updated 05:09 am EDT, Fri September 20, 2013
Hands on with the latest Apple iPhone 5s flagship
The Apple iPhone 5s is the seventh-generation iPhone and there can be little doubt that it is the best iPhone yet. Despite revolutionizing the contemporary smartphone with the original iPhone, Apple has been facing increasingly vocal criticism that it has not been innovative enough with the subsequent generations. The brand new iPhone 5s has not been immune to this criticism, in large part because it continues with fundamentally the same design as its predecessor. However, if you are willing to look past this, you will find plenty of innovation that will keep Apple at the forefront of the smartphone game.
The iPhone 5s comes in two new colors, with the original silver variant remaining as a third option. The other two are the new gray variant -- which ostensibly replaces the black iPhone 5 color -- and the new gold color, said to be targeting the Asian markets although we suspect it will be popular in most other regions as well. As Australian customers discovered yesterday, however, Apple appears to be running in short supply of the gold colored variant on launch. It's hard to remember an iPhone launch in recent years where models were in plentiful supply. Remember how long the white iPhone 4 took to ship after the late Steve Jobs unveiled it?
Fast forward back to now, and we have our hands on the new 'space gray' iPhone 5s model, and can report that the build quality, fit and finish is substantially improved over the original black iPhone 5 model that shipped at launch around the same time last year. Not only was the black color prone to easy marking and chipping exposing the silver aluminum underneath the anodizing, some unfortunate customers also received theirs already chipped out of the box. As reports of those issues surfaced not long after launch, Apple quickly dispatched some of its execs to its factories in China to get to the bottom of the problem.
The answer, it seems, has been to eliminate the black model altogether, and replace it with a very chic-looking gray version. In the flesh, it really looks appealing and also feels much more robust as a finish than the black iPhone 5. The white iPhone 5 never had the same problems, and it seems as though the gray variant shouldn't cause users too much grief. What's more, Apple is finally back in the case-making market for the iPhone as well, with the launch of a new tailor-made leather case. We have been playing with the (Product) Red variant, but have found that it is quickly getting dark marks around its edges, suggesting the darker colors might be the better option. It certainly fits snugly, to the point where it is difficult to extricate the iPhone from it. Overall though, it is light and feels good in the hand and will be a popular choice, further adding to Apple's bottom line.
The iPhone 5s itself boasts the vaunted 1.3GHz dual-core Apple A7 chip, the first of its kind in any smartphone to feature a 64-bit architecture. Given that the iPhone 5 is no slouch, it is surprising just how much faster the iPhone 5s feels when launching apps, navigating around the interface and surfing the Internet. While we will do formal benchmarks in our full review, it feels subjectively faster in every way and helps to make the most of the stunning new iOS 7 user interface. Benchmarks have already been circulating which show that, despite Android competition running quad-core chips clocked as high as 2.3GHz, the iPhone 5s smashes them in graphics and CPU performance in most respects. Also on board is the new M7 coprocessor, which should help to extend the iPhone 5s' battery life in addition to bringing some interesting health-related functionality. Apple's acquisitions of PA Semi and Intrinsity under Steve Jobs are paying massive dividends in differentiating the capability of its devices from those of its competitors.
We also took the opportunity to try out the new camera, with its larger 8-megapixel sensor and widened f/2.2 aperture. Although we haven't posted the shots here, we can also report that the quality of photos are really impressive. It appears that our dreams of a smartphone that can truly replace a point and shoot camera for high-quality casual photos is finally here - for real this time. Buyers looking for a high-quality camera on a smartphone are now spoilt for choice with the shooters on the new Nokia 1020 PureView and the Sony Xperia Z1 also pushing the boundaries of what was previously possible. Perhaps the most mind-blowing function that we have come across in our quick hands-on with the device is the new 120fps slow-motion. It is just amazing to see how impressive the slow motion capture looks -- again, we'll keep our powder dry for our full review with this one too.
Also worthy of mention is the new Touch ID fingerprint scanner. This is truly a boon and is anything but a gimmick. It really works, and it works extremely well. You can scan multiple fingers for their print as well, meaning that if you like to pick and use your iPhone with either hand, you can unlock it either way. You get the feeling that Apple is the only company that can pull something like this off without making it feel gimmicky. It will improve the whole smartphone user experience more than you realise -- keeping your device locked and secure, while still having the convenience of using it as though it is unlocked is a real breakthrough. The sapphire crystal Home button also looks really slick, but it is there to help ensure scratches don't impede the scanning functionality.
What about the downsides? Well, these exist, but they don't go beyond the obvious for the most part. Yes, an all-new design for the seventh-generation iPhone would have been great. So too would the option for a larger display, say something between 4.5 and 5 inches. Personally, I never used to be a fan of larger phone displays, but as devices have become thinner, larger displays are getting easier to navigate around one-handed. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra has an enormous 6.4-inch display, but is just 6.5mm thin -- surprisingly, I am able to navigate the web browser in one hand on that device without too much difficulty.
One odd oversight in the iPhone 5s is that although Apple is marketing as 'Forward Thinking,' it lacks Wi-Fi 802.11ac support. Given that Apple has just introduced new Airport and Time Capsules that implement the latest Wi-Fi 802.11ac standard, and notwithstanding the fact that the HTC One and Galaxy S4 have sported this functionality since around March or April, it really seems bizarre that it is missing here. On the other hand, as pointed out yesterday, Apple has enabled multipath TCP that allows the new iPhone 5s to stay connected to the Internet over both Wi-Fi and cellular networks allowing each to fall back on the other if one loses signal strength - another first for a smartphone. Still, Wi-Fi 802.11ac would have been nice, and was certainly expected.
The iPhone 5s packs a lot of technology into a small, yet highly capable device. For all the talk of Apple not entering the lower-end market with the new iPhone 5c, as many had thought Apple would, it has a near-monopoly on the 4-inch high-end smartphone space. With Samsung, Sony, LG and other makers all focusing on 4.7-inch and 5-inch devices so that they can win the specifications arms race, they have for the most part left Apple unchallenged in this segment. And apparently, that is a very large segment indeed based on the sheer number of 3.5-inch and 4-inch iPhones that Apple has sold and will continue to sell. The iPhone 5s is shaping up as yet another great Apple product.
By Sanjiv Sathiah