The iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 is really nice.

It feels great, looks great, has the best display I’ve seen at any size, runs noticeably faster, networks noticeably faster, is way thinner and lighter than any of its predecessors, takes better photos, and, in my six days of testing, gets totally decent iPhone-4S-level battery life.

But you don’t even have to turn it on to see how nice it is. Just hold it. You really have to. Apple boasted during last week’s event that they now measure the precision of the iPhone 5 assembly in microns. A micron is one-millionth of a meter. On the web page promoting the iPhone 5’s design, Apple states:

iPhone 5 is made with a level of precision you’d expect to find in a finely crafted watch, not a smartphone.

Never before has this degree of fit and finish been applied to a phone. Take the glass inlays on the back of iPhone 5, for instance. During manufacturing, each iPhone 5 aluminum housing is photographed by two high-powered 29MP cameras. A machine then examines the images and compares them against 725 unique inlays to find the most precise match for every single iPhone.

iPhone 5 in my hand, this talk of micron-precision, fine watch craftsmanship, and the computerized selection of best-match inlays sounds not the least bit bullshitty or blustery. It simply sounds like an explanation of the level of obsession that it takes to create a mass-produced device that feels this, well, nice. It even feels as though they’ve put some serious work into the iPhone’s one historical weak spot: the home button.1

The iPhone remains the flagship of Apple’s entire product line. It exhibits not merely the highest degree of fit and finish of any smartphone, but the highest degree of fit and finish for anything Apple has ever made. When first you hold it — where by you I mean “you, who, like me, is intimately familiar with the feel and heft of an iPhone 4 or 4S” — you will be struck by how light it feels, yet in a premium, not chintzy way. Within a week, it will feel normal, and your old iPhone 4/4S will feel like a brick.

Both aspects — the weight and premium feel — are related to materials. The aluminum unibody harkens back to the original 2007 iPhone, which, until now, was my all-time favorite in terms of how it felt in hand. The plastic 3G/3GS body seems like an anomaly in hindsight — it surely offered engineering and cost benefits, but looked and felt (and sounded, for that matter, when, say, you tapped your fingers on it or set it down on a hard table) pedestrian. The glass back of the 4/4S looks and feels very nice, but glass is heavier than aluminum. Volume and weight tend to correlate pretty closely with gadgetry. The iPhone 5, despite being more than a quarter-inch taller than the 4/4S to accommodate the larger display, is 12 percent smaller volumetrically. It’s thus fair to say the new iPhone is “smaller” — and in all but one way (see below) it really does feel smaller. But it’s 20 percent lighter, far greater than the reduction in volume. I’m sure there are dozens of engineering feats that contribute to this reduction in weight, but the biggest is the switch from glass to an aluminum unibody.

The pattern after 2007 has been for a tick-tock design schedule: new hardware design (iPhones 3G and 4), followed the next year by faster, more refined versions of the same design (iPhones 3GS and 4S). No one should be surprised by a same-size-and-shape iPhone 5S next year, but, it’s foolish to treat Apple as a creature of habit. But whatever Apple does with its iPhone designs over the next few years, I’d be very surprised if they move away from aluminum (or at least some sort of textured metal) as the primary housing material. It just feels right, and offers several practical advantages. As stated before, it’s lighter. And compared to the 4/4S’s glass back, it should prove far more durable. (Would you not love to know the number of cracked 4/4S glass backs Apple has replaced?) I believe this is a big reason Apple has not updated its bumpers for the iPhone 5 — this is a phone that was meant to be used without a case. There’s also a marketing advantage: few of the competing phones on the market are made of metal. (No competitor followed Apple’s move to glass; it will be interesting to see if any follow their move back to metal.) A typical consumer could easily identify an iPhone by touch alone, much less by sight.

Is it worth devoting the first 750 or so words of this piece to the iPhone 5’s surface appeal? I don’t know how else to convey the niceness of this thing. This iPhone 5 review unit is the single nicest object in my possession. I own things that cost and remain worth more (e.g. my car). But I own nothing this nice. It sounds hyperbolic to put it that way, but I offer this observation with no exaggeration.

And so thus the meta story surrounding the iPhone 5 is the same as that of the iPhone 4S a year ago: a gaping chasm between consumers so excited to buy it that they stay up until (or wake up in) the middle of the night to pre-order it, and on the other side, a collective yawn from the gadget and tech press. That story a year ago was lost amid the tributes to Steve Jobs, who died the day after the 4S was unveiled.2 If anything, that chasm is growing. The collective yawn from the tech press was louder this year; the enthusiasm from consumers is stronger.

Niceness is my explanation. The bored-by-the-iPhone tech press/industry experts surely value niceness, but they do not hold it in the same top-tier regard that Apple does. They are not equipped to devote an amount of attention to niceness commensurate with the amount of effort Apple puts into it. Apple can speak of micron-level precision and the computer-aided selection of the best-fitting of 725 identical-to-the-naked-eye components, but there is no benchmark, no tech spec, to measure nice. But you can feel it.

And that is what resonates with millions of people around the world.

The Display: Size

The new size takes some getting used to. For one thing, the new dimensions look weird at first. My first few days with the 5, it continually struck me each time I took it from my pocket that it looked too tall — like if my son went away to summer camp and came home several inches taller.

The letterbox mode for not-yet-updated-for-the-new-display apps kind of sucks. It’s not so much that it looks bad (my review unit is white; I’d wager money that the letterboxing is almost hard to notice visually on the black ones), but that it really throws me off while typing. My muscle memory knows where the keys are supposed to be relative to the bottom of the phone; letterboxing moves them all a row higher. This will surely be a non-issue within a few weeks as updates roll into the App Store, unless you’re a devoted user of any apps that are no longer maintained by their developers.

Video playback is better for the utterly obvious reason that it’s nice not to have to choose between filling the display and maintaining the video’s true aspect ratio. Reading is better — more words per page, more tweets or messages per screen.

The bigger display is a total win while using the iPhone 5 two-handed. But navigating the full screen while holding the iPhone in one hand is worse, for exactly the one reason why, even one year ago, I did not expect Apple ever to increase the size of the iPhone display: my thumb no longer easily reaches from corner to corner. (My hands are at least somewhat larger than average. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, this issue will not be noticed by the smaller-handed, whose thumbs don’t easily stretch from corner to corner even on a 3.5-inch iPhone display.)

Consider the windshield wipers on a car, and how, because they swing in a radial arc, they can’t reach the passenger-side top corner. Using the iPhone 5 is like that. There are two specific touch targets where this gives me trouble, both of which I invoke frequently. First, back buttons in the top left corner. I keep mis-tapping underneath them with my fully-outstretched thumb and then need to subtly re-grip the phone so that my thumb can reach. Second, tapping the status bar to scroll to the top of the current view. The top-left back-button issue is only a problem when holding the iPhone 5 one-handed in my right hand, but, I’m right-handed and so that’s the hand I tend to use it with.

There’s a reason Apple emphasizes typing in its justification for why the iPhone 5 display is larger but not too large:

Anyone can make a larger smartphone display. But if you go large for large’s sake, you end up with a phone that feels oversize, awkward, and hard to use. iPhone 5 features a 4-inch display designed the right way: it’s bigger, but it’s the same width as iPhone 4S. So everything you’ve always done with one hand — typing on the keyboard, for instance — you can still do with one hand.

Typing on the iPhone 5 does feel exactly the same. And in my experience testing big-screen phones (mostly with the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus), it really is far more difficult to do anything on them one-handed, including typing. And I can reach top-left-corner back buttons and the status bar one-handed with the 5, it just isn’t as easy, and requires an ever-so-slightly different choked up grip on the device than I’ve used for the past five years.

There is no argument that some people really do like these big closer-to-5-than-4-inch Android and Windows phones. I was in a Verizon retail store yesterday (long story; don’t ask) and overheard a relatively small woman buying a Galaxy S III. A companion asked if she wasn’t worried that it was too big, and she said no, big was exactly what she wanted, because she doesn’t have a tablet and wanted to do a lot of reading on whatever phone she got. She even said she was thinking about the 5-inch Galaxy Note (which Verizon doesn’t carry). It was like a conversation out of a Samsung commercial. Such people surely think the iPhone 5’s display remains too small. But, trust me, there are going to be many long-time iPhone users complaining that it’s too big after they upgrade.

