It’s been more than two years since I published my review of the iPhone 4 and a lot has changed in the smartphone market: Motorola Mobility is now owned by Google, Samsung's star is rising, the once mighty HTC is struggling, and both Nokia and RIM are on the ropes. Against this landscape, Apple has released the iPhone 5. Is it a worthy successor to the most successful consumer electronics product of all time? Is Steve Jobs smiling down from technology heaven?
The iPhone 5 is unmistakably a descendent of the iPhone 4 and 4S, but it feels very different in the hand. The new aluminum back is pleasantly cool to the touch and its chamfered edges make it more comfortable to hold than its immediate predecessors. The Home button, which is an absolutely essential part of the iOS experience, now has a sturdier and more satisfying click to it. The phone is also a little taller and noticeably thinner and lighter than the iPhones 4 and 4S. The added height is there to accommodate an all new 4 inch screen. Over the years, as other smartphone manufacturers moved to larger and larger screen sizes, Apple religiously maintained the iPhone’s screen at its original 3.5 inches. The iPhone 5 is the first in the product’s five year history to change that and while the actual difference may seem small on paper, only 176 vertical pixels, it actually makes a big difference.
The All New Screen
While the screen is taller, Apple decided to maintain the original 640 pixel width, for the sake of single-handed operation. In my own use, I’ve found that in order to operate the iPhone 5 singlehanded, I need to hold it very differently from how I used to hold the iPhone 4. Instead of simply wrapping my hand around the phone, I find that if I want to reach the whole surface of the screen with my thumb, I need to support the bottom of the phone with the inside of my pinky and use my index finger to angle it slightly. This reads a lot worse than it actually is, but I think it’s fair to say that the iPhone 5 is marginally more difficult to operate with a single hand than previous iPhones.
Having said that, the advantages of having a larger screen are immediately apparent. First of all, those extra 176 pixels mean an entire new row of icons. Apple recently revealed that the average iPhone owner regularly uses around 100 apps. On the old screens, you could fit 16 apps per page. On the new screen, you can now fit 20. What this means is that the average user can get by on the new iPhone with 1 fewer page of icons than they could on the older models. But beyond this simple convenience, the experience in many of the built-in apps is improved by the added screen real-estate. Gone are the days when watching a movie on the iPhone’s screen meant staring at a tiny rectangle of video surrounded by black bars. The aspect ratio of the new iPhone’s screen means that video plays edge-to-edge and while 4 inches is not exactly luxurious, I find myself watching a lot more video on my phone than I used to.
In addition to the size of the screen, the quality of the screen has also improved. Apple figured out a way to deepen the blacks, increase the color saturation, and reduce glare, all while shipping a thinner device. It’s a remarkable achievement and I often find myself staring at the the home screen, mesmerized by the clarity of the icons.
The Lightning Port
On the bottom of the iPhone 5, one of the things that is obviously different from all previous iPhones is the new Lightning Port. There has been much criticism of Apple’s decision to abandon their old 30-pin dock connector in favor of the new port. The criticism comes in two flavors. First, that Apple moved to a new proprietary connector instead of something like the ubiquitous, non-proprietary Micro-USB. Second, that Apple has inconvenienced anyone who spent money buying third-party accessories over the last decade which were all built around the dock connector.
The first criticism is easy to dismiss. Yes, Apple has gone to another proprietary connection which maintains their control over the accessory market. But I can think of two very good reasons why they didn’t adopt Micro-USB that have nothing to do with control. First, as anyone who has ever used a Micro-USB connector can attest, it is both fragile and fiddly to use. Second, it is very limited in the sort of data it can transmit. You can’t, for example, design a speaker dock that transmits sound over Micro-USB.
The second criticism is not as easy to dismiss. If you have a lot of third-party accessories, like speaker docks or car chargers, there is no elegant way for them to work with the iPhone 5. Sure you can buy one of Apple’s pricey adapters, but you didn’t pay a premium for your iPhone/iPod accessory to have to come up with kludgy workarounds.
Personally, I think that Apple should have made this move years ago. I really dislike the 30-pin dock connector and the Lightning Port is robust, reversible(there’s no wrong way to plug it in), and easy to operate in total darkness. Technology transitions are often a pain, but sometimes they’re necessary.
