I suspect I’m going to have this argument for the next part of six months: Apple fanboys are going to say the iPhone 5 is a revolution, and pundits are going to say it hasn’t evolved enough. But what’s really going on is that Apple – and most other manufacturers – can merely evolve the phone from here on in, as opposed to revolutionise it.
You’re going to get a lot of people who believe the iPhone 5 is a revolutionary device, and after playing with it, I can tell you that there are some pretty special things going for this smartphone.
But it’s not “revolutionary,” and there’s nothing Apple can really do to make it that way. Not that it’s trying to.
The Apple iPhone 5 is an evolution of what was already a strong smartphone entry, and Apple knows it. The company isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with its ironically fifth-named sixth-released smartphone.
But why can’t it be? Why can’t the iPhone – or any other smartphone manufacturer – release an entirely new smartphone that redefines the industry?
Apple has never been one to mess around with screen technology in its mobile handsets.
The first generation iPhone that wasn’t released in Australia featured a pretty nice screen (this reviewer has one at home), and Apple made it even better in the iPhone 4 – its third handset – with a “Retina” display that boasted clearer text.
Now we’re seeing the iPhone gain a bit of length allowing it to better compete with Android manufacturers.
A bigger screen isn’t just a way of saying “hey, we’re competing,” as it’s something that customers seem to really want.
At one point, mobile phones were all about being small, as we told companies that we wanted these tiny devices to carry around for texting and phone calls.
Then the mobile internet revolution happened, and everyone wanted to surf the web where ever they were. There are apps, social media, lots of websites, and YouTube, and that means we want a bigger screen.
Handset manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, and HTC are responding, with 4.7 to 5.5 inch smartphones that fit in our pocket and offer huge high quality screens on the go.
Apple has for years seen its 3.5 inch display as perfect for a smartphone, hence its decision to leave the design mostly unchanged, that is until now, where a few extra lines have been thrown in and the screen has become bigger, better for the big screen browsing, though still not necessarily what everyone is after.
But has much changed?
Our test of the iPhone screen still shows that it’s the lovely sharp Retina display, although with a 4 inch display, the numbers are closer to 326 pixels per inch than the 330ppi in the 3.5 inch display of the iPhone 4 and 4S.
Still, that many pixels per inch is greater than what the human eye can generally pick up on, with 300ppi being the rough number that is the human limit. Beyond this, our eyes are the bottleneck, even if the technology will inevitably get better through the years.
Screen technology does improve beyond definition, with panels types, scratch-protection, and even built and design.
Already, the iPhone 5 features the high grade In-Plane Switching display technolog used in the Apple iPad, and Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass protects this section, too.
Quite a few other manufacturers are using technology of this calibre too, including HTC and LG, so Apple isn’t alone here.
But screens are changing.
Being able to throw a phone in our pockets that is potentially foldable or can flex slightly with our legs as we walk is awesome, and we’re still amazed that Corning has managed to improve its Gorilla Glass in the second generation product.
There’s even talk that Samsung has a flexible screen that it’s working on for a future smartphone, so you really have to ask yourself what’s coming, and more importantly, how will it improve what already works so well?
Sizing it up
One area that has improved slighty in the new generation of the iPhone is the size.
You’ll notice it as soon as you pick it up, with a drop from 9.3mm to 7.6mm and the loss of almost 30 grams of weight, making it one of the thinnest and lightest smartphones on the market.
Not even Samsung’s Galaxy S3 manages to compete here, being 20 grams heavier and one whole milimetre thicker.
In real life, those measurements don’t mean much, because in your pocket and hand, you’re unlikely to notice sheer millimetres, or a few grams here and there.
Sufficed to say, most top-tier smartphones – the iPhone 4S included – are thin and light enough for most people to not have a whinge about it.
But there are things stopping them from getting smaller.
One of these is the screen, which we just mentioned, while another is obviously the battery, which these days has to be pretty big to help keep the phone alive for a full day.
And then there’s a standard that we’re including in all products that automatically accounts for at least 5mm of thickness: the headphone jack.
In fact, in one of the products we reviewed earlier this year – Toshiba’s 7-inch AT270 tablet – we found that this was one of the things stopping Tosh from making it even slimmer.
Developed in the eighties, the 3.5mm headphone jack is now legacy technology. Sure, it’s a standard that most headphones around the world cater for, and certainly every smartphone and tablet in the world supports, but it’s such a thick connector that right now, tablets that support it must have a minimum size, and that’s the thickness required for surrounding the jack.
I can remember that with quite a few smartphones in the late nineties, companies tried their hands at the 2.5mm headset jack formula, only to find it failed. You needed a converter for headphones, or you were forced to use the crappy pair that came in the box.
Some devices have even tried forcing the headphones through the mini- and micro-USB ports, which sounds like a neat idea given most phones use them, until you realise that once again, the plug isn’t native and you need to carry a converter with you or rely on what came with the phone.
Have the supplied headphones for smartphones changed over the past few years? Sure, and Beats and Apple have had a hand in that, but they’re still not amazing, and I’m pretty sure you’d prefer the option to plug in your own pair rather than rely on someone else’s.
