CNET editor Scott Stein got his hands on the new iPhone 5. Read his full editorial iPhone 5 review and rating on CNET.
Editors' note (September 19, 2014): The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are now the flagship phones in Apple's 2014-2015 product line. The 2012 iPhone 5 reviewed here is no longer sold, but the 2013 iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C remain on sale at reduced prices. The 5C is basically the iPhone 5 in a plastic body, but -- as of September 2014 -- is now only sold in an 8GB capacity.
The iPhone 5 is the iPhone we've wanted since 2010, adding long-overdue upgrades like a larger screen and faster 4G LTE in a razor-sharp new design. This is the iPhone, rebooted.
The new design is flat-out lovely, both to look at and to hold, and it's hard to find a single part that hasn't been tweaked from the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 5 is at once completely rebuilt and completely familiar.
I've had the chance to use the iPhone 5 for nearly a week, and have been using it for nearly anything I can think of. Is it as futuristic or as exciting as the iPhone 4 or the original iPhone? No. Does this change the smartphone game? No. Other smartphones beat it on features here and there: if you want a larger screen, go with a Samsung Galaxy S3. If you want better battery life, go with a Droid Razr Maxx.
But, if you want a great, all-around, beautifully engineered smartphone that covers all bases, here it is. Just like the MacBook is to the world of laptops, the new iPhone is one of the top three, if not the best-designed, smartphone around. It's better in all the important ways.
Editors' note: We are continuing to update this review with additional observations and test results. Among the latest additions (October 4, 2012) are the inclusion of 4G LTE speed tests (see "4G LTE: Faster, at last" section); detailed comparisons to camera quality between the iPhone and rival smartphones (see "The camera" section); and detailed battery test results for both video playback and talk time (see "Battery" section).
Look at our review of last year's iPhone 4S, where we said, "Even without 4G and a giant screen, this phone's smart(ass) voice assistant, Siri, the benefits of iOS 5, and its spectacular camera make it a top choice for anyone ready to upgrade."
Well, guess what? Now it has 4G LTE and...well, maybe not a giant screen, but a larger screen. That's not all, though: the already great camera's been subtly improved, speakerphone and noise-canceling quality has been tweaked, and -- as always -- iOS 6 brings a host of other improvements, including baked-in turn-by-turn navigation, a smarter Siri, and Passbook, a location-aware digital wallet app for storing documents like gift cards, boarding passes, and tickets.
The question is: a full year later, is that enough? For me, it is. I don't want much more in my smartphone. Sure, I'd love a new magical technology to sink my teeth into, but not at the expense of being useful. Right now, I'm not sure what that technology would even be.
Like every year in the iPhone's life cycle, a handful of important new features take the spotlight. This time, 4G, screen size, and redesign step to the top.
You've gotten the full rundown already, most likely, on the various ins and outs of this phone, or if you haven't, I'll tell you about them below in greater detail. Here's what I noticed right away, and what made the biggest impression on me.
First off, you're going to be shocked at how light this phone is. It's the lightest iPhone, even though it's longer and has a bigger screen. After a few days with it, the iPhone 4S will feel as dense as lead.
Secondly, the screen size lengthening is subtle, but, like the Retina Display, you're going to have a hard time going back once you've used it. The extra space adds a lot to document viewing areas above the keyboard, landscape-oriented video playback (larger size and less letterboxing), and home-page organizing (an extra row of icons/folders). Who knows what game developers will dream up, but odds are that extra space on the sides in landscape mode will be handily used by virtual buttons and controls.
Third, this phone will make your home Wi-Fi look bad. Or at least, it did that to mine. Owners of other 4G LTE phones won't be shocked, but iPhone owners making the switch will start noticing that staying on LTE versus Wi-Fi might actually produce faster results...of course, at the expense of expensive data rates. I hopped off my work Wi-Fi and used AT&T LTE in midtown Manhattan to make a FaceTime call to my wife because the former was slowing down. LTE, in my tests, ran anywhere from 10 to 20Mbps, which is up to twice as fast as my wireless router's connection at home.
Using your iPhone 5 as a personal hot spot for a laptop or other device produces some of the same strong results as the third-gen iPad...and it's smaller. Of course, make sure you check on your tethering charges and data usage fees, but my MacBook Air did a fine job running off the LTE data connection at midday.
The look: Thin, metal, light as heck
You know its look, even if the look has been subtly transformed over the years: circular Home button, pocketable rectangle, familiarly sized screen. Can that design be toyed with, transformed a little, changed?
The newest iPhone has a wide metal body that stretches above previous iPhones, but is also thinner; still, this isn't a massive phone like the Samsung Galaxy Note or HTC One X. The iPhone 5 rises above the iPhone 4 and 4S, but subtly.
