Hardware

With iPhone 5, Apple Has Chiseled The Smartphone To Near Perfection

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You pick it up and it almost feels fake. That’s not to say it feels cheap; because it doesn’t — quite the opposite, actually. It just doesn’t seem real. Certainly not to someone who has been holding the iPhone 4/4S for the past two years. It feels like someone took one of those devices and hollowed it out.

The iPhone 5 is here.

I’ve had the opportunity to play around with the latest iPhone for the past several days. I won’t beat around the bush: it’s fantastic.

Of course, you’re probably expecting me to say that. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. The fact of the matter is, you can either listen to me or lose out. You’re going to want this phone.

Reading the press coverage since the unveiling, you may have heard that the iPhone 5 is disappointing, or boring. Those people, quite frankly, are fools. They either haven’t actually used the device, or only played with it for a few minutes in the hands-on area after last week’s event. (Or worse, they’re projecting their own boredom in their jobs due to Apple’s dominance of the tech scene these past few years.) Using a device on a regular basis is what really matters. And in that regard, the iPhone 5 shines in just about every conceivable way.

In fact, I’ll go a step farther: I really do believe this is the best iPhone upgrade that Apple has done yet (besting the iPhone-to-iPhone 3G jump and the iPhone 3GS-to-iPhone 4 jump). As such, it’s the best version of the iPhone yet. By far.

Let’s start with the body. I already talked about just how incredibly light it is. I almost want to compare it to one of those fake electronics place holders they put on floor display units at furniture stores — but that’s obviously not right. Perhaps it’s better to compare it to some of the Android phones out there. Several of those are also very light. The key difference here is that those often attain the low weight by going with a plastic shell. That makes them feel cheap.

The iPhone 5 sheds the weight of the iPhone 4/4S in two major ways. First, by dropping the glass back in favor of aluminum. And second, by integrating the touch technology right into the display itself (previously, it has been a layer over the display), which has allowed Apple to use a thinner sheet of glass on the front of the phone.

The iPhone 4/4S never felt heavy in my hand during day-to-day use over the course of the past two years. But when I would pick up an Android device like the Nexus S, there was no question that the iPhone was heavier. Now the iPhone 5 is actually lighter than the Nexus S, and again, it did with without reverting to plastic. The result is a device that feels every bit as solid and realized as the iPhone 4/4S.

The nice side effect of the reduction of the front glass and the removal of the back glass is that the iPhone 5 is now also significantly thinner than the iPhone 4/4S. This is less noticeable to me in regular usage, but holding them side-by-side, the difference it very obvious.

If, like me, you carry your iPhone in the front pocket of your pants, both the trimness and the weight of the iPhone 5 are most welcome additions (subtractions?).

The other crazy thing about the weight of the iPhone 5 is that it’s so much lighter even with the addition of a significantly larger screen. This is a clear testament to Apple’s hardware and manufacturing prowess. It’s tempting to wonder just how light Apple could have made an iPhone 5 with the old 3.5-inch screen…

Speaking of the screen, I was one of the skeptics about a larger screen making sense on the iPhone. My rationale was two-fold. First, I didn’t want to see the type of fragmentation that Android users and developers face because of the various device sizes in that ecosystem. Second, I just loved the 3.5-inch screen size. It seemed perfect with regard to ergonomics.

In both cases, Apple did something smart.

In terms of fragmentation, Apple avoids any major issues by allowing developers to target the 4-inch screen if they choose to, but only as a part of the same app binary from which they target the 3.5-inch screens. In other words, there will be no apps that only run on the iPhone 5’s screen — at least not any time soon (I do imagine 4-inch screens will eventually be the norm). I’m told that Apple has no plans to enforce that developers must target the 4-inch screen either. It’s fully up to them.

