Review: Apple iPhone 5s

Not bigger, just better

Our score: 5/5
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Published: September 30, 2013 11:15 AM
Updated: March 3, 2014 12:08 PM
By Florence Legrand
Translated by: Catherine Barraclough
With Morgane Alzieu
Tristan François
Axel Mendy
This time around Apple has treated us to not one but two new iPhones, with the 5c and the 5s. While the 5c is basically a reworked 5 with a snazzy new paint job—available in a choice of five eye-catching colours—the 5s inherits the basic design of the 5 but packs in an upgraded set of specs.

The iPhone 5s may well have the same design and build as its predecessor and the same 4" 1136 x 640-pixel Retina display, but Apple has treated its latest high-end handset to a souped-up processor, an improved camera and a "Touch ID" fingerprint scanner. The iPhone 5s is presented as a more advanced, fine-tuned version of the original 5.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s - homescreen, button, front view

So what does this latest iPhone have in store? Is it really all that different from the iPhone 5 and 5c?

The iPhone 5s is available in three colours (Space Grey, Gold, Silver) from £549 for the 16 GB model. Note that 32 GB and 64 GB versions are also available. As usual with Apple handsets, there's no sign of a microSD card slot for boosting the memory. However the iCloud is on hand for online storage.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s -  in hand

Design & Handling5/5


At first glance, the iPhone 5s looks like a straight copy-paste of the iPhone 5. It has the same high-end look and feel, the same minimalist design, the same top-quality build and finish, and the same glass and aluminium casing that sets Cupertino's flagship handset apart from the rest.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s - from the side

On closer inspection, it seems that Apple has actually made a few minor changes to the 5s. As well as throwing two new colour schemes into the mix, a metal rim has appeared around the edge of the physical button (for fingerprint recognition) and the LED flash on the back has changed shape to house the new "True Tone" dual flash.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s next to iPhone 5

Design-wise, the iPhone 5s has all the same advantages as its predecessor, with sleek looks, a "premium" feel, a lightweight 112 g build and a size that makes it easy to use in one hand. It'll also no doubt inherit the biggest design flaw of the 5. Over time, the black version of the iPhone 5 could be quite prone to picking up scratches, and the Space Grey 5s is likely to follow suit.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s next to iPhone 5c

Display5/5


While other smartphone-makers are busy padding out their ranges with all kinds of screen sizes—from mini mobiles to the current slew of outsized 5" or larger handsets—Apple has decided to stick with its 4" screen. And that's no bad thing. We reckon that 4" is just the right size for a smartphone screen, as it keeps the handset easy to use with just one hand. XXL mobiles generally need to be used with two hands at once. It's actually becoming increasingly difficult to find mid-range/high-end Android smartphones with restrained dimensions and lightweight builds. But Apple is sticking to its guns ... for the time being, at least. Apple clearly believes that are still plenty of mobile users out there who aren't interested in larger-screened phablet-style devices, and the sales figures seem to back that up, with 9 million new-gen iPhone handsets reportedly sold in their first weekend on sale.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s iOS7 homescreen
Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s finger print unlock


As well as leaving other phone-makers to battle it out on screen size, Apple is also sitting out the race towards monster screen resolutions. Over the past few months, we've seen a slew of high-definition smartphones come to market, but Apple is confident that its Retina display can still cut the mustard. It therefore keeps the same 1131 x 640 pixels and 326 ppi resolution as seen in the iPhone 5. And it's true that the onscreen image is still sharp, crisp and perfectly easy to read in all conditions—particularly with web pages—even without the HD credentials flaunted elsewhere, which is all the more impressive. In fact, you don't necessarily need to zoom in to read online text and web pages comfortably.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s in use, on the web

In terms of physical specs, the 5s screen is identical to the Retina display used in the 5. However, its performances and calibration have been upgraded significantly. Brightness is up on the iPhone 5, from an already high 500 cd/m² to an even more impressive 575 cd/m², and the contrast has risen to 1071:1. That's enough to keep the screen readable in bright outdoor conditions.

Colour fidelity has improved too, with an average Delta E measured at 1.7. That's the lowest we've ever seen for a smartphone screen. Note that Delta E measures the difference between perfectly reproduced colours and those actually displayed onscreen—colours can be considered accurate with a Delta E of 0 to 3. The iPhone 5s therefore displays colours that are more natural, more accurate and closer to reality than the iPhone 5 or any other phone we've reviewed.

The 5s has a responsive touchscreen with latency of just 75 ms, like its predecessor. It's therefore still the most responsive touchscreen we've seen to date in a smartphone. Touchscreen responsiveness measures the time it takes (or latency) between moving your finger on a device's touchscreen surface and that movement being translated into a response. This latency is measured in milliseconds and should ideally be as low as possible. From the last six  months of product reviews (HTC One, Lumia 1020, Galaxy S4, etc.), the average touchscreen latency works out at around 140-150 ms.

The iPhone 5s screen has nice, wide viewing angles but there's still a fairly large bezel around the edges of the display. Apple could have used that to extend the phone's touchscreen surface to about 4.2" without having to push up the handset's overall size.

Interface & Navigation5/5


While the iPhone 5s may not seem too different from the outside, things look rather different once you fire it up. In its most significant redesign since 2007, Apple has brought a fresh look and a host of new features to iOS 7. And pretty much everything has changed, from the buttons to the homescreen to the typeface to the colour scheme.

The updated interface has a cleaner, more minimalist look, with fresher, contemporary feeling graphics, brightly coloured icons and transparent effects. The system's layout and organisation have been reworked in places, and certain functions are now accessed through new hubs and menus. Apple has managed to break with the past, bringing a profoundly new design to iOS 7, while also ensuring a familiar feel for long-standing iOS regulars. And few Apple users seem indifferent to this iOS update—it's generally either loved or hated with no room for middle ground.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s iOS notifications IOS7
Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s multitasking


New features in iOS 7 include the "Control Center" (pictured above left and below middle), which opens with an upwards swipe and can even be accessed when the phone is locked. This hub features frequently used phone settings such as connectivity options, airplane mode, screen brightness settings, plus favourite apps like the camera, calculator and clock. Multitasking (pictured above right) has been improved, with apps shown as a stack of windows accessible via the home button. The windows can be opened with a simple tap or closed with a swipe across the screen. Apple's Safari web browser now uses a similar system for managing web pages too (pictured below right). Apple isn't exactly breaking new ground here, however. Cupertino is merely playing catch-up with Android, and to a lesser extent Windows Phone too.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s control center

Navigation within the phone's updated interface is, however, a more pleasant and more practical experience than before. Apple's iOS 7 is still a highly intuitive system that's easy to get the hang of and which makes day-to-day use a breeze. In that respect, Apple's operating system is still very much accessible to a vast majority of users—pretty much anyone will be able to pick up and use an iPhone 5s with no need for specific technical knowledge.

On the other hand, partially sighted users may struggle a little more with iOS 7 due to the predominantly white interface with its transparent effects. Previous versions were more contrasted and had more shading effects to help things stand out. Screen backgrounds (notes, text messages, e-mails, etc.) in iOS 7 are very light and the new font makes characters skinnier. It's the same story with the keyboard too. Apple does include a series of accessibility settings, with options for increasing the font size and reversing the colours, as well a "Voice Over" function which tells you what's going on onscreen. But, in spite of that, some users have been sad to see Apple ditch the previous interface, where everything seemed to stand out more clearly.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s finger print, interface, updates

One key new feature of the iPhone 5s is the "Touch ID" fingerprint sensor. Set-up only takes a couple of minutes, and once you've saved your fingerprint in the phone's memory (up to five fingerprints can be stored), the handset can be unlocked by resting the same finger on the physical button under the screen. This can also be used for purchases in iTunes and the App Store so you don't have to keep typing in your Apple account password.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s touch id

Note that the passcode system hasn't been entirely done away with, and can be used instead of "Touch ID" by swiping the lock screen. Plus, you'll need to enter your passcode when restarting the device or when unlocking after more than 48 hours. Although it's certainly very simple, we often found ourselves forgetting about the fingerprint sensor completely and using the passcode like in the good old days. Maybe that's just the force of habit. Still, it'll be interesting to see whether using the fingerprint sensor becomes more instinctive as we settle into life with the iPhone 5s.

