Apple iPhone 5 review
There is no hype in the world of technology or smartphones that comes anywhere near that which surrounds the iPhone. It's the single device that draws more rumour, more speculation, more comment, more analysis than any other.
It's Apple's single point in the world of smartphones: the company doesn't have a portfolio of smartphone choices, it is essentially a single hit. Fortunately, it's a big hit, with each iPhone iteration seeing faster sales, breaking records, and what almost amounts to mass hysteria.
So now the iPhone 5 is with us. We've been living with the newest iPhone ahead of the official global launch to see whether the Apple iPhone 5 really is the must-have phone of the year, or now just one of many options out there.
Design: Lighter, thinner, longer
It's the same iPhone, but it's completely different. That's the main takeaway point for the iPhone 5's design. It's something you can't really appreciate until you get up close and personal with the new phone, but when you do, wow, you'll really notice that difference.
From afar the new iPhone looks similar to the iPhone 4S, and that might lead you to think you'll be disappointed. That was the feeling we got before we touched it at the iPhone 5 launch event, but the moment you pick it up that impression instantly changes. You realise that Apple has completely re-engineered the phone. It is a lot lighter and a lot thinner, all noticeably so, and that makes a massive difference to how it feels.
Comparing the raw specs of the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 4S, the 5 measures 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6mm and weighs 112g compared to 115.2 x 58.6 x 9.3mm and 140g. In real terms that new design results in a phone that now sports a 4-inch, almost 16:9 ratio, screen and that means you get more screen real-estate than before in a device that isn't any wider.
If you are looking to brag to your iPhone 4S-owning mates, the iPhone 5 is 18 per cent thinner, 20 per cent lighter and 12 per cent smaller volumetrically.
Yes the home screen button is still there, and so is an 8-megapixel camera around the back. The volume buttons and mute switch are virtually identical too - incidentally, the orange marker to show when vibrate is on now fills the indent - and the power switch is the same too.
At a glance the SIM card slot looks the same as well, but it isn't. It's actually smaller and that's because the phone now features the smaller format nano SIM, rather than a micro SIM. Yep you'll have to order a new SIM for your iPhone 5 and, as the name suggests, it's tiny.
The headphone socket has moved to the bottom - a sensible move - and the speaker grills are now flush with the metal surround, saving you from the ingress of pocket lint. The old-style 30-pin dock connector has now been ditched in favour of the new Lightning socket. Yes, it's smaller too: are you noticing a pattern forming?
The slimness of the design has been achieved by not only shrinking all the internal components, but by ditching the glass back. It's now anodised aluminium - the same as found on the company's MacBook range - with ceramic glass (on the white and silver model) or pigmented glass (on the black and slate model) inlays top and bottom. The black model is called "slate" and as the name suggests is a dyed metal.
Ditching the glass back and reducing the thickness of the glass panel on the front has affected the design of the metal band around the edge of the iPhone. It is now chamfered and while that looks pretty, we've already noticed that on the black model the edge has started to wear, revealing the shiny silver aluminium metal underneath the "slate" coloured coating and, indeed, we've witnessed it on two separate models, ruling out a fluke manufacturing error.
These small scuffs will catch the light and make the phone look visibly worn. We suspect that it won't be as noticeable on the white model because the metal edging is silver, so that's worth bearing in mind when you come to order your colour choice.
Edging details aside, the iPhone 5 looks just as good as you would hope it to. Sat on the desk you can't help but notice it's monolithic presence, especially the dark model, the iPhone 5 really means business. This really is product design at its finest.
It's comfortable in the hand, incredibly well built and oozes quality. There is no whiff of cheap plastic or "fun" coloured polycarbonate, no awkward button placement, and no feeling that this isn't a premium smartphone. All the parts just fit together beautifully.
Retina 4-inch display: Bigger and richer
It's no great secret that if you have an iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4, or 4S, you've got a phone with one of the smallest displays on the market. Samsung, Sony, HTC, LG, and Nokia have all taken the lead in creating smartphones with large displays ranging from 4-inches to 5-inches, and in some cases, beyond.
After five years of having a 3.5-inch screen it is time for a change. Apple's answer is to elongate the screen to keep the same width but give you a 4-inch Retina display with a 1136 x 640 pixel resolution at 326 ppi, the same pixel density as the iPhone 4S. In basic terms that means another row of apps can now be fitted on the home screen and widescreen movies fit better too.
But it will have implications to your apps in the short term. While Apple has already updated its own apps to take advantage of the new space, apps that haven't been updated will have black bars top and bottom or either side depending on the orientation, as though you're watching an old 4:3 sitcom on your 16:9 TV.