From the front and sides, it looks very similar to the iPhone 4 and 4S. The same rounded metal volume buttons, sleep/wake button on top, and silence switch remain. The headphone jack has moved to the bottom of the phone, just on like the iPod Touch. Some will like it, some won't; it makes standing the iPhone upright and using headphones a virtual impossibility. Actually, the entire bottom is all new: the headphone jack, the larger, redesigned speakers, a different type of perforated grille, and a much tinier Lightning connector port.
The Gorilla Glass back of the last iPhone is gone, replaced with metal. The two-tone look might seem new, but it's a bit of a reference to the silver-and-black back of the original iPhone. The very top and bottom of the rear is still glass. That anodized aluminum -- which Apple claims is the same as that on its MacBook laptops -- feels exactly the same, and is even shaded the same on the white model. So far, it's held up without scratches. I'd say it'll do about as well as the aluminum finish on your 2008-and-later MacBook. On the black iPhone, the aluminum matches in a slate gray tone. On my white review model, it's MacBook-color silver. That aluminum covers most of the back and also the sides, replacing the iPhone 4 and 4S steel band, and lending to its lighter weight. The front glass sits slightly above the aluminum, which is cut to a mirrored angled edge on the front and back, eliminating sharp corners.
Why the move away from a glass back? Is it about creating a better, more durable finish, or is it about weight reduction? Apple's proud of its claims of how light the iPhone 5 is, and the new aluminum back is part of that. So is the move to a Nano-SIM card (making SIM swaps once again impossible and requiring a visit to your carrier's store). So is the thinner screen and the smaller dock connector. You get the picture.
Hold an iPhone 4S up to the new iPhone, and I could see the difference in thickness. It's not huge, but it feels even slimmer considering its expanded width and length. What I really noticed is how light it is. I still feel weirded out by it. The iPhone 5's 3.95-ounce weight is the lightest an iPhone's ever been. The iPhone 4S is nearly a full ounce heavier at 4.9 ounces. The iPhone 3G was 4.7 ounces. The original iPhone and iPhone 4 were 4.8 ounces. This is a phase-change in the nearly constant weight of the iPhone -- it's iPhone Air.
Yet, the iPhone 5 doesn't look dramatically different like the iPhone 4 once did. Actually, it seems more like a fusion of the iPhone with the iPad and MacBook design.
And, of course, there's the new, larger screen. You may not notice it from a distance -- the screen's still not as edge-to-edge on the top and bottom as many Android phones, but extra empty space has been shaved away to accommodate the display. There's a little less room around the Home Button and below the earpiece. The iPhone 5 screen is just as tall as the screen on the Samsung Galaxy S 2, but it's not as wide. That thinner body design gives the iPhone the same hand feel, and what I think is an easier grip. The extra length covers a bit more of your face on phone calls.
Over the last week with the iPhone 5, I started to forget that the phone was any larger. That seems to be the point. And, the iPhone fit just fine in my pants, too: the extra length has been traded out for less girth, so there's little bulge. And, with that awkward statement having been uttered, I'll move on.
That 4-inch screen: Going longer
The iPhone 5 finally extends the 3.5-inch screen that's been the same size on the iPhone for five years, but it does so by going longer, not wider. A move from the iPhone 4 and 4S' 3.5-inch, 960x640-pixel display to a 4-inch, 1,136x640-pixel display effectively means the same Retina Display (326 pixels per inch), but with extra pixel real estate versus a magnified screen. All the icons and app buttons are the same size, but there's more room for other features, or more space for videos and photos to be displayed.
The iPhone's interface is the same as always: you have app icons greeting you in a grid, and a dock of up to four apps at the bottom. Instead of a grid of four rows of four apps, the longer screen accommodates five rows of four apps. More apps can fit on the home screen, but that's about it as far as user interface innovation. Extra screen height means pop-up notification banners are less intrusive at the top or bottom.
It's odd at first going longer versus also adding width, and it means a shift away from the iPad's more paperlike 4:3 display ratio. Pages of e-books could feel more stretched. In portrait mode, document text may not seem larger, but you'll see more of it in a list.
In landscape mode, text actually seems bigger because page width stretches out (so, you can fit more words on a line). The virtual keyboard in landscape mode also ends up a bit more spread out, too, with a little extra space on the sides, which took some getting used to.
I preferred portrait typing because the keyboard size and width remains the same, while the extra length allows more visible text above the virtual keys.
The screen difference isn't always dramatic, especially compared with some ultra-expansive Android devices: the Samsung Galaxy S3 beats it both on overall screen size (4.8 inches) and pixel resolution (1,280x720). In the iOS 6 Mail app, with one line of preview text, I fit six and a half messages on the screen at the same time on the iPhone 5 versus five and a third on the iPhone 4 and 4S. Other apps toy with the layout more; I fit eight tasks on one screen in the new iOS 6 version of Reminders, versus five on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5.1.1.
Of course, you'll need new apps to take advantage of the longer screen, and at the time I tested the iPhone 5, those weren't available because iOS 6 hadn't formally launched. Older apps run in a letterboxed type of mode at the same size as existing phones, with little black bars on the top and bottom. Apps work perfectly fine this way, especially in portrait mode, but you definitely notice the difference. App-makers will be scrambling to make their apps take advantage of the extra screen space, and my guess is it won't take long at all for most to be iPhone 5 (and iPod Touch) ready.
I tried iMovie, iPhoto, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, iCards, and all of the iPhone 5's built-in apps (Maps, Reminders, Messages, Photos, Camera, Videos, Weather, Passbook, Notes, Stocks, Newsstand, iTunes, the App Store, Game Center, Contacts, Calculator, Compass, Voice Memos, Mail, Safari, Music, and, of course, Phone), and they all take advantage of the extra space in a variety of useful ways. How others will adopt the extra real estate remains to be seen.
I'm looking forward to killer apps that will take advantage of the larger screen. So far, I haven't found any that do it in surprising ways. My guess is that games will benefit the most, along with video and photo apps, and, to some degree, reading/news apps.
Video playback, of course, has a lot more punch because the new 16:9 aspect ratio reduces or removes letterboxing across the board in landscape mode. An HD episode of "Planet Earth" filled the entire screen, while the available viewing space shrank down even more on the iPhone 4S because of letterboxing. YouTube videos looked great. Some movies, of course, like Pixar's "Wall-E," still have letterboxing because they're shot in the superwide CinemaScope aspect ratio (21:9), but they look a lot larger than before -- and you can still zoom in with a tap on the screen.
I think that, much like the Retina Display, you'll miss the iPhone 5's new screen more when you try to go back to an older phone. The new display feels like a natural, so much so that to the casual eye, the iPhone 5 doesn't look entirely different with the screen turned off. The iPhone 4 and 4S screens feel small and hemmed-in by comparison.
The new iPhone 5's display also has a layer removed from the screen, creating a display that acts as its own capacitive surface. I didn't notice that difference using it; it feels as crisp and fast-responding as before. Apple promises 44 percent extra color saturation on this new display, much like the third-gen iPad's improved color saturation. The difference wasn't as dramatic in a side-by-side playback of a 1080p episode of "Planet Earth," but the iPhone 5 seemed to have a slight edge. It was a little too close to call in game-playing, photo-viewing, and everyday experience with the phone, even held side-by-side with the iPhone 4S. The real difference, again, is the size. Autobrightness adjustments have also been tweaked a little, and I found on average that the iPhone 5 found more-appropriate brightness levels for the room I was in.
This seems like a good time to discuss thumbs. As in, your thumb size and the iPhone 5. Going back to the iPhone 4S, I realized that the phone's design has been perfectly aligned to allow a comfortable bridge between thumbing the Home button and stretching all the way to the top icon on the iPhone's 3.5-inch display. That's not entirely the case, now. I could, with some positioning, still thumb the Home button and make my way around the taller screen, but the iPhone 5's a little more of a two-hander. It might encourage more people and app developers to switch to landscape orientation, where the extra length and pixel space provide finger room on both sides without cramming the middle.
Game developers are likely to lean toward the landscape 16:9 orientation, because it more closely matches a standard HDTV's dimensions, and most console games. The extra width allows useful virtual button space, too.
4G LTE: Faster, at last
Last year's iPhone 4S had a subtle network bump to 3.5G (listed as "4G" on the iPhone 4S following iOS 5.1), offering faster data speeds on AT&T. The iPhone 5 finally adopts faster LTE, joining most other smartphones on the market and even the third-gen iPad, with the leap to LTE back in March. (On the top corner of the iPhone, the service indicator reads "LTE" when it's up and running.) However, the presence of LTE doesn't mean a world LTE phone; currently, LTE roaming between carriers overseas is impossible.
There's also support, depending on the iPhone 5 version you buy, for slower GSM (including EDGE and UMTS/HSPA) and CDMA/EV-DO networks. The iPhone 5's LTE uses a single chip for voice and data, a single radio chip, and a "dynamic antenna" that will switch connections between different networks automatically.
In the United States, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless will carry the iPhone 5. T-Mobile loses out. In Canada, it's Rogers, Bell, Telus, Fido, Virgin, and Koodo. In Asia, the providers will be SoftBank, SmarTone, SingTel, and SK Telecom. For Australia there's Telstra, Optus, and Virgin Mobile, and in Europe it will go to Deutsche Telekom and EE. On carriers without LTE, the iPhone 5 will run on dual-band 3.5G HDPA+. I didn't notice any problems when switching between LTE and 4G, but I tended to find myself stationary in a place that had LTE service or a place that didn't, without much time to test the transition midcall.
