Review: Apple iPhone 5s

Apple stakes its claim for the smartphone crown (September 25th, 2013)

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $199 on a two-year plan

The Good

  • - The most advanced smartphone on the market
    - Cutting-edge processor and graphics performance
    - iOS 7 is revitalizes the iPhone experience
    - Slow-motion video capture and photos outstanding
    - Touch ID a game changer

The Bad

  • - No option for larger display
    - Relatively expensive off-contract
    - No Wi-Fi 802.11ac support
    - No 128GB option
    - No 'Swype-like' keyboard

There are many calling the iPhone 5s merely an iterative update to the iPhone 5, in particular, because it continues with the chassis design and display from the now superseded model. To do so is selling the iPhone 5s short, and is probably a flat out fallacy. If the case design had changed, or Apple had shifted to a larger display, it seems some people may have then viewed it as a completely new model. However, the reality is the iPhone 5s really is very much a new model and is truly a next-generation device. So misconceptions and other distortions aside, the question then is how does it compare in a world flooded with smartphones offering similar capabilities?

Design and construction

The design and construction of the Apple iPhone 5s is fundamentally the same as with the original iPhone 5 on which it is based. However, this time around, Apple has made a point of emphasising that the iPhone 5s is made from 'high grade aluminium,' although whether that makes it any different from the iPhone 5 is hard to ascertain. We do get the feeling that the iPhone 5s feels more solidly constructed and much less prone to nicks and scratches than the iPhone 5 in the black and slate option, in particular. The finish of the new 'space gray' color on the iPhone 5s appears much more resilient and could probably stand up quite well without a cover if you prefer to leave the iPhone 5s aesthetics unspoiled. We've seen several iPhone 4 and 4S models remain in excellent condition without a case over a long period and the indications are there that the new iPhone 5s is similarly robust. You also have the option of a silver model, or the highly-sought after and hard to find gold finish.

The iPhone 5s continues at exactly the same height (4.87-inches), width (2.31-inches) and depth (0.30-inches) as the iPhone 5, while it also manages to come in at the same weight despite and increase in battery capacity from 1440mAh to 1560mAh and the addition of new technologies like Touch ID. The design itself is a refinement of the iPhone 4 and 4S before it, but looks slightly elongated to those models as it accommodates the 4-inch display added when the iPhone 5 went from a 3.5-inch display to a 4-inch panel. It remains the phone by which all others are judged from a design perspective, and with good reason. Its design is clean, crisp and elegant and remains the epitome of quality and taste. Of all the competitors out the there, only the HTC One can hold a torch to it, with most others trailing in its wake.


The iPhone 5s continues with the same high-quality 4-inch Retina display from the iPhone 5. As with the original 3.5-inch Retina display that debuted on the iPhone 4, the current version continues with a 326ppi density and a 16:9 resolution of 1136x640 pixels. Although this level of pixel density has been surpassed by most Android handsets (after first taking years to catch up), the quality of the iPhone 5s display remains second to none. The HTC One is the current pixel density record holder, with its 4.7-inch IPS LCD display packing in 440ppi, yet from the perspective of legibility, there is no telling it apart from the iPhone 5s display. As Apple pointed out when it first introduced the original Retina display, the human eye can't discern individual pixels on a smartphone display beyond 300ppi.

Pixel density is of course not the only measure by which a display is judged. The IPS panel in the iPhone 5s sports a high contrast ratio of 800:1 and has an excellent brightness, rated at 500 cd/m2. Its colour reproduction is highly accurate, natural looking, yet also vibrant. Whites on the iPhone 5s look white, and don't convey that awful blueish hue that you can detect on many of Samsung's AMOLED panels, for example. The only advantage that we can see in an AMOLED panel is that its blacks are outstanding, but beyond that, traditional IPS LCD panels remain the superior choice if image quality and accuracy is important to you. Further, Apple's multitouch technology is far better implemented in the iPhone 5s than any competing Android device with testing by Venture Beat revealing that it is 2.5 times more responsive to touch input compared to the best of its Android competition.

While we would like to see Apple offer an iPhone with a larger display, the 4-inch display in the iPhone 5s is quite adequate and makes it highly pocketable making it a popular compromise for millions of iPhone buyers. Functions like Reader in Safari also help to increase its usability when reading printed text when surfing the web, for example. As Apple's Phil Schiller has pointed out, one of the reasons that Samsung and other Android makers have moved to larger displays is that it has allowed them to stuff larger batteries in their devices to help power multicore chips that have been clocked higher to match the performance that Apple has been able to achieve in a device as compact as the iPhone 4 through to the iPhone 5. As it so happens though, that they have been very popular. From a performance perspective though, the Apple iPhone 5s, as you will see below, punches well outside of its division more than matching devices with larger displays and more processing cores.