That sounds awful, but the colour quality of the screen is so good that the unused black area blends almost seamlessly into the black-pigmented glass surround - you really won't notice it. It's also worth remembering that we will see updates fairly quickly, especially for the most popular apps, so expect this to be a non-issue by the time Christmas comes.
The display is not only bigger, but it is also a lot richer. The iPhone 5 has a display that delivers 44 per cent increased colour saturation over the iPhone 4S and uses the sRGB colour gamut, the standard used by the web, photos, movies, computer monitors and HDTVs. As a result, colours really do look a lot, lot, better and noticeably richer even in direct sunlight. Apps zing out of the screen, movies are more vibrant, and even websites look crisper. It's a very nice screen indeed and again an instantly noticeable improvement over the iPhone 4S - we don't want to go back.
The A6 processor: It is faster
For us, tech specs aren't the be-all and end-all of a device: it is how it performs in the real world that matters to us. The idea of benchmarking the iPhone 5 against leading other phones with different specs and different operating systems seems pointless.
The bottom line is this: the iPhone 5 runs on the new A6 processor. Compared to the A5 processor in the iPhone 4S apps now load quicker. For basic tasks you aren't going to notice the speed difference as you whizz around the OS, or loading up your favourite website as Safari isn't hardware accelerated as the browsers are on Windows Phone or Android. But start to play games or load demanding apps and you'll soon notice the extra speed is there, and there to enjoy.
Sadly we've not been able to test any games designed for the new A6 chip as they haven't been released yet, but games we know are demanding, like Horn, Infinity Blade 2 and Real Racing 2, all load a lot faster.
In the future all that power means quicker load times, better graphics, and therefore better apps. We like the sound of that.
4G and Wi-Fi: Super fast surfing
Now here's a tough one to explain. In the UK the iPhone 5 works with EE's brand spanking new 4G network that is so brand spanking new it isn't actually available to customers yet - but it is coming. The EE 4G service, at the time of writing, will be launching in the coming weeks in London, Birmingham, Bristol, and Cardiff before rolling out to a further 12 cities before the end of the year.
At the EE launch we tested the new 4G network on a range of competitor phones and got over 30Mbps - blisteringly fast - however that was at the launch event in perfect conditions. That event was before the iPhone 5 was announced and we can't therefore vouch for how good the EE service will be on the iPhone 5, or what the coverage around the UK is like, but will update this review with our experiences when we do test the service.
If you want to enjoy the iPhone 5 on the EE network at the moment you will have to sign up to an Orange or T-Mobile plan and then swap when the network launches. Likewise with Three, which will offer 4G in the future, you will have to sign up to a 3G contract for now and then swap.
But that doesn’t mean you should forget about Vodafone and O2 even though customers looking for 4G will be out of luck on those networks as neither currently offer 4G services in the UK. Both carriers are waiting for Ofcom to auction off the relevant frequencies (expected 2013), but even then those frequency bands don't match the ones in the iPhone 5 launched on the 21 September.
Instead O2 and Vodafone customers will get to enjoy HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA speeds up to 42Mbps - still faster than the iPhone 4S - providing you are in a good coverage spot.
Ultimately you'll know which network you use and how it performs. If you want the fastest speeds possible though you'll have to opt to go Orange for the short-term before upgrading to EE.
For the purpose of this review we tested the iPhone 5 on the O2 network using a nano SIM supplied to us by Apple and had no issues when it came to downloads or calls.
Audio: Speakers, mics and EarPods
Playback through the speakers is good. The sound isn't tinny, and if you are travelling and haven’t got a speaker dock with you the phone will easily fill your hotel room with tunes or allow you to make a decent stab at speaker phone calls.
When it comes to taking making calls, there is a vast improvement in the quality of the calls on the iPhone 5 over the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5 is designed with three microphones: one on the front, one on the back, and one on the bottom.
The front and back mics work together to achieve something Apple calls beamforming, a technique that helps the iPhone focus on sound from the desired location for clearer audio. New noise-cancelling technology reduces background noise. In our tests in a variety of environments, some self-made, callers at the other end of the phone told us they could tell the difference and were impressed by the call quality on the iPhone 5.
When you aren't using the in-built speakers or microphones, you can opt for the included Apple EarPods. The results are pretty good, better than we expected from a pair of bundled headphones, but you could hear some holes in the performance, as revealed in our full review of the Apple EarPods.
To compensate for the lack of oomph in the EarPods, Apple has boosted the bass. It's not uncomfortable, but it's certainly noticeable, and the bass the EarPods do provide lacks the depth you'd get from more expensive earphones. This might worry those who love low-frequency waveforms, but they're comfortable and a step up from the tired Apple headphones of old. You can read our Apple EarPods review here.
