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iPhone 5S hands-on: September 20 release date, 3 colors, new specs

We dish out details, photos, and videos of Apple's hotly anticipated next-generation iPhone, which comes with that fingerprint scanner, three color choices, and an A7 chip.

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CUPERTINO, Calif. -- Apple pulled back the curtain on its buzzy iPhone 5 successor at a Tuesday launch event held here at the company's headquarters. Physically, the gold, "space gray," or white aluminum iPhone 5S closely resembles the iPhone before it (bye-bye, basic black), but Apple has bulked up its flagship smartphone with a fingerprint scanner, a faster 64-bit A7 processor, and high-end camera features. What the 5S doesn't have, though, is a larger screen: it's exactly the same as last year's iPhone 5, and Apple's other new iPhone, the 5C.

The iPhone 5S costs the same on contract as the iPhone 5 did at launch: $199 for the 16GB version, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB. Protective cases that Apple made specifically for the device will cost $39 each, and you had better believe there will be a flurry of third-party cases.

Along with the cheaper, riotously colored iPhone 5C ($99 for 16GB for a two-year contract), the iPhone 5S goes on sale September 20 in various countries like the US, UK, China, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and Singapore. Both phones will come to 100 countries and 270 carriers in December.

Fingerprint scanner
The optional fingerprint scanner rescues Apple's reputation as a smartphone maker with cutting-edge features that actually influence how people use their phones. The new scanner, called the Touch ID sensor, is integrated into the home button and adds some classy materials with its sapphire crystal topper and "stainless-steel detection ring." Now you tap to activate your phone, instead of pressing the button (but the button still depresses for normal navigation actions.

Touch ID scans subepidermal skin layers, Apple says, and has "360-degree readability," meaning it should be able to recognize your fingerprint regardless of orientation.

In addition to the Touch ID sensor doubling as your security key instead of a four-key password, you can also purchase apps and other iTunes content with a tap of your finger. Fingerprint information is never available to other apps, Apple says, nor will it be stored in the cloud.

As for guest profiles, yes, you can store details for multiple fingers -- yours and someone else's.

In classic Apple style, Touch ID is easy to set up as you tap and circle your finger to capture multiple fingerprint angles. In fact, setup is a bit like a video game that collects more prints the more you tap. After that, you scan your fingerprint and voila, you're in. The entire setup process takes a minute or less. Log-in is as quick as clicking.

How did it feel during a brief hands-on session after Apple's event? Surprisingly easy and fast. We were able to have Touch ID scan our fingerprint after about a dozen or so tap-clicks. After the process is done, the scan happens instantaneously: it feels just like clicking a home button. The scan becomes unnoticeable. There is a little adjustment, though, to getting used to how the button now works capacitively and as a click button.

If you don't want to use the fingerprint scanner, you don't have to. There's still the option to use the four-digit PIN password or no password at all. The benefit? No longer having to enter your iTunes ID in order to make purchases.

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Specs-a-palooza
Hardware design stays the course with identical dimensions and the same chamfered edges as the iPhone (that means the 45-degree angles on the corners). The "space gray" design with the silver and black colors has a look that feels like a cross between the iPhone 5 and the 4/4S' silver-and-black banded design, which is to say that it looks very cool and familiar. It actually looks more distinctive than the all-black iPhone 5, and should be more scratch-resistant (we knew more than a few people who had the all-black previously and collected scuffs).

The gold is pale and shimmery, just like champagne. It isn't an offensive shade by any means. The white and silver version looks just like last year's model.

Apple's $39 leather iPhone cases make the 5S look almost 5C-like from a distance, but there are plenty of other cases the 5S should be compatible with: after all, it's the same exact shape as the 5.

The iPhone 5S has the same 4-inch screen as the iPhone 5, and Apple's Retina Display, which has a 1,136x640-pixel resolution and a pixel density of 326 ppi. (This isn't the highest around, but Apple maintains that beyond this so-called sweet-spot saturation level, higher pixel density ceases to matter.)

Here's something new: the iPhone 5S will have the first 64-bit chip in a mobile phone, but will be backward-compatible with 32-bit apps. Under the hood, Apple's A7 processor promises to power the iPhone 5S with 56 times the graphics performance of the very first iPhone, and about 40 times its CPU muscle.

All about Apple's event

On the gaming front, the iPhone 5S features OpenGL ES 3.0, which has the potential to make this phone the technically best-performing in the smartphone world. (CNET mobile gamer Eric Franklin will love sizing this one up.)

New to the iPhone 5S is the M7 motion coprocessor, which joins the A7 chip in processing. Specifically, the M7 chip keeps tabs on the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass data. At the end of the day, that makes it possible for wearables like fitness bands and other accessories to tap into that data faster and more efficiently. It's a fascinating idea, but was only mentioned briefly during Apple's event. Keep an eye on this M7 processor: if any chip ever makes it into a future iWatch, it could be this one.

Battery life is a big issue in the smartphone world, and Apple remains coy with actual milliamp hour capacity. Apple takes the iPhone 5S to 10 hours of talk time over 3G (but what about LTE, Apple?!), 10 hours of LTE browsing, and 10 hours of video. You also get 10.4 days (250 hours) in standby mode, a full day longer than on the iPhone 5 (225 hours).

Once again, the iPhone is without NFC, which makes it the only major platform to exclude the short-range protocol. Apple has stubbornly used workaround features like the wallet and perhaps this new Touch ID scanner to circumvent NFC's specific brand of device-to-device communication.

Camera and video
When it comes to camera territory, Apple has traditionally been a gold standard, highly consistent in all scenarios without fussing with controls. This has been slipping with competitors' improved cameras in rival phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, Nokia Lumia 925, and especially the Nokia Lumia 1020 (and its 41-megapixel camera).

Here, Apple once again challenges the field with a lot of built-in logic that makes for automatic adjustments of everything from white balance to the color temperature of the new, dual-tone LED flash.

In addition, Apple gives its iPhone 5S a five-element lens that Apple designed in-house. Its sensor size is 15 percent larger than before, and it packs in a f/2.2 aperture. The result? More light for theoretically better pictures.

You won't find more megapixels in this version of the iSight camera, which means images top out at 8 megapixels. However, you'll find an all-new burst mode that snares snaps at a rate of 10 frames per second when you hold your finger down on the shutter. Burst mode is very fast, and the iPhone 5S automatically picks the best of the bunch, nesting the rest in a sort of digital subfolder. A subtle gray dot designates the best one, but you can easily scan these and pick your own to save.

You can also take shots that span a 28-megapixel panorama. Apple will now automatically adjust exposure as you move, which is a nice touch. There's auto image stabilization as well. Read even more about the iPhone 5S camera here.

iPhone 5S

Yep, the iPhone 5S comes in gold.

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The iPhone 5S once again ups the ante with 1080p HD recording for the front-facing camera. The rear captures video at the usual 30fps as well as 120fps for slow-motion video (as do the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.) In the app, slow-mo can be selected for various parts of the clip you shot by sliding little markers, much like editing a video clip in iMovie.

It's hard to tell camera quality in a brief hands-on, but the 5S burst mode is speedy, much more so than the iPhone 5's, and the autopicking of "best shots" in bundled photo collections within the app should avoid a sensation of filling your Camera Roll with identical retakes.

In many ways, Apple's camera functions are still in catch-up mode, with Apple just now getting around to features like burst capture. However, Apple's strength is in bringing consistently great photos to the mass market, and the new baked-in camera features seem to integrate quite nicely with iOS 7's new software.

Operating system
Calling it "the most forward-thinking phone anyone's ever made," Apple ships this new iPhone with iOS 7 software inside, which Apple previewed earlier this summer. A brighter, more colorful interface is one major cosmetic enhancement. A Control Center you can call up from any screen for one-touch settings, and new camera apps are more substantial features.

Outlook
The iPhone 5S is a little same old, same old when it comes to the design and features, which isn't going to give flagging-but-hopeful supporters much to get excited about when it comes to the phone's looks -- that is, unless they've been clamoring for a champagne-gold phone all along. (That being said, actually, "space gray" might be our favorite new color and name in an Apple product.)

In other ways, Apple's fingerprint scanner does add a shot of technical intrigue that we'll need to take a closer look at to see if it's more gimmick than game-changer. If Touch ID ends up being a standard that app developers can tap into to make purchases easier and log-ins more self-contained, it could be a wonderful time-saver...and something that could find its way into the rest of Apple's product line.

How good the camera and A7 processor are, really, remains to be seen. The real question in our minds is this: will more people pick the 5S or the 5C, or another phone entirely? It looks like Apple is using this year to refine peripheral technology around the iPhone rather than heading in a bold new direction. That said, if Touch ID makes the iPhone 5S more secure, it'll be no small feature. We'll also be keeping an eye on the M7 chip: Apple might be making a play for iOS health-tracking apps and gear to beat competitors to market, or, failing that, to just plain beat them.

How large a leap the iPhone 5S is over last year's 5 remains to be seen. Will it be a bigger leap forward than the iPhone 4S was over the 4? We don't know yet, but that new home button's pretty nice.

Note: Also check out the latest on the iPhone 5C, and all of today's Apple news.

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