In terms of performance, Apple promises an iPhone 5s that's "twice as fast" as the previous model. The handset runs on Apple's new 1.3 GHz A7 dual-core processor with 64-bit architecture and 1 GB of RAM. With other smartphones still using 32-bit processors and operating systems, Apple is the first handset-maker to make the jump to a 64-bit system.

While the advantages of a 64-bit architecture in this kind of handset and in today's market are of debatable interest—other than using over 4 GB of RAM, gaining a little power and boosting battery life—Apple has managed to secure a lead over its competitors. The iPhone 5s is the first step towards the future shape of Apple's OS and applications. Oh, and marketing-wise it sounds quite good too. For the time being, there aren't really any applications out there that can make full use of this new-found power, but the first video games with full 64-bit support are likely to land soon. In the meantime, the demo with Infinity Blade 3, specially optimised to run on the 5s, is very impressive.

In the current market, the iPhone 5s blows the competition out of the water in processor benchmark tests, especially with graphics processing. The Apple A7 therefore moves ahead of the already turbo-charged Qualcomm S800 (as used in the LG G2). For pure processing power too, the benchmarks show speeds almost two times faster than with the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 (and 5c) already felt like a very speedy phone to use, but the 5s moves things up yet another gear. The handset springs into action more quickly, and is faster to open up web pages or power-hungry applications like Google Earth. No matter what you're doing, the 5s is a sprightly device that gets to work in a flash and runs everything with smooth and seamless ease.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s gaming screenshot
 
The notoriously heavyweight Real Racing 3 game runs very smoothly on the iPhone 5s. In fact, it's even more fluid than with the iPhone 5, which already did a good enough job. The 5s improves graphics rendering, particularly with lighting and particle effects—even more so than the LG G2, for example. Plus, unlike the G2—which, let's not forget has a HD screen—there's no trace of aliasing with the iPhone 5s.

The software (iOS 7) and hardware clearly work together in total harmony in the iPhone 5s to deliver a first-rate user experience. And that's in spite of the fact that the SoC isn't a packed with processor cores and overflowing with RAM. We'll look forward to seeing more applications that can really get the most out of these robust specs.

Another new arrival in the 5s is the M7 motion coprocessor that works alongside the A7 to handle data from the various motion-sensors onboard the iPhone 5s (compass, accelerometer and gyroscope). This should make the 5s even more adept at monitoring your every move, which will be good news for fans of sports and fitness apps. Again, we'll be keen to try out the upcoming apps that make full use of this new feature.

Multimedia5/5


The iPhone 5s takes over from last year's iPhone 5 and HTC One as the best smartphone audio player, building on the same excellent features of its predecessor. The headphones out is powerful, with a low level of background noise (-93 dB) and a perfectly well-managed separation between the left and right channels. The output is really very impressive for this kind of device, beating many a model claiming to deliver "HD audio".

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s speakers and port

The speaker is perhaps its only weak point. Although it's still fine, the output could be cleaner and more powerful, like the HTC One speaker, for example.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s web pages in safari
 Safari has been reworked with a new way of organising the various pages you have open at once.
Otherwise, web browsing is as fast, smooth and pleasant an experience as ever.

 

Camera4/5


Like the iPhone 5, the 5s has an 8-Megapixel rear-facing camera. This has been enhanced with all kinds of new features and settings, including a dual-LED flash to improve the white balance plus bigger pixels to capture more light and hopefully push up picture quality.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s camera

As we've already explained in our in-depth test of the iPhone 5s camera, the updated sensor takes good-quality pictures, even in low light. Picture quality has improved a little compared with the iPhone 5, notably when it comes to keeping digital noise in check. However, the image processing system in the 5s does tend to smooth away finer detail. Photos therefore look more flattering when viewed onscreen rather than when zoomed in to 100%, but that's the whole point of smoothing. In that respect, Apple is catering to what plenty of users want from a smartphone camera, taking generally nice-looking snaps—particularly for portraits, where too much detail isn't always a good thing. 

Lens quality is more consistent over the frame than with the iPhone 5, as images now look sharper around the edges. The stabilisation system does the job and the macro mode works well. In fact, this is the best smartphone camera out there for close-up shooting.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s from the back

The 5s has a new two-tone flash with one yellow LED and one white LED, designed to avoid overexposed shots and produce more natural tones. Which it does. The blinding whites caused by the flash on the iPhone 5 and countless competing handsets is no more. That said, in terms of general quality, the Nokia Lumia 1020 still comes in a little ahead of the 5s.

With a new range of options and features, Apple's "iSight" camera interface is fun and user-friendly. You don't need to be a photography expert to start shooting stills and video with the iPhone 5s. Some users may be disappointed that the interface doesn't offer as many settings and functions as the Lumia 1020, for example, but the experience can always be enhanced by downloading extra apps from the App Store.

The camera itself is very responsive, with a quick, hassle-free autofocus and fast shooting. And that's a real advantage for a smartphone camera, as these pocket snappers are above all used to capture slices of life on the fly. On this front, the iPhone 5s out-performs the Lumia 1020, which has a somewhat temperamental autofocus and takes its time saving photo files.

Of all the high-end smartphones we've reviewed recently, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has to be the most all-round well-balanced cameraphone we've seen yet, offering a good general levels of image sharpness, speed, low-light performance, interface design and a sound overall shooting experience.

Smartphone Review: Apple iPhone 5s slo mo video

The iPhone 5s has gained a "Slo-Mo" mode for slow-motion video at 120 fps. It's simple, fun and it works well. There's no way of exporting the video directly, however. The slow-motion video can only be e-mailed or uploaded to social networks. Even then, the quality of the e-mailed file really takes a nosedive. You're therefore better off sticking with watching "Slo-Mo" movies directly on the smartphone screen. Note too that you can zoom while filming, which is definitely practical, but image quality will start to drop if you zoom too far.

Battery Life3/5


According to iFixit, who took apart the iPhone 5s to get a closer look at its components, the iPhone 5s runs on a 1560 mAh battery compared with 1440 mAh for the iPhone 5. In practice, with "normal" day-to-day use over Wi-Fi and 3G, the handset is powerful enough to make it through the day. It's got more staying power than the iPhone 5 (thankfully!) and a little more than the iPhone 5c. It'd be nice to see Apple take things further, however. For example, it'd be reassuring to know that the battery will last the whole day and evening without giving up the ghost on days of heavier use. On that front, the LG G2 and Sony Xperia Z1 seem to do a little better. Still, we'll have to compare all three models again after several charge cycles to see if that's still the case.

To Sum Up ...

In the end, it's not strictly necessary to trade in your iPhone 5 for the new iPhone 5s. The iPhone 5 is still a very good smartphone in today's market. It may not have a fingerprint sensor or a power-packed 64-bit processor like the 5s, but it still has a decent built-in camera and is powerful enough to run all the apps in the App Store without even flinching.

However, there's much more of a case for upgrading to a 5s if you're still using an iPhone 4S or, in particular, an iPhone 4. Compared with those two models, the iPhone 5s is a faster, more powerful handset that's been improved and enhanced, particularly in its camera and graphics processing capabilities (games, video).
5/5 Apple iPhone 5s DigitalVersus 2013-09-30 12:15:00

Pros

  • Display quality: brightness, colour fidelity
  • Design, handling, build (easy to use with one hand)
  • Fast, powerful processing, improved graphics performances
  • Excellent audio quality, better than certain "HD audio" devices
  • Good camera / Fun Slo-Mo video mode

Cons

  • The iOS 7 interface isn't as practical for partially sighted users
  • Speaker could be better quality
  • Sl-Mo video files: poor export quality
  • High SAR: 0.979 W/kg (higher than the iPhone 5)
  • No microSD card slot

Conclusion

The Apple iPhone 5s is the best iPhone yet—no surprises there. It may not have a huge-sized HD screen, a quad-core processor, NFC or a pixel-packed camera, but who needs all that when the iPhone is still such a stylish, lightweight, compact handset that's fast, powerful and runs a stable, user-friendly OS. Plus, it takes great-quality pictures and offers access to a richly stocked world of apps and content. It's just a shame that the SAR level is quite high (higher than in the iPhone 5).

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