One week with the iPhone 5s
I’ve done it. I spent an entire week with Apple’s new iPhone 5s without dropping it, cracking the screen or scuffing that delicious Space Gray body! Huzzah! (To prevent serious amounts of heartache make sure you check out all of the OtterBox options for your new iPhone 5s.)
If you’re thinking, “This guy writes about Apple for a living, why didn’t he get that gauche gold colored one with the shiny gold chamfered edges, gold Touch ID ring, and all the gold? GOLD!?” then we can’t be friends anymore. Gold is gaudy and I don’t want people talking to me about my cell phone. I bought an iPhone specifically so I didn’t have to communicate my emotions verbally. iMessage, bro.
With that aside, let’s get into the juicy details of this iPhone 5s review.
Look at it
Starting from the top of the iPhone 5s specs, we have a new 8 megapixel backside illuminated sensor. What’s that you say? Last year’s iPhone had an 8MP BSI sensor? Yes. But did it have 1.5 micron pixels? Negative. To fit those fatties in behind the 5-element lens with enlarged f/2.2 aperture, the die had to be made 15% larger.
Bigger pixels equals more light exposure per unit, which means this bad boy works great in some pretty seedy dive bars. Helping out with color reproduction for sick pics next to the jukebox is a dual-color LED flash, one cold white (leaning toward blue) and another warm amber. The iPhone will pick the correct weighting depending on the scene and pop a mix of light suitable for art galleries and/or Instagram.
Backing up the hardware is a litany of new camera modes, including iPhone 5s-only modes for 120 fps slow motion video. Another exclusive is a photo burst mode that clocks in at 10 full-resolution snaps per second. Quite impressive for a bit of gear made for making phone calls, surfing the Web, sending emails, looking sexy, playing games, etc. There’s also a better front-facing FaceTime camera, because selfies are a thing.
The next, and maybe most obvious upgrade of the iPhone 5s specifications, is the inclusion of Apple’s game-changing Touch ID fingerprint sensor. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Apple had to get fingerprint recognition exactly right, else they would be facing hordes of townspeople wielding pitchforks. They nailed it. Hard.
Using Touch ID is a seamless experience. By laying a validated finger over the sapphire button plate and pressing down, as you would to wake up any previous iPhone, the handset unlocks. No swiping, no positioning your finger “just so.” The only quirk is that some people may need to keep their unlocking finger on the button for a split second longer than normal.
As with almost any biometric device, Touch ID can be hacked by anyone with enough tech savvy and patience. Or a pair of gardening shears. For the market it serves, however, Apple’s solution is more than secure, especially with backups like a remote wipe option in Find My iPhone.
Prior to the iPhone 5s, I never locked any of my devices. I dislike having to enter a code because I’m lazy. Call me callow, but I don’t carry nuclear launch codes on my iPhone (I keep them on my Palm Tungsten), so why spend those extra calories typing in a code when they could have been used for something useful like turning into life-sustaining fat. But that’s what makes Touch ID so great; I can keep my cat pictures safe from prying eyes and plump up for the impending nuclear winter!
The extra protection is nice, but that’s not why Apple’s sensor is revolutionary. Think bigger, like Stay Puft marshmallow man bigger. Now think money. If you have a picture of President William “Tubby” Taft in your head, you’ve gone too far.
Payments. Apple now has an unforgettable and, more importantly, uniquely specific password tied to iTunes that’s with users at all times. Easy to use and fast, the tech Apple employed in Touch ID will likely be adopted by other companies and possibly even retail vendors. With the iPhone’s mass appeal — not to mention the other iDevices in which Touch ID will most assuredly be integrated — millions will be using their bodies as passwords within the next few years.
This raises security concerns that I could, and most likely will, write about in a treatise at a later date. For now, rest assured that Touch ID works, serves its purpose as an iPhone gatekeeper to an acceptable level, and isn’t going anywhere because Apple spent a lot of money acquiring the company behind it.
And we press on! (see what I did there?)
The heart of the iPhone 5s: Apple’s A7 system-on-a-chip. Perhaps worth the price of entry alone, this tiny shard of silicon, slightly larger than last year’s A6, is the first 64-bit processor ever used in a consumer smartphone. Why is this such a feat? For starters, almost no one saw it coming. Pretty magical for a device that was almost completely revealed weeks before Apple’s official announcement in September.
