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Apple iPhone 5S review

MobileReviews
9/10
by Sascha Segan, 23 Sep 2013Reviews
Apple iPhone 5S review
Best Buy

The iPhone 5S is a tiny phone with a lot of room to grow. It's amazing how a 4in, 112 gram smartphone is now considered small, but that's the world we live in. Underneath the diminutive hood, though, lies a fearsome level of power. It's what's below the surface, not what's on the outside, that wins the iPhone 5S our Best Buy award.

The secret is that, more than any iPhone since the iPhone 3G (when Apple's App Store was introduced), it's a platform rather than a product. Three of this phone's key advances, the A7 processor, M7 motion coprocessor, and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, are being used less now than I suspect they will in the future.

That makes the 5S the best bet for anyone who wants a future-proof, forward-looking phone that runs an unbeatable array of apps.

Design

At first glance, it's tough to tell the 5S and the iPhone 5 apart. At 58.6 x 7.6 x 123.8mm (WxDxH) and 112 grams, it's the same size and weight. The materials are very similar, too: Glass front, aluminium edge, metal-and-glass back.

All the buttons are in the same place, so you can use iPhone 5 cases with the 5S, as long as the Home button is uncovered, and the camera cut-out is large enough to accommodate the new dual LED flash.

It looks like the glass will be just as breakable here, so you'll probably want to cover the phone up. The image below shows the rear of the iPhone 5S (on the left) next to the iPhone 5, to give you a better idea of how the two handsets compare visually.

The 4in, 1,136 x 640 resolution 326-pixel-per-inch Retina display is now one of the more disappointing aspects of the iPhone experience. It's needle sharp, but the 5S panel is exactly the same as last year's model, when most competitors are ranging between 4.5in and 5in. I'm no fan of huge handsets, but as more people use their smartphones as their primary portals to the Internet, there's room to make that window a bit bigger while still keeping it single-hand friendly (for example, the US-only Moto X manages this feat).

The other physical changes from 5 to the 5S are pretty subtle. The little square in the middle of the Home button is gone, because the button is now the Touch ID fingerprint sensor (see below for a pic of the iPhone 5’s home button next to the 5S). I found that using the sensor created a little bit of a smudge in the middle of the button, which is the first time I've seen a fingerprint smudge fit with a phone's design. On the back of the phone, the little round flash is now a longer oval.

This creates a dilemma for 5S owners, and it's part of why the gold colour is in such high demand: People who paid for a new phone want it to look like they have a new phone. Our test phone was space grey, which is a bit different from the black iPhone 5, but it might not be enough to satisfy those looking for an easily discernible difference. They're going to have to wait for the gold model, which is harder to get, but is attractively low-key and not as gaudy as you might imagine.

Wireless and call quality

We tested the iPhone 5S against the iPhone 5C (the image below shows the rear of those two handsets back to back), along with the iPhone 5, and the Samsung Galaxy S4. In a series of speed tests, the iPhone 5S generally hit around the same speeds as these other smartphones in terms of LTE performance.

In our office building's basement, we made test calls and ran data speed tests with the iPhone 5, 5C, 5S, the LG G2, and the Samsung Galaxy S4. All the phones showed one circle or bar of 2G coverage. The Galaxy S4 had the least trouble connecting calls, followed by the two newer iPhones, then the iPhone 5, and lastly the LG G2.

Sound quality is good with the 5S, but not great, as is typical with iPhones. The earpiece is loud enough, and there was a bit of sidetone, but conversations were marked by harsh sibilance, and there's no way to tune the audio like you can on the Galaxy S4. Transmissions, on the other hand, sounded great on the other end of the calls thanks to excellent noise cancellation, and the relatively powerful bottom-ported speakerphone. The iPhone 5S, like previous iPhones, had no problem connecting to a Bluetooth headset and activating the Siri voice assistant.

The 5S comes in five models, of which two are on sale in Europe, supporting 4G LTE on the 2600MHz, 2100MHz, 1900MHz, 1800MHz, 900MHz, 850MHz, and 800MHz bands (see this article for more details on the various 5S models and network support). You also get Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, just like on the iPhone 5 – the two wireless buzzwords missing are 802.11ac and NFC.

The 5S uses Apple's new Lightning connector, so if you're moving up from an iPhone 4 or 4S, you'll need to upgrade your accessories as well. Apple includes its surprisingly impressive EarPods in the box.

We're currently testing battery life, but so far, it looks to be similar to the iPhone 5's talk time at just about 10 hours. That's shorter than leading Android-powered smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, but the iPhone 5 has a smaller screen, which demands less power than 5in displays do.

Fingerprint sensor

The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is a perfect example of Apple innovation: The company took a technology that previously existed, but sort of didn't work and never caught on, and made it easy and mainstream. It's starting small, but I suspect Touch ID is going to be the most important and most heavily emulated feature on this phone.

The first thing you need to know: It works simply and reliably. You can use up to five fingers (and yes, they can be from different people.) You wiggle your finger around on the sensor for a while so it can capture an image. Then, when your phone is asleep, you can just touch the Home button to wake it up. There's not that much more to say, which is great. During testing, I found it worked with different fingers in different orientations without any problems.

I never used a passcode on my phone before, but I found that with Touch ID, I started to think about security. The difference between having to make multiple taps to enter a passcode and a single touch-and-hold motion to unlock your phone is huge.

The sensor seems secure enough; your fingerprint data never leaves the phone, as it's stored locally on the A7 chip. It is never shared, backed up, or transmitted anywhere.

Right now, the sensor only unlocks the phone and enters your iTunes password for purchases. Though Apple won't say so, it's pretty obvious to me that the next step will be to integrate it into Safari, and offer a third-party API that would function like a LastPass-type system for all of your passwords across the web.

Before you freak out about security, that API probably wouldn't be able to touch the fingerprint data itself; it would basically say "run a fingerprint check and return yes or no, please." Also, Apple has not actually done this. But I suspect it will, and so I think Touch ID could be a really big deal.

Performance

Along with the Touch ID sensor, the other major underutilised advance in the 5S is the new A7 processor. Simply put, it's a beast. If you want the most technical detail possible, then check out AnandTech’s breakdown. I'll do some quick translation into English here.

The A7 is a dual-core processor running at 1.3GHz per core, but that doesn't tell the real story. The A7 uses a new, more efficient instruction set, a larger cache, and wider registers. It can push more data through its pipe at once. The result is a dramatic improvement in benchmark performance, even compared to the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor running at 2.27GHz.

On the cross-platform Geekbench 3 benchmark, the 5S more than doubled the iPhone 5's performance and beat the Snapdragon 800-packing LG G2 on integer, floating-point, and memory bandwidth tests. On web tests, Apple's highly optimised Safari bowser also comes into play; the iPhone 5S did better at both Browsermark and Sunspider than any Android device running Chrome, even tablets.

Very few apps are designed to take advantage of the A7 right now, and most iPhone apps are designed to function well on the iPhone 5 and slower devices. So it's going to be hard to find apps where the difference is obvious; even Apple could only come up with a handful.

In one of them, Autodesk's Pixlr Express Plus, the iPhone 5S was 50 per cent faster than the iPhone 5 at applying filters to images, smoothing a picture in 2 seconds rather than 3. Trimming and preparing a video for email in the Photos app took 9 seconds here compared to 16.4 seconds on the iPhone 5.

The A7's advantages are also literally cramped by the relatively small 4in, 1,136 x 640 screen. A gorgeous new game like Infinity Blade III simply has less to show on the small panel than it would on larger competing phones.

I really suspect that the A7's power will blossom on the next round of iPads, both in terms of productivity and gaming. The chip may be more than a phone this size needs.

Then there’s the new M7 motion coprocessor, which handles sensor input so that the A7 can take some naps and save battery life. The battery life effect you'd see here would occur when, say, you're using fitness gadgets like the Nike+ Fuelband, so we'll have to look into that more at a later date.

iOS 7

I won't go into much detail on iOS 7. We have a full review, where it earns 4.5 stars – but that review doesn't address the big green robotic elephant in the room, though, so I'll do that here.

Android is superior when it comes to user customisability and offering a wide range of hardware. iOS still has the edge on consistent APIs and on enabling third-party developers to make money, though, which means that many popular apps still come to iOS first, or indeed are iOS exclusives.

For example, much-loved kids' app developer Toca Boca makes 20 iOS apps, while only two are in the Google Play store. And as for Electronic Arts, it has 60 iPhone apps and 16 Android apps. Android exclusives tend to be utilities and hackers' tools. iOS exclusives tend to be wider-appeal games, productivity, and design apps.

Android has better notifications and, in version 4.3, a really useful multi-user mode. iOS has a faster web browser and a better voice assistant. Android lets you arrange your furniture (customise your software), and on the flipside, also lets Samsung, Vodafone, and their ilk arrange your furniture. Apple tells you to trust Jony Ive, which is great for people who don't want to have to arrange their own furniture. We can go back and forth like this all day...

The iOS experience also includes reliable, annual software upgrades and support from Apple's network of brick-and-mortar Apple Stores, which tend to be more helpful than wireless carrier stores.

And the 5S will let you take advantage of all of the 900,000+ third-party apps in Apple's App Store, and you now get the iWork productivity suite (including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), iPhoto, and iMovie for free, in addition to iBooks. iOS 7 prompts you to download them all in one shot the first time you hit the App Store on the phone.

Multimedia and camera

Apple aced multimedia playback a long time ago, and there are no surprises here. If you like the way iPhones handle media, you'll be happy. If you don't like it – say, you want mass storage support – you'll still be dissatisfied. There’s no new media hardware or format support in the 5S.

The 5S still has an 8-megapixel camera, but it's completely new. I'm okay with the 8-megapixel resolution; the 13-megapixel camera phones on the market tend to shoot images which look overly sharp rather than improved. Beyond 8-megapixels, it looks like the next big jump is to super-sensors with lossless digital zoom, like you see in the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020.

