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Apple iPhone 5S review: Same look, small screen, big potential

Apple's newest flagship smartphone is its most advanced iPhone yet, but many of its most promising features are buried under the hood.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
25 min read

Summer 2018 update

Apple no longer sells the iPhone 5S. Though you may still be able to scoop one up new or used from a third-party, you're better off buying the iPhone SE, the least expensive model in Apple's current lineup, which starts at $349, £265 or AU$465. That noted, if you can hold out until September, it's highly likely that you'll have a new batch of iPhones to choose from as well as lower prices for the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8iPhone 8 PlusiPhone X and perhaps the iPhone SE -- if it's not discontinued or updated.


Apple iPhone 5S

The Good

The <b>iPhone 5S</b> delivers an improved camera, a nifty fingerprint sensor, and a next-gen CPU and motion-tracking chip. Apple throws in the iWork app suite for free. iOS 7 adds some nice step-ups, too, including AirDrop file transfers and the Android-like Control Center.

The Bad

External design is identical to that of the iPhone 5, including a 4-inch screen that looks downright tiny next to Android competitors. For now, the fingerprint sensor only works with Apple apps. The 64-bit A7 processor and M7 motion-tracking chip don't have killer apps yet. iOS 7 differences are potentially jarring for longtime iPhone users.

The Bottom Line

The iPhone 5S is not a required upgrade, but it's easily the fastest and most advanced Apple smartphone to date.

The full review of the Apple iPhone 5S, originally posted on Sep. 17, 2013 and last updated on Mar. 21 2016, follows.

Editors' note (March 21, 2016): Apple has discontinued the 2013 iPhone 5S reviewed here, and replaced it with the iPhone SE. The new model is basically a 5S body with the innards of the late 2015 iPhone 6S.

Editors' note (September 19, 2014): The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are now the flagship phones in Apple's 2014-2015 product line. However, in addition to the iPhone 5C, the iPhone 5S (reviewed here) will remain on sale at a reduced price. The 16GB model now sells in two configurations: 16GB ($99 with a typical 2-year contract in the US, $549 off contract; £459 in the UK; AU$749 in the Australia) and 32GB ($149 on contract, $599 off contract in the US; £499 in the UK; and AU$799 in Australia).

I'm tempted to call the iPhone 5S the iPhone 5P, for "potential." This is Apple's half-step year, a rebuilding year. It's telegraphed by the name itself: adding an "S" versus giving the phone a whole new name. The 5S introduces technologies that could transform the future of iOS as a computing platform, and maybe pave the way for future products in 2014. But it doesn't manifest these changes right off the bat. Its promises haven't come to fruition yet.

Last year's iPhone 5 was the best iPhone we'd ever seen. It met nearly all our wishes and expectations. It added tons of new features. It had LTE. What did Apple do this year as an encore? It added...a few new improvements. Enter the iPhone 5S, which along with the iPhone 5C mark the first time Apple's delivered two new iPhones in one year. But the 5C is really the iPhone 5 in colored plastic. There's really only one new iPhone, and that's the 5S.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We wanted a bigger screen, an improved camera, and better battery life. Apple gave us a fingerprint sensor, an improved camera, and a faster processor. Faster is better, especially when battery life doesn't suffer, but the 5S doesn't feel like a shocking new product.

CNET staff

Apple does this every other year with iPhones -- see the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S. It's a common occurrence in iPads and MacBooks, too: take a familiar form, and repeat. But, in a phone landscape dominated by rapid change, it can feel frustrating, even for a product we loved just 12 months ago. Even iOS 7, