Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has announced the successor to the iPhone 4S – the iPhone 5 – along with the debut of iOS 6 and updates to the iTunes store,  iPod Touch and Nano devices. There was no mention, however, of the much-rumoured smaller iPad, or iPad Mini.

The key features of the iPhone 5 include a larger 4 inch display, an updated processor, a new camera, improved battery life, Australian LTE support and an 18 percent thinner and 20 percent lighter design.

We’re here on the ground in San Francisco and have gone hands-on with the new iPhone to bring you our first impressions.

Dream screen

On first looks, the iPhone 5’s most notable change is a larger 4 inch ‘Retina’ display. Up from 3.5 inches, the new screen has a 1136 x 640 resolution, which provides room for another row of app icons, and the display’s 16:9 aspect ratio means more space for widescreen movies, web browsing and games. While the screen size and resolution have increased, the pixel density remains the same as the impressive Retina display, which debuted on the iPhone 4S. Looks-wise, the screen is impressively bright and clear; it even appeared better than the iPhone 4S we compared it with.

The new 4 inch screen has a 1136 x 640 resolution, and is bright, clear and beautiful to view.

Design and style

The 4 inch screen means a longer iPhone (about 10mm), but its width remains the same as the iPhone 4S. This is handy because the narrow width means you can hold the phone in one hand and text with the other. Since the new display is one of the first to use ‘in-cell’ touch display technology – which effectively merges the ‘touch’ mechanism into the display itsel – the display is 30 percent thinner, measuring 7.6mm as compared to the 4S’s 9.3mm.

Just 7.6mm thick, plus 20 percent lighter than the iPhone 4S.

True to the rumours, Apple’s dock connector has been totally redesigned. While it’s a good thing that Apple is finally using a smaller connector, it has raised concerns from people who want to use the new phone with existing iPhone accessories. While Apple has supplied a legacy dock adaptor, the iPhone 5 may, however, still not fit with some devices where a flush fit is required.

Apple's iPhone 5's size compared to the Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a 4.8 inch screen.

The phone’s external speaker is still positioned at the bottom edge, and is now joined by the headphone port. Also new is the two-tone design, with an anodised aluminium sheet running across most of the back of the phone leaving two ‘windows’ on the top and bottom without the metal cover.

This is to improve the reception of the iPhone 5’s various antennas. Both black and white finishes are available, with a dark ‘slate’ aluminium cladding for the back of the black phone and silver for the white version. In the hand, the aluminium has a quality feel, and compared the glass backing of the 4S, may offer increased durability.

Other changes include the front facing camera, with its new 720p resolution a long overdue improvement. It has been positioned to the centre of the phone too, versus its slightly off-centre location on the iPhone 4S.

Bigger brain

At the heart of the iPhone 5 is a new A6 processor. It is a dual core, rather than quad core design, which has surprised some, but is said to have twice the processing power as the A5 chip in the 4S. This is a wise choice as the iPhone 5’s smaller screen is unlikely to need quad core graphics power, which would make greater demands on the phone’s battery life.

We were shown a Real Racing 3 game to demonstrate the graphics and processing capabilities, and it was clear that this new phone is considerably better for games than the 4S. The car shown in Real Racing 3 had dynamic reflections, very smooth motion and lots of detail.

Data in, data out

As expected, the iPhone 5 comes with ‘4G’, or more accurately, LTE mobile wireless compatibility. As we’ve learned from Apple’s 4G-equipped New iPad, not all LTE networks are the same, and that New iPad is not compatible with Australian LTE networks.

Apple has addressed this issue in the iPhone 5 and provided support for more LTE frequencies around the world, which include Europe, Asia and Australia. Apple confirms that the iPhone 5 works with Telstra, Optus and Virgin LTE networks.

Also, the iPhone 5 has switched to the new nano-SIM, meaning that carriers will need to supply you with a new SIM to use the phone.

No go for ‘tap and go’ 

Apple has chosen not to include Near Field Communication (NFC) capabilities its new phone. Considering that smartphones from Samsung, Sony, Nokia and HTC all come with this technology, it was expected that the iPhone 5 would also followed suit.

Having made a global assessment of NFC infrastructure, however,  Apple says it does not feel the market is ready for ‘tap and go’ type applications, such as transferring funds to a retail merchant kiosk, and similar to what you can do with today’s Visa PayWave and Mastercard PayPass enabled credit cards.

Audio improvements

Apple has completely revamped its headphones, whose general awfulness has always been out of step with the quality of the iPhone and iPod products to which they’ve been mated. Named Earpods, the headphones have been designed to better fit our ears, and there are separate positions for each of the low-, mid- and high-end speakers to enhance sound quality. When trying them out, the EarPods did fit better into this writer’s ears, and there was a distinct improvement in overall bass levels.

Apple's newly shaped and completely rebuilt EarPods

Other audio enhancements including a new beam-forming, directional microphone system for higher quality sound, while background noise fades away with new noise cancelling technology.

Enhanced camera

While it’s still an 8 megapixel camera, the new iPhone 5 has an improved camera and image processing system. The new camera is 30 percent thinner than the one in the 4S and is also more durable, with the addition of a sapphire lens cover. iPhone 5 will now also automatically stitch a series of separate images together to create panoramas.

A 32 megapixel Panorama shot from the iPhone 5

New iOS

The iPhone 5 also marks the debut of iOS6, which is the latest version of the iPhone and iPad’s operating system. This brings a number of tweaks and new features, the most notable being a completely overhauled mapping system, turn-by-turn navigation, (which is not yet confirmed by Apple for Australia) and flyover view.

There’s an updated Siri Personal Assistant feature too, with more access to sports, restaurants, movies, Facebook integration, and an improved Mail app and Safari Web browser.

Also, the good thing about iOS6 is that you don’t need to buy a new phone, as it will be available as a free download for existing iPhone users on September 19th.

When and how much?

The iPhone 5 will appear in Apple stores in Australia from 21 of September, and can be pre-ordered online  from tomorrow (Sept 14).

There are three different memory sizes that can be purchased: 16GB, 32GB and 64GB. Pricing for outright purchases start at $799 for the entry level iPhone 5, $899 for the middle model and $999 for the top of the range.

 

Valens Quinn traveled to San Francisco courtesy of Apple Australia.