Apple iPhone 5S review: Apple iPhone 5S

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Extremely powerful; Sturdy, luxurious design; iOS 7 software is simple to use and has some handy new additions; Great camera; Fingerprint scanner works well.

The Bad Very expensive; Identical design to iPhone 5 might disappoint those looking to upgrade; No removable battery or expandable storage; Display remains same size and resolution.

The Bottom Line With an identical design to its predecessor, and the same software you can now get on most iPhones, the iPhone 5S doesn't really offer enough to justify upgrading from the iPhone 5. If you're on older iPhones though -- or you're looking to take your first steps into Apple's world -- its astonishing power, excellent camera and fingerprint scanner make it a great option to consider.

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No company has ever been able to rival the amount of feverish excitement in the buildup to a product launch as Apple manages to with its iPhones. As a special treat to dedicated fruit-phone fans, Apple chucked out two brand new models -- the plastic clad iPhone 5C and the flagship iPhone 5S.

The 5S might look the same as its predecessor, but it's packing updated specs all round and comes in an odd gold colour, as well as the original white and a new grey. In true Apple style, it's far from cheap. SIM-free prices start at £549 for the 16GB model, climbing to a princely £709 for the 64GB model.

Those are some undeniably beefy prices, so do the upgrades make it a worthy investment over more wallet-friendly Android phones?

My review sample was kindly provided by Three, which offers the 5S on plans starting from £37 per month. It has a £99 up front cost, but you will get unlimited data. For more contract offers, check out our mobile deals section.

Should I buy the iPhone 5S?

That really depends on what phone you're currently using. If you already own the iPhone 5 then its identical design and software and only marginal upgrades to its camera probably aren't enough to justify it. The processor has seen a huge bump, but in everyday use, you won't notice it -- the iPhone 5 is already a speedy device.

Apple iPhone 5S display
Physically, the iPhone 5S is almost identical to its predecessor.

It's certainly worth considering if you're on a 4S , or even a 4 still. The 5S is skinnier, lighter and has a larger screen. Its speed boost will be much more noticeable, as will the camera improvements. The fingerprint sensor is fun and will shave a few seconds off every time you need to type in your PIN, but it's hardly a deal breaker.

If you're well and truly ensconced in Android land then the new iPhone probably isn't going to tempt you to switch. Its screen size is still physically smaller than the vast majority of top-end Android phones and while some iOS 7 additions have arguably been pulled straight from Android, key features like homescreen widgets are still absent. If you crave the metal chassis of the iPhone, take a look at the HTC One instead.

The iOS 7 software is a great place to start if you're looking to take your first steps into the smart phone world, thanks to its relative simplicity and ease of use. While you'll almost certainly love the phone itself, it's extremely expensive for recent converts. Instead, take a look at the older iPhone 4S , which you can now buy from £349.

Design and build quality

If you were hoping for a radical new design for the iPhone to get you all hot under the collar then you'll be sorely disappointed. Physically, the iPhone 5S is almost identical to its predecessor.

It maintains the same metal design, all-glass front and glass top and bottom sections on the back. The bottom of the phone is still home to the speakers, the Lightning port and the 3.5mm headphone jack. The only physical difference is in its new colours, which now include grey and gold hues. If you want people to know you have splashed out on the latest kit, then gold is the way to go.

Apple iPhone 5S back
Build quality is as high as you'd expect from a top-end smart phone.

It has the same 4-inch display and identical physical proportions, putting to rest the rumours that Apple would be launching a larger display phone. If you were hoping for a larger, more video-friendly screen like the Galaxy S4 , but can't bear to part with Apple's software, this will come as a blow. Its smaller size does make it much more comfortable to hold in one hand -- not to mention easier to slide into tight jeans.

Build quality is every bit as high as you'd expect from a top-end smart phone. There's zero flex in the metal chassis and -- thanks to its sealed, one-piece design -- there are no loose bits or gaps in panelling to cause any concern. It does, however, mean that you can't swap out the battery and there's still no expandable storage on board. The black iPhone 5's paintwork was extremely susceptible to scratches and scuffs, which rather rapidly made it look slightly battered. How the lighter colours stand up to the test of time remain to be seen.

Fingerprint scanner

The physical home button has evidently been lying lazy for too long and so has been given a new duty as a fingerprint scanner. Fingerprint scanners are by no means new -- they've been common on many laptops for years -- but it's the first time we've seen it put to use on a phone. While it might seem like a gimmick, it's actually pretty handy.

After scanning your fingers a few times to learn their pattern, you're able to unlock your phone by simply placing your finger lightly over the home button for a moment. Sure, that saves you only a couple of seconds in typing in your PIN number, but every second counts, right? More helpful however is the ability to use your fingerprint to verify purchases from iTunes, rather than typing in your more complicated Apple password.

Apple iPhone 5S home button
The fingerprint scanner might seem like a gimmick, but it's pretty handy.

Setup was easy and in my testing, I found it worked correctly almost every time I used it. You do have to make sure you use the same finger in the same position that you initially 'taught' the phone, but you can add multiple print patterns for it to learn different fingers, positions or indeed a different person altogether.

It's accurate too. I passed it around multiple people and no one else's fingerprints allowed them to gain access to the phone. For most of you wanting to stop your mates rifling through your photos in the bar, it'll work brilliantly, but it has already been fooled by a group of sneaky hackers . They lifted prints left on a glassy surface, photographed them at high resolution and made a fake finger to fool the sensor. That's probably more effort than your friends will go to to access your photos, but I wouldn't recommend keeping government records on it.

You might rightly be a little concerned about casually handing over your prints to Apple's database. Worry not though -- Apple states that your fingerprints are stored in a secure part of your phone as a code, not as an image of your finger, and it is not backed up to your iCloud accounts as your iTunes password can be. If you're really concerned about it, you don't have to use the fingerprint sensor at all.

Display

With its 4-inch size and 1,136x640-pixel resolution, the iPhone 5S's display hasn't seen any improvement over its predecessor. Sure, that might be a let down to those of you after more impressive specs, but the display was already excellent, so there's no need to get too miserable just yet.

Its resolution results in a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch. While that doesn't match the Full HD clarity of the HTC One's 446ppi, in reality, you won't notice much difference. At a normal viewing distance, you almost certainly won't be able to notice much of a reduction in clarity. Even up close I struggled to differentiate individual pixels.

The physical size of the iPhone and Full HD Android phones is reason for debate. The extra screen space on 5-inch phones like the Galaxy S4 makes watching movies and browsing the Web much more visually appealing. There's a lot more room for on-screen keyboards too -- my thumbs type far more comfortably and faster on larger devices.

Apple iPhone 5S display
The screen is extremely bright and it has rich, yet very natural colour tones.

Of course, it's entirely up to you what size screen you feel is best, but I personally think that a sweet spot of 4.3 to 4.5 inches would be good -- with small bezels, the physical size of the phone needn't be cumbersome. If you're upgrading to a smart phone for the first time, pop into a shop to get a hands-on first to see what's comfortable.

Size aside, the screen is still great. It's extremely bright when you crank it to the max and it has rich, yet very natural colour tones. The Galaxy S4's bold AMOLED display can sometimes look a little oversaturated, but the iPhone's screen, with its crisp whites and deep blacks, avoids this.

iOS 7 software

The iPhone 5S launches with iOS 7 on board as standard. It's Apple's latest version of its mobile operating system and brings the biggest graphical changes we've seen since its inception.

The most striking change to the software is its overall look. The shiny, 3D-effect icons are gone, replaced instead with a flat-looking, extremely colourful interface. There's a lot of transparency involved too, with menus, the keyboard and icon folders showing subtle hints as to what lies behind.

Apple iPhone 5S
The iOS 7 interface maintains the same overall function, but it has a striking new look.

Apple has also ditched the skeuomorphic design -- making software mimic their real-life counterparts. That means the notes app no longer looks like a notebook and the roulette table look of Games Centre is now colourful orbs against a white background. Opinion is generally mixed on whether it looks good, but I can't deny I'm quite keen -- if nothing else, it was definitely time for Apple to give its tired-looking interface a polish.

It's not just about the design though -- iOS 7 brings a host of new features too. As before, swiping down from the top pulls down the notifications panel, but you're now able to swipe up from below the screen to see the Control Centre. This panel allows quick access to brightness, Wi-Fi and various other settings, no longer forcing you to dive into the settings all the time.

Apple iPhone 5S
Swipe down from the top to see the notifications panel, or up from below to see the Control Centre.

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