Lightning bolt: The new docking connector
There is a new docking connector at the bottom of the iPhone 5 and that means all your 30-pin cables and accessories won't work unless you buy a £25 adapter. While you might think that's a case for moaning. It's not. Yes things won't work, but Apple has had the same connector for the past decade, and most docks now are all about streaming wirelessly anyway.
The Lightning connector, as it will be known, is like everything else to do with the iPhone 5 - smaller. The connector is reversible, so there is no fumbling in the dark by your bedside cabinet as your try to work out which way to plug in the charger. And yes, you do get a cable in the box, but contrary to rumours not an adapter.
A better camera: Panorama, sharing photo streams, and more
The camera has been enhanced on the iPhone 5, although again quickly looking at a spec sheet on the Apple site or in store will give you the impression that it hasn't and is the same as previously.
That's partly down to the headline 8-megapixel sensor, the same as the iPhone 4S, but that's the only similarity. The lens has been better aligned, the camera now protected by sapphire glass crystal, and the A6 processor steps in to boost processing, doing any heavy lifting to help you create the perfect photo. Which it invariably does.
The new camera features better low-light performance and improved noise reduction. Apple says that the technology behind this is about combining pixels to give you a 2-stop advantage. It seems to work, with low light performance being noticeably better than before.
The camera app's speed has been improved too. It's now 40 per cent faster, and that means you'll be able to snap more shots, more quickly. You don't however get burst mode like the SGS3, HTC One X or Motorola RAZR i.
Editing-wise you get to remove red-eye, crop, rotate, and enhance photos right on the iPhone or of course choose from the dozens of photo editing apps available from the App Store.
New to the iPhone 5 is the panorama mode. Working like Sony's Sweep Panorama, found on its compact camera and Xperia smartphone range, you press go and then sweep the phone (in portrait) in front of you from left to right capturing 240-degree scenes. The on-screen interface gives you pointers to keep the phone level and at the end you get a 28-megapixel snap of the vista in front of you.
When you're not snapping stills the camera supports full HD 1080p video recording. There is face detection for up to 10 faces and improved video stabilisation helps out too. You can now take still photos as you record, again, something that crept into Android recently.
On the front of the phone is another camera - this one 1.2-megapixels - for video calling or just using as a mirror, and you can also use this camera to record 720p video footage too.
Picture-wise we are really impressed with the iPhone 5 camera quality. The pictures in low light and perfect light conditions have equalled or bettered the iPhone 4S - one of the best smartphone cameras on the market - and you will be more than happy with the results.
You'll be so happy in fact that you'll want to share them and share them you can, thanks to Photo Streams, a new feature with iOS 6 that will allow you to quickly share pictures and albums with specific people, like your family or best friends. Sure, sharing is nothing new, as there are any number of apps that encourage sharing, but this does make it a lot easier.
New iOS 6: Siri, Facebook, Maps, Passbook, App Store and more
It's not just about hardware. The operating system of the iPhone 5 has been improved and enhanced too, bringing with it over 200 features, some of which you'll instantly notice, with others just there to improve the experience in the background.
Siri now gets UK business support, making it considerably more useful, and you'll also be able to ask it about the football scores too. Loading apps just requires you to say the name of the app.
Facebook is now integrated at the core level, just like Twitter was for iOS 5, allowing you to share at the press of a button. Sharing is just easier all round really, whether that's via email, Photo Streams, or social networks, although it's noticeably limited compared to the rich sharing opportunities on rival platforms.
Other features that we really like include a Do Not Disturb feature that allows you to mute the phone to all but selected people at scheduled times, and tweaks in Mail that let you highlight VIPs from all the junk you get in your inbox. Text to reject isn't new on smartphones but it is to iOS 6 and means you can text back a number straight away telling them you're in a meeting.
Then there is Maps. Deciding that it can do better, Google Maps has been ditched, and replaced with Apple Maps. Now when you go to use the mapping app it will look different. The interface is a lot cleaner, and Apple has introduced a new 3D mapping flyover feature that makes everything look like it is from the SimCity games. There are some really nice tricks too. You can now change the 3D viewpoint simply by moving your finger up and down the screen, and for those that like the map to point the way they are looking you can rotate it around your axis without moving the phone - cleverly the place names rotate so you can still read them.
The app gives you direction support for walking, transport, and cars, with the latter actually getting turn-by-turn directions to guide you to your destination.
The turn-by-turn directions are clean and easy to use, there is a 3D mode as you get with more traditional satnavs - although there are no 3D buildings in the UK yet though - but no downloadable maps, so be careful of those data rates.
Like Google Maps you can overlay traffic data, and Apple has turned to a number of providers to help build, manage, and create the new maps so they should stay up to date.
