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Roundup of iPhone 5S reviews: Apple got it right

The iPhone 5S will hit shelves tomorrow, and naturally enough, the first reviews have been rolling in. We’ll have our own evaluation ready for you very shortly, but we thought it would be an interesting exercise to round up the various thoughts being expressed so far – and those sentiments are unilaterally positive. Unlike the iPhone 5 launch, which was badly overshadowed by the Apple Maps debacle, the iPhone 5S has no such problems. General coverage of everything from the new camera to iOS 7 is positive.

The issues that people were concerned might be gimmicky, like the new fingerprint sensor, are receiving high praise. The camera, with its dual flash LED technology, is noted as taking better low light photos than its predecessor.

As for the relative strength of the upgrade, David Pogue over at the New York Times writes in his review that the 5S is one of the few smartphones that’ll keep you delighted over two years of your contract. AllThingsDigital echoes that it’s a big step up for anyone who doesn’t already own an iPhone 5, but says that it may not be a huge case for upgrading if you’re already on that device. Full reviews and coverage of iOS 7 is less a focus than the overall phone, but there don’t seem to be any obvious design flaws or issues the way there were a year ago. Daring Fireball confirms the positive sentiments.

Relative performance and 64-bit

If you’re curious about performance, Anandtech has the best coverage of any site that’s released a review thus far. There’s a great deal of information there, including performance data for the CPU, GPU, 64-bit evaluations, and battery life. To hit the highlights first, before the mea culpa – battery life is on par with the iPhone 5 when browsing over 4G LTE, but over an hour worse when running on Wi-Fi (10.2 hours versus 8.97 hours). In its most power-hungry state, the iPhone 5S takes a 12 per cent battery life hit, even though its battery is actually around 12 per cent larger than its predecessor. Cellular, video, and wireless capabilities are all largely unchanged.

So let’s talk about the 64-bit/32-bit transition. Last week, I voiced my opinion that this shift was mere marketing fluff, but a great number of people swore that thanks to various advances, the iPhone 5S would offer twice the performance in 64-bit mode versus 32-bit mode.

Who was right, and who was wrong? All of us, it turns out.

Many of the performance benefits that people claimed were a product of the 32-bit-to-64-bit conversion are actually the result of a superior CPU architecture. The new chip, codenamed Cyclone, has 20 per cent lower latency to main memory compared to the old Swift core. The L1 data and instruction caches are twice the size – 64K, up from 32K. Memory bandwidth in 32-bit mode is increased by 6 to 58 per cent depending on the operation. The new chip is 42 per cent faster in integer code and 67 per cent faster in FPU code.

It’s surprising to see Apple leveraging a new architecture this aggressive, but not impossibly so. The A7′s Cyclone processor is clearly a well-balanced piece of work. But the point I wanted to make that got lost within my 64-bit story is that huge performance jumps across a CPU generation don’t necessarily have anything to do with whether or not the chip is 32-bit or 64-bit. So how much does that 64-bit jump matter?

Excluding the order-of-magnitude leaps delivered by hardware AES blocks, the new chip is 245 per cent faster in SHA-1 cryptographic testing. In more mainstream tests based on file compression, JPG handling, PNG manipulation, and other various mathematical tests, the gain ranges from 25 per cent slower to 28 per cent faster. The floating point gains are stronger – none of the Geekbench tests go backwards, and the performance ranges from 0 per cent (no change) to 195 per cent for DGEMM (double precision matrix multiply). DGEMM, it should be noted, is the sort of function that we’d expect to run much faster on the 64-bit chip thanks to the additional registers and NEON support.

Anandtech’s figures point to 64-bit being a definite plus for the phone, particularly once certain functions are fully optimised. Clearly, the phone does pick up performance from 64-bit, even though it’s got just 1GB of total system memory. At the same time, it’s important to note that the gain is often modest. If you buy the A7, buy it for the 32-bit performance, and look to 64-bit mode to provide a longer-term boost as applications transition to the new model.

Is the 5S enough?

The general opinion coming back from reviewers is that the 5S is a huge leap forward over the iPhone 5, with a better camera, better price point, far better performance in certain areas, and reasonable battery life. The fingerprint sensor works well (reports on the M7 motion sensor note its existence, but objectively reviewing such a low-level piece of hardware is difficult).

If the market punishes Apple for this launch, it’s not going to be because of any shortcoming with the actual iPhone 5S, but because Apple failed to reinvent the entire market with a Jobsian “One more thing.” The downsides to the Apple 5S come down to lacking 802.11ac and LTE-A – fringe features, in both cases.

The iPhone 5S is a damned good phone. Whether or not it’s good enough to jolt you into upgrading is going to depend on what device you currently own. Benchmarks indicate that my own 4S is thoroughly outclassed. Will that drive more actual sales? I don’t know. The truth is, while my 3G felt ridiculously slow by 2010, the 4S doesn’t today. That’s partly because I live so far out in the sticks, I’m stuck on 2G, and there’s little point upgrading to a 4G phone, period. But it also underlines the fact that for a lot of people, a two-year-old phone is humming along just fine.

Whether or not the iPhone 5S is balm to Wall Street’s fretting over Apple’s stock price, the device is fabulous on its own merits. If you’ve been eyeing one, it’s worth the investment.

For more on the iPhone 5S before we get our own full review published (which will be very soon), check out our hands-on with the 5S, and our article on the best features of the new flagship iPhone. You might also want to take a look at our Apple iPhone 5S versus iPhone 5 spec comparison.

Image Credit: Anandtech