Instead of just adding pixels, Apple got smart: It increased the pixel size and aperture to improve low light performance and reduce noise, a trick that HTC performs well in the One handset. The result is brighter images with no loss of clarity.

I took a bunch of test shots indoors and outdoors, in good and low light, with an iPhone 5, a 5S, and a Samsung Galaxy S4. The new sensor on the iPhone 5S improves dynamic range and sharpness. It won't work wonders: Bright sky backgrounds will still wash out without HDR, as they will on every camera phone. But it brings out more shadow detail without brightening up the whole image, and it keeps images clear without over-sharpening effects.

In a test shot of a store awning across the street, the 5S rendered small text razor-sharp while both the iPhone 5 and the S4 – with their smaller pixels – showed fuzz around the edges of letters. In a daylight macro shot, the slightly better dynamic range is visible, with a little more colour detail on a flower petal. The S4, oddly, captured completely different colours in the surrounding leaves.

In an indoors, low light shot, the 5S showed the least noise and over-sharpening effects by far. I'd warn you, though, that on both the iPhone 5 and 5S it is possible to shoot before you get focus lock. That makes for blurry images. Wait until you see the yellow focus square to hit the shutter.

An outdoors night shot also really showed off the camera's advantages. Here, the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 both brightened up the shot, giving it a yellowish cast. The Galaxy S4's image looked soft, and the iPhone 5 was quite noisy. The iPhone 5S night shot was sharper, better balanced, and less blurry.

Apple also replaced its single-LED flash with a dual-LED TrueTone flash that's supposed to fix the colours in flash images (the image below shows the 5S camera, again on the left, next to the iPhone 5's). I had trouble seeing the advantage in our lab tests, though. While the 5S did much better at locking focus in a low light shot than the iPhone 5 did, the powerful flash completely washed out my face. The Galaxy S4, in that case, gave the best skin tone. I saw a similar effect when taking a flash shot of an African-American coworker; while the Galaxy S4 made his skin a rich brown, with the 5S it looked ashen (and the iPhone 5 had trouble getting any sort of focus lock at all).

The camera app adds a 120 frames per second slow-motion video option, and square and panorama modes for photos. You can toggle the flash and HDR, and add one of nine colour filters. That's about it, though. While I don't miss Samsung and LG's many gimmicky photo modes, I'm still peeved that there's no way to shoot photos or videos in anything less than maximum quality. That makes video about 100MB per minute, a pretty hefty load to carry.

The 5S has no trouble recording 1080p videos at 30 frames per second in good light or bad. In low light, though, you may need to tap the screen to reset the focus if you're changing your depth of field mid-capture.

The front-facing camera hasn't changed much from the iPhone 5. It still takes 960 x 1,280 stills and 720p video. In good light, it captures at 30 frames per second; in low light, it dropped to 24 frames per second in my tests.

If you use the slow motion recording mode, there's a built-in editor that lets you easily choose which parts of the video to show in real-time and which parts to show in slow-mo. If you download the video directly to your computer, the whole thing reverts to real time. You have to email, AirDrop, or otherwise transmit it from the gallery app to save it with the slow motion effect.

Verdict

The iPhone 5S isn't the phone for everyone, but it's the best phone for a lot of people. The key, as always, is the combination of Apple's clean design, no-worry interface, still unbeatable selection of apps, and industry-leading customer support. Combine that with the most powerful processor available in a smartphone today, the fastest web browser, and the second-best camera (after the Nokia Lumia 1020, which has other problems), and you have a killer smartphone with the potential to gain features over the next year. Also, it comes in gold.

Of course, the iPhone 5S still lags behind the Android champion Galaxy S4 handset in some ways. The S4 is much more user-configurable (down to the battery and memory), and has a much bigger screen, not to mention a slightly better reception. But it lacks all of those exclusive iOS apps and the potential represented by the A7/M7 CPU combo and the Touch ID sensor.

We can easily recommend the iPhone 5S over the iPhone 5C because of its faster processor and better camera – the extra £80 you’ll pay for the 5S (sim-free) seems well worth it considering what you gain. I suspect that within a year you'll see some apps that demand the A7 for best performance. (Our iPhone 5C review will be coming soon, incidentally).

Finally, if you're an existing iPhone owner, should you upgrade? Apple tends to design its phones so that must-have upgrades occur every two years, and the 5S is no exception. If you have an iPhone 4S, get a 5S immediately. If you have an iPhone 5 – which is now discontinued, by the way – wait until those compelling new apps which demand the A7 processor begin to appear. They'll come, rest assured.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Apple iPhone 5S

Processor

A7 1.3GHz dual-core

Ram

1GB

Memory

16GB / 32GB/ 64GB

Memory expansion

None

Display

4in, 1,136 x 640 pixels

Main camera

8-megapixel

Front camera

1.2-megapixel

NFC

No

Wi-Fi

Yes

GPS

Yes

Battery

1,440 mAh

Size

123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6mm

Weight

112g

OS

iOS 7

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