iPhone 5S Review

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Every year around this time Apple delivers to us its best flagship phone it’s ever produced; the iPhone 5S doesn’t disappoint. After six years of launches we’ve all become accustomed to the typical refresh of the same industrial design in the current product cycle. We all know the routine: a hardware tweak here and there, a stronger more efficient processor, and some software changes to boot.

With the iPhone 5S, users get the full potential of Apple’s newest mobile operating system iOS 7. Apple claims the 5S is “the most forward-thinking iPhone yet” and “the best smartphone in the world.”

Let’s see if this proclamation holds true.

 

The Good
  • Excellent build quality
  • Touch ID Fingerprint Sensor
  • Ecosystem
  • Best in class camera
The Bad
  • iOS still needs work
  • M7 coprocessor, 64-bit support not fully adopted by devs

Hardware

Unlike some pundits and consumers, I have no real issues with the size of the iPhone 5S’s screen. Could it be bigger? Sure. Does it need to be? No. Apple choosing to stick with this basic form factor makes all the sense in the world because of how it optimizes its mobile OS. I also love the fact that I can still put this phone in the small pocket of my skinny jeans (yeah, I’m that guy). This year’s model went basically unchanged from last year’s iPhone, as it brings the same aluminum back to metal frame with chamfered edges. Stuck with same frame, it’s 7.6mm thick and just over 4 oz in weight.

Back to the display for a second. Apple’s decision to stay with its usual practical approach with a smaller screen size has yet to hurt the company in sales. The fact is, the iPhone’s 4-inch 1136 x 640 Retina display still looks great even as its resolution has been overtaken by 1080p screens on the LG G2, Galaxy S4 and HTC One, just to name a few. Having fondled most of the devices I've named, the iPhone 5S Retina display is still one of the best in class because of its on-point color accuracy and viewing angles. It’s just great.

This year’s flagship feels the same as last years, albeit, with some minor color changes. My device is the silver version, which is the same as it's always been, aside from the cool Touch ID ring around the home button (also added to the Space Grey and Gold models).

Touch ID

Touch ID, Apple's new fingerprint scanner, is implemented into its new iPhone 5S very well. Sense of touch remains the same, as it feels exactly like every other iPhone home button. The difference, of course, is the removal of the box in the center, and the addition of the ring around the home button. Although Touch ID isn't all the way there as far as flawless usability is concerned; it still offers simple, affective functions like using your print instead of your Apple ID to make purchases -- I find this crazy useful.

I admit, in the beginning I looked at this feature as being a bit gimmicky, but now I look at Touch ID in a whole different light thanks to its added security. For starters, Touch ID takes security to whole new level by making it almost entirely NSA-proof. Apple says Touch ID only stores your fingerprints in special encrypted memory on the phone itself; it’s stored on the A7 processor to be exact. This keeps folks print data off Apple’s servers and away from the NSA.

In a way Touch ID is a big FU to the government -- something I’m 100 percent behind when it comes to my privacy.

However, there are some drawbacks. Not having the ability to use this awesome feature with third-party apps is hugely disappointing. Just think how much better Touch ID could be if you had the ability to authenticate money transfers from finance apps? Just think, verifying transfers from apps such as Venmo, PayPal, Google Wallet or your banking app all with a fingerprint. Yeah, that would be nice.

I have no doubt with more time Touch ID could be more than good -- it could be spectacular.

Build Quality

Aside from the HTC One, no other phone on the market can compete with this kind of machine wizardry when it comes to the sturdy build quality on the iPhone 5S. Build quality is something that kind of gets overlooked in today’s market. Many consumers seem more enamored with a phone that’s affordable, has a giant screen, and speed. They don’t necessarily care about what materials are holding their handset together.

This point proves to be true when you consider all the success Samsung has had with its plasticky Galaxy phones, compared to a company like HTC who’s struggling to stay afloat despite superior build quality.

So it’s good to see Apple to stay true to cutting-edge industrial design, while choosing top-notch materials to build its products. Because of its attentiveness, no one can hold a claim that Apple’s products are cheap, unlike some of its competitors.

Guts And Glory

Don’t look for benchmarks or nerdtastic charts with quadrant scores, because I’m not going to give them. These tidbits mean squat when you’re using the iPhone 5S out in the real world, however, you can trust me when I say the speed on this phone mops the floor with last year’s model.

So what do you get different in the inside? You get a kick-ass A7 processor that, at the moment, is among the best in its class. However the real secret weapon is the M7 “motion coprocessor,” which is designed to collect data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, and others. Once collected, that data is then used to determine the state of your phone without sucking battery life.

The M7 allows for the iPhone to know when your walking, driving, etc. We’re already seeing developers take advantage of this unique power, with the latest being RunKeeper and its Pocket Track feature.

Throw in 64-bit support for improvements in performance and battery life, and you have real winner.

Software

What more can be said about iOS 7? It’s been dissected, picked at and spoken about at nauseum since it debut back in June (read our reactions here). There is no doubt that Apple desperately needed to revamp its mobile operating system, as it became dull compared to the rapid changes Google was doing with its Android OS. Sure, we techie-types may love iOS 7 but it’s been a mixed bag for average consumers.

When CEO Tim Cook ousted Scott Forstall, Sir Jony Ive was put in charge. Ive almost immediately chose to move away from the traditional skeuomorphic interface in favor of one that's flatter and more colorful. What iOS 7 brings now is new fonts, icons, colors, graphics and gestures.

Besides the drastic paint job, iOS 7 still remains the same from a usability standpoint. Albeit, there are small tweaks, including a change in how folks access Spotlight, as it is now hidden; users can grab it from any screen with a simple small downward pull. In addition, folders can hold more apps, new layers were added to the UI and you can even get dynamic wallpapers with parallax. Oh, and Siri dumped the beta tag and brought a male voice with a few new abilities (like Bing Search -- yikes).

The best improvements within the new software has to be Control Center and multitasking. Control Center allows iPhone users an easier way to access options like brightness, flashlight, alarms, calculator, camera, airplane mode, and a music player widget by simply flicking their finger up from the bottom of the screen, where the Control Center panel appears. This feature was so needed to avoid the time consuming effort of fishing through the long list of things in the Settings; a process that had been all too cumbersome.

Multitasking is more improved as well. Instead of double tapping the home button and seeing a small bar at the bottom of the screen that shows apps running in the background; now you get a completely new card-based display that allows you to rid applications by swiping your finger up. I think an option to clear all applications running in the background would be a good addition.

Other than that, Music, Mail, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and many more of Apple’s native apps got an overhaul. Oh, yeah, there’s also AirDrop, but it’s lame; it’s just a fancy name for file sharing with folks who also have an iPhone.

Moving on.

Web Browser, Multimedia And Camera

Web Browser

Mobile Safari has been changed for the better. Much like the other native apps on the new platform, Safari carries the same flat and colorful look. I've heard many people complain about the design of the app icon, but it doesn't bother me. When you hit the tab button to the lower right it shows all your tabs as if they’re in a file cabinet. You also get the option of browsing the internet in private.

Safari is more enjoyable to use as the faster GPU speeds meshes well with the buttery smooth scrolling and zooming. It’s weird, I always used Google’s Chrome browser on my last two iPhones, but now I am very comfortable using Safari now.

Multimedia

Apple is arguably the top dog in all things media with its insanely large collection of music, movies, and TV shows in the iTunes Store plus hundreds of thousands of quality apps in the App Store. My one complaint is Apple’s terrible handling of iCloud. It’s just not implemented well within its OS. More apps should have access to the storage, but don’t because of Apple’s unwillingness to open up its API.

Camera

Here's a news flash: the camera on the iPhone 5S is really good. This shouldn't surprise anyone, as Apple improves the camera specs on its flagship phone every year. It’s stunning how every year Apple seemingly puts more distance between itself and its competitors with its camera quality. It’s almost remarkable how many manufacturers fail at delivering a quality shooter on the back of their handsets. And with its rivals shortcomings, Apple continues to take advantage with a feature most should have top of their list.