And if they don’t target the new screen, it’s really not a big deal. The iPhone 5 simply takes the standard-sized apps and runs them in “letterbox” mode with small black bars along the top and bottom (or sides, if the device is horizontal) of the screen. Think of it like an iPhone app running on the iPad — only the effect is much less pronounced since the iPhone 5 screen is far smaller than an iPad screen (4-inches versus. 9.7-inches). In fact, on the black iPhone 5, it can be hard to notice the black bars at all thanks to the black front of the device. The bars just blend in.

One nice side effect of the letterboxing is that the iOS system elements can still use the larger screen. So, for example, when Push Notifications come in, they flip down from the top of the screen and settle perfectly above the 3.5-inch app (as opposed to on top of it).

Still, I’m sure that many developers will target the 4-inch screen because I suspect the iPhone 5 will quickly become the best-selling iPhone yet (not to mention the new 4-inch iPod touch coming next month). Apple worked with a couple companies leading up to the iPhone 5 unveiling (OpenTable and CNN), and I’m told it was fairly easy for them to get 4-inch apps ready to go.

In fact, at the time of this writing, there are already several iPhone 5-tailored apps that have gone live in the App Store (which is pretty crazy since most of those developers haven’t actually seen the iPhone 5 in person yet). Reeder, Path, Tweetbot, Well, Lift, Highlight, GroupMe, and Tiny Post are all good to go. As are all of Apple’s major apps, as you might imagine. (Sadly, Twitter itself, which just pushed a major 5.0 upgrade today, apparently didn’t get the 4-inch memo — even though they’re baked right into iOS. Of course, neither did the newly native-app-focused Facebook.)

Most of the apps listed above are simply making use of the longer screen for vertical list-style display purposes. But I’m personally most interested in the apps that use the extra space to get creative with regard to UI/UX. CNN is one of those, as they brought some elements of their iPad app over to the iPhone 5 app (though that updated version is not live just yet).

The other smart thing Apple did with regard to the 4-inch screen was only make it taller. That is, the screen on the iPhone 5 is the exact same width as every iPhone that came before it. It’s simply longer. This minimizes the ergonomic impact of the change (as well as the impact on developers).

To be quite honest, it’s something I’m still getting used to. I don’t find my thumb straining to reach any of the upper touch elements, but I do find myself holding the device slightly differently (cue the “you’re holding it wrong” jokes) than I held previous iPhones. I’m fairly certain this is just something I’ll get used to over time. No big deal. (Though slightly annoying is the tendancy to tap the top of the screen with the 3.5-inch apps which no longer scrolls you to the top of the app, because you have to actually tap the time area.)

I very much appreciate the actual vertical screen real estate within apps such as Mail and Calendar, which now can display much more info. It’s also great for any text-heavy app. And of course, the web.

(Below: Path optimized for the iPhone 5 versus on the iPhone 4S.)

In horizontal mode, the new screen gives you a 16×9 ratio, which happens to be close to the ratio used to shoot most films (as well as HD TV). This makes watching a movie or television show on the iPhone a much better experience. The screen is no longer dominated by vertical black bars — actual letterboxing.

And yes, not to worry, the iPhone 5 passes the pocket test just fine. That is, it will fit in your pants pockets without sticking out at all. Again, if anything, it’s better than ever in this regard since it’s thinner and lighter.

1,500 words in, and I still haven’t mentioned one of the other biggest additions: LTE. When it comes to network speeds, the iPhone 5 is now fast as hell.

In fact, the LTE is so fast that it’s faster than my home WiFi. This is something I first got to experience with the new iPad and it’s good to see Verizon’s network is still holding up (slightly more on that below). Speaking of Verizon, those of us who had used a Verizon iPhone had gotten a bit slighted over the past couple of years because while Verizon’s 3G coverage area seemed to the strongest of the major U.S. carriers, their speeds were definitely slower than those of rival AT&T. That’s no longer the case with LTE.

Running a few tests with the iPhone 5 using LTE, I regularly achieved speeds around 20 Mb/s down and 4 Mb/s up. By comparison, my iPhone 4S running on Verizon 3G was closer to 2 Mb/s down and 0.75 Mb/s up. (My tests last March of the new iPad with Verizon LTE was closer to 40 Mb/s down, so the network is clearly getting saturated, but again, still holding up well.)

The only downside I can see to Verizon is that you still cannot talk on the phone and use data at the same time. The same is true for Sprint. AT&T does allow this. This is a limitation with the old CDMA networks, which the iPhone 5 still falls back to for voice. When LTE can carry voice, this should change. Regardless, that’s not a deal-breaker for me, but something to consider if you talk on the phone a lot.

Speaking of the phone, the voice quality does appear to be better than ever. Apple added a few new noise-cancelling microphones to the iPhone 5 to help with call clarity. Unfortunately, another new voice technology they use in the device (Wideband Audio) is unlikely to be adopted by U.S. carriers anytime soon.

With the camera in the iPhone 5, Apple opted to take a step outside of the megapixel arms-race (it remains 8 megapixels) and instead focus on other things, such as low-light photography. The results are noticeably better, though still not quite as good as a good point-and-shoot (like the Canon S-series) or, of course, a DSLR.

It seems clear that a lot of attention was simply paid to getting a camera that was as good as the one found in the iPhone 4S into the new, thin body of the iPhone 5.

By far, the best new camera functionality is the Panorama mode, which is amazing. It’s so simple to use and works so well that I suspect a lot of people will start using it fairly regularly, and we may see some new panorama-focused apps pop-up as a result.

(I had to massively scale-down the picture I took below, as it was something like 10,000 x 2,500 pixels.)

Two other elements of the iPhone 5 that have already gotten a lot of press are the new EarPods and the new Lightning connector. I’m a big fan of the EarPods as they fit my ears almost perfectly — though I know that’s not the case with everyone. I can also hear bass for the first time with standard Apple earphones. They may not be the best earphones money can buy (nor should anyone expect them to be at $29.99 — or free with the new iPhone), but they’re a huge improvement over the old ones.

The most jarring change related to earphones may be the relocation of the jack to the bottom of the iPhone. This has been the standard on the iPod touch, but not on the iPhone until now. It’s a little strange at first, but shouldn’t cause too much drama (famous last words).

As for the Lightning connector, it is what it is. A lot of people are upset that they’re going to need adapters for their old accessories. But that’s the price of progress. The Lightning connector is tiny compared to the old 30-pin connector, and the ability to plug it in with either side facing upwards is nice. I’m also not going to miss the pocket lint build up in the long port at the bottom of the iPhone.

Before I get to iOS, let’s talk about the speed of the iPhone 5. I didn’t run any scientific benchmarks (I’m sure those will be coming in other reviews), but I did do a bunch of regular usage tests. The results were clear: the iPhone 5 is significantly faster than even the speedy iPhone 4S.

One important caveat: I tested an iPhone 5 with iOS 6 and an iPhone 4S with iOS 5, so some of the improvements may be in the software. But as far as I can tell, the new A6 chip (and perhaps more RAM) is the true key.

Booting the iPhone 5 routinely took about 30 seconds less than the iPhone 4S. Loading heavier applications (like Path, which caches a lot of data), was about twice as fast. Every single game I tried was noticeably faster when compared side-by-side with the iPhone 4S. Larger games like GTA 3 and Infinity Blade both started significantly faster. And these games are not yet optimzed for the A6.

Web pages also loaded faster, though in some cases, this was much more about the LTE aspect, no doubt. Saving a heavily-filtered photo within Camera+ took 20 seconds less time on the iPhone 5 versus the iPhone 4S. That was one of the biggest differences I timed.

Even loading the Settings app was a lot faster with the 5.

Now, as for iOS 6, you’ve probably already read quite a bit about it since it has been in the hands of developers for months now and Apple has previewed it twice at their own events. On the surface, the leap from iOS 5 may not seem major, as much of the look and feel is the same.