One of the areas that Apple has continually developed from one generation of the iPhone to the next is its camera capability. As much as any, this has often been a good reason to upgrade to each subsequent generation if you have the money. Apple was quick to realize that cameras in smartphones were going to be huge. For the past few years, iPhones have been by far the most popular camera of users sharing photos in Flickr, quickly overtaking regular point and shoot pocket cameras as its iPhone sales exploded. The improvements to the camera in the iPhone 5s make it the best yet, and quite possibly the best overall smartphone camera currently the market (though the Nokia Lumia 1020 and the Sony Xperia Z1 might have something to say about that!). The iPhone 5s iSight camera retains an 8-megapixel sensor, although it is an all-new sensor and 15 percent larger 1/3-inch type with larger 1.5-microm pixels that captures 33 percent more light. To help more light reach the larger sensor, Apple has also increased the size of the aperture with iPhone 5s now utilizing an f/2.2 type.

This is now paired to a dual-LED flash that incorporates one white LED and one amber LED Apple calls True Tone, which coupled with intelligent software powered by complex algorithms, captures much more natural looking photos in dark lighting situations that call for a flash. Other iPhone 5s-only enhancements include a new continuous burst mode good for capturing 10 photos per second supplemented by real-time analysis and suggestions for the best individual shots. The video camera function can now also take stunning slow motion clips captured at 120fps/720p. Additional functions including built in photo filters, square photos, image stabilization and live video zoom are also compatible with the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 4S and 4 to varying degrees. As introduced in iOS 6, users can also take beautiful panorama shots as well, which with the new iPhone 5s camera, look superb.

As you can see from the unedited shots embedded below, the iPhone 5s camera produces detailed, well-balanced photos that the average person would be hard pressed to tell that they were taken with a smartphone, and not a classic point and shoot camera. However, if you choose to edit them, as we have with one example below, you could even trick someone into thinking that its photos might have been taken with a DSLR. The slow motion video embedded below of some blossoms gently blowing in the breeze is almost mesmerising -- if you look closely, you will see a small insect take off the top of one of the blossoms in slow motion as well, reinforcing just how effective the new iSight camera is.

Unedited iPhone 5s photos

Edited in Aperture

iPhone 5s slow-motion video capture


The iPhone 5s takes smartphone performance and potential to new levels with the introduction of its smartphone-first 64-bit hardware and software architecture. Despite those that would dismiss its implications, as the iPhone 5s does not utilize 4GB or more of RAM, the switch to 64-bit system architecture pushes iPhone performance past the 32-bit iPhone 5 by up to 25 percent despite retaining a dual-core CPU configuration. This means that apps recompiled from 32-bit at accommodate 64-bit architecture will perform faster without any further tweaking. 64-bit processing also provides more headroom for computationally intensive apps like the new Infinity Blade III iPhone 5s graphics showcase meaning that users benefit from the technology being implemented now.

Samsung will likely not have a shipping smartphone with 64-bit technology until March or April next year, but it will count for nought unless Android and apps are recompiled to support 64-bit processing. If there was ever an example of the competitive advantage that Apple has over the competition, it is not magnified more than this game-changing leap into 64-bit processing in a smartphone. As Apple has an ARM licence that allows it to create customized cores, it has not had to wait for off-the-shelf ARM 64-bit ARMv8 instruction set chips to hit the market. Further, as it also develops its own software, it has been able to precisely tailor both the A7 chip and its software to perfectly optimize it for performance in a device with a 4-inch form factor that can at the same time outperform larger, bulkier devices with 32-bit quad or octa cores.

A competitor like Samsung is currently relegated to utilizing off the shelf ARM reference designs and waiting for Google to recompile Android to support 64-bit chips. Further, Samsung is not able to finely tune both the processor and the operating system to anywhere near the same degree as Apple, which explains exactly why there is not a single high-end Android smartphone in the 4-inch segment that can compete with the iPhone 5s, or even with the superseded iPhone 5. The closest device that Samsung has to offer from a size perspective is the Galaxy S4 Mini. However, its specifications and performance put it at the mid-tier, at best, in the Android smartphone world. If you want maximum Android performance from Samsung, you're going to need a bigger pocket. Even then, Apple has got Samsung beaten for performance, as the iPhone 5s benchmarks below attest to.