There are holes though. Shifting from Google Maps means you'll loose access to Google's POI database, as well as Street View, and we've found that when you get out of metropolitan areas the satellite imagery isn't as detailed as Google's offering. Ascot, for example, isn't great.
With no NFC on any Apple device, the company has turned to Passbook to help you manage tickets, store cards, and vouchers in one handy place.
No app in the UK currently supports the feature so we've been unable to test it effectively other than to see fake "demo" passes in place.
The idea of Passbook is to allow developers to create vouchers or loyalty cards that you can store in one place, even if you don't have the company's dedicated app on your phone. Geo-targeted as well, the system could ping you when you're near a certain shop, telling you there is an deal or offer to be had if you've signed up to be alerted of such things.
Another example is that when you get to the airport your boarding pass is there waiting for you without your having to log into the app and pull it up manually.
If developers get it, and it's available to all rather than those that Apple specifically pick, it could be very handy indeed.
Battery: Lasting longer
It's not just about speed though, as the new A6 processor also helps to conserve power, something all modern chipsets claim. Trying to use the phone similarly to an iPhone 4S over the course of our testing, the iPhone 5 lasts longer every time. That's very handy, although we would have liked a battery saving mode like in the Windows Phone OS to ensure the iPhone lasts even longer.
Apple's claimed battery stats are 8 hours on 3G, 8 hours on LTE, 10 hours of Wi-Fi, 10 hours watching video, and 40 hours listening to music. The iPhone 5 has a standby time of 225 hours. In our tests we were easily able to get through the day, although not beyond that if we used it heavily on the go with location settings turned on.
What it doesn't have: NFC and wireless charging
Of course while the iPhone 5 features all of the above, there are some toys that you'll miss out on compared to the competition. There's no wireless charging as found in the new Nokia Lumia range, nor NFC as found in phones from the likes of Samsung, Sony, HTC, Nokia and BlackBerry.
Apple has publicly stated that it believes neither technology is valuable or needed right now, and for the most part they are probably right. We've been part of the Visa contactless payment trial over the summer (one of just 800 globally) and have found it very easy to pay for things with our SGS3, but equally difficult to find places to pay.
NFC is getting there, but isn't there yet. The problem for many companies and partners, is it probably won't become relevant until Apple puts an NFC chip in the iPhone.
While we understand that the industry as a whole is still in the early stages of NFC adoption, using the technology for connecting to third-party devices in the same way Sony and Nokia does with speakers and headphones could be really appealing, and we could easily imagine how great it would be if you could walk into an Apple store and simply tap with your phone to pay for the latest Apple kit. Sadly that's still the stuff of pipe dreams at the moment for the iPhone.
What Apple has created with the iPhone 5 is an extremely polished smartphone that oozes appeal. It's incredibly well built, easy to use, features a beautiful screen, and comes packed with enough speed and power to service all your requirements. The hardware is just stunning. It really is impressive how much is crammed into such a tiny box.
On the software front the story isn't as cut and dried. Apple's iOS operating system is clean and easy to use, but iOS 6 adds little to the story over iOS 5. It doesn't feel like it has taken the same leap forward as the hardware, and that this version of the OS has been more about filling gaps or replacing services rather than re-writing what's available from the ground up. There are some nice touches, but they are just that.
Change isn't always necessary, nor needed, but if there were things you didn't like in iOS 5, chances are they will still be here in iOS 6. Microsoft's Windows Phone trounces iOS 6 on the social connected stakes even though Apple has added Facebook this time around. BlackBerry's BB10 OS, due out in February 2013, beats it on the email and messaging integration (we've played with the OS already), and Android is perfect for those that want customisation and control beyond choosing wallpapers.
That's not to say it is a poor experience, far from it. The chances are you will be more than happy with the performance of the phone and what it offers on the software stakes. The iPhone is still the smartphone we would recommend when it comes to apps. While Android is getting closer to enjoying a parallel launch schedule for apps, Windows Phone and BlackBerry are light years behind the ingenuity shown on a daily basis either from Apple or third-party developers.
While the hardware and design here is cutting edge, the software plays it safer than we would like. For those of you that have already left the Apple eco-system for Samsung or HTC, for example, the iPhone 5 isn't likely to draw you back. You might marvel at the build and design, but Apple with the iPhone 5 has created a smartphone that is too safe for you: you'll feel too mollycoddled.
Instead Apple has created a phone that the millions of current iPhone users will want to upgrade to. iPhone owners will love it, enjoy all those new features, and appreciate all the hard work, design, and engineering that has gone into it.
The iPhone 5 is a phone that makes you feel safe. A phone that you know exactly how to use as soon as you take it out of the box and that is perfect for a huge number of people.
It's a phone that, until you start craving the iPhone 6, will serve you very well indeed.