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Here's why the iPhone 5 is the best gaming phone

Best gaming phone? Maybe even best gaming handheld. All the iPhone 5's improvements may not trump the Vita and 3DS' hardware yet, but it's getting awfully close.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Back before the iPhone 5 was a known quantity, back before we even knew it was definitely going to have a larger screen, the iPhone was already a great gaming handheld. Millions of people know that. Gamers may hate to admit it, because the iPhone lacks physical buttons. It doesn't matter.

What the iPhone did to mobile gaming has reverberated across the industry, forcing the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita into catch-up mode, battling for second and third place. Free-to-play and the very concept of redownloadable gaming apps -- not to mention the rebirth of indie development -- can all be traced to Apple's App Store and this little handheld device.

That's not to say the iPhone doesn't have a few issues. Its lack of physical buttons and that smaller screen began to feel cramped compared with the latest handhelds from Nintendo and Sony. Physical buttons or no, the screen of many iPhone games can become riddled with virtual, cluttered button dashboards. Some elegant games bypass this, but many don't.

How does the iPhone 5 compare as a gaming handheld? It's the best Apple's ever had, but it may be the best any phone maker's ever made, too.

Galaxy on Fire 2 HD on an iPhone 5 (top) and iPhone 4S. Sarah Tew/CNET

Screen: size and shape
The iPhone 5 has a big thing going for it: a larger, longer screen. Sure, it's not Android big. However, it's the length that matters. That 16:9 new screen finally matches the aspect ratio of an HDTV, and that means that games in landscape mode finally look right.

FIFA 13 on the iPhone 5. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

It also means that your thumbs do, indeed, have more room. When playing games like FIFA 13 and Galaxy on Fire 2, both of which use a lot of onscreen buttons, those controls get pushed off more to the sides, leaving a bigger chunk of screen real estate uncluttered. It's unnerving at first; if you've played a lot of iPhone games like I have, your thumbs will freak out at the extra room. You won't have a clear sense of where the edges are.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But, once you get used to it, the controls seem even more instinctive. In FIFA 13, I found myself making shots and passing efficiently, even without physical buttons to feel for. That might be because the edges of the screen are pushed out, making it harder for your thumbs to accidentally slide off and hit off-screen.

Galaxy on Fire 2 had similar advantages. The extra room in the middle that isn't obstructed by your fingers isn't as massive as you'd think, but that extra half-inch or so amounts to a more normal-feeling field of view in virtual button-happy games.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For more-minimal interfaces like in the game Lili, the impact's even stronger. Other games, like platformers or endless runners, offer more visibility (see Jetpack Joyride, above).

The iPhone 5's 4-inch screen isn't as large as the screen on the PlayStation Vita (5 inches), but it finally feels like a real gaming handheld versus a phone you're playing games on. It's not as big as most typical Android phones, either, but it's more compact to hold.

Spelltower on the iPhone 5 (left) and iPhone 4S. Sarah Tew/CNET

Going vertical
Vertically, the iPhone 5 isn't quite as ideal for games. Titles like Spelltower now have more rows of tiles, but one-handed games are a little harder to play with only a thumb; spanning the iPhone 5's screen is possible, but it's not quite as easy as it was before. I don't think the extra screen height makes a huge difference in vertical games, unless you're playing something like Tetris.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Still, adding a row or two of extra letter tiles in Spelltower or residential floors in Tiny Tower (above) isn't anything to sneeze at. Certain games will find clever ways of taking advantage of an extra-long vertical screen; others will just use it as a way of horning in extra banner ads.

What do I think this means? I expect a lot more iPhone 5 games in landscape mode, taking full advantage of the extra space for virtual buttons or expanded screen view.

Graphics, speed
That's just screen size: obviously, the faster A6 processor and graphics soup up the load time and graphic polish on games, too. It's hard to judge how games perform thus far, but titles that seemed to push the limits of the iPhone 4S have no problem whatsoever on the iPhone 5. FIFA 13 is far smoother on the 5. I'm looking forward to the next generation of iPhone games that take further advantage of the graphics possibilities.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lili is one of the few games specifically timed to the release of the iPhone 5; it stands as one of the showcase graphical experiences right now, alongside FIFA 13, which performs better but isn't quite as easy to appreciate from a casual distance. Games load faster by a matter of a couple of seconds, and resuming a game left open on the app dock happens more seamlessly than on my iPhone 4S.

Sarah Tew

Better grip, lighter device
Were previous iPhones too hand-cramping in landscape mode? Is a longer, lighter iPhone a better handheld gaming experience comfort-wise? I think this is hard to tell, but the longer iPhone 5 definitely keeps your fingers from crowding the device as much as they did previously. The reduced weight and thickness make for a more compact hand feel, and I preferred it over the iPhone 4 and 4S in two-handed landscape-mode gaming.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There is one caveat: games that aren't iPhone 5-optimized still work reasonably well, but the pillarboxing that occurs on the sides (the black bars) in landscape mode makes searching for controls a little more difficult, especially if you've been adjusting to your longer-screened iPhone over a period of weeks. Seen above, Infinity Blade II (which still has black bars). It's something that's not hard to adjust to, and most games will be iPhone 5-optimized sooner than later.

A superior online experience
Of course, the best part of the iPhone-as-game-console remains its social connectivity. Both its always-on design and the wide variety of online social networks the iPhone 5 connects to (Facebook, Game Center, OpenFeint, others). Game Center may be largely an afterthought, but if you're a socially-networked mobile gamer, you're making your home on the iPhone. The library of titles and sheer selection is staggering.

That massive App Store
Android has lots of games, and many developers are piling on. It still can't touch the breadth and depth of what the App Store offers iOS users, especially in terms of games. Ever since Infinity Blade, there are a growing number of "graphics showcase" titles that continue to push the frontier. Meanwhile, plenty of cheap, compelling indie games are available every week. It can get numbing to keep track of, and the App Store doesn't help much on the discovery front. Then again, the price of admission is often so low that it's not much of a risk to just buy a game and see how it is. iPhone 5-optimized games are growing at a steady rate, although there isn't a clear search filter to find them. Still, you can easily make the argument that iPhone games are the new frontier for handheld games, no matter what quality titles emerge on the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS.

James Martin/CNET

The new iPod Touch
The iPhone 5 isn't the only iOS device that has a larger screen. The fifth-generation iPod Touch, available in October, has the same extended display, but it's a Frankenstein-esque combination of the iPhone 4S and 5 internally, with an A5 instead of an A6 processor. The clean design and hand strap could be a plus for lots of people, but the types of games that emerge on the new Touch may not be quite as impressive, graphically speaking, because of the different processor. Starting at $299 for a 32GB model, it's also not any less expensive than a subsidized iPhone 5.

Ever since I bought an iPad, the amount of iPhone gaming I've done has settled down to a few casual puzzlers, mainly because of the smaller screen. The new iPhone makes enough important adjustments that I've swung back again. And I may finally be more accepting of virtual buttons, even though I still wish there was a universal control pad case.

For some iPhone 5 gaming recommendations, check out Jason Parker's picks.