The iPhone 5s scores exceptionally well in the single-core Geekbench 3 cross-platform CPU test with a single-core score of 1406, while it scores a multi-core score of 2541, which is highly impressive by any measure, let alone by dual-core chip clocked at just 1.3GHz against competition clocking as high as 2.26GHz. The reason Geekbench provides a single-core score is that is the score that is most important in most cases for users as there are only a few apps on either iOS or Android that are optimized for multi-core chips. In this measure, the 1.3GHz dual-core Apple A7 beats out the 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip in the new Google Nexus 5, which manages 900 for the single-core score, but it bounces back with 2766 in the multi-core score. Overall though, the 64-bit 'Cylcone' architecture of the Apple A7 chip proves superior to the 32-bit Qualcomm 'Krait 400' architecture as it supports ARM's v8 instruction set, versus the older legacy laden ARM v7 instruction set in the Snapdragon chip. If anyone doubted the value of Apple's switch to the bleeding edge 64-bit technology, the benchmarks should blow those doubts out of the water. This is further highlighted by the fact that the iPhone 5s scorches through the cross-platform Geekbench 3 suite of tests in just 35 seconds against the 55 seconds it takes the Nexus 5. The performance gulf is substantial and also reinforces the importance of engineering well-designed chips with fast cores, rather than trying to by-pass inherent design limitations with multicores when they are not properly supported by either the operating system, or leveraged by apps.

As you can see in the GFXBench results above, the iPhone 5s achieves 64fps in the Egypt HD offscreen test and 27fps in the T-Rex HD offscreen test with its quad-cluster PowerVR G6430 GPU excelling. This compares with 59fps achieved by the Nexus 5 with Adreno 300 GPU in the Egypt HD offscreen test, and 23fps in the T-Rex HD offscreen test. The older Snapdragon 600 with Adreno in the HTC One achieves a result of 45fps in the Egypt HD offscreen test and just 15fps in the T-Rex HD offscreen test. While the Adreno 330 GPU in the Nexus 5 is much more of a match for the PowerVR GPU in the iPhone 5s, the iPhone edges it out slightly in the two key indicators. Overall, however, the iPhone 5s has taken a generational leap ahead of the best that the Android platform has to throw at it. It highlights the massive technical edge that Apple has in developing both its silicon and software designs in-house. Apple is able to deliver an optimal balance between performance and battery life in what is a very compact, yet incredibly powerful device.

M7 motion coprocessor:

Another addition to the iPhone 5s is the new M7 motion coprocessor. According to Apple, the new chip processes accelerometer, gyroscope and compass motion data that would normally be processed by the A7 chip. The principle advantage this offers is to reduce battery consumption by off-loading processing to a chip that sips even less power. A whole raft of fitness apps, for example, will be able to tap into the M7, as well as apps that haven't been imagined yet. Further, it constantly assesses incoming data to determine whether you are driving, running or walking. It can then use this data, for example, to intelligently offer walking directions in the Maps app if you launch it looking for directions. It can also intelligently reduce network pinging when the phone is sitting idle on a desk or bedside table, further helping to improve overall system battery life. As with everything else in the iPhone 5s, it is not there for bragging rights, it is there to offer users a better overall experience.


Apple has brought expanded 13-band support for 4G LTE networks with the iPhone 5s that will make it much easier for users to take their iPhones across carriers and still benefit from 4G speeds. Not only will this benefit users domestically, it will also benefit you when you travel internationally. It is a key area of improvement that can easily go under the radar, but makes the iPhone 5s a much more flexible device giving it an edge over most of its current competition. It appears, however, that this is the only area where Apple has really pushed the iPhone 5s forward from a connectivity perspective over previous models.

Somewhat perplexingly, although Apple has added the ability to access high speed cellular networks in more places than ever before, it has not upgraded the Wi-Fi capability of the iPhone 5s to support Wi-Fi 802.11ac. So where you don't have access to a cellular network or want to limit your cellular data use when Wi-Fi available, you will be limited to connecting to it at 802.11n speeds. In most instances, this won't be an issue when out and about as most public Wi-Fi networks run 802.11n services, but it will leave you at a slower than possible speed when at home if you have upgraded to one of Apple's new 802.11ac routers or one from a third-party. Otherwise, everything else is in order, with Apple continuing support for Bluetooth 4.0 and adding the new AirDrop function in iOS 7 for fast, secure, content sharing between iPhones.

