The iPhone 5 offers a thoroughly pleasant redesign with a taller display and a thinner, lighter frame. Fast and packing a great camera, the hardware is hard to fault, while iOS feels slick and offers loads of apps, even if Apple’s new Maps software feels like a step backwards. Despite some failings, this is still one of the best smart phones money can buy.
- Larger screen with increased resolution
- Extremely quick
- Winning redesign makes for a thinner, lighter phone
- iOS 6 Maps app is a step backwards
- 4G won’t work on all UK networks
- New connector means you’ll need to buy an adapter for current chargers and docks
- Very expensive
The iPhone 5 is everything we wanted after the iPhone 4S, with a larger display, a faster processor and 4G capability. The redesigned look is snazzy, slim and incredibly light.
A new, less helpful Maps app stops the iPhone 5 from achieving the four and a half stars that its predecessor mustered, but this is still a refined mobile that would make an excellent upgrade for people who own a two-year-old iPhone 4.
The 16GB iPhone 5 costs $199, the 32GB version is $299 and the 64GB one is priced $399 direct from Apple. These are all AT&T prices.
Last year’s iPhone 4S looked identical to 2010’s iPhone 4, leaving many gadget fans feeling glum. This time Apple has given the iPhone a fresh lick of paint, even if it’s hardly a major style overhaul.
The back of the phone is made from aluminium, with a recognizable stripe across the device’s rear that continues around the sides. I found this to be extremely similar to the Mac Book Pro’s metal casing, and so far it’s held up to the rigors of everyday life without picking up any scratches.
Although larger on the front, Apple has made the iPhone 5 lighter than its predecessor — it weighs just 112g, compared with the iPhone 4S’ 140g weight, and feels extremely light to hold. By comparison, the iPhone 4S starts to feel as dense as lead.
The slim build is down to changes in materials, and losing larger components like the 30-pin connector. The change from micro to nano-SIM is yet another space saver, though the switch does mean shoppers looking to upgrade will need to hound their network for a new SIM card.
The iPhone 5 is thinner than the 4S, at an impressive 7.6mm thick. That might not sound like much, but compared to the iPhone 4S, there’s a visible difference in thickness.
It has a tall baton-like design, which coupled with the thinner frame makes this feel like an iPhone 4S that’s had a run-in with a rolling pin. It’s not significantly wider than the 4S, but it’s certainly longer. The steel bands around the phone’s circumference carry over from its predecessor, but the new stretched-out look means more room for the display, which now measures 4 inches on the diagonal.
The edges of the phone feel very different too — less metallic, less cold, almost plasticky.
This marks the first time Apple has increased the size of the iPhone’s screen from the previously standard 3.5 inches, and while the difference is subtle, you’ll quickly start to appreciate the extra real estate. As with the introduction of the retina display, you’ll notice this new feature most when you look at an older iPhone, with the iPhone 4S and 4 starting to feel cramped by comparison.
The bigger panel means there’s room for an extra row of icons on the iPhone 5’s home screen and — because it has a 16:9 aspect ratio — you get fewer annoying black bars when you’re watching movies on your mobile. Movies shot in 21:9 will still play with black bars above and below the action, though as before, you can zoom in by double-tapping the screen.
The slight size bump when watching video is all well and good, but where you’ll really appreciate the longer screen is with the Mail and Notes apps, or when browsing the web. Being able to see just a few more emails, or a bit more text lurking at the bottom of the display makes a difference.
It’s not life-changing stuff, but in the Mail app, for example, with one line of preview text you can see six and a half messages on screen, compared with five and a third on the iPhone 4S. Small, handy improvements are the name of the game with the iPhone 5’s design.
As well as ramping up the display size, Apple has bumped the iPhone’s display resolution. The horizontal pixel count remains the same — a healthy 640 pixels, but vertically you now get 1,136 of the blighters. Its pixel density is the same, at the retina display standard of 326 pixels per inch. That trumps the Samsung Galaxy S3, although that is much larger, at a mighty 4.8 inches.
