iPhone 5S review: Same look, small screen, big potential

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.5
  • Design: 8.0
  • Features: 9.0
  • Performance: 9.0

Average User Rating

4.5 stars 12 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The iPhone 5S delivers an improved camera, a nifty fingerprint sensor, and a next-gen CPU and motion-tracking chip. Apple throws in the iWork app suite for free. iOS 7 adds some nice step-ups, too, including AirDrop file transfers and the Android-like Control Center.

The Bad External design is identical to that of the iPhone 5, including a 4-inch screen that looks downright tiny next to Android competitors. For now, the fingerprint sensor only works with Apple apps. The 64-bit A7 processor and M7 motion-tracking chip don't have killer apps yet. iOS 7 differences are potentially jarring for longtime iPhone users.

The Bottom Line The iPhone 5S is not a required upgrade, but it's easily the fastest and most advanced Apple smartphone to date.

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I'm tempted to call the iPhone 5S the iPhone 5P, for "potential." This is Apple's half-step year, a rebuilding year. It's telegraphed by the name itself: adding an "S" versus giving the phone a whole new name. The 5S introduces technologies that could transform the future of iOS as a computing platform, and maybe pave the way for future products in 2014. But it doesn't manifest these changes right off the bat. Its promises haven't come to fruition yet.

Last year's iPhone 5 was the best iPhone we'd ever seen. It met nearly all our wishes and expectations. It added tons of new features. It had LTE. What did Apple do this year as an encore? It added...a few new improvements. Enter the iPhone 5S, which along with the iPhone 5C mark the first time Apple's delivered two new iPhones in one year. But the 5C is really the iPhone 5 in colored plastic. There's really only one new iPhone, and that's the 5S.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We wanted a bigger screen , an improved camera, and better battery life. Apple gave us a fingerprint sensor, an improved camera, and a faster processor. Faster is better, especially when battery life doesn't suffer, but the 5S doesn't feel like a shocking new product.

CNET staff

Apple does this every other year with iPhones -- see the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S. It's a common occurrence in iPads and MacBooks, too: take a familiar form, and repeat. But, in a phone landscape dominated by rapid change, it can feel frustrating, even for a product we loved just 12 months ago. Even iOS 7, Apple's graphically overhauled operating system, feels different but not really all that shocking. Even the new colors -- gold and "space gray" -- are subtler than you realize.

That doesn't mean there aren't changes, but many of them seem like roadwork for the future; a cleverly ingenious under-the-home-button fingerprint sensor, a clearly better camera, majorly upgraded graphics, a motion-tracking M7 coprocessor, and a new A7 processor capable of 64-bit computing are a lot of under-the-hood tweaks. But, after a week of using the iPhone 5S, it's hard to find situations that currently take advantage of these features, except for the fingerprint sensor and camera.

Check back in two months; after new apps emerge, maybe the iPhone 5S will start seeming like a truly new iPhone. But, for now, it's more of refined improvement. The iPhone 5 has gotten better. How much better depends on how fast apps and services can take advantage of the features...or whether we'll be waiting until iOS 8 to see them truly take shape.

Editors' note: Updated September 30, 2013, with expanded M7 fitness-tracking section and hands-on with M7-compatible apps, an additional battery test, and observations on real-use battery after several weeks of use. We will continue to update this review in the coming days, based on subsequent testing. Ratings should be considered tentative, and may evolve as testing continues.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design: Take the iPhone 5, and add gold (or 'space gray')
The iPhone 5 was a somewhat subtle but completely thorough redesign of the iPhone, from screen size to headphone placement. It introduced an aluminum frame, a thinner and lighter build, and came in two colors.

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The 5S is a carbon copy, with some new color variations. You can get last year's white/silver color, or "space gray," which matches black glass and a darker gray anodized aluminum. And, yes, there's gold. But it's not like a prop from Liberace's home: it's mellow gold, more a champagne, or a light bronze. Paired with white glass on the back and front, you might have a hard time noticing the gold in the wild unless it was held in the sun. Of the three colors, I liked gray the best: the metal tones might do a better job hiding scratches, too, a problem I saw pop up on last year's all-black iPhone 5.

iPhone 5 and 5S. Can you tell the difference? CNET staff

A year later, the iPhone 5's design still feels sleek and high-end in the 5S, great in the hand, and more compact than most competitor phones. But, it also has a smaller screen (4 inches) than most of its Android cousins. I love using a more compact phone, but competitors have found a way to make larger-screened 4.7-inch phones with excellent feel, like the Moto X, which has nearly edge-to-edge screen across its face. The iPhone 5S has a lot more bezel framing the display, and I couldn't help wondering if that screen couldn't be just a bit bigger.

CNET staff

A larger screen would have really helped this year: not because the competition has it, but because Apple's newest features and apps would put it to good use. I found editing and appreciating the improved photos and video recording, and even playing games, to be challenging; the better that graphics and camera quality get, the more you need a larger screen to appreciate them.

Configurations
There's no 128GB iPhone this year; you'll have to once again pick between 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, at the same $199/$299/$399 prices. In the US, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon are the three carriers to offer the iPhone 5S under contract; T-Mobile sells the iPhone 5S in an unlocked, contract-free version that costs $649 for 16GB, $749 for 32GB, and $849 for 64GB.

All versions come with the same A7 processor.

CNET staff

Touch ID: The party-trick tech on the 5S
See that little home button down there? It doesn't have a square on it anymore. It's also flat and recessed, not concave. That's practically the only outward-facing indication the iPhone 5S offers to the world, but lurking under the button is the most interesting piece of iPhone tech in quite some time. Unfortunately, it doesn't do as much right now as I wish it could.

"Touch ID" is Apple's fingerprint sensor, a secret sauce of clever scanning technology that amounts to a home button that's now both capacitive and clickable. The fact it does both can be a little disorienting at first, but the clicking is what the home button normally does, while gently touching the sensor activates the fingerprint scan.

CNET staff

Touch ID's simple round button works on a simple press, versus a "swipe" gesture on a lot of previous fingerprint readers. The scanning technology, when it registers your fingerprint, encourages you to press from a variety of angles, so your fingerprint can be read even on its side or on an edge. It's fast: a simple click on the button and the phone unlocks, the scan happening invisibly. Most people won't even know it scanned them, but try another finger and you'll see that it worked.

A few previous smartphones have added fingerprint sensors before, like the Motorola Atrix, but those were more awkward bars that needed finger-swiping. The Touch ID-enabled home button feels invisible; it works with a tap, can recognize your finger from many angles, and feels like it has less of a fail rate than fingerprint sensors I've used on laptops. It's impressive tech. It worked on all my fingers, and even my toe (I was curious).

Its only limitation, really, is how little Apple has employed Touch ID into the iPhone experience at the moment. Scanning your finger takes the place of entering a passcode in most instances, or entering a password every time you purchase something from the App Store or iTunes. But, that's all Touch ID does for now: it doesn't remember your other passwords on various cloud services, or link to your credit card, or pay for movie tickets via Fandango.

In fact, you'd better remember whatever passcode you used to lock your phone, because Touch ID isn't a pure replacement. If you restart your iPhone, or turn it off and on, or don't use it for 48 hours, it'll ask for your passcode again before allowing fingerprint recognition. That's potentially useful as an extra deterrent for would-be fingerprint thieves, but it proved a little quirky over a week of use. I never knew when the 5S might insist I enter my passcode again.

CNET staff

Worried about a kid pressing his finger down over and over and erasing your phone's memory? Never fear. Touch ID cleverly defaults to asking for a passcode after three fingerprint attempts, and after five bad tries, it requires it. Then you still have 10 passcode attempts before any "erase contents after 10 passcode failures" setting you've possibly enabled kicks in.

How much time does it save? A little, especially since this process skips the "swipe to unlock" gesture. You'll also save a few seconds over entering a passcode. But, in terms of convenience, I really only appreciated it during the day, in those little moments when I quickly needed to hop on my phone.

I have a bigger dream for Touch ID, of its fingerprint scan acting as a password replacement for third-party apps or even a way to make payments, or check in to flights. It could be a mobile wallet killer app, and a companion to Apple's somewhat dormant PassBook app that launched with iOS 6. But those extra features won't be coming anytime soon. Apple currently intends Touch ID and your fingerprint -- which gets encrypted as mathematical data, according to Apple, not an image -- to stay on the A7 chip of the iPhone 5S, out of reach of third-party apps or cloud services. That could be good for added security, but it means Touch ID isn't a magic remember-every-password savior or credit card replacement yet.

That being said, I expect Touch ID to make its way onto every Apple device: iPads next, and eventually Macs. Why not? It's easy to use.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Camera
Touch ID may be getting all the headlines lately, but the iPhone 5S' improved camera is probably its biggest selling point. Cameras are no longer afterthoughts on smartphones: they're becoming the most important feature, for many, as they slowly but surely replace point-and-shoot cameras.

If you're getting a new iPhone for its camera, get the 5S. A suite of new and useful upgrades help make the already-good iPhone 5 camera into something even better...but, in a landscape riddled with increasingly impressive phone cameras, the iPhone stands out a little less than before.

Unlike many megapixel-packing smartphones (41-megapixel Lumia 1020, I'm looking at you), the iPhone 5S camera stays at 8 megapixels, the same on paper as last year and even the year before. The sensor, as Apple will proclaim, however, is 15 percent larger: the pixels are physically bigger (1.5 microns), even if there are the same number of them. The camera's aperture is larger (f/2.2). All of these elements add up to better low-light exposure.

CNET staff

Newer A7-driven processing also enables true burst-mode shooting: hold down the shutter button and you'll snag as many shots as you desire. The iPhone 5 could take multiple shots with quick taps, but the iPhone 5S can capture rapid-motion activities like sports events (or, in my household, random baby tricks). Instead of spamming your Camera Roll with identical-looking images, the new iOS 7 camera app cleverly bundles them in a subfolder, and even autopicks what it considers the best shots. This decision is based on image crispness and other factors; sometimes it's on the money, but I also saw it pick a blurry image of my 7-month-old over a sullen but crisp side profile. You can pick your own favorites easily, and delete the rest at the touch of a button.

Nice frog. Scott Stein/CNET

I took a bunch of shots in a ton of conditions, from indoor photos in a zoo's reptile house to still-lifes of flowers and colorful kitchen accessories. Close-up photos show off pretty incredible detail and a shallower depth-of-field effect, which feels more "SLR-like." See this rug picture, for instance.

Close-up of fabric, coming right up. Scott Stein/CNET

Kid photos in lower light conditions were less blurry when magnified. Blurriness is a common problem I've seen on many of my iPhone 5 photos taken in lower light that look good enough on-phone, but don't hold up quite as well via Apple TV on a 59-inch display. These 5S pictures looked a lot better, and more consistently so.

Local garden photo Scott Stein/CNET

Apple credits this to a new image signal processor (ISP) on the iPhone 5S' A7 processor. It does result in quicker autofocus, faster snapshots, and less blur all around. Considering how shaky the average person's hand is when taking casual phone shots, it's a necessary improvement.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple has made a big change to the built-in LED flash, too, doubling its size and creating an intelligent "True Tone" flash that senses the photo environment and serves up the appropriate flash tone from separate white and amber LEDs.

It's a splashy endeavor, but the results do look significantly better, and warmer, than the iPhone 5's flash pics. I avoid flash on my smartphone whenever humanly possible, but this year's improvements may have changed my opinion.

The 1080p video recording also gains a little more digital stabilization, 3x digital zoom thanks to iOS 7, and there's a new Slo-Mo recording mode, which is separately toggled in the camera app. The iPhone records 720p video at 120 frames per second, and applies the slow-motion effect afterward, playing at 30 frames per second.

Play

You can readjust the start and stop points of slow motion with your fingers, much like editing a video clip. It looks great, but the slowed-down footage retains the audio track. You could always edit over it in iMovie (which is a free app, now, anyway). This type of ultrafast recording could earn the iPhone 5S a spot on a skateboarder's helmet or a skydiver's gear in place of the popular GoPro camera.

Now, how different is all of this from competing high-end phones boasting better cameras? The iPhone 5S suffers on physical megapixel count, but its speed/quality ratio are hard to beat. Adding slow-motion recording is gimmicky but works really well, and the improved flash technology is nice to have. But, overall, it's the extra speed and hardware-software-processor integration on the iPhone 5S that produced the best results. The camera is really the iPhone 5S' biggest improvement and feature, even without added megapixels...but it doesn't feel like as dramatic a leap as last year's iPhone 5's camera.

A7 processor: A beast on paper
We're in a pretty great time for mobile phone processors. Much like laptops and PCs a few years ago, impressive year-over-year gains in speed are becoming the norm. The iPhone 5 was more than twice as fast as the iPhone 4S, and true to Apple's claims based on every benchmark we could find, the iPhone 5S and its new A7 processor seem at least twice as fast as the 5 and its A6.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

iPhone 5S (AT&T)
13,858
Motorola Moto X (AT&T)
10,694
Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint)
10,526
HTC One (Sprint)
10,369
iPhone 5C (AT&T)
5,691
iPhone 5 (Sprint)
5,688

Note:

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Linpack Multithread (MFLOPS)

iPhone 5S (AT&T)
1,634.39
HTC One (Sprint)
648.718
Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint)
636.478
iPhone 5C (AT&T)
583.87
iPhone 5 (Sprint)
493.23
Motorola Moto X (AT&T)
293.844

Note:

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Sun Spyder 1.0.1 (ms)

HTC One (Sprint)
1,813.8
Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint)
1,135.4
Motorola Moto X (AT&T)
1,049.1
iPhone 5C (AT&T)
720.5
iPhone 5 (Sprint)
702.1
iPhone 5S (AT&T)
416.6

Note:

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Geekbench 3

iPhone 5S (AT&T)
2561.8
1412.2
Motorola Moto X (AT&T)
1,964
627
Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint)
1,874
686
iPhone 5 (Sprint)
1,296
721
iPhone 5C (AT&T)
1,275.8
707.6
HTC One (Sprint)
1028
644

Legend:

Multicore
Single-core

Note:

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Numbers are great, but what does speed really mean in a phone? Sometimes it's hard to appreciate. Boot times aren't all that much faster between the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C, and iPhone 5 -- 26.3 seconds for the 5S, and 31.7 for the 5C (and anyway, how many times do we even boot our phones?). Games and applications load up quickly and play smoothly, but the iPhone 5 felt the same way last year, and the iPhone 5C still feels pretty fast for everyday phone tasks.

The types of games and applications that can really take advantage of the iPhone 5S and its faster, more graphics-rich A7 processor aren't here yet at the time of this review, but expect them soon. I'm just sensing, perhaps, that there will be a limit as to how much pop you'll truly notice on a 4-inch display.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Sep 20, 2013
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider T-Mobile
  • Weight 4 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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