More of the Same: the iPhone 5 review

Posted by steve on Oct 21, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, New Zealand, Reviews |

The Web site of Telecom, one of the two cellphone networks in New Zealand offering Apple’s new iPhone 5, advertises the device as “the thinnest, lightest iPhone yet.” Could this really be the best they could manage to say about the latest release of the most successful smartphone in the short history of smartphones? I had to find out.

My iPhone 5 arrived yesterday. I wanted so badly to be impressed by it; I remember well — it was only five years ago, after all — the excitement that surrounded the unveiling, and eventually the release, of the original iPhone. I remember bringing mine home from the [Apple Store where I used to work, in Tampa's International Plaza; the unwrapping, the anticipation as I opened the box to reveal the elegant packaging — the entire process was almost sacramental.

The iPhone 5 Apple NZ sent me to review arrived by courier yesterday. The packaging, I noted, is still as elegant as ever, even if the contents of the box are a little light compared to the original's — I suppose Apple have realised they can still sell incomprehensible quantities of iPhones without giving away free docks, and so that particular extra has been missing since the first iPhone was replaced by the iPhone 3G. And now Tim Cook has said that Apple have no plans even to offer an iPhone 5 dock for sale.

One look at the device suggests a possible reason. It's big. Well, it's tall. Placed next to my iPhone 4S, it looks quite noticeably longer; it also manages to look narrower, despite having the same width. Perhaps mounting this new device vertically simply doesn't look right; perhaps its height leaves it unstable. At any rate, its appearance is something of a departure from its predecessor's. From the front, it is quite similar, dimensions notwithstanding, but from the side the differences start to show up. The metal bezel that surrounds the iPhone 4 and 4S models has been, at least in the black model Apple sent me, coated with black powder; there have been reports of iPhone 5s looking scuffed and with powder missing out of the box, but my sample has no such flaws, and looks, and feels in the hand, rather elegant. The iPhone 4S's glass back is replaced with an aluminium back, again quite stylishly powder-coated, with two black glass strips, one at the top and another at the bottom, to provide radio transparency for the iPhone 5's antennae; it is, after all, easy to forget that this thing is, among other things, a telephone.

Apple's new Lightning connector

Apple's new Lightning connector

Next out of the box is the dock connector, and here again is a major change. Since 2003 and the third generation of iPod, a proprietary 30-pin dock connector has become not merely standard across Apple’s range of iDevices, but also across an entire universe of third-party accessories. Apple’s decision, then, to abandon this established, indeed entrenched, technology in favour of a new eight-pin connector they call Lightning has upset a large number of people who have plenty invested in docking stations, speaker solutions and cradles that use the old-style connector. Quite why Apple have chosen to jetison the 30-pin connector isn’t entirely clear; it was entirely functional, although, presumably, many of the pins on the connector were not being used. The new Lightning connector is surprisingly small, comparable in width to a micro-USB plug, but rather thinner and flatter. Its primary benefit to the end-user, apparently, is reversibility — apparently, users of 30-pin connectors were having enormous difficulty figuring out which way round their connectors mated with their iPhones, despite there being a little icon on the front side, and so Apple have kindly redesigned the connector so it can be inserted either way round.

But, and let’s be really honest here, there was no pressing need to make this change. Other than enlarging the iPhone’s speaker — it is a little, but not massively, louder than the 4S’s — and allowing the headphone jack to be relocated to the bottom of the device (of which change more later), there is no noticeable functional change, for better or worse, that results from this change.

There is, of course, a major change for Apple. Anyone who has already bought a speaker system, or a dock, or even a charging cable, for an existing iPhone and who hopes to use this kit with their new iPhone 5 will either have to buy an adaptor from Apple (useful for chargers, perhaps; less useful, presumably, for cradle-type devices), or replace said kit, at which point, the Lightning connector being proprietary, Apple will be scoring a licensing fee. A possible own-goal for Apple, this one, and not a move that appears to have much meaningful end-user advantage.

Also changed, as has been mentioned, is the location of the headphone jack, now at the bottom of the phone. I have yet to see an explanation of this change, beyond a justification for making the dock connector smaller; this seems to be as gratuitous a change as has been made in this updating. Having the headphone jack in the top of the phone made sense, to me at least — when my iPhone is in my shirt pocket, its usual out-and-about home, I can plug in a headset and still have the phone right-way-up in my pocket, and when an alert calls for my attention, reading the display is quite easy. Similarly, when I’m driving, my iPhone sits in a cupholder, with an audio-out connection to my car stereo coming out of the top of the phone. The relocation of the audio jack to the bottom of the phone now means that the iPhone sits inverted in the holder, which isn’t quite as convenient as I’d like.

So let’s turn the thing on, and see how it works. Well, it’s an iPhone. All the traditional iPhone features I’ve come to expect from my previous iPhones are present and correct. The screen, of course, is the first major difference, and it looks good. The colours are richer, more saturated, than even they were on the iPhone 4S’s screen, a screen that, still, looks very, very good. But the major draw is the size of the screen. Apple have extended it vertically, enough to add an extra row of app icons on the iOS home screen. This is, well, nice, but is it entirely necessary? I don’t know that it makes that much difference to my user experience that I can see an extra email in a list, or that I can read a little bit more of an ebook before I have to turn a page. Watching video is a more significant detail — the screen’s proportions now match HD video, and videos can be viewed full-screen, without letterboxing.

Unfortunately, letterboxing is precisely what happens when an app’s developer hasn’t caught up with the new hardware. Many apps have already been updated to take advantage of the larger screen, but there are plenty, such as TomTom’s rather excellent GPS software, or Skype’s official iPhone client, that still think they’re running on a 4S; the iPhone 5 simply displays these apps in the centre of the screen, with black bars above and below. The black bars are black enough that it’s not always easy to see that this is, in fact, the case; at any rate, the App Store app is reporting updates to apps at a fair rate, and many of these updates include references to the larger screen in their release notes.

The larger hardware, for me at least, is quite comfortable to use. I tend to use my iPhone two-handed, supporting the thing in my left hand while operating it with the fingers of my right; for me, then, there is no significant difference between this iPhone and the last.

By the time I had charged and synced the phone, the weather had cleared up, and so I went outside for a play with the camera. The cameras on the iPhone 4 and 4S have been very well-received, and Apple have wisely refrained from tampering with the 4S’s camera; the iPhone 5 sports the same camera as the 4S. I took a couple of photos of my wife’s cat, holding my own iPhone 4S in one hand and Apple’s loaner 5 in the other, for, quite literally, a side-by-side comparison. On the iPhones’ screens, the iPhone 5′s images were noticeably richer, but when I imported photos from both devices into iPhoto on my laptop and compared them, there was little to no appreciable difference. The iPhone 4S’s camera was very good; the iPhone 5′s camera, essentially identical, is, not surprisingly, every bit as good. Video, similarly, is comparable in quality, with the addition of somewhat improved stabilisation.

Oliver The Cat, taken with my iPhone 4S

Oliver The Cat, taken with my iPhone 4S

Oliver The Cat, shot with an iPhone 5 camera

Oliver The Cat, shot with an iPhone 5 camera

The more perceptive and insightful readers will have noticed that, so far, I have avoided any reference of Long-Term Evolution, or LTE — that’s 4G, to its friends, the absurdly-fast cellular-data connectivity protocol that Apple have finally incorporated into the iPhone 5. Or so I’m told. I have, sadly, no way of confirming this. I have, as I tell anyone who’ll listen, the enormous good fortune to live in New Zealand, but paradise is not perfect. As I have whinged about at length previously (I am a pom, after all), internet connectivity in New Zealand is, well, not all it might be, and LTE is no exception. Neither Telecom nor Vodafone, the Apple’s two resale partners and the two main cellphone networks in NZ, nor indeed 2 Degrees, their only rival, have, or have plans to build, a 4G network in New Zealand, and so fast networking remains a feature only available to those users who happen to live in markets — the USA, the UK, even Australia! — that happen to have 4G connectivity.

Instead, I tested connectivity speeds by both WiFi and 3G, again through a side-by-side comparison, and found that the two editions of iPhone load Web pages at almost identical speeds, either phone occasionally being faster or slower, slightly, than the other. British users, and Americans, and Kiwis who happen to find themselves on the wrong side of the Tasman, will, I’m sure, have a great time enjoying their astonishingly fast (apparently) 4G-enabled iPhone 5s, but many of us can only imagine, only dream, of such an experience, and here Apple have something of a marketing quandary. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Telecom are flogging this new iPhone on the strength of its dimensions because, in the New Zealand market at least, it lacks any truly compelling new features, its standout upgrade being redundant here. Apple’s NZ Web site talks in terms of size, and design, but ultimately has to fudge its copy, talking about connecting to fast networks “the world over,” without actually, explicitly, referring to 4G or LTE.

At the end of all this testing, there was one more thing to look at. My iPhone 4S has, for all its many wonderfulnesses, had one serious weakness — its battery life. This, also, has been the subject of a good, long whinge , and I was hopeful that the iPhone 5 might have the solution. So far today, with reasonable, but not excessive, usage, it reports 6 hours and 14 minutes of use since last full charge, a figure I question — when I factor in three hours in the car driving to, from and around Auckland, during which I was listening to the radio, and a half-hour when the phone was turned off while I was in a radio studio, I’ve not even been awake that long today! But at mid-afternoon, the battery has 28% of its capacity remaining. I have WiFe enabled at home, and location services are on for some, but not all, apps, but Bluetooth is off. This is only my second day using the iPhone 5, but I remain unconvinced of Apple’s claims of “battery life to spare.”

If I sound rather negative in this review, then maybe I should find something I can unreservedly endorse about the iPhone 5. There is one outstanding enhancement that I can whole-heartedly praise, and that’s the new EarPods. They are, at least in my ears, quite considerably more comfortable than previous iPhone and iPod earbuds — I’ve had them in for the last couple of thousand words, and I hardly notice their presence. Their sound, too, is a quite marked improvement on what we’ve come to expect. While they’re not quite up to the quality of my favourite Sony studio monitor headphones, they do reproduce a degree of detail and range that I have never heard — I have never even expected — from iPhone earbuds. As we speak, I’m listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl,” from the 1966 album Aftermath, and I’m hearing details of Brian Jones’ acoustic guitar in my right ear that I don’t remember hearing before. The EarPods come in their own little plastic carrying case inside the iPhone 5′s box, although I suspect that few users will have the patience to wrap them careful back into the case after each use. The case is also the retail packaging for the EarPods; yes, the most attractive and appealing part of the new iPhone isn’t even part of the iPhone, but an accessory that can be bought separately for US$29.

I’ll be sending my iPhone 5 back to Apple — they want it back, sadly — in a couple of weeks. I’ll miss it — it’s always fun to have the latest, shiniest kit — but I doubt that I’ll find anything lacking when I go back to my own iPhone 4S. If I didn’t have another year left on my Vodafone NZ service contract, I might consider upgrading, but I simply don’t find enough in this new release to make it a compelling upgrade at this stage. It’s a very, very good smartphone, of course, but it offers nothing, at least to a Kiwi user, that warrants the major outlay of funds that it would require. Were I in the market for a new smartphone, I don’t know I could beat this one, but I simply don’t see enough in it to warrant a discretionary upgrade.

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