Life with an iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 has been out for a month now, and I've been carrying it around as my primary phone. With the obvious and well-documented exception of the new Maps application, the iPhone 5 has certainly met my expectations.

It's a solid, very thin smartphone with excellent performance. While the user experience hasn't changed dramatically from the iPhone 4S, most of the incremental changes, like the longer screen and the faster processor, do add up to a nice improvement.

Software

Initially, I migrated to iOS 6 on an iPhone 4S and I've found it's pretty much the same on an iPhone 5. In particular, I really like the changes to the Notifications screen, accessible by swiping down on the home screen. It now collects a lot more information – weather, calendar events, stocks, app updates – in a single place and lets you post directly to Facebook or Twitter. To me, this seemingly minor change has been the most useful of the iOS 6 upgrades.

Siri has certainly improved, though I often find it's faster and more accurate to search myself.

On the other hand, as I’ve already noted, the Maps application has a long way to go. I tried it a few times but was disappointed. I found myself lost at a suburban cul-de-sac when the application assured me I was at a restaurant in a shopping centre.

You can, however, use Google Maps via the browser, or download some good third-party maps and transit applications, but these aren't integrated into the other applications. I haven't done a thorough investigation of the alternatives but I’ve found Waze to be decent enough lately. Apple has apologised for the problems and I'm hoping for improvements soon, but implementing them seems to be harder than Apple had anticipated.

In addition, Wi-Fi connectivity seems a bit less stable than on previous releases and I know others who have had the same experience. It's nothing I can test because it seems to come and go, but it just feels slightly less consistent. It's somewhat annoying that Apple removed the YouTube application, but it's easy enough to download the app (although I wish it used the new bigger screen).

Passbook, which organises things like boarding passes and tickets, is a great idea but I haven't used it much, in part because there is limited support so far. I expect that will improve.

I continue to like many of the minor features, such as integrated search, which is absent on most Android phones (and subject to patent litigation). Applications, such as the Good Technology messaging environment, don't run as consistently in the background as on Android, but they seem to use less battery.

Hardware

On the hardware front, there's a lot to like. The iPhone 5 is surprisingly thin and light, and while the new features don't sound a whole lot different to those of other phones, it just seems a bit easier to carry.

The longer screen gives a bit more real estate when you're browsing a web page, although even bigger screens on Android phones like the Galaxy S III give you even more room.

This isn't a big deal for me, but the new 4in screen is just large enough that I can't quite navigate the whole screen with a single hand. (I could pretty much do this on the older 3.5in iPhone displays.) For people with larger hands, the iPhone 5 is probably easier to operate with a single hand than a larger Android phone. The bigger screen is nice in a lot of applications, and most have already been adapted for the larger size.

Of course, the iPhone 5 comes with LTE as well, which should be a great boon in terms of surfing speeds for those who get on board with EE’s 4G LTE service when it launches at the end of the month (in major cities, that is). Tests over in the US have shown that compared with HSPA+ on the iPhone 4S, LTE on the iPhone 5 is much faster, and it should be over here, too.

I have been using the new camera a bit, with quite pleasing results. It's great to be able to snap a picture while shooting a video, and I have found the new panorama feature to be impressive. The iPhone 5 isn't unique in these respects (and it lacks a few features like burst mode) but overall, the pictures I've taken have been of a surprisingly good quality. Others have complained about a "purple flare" effect, but it hasn't been an issue for me.

I have mostly focused on personal experiences here. Of course, many others have conducted battery life and performance tests – see ITProPortal’s iPhone 5 review here – but my own subjective impressions are that the handset is quite fast and has enough battery life to survive the day.

For iPhone 4 and 4S users, the big change will be speed – and faster surfing if you can get on EE’s LTE network – plus the larger screen is nice, but the actual experience is pretty similar.

Compared with high-end Android phones, the iPhone 5 has a smaller screen but similar performance, and better battery life for the weight. (You can get Android phones with larger batteries, but they are heavier; I assume there will also be external battery packs for the iPhone 5 shortly).

I still find iOS to be the easiest of the mobile phone operating systems, but the gap between it, Android, and Windows Phone is significantly narrowing. Apple's more controlled approach to applications means it's less open but more consistent and probably a bit more secure.

In general, I've found the Google Now feature on Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) to be a bit more useful to me than Siri, but neither is exactly compelling yet. Many Android phones have near-field communications (NFC) these days; Apple left that out of the iPhone. Some people will like the larger screens available on the top-of-the-line Android phones; others will like having a smaller phone.

Every smartphone has trade-offs and the iPhone 5 is no exception. Still, Apple's latest smartphone offers great speed and impressive functionality in a well-built design that is extremely easy, thin, and light. It's not perfect, but it's certainly a winner.

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.