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Review Summary:Apple iPhone 5 4.5

The Apple iPhone 5 is the latest high-tech smartphone from industry leaders Apple. Boasting a wealth of hardware upgrades over its predecessor, the new and improved iOS 6, and a stunning new design, the iPhone 5 is at the cutting edge of smartphone technology today.

  • Positives
  • 4” Retina Display
  • 4G LTE Ready
  • iSight Camera
  • Negatives
  • Doesn´t support NFC
  • Apple Maps needs work
Review by on 12 Sep 2012.

Apple iPhone 5 Deals

Apple iPhone 5 Review

Introduction

Every year since 2007, Apple have released a new model in their famous iPhone line. The Apple iPhone 5 is the latest in that tradition, and represents the most significant physical redesign since the very beginning.

Apple iPhone 5 Homescreen

The iPhone 5 arrives at a time when its predecessor, the iPhone 4S, is facing stiff competition from the likes of Samsung's Galaxy S3. While iPhones remain immensely popular and profitable worldwide, Google's Android has has cemented its position as the most widely used smartphone OS with a huge range of handsets in all-shapes and sizes.

With the popularity of big-screened smartphones like the Galaxy S3 and HTC's One X, Apple have found themselves under increasing pressure to depart from the 3.5” screen blueprint they've used since the very first iPhone in favour of something more expansive. They've done this, but in a characteristically unconventional way.

The iPhone 5 also comes with wide-reaching hardware upgrades and software improvements courtesy of iOS 6. But is there enough here to keep Apple's iPhones at the top of the smartphone game? Read on to find out...

Design

Since the very first iPhone Apple have always equipped their mobiles with 3.5” screens, but that's all changed now. With trends in the mobile industry moving towards larger and larger displays, Apple have upped the screen size of the iPhone 5 to 4”. Rather than simply inflate the screen, though, Apple have taken a different approach.

The iPhone 5's 4” display has the same width as earlier iPhones, but has been stretched out lengthwise, far enough to fit an extra row of icons on the home screen. The new display is closer to a 16:9 widescreen ratio, and its 1136 x 640 resolution means it has the same 'Retina Display' pixel density as its predecessor.

Naturally, a new screen size requires an extensive physical redesign, but front-on the iPhone 5 looks surprisingly similar to the iPhone 4 and 4S. The face has been elongated to accommodate the widescreen display, but the main features are largely unchanged: the iPhone 5 still has a single round physical key beneath the screen and a long thin speaker and camera lens above.

Apple iPhone 5 Side

Moving towards the back of the handset, more noticeable changes are evident. The rim of the phone still protrudes slightly from the front and back faces, but now tapers into those faces – in contrast to the iPhone 4, which had a sharp step from rim to face. It's a subtle change, but one that I find makes the phone more comfortable to hold.

The back plate departs further from the iPhone 4 mould. The main expanse of the back of the handset is the same cool aluminium as the sides, but two strips of glass along the top and bottom create a sleek two-tone effect. In a nice touch, the thin glass panels align with the antenna strips along the edge of the device, turning this functional necessity into a subtle design feature.

Overall, the iPhone 5's physical design is impressive. If there's one thing that Apple know how to do, it's how to design a device with class, and the iPhone 5 has it in spades.

The build quality is as excellent as I've come to expect from Apple; it's solid, with not a creak nor a rattle to be heard. It also bears mentioning that the iPhone 5 is really very slim, at just 7.6mm, and feels significantly lighter in the hand than the iPhone 4 or 4S.

The iPhone 5 is available in white and black finishes. Ours was the black, and provided me with one of my few concerns regarding the build. The phone's metal areas have an anodised aluminium finish. It looks absolutely top-class and very 'premium', but I've seen similar finishes on phones succumb to chips, scratches and scuffs painfully easily. I'll hasten to add I didn't have any of these problems with my review model, but I'd be concerned if I were using the phone over an extended period in a less controlled environment.

Apple iPhone 5 SIM Slot

The other concern I have in design is by no means a design flaw, but is something that many people are concerned about – the new 'Lightning' dock connector. After almost 10 years, Apple have left behind their old standard 30 pin dock connector in favour of a new design. The new version is around 80% smaller than the old, and has the unique attribute of being functional whichever way up you plug it in.

The new connector works perfectly well and I have enjoyed the convenience of not worrying about which way up the cable is, but the change in standards, however inevitable it was eventually going to be, isn't very good news for those with a wide range of iPhone accessories. Adapters are available, but sadly they aren't cheap. This isn't of much significance to me personally, as I don't have a collection of iPhone gizmos, but it's worth bearing in mind if you do and you're considering an upgrade.

Features

Most prominent among the features of the iPhone 5 has to be its upgraded screen. I've already touched on this briefly in the Design section, but it's well worth spending a little more time on. The enlarged 4” display of the iPhone 5 employs the same Retina Display technology as the iPhones 4 and 4S, and it's as market leading today as it was two years ago.