A few changes include Siri, which can now do more (but still has quite a ways to go). iCloud, which is more fully integrated into the OS. Facebook, which is now baked into the OS (and should lead to an explosion of app sign-ups since it will be so simple).

One big new element of iOS 6 is Passbook. No content is live for it just yet, but I did get a chance to play with some demo passes, and they work well. A vendor can send you an email with a Passbook payload and it will load right away into your Passbook when you click on it. As long as big vendors are on board (which it seems like they are — Starbucks, Delta, Starwood, Ticketmaster, Fandango, to name a few), this should be a really useful new feature.

The biggest change in iOS 6 is the Maps app. Previously powered by Google Maps, Apple has built their own maps backend for both the app and the iOS SDK. Many people seem to be worried about this — and for good reason: this is undoubtedly one of the most heavily-used apps for many people.

Testing the maps these last few days, I’ve come away impressed. No, I don’t think they’re as good as Google Maps, but they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve looked up local venues and found them all. I’ve looked up places overseas and found them too. I’ve played with the 3D stuff, which is pretty, but probably not all that useful day-to-day. And, of course, I’ve used directions.

I used turn-by-turn fairly extensively on the highway one day and it worked well. It’s great to have it on the lock screen and even better that it works even as you’re in other apps (it will pop up alerts as you move). This is a welcome addition that was one of the last “checkmark” features a lot of users have been asking for.

A non-welcome subtraction is transit directions — as in, they no longer exist natively in the app. Instead, Apple is saying they will partner with other app makers on this, but none are live just yet so I couldn’t test it out. If you live in a city where public transportation is key, this sucks. But here in San Francisco, we have more pressing concerns: like MUNI itself never actually working.

I suspect Apple will see quite a bit of backlash about this change above all others. But I also expect they’ll iterate their maps pretty quickly. And who knows, maybe we’ll see a Google Maps app pop-up in the App Store, just as we did with a YouTube app.

Overall, the iPhone 5 is an absolute homerun. Apple has taken what I still considered to be the best smartphone (the iPhone 4S) and perfected it in nearly every way. And yes, that includes in the battery life department. While it’s hard to judge against a year-old iPhone 4S, the battery seems to be a bit better than it was a year ago (though there were some iOS issues as well). Apple claims 8 hours of 3G and LTE usage, and that seems about right.

(One side note: the brightness settings with the iPhone 5 lead to a screen that is much brighter at a lower setting. It’s hard to know if that’s an iPhone 5-thing or an iOS 6-thing. But it seems to also help with battery life.)

The worst thing I can say about the device is that I slightly prefer the look of the glass back of the iPhone 4/4S to the new aluminum (with glass “windows” at the top and bottom) back found here. But I prefer the way the aluminum feels. And overall, I find the all-black look (including the sides and corners) to be much more appealing. “Does it come in black?,” Bruce Wayne asks Lucius Fox in Batman Begins. Yes, yes it does. This is without question the phone Batman would use.

If you’ve been debating getting the iPhone 5 — and it seems like many of you haven’t debated it too much, with 2 million pre-orders — I suggest you make the jump. Even from the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 is a big, noticeable improvement. (Though of course I understand that carrier contract commitments may come into play there as well.) If you have an iPhone 4 or, heaven forbid, an iPhone 3GS, get the iPhone 5 as soon as you can.

If you have an Android phone and have been waiting for a big iPhone update to explore or re-explore the device, now is the time. And you Windows Phone 7 users who are getting screwed in the move to Windows Phone 8, you may want to look as well. And if you’re still a Blackberry user, well, good luck with that. I think you’re beyond my help.

Those worried about the talk of “disappointment” surrounding the iPhone 5, I suggest you simply go to an Apple Store starting on Friday and try it for yourself. My guess is you’ll immediately recognize just how ridiculous all that bluster actually is. The iPhone 5 is the culmination of Apple doing what Apple does best. This is the smartphone nearly perfected.

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