There's a catch, though: there are now two versions of iPhone 5 in the U.S., one GSM model and another version for the CDMA carriers. You may not have your dream of a universal LTE phone, but international roaming is possible between 2G and 3G. Also, get ready to accept that Verizon and Sprint iPhone 5s still won't be able to make calls and access data simultaneously, even though many other Verizon/Sprint LTE phones can pull this off. That's because those other phones use a two-antenna system for LTE/voice (voice doesn't run over LTE yet), while the iPhone 5 only uses one plus a dynamic antenna for what Apple says is more connection stability.
Nevertheless, data access via 4G LTE is stunningly fast. This is no gentle upgrade. In my home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I tested both my AT&T iPhone 4S and the AT&T iPhone 5 at the same time. The iPhone 4S averaged a 2.4Mbps download speeds over "4G," whereas the iPhone 5 averaged 20.31Mbps. In comparison, my home wireless Internet via Time Warner averaged 9.02Mbps at the hour I tested (1:30 a.m.).
For a more formal rundown, CNET editors Brian Bennett and Kent German tested both the Verizon and AT&T iPhone 5 models in San Francisco and New York, and compared against both the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3.
|Phones tested||Download (average)||Upload (average)|
|iPhone 5 (AT&T)||20.44||9.39|
|iPhone 4S (AT&T)||6.77||1.66|
|Samsung Galaxy S3 (AT&T)||19.37||9.12|
|iPhone 5 (Verizon)||9.78||7.47|
|iPhone 4S (Verizon)||1.71||0.91|
|Samsung Galaxy S3 (Verizon)||8.87||13.55|
The iPhone 5, in both instances, edged the Samsung Galaxy S3 in download speeds, but the Galaxy S3 was faster in upload speeds on Verizon.
The difference can be felt loading Web pages: the mobile version of CNET took 5.3 seconds over LTE, versus 8.5 seconds on the iPhone 4S. A graphically intensive Web site like the desktop version of Huffington Post took 16 seconds to load via LTE, versus 23.3 seconds on the iPhone 4S in 4G.
Those who already use 4G LTE may simply be nodding their heads, but to iPhone owners looking to upgrade, this is major news. For many people, LTE will be faster than their own home broadband.
Of course, that's a dangerous seduction: with fast LTE comes expensive rates and data caps. AT&T also requires a specific plan to even enable FaceTime over cellular. Make sure you don't fall down the rabbit hole of overusing your LTE, because believe me, you're going to want to. I tried setting it up a wireless hot spot for my MacBook Air, and the result was generally excellent.
Outside major cities, it's not quite as exciting if you don't have LTE coverage. Using the AT&T iPhone 5 out in East Setauket, Long Island, data download speed was merely 3.5Mbps because of a lack of AT&T LTE service. Verizon's LTE coverage map is larger, but Sprint's LTE network is small as well. My experience with AT&T and LTE may not necessarily be yours.
Wi-Fi has also gotten a bit of a boost via dual-band 802.11n support over both 2.5GHz and 5GHz. It should help in the event of interference with other Wi-Fi devices, although I never encountered that problem before, even with tons of Wi-Fi gadgets scattered about my apartment.
Something on the iPhone 5 has to not be new, right? Well, even the rear iSight camera's been tweaked, but not quite as much as other features. It's still an 8-megapixel camera, but there's a new sapphire-crystal lens, and improved hardware enabling features like dynamic low-lighting adjustment, image stabilization on the 1080p video camera, and the capability to take still shots while shooting video.
The camera takes excellent pictures, a bit more so now than before. The iPhone 5 takes far clearer low-light pictures, but the result, while more coherent, is grainier and lower resolution than the wonderfully detailed images taken in bright, direct light. I ran around in semi-darkness in my son's room taking pictures of his toys, and found that the iPhone 5 was able to make things out in places where the iPhone 4S couldn't. Read Josh Goldman's detailed, extensive testing of the iPhone 5's camera versus the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X.
I settled for some indoor house shots instead to show off how the camera works in dimmer conditions. Of course, you'll probably use flash in those instances, but it can't hurt to have it as a backup.
I took pictures outdoors and in, and the biggest differences I could appreciate were the awesome new panorama mode and the even faster picture-taking. One of these two features can be acquired on the iPhone 4S via an iOS 6 update. The other amounts to a bump up from the iPhone 4S camera.
Panorama mode is part of iOS 6's new feature upgrades; iPhone 4S owners will get it as part of their iOS update. It knits together a 360-degree wide image by having you simply hold the iPhone in portrait mode and turn slowly. The app guided me through the process. Panorama modes are in other camera apps in the App Store, but Apple's take on it is more refined, easier to use, and takes excellent photos with few weird artifacts in the ones I took. It's a nice added feature, and I started using it all the time. Compared with apps I've used before that have panoramic modes, the new panorama is a breeze.
The new iSight camera takes pictures faster than the iPhone 4S, which already took pictures faster than the iPhone 4. Our stopwatch test of both the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 reshoot time was one second on each, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Snaps are lightning-quick when taking multiple shots, and I was able to fire off a bunch at once with quick tapping. It's not true multiburst, but a triple-tap can actually shoot off three photos in a way the 4S can't.
Image stabilization keeps videos feeling less jumpy than on the 4S. It's not perfect, and isn't as good as on a dedicated video camera, but it's perfect when walking or keeping a slow pan from feeling herky-jerky. There are still rattles and bumps, but slower motions are definitely smoothed out. It can make a casual turn seem like you mounted your phone on a tripod.
Still pictures taken while recording video aren't shot using the normal 8-megapixel Webcam; they're screen captures of the video itself.
The aspect ratio is different, and the image quality's a bit weaker. Still, it's a nice option to have in moments when you're stuck shooting video and find a photo opp.
The front-facing camera's been upgraded to 720p, so both still pictures and recorded video look better. I wasn't able to test FaceTime with another iPhone 5 user, so I couldn't see if it helped improve video chat quality. It looks markedly better when recording your own homemade videos of yourself, however. YouTube self-broadcasters, rejoice.
Now here's something that should make iPhone sticklers sit up and take notice: the iPhone 5 actually tries to make strides at being a better phone. And it succeeds.
Apple discussed "wideband audio" technology at the iPhone unveiling, but that's carrier-dependent, and right now none of the U.S. carriers of the iPhone 5 will support it. The more important audio improvement comes in the way of a third microphone, which aims to improve voice quality and, in particular, speakerphone quality, adding improved noise cancellation. In my tests, it was a definitive success: callers I reached via speakerphone noticed a crisper, clearer call on the iPhone 5 versus on the iPhone 4S. (The voice sample below is of the iPhone 5 being held to my ear.)
iPhone 5 on AT&T call quality sample Listen now:
I didn't experience any dropped calls over my time testing in the New York area, and based on responses from callers on the other end, it looks like call quality is generally improved via better microphone tech.
According to FCC radiation tests, the iPhone 5 on AT&T has a maximum SAR of 1.18 watts per kilogram for GSM and 3G bands. The maximum LTE SAR also was 1.18 watts per kilogram.
Performance: The A6 processor
Each of the first three years that Apple's made its own ARM-based processors, each successive iPhone has gotten an upgrade: the iPhone 4 had the A4, the iPhone 4S had the dual-core A5, and now the iPhone 5 features a brand-new A6 processor never seen in any other device, along with double the RAM from the 4S, 1GB vs. 512MB.
In previous years, the iPad led the pack with the new processor before the iPhone followed suit later in the year; this happened with the iPad and iPad 2. The third-generation iPad of 2012 had an A5X processor, not an A6: a dual-core CPU and quad-core graphics on a single system-on-a-chip.
The A6 is custom-designed for this iPhone, and has indeterminate features. We know that it's meant to be up to two times as fast as the iPhone 4's A5 processor, and it's also been manufactured to be smaller and more power efficient. Using GeekBench, a popular diagnostic iOS app, the iPhone 5's A6 processor shows up as an "ARM v7" processor at 1.07GHz (faster than the 800MHz A5 processor on the iPhone 4S) with 1,016MB (1GB) of RAM, double what's on the iPhone 4S and matching the RAM on the third-gen iPad.
That doesn't tell the whole story. Giving the iPhone 5 a test running apps and using it with the included set of test apps (iMovie, iPhoto, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, and iCards, plus Maps), everything loaded extremely quickly and ran with a lot of zip. It's hard to measure anecdotally, however, because the iPhone 4S is already zippy enough, even a year later.
While it looks like the new iPhone is indeed faster, and may seem even faster thanks to faster wireless 4G LTE service, switching and launching apps, while even zippier, is sometimes a matter of nearly imperceptible differences. I couldn't see a big difference when opening some apps, but Web or iCloud-connected apps definitely loaded up faster, sometimes by several seconds. The extra RAM should be a huge help when multitasking or swapping between multiple high-powered apps.
Loading up the Camera app took 2 seconds on the iPhone 5 versus 3 on the iPhone 4S, and a full system boot took 20 seconds on the iPhone 5, and 23 seconds on the 4S. That doesn't sound like a lot.
Feeling the heat
There's one thing I noticed when using the iPhone 5 for long sessions, and I wonder how big a deal it will be: it ran warm, especially when using 4G LTE instead of Wi-Fi. After a 20-minute FaceTime call over LTE, the metal back became very warm, but not hot. Using flyover in the Maps app over LTE produced this, too, but in both cases the warmth didn't seem to affect performance. To some degree, this reminded me of the temporary "heatgate" surrounding the third-gen iPad; it bears some observation, but just be aware you'll probably feel it in certain circumstances. I used the iPhone 5 naked, without a case; would a case interfere with heat dissipation? I have no idea yet, but I'll certainly try out cases when I receive them.
The release of iOS 6 offers recent iPhone owners a whole new suite of features, in many ways making their older iPhone (especially the iPhone 4S) feel like new. The iPhone 5 doesn't have any exclusive features like Siri last year, but it runs them all exceedingly well.
Siri has been updated, and while I didn't enjoy using it very much the first time around on my iPhone 4S, it seems like a better partner this time. First off, it responds more quickly, thanks to faster LTE wireless. Siri also responds to more types of requests.
I pulled up recommended restaurants, found out who the New York Jets are playing in November, and nearly experimented with posting to Facebook, but stopped due to NDA concerns. Siri now launches apps and plays a more integral role in how the iPhone functions. You'll get these upgrades on the iPhone 4S and third-gen iPad, too.
Siri has also found its way into the totally new Maps app, which runs beautifully -- at least, visually speaking. Flyovers look like a surreal video game, almost like a real-life SimCity. Overhead maps blend into 3D with a two-finger swipe. It's like an improved Google Earth, and it's shockingly fun to play with. I could see my old apartment in San Diego and browse the whole neighborhood, making out storefronts. The first time you see it, you'll spend hours playing with it.
Is it more useful? Yes, and no. The baked-in turn-by-turn navigation powered by TomTom is a killer app for those who drive, and worked very well during a few initial tests, finally offering what Android phones have had for years. Driving from a Long Island train station to a house half an hour away, the Maps app adjusted on the fly when I chose a slightly different route, while a Siri-like voice guided me at every timely turn.
The driving directions work well when using other apps, too: a pop-up banner on the top shows the next turn along with spoken reminders, and the whole Maps navigation package replaces the lock screen image when the phone's lying idle for a while, so there's no lapse in service. You can find restaurants and local stores, and immediately see the Yelp ratings and reviews, something that wasn't possible on the Google-driven Apple Maps app.
But there are many absences. Google Street View is gone, because this isn't an app powered by Google anymore. Flyovers take the place of Street View to some degree, but flyovers are only available in large cities, and not all of them. Mumbai was flat. So were parts of the San Fernando Valley above Los Angeles, and parts of the outer boroughs of New York City. You can get directions for driving or walking, but public transit directions are gone. Click on the bus-shaped icon, and you'll be redirected to a list of apps that offer you public transit information, which will link out and give you public transit information you need: but this is an inelegant solution at best.
And, Google's built-in Maps search was far more robust than the new Yelp-driven one. "Mac repair" brings up the famous Tekserve blocks away from the office on my iPhone 4S with iOS 5, but not on the iPhone 5's iOS 6 Maps app. Certain transit and map information seems to be completely inaccurate. Apple has promised it will improve Apple Maps, but the functionality for both search and regional listings pales in comparison to the AAA-quality of Google Maps. If the new features of Maps had been built into the older Maps, everything would have been perfect. Odds are, you'll own a couple of maps apps and swap back and forth or wait for a standalone Google Maps app, at least until these problems are fixed. Right now, Maps feels like an app that's still in beta, and that could make many Maps-reliant people uncomfortable until the bugs are ironed out.
Passbook, Apple's take on the virtual wallet, wasn't live yet when I tested the iPhone 5, but we've given it a spin since and begun testing its functions. It promises to do what other apps already do, but in a baked-in, centralized way, and via specific Passbook-formatted files that can be added automatically to the app's virtual wallet. It's location-aware, with the idea that relevant coupons or tickets will present themselves when you reach the appropriate place. Check out Josh Lowensohn's first experiences with PassBook (on an iPhone 4S) at a baseball game.
One thing Passbook -- and the iPhone 5- - lacks is NFC, or near-field communications. This wireless tech has shown up on many other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3, and even PCs and laptops as of late. It's a close-range way of transmitting data, from personal files to credit card information at a store. I thought NFC might arrive on the iPhone 5 along with Passbook, but it didn't. Apple tends to wait on new tech, launching front-facing cameras, 4G LTE, and even 3G after many other phones. Apple also likes to develop its own way of attacking a common problem (such as FaceTime for video chat). It's a shame that the full potential of a wallet-iPhone couldn't happen now, but it's not tech the average person would care about. Without killer apps or a network of merchants supporting it, NFC would just be technology without teeth. Samsung already uses S Beam to transfer data between NFC devices, but odds are slim that NFC would emerge on the iPhone anyway if it wasn't built into Apple's entire family of Macs and iOS devices, too.