A 64-bit chip can address more memory, chew through more data and operate more efficiently than its 32-bit contemporaries. Like the A6, Apple kept it old-school with a dual-core CPU, but goosed the GPU to four cores surrounding a central controller, meaning throughput should be … most impressive. In essence, the A7 can be called a desktop-class processor and early testing confirms it dominates the competition.
Of course, apps need to be developed or retooled to take advantage of the new chip’s capabilities. Sadly, due to the secrecy behind the big reveal, most developers didn’t have a chance to access the support Apple created for 64-bit software. Only Chair, developer of the massively popular game Infinity Blade III, was able to truly tap at least some of the A7’s potential.
A few things surprised me after using the 5s for a few days. I usually dislike surprises because it either means a) I wasn’t smart enough to see it coming or b) I wasn’t cool enough to be included. Both options are incredibly damaging to my fragile ego.
The most pleasant of these surprises was battery life. I actually managed to get two days out of one charge. Shocking. It was a revelation to not be bothered with fumbling through a web of cords in the dark before going to sleep, cursing because the Lightning cable connected to the proper 5W adapter is hiding again. Instead, I simply kissed the 5s goodnight and tucked it into a tiny iPhone-size bed. 1,200 thread count Egyptian cotton; only the best for baby.
Overnight, the iPhone’s battery level dropped only four percent to a bit over half charged. It felt as though I had been transported back to 1999, those days of milk and honey when you could actually lose track of your charger for lack of use.
I suspect that, in addition to not really using the phone for games over the past week, the new M7 motion co-processor is doing wonders for battery life. Apple’s new chip, made by NXP, takes over when the power-hungry A7’s raw horsepower isn’t needed. The M7 handles mundane tasks pertaining to on board sensor monitoring. When you take a step, instead of firing up the A7, the M7 is assigned the duty instead, saving power and keeping the data available to any app that wants it.
For many, the M7 will be most apparent when using wellness apps like run loggers or pedometers. With accelerometer and gyroscope data funneled and tracked by the M7, it allows iOS to shut down apps that would otherwise need to be constantly accessing sensors to gather data.
Take an app like Strava Run, for example. The “GPS Running, Training and Cycling Workout Tracker” relies on the iPhone’s GPS to … track running, training and cycling workouts. This means the app must be continuously running in the background with the GPS radio switched on. This is no bueno for your iPhone’s battery.
Since its last update, Strava now boasts a feature called “Auto-pause,” which turns off the GPS module when the M7 chip determines a user has stopped running. Once motion resumes, the GPS is reactivated. This increases data accuracy and saves energy to boot. Other apps have similar functionality, but depend on the GPS to “auto pause” a run, meaning the receiver is on the entire time.
Aside from the obvious health-tracking implementations, the M7 can also be used to “sense” whether an iPhone is being used, or even further, is about to be used. If the co-processor determines it’s been sitting around for a while, it can tell the handset to shut down any extraneous apps that may be running in the background or further hibernate the A7. Clever girl.
Apple has both models sitting in its stores — as is usual with a product launch — and when I ventured in to pick up the new Lightning dock — also as usual with a product launch — I had a chance to play with them side by side.
Now, being used to glass and metal since the iPhone 4 replaced the 3GS, it wasn’t a complete surprise to find the 5c’s build didn’t quite match last year’s model (which shares a chassis with the 5s). Simply put, the 5c is an iPhone 5 stripped of its aluminum cladding and rewrapped in fancy plastic. Think Samson, almost entirely bald, with one colorful dreadlock.
The 5s, though, is easily the biggest “S” upgrade in the history of the iPhone, literally four years in the making. That’s one president (or one Taft)! Since the iPhone 3GS in 2009, Apple has taken biennial breathers in terms of design, slapping some new guts in its one-year-old device and calling it a job well done. Granted, they pretty much did the same thing this time around, but with all the goodies stuffed under the 5s’ hood, I’ll give them a pass.
Some of you reading this iPhone 5s review might be in the market for a new device. You may be on the fence, hemming and hawing about whether to get the iPhone 5s or 5c. Allow me the privilege to make that decision for you. Get the 5s. I realize certain storage and color combinations are in short supply, and if, for some reason, you absolutely need to have an iPhone in the next 24 hours, by all means get the new iPhone 5c. Then return it and wait for the 5s. You’ll also want to make sure you protect your newest addition with an OtterBox that matches your lifestyle.