Everything on the iPhone 5 feels fast. This is partly due to the custom-designed A6 processor and partly due to LTE, the faster-than-Wifi wireless data protocol, which has finally landed on planet iPhone. It’s hard to put into words how profound the performance improvement on the iPhone 5 is over its predecessors. In practice, it means that I use my phone a lot more. When you have something that’s this responsive and reliable in your pocket, it just integrates into your life and you focus on what you’re using it for instead of the act of using it. This is technology at its best and the iPhone 5 more than any device I can think of, slips into the background as I use it. The one area that I wish Apple would pay more attention to is temperature. The iPhone 5, like the New iPad, gets hotter than previous models, particularly when relying on its LTE connection for extended periods of time.
So how good is the iPhone 5 at making and receiving calls? This is a difficult question for any one reviewer to answer, because the iPhone 5 ships to a dizzying number of countries and is available on quite a few different carriers. I upgraded from an iPhone 4 on AT&T to the iPhone 5 on Verizon and I can tell you that in West LA, the difference in call quality has been night-and-day. Whereas before, I could only make calls in a very specific area of my apartment, I can now use my phone all over the apartment and my signal strength is solid. Moreover, the quality of the sound on both ends is better than I’ve ever experienced on a cell phone. The speakerphone has also improved in both strength and clarity. One drawback that US customers of Verizon and Sprint should be aware of is that due to limitations in these carriers’ LTE networks, you can’t talk on the phone and use the data connection at the same time, unless you are connected to a Wifi network. This is not true of AT&T’s network.
It’s been a long two and a half years since the introduction of FaceTime on the iPhone 4 and the video conferencing technology is finally realizing some of its potential. With the iPhone 5, FaceTime conferences can be conducted over 3G and LTE. This is a big deal and lest you worry that using FaceTime regularly will eat through your data plan, fear not. Apple has managed to dynamically adjust the data usage of FaceTime so that a full hour will only cost you around 85 MB of data. In addition, the new front-facing camera on the iPhone 5 is HD, so all of your pockmarks and facial hair will come across with stunning clarity.
FaceTime is a great technology and I use it regularly to keep in touch with friends, but there are a couple of ways in which it could be better. First, I would really like to see Apple make good on its promise to release this as an open-standard. FaceTime should be a non-proprietary standard that can be used by anyone with a device that has a front-facing camera, not only those fortunate enough to own Apple products. Second, as the carriers move from pushing minutes to pushing data, I’d like to see an option for sound-only FaceTime. At the iPhone 5 launch event, Apple announced that they were going to start supporting Wideband Audio which is an interesting technology that vastly improves the sound quality of cellphone calls. The problem is that it requires carrier support and infrastructure. The same improvement could be achieved by simply offering a sound-only version of FaceTime and I’m not sure why this hasn’t been implemented. Perhaps we will see it in iOS 7.
By insisting on making the iPhone ever thinner, Apple has painted themselves into a bit of a corner. This design decision limits the optics that they can use in the camera and the only way out is to compensate with clever processing. I would really love to say that the iPhone 5 is finally good enough to replace your point-and-shoot, but I can’t.
While certainly impressive for a camera phone, the iPhone 5’s images are simply not as good as what you could get from a disposable 35mm camera. Moreover, because the iPhone 5 has lost some heft, the effects of camera shake are exaggerated over what you would have from the iPhone 4 and 4S. And while the new processing does indeed offer better low light performance, it also makes some pretty egregious errors in ordinary indoor lighting conditions(blown highlights seem to be a recurring theme). Having said that, the performance of the iPhone 5’s camera is incredibly fast and the new Panorama mode, where you sweep the phone in an arc to seamlessly create a large 26 megapixel image, works like a charm. It should also be mentioned that there are many excellent and inexpensive camera apps available on the App Store that may mitigate some of the shortcomings of the native Camera app by offering more manual control.
On the video front, I must say that I was mightily impressed. Not only did the iPhone 5 do an excellent job of stabilizing my shaky handheld footage (it uses the Gyroscope to achieve this feat), but I was very pleased with the video it produced. I would go as far as to say that the iPhone 5 finally kills the market for stand-alone fixed lens handheld video recorders.