There are plenty of other features and improvements to iOS 6: Do Not Disturb call-management tools, Facebook integration, redesigned App and iTunes Stores, more-seamless iCloud integration for music playback via iTunes Match, and shared Photo Streams, to name a few. I tried out a shared Photo Stream via a test iPad outfitted with iOS 6 sent by Apple, and it's a logical and fun way to directly share updated photos to family members without having to keep posting or e-mailing. Selected photos popped up automatically onto my iPhone. You could even use this idea in an iPad acting as a digital photo frame, such as for grandparents who want to keep up on the kids.
For more on iOS 6, read our full CNET review.
Here was my concern (and, I'm sure, yours): in a phone that's thinner, lighter, and now has 4G LTE, how exactly will that battery hold up? LTE tends to be a power hog, but the iPhone 5 is set to deliver respectable battery life, even if it's not quite the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx. Apple promises 8 hours of 3G talk time, 8 hours of 3G browsing, 8 hours of LTE browsing, 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, 10 hours of video playback, 40 hours of music playback, and 225 hours of standby time with the iPhone 5, which sounds, on paper, about the same as what we got with the iPhone 4S.
Based on my week of using the AT&T Phone 5, results were very promising. The phone's battery lasted roughly the whole day each day, unplugging around 8 a.m. and engaging in a mix of calling, Web surfing, video playback, downloading, game playing, FaceTime calling over Wi-Fi and LTE, and even a little 4G LTE hot spot use via my MacBook Air. I unplugged the phone at about 7:30 a.m. one day, and it lasted until around 11 p.m. Another day, I unplugged at 7:30 a.m. and the phone lasted until nearly midnight. The battery life percentage tended to parallel the battery life of my iPhone 4S most of the day, while using the iPhone 5 a little more.
Over a series of three follow-up formal battery-life runs, the iPhone 5 lasted through 8.9 hours of continuous video playback. Apple claims up to 10 hours.
The talk time battery life of both AT&T and Verizon iPhone 5 were also tested: here are the results, compared with other major Android phones and the iPhone 4S.
|Phones tested||Talk time (in hours)|
|AT&T iPhone 5||7.37|
|Verizon iPhone 5||8.44|
|Sprint iPhone 4S||9.25|
|Motorola Droid Razr Maxx||19.78|
|Nokia Lumia 900||6.86|
For more detail, read CNET's evolving talk time battery drain tests of all three iPhone 5 carriers (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T). Based on these results, the AT&T iPhone 5 averaged 7 hours and 22 minutes, while the Sprint and Verizon models exceeded Apple's 8-hour talk time claim.
Everything's neweven EarPods and Lightning
I'm going to bunch both the new Lightning connector and Apple's redesigned and packed-in headphones, the EarPods, in one section. They help show that even the smallest of extras on the iPhone that we take for granted -- sync cable and earphones -- have changed this time around, too. The Lightning connector is a miniaturized, reversible charge and sync cable that works with USB 2.0, nothing more. It was designed to be reversible and easy to insert and remove. It is. It was designed to be smaller and take up less space. It's that, too.
It's not faster, though, despite the "Thunderbolt and Lightning" associations. That eight-pin Lightning port won't work with USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt, or even Micro-USB, an existing standard for tiny charge/sync ports that Apple's willfully disregarded. It's proprietary, like the original 30-pin port on existing iPhones, iPods, and iPads. The Lightning port's easy to use, and easier to plug in, than the 30-pin. However, while other manufacturers have changed port sizes and designs, the iPhone accessory business is enormous. The existing infrastructure of 30-pin cables and docks across the world has suddenly been rendered moot.
You'll either need new peripherals or a separate $29 30 pin-to-Lightning adapter to use that new port with old docks, and it may be clunky to use in those cases. Also, then keep in mind that video out isn't supported by that adapter: you'll need a Lightning-to-VGA or Lightning-to-HDMI cable instead, which are on their way after the iPhone 5 launch. Many iOS accessories, including the Apple TV, use wireless streaming instead of physical connectors. Objectively, I support the idea of a smaller connector for smaller devices (the new iPods have Lightning, too). But, Apple could have sweetened the deal by at least offering faster sync speeds, or a free 30-pin adapter. At least the USB power plug is the same, so you can use spare ones you might have lying around.
