The back: exit glass, enter aluminium
DESIGN & HANDLING
It's 28 grammes lighter than the iPhone 4S (112 g, compared to the 4S's 140 g and Galaxy S3's 133 g), 8.6 mm longer and 1.7 mm thinner, with an aluminium back instead of glass. The iPhone 5 may not be a vast visual break from the 4S (the outer rim remains unchanged and the back is still flat), but it's certainly a successful revamping.
Though abandoning the 3.5" screen of yore, Apple carefully avoided oversizing the iPhone by giving it the same width as the 4S. It's both light and comfortable as a result. The new iPhone is as easy to use with one hand as ever.
10 years later, a new connector
As far as design is concerned, there's no doubt about it: we are definitely in the presence of an iPhone. Apple has once again bet its money on consistency. If you're one of those users who wants the whole world to know they have an Apple device, then rest assured, because the company's new creation is perfectly identifiable (despite the part-glossy, part-matte back). People who were eagerly awaiting a radical new design, however, will be more sceptical. Apple has held on to the aesthetic codes that established the brand's time-worn image: the "less is more" theory, combining a minimalist design, high-end materials and impeccable finishing. And why shouldn't they? It may not be bold, but it's just as stylish as the previous generations; and whether you're a fan or not, no one can deny that this is one meticulously accomplished design.
After spending a couple weeks with the "Black & Slate" version, the aluminium back on ours had no nicks or scratches on it, although some users have already complained about scratching. We'll keep an eye on it and see how it ages... Any scuff marks should likely be less visible on the "White & Silver" version.
Like the 4S before it, which replaced the old SIM card with a micro-SIM, the iPhone 5 now requires a nano-SIM card. Yes, you heard it, 4S owners, that means if you want to switch to the 5 you'll have to go get a new card from your carrier.
The White & Silver model
Another bone of contention is the new connector. For ten years the iPod/iPad/iPhone connector never changed. Now that's history and there's no turning back. iFans the world over have railed against the switch: in order to plug your iPhone 5 into any peripherals you already own, you have to buy an adapter. For £25. But companies are already jumping on board, with, for example, Bowers & Wilkins allowing Zeppelin Air owners to trade in their old dock connectors for the new Lightning.
The new connector is much smaller (it's designed to fit the thinner handset) and reversible, capable of being plugged in "face up" or "face down", making it easier and quicker to plug it in to your devices. We tried transferring a bunch of files from a PC to an iPhone 5, then from a PC onto a 4S, and the iPhone 5 transferred faster. Then again, that could also be due to the new processor... who's to say?
The audio jack for Apple's new headphones, the EarPods, is now at the bottom end of the phone instead of the top. Apple isn't the only brand to have made this practical choice; it avoids the headphone cable getting in the way of the display and allows you to pull the phone out of your pocket with the screen facing in the right direction.
The display is longer, but the width is exactly the same as the 4S. Last week we published the findings from our screen test and the results we obtained from the 4-inch display (16:9 aspect ratio with 1136 x 640 resolution) showed a slightly higher contrast of 1,000:1 than the 4S's 800:1. And the ratio stays constant no matter how high or low you set the brightness. Among other things, higher contrast means improved legibility in sunlight. And with a maximum brightness of 500 cd/m², the iPhone 5 beats both the 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3. The GS3, however, holds the advantage when it comes to ghosting.
The iPhone 5 has more accurate colours than the 4S, with a Delta E of 3.4. The tones come out a bit warmer here than on the 4S, where they had a slight tendency towards blue. This makes the 5's screen look a bit more flashy, though nowhere near the exaggerated colours of certain AMOLED screens.
Just like the 4S, which has the same pixel density, the iPhone 5's display is superb, with noticeable detail, no visible pixels and stand-out legibility in all situations—especially on web pages, where you don't have to zoom in to read most text clearly.
The touch surface that lined the Retina display is now integrated into the screen, offering just as good rendering. However, we did notice that whites come out just a bit more yellow than on the 4S (see image below).
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
The interface is practically unchanged. With iOS 6 (also available as an update for the 3GS, 4 and 4S) the user interface has received only a few minor modifications. There's nothing "revolutionary" here, with little extra in terms of customisation options or lock screen info. Once again, Apple has capitalised on what already exists, with an interface born five years ago.
The changes in the UI are so minor (the camera interface and virtual keyboard has been very subtly revised) that nobody who's already used to Apple's mobile OS could conceivably get lost on it. And anybody else will find their way around in no time, as it's just as intuitive and easy to understand (or, as some Android-leaning users who prefer Google's more open and customisable system might say, rudimentary) as before.
But it also means you have to accept being led down the accessible, yet undeviating, path that Cupertino has laid out for you. For many users the "Apple way" greatly simplifies things—all you have to do is follow the path—while others find it overly restrictive. The biggest alternative, Android, offers more room for manoeuvre by simply functioning as a hard drive-like storage device. Again, it's all a matter of preference and what you want out of your device: to let Apple lead you by the hand, or to have more customisable options with Google, where all is not gold either...
But let's move on to some of the new features in iOS 6. The huge, black stain marring the recent update is obviously Maps, Apple's voice-guided navigation app. Maps was born of Apple's desire to effectively oust its rival, Google, from its user interface (like YouTube, Google Maps used to come pre-installed). But it seems they've jumped the gun, considering the mass of errors and vagaries that users have reported (missing routes, places and towns that the app can't find or that have mysteriously changed location, distorted satellite views, flattened monuments, and the list goes on...).
By launching the service perhaps too hastily—at least, that's what the results imply—Apple made a strategic error. As things stand, the app is worlds away from the 3D demos presented at last month's keynote speech. That's a shame when you consider that the geolocation function is one of the most used features on any smartphone.
But we should give Apple some time to convert its try—it has already invited users to report any problems they find. But in the meantime we're left wanting more. Contending with Google Maps and Nokia's excellent free navigation services, Apple has enormous strides to make. It took Google years to develop a service as good as it has. It sent thousands of people onto the field to map out locations, while Apple seems to trust only computers and algorithms.
But until Apple comes up with a fix, and/or an iOS version of Google Maps sprouts on the App Store (Apple willing!), here's all you have to do: go to maps.google.com on your iPhone and add it to your home screen as though it were an app. Done. As we write this review, the word from The New York Times is that Google is already on the case and may release an app before holiday season.
Another new feature is Passbook, which stores all your coupons, gift cards, plane tickets, concert tickets, etc. on one page. Then all you have to do is present your phone at the location in question and they scan it. Once the list of partners grows, this could turn out to be a practical little tool.
Facebook is more deeply integrated into the iPhone 5, peering its head through more apps, the calendar, photo albums and contacts. This is handy, but Apple's only just catching up with Android and Windows Phone.
Between the A6 dual-core processor clocked at 1 GHz and the 1 GB of RAM, the iPhone 5 is almost indecently responsive. Everything runs smoothly, whether you're navigating through the interface or scrolling down a web page.
Is it faster than the 4S? Oh, yes. The difference is palpable the second you start up the phone, which takes several seconds less than before. From opening and downloading apps to the camera function and Facebook, the iPhone 5 is ultra-responsive, never faltering before a task. You can see the difference when you put the two side by side. Don't get us wrong, this in no way means that the 4S is slow, because to date it's still one of the fastest out there. But in terms of raw processing power, when you put it to the benchmark test the iPhone 5 blows every other smartphone out of the water.
The iPhone 5 makes for an excellent carry-along camera. Is it the best cameraphone on the block? In the camera results we published last week, we found that yes, it is. The iPhone 5 does beat the 4S when it comes to image rendering, although the difference isn't drastic. The overall quality is a bit more homogeneous, with sharper images and more detail.
