Apple iPhone 5S review

5 out of 5
£549 (16GB)

For

Touch ID fingerprint sensor, A7 processor, M7 processor, better camera, universal 4G support, iOS 7 makes it a cleaner user experience, it just works

Against

Screen still feels small, screen res remains average, no NFC, iCloud still a mess, day one and the 5S feels no different from iPhone 5, optional cases grate with the 5S concept

The iPhone 5S is Apple's latest flagship smartphone, one that tweaks and enhances the iPhone 5. With almost all of 2013's smartphone models revealed - except for the Nexus 5 - this is where Apple sets out its stall for the next year.

The "S" models from Apple can seem a bit disappointing for those who upgraded the year before, but can the same be said for this latest 2013 upgrade? Does it match the hype for this model that saw more leaks than any previous iPhone? If you are an iPhone 4S user just coming out of contract should you be signing up for more Apple or going elsewhere? We've been using the iPhone 5S since the launch and have regularly updated this review as the experience, including new software updates like iOS 7.1, have been released. 

Design

Take one iPhone 5 and add some new colour finishes. The iPhone 5S looks exactly the same as its iPhone 5 predecessor, which is typical of the "S" models. That's predictable and a bit boring in some respects; safe and familiar in others.

So that means the same 4-inch, 1136 x 640 pixel (326ppi) Retina display. Not taller, wider or more resolute this time around. We suspect Apple will increase the screen size in the iPhone 6 - and the lack of movement here might disappoint a whole lot of fans hoping for Apple to stand up against the competition out there. 

If you are being picky about differences from 5 to 5S then there are two new physical configurations to the chassis: the first is that the flash on the rear has changed - it's now oblong instead of circular (more on why later) and second, the Home button is now home to the Touch ID fingerprint sensor and therefore loses the square imagery on it. Both small deals from a visual standpoint and you could easily trick someone into thinking you had an iPhone 5 if your finger was over the button.

The design is what it is. You'll either like the look of it and what it lets you do, or not, but it is effortless in its approach. The screen, while smaller and less resolute than most of the Android and Windows Phone competition, works well enough - but we can't help but feel that just badging something "Retina" doesn't mean it's as good as the competition these days. It's sharp and vibrant, yes, and Apple's iOS 7 and apps look great on it, but Apple isn't breaking new ground here.

READ: Apple iOS 7 review

But perhaps Apple is still banking on its own ecosystem and, to some degree, people not minding about the figures. If it works, it works. And the fact the company hasn't bulked out the 5S to epic-sized screen proportions means the phone will fit comfortably in the hand - and the pocket - and appeal to many people.

At times that 4-inch screen - compared to say a 4.3-inch, or even 4.5-inch - suffers from feeling small. But that's because the landscape of mobile has changed. Things look small, certainly when viewing images in the new iOS 7 configuration, while watching something on Netflix doesn't benefit from more real estate.

A new phone also means new colours: you can now get the iPhone 5S in silver, gold, and space grey. The last in that list is just a snazzy way of saying blackish grey - it replaces the black iPhone 5 and we think Apple has kept away from the jet black finish to avoid prominent scratches that catch the sun, as on the iPhone 5. Silver is identical to the iPhone 5 in white, just under a different name.

For those wanting the world to know that they've got a new iPhone you could either wave it around in public telling everyone about it, or pick up the gold - which is more of a white gold to be fair - that is subtle rather than being in-your-face bling.

Faster A7 processor, supposedly

The iPhone 5S comes with the new Apple A7 processor that brings with it a 2x performance enhancement and a 2x graphics enhancement. Double the power, according to Apple's figures. The processor also allows Apple to take iOS 7 into the realm of 64-bit, compared to the 32-bit processing of the iPhone 5.

In the future this should make a huge difference in terms of what is possible. Notice "should", because, right now, we just don't know the full extent of what 64-bit processing will really yield. Excluding some native Apple stuff such as photo and video capture we just have to take it for granted. That's because at the moment there are no 64-bit enabled apps from third parties, but tomorrow there could be. A year down the line there definitely will be.

 

In day-to-day use we've noticed no real speed enhancements whatsoever when using an array of apps and playing all the resource-heavy games we can - Infinity Blade II, Need for Speed Most Wanted, Real Racing 3, Angry Birds (we jest). The importance of 64-bit is huge, though. It is very much an improvement that you'll see tomorrow rather than today, which makes it really hard to tell you that it's amazing, because on day one, the 20 September release day, you'll look at the phone and say "this is no different from the iPhone 5".

For today however the phone is as fast as it ever was, with zero lag and zero performance issues. Not once have we thought anything took too long to load. But if you are an iPhone 5 user expecting the 5S to be twice the speed of what you've been using, you'll find that's not the case.

S for sensors

In the past "S" in the iPhone models normally stood for speed. A new processor and everything is lightning quick. In the iPhone 5S, however, it's probably fairer to say that it's about multiple sensors, as well as speed. There are buckets of them in the phone including a dedicated coprocessor called the M7 and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor which lives in the new Home button.

The M7 coprocessor measures motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass and is all open to third-party developers. That means companies such as Nike - due to intro the Nike Move app later in 2013 - can take advantage of all that new information to make your phone behave like a FuelBand. However, and just like the A7 processor, the M7 coprocessor has yet to be fully realised on launch day so we can't really see any of this in proper action yet. It's another detail of the iPhone 5S to add to the list of its potentials.

Apple has already started using this data to benefit its own efforts. In Apple Maps, for example, the idea is that you can start directions in the car, then move to walking, and the phone knows and changes its directions for you automatically. The thing is, we're not even sure if we've witnessed it in action, that's how subtle it is.

The phone will also supposedly know that you aren't moving and are in a poor signal area and so automatically stop trying to boost the modem to get a signal which, in turn, saves battery consumption. The battery did last longer than we were anticipating, so maybe it has helped.

And S for software: iOS 7 as standard

A new iPhone means new software too and from the get-go the iPhone 5S offers the latest iOS 7 operating system, including all the visual treats that delivers.

We've been using iOS 7 in depth, from beta through to the final version, for several months to get a good impression of what it has to offer for users new and old. In short: while everything looks different and more colourful, underneath it's still the same OS and you'll either love or hate that.

The new look and feel brings with it a crisper and thinner font, a greater use of colour, and a layering system that gives everything added depth. Gone is the ode to faux leather, green felt, and yellow note paper. That overall vibrant, colourful - even joyful - approach shines through, although it does strike a chord with the serious outer, we all need to smile inside sometime.

On the features front, you now get a settings panel that can be accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, a little like the one in the latest versions of Android. There's also a new multitasking approach to seeing what apps you have open, while double tapping the Home button lets you see a cards of the open apps that can be cycled through and discarded to close. There's no "close all" action on the app front, however.

iOS 7.1

Apple likes to redefine things all the time, and that's the best way to describe iOS 7.1. It's a set of tweaks and improvements to the User Experience (UX) that also brings with it some new features, although for the most part, small.

Graphics

The biggest graphical change is a refining of the iconography of the user interface to make it more button like. On the call answer screen for example that means a circular button that slides from left to right rather than an arrow in a big green box.

The button worship continues through apps like the Music app, Keyboard (Shift and Delete now get a bolder look) and even the power off slider is a button to slide across the screen.

The new enhancements make more sense and play to the hardware button even more. OCD fans will be pleased that everything matches in a lot more clearly now.

Beyond the overall design smudges Jony Ive and his team have applied, there are other tweaks that are worth a mention.

CarPlay

Apple's CarPlay compatibility feature in iOS 7.1 isn't commercially available in cars yet, however we've been given a demo of the new feature at the Geneva Motor Show.

READ: Hands-on: Apple CarPlay review

CarPlay enables you to connect your iOS devices to a compatible car to access maps, directions, messages, and more. The feature, which is considered an accessibility feature, will display all iOS content on a vehicle's navigational screen.

Siri

Siri now features a push to hold feature that works like a walkie talkie. The idea is that you now hold down the home button when you are talking to it can better understand when you've finished. It makes a big difference, but you can't help feel that it is an acknowledgement that the microphone or the technology that processes your words aren't as good as Google's Google listening tech that doesn't even need to worry about you pressing a button to know when you are going to speak.

Siri in the UK also gets a new voice. Now it's a lot softer, not so harsh. It feels like Siri is now trying to be your friend rather than a school teacher scolding you. But it's not just the UK that gets a fresh voice in their phone, Australia, Japan, and China do to.

Calendar

A small tweak, but a useful one, you can now display options in month view, and Apple have added country specific holidays automatically for lots of new countries. It's the kind of thing that sums up the update. little changes that all go to help improve the experience.

Motion sickness

Yep, Apple continues to refine the motion sickness issues even more in iOS 7.1 with a new setting to reduce motion options in Weather, Messages, and Multitasking. It makes the phone less jumpy and means that if you don't like all that animation you can turn it off.

Performance and stability

It runs faster (but still not as fast as iOS 6) and it's is a lot more stable. If you've heard your friends, who have been using the iPhone 5S for a while, complain about crashes or the white screen of death, those worries should now be gone. TouchID has also been improved meaning you shouldn't get as many false returns as previously.

 

Touch ID

The biggest change that will affect how you use the iPhone day-to-day, however, is the new Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Now you can unlock the phone with one of five fingers from either hand. Or even someone else's hand for that matter. And yes, you can programme it to work with your toes too, if you have need.

The technology behind the Touch ID sensor is incredibly technical, but it's also incredibly easy to use and, more importantly, set up. It works effortlessly too: resting your finger on the Home button opens your phone with zero delay and in time you will wonder how you ever lived without it.

So what's it all about? The Home button has become a 555ppi capacitive screen that monitors the pattern in your digits and matches them up with the ones you've saved. Those worried about security shouldn't be. Fingerprints are only ever stored on the phone and never shared elsewhere and if you can't get in with your digits because they aren't being recognised, or you're wearing gloves, then the phone defaults to the standard 4-digit passcode. You'll still have to use a 4-digit passcode if you turn off the phone completely, or get your finger wrong five times in a row, or if it's been more than 48 hours, so don't think that you're fingerprint is the last and only bastion of defence.

At the moment the only other application for Touch ID is to confirm app store payments. Apple has yet to release the API (application programming interface) for it, so it's not an option for third-party developers just yet. There's plenty of scope for how useful it could be: banking, paying for things, and other features are likely in the future. Another point for that growing list of potentials.

Of course it's not all amazing and there are some limitations: have a few too many, fall asleep, and your nefarious friends might mess around by borrowing your finger to dip into your phone. It's also worth bearing in mind this is very much a summer technology, gloves with silver laced through them might still let you use you touchscreen, but you're going to need to get your hands cold if you want to unlock your phone the new way. And let's not forget there's you - if you are a heavy iPhone user you've been swiping to unlock probably 20-50 times a day for the last year, breaking that habit will be an initial hurdle.

New cameras

Yes, the front and rear camera has got better in the iPhone 5S and this is certainly a big plus for iPhone users who we know love taking pictures. Apple resisting the urge to get into a megapixel race with Nokia, Samsung and Sony, has opted to stick with an 8-megapixel sensor for the rear camera, but with enhancements to the sensor itself, the flash and the shooting modes available.

READ: Sony Xperia Z1 review

Apple's response is to make a larger sensor. Therefore the "pixels" on that sensor are each larger and that makes for better light-capturing properties and a cleaner signal. There's also a slightly wider aperture - up to f/2.2 from f/2.4 - to allow even more light in. That helps in low-light conditions, but also in good light too. The front camera is now capable of 720p video capture.

The second phase of attack is to improve the flash. Now dubbed True Tone flash, it consists of two flash bulbs, one white, the other amber. If you're a photographer that works much like a flash gel to colour the light and should lead to better results.

iPhone 5S vs iPhone 5 lit entirely by the flash 

The camera app, pulled up through iOS 7, is then able to monitor what is going on in the scene and what combination of flash you need to light it (if at all). In testing side by side against the iPhone 5, where the iPhone 5 needed the flash, the iPhone 5S was happy to take the picture without and produced better results. When the flash does fire the results are superior too, even in situations where we are in complete darkness lit only by the flash itself. New in iOS 7.1 is also an Auto HDR mode that when turned on will automatically detect when to turn on HDR mode and when to not. You can turn this mode off if you want you shots to be purposely dark and moody. 

Of course there is more image noise in low-light shots, but we are still very impressed with the performance. Like the Nokia Lumia 925 and Lumia 1020 boasts, the iPhone can - by guidance of its focus light - now take very good pictures in low light. Photographers, you won't be disappointed.

New shooting modes

Beyond the new camera capabilities and new flash, Apple has also added auto image stabilisation to reduce motion blur. It works via two new camera modes specifically for the iPhone 5S and there's a further square ratio that all iOS 7 users get.

Camera modes, including video, now offers: slow-mo, video with up to 3x zoom while capturing, photo, square (complete with nine filters), and panorama. Each of these are accessed by simply sliding your finger across the screen from left to right.

The camera app is uncluttered. But unlike the Nokia Lumia or Android approach where everything can be altered manually you get nothing of the sort here. If you want to adjust ISO settings and white balance then you'll need to invest in a dedicated app to do that.

Taking advantage of that A7 processor Apple has added burst mode and, finally, slow motion. Burst mode will let you take an almost infinite amount of pictures with a long press of the shutter button and then you pick the best one out of the bunch. The software will also present what it believes to be the best as a shortcut, but it's nice to have the option to look through the others too.

When slow-mo is selected you can record video at 120fps at 720p quality and then retrospectively slow down any part of the footage afterwards. Reduce it to 30fps and it'll run at quarter time, but still super-smooth. To make it look even better the audio is also slowed down automatically. Cue beach-running scenes, or near-misses with trains, or, in our case, the Burberry Spring/Summer 2014 catwalk show at London Fashion Week.

As you can imagine there is plenty of fun to be had, especially with the kids, and we've been snapping slow-mo footage when we can of a range of different things. Interestingly we've found that for it to work really well things have to be moving fairly slowly already. A sparkler was too quick, for example, as was running water, but people walking by, or a jogger, looks great. Expect YouTube to be bombarded with slow-mo videos very quickly.

Ultimately Apple has created a cracking camera that requires you to have zero knowledge of how to take pictures - and we love that.

4G for all

In the UK the iPhone 5S now supports all the networks when it comes to 4G which is an improvement over the iPhone 5 that was available only to EE 4G customers. We've been testing it with a Vodafone 3G SIM - the 4G carrier bundle hasn't been released yet - and an EE 4G SIM as well.

READ: Best 4G UK deals

The antenna does what it's supposed to and, depending on coverage in your area, how that performs will depend on the speeds you can get. They are speedy as we've come to expect with EE in London.

The iPhone 5S is also a phone when its extras are stripped back, and we've had no complaints about the call quality coming in or going out. We haven't experienced any "death grip" performance drops or repeated drop call issues so far - something we were keen to look out for because of its issues with the earlier iPhone 5.

For those keen to talk to other iPhone or iPad users using FaceTime, FaceTime Audio - where it's now possible to make high-quality calls over Wi-Fi, a new feature in iOS 7 - is now very good. Almost startlingly so, as when we made out first call using it the audio was very clear, like the other person  was in the room kind of clear. The drawbacks, though, are that while audio is improved you can only do this jump into FaceTime Audio with other Apple users - inner circle stuff, and all that - and if you don't have Wi-Fi then FaceTime Audio has a bigger impact on your data allowance than you might think. In iOS 7 beta it was a Wi-Fi only service, but that restriction has now been lifted.

Battery life

We are heavy phone users of any phone that comes into the office. Managing email, Twitter, Facebook, games, using each device as a mobile hotspot, as well as shooting video and photos when possible. How does the iPhone 5S hold up?

In our tests the iPhone 5S has lasted exceptionally well. An 8am start and a 10pm finish with heavy-ish use - including hitting it hard on the slow-mo video feature front from around 7pm - felt like a result to us.

That's in line with Apple's predictions of 10 hours of talk time on 3G. Apple also suggests that you'll get 10 hours of LTE surfing, 10 hours of video playback, and 40 hours of audio playback if you do nothing else. We've not had the time to watch that many movies back to back, but based on our experience we're confident that the phone will hold up.

The battery is roughly the same if not slightly better than the iPhone 5. A push forward, rather than a huge leap, but it's a step in the right direction.

Apple-designed iPhone 5S case

As with the iPhone 5C, Apple has designed a special leather case for the iPhone 5S so you can keep it snug and safe if you're willing to part with more cash. It's optional. But the £35 you have to pay to own one isn't. Ouch.

The case is available in yellow, black, brown, blue, beige (yes, really), and a special red version - called the "Bumper - (PRODUCT) RED", complete with hideous mixture of caps and brackets - and each comes with a micro fibre inner to protect the phone.

Sounds great, but in reality it is not. It seems a complete juxtaposition to what Apple is trying to achieve with the new operating system and seems a really strange move having spent the last year trying to remove all trace of leather and olde-world design furniture from the OS only to cover the phone in it. We've had the oddly-named red case for less than a week and it's already looking worn and tatty.

First the naff Apple iPhone 5C cases, and now this. Apple should stick to the hardware.

Verdict

The iPhone 5S fulfils the pre-determined destiny of all Apple "S" devices - it's the one that's normally met by the baying crowd as "meh". 

At the start of this review someone asked what we though of the iPhone 5S in two words and we replied "same as". But the more we've played with it, the more we've used it, and the more it's clear that Apple has made vast improvements here, even if we are yet to see the full realisation of those improvements.

In many ways Apple has released a phone for tomorrow rather than today. That's a hard sell, but it's also the exciting part. The Touch ID scanner is yet to be fully realised, as are the A7 and M7 processors and the 64-bit support. But the potential for that power is huge - it's got more grunt than its near competitors and that makes it extra exciting.

But we do still have a shopping list of wants: we would like a bigger and higher resolution screen, there is still no NFC (even though we believe iBeacons will destroy the need for that) and the software, despite looking cleaner, doesn't really move the 5S on too far from where the iPhone 5 was (indeed, plant iOS 7 on your iPhone 5 and it's a similar experience). iCloud still needs to be overhauled to be more fluid, while the social aspects of the phone such as helping you join the dots in your contacts book still need to be addressed and improved.

If you want a phone that just works, then the iPhone 5S is a very good place to start. Apple has made it look effortless which is no simple task, and in doing so - by making it look almost too easy - you can sometimes miss the beauty and power in your hand. It's stunning to use, there's stacks of power, it's without gimmicks and a nod to the future. It's these simple elements that make the iPhone 5S, for us, one of the best phones on the market. There's a lot to admire about that.