Touch ID

Apple has extended the capabilities of the iPhone 5s further with the introduction of Touch ID finger print authentication technology embedded in the Home button. Critics have been quick to point out that finger print authentication has been around for a long time, but we have yet to see it in a smartphone as Apple has implemented it here. While the Home button no longer feels concave, it is pretty incredible how Apple has been able to pack in the technology into such a small space and make it work so well. In our use, the system works very reliably and allows you to scan multiple fingerprints so that you don't need to use a particular digit to unlock your iPhone each time.

From the bottom up, Touch ID consists of tactile switch on top of which lies a capacitive single-touch sensor, followed by a stainless steel detection ring and topped by a laser-cut sapphire crystal. As with all Apple hardware breakthroughs, it is matched with incredibly simple to use and set up software. All you need to do is repeatedly place and lift the finger being scanned until a software image of a finger print has been mapped out, from the most commonly facing parts of your finger print through to its surrounding edges. The whole process works flawlessly and takes less than 30 seconds to set up. From then on, unlocking your smartphone and making purchases will never be the same. Soon enough, you will also start to take it for granted as the technology behind it drifts into the background.


Although a lot of attention has been focused on the iPhone 5s and 5c hardware, neither would be what they are if not for the dazzling look and performance of Apple's revamped iOS 7 mobile operating system, which is also the first 64-bit capable mobile OS in any device -- a truly next-generation upgrade if ever there was one. There is no doubt that iOS 7 works in complete unison with A7 chip to optimize the performance of a number of computationally intensive processes that the device is capable of handling. This includes not only high-end mobile games, but practical everyday functions like burst mode camera shooting and slow motion video capture that many users will simply take for granted given how seamlessly Apple's technology works together.

Apple has recompiled all of its standard iOS 7 apps to properly leverage the 64-bit technology in its A7 chip as well, ensuring that users will ensure streamlined and the fastest possible performance out of the box. We've already previewed a number of the key changes in the iOS 7 beta taking a closer look at the iOS 7 Music app, Control and Notification Centers, Safari mobile browser, Camera and Photos apps, and Siri and iOS in the Car. To properly do justice to what iOS 7 brings to the table for not only iPhone 5s users, but all other devices that support Apple's completely revamped OS, we will take another in depth look at the overall changes to the user interface and the revamped applications in a separate series that will follow this review.

In summary though, Apple has brought not only great new hardware features to the table, it has also delivered a truly contemporary smartphone user experience in iOS 7. It revitalizes the whole experience of using an iPhone offering something new for users, but still familiar enough that old hands won't get lost. Perhaps the only aspect of using the iPhone that I would like to see improved is to see Apple introduce a 'Swype-like' keyboard as a system-wide option -- there are third-party options, but there unable to implemented system-wide as a native implementation. It is an aspect of Android that we find particularly useful, though it is not absolutely essential -- yet.

Final thoughts

While some people might write off the iPhone 5s as merely an 's' upgrade, they are not taking the time to properly look beyond the surface. Sure, it might look almost identical to the iPhone 5, but it as far removed from the iPhone 5 as the iPhone 5 was from the 4S. It is truly an entirely new generation smartphone that has been thoroughly reengineered. The iPhone 5s has been meticulously and deliberately engineered by Apple from the ground up in ways that, unless you were personally involved in the sheer level of engineering that has gone into every single component in the iPhone 5s, you will never fully appreciate.

But that is what makes Apple, Apple, and the iPhone 5s an iPhone. It is technology cast in a way that it you simply use it as advertised and it just works -- all that technology and the complexity behind it (whether software or hardware related) simply disappears leaving you with what remains an outstanding smartphone experience. This is not to say that other manufacturers do not put tremendous amounts of thought and energy into their competing devices either -- of course they do. But there is a reason that Apple has climbed to the pinnacle of the technology market and why everyone looks to Apple for what is next in the ongoing development of consumer technology.

Are there things about the iPhone experience that we would love to see Apple improve? Absolutely. While we don't want to see Apple drop the 4-inch form factor all together, we would love to see Apple offer customers more choice when it comes to the size of the display. We would also love to see Apple introduce a 'Swype-like' technology to its software keyboard, because users will quickly adapt to it and never look back once they have it. We would also love to see Apple introduce a 128GB for power users for whom there is no such thing as too much capacity.

However, overall, there is more than enough technology and authentic functionality that will help to ensure that Apple will sell tens of millions of the iPhone 5s over the next twelve months. If Samsung wants to know why iPhone users still line up to get a new iPhone each year it launches, they need to look beyond the appearance of the iPhone 5s and deeper into the new technology that Apple introduces and the way they make it seemingly disappear through painstaking attention to detail and brilliant execution.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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