In an ideal world, perhaps Apple would offer two iPhone sizes — like they do with products such as MacBook Pros, MacBook Airs, and iMacs. A smaller one with the classic 3.5-inch display, and a larger (say, 4.5-inch?) one for people who want that. On the logistics side, this doesn’t align with Apple’s interests — economies of scale and the marketing simplicity of just one new iPhone per year.

But there’s another factor. I believe many people would choose poorly. Bigger looks better. It’s like the old chestnut about TV sets in big box stores — side-by-side, standing in the store, people tend to choose TVs that are oversaturated, the ones with the boldest colors, rather than the ones with the better, more accurate colors. I can’t help but think that many people would choose the big-ass iPhone in my hypothetical two-sizes scenario, and later regret it with tired thumbs sore from stretching. (My thumbs feel sore just by looking at photos like this one of the LG Optimus G.) Design is making decisions, and Apple has always decided what the best size is for an iPhone display.

So the question is, if a 4-inch 16:9 display is better than a 3.5-inch 3:2 display, why hasn’t the iPhone been using 4-inch 16:9 displays from the start? Cost must have been a factor. Bigger screens are more expensive, and the 2007 iPhone display was like nothing else on the market. Bigger displays also consume more power. But I think it’s really mostly about a subtle change in priorities, a reordering of the tradeoffs — and, let’s face it, a response to marketing pressure from the aforementioned bigger-seems-better retail showroom factor.

The new size is not a radical change. Both the display and the phone itself feel exactly like what they are: the same width but taller. The iPhone 5 remains one of the smaller-screened smartphones on the market. What Apple has arrived at is a reasonable compromise.

But if Apple offered me an otherwise identical iPhone 5 with a 3.5-inch 3:2 display, which one would I choose? Last week, in the first few days of use, I’d have chosen the 3.5-inch one. Now, though, one week in, I’m not so sure. My trusty old iPhone 4S feels better to use for tapping those back buttons and the status bar, but, it really is starting to look squat to my eyes. Give me another week and I suspect I won’t look back.3

Display: Quality

As I wrote in my first impressions after last week’s event, the integration of the touch sensor into the display moves the pixels significantly closer to the surface of the glass. This is very good. The ideal is pixels right on the surface, like ink on paper, and Apple is getting closer and closer every two years.

Color quality is amazing. (Schiller claimed on stage that the iPhone 5 display covers the full sRGB color gamut.) It makes the iPhone 4S display look dull and dim. Brights are brighter, colors are more saturated (but not grossly so, a la AMOLED displays), and blacks are incredibly black. It is almost impossible for me to discern black pixels along the display edge (like, say, the black status bar) from the thin black area surrounding the display.

No single display size can please everyone. But in terms of quality, I honestly can’t imagine how anyone could deny that this is the best phone display in the world. And I still think the iPhone 4/4S display ranks second. Apple has a lead here, which is interesting, because they buy these displays from companies like LG.

Camera

The camera improvements over the 4S camera are subtle, but real. Images look sharper and colors are more vivid. Low light performance is significantly improved, not just in terms of exposure, but also for autofocus. The lens is also ever-so-slightly wider angle (4.1 mm vs. 4.3 mm). I’ve uploaded a small set of comparison photos between the iPhone 5 and 4S to Flickr. This low-light shot of an action figure in my office is remarkably better than the corresponding shot from the iPhone 4S. In a nut, iPhone 5 photos look slightly better in daylight; they look dramatically better in low light.

Without selling a single dedicated “camera” since the groundbreaking but discontinued-in-1997 QuickTake, Apple has become one of the leading camera companies in the world.

LTE and Carrier Choice

Apple asked which carrier I preferred for this review unit, and I asked for and received a Verizon model. I’ve been an AT&T customer since the pre-iPhone Cingular days. My pre-ordered personal iPhone 5 is on Verizon.

