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Apple iPhone 5 review

Apple
9/10
by Sascha Segan, 24 Sep 2012
Apple iPhone 5 review
Best Buy

The iPhone 5 (priced at £529 sim-free for the 16GB model) is the best iPhone ever. It takes the iPhone's traditional advantages, like the well-designed consistent hardware and interface, amazing apps, and robust retail support, and literally extends them. If you have an older iPhone and you've been wondering whether you should upgrade – then the answer is a clear yes. Everything is better here. The iPhone 5 has a better body, better screen, better camera, better mind. Compared with the iPhone 4S, it's faster, less frustrating, and less fragile. And when stacked up against even older iPhones, there's no comparison.

Physical features

The iPhone 5 ditches the glass-sandwich design that Apple has used for two years, swapping it for a lighter, slimmer quasi-unibody form.

Measuring 58 x 7.6 x 124mm (WxDxH), and weighing 113 grams, it's notably lighter than the last iPhone and one of the slimmest phones on the market.

The front panel is still mostly screen – it’s a 4in, 1,136 x 640 (326 ppi) display as opposed to the old 3.5in, 960 x 640 (also 326 ppi) panel. That makes the whole phone longer, but no wider (see the picture of the iPhone 5 next to the 4S above). As a result, it's very easy for people with small hands and short thumbs to touch every part of the screen without stretching.

I found the new screen to be most important when playing games. Sure, it allows more room for everything – more Facebook updates, more web page text, more calendar entries. But it really shines for games, where I've felt previous iPhones to be almost unbearably cramped and squinty. You're going to be staring at your smartphone's screen a lot, so another 20 per cent or so visible information, with no additional hand fatigue, is an obvious plus point.

The headphone jack has moved down to the bottom of the phone, which is a slight disappointment. It means when you pull your phone out of your pocket by following the headphone cable, it'll always be upside down. The speaker (which produces a decent volume) and the controversial Lightning connector are also on the bottom panel.

The pitch of iPhone owners whining about the new Lightning port has become deafening, mostly because of Apple's blockheaded decision to charge £25 for its Lightning-to-30-pin adapter. While Lightning continues Apple's irritating policy of using non-standard connectors so it can profit from licensing, the 30-pin dock connector was nearly a decade old. It was time to go.

The sides and back of the new iPhone are considerably more handsome than they used to be. The matte black, bevelled edge of the black iPhone we tested blends smoothly into the black anodised aluminium back; relatively subtle glass panels at the top and bottom of the phone cover the invisible antennas.

There's also a snazzy white/silver version. Compared with this nearly unibody design, the 4S looks clunky. The new iPhone looks more durable, too, without that big pane of glass on the back which can potentially be cracked.

Other buttons and controls are where they usually are. The iPhone's raised, separated volume controls have always been a nice feature, as they're very easy to locate blindly.

Reception and phone calls

Dispel all memories of the "death grip." RF reception was excellent in my tests, and the iPhone 5 managed to nail two calls in a weak-signal area where the Galaxy S III couldn't connect. With antennas behind glass panels at the top and bottom of the phone, it's nearly impossible to cover both of them with your hand.

The iPhone 5 isn't the world's best voice phone, but it's good enough. The earpiece is loud enough for most situations, and the sidetone adapts to background noise so you don't end up yelling. Voice quality in quiet areas is well-defined. The noise cancellation isn't nearly as good as the Audience-powered noise cancelling in the Galaxy S III – some background noise leaks through, which can create problems for automated response systems, and the iPhone 5 will clip your voice a bit when it's trying to dampen heavy noise. But my voice was clear and audible over the background noise in test calls. The speakerphone is of thoroughly average volume. Just as with the mouthpiece, it does a decent, but not perfect job, of lowering background noise.

My Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset worked just fine with Siri once I figured out the rhythm; you have to wait a few seconds after pressing the voice dialling button, and then wait for the beep before issuing your command. Music, video, and game audio had no trouble making it over Bluetooth in sync, so this phone should work fine with your Bluetooth headsets and speakers.

3G talk time was even better than Apple promised, at 9 hours and 44 minutes. That's not quite as good as the Galaxy S III, which lasted an hour longer, but it's still impressive.

LTE and Wi-Fi

One of the major additions to the iPhone 5 is 4G LTE support. Of course, right now in the UK, that’s not relevant as there are no 4G networks up and running – yet. So obviously testing the performance of the phone on LTE isn’t possible.

However, EE will have its 4G network up and running soon, so the new iPhone’s LTE support is far from irrelevant to the UK market. EE plans to have a third of the UK covered with its 1800MHz spectrum come the end of 2012.

As for other 4G networks? The UK iPhone 5 is model GSM A1429, which supports three bands: The aforementioned 1800MHz, along with 2100MHz and 850MHz. The latter is, unfortunately, unusable in the UK, and 2100MHz LTE won’t be live in this country any time soon (though it will be available to O2 and Vodafone in the medium to long-term).

The situation is rather messy, to say the least, and you can read up on the full picture in our article “4G LTE on the iPhone 5: A fiasco already?

But to sum up, your only option for LTE this year is EE, so the network effectively has a 4G exclusive on the new iPhone for now. If you go with EE, you can doubtless expect a pretty fast 4G surfing experience.

The new iPhone has also juiced up its Wi-Fi chops considerably. The major boost comes if you have a 5GHz network, which runs on a less crowded band than the older 2.4GHz band.

The difference is striking. On our crowded 2.4GHz office network, the iPhone 5 pulled 9.4Mbps down compared to the 4.8Mbps the iPhone 4S managed, and the Galaxy S III's 4.1Mbps. That’s not bad, but check out the 5GHz results: The iPhone 5 got 23.1Mbps down and the Galaxy S III hit 27.9Mbps. That means if you're syncing your music via Wi-Fi before a run, you'll be out of the house in less than half the time on 5GHz.

AirPlay is another way in which 5GHz comes in handy. Right now, there's no video port or cable for this phone. (Apple says video-out cables are coming soon). If you want to watch videos on a big screen, you have to use AirPlay with an Apple TV, or feed video to your computer with an app such as the AirServer program (which costs £9) for Macs and Windows PCs. AirPlay is dependent on your Wi-Fi speeds. I was able to watch HD video without a problem on a fast 5GHz network, but an HD video paused repeatedly on a 2.4GHz network. If you intend to use AirPlay, this is the only iPhone for you.

A6 processor, iOS 6, and apps

Apple's new A6 processor is a wonder. It isn't an ARM or a Qualcomm design like most other mobile CPUs; it's an ARM-compatible chip designed entirely by Apple. The good news is that the chip is very quick, and in general it’s easily twice as fast as the iPhone 4S according to our benchmarks.

With both phones running iOS 6, the iPhone 5 hit 189,000 in Browsermark, compared to 106,000 for the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5’s Sunspider score of 947 also blew away the 4S which recorded 1780 (lower is better in this case). In Geekbench, the iPhone 5 scored 1640, leaving the 4S plodding along on 639.

The faster processor also means better gaming. The big, heavy, gorgeous Unreal engine-powered game Lili (£2.99) runs very smoothly on the iPhone 5 using the full width of the screen, for example.

Speaking of apps, the top reason to buy an iPhone is the spectacular array of titles in Apple's well-ordered App Store. Coming from Android, I'm still surprised at how many more apps well-known developers pump out for iOS. As a gaming-focused example, Gameloft has 111 apps for iPhones compared to 48 for Android. With an iPhone, there’s no doubting that when it comes to apps, you're a first-class citizen.

There’s one app blip with the iPhone 5, though. I installed 94 existing iOS apps on my test phone. At the time of this review, only 27 of them used the full 4in screen; the other 67 appeared in iPhone 4 format, with black bars above and below them. The bars blended into the black front of the phone so neatly that it just looked like the phone had a smaller screen, but still, you're buying the iPhone 5 for the bigger screen.

The latest version of iOS takes two steps forward and one step back. Overall, we've rated it highly; for more, read our full review of iOS 6.

I want to call out one major flaw, though, because it seriously impacts the phone's use as a GPS. Apple's new Maps app is much less useful than the Google Maps it replaced, and it suffers from an alarming number of weaknesses and inaccuracies. For more details on this, take a look at our article here, but suffice it to say that Maps is a definite iOS 6 low point.

Cameras and multimedia

Apple phones have sported excellent cameras since the iPhone 4, and the iPhone 5's main camera is very, very close in quality to the one on board the 4S. I found it hard to tell the photos apart sometimes. That's fine; they both take sharp 8-megapixel photos with no apparent shutter delay, and capture impressive 1080p video at 29 frames per second indoors and out.

Low light performance is a touch better here than on the 4S, with less noise. Both cameras are somewhat better than the Galaxy S III's, which has slightly lower visual resolution and worse low light and close-up performance. And the iPhone 5 now boasts a panorama mode for easy 360-degree shots.

The bigger change in the iPhone 5 is the front camera, which has been bumped up from a rather pathetic 640 x 480 resolution to a more respectable 1,280 x 960. It lacks the wide-angle aspect of the upcoming HTC 8X, but it now takes adequate, if noisy, self-shots even in low light, and records smooth 720p video at 24 frames per second.

For music and video playback, you're snuggled under the warm and occasionally suffocating blanket of Apple's ecosystem. Yes, you must sync with iTunes, and you'll probably end up buying all of your media from Apple; it's the default, and it's a well-priced and well-stocked store.

The iPhone 5 comes with Apple's new EarPod earbuds (pictured right), which aren't as good as headphones you'd pay for, but are the best free earbuds you'll ever get – see our full review here. I was a bit disappointed to find that my headphone jack created static when I turned the plug in the jack, though.

Verdict

There's been a lot of ink spilled over the notion that the iPhone 5 somehow isn't "revolutionary" or "radical." It isn't. It's familiar, but better. That familiarity is one of the iPhone's strengths, not a weakness.

Yes, the Samsung Galaxy S III has a bigger screen, and the Motorola Razr Maxx has a better battery. The iPhone's poorly kept secret is that the hardware is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a fine phone – a competitive phone. But it's also Genius Bars and the App Store, Siri and iTunes music exclusives, and lots of great games.

iPhone buyers are getting an interface that doesn't vary from device to device, making it easier to share tips, tricks, and experiences between iPhone owners, creating a sense of camaraderie and making everything easier.

Android users (such as myself) like to brag about how the platform has more options: More ways to set up your home screen, more app stores, more form factors. But part of the charm of the iPhone is that fewer options can be easier, and better, providing the options on offer are quality ones – and they are.

Would I want the iPhone to be the world's only phone? Don't be ridiculous. It's right for many people, but not for everyone. The iPhone is better for having competition, and the competition is better for having the iPhone.

The iPhone 5 has weaknesses, certainly on the software front with the new Apple Maps app, and the fact that most third-party apps are letterboxed on the new 4in display. However, on the whole the handset represents an excellent upgrade, being faster, incredibly light, and very nicely built, with improvements all round – from the cameras to the EarPods.

One final note: If you're unsure of which contract deal to go for with a new iPhone 5, then check out our round-up of the best deals.

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