Hands-on with the sharp, slim iPhone 5 (pictures)

CNET has pored over Apple's iPhone 5, the long-awaited update that includes 4G LTE, a larger, 4-inch screen, and some new design tweaks. CNET's Scott Stein goes hands-on with the excellent smartphone.

Scott Stein
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Apple's iPhone 5 is dressed to impress

We have to hand it to Apple, the company has a knack for perfecting design that borders on the obsessive. How else could the Cupertino, Calif., company have produced a rebooted iPhone 5 that feels both fresh and familiar?

Happily, the new flagship phone for AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon comes with 4G LTE, which the iPhone 5's predecessors lacked. You can see it strong and clear on this model for AT&T.

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Capacities and price

Need a refresher? Starting September 21, the iPhone 5 will cost $199 for the 16GB version, $299 for the 32GB model, and $399 for the 64GB handset -- that's a steady price across all carriers.
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Height advantage

The new iPhone 5 may have a larger, 4-inch screen, but Apple gave its latest iPhone a height bump as well. Here, the shorter iPhone 4S' 3.5-inch screen looks like a pipsqueak next to the iPhone 5's.
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No glass, no mess

The phone's dorsal side is sleek and gorgeous, especially the white model I reviewed. Gone is the glass backing that had a tendency to shatter, replaced instead by a metal back, mostly. The top and bottom panes still earn a glass covering for that premium sheen.
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Push some buttons

Here's a good, clear view of the angled sides, a premium design detail. As with previous models, the aluminum buttons control volume and can silence the phone entirely.
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Camera module

The iPhone 5's lightly updated iSight camera module contains the 8-megapixel lens and an LED flash. Inside, the software enables dynamic low lighting, image stabilizing in the video mode, and the ability to take still shots while shooting video (previously an Android-only trick).
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Slimmer and lighter

The iPhone 5's slimmer build measures 0.3 inch thick and 3.9 ounces on the scale, making it both leaner and lighter than any other iPhone, and a top contender for thin, light smartphones against its rivals.
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Sleep and wake

The iPhone 5's sparse top contains only the sleep/wake button, moving the headset jack of the iPhone 4S to the bottom of the phone.
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In the hand

In the hand, the iPhone 5 feels smooth, thin, feather-light, and comfortable.
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Camera in action

Apple's brand-new panorama mode works like a charm, knitting together a 360-degree wide image when you hold the iPhone in portrait mode. It's much more refined than other third-party apps I've tried.
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New 3D maps

3D mapping is new to Apple's improved, and now proprietary, Maps app. Sailing over the streets and buildings is fun, at least during my trial week, and the facades below reminded me of a real-life SimCity video game. Google Street View is gone, though, now that Apple divorced itself from Google's mapping service. I won't lie, it will be missed for smaller cities, since flyovers only take place in urban centers.
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Searching in Maps

iOS 6's new Yelp-powered search tool for Maps isn't as accurate as Google's built-in Maps search was, finding only Starbucks coffee shops, but not the independent stand across the street.
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Putting the processor to the test

Apple's faster A6 processor and sharp Retina Display make gameplay a blast, especially on the larger, wider screen.
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Video playback

The iPhone 5's new 16:9 aspect ratio was designed with consuming TV episodes, video clips, and movies in mind, without any awkward letterbox formatting across the top.
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Screen versus screen

Viewing videos on the iPhone 5 is a far better experience than on the iPhone 4S. Here, an HD episode of "Planet Earth" fills the screen. On the iPhone 4S (below) the image shrank even more because of the letterboxing effect.

This is also a good photo for seeing the iPhone 5's front-facing FaceTime camera rearing its cyclopean eye above the speaker.

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Passbook virtual wallet

You won't be able to pay by tapping your iPhone 5 to anything (unless you tack on your own NFC sticker), but the iPhone 5 does have Passbook, Apple's take on the virtual wallet. It wasn't yet live for in-depth testing ahead of the official iPhone 5 launch, but it will store your loyalty card information and other files created with the Passbook file-type by compatible apps. It's location-aware, with the idea that relevant coupons or tickets will present themselves when you reach the appropriate destination.
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Camera experience

Apple managed to improve on its already-excellent 8-megapixel camera, which is known for crisp lines; bright, balanced color; and excellent, automatic macro and low-light adjustments.
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Photo moments

New iCards software lets you turn photos into postcards, but it isn't free. Still, being able to slyly announce a new addition to the family this way has its advantages.
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Sizing up the competition

The iPhone 5 (center) is still small compared with other, larger phones, including the Nokia Lumia 900 (left) with its 4.3-inch screen, and the Samsung Galaxy S3 (right) with its 4.8-inch display.
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EarPods, phone home

Guess what else comes along in the box? Apple's new EarPods, a new earphone design three years in the making.
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Living with the iPhone 5

During my week with the iPhone 5, I forgot about all the specs and simply used the phone. Apple's effort proved itself time and again to make the iPhone 5 an all-around excellent device.
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It's sized to fit into your pocket, along with your wallet, and it's similarly sized to your passport.
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Sharp, but understated

With the iPhone 5, Apple has proven once again that it excels at creating thoughtful devices that are well-conceived inside and out.
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Built for life

For many, Apple's iPhone 5 will find a natural home among the rest of your stuff. It isn't the flashiest of phones, and it may not have every bell and whistle of every rival, but the iPhone 5 is a world-class device that fits into your day-to-day rhythms. It certainly fit into mine.

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