Apple iPhone 5s review: Apple iPhone 5s

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iPhone 5s | iPhone 5 | Lumia 1020 | HTC One | Galaxy S4
(Credit: CBSi)

Download above images in full size:
iPhone 5s | iPhone 5 | Lumia 1020 | HTC One | Galaxy S4
(Credit: CBSi)

In our testing of the new camera, images did an excellent job of capturing well-balanced, realistic colours both in daylight and at night. The images are nicely saturated, a little heavy on the reds, but overall the phone takes a pleasing picture.

The lens produces sharp results, particularly in the centre of the frame. Towards the edges, sharpness does drop off, which is expected. The slightly wider field of view of the 5s lens compared to the iPhone 5 works twofold, in that you can fit more into each shot, but there is some visible barrel distortion at the edges of the frame.

Automatic white balance (AWB) under indoor and fluorescent lighting is warm, but pleasing. The new iPhone's AWB excels in outdoor situations, because, unlike some of the other smartphone cameras tested, it doesn't get confused with mixed light sources and colour casts. Overall, the AWB results of the 5s are cooler than the iPhone 5 when shooting outdoors, but this gives a much more accurate and true-to-life result.

The wider maximum aperture lens (f/2.2 on the 5s compared to f/2.4 on the 5) means the camera is able to use a faster shutter speed and lower ISO to achieve the same exposure as the older model. Therefore, photos in low light turn out sharper, as there is less chance of the shutter being left open long enough to capture hand shake. There is also less visible noise, because the camera is capturing images at a lower sensitivity.

That said, there is some evidence of over-processing at lower ISO levels, but it does not affect the usability of images and makes them look sharp.

Compared to the older model, the iPhone 5s camera doesn't appear to have tweaked its exposure metering mode much, but the AWB processing and lens sharpness has improved substantially.

In the review period, we have struggled to create a scene where we get a good sense of what the True Tone flash is really doing, but we will follow up soon with some more detailed comparisons between the iPhone 5s and other top camera smartphones.

Network performance

In the long-term evolution (LTE) era, it seems that any supporting device is limited more by network than by its own performance. We tested the iPhone 5s on both Vodafone and Telstra 4G networks in the Sydney CBD, and saw results in the 29Mbps-40Mbps download range and 17-30Mbps upload range.

Battery

Compared to many of the larger phones in the smartphone market today, the iPhone struggles to keep up. The larger screen design makes more room for a larger battery, which gives greater battery performance.

As the iPhone 5s maintains the iPhone 5 form factor, the battery can only be the same size inside the frame. With all of the performance improvements, it is admirable that the battery life is on par with last year's iPhone 5, but for some, that will be a disappointment. At its worst, under high loads, the iPhone 5s will definitely only last through the business hours of the day without needing a further charge.

Under less stressful conditions, but still leaving Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on all day, our tests over the last week point to the iPhone 5s lasting 14+ hours.

But this still doesn't tell the whole story. We left the iPhone 5s to sit without a charger overnight on four occasions, again with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi still on, and on average found just 3 per cent to 4 per cent battery life decrease over that six- to eight-hour period. This points to the M7 co-processor stepping in and ensuring that the system reduces power usage steeply.

Over one weekend, we used the iPhone 5s very lightly; a little photography, plus some basic and only very occasional app usage, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth again left on at all times. We charged the iPhone 5s late on Friday afternoon, and the phone lasted on that single charge until late Monday evening.

So while the iPhone 5s may still struggle to keep up with larger devices with larger-capacity batteries on-board when pushed constantly at high load, the introduction of the M7 co-processor is ensuring that the new iPhone makes the most of its downtime to conserve battery life for those times when you really need it.

Serious potential, but potential nonetheless

M7; 64-bit A7; iOS 7; Touch ID: all of these advances are showing us great potential, but it's never a good thing to recommend a product based on potential alone. What if developers never find that next great idea to take full advantage of what this hardware has to offer?

Apple's advantage in any debate over potential, though, is its focus and control. When Apple releases a new iOS upgrade, most devices in the market upgrade quickly. When Apple releases a new iPhone, it is a focused flagship launch that gives developers a single target to shoot for. A new feature is a new feature that every new buyer will have at their disposal.

This isn't said to question Android software fragmentation. Rather, when Samsung launches a new device with new hardware features, it is typically only Samsung that will ever write software to take advantage of the feature -- and as a percentage of all Android devices in the market, it is a small target to aim for. For Apple, every developer has a clear understanding of what new hardware features will become standard across the entire iPhone range of devices within the next two years.

So when we speak of the potential of the M7 for fitness-tracking apps, we can feel confident that we will soon see more apps than just the Nike+ Motion app that was discussed at the launch event. When we speak of the graphics potential of the new A7 hardware, we can feel confident that we will see game developers pushing those limits in the coming months.

Tap, tap, tap?

If there's one glaring omission in iOS, it's the continued lack of an advanced keyboard option. SwiftKey, Swype and friends have had Android and BlackBerry users typing like artists for years now. Apple's continued focus on a 4-inch form factor is not inherently a problem -- it's a question of preference more than objective superiority -- but failing to give users a slicker way to interface with text on this small screen is an issue that feels worse by the minute.

Near-field communication (NFC) is the other ongoing omission, though it has yet to gain much traction with other platforms as a revolutionary payment platform. It has definitely been used smartly for connecting devices for entertainment purposes, particularly by Sony, but Apple hasn't exactly missed the boat on the great payment revolution. On the other hand, Apple may even be actively moving in another direction, with "iBeacon" being another new feature in iOS 7 that aims to use Bluetooth LE for transactions without the need for as much physical contact as NFC demands.

Mobile gamers and iPhotographers

Most iPhone owners are probably upgrading around a two-year contract cycle. If this is your year, upgrading from the iPhone 4S, it's a pretty good year to upgrade. Not only are you shifting up to the 5-series form factor, but you're also getting some very powerful new hardware under the hood, plus the Touch ID system and a great new camera. Enjoy.

If you're mid-cycle and watching along with interest, it was a lot easier to skip the new phone back when you owned an iPhone 4 as you watched the iPhone 4S launch. This year's iPhone has genuinely new features, and iOS 7 really aims to take advantage of many of those features. But in the end, it could be months before some of these features really take root. What you can bank on is that by the time next year's iPhone comes around, these features will have come of age. And those who have the patience will be well rewarded with whatever comes next -- in whatever new form factor Apple may devise.

If there are types of users that will clearly win with the iPhone 5s, it is mobile gamers and iPhotographers.

Gamers will see new games very soon -- Infinity Blade III in a matter of days -- and upgraded versions of existing games will look stunning on this new phone very soon, all good enough to AirPlay to your TV if you want to take your eyes somewhere bigger. If you hate to drop frames and love to show off how good a game can look on your phone, then the iPhone 5s will make you very happy.

If you're an iPhone user who cares deeply about your mobile photography experience, the iPhone 5s is a significant step forward. Burst shooting, True Tone flash and slow-motion video mode are features exclusively available to the new hardware.

There's a chance that we could add "life trackers" to the list once some apps arrive to take advantage of the M7 co-processor. But I wouldn't be throwing away those widgets and wristbands until the right apps launch with the right features, and that might take a little while.

Conclusion

In the competitive landscape, Apple still chooses to march to its own beat. With the iPhone 5s, that beat aims to bring Apple's hardware and software into tighter formation than ever. That union has always been Apple's strength, and it has clearly built a platform that aims to take greater advantage of that in the year, and years, ahead.

If you look beyond the surface, there is a great deal of technical and functional innovation tucked away in the iPhone 5s waiting to be unleashed by some smart iOS developers. Today, we have to stop short of giving an Editor's Choice award, but we feel confident that this new iPhone will prove its potential and reveal itself to have been an important milestone for Apple over the course of the year ahead.

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