One way out of this 3.5mm headphone jack dilemma is with Bluetooth headphones, and we are seeing quite a few of those right now, with some awesome options from Sennheiser and Plantronics, to name a few. But these are hardly standard devices for everyone, and until they are, the headphone jack is one part that is going to keep us from having credit card thin phones.
One area where Apple excelled in the iPhone 5 was its updated connections.
As the rest of the world started to support Long-Term Evolution technology, also known as 4G, Apple decided to jump on board and include it in its 2012 flagship phone.
Not just that, but we also have dual-band WiFi 802.11n technology, effectively offering faster downloads in home networks that cater to the better technology.
So we have two strong technologies on offer in the new iPhone, neither revolution, but very much needed for an evolving product.
One wireless technology is missing from the bunch, though, with Near-Field Communication absent in the iPhone 5, and people seem to be complaining.
At the moment, NFC seems to be the best bet for using mobile phones as a form of electronic cashless payment, but in the years that it has existed, we haven’t seen many adopted and available uses of the technology.
This is sure to change over the years, but with Commonwealth Bank being one example that provides NFC solutions for iPhone cases, it means that Apple doesn’t necessarily have to include the technology, and can let third-party players – those who work in the financial space – try their hands at it first, before Apple throws all the cards on table and includes sticks with a specific technology.
You can laugh and call bull however much you want, but the eight megapixel camera on the iPhone 5 is actually a pretty decent shooter, as it was on the iPhone 4S before it.
We’ve seen quite a few professional photographers use their iPhones as actual cameras in the past year, allowing them to be more playful with their images, some of them even making it into printed publications.
With the aid of popular tools such as Snapseed, Instagram, and Adobe’s own portable versions of Photoshop, it’s possible to walk around and grab high quality images without a high quality separate camera.
Will you get better results with one, almost definitely, but a recent poll on the GadgetGuy site shows that more people than ever are using their smartphones as their dedicated cameras, regardless.
This highlights a fact that technology advocates and gadget journalists have known for at least a year: the compact camera market has never been more under threat by smartphones than it has right now.
Those low-end cameras you see spruiked at Kmart, Target, Harvey Norman, JB, and other electrical and department stores – anything from $50 to $250 – are being cornered by a device that more or less competes with them on convenience and quality.
Why carry a cheap and nasty camera when your phone can do it for you? And these days, the cameras on smartphones are hardly cheap and nasty.
The megapixel myth doesn’t impress anyone less than us, but with higher quality five and eight and twelve megapixel sensors going into smartphones, the compact camera is being constantly out-gamed.
We’re seeing better low-light sensitivity, more open glass down to apertures close to f/2, stronger detail, image stabilisation technology, and better colour and contrast thrown in with dedicated processing chips.
The only thing missing is a zoom lens, although Nokia may have found a solution with a 41 megapixel sensor that crops to a 5 megapixel image when it “zooms,” so there is some movement in this space.
For some, the eight megapixel camera on the iPhone 5 isn’t really an upgrade, and that’s easy to accept. But the camera has improved slightly, and given that the quality on the 4S was already pretty damn good, there was no reason to reinvent the wheel in this area.
There are a lot of technologies that we could see migrated to the iPhone in the coming years, potentially making the phone better than ever.
At one point, Apple spoke about acquiring the Lytro light-field camera technology that allows you to shoot all depths in a shot at once, finding the focus point later.
Patents have been tossed around for years talking of future Apple developments, including water damage protection, blocking devices from taking pictures at entertainment events, and 3D camera technology.
All the while, Apple’s competitors are working on their own products with their own nifty enhancements, features, and concepts that sound ultra-cool.
Motorola is playing with Kevlar and waterproofed technology, Samsung is experimenting with flexible screens and transparent displays, and HTC has some of the best camera technology around right now as well as Beats potentially offering stronger multimedia support than other devices.
Years ago, we heard Microsoft playing with a sound based technology that allowed a phone to easily say how much battery was left by emitting the sound of water, with drops indicating few and gushes meaning loads of life.
There’s also some exciting stuff happening in touchscreens, with screens that exhibit physical characteristics that change when you touch them, essentially allowing a real button to be made dynamically on screen instead of just emulated with haptic vibrations.
Certainly, there are some impressive things happening in the smartphone space, but most of it is about evolving the technology to the next point, and little of it can be introduced at once as truly revolutionary.
In fact, the only thing we can think of that would get us there would be Google Glass, the eye-wear edition of a mobile phone created by Google that can let you take pictures by issuing a command with your eyes, see a GPS in your eyeline, make video calls without even taking your phone out of your pocket.
It wouldn’t surprise us if Apple was working on a concept similar to Google, and we know other manufacturers are playing around in this space, so expect the mobile phone’s next big developments to happen around a changed form factor.
A phone that looks nothing like a phone and integrates with your life perfectly, like your keys? That’s the next mobile revolution, and while we’re closer than ever, it’s still a few years away from being completed.
What do you think? What will be the next smartphone revolution, and will you buy into it when it arrives? Tell us, we’re keen to know.