I wouldn't say it is still in the unique position of being 'the best' display on the market, but there's nothing better. The HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S3 both have huge, exquisite screens that can more or less match Apple's offering for quality, but neither can surpass it and both trade larger size for lower pixel density.

This brings us neatly onto the issue of size. As I've mentioned, the display is taller than previous models but not wider. The result of this is a display that's tall and thin with roughly a 16:9 ratio. This is an interesting and unusual design choice that may split opinions. On the one hand, the widescreen format is ideal for watching movies and can be well utilised by apps, but on the other, apps that aren't redesigned to work with the new screen layout are forced to run in an unattractive letterbox mode.

There are solid reasons for Apple's decision to build the screen this way, and the primary one is that it ensures that typing with one hand is as comfortable on the iPhone 5 as on earlier iPhones. This is a very valid point, but there is a flip-side. I found that it was frequently difficult to reach the 'back' key most iOS menus place in the top left corner when using the phone in my right hand as a consequence of the stretched out screen.

Apple iPhone 5 Camera Samples

The camera is a key feature of any smartphone and the iPhone 5 has inherited one of the best from the iPhone 4S, with a few new additions and modifications. The whole thing's been shrunk by 25% to fit in the new, thinner iPhone and there are more tangible benefits in the form of enhanced low light performance, capturing still images during video and a panorama mode, courtesy of iOS 6.

I usually like to test a smartphone camera's outdoor performance on a nice, sunny day, but this is September in Britain, so there was no chance of that. I made do with a bright-ish day and tried to make the most of breaks in the cloud. To the iPhone 5's credit, it did an excellent job of capturing the autumnal colours, as in the image above where the warm yellow of the flower stands out starkly against the cool blue and green background.

The iPhone 5 ships with iOS 6, and that means it comes with Apple's new proprietary maps application. Apple Maps is on the whole a very slick application, but it's in its infancy. I found the maps for my locality to be accurate and the application brings free turn-by-turn navigation to the iPhone for the first time. This worked very smoothly for me, aided by the fast and accurate GPS of the iPhone.

One of the more exciting elements of the new maps app is its flyover feature, which combines satellite imagery with 3D models to create interactive three dimensional maps. Unfortunately at the moment detailed models are limited to a few major urban areas, a fact I didn't discover until I'd decided to take a virtual tour of some of the world's major landmarks.

Apple Maps

So, while the Golden Gate Bridge was pretty impressive and Big Ben stood majestically above fully rendered Houses of Parliament, the Taj Mahal was a blurry white blob and the pyramids of Giza looked like they'd been sat on by a giant sphinx.

There's one more feature of the iPhone 5 that I'd love to weight in on, but can't just yet – 4G. This is Apple's first 4G capable phone but, although the wheels of UK 4G are beginning to turn, access hasn't reached me just yet. Still, it's an important feature and adds an extra layer of future-proofing to the device. Let's just hope the networks roll out 4G before the iPhone 6 comes along...

Performance

It's always hard at first to objectively evaluate the performance of a new iPhone because iOS is so streamlined and slick that there's rarely any immediately apparent improvement. Nonetheless, the iPhone 5 has significantly upgraded specifications and thus significantly increased potential performance.

Let's talk hardware first; Apple have equipped the iPhone 5 with their new A6 system-on-a-chip. The marketing spiel has it that the A6 is twice as fast as the A5 found in the iPhone 4S, with twice the graphics performance, but Apple are remaining secretive about exact specifications.

Through the use of electron microscopy, it's been determined that the A6 is a dual core chip with three graphical processing units. I'd love to say this was my work, but sadly we don't currently have an electron microscope lying around the office.

Apple iPhone 5 Benchmark and Browsing

Software analysis with third party apps like Geekbench has indicated a clock speed between 1.1 and 1.3 GHz for the A6 processor. Given that the A5 ran at 800 MHz, this is a sizeable clock speed boost, and when you factor in additional improvements in efficiency Apple's 'twice as fast' statement starts to look quite credible.

In daily use, the iPhone 5 is every bit as smooth and lag free as you'd expect from a cutting-edge iOS device. In native and third party apps alike frame rates are high and performance is rarely if ever interrupted by stuttering or the grinding of electronic gears.

As has long been the case with iPhones, browsing on the iPhone 5 is an exhilaratingly fluid experience. While the latest version of arch-rival Google's Android operating system, Jelly Bean, has made fine advances towards iOS' fluidity with its upped frame rates, I've yet to find an Android device that handles the loading, zooming, and otherwise navigating of web pages as smoothly and flawlessly as Apple's system.

Apple made some noise at launch regarding the extended battery life of the iPhone 5 and I was pleasantly surprised by the staying power of the 1440 mAh battery. With an average, moderate level of use, the phone could happily power on through two days on a full charge, though a concerted effort of heavy use could drain the battery in less than a day. It's not quite up to the standard of, say, the considerably chunkier Motorola RAZR Maxx, but for a smartphone this sleek and slim, battery life was impressive.

Usability

Since the early days of the iPhone, Apple's pitch has been 'you already know how to use an iPhone'. That's as true today as it was on day one. The great strength of iOS is in its intuitiveness and usability, and it's testament to the thought Apple's design team puts into software that even as the feature sets of successive iPhones expand rapidly, the core user interface remains simple, straightforward and easy to learn.

With iOS 6 on-board, the iPhone 5 brings new features that alter and enhance the usability of the phone. First up is Facebook integration. Prior to iOS 6, interactions with Facebook required either a third party application or a browser. With the new iPhone and new iOS, Facebook is deeply integrated into the smartphone's software.

In effect what this means is that it's possible to sign in to your Facebook account in the iPhone's settings menu and access a number of Facebook related features much more easily. You can populate your contacts with your Facebook friends list, view Facebook events and birthdays in the iPhone's calendar or share a photograph to your wall directly from the iPhone's camera roll.

Apple iPhone 5 Back

Apple's virtual assistant, Siri, has also received some attention in iOS 6 and has expanded functionality. New additions include the ability to answer questions about sports fixtures and find showings and reviews of movies.

Particularly welcome to UK users is the addition of location based services to our version of Siri. Tasks like searching for local businesses have been performed by our Siri's American counterpart since last year, so it's nice to see Apple bringing our service up to speed at last.

I was actually quite impressed with the Siri this time around. When I reviewed the iPhone 4S last year, I found the speech recognition software to be hit and miss, correctly interpreting maybe two out of three commands. This time around I barely noticed any errors at all. It may be that in the last year I've recovered from a speech impediment I didn't know I had, but I think it's more likely that Apple have been tweaking the software, with positive results.

This being an iPhone, there are of course thousands of quality apps to choose from. Support for the iPhone 5's larger display isn't widespread yet, but I'd expect most major apps to add support within the next few months as distribution of the new iPhone increases.

Apple iPhone 5 Bottom Edge

The apps I've tried that have made use of the extra screen space have generally done so intelligently. A widescreen touchscreen format lends itself well to games, as on-screen controls can be pushed further out to the sides leaving a wider view of the action.

Finally, there is of course iTunes for all your musical and televisual needs. Though this is nothing new, it's one of the world's largest libraries of music and film so its availability will always be a feather in the cap of the latest iPhone. And the expanded Retina Display makes watching downloaded movies even better.

Conclusion

After last year's iPhone 4S maintained the outward appearance of its predecessor, the people were clamoring for a redesigned iPhone and Apple have provided with the iPhone 5. But they haven't thrown out the rulebook, smashed the mould and started again from scratch – the iPhone 5 is very much an iPhone, in keeping with the design principles of iPhones past.

The time was right for an expanded screen, but in a market where smartphones with displays pushing 5” are becoming increasingly common, some may question why Apple didn't go larger than 4”. Personally, I think this was a savvy decision.

Apple make one phone each year, while competitors tend to make a range that includes larger and smaller phones. That's not Apple's model – they make one iPhone, for everyone, and the fact is that some people find larger displays unwieldy and difficult to operate. 4” strikes a nice balance and I think Apple were wise to avoid the temptation to go larger.

The rest of the design is also top-notch. It's understated but classy and you can feel that you're holding a premium, precision-built device. And it's so very thin.

Apple iPhone 5 Front

There are some grey areas, though. Whether there are any real, tangible improvements to the camera aside from reduced size is up for debate, though it should be stressed that this camera, like the unit equipped to the iPhone 4S, is absolutely among the best in the business.

Apple Maps has had a shaky start and is still lacking some functionality and showing some bugs, unusual for Apple whose software is usually so polished. Still, we can expect the system to improve rapidly as issues are reported by the millions of iOS 6 users and fixed by Apple.

Back on the positive side, tests indicate that the processor really has had a sizeable upgrade, so I fully expect to see some impressive results once developers get stuck into harnessing its capabilities. Built-in 4G connectivity also means iPhone 5 users can expect to be among the first in the UK to access super-fast mobile data when the networks roll out the new technology.

And of course, there's the essential iPhone-ness of the device. The smooth simplicity and intuitiveness of using the iPhone 5, like the iPhones that came before it, is simply unique and for many there is no alternative.

So, how to sum up? The iPhone 5 is the best iPhone ever made, there's little doubt about that. It's not a revolution or a revelation, but it's a solid upgrade. Though it might lack that single 'wow' factor feature that's marked so many iPhone launches of the past, it has every feature that's helped make previous iPhones so successful and more besides.

The iPhone 5 is certainly one of the world's very finest smartphones and is highly recommended!

Also Consider

Apple iPhone 4S – The predecessor to the iPhone 5 is still a powerful smartphone in its own right and should come at a more competitive price tag now that there's a newer iPhone on the market.

Samsung Galaxy S3 – The flagship model of Apple's main rivals in the smartphone business, the Samsung Galaxy S3 has a quad-core processor and a stunning 4.8” display.

Nokia Lumia 920 – Though unreleased at the time of writing, Nokia's new Windows Phone 8 device has made quite and impression in the industry with a sharp design and an abundance of innovative features.