iPhone 5 review: Finally, the iPhone we've always wanted

I took pictures outdoors and in, and the biggest differences I could appreciate were the awesome new panorama mode and the even faster picture-taking. One of these two features can be acquired on the iPhone 4S via an iOS 6 update. The other amounts to a bump up from the iPhone 4S camera.

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Panorama mode is part of iOS 6's new feature upgrades; iPhone 4S owners will get it as part of their iOS update. It knits together a 360-degree wide image by having you simply hold the iPhone in portrait mode and turn slowly. The app guided me through the process. Panorama modes are in other camera apps in the App Store, but Apple's take on it is more refined, easier to use, and takes excellent photos with few weird artifacts in the ones I took. It's a nice added feature, and I started using it all the time. Compared with apps I've used before that have panoramic modes, the new panorama is a breeze.

One of my first panorama photos. CNET

The new iSight camera takes pictures faster than the iPhone 4S, which already took pictures faster than the iPhone 4. Our stopwatch test of both the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 reshoot time was one second on each, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Snaps are lightning-quick when taking multiple shots, and I was able to fire off a bunch at once with quick tapping. It's not true multiburst, but a triple-tap can actually shoot off three photos in a way the 4S can't.

Kids don't always seem happier... CNET

Image stabilization keeps videos feeling less jumpy than on the 4S. It's not perfect, and isn't as good as on a dedicated video camera, but it's perfect when walking or keeping a slow pan from feeling herky-jerky.

There are still rattles and bumps, but slower motions are definitely smoothed out. It can make a casual turn seem like you mounted your phone on a tripod.

Still pictures taken while recording video aren't shot using the normal 8-megapixel Webcam; they're screen captures of the video itself.

Photo taken while shooting a video of my son. Notice the wider format. CNET

The aspect ratio is different, and the image quality's a bit weaker. Still, it's a nice option to have in moments when you're stuck shooting video and find a photo opp.

Lots of detail in my unflattering front-facing self-portrait. CNET

The front-facing camera's been upgraded to 720p, so both still pictures and recorded video look better. I wasn't able to test FaceTime with another iPhone 5 user, so I couldn't see if it helped improve video chat quality. It looks markedly better when recording your own homemade videos of yourself, however. YouTube self-broadcasters, rejoice.

Sarah Tew

Voice quality
Now here's something that should make iPhone sticklers sit up and take notice: the iPhone 5 actually tries to make strides at being a better phone. And it succeeds.

Apple discussed "wideband audio" technology at the iPhone unveiling, but that's carrier-dependent, and right now none of the U.S. carriers of the iPhone 5 will support it. The more important audio improvement comes in the way of a third microphone, which aims to improve voice quality and, in particular, speakerphone quality, adding improved noise cancellation. In my tests, it was a definitive success: callers I reached via speakerphone noticed a crisper, clearer call on the iPhone 5 versus on the iPhone 4S. (The voice sample below is of the iPhone 5 being held to my ear.)

iPhone 5 on AT&T call quality sample Listen now:

I didn't experience any dropped calls over my time testing in the New York area, and based on responses from callers on the other end, it looks like call quality is generally improved via better microphone tech.

According to FCC radiation tests, the iPhone 5 on AT&T has a maximum SAR of 1.18 watts per kilogram for GSM and 3G bands. The maximum LTE SAR also was 1.18 watts per kilogram.

Performance: The A6 processor
Each of the first three years that Apple's made its own ARM-based processors, each successive iPhone has gotten an upgrade: the iPhone 4 had the A4, the iPhone 4S had the dual-core A5, and now the iPhone 5 features a brand-new A6 processor never seen in any other device, along with double the RAM from the 4S, 1GB vs. 512MB.

In previous years, the iPad led the pack with the new processor before the iPhone followed suit later in the year; this happened with the iPad and iPad 2. The third-generation iPad of 2012 had an A5X processor, not an A6: a dual-core CPU and quad-core graphics on a single system-on-a-chip.

The A6 is custom-designed for this iPhone, and has indeterminate features. We know that it's meant to be up to two times as fast as the iPhone 4's A5 processor, and it's also been manufactured to be smaller and more power efficient. Using GeekBench, a popular diagnostic iOS app, the iPhone 5's A6 processor shows up as an "ARM v7" processor at 1.07GHz (faster than the 800MHz A5 processor on the iPhone 4S) with 1,016MB (1GB) of RAM, double what's on the iPhone 4S and matching the RAM on the third-gen iPad.

That doesn't tell the whole story. Giving the iPhone 5 a test running apps and using it with the included set of test apps (iMovie, iPhoto, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, and iCards, plus Maps), everything loaded extremely quickly and ran with a lot of zip. It's hard to measure anecdotally, however, because the iPhone 4S is already zippy enough, even a year later.

While it looks like the new iPhone is indeed faster, and may seem even faster thanks to faster wireless 4G LTE service, switching and launching apps, while even zippier, is sometimes a matter of nearly imperceptible differences. I couldn't see a big difference when opening some apps, but Web or iCloud-connected apps definitely loaded up faster, sometimes by several seconds. The extra RAM should be a huge help when multitasking or swapping between multiple high-powered apps.

Loading up the Camera app took 2 seconds on the iPhone 5 versus 3 on the iPhone 4S, and a full system boot took 20 seconds on the iPhone 5, and 23 seconds on the 4S. That doesn't sound like a lot.

And yet, the few preliminary benchmark tests I ran show great promise. Running the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark test, the iPhone 5 ran twice as fast as the iPhone 4S (1,073 ms vs. 2,238 ms). On GeekBench 2, the iPhone 5 scored 1,461 over three tests, compared with the iPhone 4S, which scored 629. That's 2.3x faster, or 132 percent, a very big leap forward. Using an off-the-App-Store graphics benchmark tool, the 3D Shader results in particular reflected a 2x bump as well. It's hard to test with any games, since there aren't any out yet that take advantage of iOS 6 or the A6 processor. It's also hard to test existing games because they all run with black bars on the top and bottom, and don't take advantage of the iPhone 5's longer and more-pixel-filled display. It looks like the iPhone 5's A6 processor is a bigger leap forward in raw speed from the A5 than the A5 was from the A4.

Feeling the heat
There's one thing I noticed when using the iPhone 5 for long sessions, and I wonder how big a deal it will be: it ran warm, especially when using 4G LTE instead of Wi-Fi. After a 20-minute FaceTime call over LTE, the metal back became very warm, but not hot. Using flyover in the Maps app over LTE produced this, too, but in both cases the warmth didn't seem to affect performance. To some degree, this reminded me of the temporary "heatgate" surrounding the third-gen iPad; it bears some observation, but just be aware you'll probably feel it in certain circumstances. I used the iPhone 5 naked, without a case; would a case interfere with heat dissipation? I have no idea yet, but I'll certainly try out cases when I receive them.

iOS 6
The release of iOS 6 offers recent iPhone owners a whole new suite of features, in many ways making their older iPhone (especially the iPhone 4S) feel like new. The iPhone 5 doesn't have any exclusive features like Siri last year, but it runs them all exceedingly well.

Siri has been updated, and while I didn't enjoy using it very much the first time around on my iPhone 4S, it seems like a better partner this time. First off, it responds more quickly, thanks to faster LTE wireless. Siri also responds to more types of requests.

Siri knows NFL. Screenshot by CNET

I pulled up recommended restaurants, found out who the New York Jets are playing in November, and nearly experimented with posting to Facebook, but stopped due to NDA concerns. Siri now launches apps and plays a more integral role in how the iPhone functions. You'll get these upgrades on the iPhone 4S and third-gen iPad, too.

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Siri has also found its way into the totally new Maps app, which runs beautifully -- at least, visually speaking. Flyovers look like a surreal video game, almost like a real-life SimCity. Overhead maps blend into 3D with a two-finger swipe. It's like an improved Google Earth, and it's shockingly fun to play with. I could see my old apartment in San Diego and browse the whole neighborhood, making out storefronts. The first time you see it, you'll spend hours playing with it.

Going for a ride with Maps. CNET

Is it more useful? Yes, and no. The baked-in turn-by-turn navigation powered by TomTom is a killer app for those who drive, and worked very well during a few initial tests, finally offering what Android phones have had for years. Driving from a Long Island train station to a house half an hour away, the Maps app adjusted on the fly when I chose a slightly different route, while a Siri-like voice guided me at every timely turn.

Screenshot by CNET

The driving directions work well when using other apps, too: a pop-up banner on the top shows the next turn along with spoken reminders, and the whole Maps navigation package replaces the lock screen image when the phone's lying idle for a while, so there's no lapse in service. You can find restaurants and local stores, and immediately see the Yelp ratings and reviews, something that wasn't possible on the Google-driven Apple Maps app.

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But there are many absences. Google Street View is gone, because this isn't an app powered by Google anymore. Flyovers take the place of Street View to some degree, but flyovers are only available in large cities, and not all of them. Mumbai was flat. So were parts of the San Fernando Valley above Los Angeles, and parts of the outer boroughs of New York City. You can get directions for driving or walking, but public transit directions are gone. Click on the bus-shaped icon, and you'll be redirected to a list of apps that offer you public transit information, which will link out and give you public transit information you need: but this is an inelegant solution at best.

And, Google's built-in Maps search was far more robust than the new Yelp-driven one. "Mac repair" brings up the famous Tekserve blocks away from the office on my iPhone 4S with iOS 5, but not on the iPhone 5's iOS 6 Maps app. Certain transit and map information seems to be completely inaccurate . Apple has promised it will improve Apple Maps, but the functionality for both search and regional listings pales in comparison to the AAA-quality of Google Maps. If the new features of Maps had been built into the older Maps, everything would have been perfect. Odds are, you'll own a couple of maps apps and swap back and forth or wait for a standalone Google Maps app , at least until these problems are fixed. Right now, Maps feels like an app that's still in beta, and that could make many Maps-reliant people uncomfortable until the bugs are ironed out.

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Passbook, Apple's take on the virtual wallet, wasn't live yet when I tested the iPhone 5, but we've given it a spin since and begun testing its functions. It promises to do what other apps already do, but in a baked-in, centralized way, and via specific Passbook-formatted files that can be added automatically to the app's virtual wallet. It's location-aware, with the idea that relevant coupons or tickets will present themselves when you reach the appropriate place. Check out Josh Lowensohn's first experiences with PassBook (on an iPhone 4S) at a baseball game.

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One thing Passbook -- and the iPhone 5- - lacks is NFC, or near-field communications. This wireless tech has shown up on many other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3, and even PCs and laptops as of late. It's a close-range way of transmitting data, from personal files to credit card information at a store. I thought NFC might arrive on the iPhone 5 along with Passbook, but it didn't. Apple tends to wait on new tech, launching front-facing cameras, 4G LTE, and even 3G after many other phones. Apple also likes to develop its own way of attacking a common problem (such as FaceTime for video chat). It's a shame that the full potential of a wallet-iPhone couldn't happen now, but it's not tech the average person would care about. Without killer apps or a network of merchants supporting it, NFC would just be technology without teeth. Samsung already uses S Beam to transfer data between NFC devices, but odds are slim that NFC would emerge on the iPhone anyway if it wasn't built into Apple's entire family of Macs and iOS devices, too.

There are plenty of other features and improvements to iOS 6: Do Not Disturb call-management tools, Facebook integration, redesigned App and iTunes Stores, more-seamless iCloud integration for music playback via iTunes Match, and shared Photo Streams, to name a few. I tried out a shared Photo Stream via a test iPad outfitted with iOS 6 sent by Apple, and it's a logical and fun way to directly share updated photos to family members without having to keep posting or e-mailing. Selected photos popped up automatically onto my iPhone. You could even use this idea in an iPad acting as a digital photo frame, such as for grandparents who want to keep up on the kids.

For more on iOS 6, read our full CNET review.

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Battery
Here was my concern (and, I'm sure, yours): in a phone that's thinner, lighter, and now has 4G LTE, how exactly will that battery hold up? LTE tends to be a power hog, but the iPhone 5 is set to deliver respectable battery life, even if it's not quite the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx. Apple promises 8 hours of 3G talk time, 8 hours of 3G browsing, 8 hours of LTE browsing, 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, 10 hours of video playback, 40 hours of music playback, and 225 hours of standby time with the iPhone 5, which sounds, on paper, about the same as what we got with the iPhone 4S.

Based on my week of using the AT&T Phone 5, results were very promising. The phone's battery lasted roughly the whole day each day, unplugging around 8 a.m. and engaging in a mix of calling, Web surfing, video playback, downloading, game playing, FaceTime calling over Wi-Fi and LTE, and even a little 4G LTE hot spot use via my MacBook Air. I unplugged the phone at about 7:30 a.m. one day, and it lasted until around 11 p.m. Another day, I unplugged at 7:30 a.m. and the phone lasted until nearly midnight. The battery life percentage tended to parallel the battery life of my iPhone 4S most of the day, while using the iPhone 5 a little more.

Over a series of three follow-up formal battery-life runs, the iPhone 5 lasted through 8.9 hours of continuous video playback. Apple claims up to 10 hours.

The talk time battery life of both AT&T and Verizon iPhone 5 were also tested: here are the results, compared with other major Android phones and the iPhone 4S.

Phones tested Talk time (in hours)
AT&T iPhone 5 7.37
Verizon iPhone 5 8.44
Sprint iPhone 4S 9.25
LG Intuition 9.95
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx 19.78
Nokia Lumia 900 6.86

For more detail, read CNET's evolving talk time battery drain tests of all three iPhone 5 carriers (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T). Based on these results, the AT&T iPhone 5 averaged 7 hours and 22 minutes, while the Sprint and Verizon models exceeded Apple's 8-hour talk time claim.

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Everything's neweven EarPods and Lightning
I'm going to bunch both the new Lightning connector and Apple's redesigned and packed-in headphones, the EarPods, in one section. They help show that even the smallest of extras on the iPhone that we take for granted -- sync cable and earphones -- have changed this time around, too. The Lightning connector is a miniaturized, reversible charge and sync cable that works with USB 2.0, nothing more. It was designed to be reversible and easy to insert and remove. It is. It was designed to be smaller and take up less space. It's that, too.

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It's not faster, though, despite the "Thunderbolt and Lightning" associations. That eight-pin Lightning port won't work with USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt, or even Micro-USB, an existing standard for tiny charge/sync ports that Apple's willfully disregarded. It's proprietary, like the original 30-pin port on existing iPhones, iPods, and iPads. The Lightning port's easy to use, and easier to plug in, than the 30-pin. However, while other manufacturers have changed port sizes and designs, the iPhone accessory business is enormous. The existing infrastructure of 30-pin cables and docks across the world has suddenly been rendered moot.

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You'll either need new peripherals or a separate $29 30 pin-to-Lightning adapter to use that new port with old docks, and it may be clunky to use in those cases. Also, then keep in mind that video out isn't supported by that adapter: you'll need a Lightning-to-VGA or Lightning-to-HDMI cable instead, which are on their way after the iPhone 5 launch. Many iOS accessories, including the Apple TV, use wireless streaming instead of physical connectors. Objectively, I support the idea of a smaller connector for smaller devices (the new iPods have Lightning, too). But, Apple could have sweetened the deal by at least offering faster sync speeds, or a free 30-pin adapter. At least the USB power plug is the same, so you can use spare ones you might have lying around.

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Apple's newly designed $29 EarPods have been reviewed by CNET; they're thrown in with the iPhone 5, too. They're pleasant upgrades to the old, uncomfortable Apple earbuds, and no more expensive, unlike Apple's $79 foray into higher-end in-ear earphones. They're better than before, and nice for freebies, but nothing that would seriously replace enthusiast earphones.

Conclusion: Who should buy the iPhone 5?
If you were to travel in time from the year 2007 and see the new phone, what would you think? It looks a lot like the first one, but nearly every part has undergone change except for the Home button, and so have its specs. For a counter-example, look at the 2008 MacBook Pro compared with the 2012 version (non Retina). The exterior's the same, but the internals have all been improved.

This is the perfection of a form in progress, not a reinvention of a form. This is the reboot.

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Of course, consumers are not always out to achieve perfection in form. They want big reasons to upgrade. There are some here, no doubt -- big ones. But there isn't a single "magic thing" like FaceTime on the iPhone 4, or the experience of using Maps on the first iPhone...or, even Siri on the iPhone 4S, which wasn't magical for everyone. (It's better now.) Apple seems to be saying, "Hey, remember that iPhone you love? It still has everything you love, but better."

Now the time comes to step back and evaluate the whole elephant that is the iPhone 5, rather than hyper-examine each one of its parts. It's hard to find a single part of the iPhone that hasn't been rewritten, redesigned, retooled. It's an impressive attention to detail, but it amounts to a rewriting or a heavy revision. The funny thing is, most technology fans want to see great first drafts, not polishes. Most everyday consumers want to see exactly the opposite.

The bottom line is, we said last year that the two big missing parts of the iPhone were 4G LTE and a larger screen. The iPhone 5 has them, plus a new processor, plus a new design, plus iOS 6, plus a lot more. It's the best iPhone that's been made. Yes, it's playing catch-up on a few features, but that's always been the case with the iPhone. If you couldn't see that before, then you weren't paying attention.

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The iPhone 5, had it been revealed last year, would have felt like the future. This year, after more than a year of anticipation, it feels expected, unsurprising. That doesn't mean it isn't excellent. To get 4G LTE and a larger screen, plus what seems so far like equivalent-or-better battery life, into an even lighter new phone is a big achievement. In a mission-critical device, you want polish and refinement, not big, bold experimentation. This is a phone, not an amusement park ride.

Sure, I feel frustrations with the general lack of surprise the iPhone 5 seems to emit. Part of that's due to the endless rumors and leaks of the new iPhone, which turned out to be correct. Part of that's due to a mobile computing industry that's moving fast, and has many players. Apple's just one of them. I wanted faster connections speeds to justify the new Lightning dock connector. I wanted NFC-like technology to magically work with Passbook. I wanted a smarter, clever new pull-down Notifications screen or dock to take advantage of the new, longer screen. I wanted something I hadn't thought of, but that would suddenly seem indispensable.

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Other phones seem to be trying to lead the pack with new ideas, while Apple takes a more conservative path with the well-designed iPhone. Some wonder what the future of phones will be. Has the iPhone lost its edge? There are plenty of competitors now that offer what the iPhone has, and maybe even more, depending on if you value NFC, extra-large screens, or pressure-sensitive styli. I can't tell you whether the iPhone beats all Android devices. It'll never be what many Android phones are right now, for better and sometimes for worse.

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I can say that, if you choose iOS, this is the phone to get. It'll feel like part of a unified family: the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 are one continuous swoop of design, a three-step path that feels for once like a complete line rather than an archaeological timeline of iPhone Evolution. The near future of phones may involve new wireless technologies and plenty of exciting companion peripherals, but the shape of the phone itself feels ready to settle in for a spell, like laptops. That's what happens when you find a successful solution to a problem. The iPhone 5 is approaching perfection of a form, not a solution to a problem that isn't there.

If you own an iPhone 4, upgrade to the iPhone 5. Even if you own an iPhone 4S, give it a long look and decide if you'd like 4G LTE, or if you even have LTE service in your area.

Living with the iPhone 5 for a week, I forgot about its large screen. I forgot how thin it was. I forgot about the camera improvements. Sometimes, I even forgot about 4G LTE, and got confused whether I was currently surfing on Wi-Fi or not. The iPhone settles in, feels natural, doesn't impose. Going back to my iPhone 4S, it feels thicker, heavier, small-screened, but no less impressively designed. Somehow, the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S feel like they can co-exist.

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If you're looking for a show-off gadget, something with gee-whiz bells and whistles, then go somewhere else...except for the fact that people will inevitably want to see the iPhone 5 and grab it out of your hand. But, if you're looking for an excellent, well-conceived phone...well, here it is.

The iPhone 5 goes on sale September 21 from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint in the United States. It will come in black and white, and pricing starts at $199 for the 16GB version, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Sep. 21, 2012
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider AT&T
  • Weight 3.95 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
About The Author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.