Hands on with the iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 is the upgrade Apple needed. For all those iPhone 4 owners (and iPhone 3GS owners) who have been waiting for a device raised to a brand new level, now looks like the time to jump. I spent some time with a few iPhone 5 models at Apple's launch event and came away impressed.

Apple isn't messing with success here: The iPhone 5 is distinctly an iPhone. It's iPhone-shaped. It works like an iPhone, running the same iOS 6 that'll be available on 19 September for older models back to the 3GS. But everything's been upgraded.

First, there’s the build. I was never a huge fan of the glass back that the iPhone 4 and 4S sported; it's flashy, but breakable, and the edges are a bit sharp. The new anodised aluminium back has a more durable feel and a much softer look to it, and the bevelled corners are a little softer in the hand.

The volume buttons and lock switch look unchanged, and the SIM slot in the side looks the same, although analyst Michael Gartenberg confirmed on Twitter that the phone uses the new nanoSIM format as opposed to the earlier device's MicroSIM. The headphone jack has moved to the bottom.

The iPhone 5 is slimmer than the 4S at 7.6 millimetres, but of course it feels bigger because it's taller. The 3.5in screen has been replaced by a longer 4in panel. This still isn't a huge screen, so the phone doesn't feel disproportionately large; rather, this feels like the size an iPhone should be, and when you hold an older iPhone in your other hand you laugh a little at the overly small screen.

The most immediate advantage of the bigger screen is simply that you see more of stuff. Holding an iPhone 5 next to a 4S (see the picture above), I was able to glimpse more calendar appointments, more of a map, more of a web page. All the apps that come with the iPhone 5 are designed to use the bigger screen. Older third-party apps need to be reprogrammed; until then, they'll be letterboxed with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

The new A6 chip is a dual-core A15 unit, similar to the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processors that have been popping up in high-end smartphones for a few months. I didn't see anything strain it, but then again you rarely do in these limited demo experiences. I threw it into the new iOS Maps 3D "flyover" map mode and it was perfectly smooth. UI transitions were also very quick.

The camera is still 8 megapixels, but has a new panorama feature. This works very much like the panorama feature on the HTC One series phones: You click Panorama, and then just twirl yourself slowly while following a guide. It worked smoothly in practice as well. I didn't get a chance to really test the phone's LTE connection – it was on Wi-Fi in the hall, and cellular signal in those places is lousy.

Everything's better

So here's the point: It's an iPhone, but everything's better. The screen's better. The build is better. The camera is better. Voice call quality should be better, although I haven't tested it. The Internet connection, with LTE, is much, much better. The processor's better. Everything's gorgeous, rock-solid, and better.

Finally, a word for the Android fans out there, because I'm an Android user myself. There's going to be a lot of online carping that Apple's new features aren't state of the art. The Samsung Galaxy S III has a higher-resolution screen, for instance, and as I’ve already mentioned, HTC's One line did Apple's panorama trick a while ago.

What spec-sheet critics don't get is that it's all about the ecosystem, and most importantly about the App Store. Apple's great looking, curated app selection is still the first stop especially for many high-end game developers, and Apple's combination of music, video, books, and apps is well-established and easy to use.

The iPhone 5 doesn't need to be the highest spec phone in the world. It needs to be a well-built, competitive phone that does everything you expect from an iPhone, but better. It looks like Apple has passed that test easily. I look forward to being able to test a handset and give it the full review treatment soon.

The new iPhone 5 will be available for pre-order from tomorrow, with phones arriving starting 21 September.

If you’re hungry for more coverage of the iPhone 5, then you can check out our extensive Live Blog of yesterday’s launch here – or you could browse some of our comparisons to other high-end phones. We’ve pitted the iPhone 5’s spec against the Nokia Lumia 920, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S III, and also its predecessor the iPhone 4S.