Apple iPhone 5S: Hands-on preview

The gold iPhone 5S is the most luxurious mainstream phone on the market, make no mistake. It's practically a Vertu, at a very sub-Vertu price. And to some extent, the 5S is the easier of the two new phones Apple revealed yesterday to get right. After all, Apple isn't doing badly at all with high-end phone buyers and folks in countries like the UK and US where subsidies hide the true cost of smartphones.

Apple just needs to defend a little and extend a little, emphasising how cheap Samsung's highest-end devices feel. Even the expensive Samsung phones feel cheap, Apple says here. The iPhone 5S doesn't feel cheap. What it feels like, of course, is an iPhone 5, kicked up a relatively small notch with the classy silver, gold, and grey metal backs.

The biggest immediately visible difference is that new "Touch ID" fingerprint sensor, which is one of the two biggest advances on the 5S when it comes to opening up new possibilities.

The sensor makes it easier to unlock your phone, sure, but it makes it much easier to buy things from the iTunes store (no thinking while you enter your password), and it opens up a lot of possibilities for secure enterprise applications.

Apple won't allow the fingerprint data to be uploaded or shared with third parties, though, which limits those possibilities – for now.

Because it's Apple, the sensor is ridiculously easy to use – you unlock your phone by pressing down on the home button and letting your finger rest there. It's much, much less fidgety than the swipe-type fingerprint sensors I've used on laptops, for instance. It just works.

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The second possible game-changer is the M7 coprocessor, which collects sensor data without waking the power-hungry A7 chip. Apple has led so far in fitness apps, and this could really help with always-on fitness tracking. The demo units didn't have any apps that use the M7, though, or for that matter apps that even used the A7 heavily.

And here's where I get to a concern about the iPhone 5S: The 4in screen is now officially holding it back. Yeah, sure, the new chip allows for amazingly cinematic graphics, but those visuals are going to look cramped on that little screen. I expect the A7's 64-bit nature and graphics performance to play a much bigger role in the new iPads we're going to see next month, which are, after all, Apple's low-end laptops.

Back to the third spotlighted feature: The new camera, and new camera tricks. The only ones I could really try in the hall were the slow-motion camera – which was more usable than any other slow-mo camera mode I've ever seen because of the live editing – and the burst mode, which was also absolutely terrific. The iPhone has been renowned for its quality camera for a while, and this new iPhone covers a good middle ground between the HTC One's very large pixels and the Samsung Galaxy S4's higher pixel count. It'll take great photos.

Should you buy an iPhone 5S? We'll have to see when we get the phone into the labs for a proper review, but I don't see a compelling reason for iPhone 5 users to jump. It's time for heavy 4S users to upgrade, though, because after three or four months they'll start seeing high-end games that won't run well on their phones. Otherwise, the 5S is a flashy looking phone that takes great photos. That doesn't shift the balance of power in a grand way, but it'll let the 5S gain some ground on similarly priced, but more plasticky Android devices.

For more, check out our coverage of Apple’s iPhone launch event, our iPhone 5S versus iPhone 5 spec comparison, and also our first hands-on video with the iPhone 5S above.