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Apple iPhone 5s review: Apple iPhone 5s

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The Good The A7 + M7 one-two processing punch. 64-bit iOS 7. Touch ID. A faster, smarter camera.

The Bad Battery struggles under heavy load. Same old keyboard. Still no NFC.

The Bottom Line The iPhone 5s is Apple's greatest demonstration yet of what total control over both hardware and software can offer. Bursting with potential, it now needs the software to deliver on its promise.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.6 Overall

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This year, Apple is getting back on the "s" upgrade cycle -- its key year for being resoundingly abused for lacking innovation and new ideas. If the outside looks the same, how can Apple have done anything exciting or new? Without form-factor change, a device is fundamentally the same as it was last year. Case closed.

There is no question that fashion and looks play a role in the modern smartphone landscape. This year, Apple has given more than a nod to the fashion stakes with the launch of the colourful iPhone 5c, as well as the shiny, gold model of the iPhone 5s.

However, the iPhone 5s is all about what lies beneath the surface: new processing, new architecture, new sensors and new flashes. All built to drive home Apple's advantage as a focused company that exerts total control over the relationship between hardware and software on its platform.

But does that make it a phone worth upgrading to?

More than skin deep

The iPhone 5s looks almost identical to last year's iPhone 5. Every measurement, every gram, every button and every machined hole is the same. Except two: the upgraded dual-LED flash; and the new home button design. The new flash could be missed if you're not looking closely, but the home button is the dead giveaway that you're holding an iPhone 5s.

Gone is the ever-present round cornered box on the home button. Now it is a clean, round surface surrounded by a glossy metal ring -- the trigger point for Apple's new fingerprint sensor technology, Touch ID.

There's been a lot of confusion already about Touch ID as people's spy thriller fantasies divert discussions away from reality. It is not really what people think of when they hear "fingerprint scanner". It is far more advanced than anything seen before in a consumer device. A touch of the finger is all you need to trigger a reading -- you don't actually depress the button -- and it isn't reading the outer layer of your skin, but rather the living tissue below the surface. No one can cut off your finger to impersonate you, or lift a print off your touchscreen to hack the system.

Your fingerprint data is also stored in a hardware-secured area of the processor, and will never be backed up off the device, so your actual fingerprint data is incredibly well secured. The only information that even Apple's apps will ever see is a "Yes" or "No" response from the secure area to verify that you are who your finger says you are. Read this detailed insight into how secure Apple's "Secure Enclave" really is.

Right now, the only two functions that Touch ID offers are unlocking your phone and triggering iTunes payments. As basic as that is, after just a few days of touching the home button to unlock the iPhone, it feels clumsy to have to go back to a standard passcode on older devices.

A7 + M7 + iOS 7

If someone were selling a computer that offers a 100 per cent performance improvement over last year's model, it would be considered an astonishing feat of engineering. Apple has done just that with the new A7 processor, becoming the first company to release a 64-bit mobile processor. Apple claims that it has up to two times the performance over last year's A6 processor in the iPhone 5, as well as twice the graphics performance.

The A7 also supports OpenGL ES version 3.0, the latest in mobile graphics standards supported across all mobile platforms except Windows Phone. Other phones supporting this to date include the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Sony Xperia Z and the new Nexus 7 tablet.

iOS 7 has also made the leap to 64-bit to take full advantage of the new hardware. It seamlessly supports 32-bit to ensure that all existing apps run and to continue to support older iPhone hardware. Apple has rewritten all of its own core app offerings to support 64-bit to give everyone something that takes full advantage at launch.

Visually, iOS 7 is a big departure from iOS 6. A fresh style palette and layering effects give iOS a very new feel. As much as the software becomes available to all iPhone users from the iPhone 4 onwards, it is hard to separate the new hardware from the iOS 7 update. The software aims to deliver tangible benefits to those owning the new hardware in order to bring the potential to life as soon as possible.

While the raw power of the A7 combines well with the re-engineered iOS 7 for a very snappy experience, it may just be the new M7 motion co-processor that steals the show in the months ahead. The M7 constantly watches the gyroscope, compass and accelerometer to give useful information to apps, as well as to guide performance management on the main A7 processor. While the main processor has always been able to watch these motion tools, the M7 does this job at a much lower power burden, saving battery life and allowing for all-day logging of motion data for use in a new class of fitness apps that could easily parallel what devices like Fitbit and Jawbone Up have been doing in recent years.

If we were living in Bartertown, the M7 is Master to the A7's Blaster.