Verizon LTE was fast and ubiquitous in San Francisco, and the same has been true here at home in Philadelphia. Your mileage may vary, but I’m switching for simple, practical reasons. Verizon has stronger signals in the places I visit most, better family plans with shared data, broader LTE coverage, and AT&T’s network quality seems to be getting worse, not better. Also, my iPad (3) is on Verizon, and it always has as good or better a network connection than my AT&T iPhone 4S. I couldn’t be happier with Verizon’s LTE on the iPad, and, after six days of use, the same is true with the iPhone 5.

The only two factors in AT&T’s favor are: (a) the simultaneous voice and data thing; and (b) the laziness factor — it would’ve been easier to order a new phone on my existing account than to do this switching thing (cf. the aforementioned anecdote about visiting a Verizon retail store yesterday).4

Using the iPhone 5 on LTE is nearly indistinguishable from using it on Wi-Fi. Web pages load in a snap, Siri parses input and responds promptly. It’s as big a difference from 3G (and whatever bullshit AT&T calls “4G”) as 3G was from EDGE.

Battery Life

I’ll leave the battery-specific testing to others. I just used the thing as usual. On Sunday I watched the entire Yankees game over 3G (I was at a family outing in an area sans LTE coverage), browsed the web, read email and Twitter, and by midnight the phone was in the red but hadn’t yet hit the 10 percent charge remaining warning. If anything, I’ve been giving the phone fewer sips of power throughout the day than was typical with my iPhone 4S, simply because I have only one Lightning plug. (I didn’t order any of the 30-pin-to-Lightning adapters, but I did order an extra Lightning-to-USB cable.) Battery life seems good, exactly on par with my 4S.

Performance

After my item the other day pointing out that the iPhone 5’s Geekbench score (1,600-ish, which I can confirm) is far higher than that of any PowerPC laptop Apple ever built, a few readers pointed out that Geekbench’s baseline of 1,000 is the “2003 entry-level Power Mac G5”. So, as of this week, we have computing performance in our pants pockets that nine years ago required a professional desktop workstation.

I wrote about this back in 2008, while making the case that RIM was screwed because the future of the phone market was really about the future of portable computing, and that RIM was a phone/messaging company, not a computing company:

Along the lines of can’t-really-be-answered-but-gosh-they’re-fun-to-ponder questions like, say, “Who’d win in a fight, Batman or Spider-Man?” or “Star Destroyer vs. U.S.S. Enterprise?”, here’s one regarding the iPhone: What historical Mac is a current iPhone most analogous to, spec-wise? I.e, complete this sentence: “An iPhone is like having a tiny __ in your pocket?”

Think about this: eight or nine years from now, we should have phones that are computationally equivalent to today’s Mac Pro. (Maybe even sooner, given the sorry state of the Mac Pro at the moment.)

Bottom Line

The question everyone who hasn’t yet pre-ordered wants answered: Should you upgrade? My answer is simple. If you can afford it, yes.

There’s a reason why, just as with all five of its predecessors, it just says “iPhone” on the back. The iPhone 5 is all new technically, but it’s the exact same thing as an idea. Apple is simply improving upon that idea year after year in infinitely finer detail, like a fractal. It’s nice.


  1. Impossible for me to say, after just six days testing a single unit, whether this improved home button is truly an improved design. For one thing, on a few of my iPhones over the years, the home button only got janky over time, after thousands of presses over many months in varied weather conditions. For another, surely Apple gives the review units it passes out a once-over. A less-than-perfect home button would be rejected. But color me optimistic — this home button has a pleasing clickiness that, like the aluminum casing, evokes that of the original iPhone, which I think had a better home button than its successors. 

  2. A thought that occurred to me the other day, regarding just how far along we already are in the post-Jobs era: Phil Schiller has unveiled just as many new iPhones as Steve Jobs did. (Schiller unveiled the 3GS in 2009, while Jobs was recuperating from his liver transplant.) 

  3. This is one of those things that’s hard to judge in just a few days. I didn’t publish my review of the iPhone 3G until October 2008, three months after I bought it. 

  4. There’s also the issue of grandfathered “unlimited” data plans on AT&T. I gave that up years ago in exchange for tethering. 

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