Current apps, however, won’t use all of the 4-inch screen, at least not until they’re updated to take advantage of the extra space. Until then, they run in the center of the display, with black bars at the top and bottom, and while apps run fine this way, you’ll definitely notice the difference.
You probably won’t have to wait long for major apps to be updated, but if you buy the iPhone 5 soon after its launch, expect your brow to furrow frequently when you fire up apps.
The taller screen means it’s no longer quite as comfortable to reach your thumbs from the home button all the way to the top of the screen, though this is a minor point and there’s every chance you’ll never notice the extra digit stretching. Because the phone is no wider, it’s still very comfortable to use the on-screen keyboard with one hand.
The iPhone 5 has an 8-megapixel camera — the same basic resolution as the iPhone 4S, though Apple has made tweaks to the technology within. This phone performs better than the iPhone 4S in low light, has better video stabilization and produces more vibrant colors, though the change is subtle.
iPhone 5 photos are slightly brighter and more colorful.
Check out the video test below
Panorama mode is a new feature that knits together a 360-degree image, conducted by holding the iPhone 5 in portrait mode and turning it slowly. Panorama apps are not new, but I found that Apple’s take is — as you’d hope — easier to use and more refined.
The app itself talks you through the process and the pictures look good, though my photos contained a few weird artifacts.
Finally, the front-facing camera has been upgraded to 720p resolution, meaning both still photos and video look a little better. That’s good news for YouTube self-broadcasters.
Overall, the tweaks to this camera are so slight you may never notice, with many of our comparison shots looking almost identical. That’s not to say this isn’t a great camera though, and thanks to built-in editing tools and the ability to share to social networks, the iPhone 5 is a worthy alternative to a digital compact camera.
Apple has introduced a new processor, the A6 chip, which improves upon that of the already speedy iPhone 4S.
That’s a significant performance jump on paper, but in practice there’s not much difference between the iPhone 5 and the 4S, which as mentioned above is still a very fast smart phone.
You’ll notice the extra power when it comes to processor-straining apps — editing a lengthy project in the i Movie app, for instance — but for the most part, there’s not much discernible difference in power between the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 4S, or indeed between this new smart phone and other mobiles like the Samsung Galaxy S3. It seems that processor tech has outpaced app developers, and as with other high-end smart phones, I suspect you’ll be hard pressed to find games or apps that push the A6 chip to its limit.
The iPhone 5 gets warm (though never hot) during intense tasks. The heat doesn’t appear to affect performance, but it’s something to note.
Call quality is improved, thanks to three microphones built into the bottom, front and back of the phone. In my tests, those called reported a crisper, clearer call compared to the iPhone 4S.
iOS 6 Maps
The iPhone 5 is powered by iOS 6, the latest version of Apple’s mobile OS. Alongside improvements for existing apps and services, iOS 6 brings a number of brand new features, not all of which are welcome changes.
The most significant change is to the Maps app. Apple has ditched Google, instead opting to create its own mapping service, which unfortunately is a step backwards that will likely frustrate those using iOS 6 — especially in the UK.
As our thorough Maps app comparison revealed, the level of map detail of Apple’s option is inferior, with far fewer shops and businesses present on the maps.
Satellite images on Apple’s offering are also inferior, with less clarity in the view-from-space mode, even in central London. Outside of the capital, there are embarrassing mistakes like Solihull being covered in cloud, Luton located in the wrong place entirely and Leamington Spa being named ‘Royal Spa’.
Red-faced errors aside, there are several significant feature downgrades here. First, you lose Street View, the brilliant Google service that lets you explore locations from the ground, a feature that frequently proves essential if you’re visiting somewhere new and want to check what the outside of the shop or house looks like.
Secondly, you lose Google’s excellent public transport search, which uses train and bus data to provide directions around the nation to those without cars. Apple Maps has a public transport icon, but when you press it you just get a list of transport apps in the App Store that you could download. Frustratingly, the app makes you input the route you’re looking for before showing you this next-to-useless list.
The fact that there’s even an icon for public transport suggests to me that Apple will be introducing the feature at some point, but for now it’s a serious omission. Even when Apple pulls its finger out, how useful iOS 6’s public transport information proves to be will depend on whose data Apple buys, so there are no guarantees for the future.
A new feature is 3D maps, which shows you a swanky 3D view of buildings from above, that you can navigate by twisting the screen with two fingers. This looks fantastic, but you’ll find that only major cities have been given this treatment, with the majority of the UK looking as flat as a big green ironing board.
There are some useful tools here. Apple’s app uses Yelp’s business data, which I found handy for finding restaurant reviews, for instance.
A navigation mode for drivers turns your iPhone into a sat-nav, meanwhile, which I tested with a taxi jaunt around London. It worked well, only once reporting that it had lost signal, with directions and turnings clearly marked. I wouldn’t want to vouch for the reliability or battery capabilities of this feature over lengthy car trips through signal black-spots, however.
Google will reportedly be making its since-ditched Maps app available for iOS, so you’ll have a way of getting to all those old features. Until then, this is a serious step backwards.
Facebook, Siri and Face Time over 3G
With iOS 5, Apple baked Twitter into the very center of its operating system. This time around it’s doing the same thing with Facebook. You can post photos to Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site from the Photos app, and Facebook events and friends’ birthdays are automatically added to the Calendar app. When you sign into iOS with Facebook, you’ll have the option to add your Facebook pals to your Contacts.
As with the Maps app, Apple has budded up with Yelp to provide US business listings for Siri. In my experience, this significantly improves the usefulness of Apple’s robot butler, as now you can bark question like ‘where’s my nearest pub’ or ‘find me somewhere nice to eat in Kensington’. You can read restaurant reviews too, which will likely prove handy.
Siri now has sports information, though you probably won’t find this terribly useful. I asked ‘Who is top of League One?’, only to have Siri tell me that Chelsea head the Premier League. I couldn’t find any rugby information either. On the plus side, Siri can now open apps — even ones not made by Apple.
Siri has improved, but the problems that were present a year ago are still rattling around — while Siri is good at certain specific tasks, its propensity to misunderstand or mishear what you’re saying means you’re unlikely to rely on it, or make it your first port of call for information.
Face Time, Apple’s own-brand video-calling service, now works over 3G. That means you can take and receive Face Time calls from people when you’re out and about, instead of waiting until you’re within range of a Wi-Fi signal, though beware of data charges.
Apple estimates you’ll get 8 hours of 3G talk time from the iPhone 5 and 8 hours for both 3G and 4G web browsing. If you’re watching a movie, expect 10 hours of juice and 40 hours if you’re just playing music.
With a more powerful processor, bigger screen and lighter frame, we were naturally concerned about battery life, though our tests suggest that the iPhone 5 will last roughly all day, using a mix of features. The percentage indicator tended to parallel that of the iPhone 4S during the day, even though we were using the iPhone 5 more. Don’t expect more than a day’s battery life though.
Lightning dock connector
Apple has a new way to plug your iPhone in. At the bottom of this freshly unveiled mobile you’ll spot a smaller connector port, which Apple dubs the ‘Lightning’ port. As well as being teeny-tiny, the charging connector for this socket will work whichever way up you plug it in, eliminating that annoying fumble as you try and cram a plug into its socket the wrong way up.
The downside, of course, is that any current chargers or speaker docks you own won’t work any more, meaning you’ll need to pay more for an adapter — $29 extra — that will convert your chunky old connectors into the svelte new model. Despite the name, this new port isn’t actually any faster than the current option.
The iPhone 5 is an excellent smart phone, even if this upgrade is more about hardware refinement than introducing exotic new features. If you want an enormous bells-and-whistles phone that’s exploding with features, then other mobiles (the Galaxy S3 springs to mind) offer that.
Needless to say, I wanted to see something I hadn’t thought of before — something that would suddenly seem indispensable. The iPhone 5 has no such novelty, but note that while tech enthusiasts understandably want to see promising new features, most phone shoppers will likely prefer this kind of polished revision.
The only serious problem with this phone is its Maps app, which is a real disappointment. It pains me to see such a good-looking, easy-to-use phone let down so severely in one area. If Apple can improve its maps software quickly, we may be tempted to improve that score.