It’s now five years after Apple first launched the iPhone, and the company is finally in a position where it needs to play catch up. Android is by far and away the most popular platform for smartphones now – and this is a good thing, of course. If there wasn't enough competitive pressure, Apple wouldn't necessarily feel the need to innovate.
And so, it's that time of the year again. After months of speculation which has come from all directions, tomorrow we’ll finally find out what the iPhone 5 looks like, and what features it boasts. (Side note: Remember that this next iPhone will actually be the sixth-generation model, after the first iPhone, the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4, and the iPhone 4S).
With the arrival of the handset imminent, let's cut through all the clutter, and the crazy number of rumours – as not everything which has been speculated about will make it into the iPhone 5 (obviously). So what's important? What are the features we'd like to see most, at least in terms of the hardware?
NFC (Near-Field Communication) is yet to take off in earnest, although it has started to gather some momentum this year, and Apple’s adoption could help to push the market forward. Even so, it’s hard to get too excited about it currently, and we remain ambivalent on this one for the moment.
Next up is weight. While we always like phones to weigh a bit less, the extra few tenths of an ounce in the iPhone 4S come from that phone's beautiful metal and glass construction. We're not sure we'd want to see Apple resort to cheaper plastics again (although the glass itself has proven a bit problematic; more on that below).
Finally, a new dock connector would allow for a smaller design, but we're not thrilled about the resulting incompatibilities with thousands of accessories, or the need for using an adapter for the next several years.
Even with those three things aside, that leaves plenty of other possibilities to get excited about. Here's what we'd really like to see in the iPhone 5:
Apple has stubbornly stuck with a 3.5in panel through all five generations of the iPhone. Back in January 2007, when Apple first unveiled the iPhone, that seemed generous, even expansive. Today, it's decidedly small looking, as a wave of bigger-is-better smartphones have grabbed the public's interest, and 4in to 4.3in phones are now considered "smaller and more comfortable" for a subset of consumers who prefer to use their devices one-handed.
Apple has upgraded the resolution of its 3.5in display just the once, when it first unveiled the Retina display to the public. That was a significant jump, from 480 x 320 to 960 x 640. The latter resolution looks super sharp on a 3.5in panel, but just average on, say, a 4.3in or 4.8in screen; a bump in resolution would go hand-in-hand with a larger panel size. That would put a little more pressure on third-party app developers, as they'll have to design around a third possible screen resolution. But given today's advanced APIs – not to mention the fact that Android has many more possible combinations already – it should have little effect on overall iOS app development.
Over in the US, the iPhone has trailed the competition in high-speed data access. 4G LTE phones have been on the market for almost two years now on Verizon, and so it seems very likely that Apple will bring 4G LTE on board. All indications are that Cupertino has finally found a radio design small enough, and full featured enough, to work in its next iPhone. Most of the latest rumours now circle around which 4G LTE bands – and therefore, possibly which countries' cell phone networks – the latest iPhone will support. Hopefully, the UK will be one of them. But 4G LTE isn’t available in the UK, you cry! Not today, but it will be imminently courtesy of Everything Everywhere and its new EE brand, which is aiming to get sixteen major cities and a third of the UK covered by the end of 2012. Indeed, EE’s CEO even hinted that the iPhone 5 will be compatible with its new 4G network. Super-fast mobile surfing would definitely be worth having.
We love the idea of quad-core processors. But Apple has already proven it can deliver a powerhouse CPU even with just two cores, thanks to the A5x in the new iPad (which does offer quad-core graphics processing). While we'd be perfectly happy with the existing A5x as an upgrade from the A5 which powers the iPhone 4S, the A5x may not be small or efficient enough for the iPhone, in which case a 28nm A15 chip (instead of the dual 40nm A9) would be even better.
We're tired of banging on about the fact that if you want to hear good stereo sound from your iPhone, you need to upgrade from the terrible stock earbuds. Apple has changed its earbud design exactly once in the past 11 years, and it was a minor refinement. Sony Xperia phones come with good-sounding Sony earbuds, HTC has Beats, and plenty of third-party vendors offer iPhone-specific earbud upgrades. Given Apple's iPod pedigree, it's about time iPhones sounded great with music playback out of the box.
Thinner used to be a given with cell phones, but lately that's taken a back seat to the desire for new features. The latest iPad, for example, is ever so slightly heavier than the previous one, and not any thinner. We'll gladly trade any possible improvements in the iPhone's thickness for something much more important: Durability. The current iPhone, while beautiful, features glass front and rear panels that are prone to cracking, which is difficult and expensive to repair, and leads to thousands of people (this author included) walking around with cracked panels while waiting for their contracts to expire.
We love the camera on the iPhone 4S. It's still the best one on the market, although several Android phones come very close now, not to mention Nokia's latest Lumia 920. We're greedy, though. While optical zoom is probably still beyond what's possible given current technology, some of the Lumia 920's features, like its floating-module image stabilisation and emphasis on improved low-light performance, would be welcome.
This one is a pretty obvious desire for any phone. The longer the handset can last on the move, the better. Hopefully, Apple has managed to save space inside the new iPhone and put some of this towards fitting in a chunkier battery. And, once again hopefully, any battery performance improvements won’t be completely cancelled out by the new tech on board.
What about you? What do you want to see the new iPhone include? Let us know in the comments section below.
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