The iPhone 5S offers a maximum resolution of eight megapixels. The sensor on the back has a larger pixel size (1.5µm vs. 1.4µm) and larger aperture (f/2.2 vs. f/2.4), which gives it a distinct advantage when shooting low-light photos. It’s far better than the HTC One’s Ultrapixel sensor and the Moto X’s camera (although it isn't so bad).

There were times when I took shots and they came out looking as if they came from a point and shoot camera. The 5S delivers crisp shots in all areas. Although last year’s 5 model was great, the iPhone 5S tops it. Capturing images in the night is where this phone separates itself from the rest of the handsets on the market. I remember taking shots with my 5 in the night being hit or miss, but the 5S puts many of those images I used to miss in play. This is due to the 5S’ 33 percent increase in light sensitivity.

Other neat improvements include a new burst mode, which I rarely use. It shoots 10 frames per second, and then either automatically selects the best of your photos or lets you choose your favorite (I usually pick my own photos, though). Once you pick your favorite shot, you can delete the rest, because god knows you don’t want all that clutter in your Photo Stream.

Slow-motion video is awesome! It let’s you capture 720p at 120 frames per second and then play it back at a quarter speed. I took this bad boy for test drive when I brought my son to the playground.

Additionally Apple’s added live filters in the camera app, zooming is now possible while you’re recording video, and there’s automatic digital image stabilization. These aren't features that jump off the spec sheet, however, they bring a simple and effective usability most average consumers will enjoy.

The FaceTime HD front-facing camera also received an upgrade this year. Similar to last year, it's a 1.2-megapixel shooter capable of 720p video. The only real difference lies with the 5S’ new BSI sensor with larger 1.9mm; this helps do a better job of capturing light.

Call Quality And Battery Life

I’m going to be honest when I say I can’t tell the difference in the call quality on the iPhone 5 compared to the 5S. The iPhone 5S houses the same old three microphones and high quality speakers. Taking in phone calls is still decent, but most phones have stepped up their game in this department. At this point, call quality is no longer a smartphone issue, it’s all about the carriers now as most of us wait for HD voice to roll out on calls.

Battery life was increased a tiny bit. On paper, Apple says the 5S brings 3G talk time of 10 hours, 10 Hours LTE browsing, with up to 250 hours of standby. In my time with the phone, I’d say these numbers are pretty accurate. I've been consistently getting a days use (8-10 hours on LTE; 20-plus on WiFi/LTE).

As I mentioned earlier, the 64-bit support helps with not only performance but battery life. So when more apps adopt the processing power, battery life should get even better.

The Final Take

So is the iPhone 5S “the most forward-thinking iPhone yet” and “the best smartphone in the world?” I’m not sure if it’s the best smartphone in the world, but the former definitely holds true. Apple did what it always does, and that’s make the iPhone 5S the new hotness, by doing things better than its predecessor.

The reality is, Apple laid the groundwork down for the future with the addition of 64-bit support, an M7 coprocessor, and Touch ID. But these are mainly features that appeal to the geeks out there who truly understand and care about these intricate things.

Apple needs to continue to innovate, and Touch ID could be that one defining feature that can separate its products further from the rest -- however, much refining still needs to be done.

Apple doesn't have to follow the herd of manufacturers making stupidly huge phone displays, instead they need to continue going with what works. Some of you might not want to hear this, but most people happen to enjoy the size of the iPhone as is. The majority of folks like “small phones,” or what I like to call them: normal sized phones.

That being said, I could totally see Apple shrinking the bezel on the side and stretching the display further up. A 4.2-inch display like the BlackBerry Z10 is a perfect size.

It’s hard for me to justify telling folks to buy this phone if they happen have last year’s model. However, for those of you still rockin a 4 or 4S, I’d say it’s about time for you to pull the trigger already.

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