Some of the M7's smartest work is focused on telling the A7 what connectivity and network tasks to drop based on how the device is moving. Moving so fast that you must be in a vehicle? Tell the A7 to stop trying to offer new Wi-Fi networks for you to join. Sitting so still that you're probably sleeping? Tell the A7 to reduce network pings and conserve power until morning.

Apple hasn't added any room for battery capacity, and has only increased overall performance. Every smart power-saving measure will be very welcome.

System performance

While we have had no chance to run apps that have been tailored to the new hardware, the overall performance of the iPhone 5s feels very slick and snappy. The new layering effects give a sense of depth to the home screen without a hint of lag or performance concern. Current high-end games like Infinity Blade II, Epoch, Shadowgun and Sky Gamblers all run beautifully on the iPhone 5s.

Infinity Blade developers held court at the iPhone 5s launch event, and spoke of the incredible power they saw in this new hardware, pushing some performance up to five times more than the previous generation. But for our purposes in this review, it is all projection and possibility. Until we see new apps being launched that specifically target the new hardware's 64-bit potential and the support for OpenGL ES 3.0, we are discussing what is yet to come.

Thankfully, a few benchmarks help point to some tangible leaps forward in general browser and graphics performance. The results show that Apple has definitely pushed the iPhone 5s well beyond the smartphones that have come before it.

SunSpider 1.0.1: JavaScript performance test (ms)

  • iPhone 5s
  • iPhone 5c
  • iPhone 5
  • HTC One
  • Samsung Galaxy S4
  • Nokia Lumia 1020

(Shorter bar equals better performance)

GFXBench: 2.5 Egypt HD off-screen test (frames per second)

  • iPhone 5s
  • iPhone 5c
  • iPhone 5
  • HTC One
  • Samsung Galaxy S4

(Longer bar equals better performance. Lumia 1020 excluded -- no OpenGL support)

GFXBench: 2.7 T-Rex HD off-screen test (frames per second)

  • iPhone 5s
  • iPhone 5c
  • iPhone 5
  • HTC One
  • Samsung Galaxy S4

(Longer bar equals better performance. Lumia 1020 excluded -- no OpenGL support)

These results show a huge leap forward, with the A7 chip compared to many of the leading competitors that we currently have access to. The SunSpider result shows unparalleled performance in a smartphone, and is comfortably twice as better as last year's iPhone. After a search for SunSpider results from other hardware in recent years, we actually find the iPhone 5s achieving results akin to a Sandy Bridge Core i3 Mobile processor -- a laptop processor that's not even two years old.

The results are just as clear for graphics performance. These GFXBench tests are OpenGL ES 2.0 tests, not 3.0. On the older test, the iPhone 5s performs incredibly smoothly, while in the newer 2.7 test, the iPhone 5s is the only device to perform at what would be considered a playable framerate in what is meant to be something of a torture test.


Of all the new features, it is the camera that is the best "day one" demonstration of Apple's effort to get hardware and software really working together in greater harmony than ever before. The new camera delivers a mix of speed and finesse out of the box to deliver a greatly improved experience over the iPhone 5.

Apple's new sensor features a slightly wider lens than the iPhone 5, plus a bigger 8-megapixel sensor with larger pixels. Apple claims that 33 per cent more light is reaching the sensor than in the iPhone 5.

Burst shooting is the first big win for iPhone photographers, with 10 frames per second shooting just by holding your finger on the shoot button. A burst-shot sequence is kept as a batched object for you to choose favourites to keep and then easily delete en masse. The camera software will also try to recommend the best shots from the burst to make your choices as easy as possible.

You also have two new features while shooting video. Firstly, you can pinch for up to 3x zoom while you are shooting your 1080p videos. The quality remains crisp as the iPhone crops in on the camera sensor rather than digitally zooming the whole image. Secondly, there is a new Slow Mo video option that shoots 720p at 120 frames per second. On review, you can immediately trim your start and end points, and then choose where a quarter-speed slow-motion sequence will play in the middle of the scene. You need to export the video specifically to maintain the slow-motion effect off the iPhone, but it is a fun and simple trick that is great fun with pets and kids.

The True Tone dual-LED flash is another great example of where hardware and software are being very closely married in the iPhone 5s. The new flash features a cool and warm component light. As you take a picture that requires flash, iOS 7 detects white-balance settings as normal, but also chooses a flash colour from a range of over 1000 warmth variations to try to compensate and capture a balanced shot that pays particular attention to capturing realistic skin tones.

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

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