The sensor is perfectly responsive when focusing and shooting, and photos save quickly. It's a very slight improvement over the 4S, which is just a tad slower.
iPhone 4S at 3 lux (very low lighting)
iPhone 5 at 3 lux (very low lighting)
Like the 4S, the iPhone 5's flash still burns the image. We recommend not even bothering with the flash, especially given that the 8-Megapixel sensor (ƒ/2.4) handles white balance far better in low lighting than the 4S. A cursory glance at the two photos above will tell you everything you need to know; even in very dark lighting the iPhone sees clearly. Sure, how the image is treated has a lot to do with it—the pictures are smoothed more—but at least the scene shows more detail, especially in the middle of the shot, without any need for the flash.
So, how does the camera compare to the cameras on other high-end smartphones like the GS3 and HTC One X? Easy: across the board, the iPhone 5's sensor gives better rendering, more balance and more detail. Period. It is no less than the best smartphone camera currently on the market (although very soon it will have the Nokia Lumia 920 and its PureView technology to contend with).
Is the ability to take snapshots while filming "revolutionary"? No, it's called catching up with the competition—Samsung already offers this on the GS3. But the snapshots are easy to take and the results are remarkable. The video quality is also very decent for a smartphone, with effective facial recognition.
As for the audio, Apple has kept everything perfectly in check. The headphone output is powerful, precise and by far more dynamic than any of its rivals. We're talking zero interference, zero distortion. The iPhone 5 is the new reference in smartphone audio. (Note: by this we mean the output signal, not the sound from the EarPods. For an in-depth look at the Apple EarPods, see here.)
Like headphone, like speaker: the sound from the built-in speaker is extremely clean with no distortion even at high volume, which is a noticeable improvement over the 4S.
With the updates for iCloud and Safari (Apple's web browser is just as responsive as before), you can save your browsing history on multiple devices. That way you can finish reading a given web page on one device, say, your iPad, and continue reading it on your iPhone later. And in read-only mode you can save web pages to read them offline. In other words, the web browsing experience is still one of the best.
Thanks to the outstanding raw performance from the A6 processor and handling of 3D graphics, the iPhone 5 is a great mobile gaming console. Even the biggest, most CPU-intensive games run without a hitch, showing exemplary continuity. Unfortunately, since many games haven't been updated for the new screen yet, it's still common to see black strips on the sides. And, of course, after ten minutes or so of gameplay the back of the phone starts to get hot... As we've often mentioned before, video games are still a demanding activity for a smartphone.
Many games haven't been updated for iOS 6 yet and don't fill the whole screen
Let's just say that Apple hasn't worked any miracles with the 1430 mAh battery. The battery life is just about the same as the 4S; with intensive 3G and Wi-Fi usage it will last a day, tops. The iPhone 5 is thin and light, which is nice, but more demanding users might have preferred a heftier battery (à la Galaxy S3, which has a longer-lasting 2100 mAh battery) and—let's be crazy—an image stabiliser for the camera.
The Million Dollar Question
Should you trade in your 4S for an iPhone 5? This fifth generation does have some notable improvements, but clearly not enough to make the switch worthwhile for most consumers. The biggest selling points for the 4S owner are lighter weight and faster execution.
Should you trade in your iPhone 4, 3GS or 3G for an iPhone 5? If you want to take better-looking photos and have a powerful smartphone that's capable of smoothly running any application or game, then yes: it's definitely something to consider. Compared to the pre-4S generations, the gain in quality is striking.
Should you go with a different brand instead? Apple's rivals smelled the coffee a while ago, and some are now developing more new features than Apple is—that's a fact. So, who is the competition? The excellent Galaxy S3, which among other things offers NFC compatibility and longer battery life, is one. Still under Android and still Samsung, there's the Galaxy Note 2, with its XXL screen. And some may be holding out to see what the Lumia 920 has in store under Windows Phone 8. Between now and the holidays a slew of new smartphones of varying brand names is set for release, many under Microsoft's new mobile OS. These days, when it comes to smartphones and operating systems, you can have your pick: iOS, Android, WP8, BB OS, Bada... Everyone has different needs and mobile habits. Only you can decide what works best for you!