Apple's newly designed $29 EarPods have been reviewed by CNET; they're thrown in with the iPhone 5, too. They're pleasant upgrades to the old, uncomfortable Apple earbuds, and no more expensive, unlike Apple's $79 foray into higher-end in-ear earphones. They're better than before, and nice for freebies, but nothing that would seriously replace enthusiast earphones.
Conclusion: Who should buy the iPhone 5?
If you were to travel in time from the year 2007 and see the new phone, what would you think? It looks a lot like the first one, but nearly every part has undergone change except for the Home button, and so have its specs. For a counter-example, look at the 2008 MacBook Pro compared with the 2012 version (non Retina). The exterior's the same, but the internals have all been improved.
This is the perfection of a form in progress, not a reinvention of a form. This is the reboot.
Of course, consumers are not always out to achieve perfection in form. They want big reasons to upgrade. There are some here, no doubt -- big ones. But there isn't a single "magic thing" like FaceTime on the iPhone 4, or the experience of using Maps on the first iPhone...or, even Siri on the iPhone 4S, which wasn't magical for everyone. (It's better now.) Apple seems to be saying, "Hey, remember that iPhone you love? It still has everything you love, but better."
Now the time comes to step back and evaluate the whole elephant that is the iPhone 5, rather than hyper-examine each one of its parts. It's hard to find a single part of the iPhone that hasn't been rewritten, redesigned, retooled. It's an impressive attention to detail, but it amounts to a rewriting or a heavy revision. The funny thing is, most technology fans want to see great first drafts, not polishes. Most everyday consumers want to see exactly the opposite.
The bottom line is, we said last year that the two big missing parts of the iPhone were 4G LTE and a larger screen. The iPhone 5 has them, plus a new processor, plus a new design, plus iOS 6, plus a lot more. It's the best iPhone that's been made. Yes, it's playing catch-up on a few features, but that's always been the case with the iPhone. If you couldn't see that before, then you weren't paying attention.
The iPhone 5, had it been revealed last year, would have felt like the future. This year, after more than a year of anticipation, it feels expected, unsurprising. That doesn't mean it isn't excellent. To get 4G LTE and a larger screen, plus what seems so far like equivalent-or-better battery life, into an even lighter new phone is a big achievement. In a mission-critical device, you want polish and refinement, not big, bold experimentation. This is a phone, not an amusement park ride.
Sure, I feel frustrations with the general lack of surprise the iPhone 5 seems to emit. Part of that's due to the endless rumors and leaks of the new iPhone, which turned out to be correct. Part of that's due to a mobile computing industry that's moving fast, and has many players. Apple's just one of them. I wanted faster connections speeds to justify the new Lightning dock connector. I wanted NFC-like technology to magically work with Passbook. I wanted a smarter, clever new pull-down Notifications screen or dock to take advantage of the new, longer screen. I wanted something I hadn't thought of, but that would suddenly seem indispensable.
Other phones seem to be trying to lead the pack with new ideas, while Apple takes a more conservative path with the well-designed iPhone. Some wonder what the future of phones will be. Has the iPhone lost its edge? There are plenty of competitors now that offer what the iPhone has, and maybe even more, depending on if you value NFC, extra-large screens, or pressure-sensitive styli. I can't tell you whether the iPhone beats all Android devices. It'll never be what many Android phones are right now, for better and sometimes for worse.
I can say that, if you choose iOS, this is the phone to get. It'll feel like part of a unified family: the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 are one continuous swoop of design, a three-step path that feels for once like a complete line rather than an archaeological timeline of iPhone Evolution. The near future of phones may involve new wireless technologies and plenty of exciting companion peripherals, but the shape of the phone itself feels ready to settle in for a spell, like laptops. That's what happens when you find a successful solution to a problem. The iPhone 5 is approaching perfection of a form, not a solution to a problem that isn't there.
If you own an iPhone 4, upgrade to the iPhone 5. Even if you own an iPhone 4S, give it a long look and decide if you'd like 4G LTE, or if you even have LTE service in your area.
Living with the iPhone 5 for a week, I forgot about its large screen. I forgot how thin it was. I forgot about the camera improvements. Sometimes, I even forgot about 4G LTE, and got confused whether I was currently surfing on Wi-Fi or not. The iPhone settles in, feels natural, doesn't impose. Going back to my iPhone 4S, it feels thicker, heavier, small-screened, but no less impressively designed. Somehow, the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S feel like they can co-exist.
If you're looking for a show-off gadget, something with gee-whiz bells and whistles, then go somewhere else...except for the fact that people will inevitably want to see the iPhone 5 and grab it out of your hand. But, if you're looking for an excellent, well-conceived phone...well, here it is.
The iPhone 5 goes on sale September 21 from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint in the United States. It will come in black and white, and pricing starts at $199 for the 16GB version, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB.