Apple's iPhone 5 reviewed
4.7Overall Score
Price (RRP): $799 to $999 Manufacturer: Apple

The iPhone 5 is a foregone conclusion. With 2 million pre-orders made over the first 24 hours, estimates of 8 million units being sold over its first weekend and Apple’s stock prices at a record high, the iPhone 5 is a success even before the first customer switches it on.

While it doesn’t look that different from the outside, the new ‘5’ has a bigger brain, a larger screen, faster data connectivity and longer battery life. So does the new iPhone, in reality, live up to the fanfare? We’ve been using the phone for a few days, and here are our findings.

Only 7.6mm thin and 20 percent lighter than the iPhone 4S

Same but different

While you’ve probably seen plenty of pictures of the new iPhone, in its two-tone black on slate and white on sliver dressings, the net result of Apple’s engineering expertise really sets in when you get your hands on the device.

Compared to the 4S, the 5 is surprisingly light and elegantly thin. And like the 4S, it has a high-quality feel, which can’t be said for its number one competition: the Samsung Galaxy S III is a high quality, feature rich phone, but is let down by an overly plastic feel.

The iPhone 5 suffers none of this – the anodized aluminium and glass surfaces are meticulously shaped, diamond polished and assembled with the precision of a luxury German watch maker. It feels special.

The smaller and thinner bottom iPhone 5 bottom.

The net result is a sturdy device with a svelte 7.6mm waistline (versus the 9mm of the iPhone 4S and 8.7mm of the Samsung Galaxy SIII 4G). It weighs 112 grams, or 20 percent less than the 4S, and while it is about 10 millimetres longer, the total volumetric size of the 5 is actually 12 percent less than the 4S – an impressive feat considering the extra features, performance and connectivity packed into it.

Apple says that it wanted to keep the phone’s width the same as the 4S to keep the device familiar with previous iPhones, and the width means you can hold the phone in one hand while texting with your thumb.

I’ve tried this on the iPhone 5 as well as wider smartphones from HTC, Samsung and Nokia. While you can generally still text with one hand on the other phones, it’s harder, especially when trying to access the Back button.

Bigger and better

The iPhone 5’s totally new 4-inch Retina display gives you another half an inch of length on previous iPhones, while retaining the same width.

Compared to the 4S, this equates to an 18 percent increase in viewing area with a screen resolution of 1136 x 640 pixels. While it’s not an industry standard resolution, like the 720p (1280 x 720 pixels) screens found on the Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC One X, the new screen has the same 16:9 aspect ratio.

This is a better shape for viewing video content, meaning that most widescreen TV shows will fit perfectly into the new shape, although movies will usually still have a thin black bar across their top and bottom unless you use the zoom option. This is because movies are wider and longer than 16:9 so they don’t fit perfectly on the iPhone – or most other phones’ displays – without a bit of jiggery pokery.

Apple has maintained the incredible Retina clarity of its new display, cramming an amazing 326 pixels per each inch of screen real estate. As such, text is incredibly sharp, and photos and video convey an impressive amount of detail.

Under a microscope, the screens on both the iPhone 5 (left) and Galaxy SIII (right) are very clear, though you can see a slight yellow-green tinge on the Samsung screen.

While other smartphone manufacturers are playing catchup with their own Retina-style displays, Apple has moved the boundary even further with a display technology first by integrating the touch electrodes required by the touchscreen layer into the screen itself.

This makes it possible to reduce the thickness of the display by 30 percent, which on its own is an impressive achievement, and the lack of an additional layer of touch electrodes sitting on top of the display improves the image clarity. While it’s not a dramatic difference, the screen does appear marginally clearer when compared side-by-side with the 4S, which already has an excellent screen.

When comparing to the Samsung Galaxy S III, Apple’s new screen is not quite as bright, although marginally clearer. The Samsung’s HD Super AMOLED screen also casts a slight greenish tinge, whereas the IPS-based Apple display appears more neutral, though warmer than the iPhone 4S

The new screen also has a larger colour gamut – sRGB – meaning it can display a comparable colour depth to that found on HDTVs and computer monitors. This helps show more detail in dark scenes as well as brighter, move vibrant colours.

LTE to the rescue

A key selling point for the iPhone 5 will be its ability to connect to Australian LTE, or ‘4G’ networks.

It appears that Apple has learned from the flack it copped with its  last iPad’, which could support a form of LTE, but not in many European and Asia Pacific countries.

The good news is that the new iPhone connects to Telstra, Optus and Virgin Mobile’s networks right out of the box, and Vodafone has confirmed the handset will run on its LTE network once it is finished some time next year.

In terms of operation, the iPhone 5 will display an LTE symbol when it is connected to one of these high-speed networks, but the maximum download and upload speeds will depend on a lot of factors, including how many people are sharing the available data bandwidth as well as the quality of the signal.

The iPhone 5 fits snugly into a new case from STM.

While the theoretical maximum download speed can be up to 100 megabits per second, this is nowhere near reality.

From our Woolloomooloo-based office in Sydney, we were able to consistently achieve 20Mbps download speeds and 10Mbps upload speeds. This is faster than our office Wi-Fi connection, and seriously impressive.

For many, the ability to tether the iPhone 5 to a computer or iPad means you can bring LTE speeds to other devices when you need a speed boost.

The iPhone uses a new, smaller SIM format called nano SIM, which is a space saving measure, and there’s also been an improvement to the 5’s Wi-Fi connectivity. It now supports dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, meaning that you can transfer data to speeds up to 150 Mbps when connected to a Wi-Fi router that speaks the same language.

Nano-SIM is so small that it's difficult to get a grip on.

At its core

The iPhone 5 is a faster phone than the 4S thanks to its new A6 processor. While other smartphones are using quad-core processors, the A6 is dual-core. Apple says that the new chip can deliver graphics and processing performance up to twice as fast as the 4S.

While difficult to rigorously test at this early stage, we did find that web pages loaded faster, applications, including the camera (a 40% improvement), took less time to open, and the 5 was more responsive when opening and scrolling a large PDF-based attachment.

This is a subjective comment, but the 5 feels faster than the 4S and does not appear to pale by comparison to what is offered by smartphones featuring quad-core processors.

Also, the more efficiently the processor runs, the less demands it will make on the battery.

Camera take two

Second only to diamond in terms of hardness, a sapphire crystal cover protects the iPhone 5's camera lens.

A new iSight camera on the iPhone 5 contains a number of improvements and subtleties that build on the already excellent still and video camera system in the iPhone 4S.

Outwardly, a more robust and scratch resistant sapphire crystal, versus a glass cover, protects the camera lens.

The camera is still 8 megapixels, but now includes a panorama mode that can capture up to 28 megapixel scenes spanning 240 degrees. Taking a panoramic shot is easy – the phone guides you along the way, prompting to you move up, down or slow down as you move the phone along a panoramic arc.

There is also face detection support for up to 10 faces, with the idea that the camera applies the best settings for the faces, and there are enhancements to noise reduction and low light performance.

Shooting in low light is the weakness of all smartphone cameras, and the iPhone 5’s smarts can give you up to 2 additional stops of light in these situations.

A panorama shot on the iPhone 5

In practice, we found a noticeable reduction in low-light noise in our flower scene versus the 4S when taken with the flash turned off. The 5’s auto-focus also appeared to work better than the 4S in dark scenes.

A welcome upgrade is the new front-facing FaceTime HD camera, which can now record video in 720p resolution. This means improved clarity for FaceTime video conferencing and, like the rear facing camera, it also supports face recognition.

Up close, the iPhone 5 flower shot on the left has far less noise than the iPhone 4S shot on the right.

Sounds good

The iPhone 5 comes with a new set of headphones, which provides improved sound over the original earbuds, especially for low and mid-frequency sounds.

Also, the iPhone has some extra smarts built in to improve in-call clarity.These include a three-microphone system with beam-forming, as well as noise cancelling technology. In use, calls sounded clear and sharp, even on a busy Sydney street with buses passing by.

Otherwise,  there is a main speaker at the bottom of the phone, next to the Lightning connector and bottom-mic. This is covered over with a new grille design, and has about the same volume, although a little more low-end depth, than the 4S.

 

You'll find a set of Apple's EarPods in your iPhone 5 box.

Apple’s replacement to the ubiquitous 30-pin connector has drawn criticism, but it’s an obvious next step for a market that wants thinner, lighter phones. The new Lightning has allowed Apple to offer just this, and the connector certainly has a smarter design, is robust and can even support the phone’s weight when dangling from the cable.

The challenge is making the iPhone 5 play nicely with the huge accessory market that exists, including speaker docks, car connectors and the like. An adaptor will be available soon, which looks to be fairly long and narrow, and may mean that the iPhone could sit precariously in some 30-pin docks – even fall over – or be too long to fit into a confined space, such as with in-car connectors.

Until the 30-pin, and micro-USB adaptors are available, we’ll just need to wait and see.

The new Lightning connector.

Battery time

Apple claims that the iPhone 5 has improved battery life when compared to the iPhone 4S.

This is impressive considering that the new phone has a larger display, a faster processor and more power-hungry LTE compatibility – and is thinner and lighter. Apple expects the phone to deliver up to 8 hours of browsing on a cellular connection, up to 8 hours of talk time, and up to 10 hours of video playback time.

In the real-world, however, there are so many combinations of things that the phone could be doing that it’s difficult to know for sure what the battery’s limits are.

During our testing, and when used for LTE web browsing, viewing maps via the GPS, taking photos, downloading and playing an hour long HD video, plus a combination of voice calls and a few SMS messages, the 5 managed to last well over a day from a full charge, and ran out of puff at 11AM the following day.

iOS 6 on board

The iPhone 5 comes equipped with iOS 6, Apple’s latest update to its mobile operating system.

There are a number of improvements and new features, the most notable being a switch to Apple’s mapping system, a more ‘knowledgable’ Siri Personal Assistant, shared photo-streams, Passbook, Facebook integration and updates to Mail, Safari and other system applications. Many apps have been modified to support the longer 4 inch display, fitting more information on the screen than before.

Apple’s Maps are vector based, meaning they zoom and re-draw quickly and are easy to read. The Flyover feature, which provides a 3D view of major city centres around the globe, is deadset amazing, allowing you to look at buildings from nearly any angle, and give you a real sense of what it might look like if you were hovering over it with a helicopter. Turn by turn navigation is not available yet but Apple has confirmed that it will be available to Australians in October.

Get ready to spend time playing with the new 3D maps.

Another handy feature is the ability to automatically text a quick “I’m busy, I’ll call you back” message to callers that you don’t want to speak to, and the Do Not Disturb feature will dispatch all calls when you’re too busy to talk.

One feature that should be included in the new Safari, however, is a combined URL/Search pane, rather than keeping them separate. This would put Safari in line with the desktop version, and is available in the iOS version of Google Chrome.

Siri has also undergone some improvements, most notably she has access to restaurant reviews and locations, movie reviews and showings, and American sports scores. I did ask her about Australian footy scores, but Siri said “…sorry I don’t know about Australian football.”

Asking her where the nearest café is certainly works, but she could not give me show times for movies in my area.

Final thoughts

It’s true that this is an impressive phone. It does what you would expect a cutting edge smartphone to do.

Apple has done a magnificent job on the build, and delivers on its promises. But how does it compare to smartphones from HTC, Samsung, Nokia and Sony, all of which have many of the latest features including LTE, large displays, big brains and clever software?

The answer is that while these phones offer similar features, they deliver them in different ways. It’s like comparing Japanese cars with German cars – both offer similar features, engineering and performance, but deliver the driving experience differently, and which you prefer is up to your personal tastes.

The iPhone 5 is most certainly one of the best smartphones on the market, but whether it’s best for you, is a matter of personal choice. The iPhone 5 should not be considered in isolation however, and the combination of iOS6, iCloud, iTunes and the App Store should be taken into account.

With this in mind, Apple does offer the most consistent and comprehensive ecosystem available today – in terms of interface design as well as app and content partners. Add it all up, the iPhone is once again the phone to beat.

Apple's iPhone 5 reviewed
Price (RRP): $799 to $999 Manufacturer: Apple
Larger 4 inch display, faster, thiner and lighter, LTE connectivity
No NFC, Lightning connector may not work with older docks
Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
Longevity
4.7Overall Score
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