Of all the controversial aspects of the iPhone 5, none garnered more attention than the redesigned Maps app. Now it’s important to note that Apple has always been the author of the Maps app on iOS. They wrote and designed the user interface from the beginning and licensed the data from Google. Over time, Apple’s relationship with Google has deteriorated and this year, they decided to stop using Google’s mapping data. The new Maps was supposed to be the exciting new feature in iOS 6 and Apple completely rewrote the app from the ground up, but public transit directions and Street View, both of which are exclusive Google properties, were no longer something that Apple could offer. And to make matters worse, they failed to collate their new data sources properly and embarrassing inaccuracies started showing up all over the place. Tim Cook took the unusual step of making a public apology and recommending that iOS 6 customers use alternative mapping services available through the App Store while Apple worked to improve Maps.
As with call quality, it’s impossible for one reviewer to do justice to the reliability of the Maps app. But I must report that I’ve been delighted by Apple’s new Maps app. I think that the interface is incredibly well thought-out. This is especially true when it comes to Apple’s implementation of turn-by-turn directions where a combination of the larger screen and good graphic design makes it much safer to use while driving solo. I have had no problems navigating around LA and I can even report that on a recent trip to rural Finland, iOS 6 Maps delivered accurate turn-by-turn directions and got me to my destination without any problems.
But my favorite way to use the new Maps app is through Siri. You can now say "Siri, take me to the ArcLight Cinema." or "Siri, where's the nearest liquor Store?" and it works!
As usual, your milage will vary when it comes to battery life. I’ve found that on a typical day of usage, I get around 17 hours of battery life, while on a heavy day it's closer to 12 hours. This is in and of itself a remarkable achievement given that the iPhone 5 includes the notoriously power-hungry LTE. But what I found truly remarkable was that the iPhone 5 managed to charge from dead to full in a mere 1.5 hours.
Given everything that we now know about how Apple products are manufactured, is it wrong to buy an iPhone 5? While properly addressing this question goes beyond the scope of this review, I can no longer ignore it. Sure, Mike Daisey was caught lying to This American Life and many technology journalists who are friendly to Apple took great pleasure in his public implosion. But Mike Daisey aside, there’s a real problem here. And I’m not sure that bringing in the Fair Labor Association is sufficient.
The conditions under which Apple products are manufactured are terrible. And while there seem to have been some improvements over the past year, as consumers of these products, we are accountable on some level for what goes on at the Foxconn factories. Is it wrong to buy an iPhone 5? Yes it is. In the same way that it’s wrong to buy any product produced under harsh working conditions. And the terrible truth about the global economy that we live in is that many of the products that we consume are produced in even worse conditions than what can be found in Shenzhen. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that this is a morally acceptable situation. So what can we do? Boycott Apple? I don’t think we’re there yet. Apple seems to be responding to public pressure. Our responsibility as ethical consumers then is to keep up the pressure and scrutiny until a real journalist can con her way into a Foxconn factory and find a morally acceptable work environment.
The iPhone 5 is a remarkable piece of technology and a worthy successor to the iPhone line. While it may seem like other companies are “catching up” to Apple in the smartphone market, this is not actually the case. It is true that there are many compelling smartphones on the market and Samsung in particular seems to be doing very well for themselves.
But there’s something fundamentally different about the iPhone ecosystem that no one has been able to match since the original iPhone came on to the scene in 2007. Namely, unlike every other phone on the market(with the notable exception of the Nexus line of reference phones that very few people actualy buy), when you buy an iPhone, you are buying a device that is guaranteed to receive major functionality improvements in the form of operating system updates. This is still not the case with other smartphones. In the Android universe, for example, what you buy is what you get. The same is true in the Windows Phone world. There’s no one working behind the scenes to improve the way your phone works and the only guaranteed way to get the latest version of the various mobile operating systems is to buy a new device, or hack your old phone and pray.
This advantage that Apple enjoys means that not only will you get more out of an iPhone over its lifetime, but that when it comes time to upgrade, the device will retain much more value than its Android, or Windows Phone counterparts. My 2.5 year old iPhone 4 fetched half of what I paid for it in 2010. Granted, that’s only half of the subsidized price, but try getting any amount of money for a 2010 Android phone today.
The iPhone 5 is the best smartphone that money can buy and it is an astonishingly lovely object to behold. Unlike the New iPad, Apple didn’t need to make any compromises to achieve their vision for this product. It is light, thin, runs all day, and is so fast it just becomes whatever you need it to be. When I look back at my review of the iPhone 4, every single issue that I had with that device has been addressed over the past two years. The iPhone 5 is reportedly the last product that Steve Jobs ever worked on. What a swan song.