guarantee he's never done anything on his Android phone that really took advantage of LTE speeds.

The marketing works. People have the habit of comparing specs so ingrained in their purchase process that I am afraid we will continue to see TV ads like Verizon's and spec comparison ads like Samsung's for a long time to come.
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Extremely well written and well thought out post Ryan!
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Great post.

The iPhone 3G didn't have faster processor / graphics though. It was simply the original iPhone with 3G and GPS.
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Good call. Will fix when I get back to my computer!
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Great article though. These are usually my thoughts exactly when someone tells me how much better Android is over iOS. Frankly, In my house I have Macs, iPads, Apple TV, etc, and iOS works for me. Android might be great for some people, but not me.

Can't wait to get my hands on the 5!
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Also not really a "feature" but the 3G was the first that was available with a carrier subsidized price.
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It was not the same as the original. The 3G was a new phone. You're thinking of the 3G and the 3Gs being essentially the same.
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Nope - the 3G was the same - the 3Gs had the internal improvements.
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I'm thinking of the casing. I thought the 3G had the plastic back and the original had the aluminum back.....?
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Never mind. I see that he was talking about the processor and graphics specifically. I guess I should read more carefully.
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I think in the case of smartphones, the product is more than the phone itself. A large part of the phone's value now hinges upon the services and apps that it is connected with. It is about the ecosystem. I currently use the iPhone, and at home and in the office, the phone is within a plethora of other Apple products, iMac, Apple TV, iPad's, etc. The networking of these devices with the same lineage, and similar user experience to consume content, and app usage, and the safety net of the famous and time honored Apple support system, collectively creates a big barrier for me to switch.

My profession is in the technology sector, so I like many of you crave for the latest gadgets. For me, an alternative to an iPhone must present benefits that offset the current and aggregated value of all of my interconnected, Apple's cradle to grave device experience.

As much as I am sometimes envious of the Android features on the top-tier Android phones such as the Galaxy S III, those benefits still are not enough to pry me away from a uniform digital experience within -- an albeit walled garden -- Apple ecosystem.

I suppose you can call this consumer enslavement, but the choice remains mine, and I'm awaiting to be convinced by the alternative.
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Review is out:

iPhone 5 is probably the best phone you can buy now. Just look at SunSpider score. It even trounced specially made for SunSpider processor:- Intel 2GHz Medfield processor.
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I completely agree with you Ryan. That being said, and it's been said before, many of the cries of "boring!" are being leveled toward iOS6. Some people are just bored with iOS. Rarely do these people actually justify any reason as to why it's boring, mind you.
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Great analysis. I wonder how long it will be until the next revolution?
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The problem isn't the phone. The problem is iOS is basically the same OS it was 5 years ago, where as Android has clearly evolved in the same time period.
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Can you elaborate more on this, more specifically without pointing towards the home screen grid layout.
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This is a common refrain. These arguments, whether leveled at iOS or anything else, almost always tend to focus on surface look and feel, which is essentially the most superficial means of assessing something.
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Specs are irrelevant. Performance is what matters. Blazing specs on a device which provides a poor user experience gives the user nothing but bragging rights to specs which are not serving them well.
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Yes, it's as though tech-loving geeks all have ADHD and need to have constant change in order to remain interested.

No wonder they love Android so much!
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Says who? Surface look and feel is huge for a market that judges by that.
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Uh what? Look at how much Android and Windows Phone have drastically changed/improved in the last 2.5 years compared to iOS. Those are both changes under the hood and on the surface.

iPhone is the definition of stagnating design. 3 phones for 3 years in a row with the exact same design, when HTC does this we call them on it. When Apple does it we should do the same.
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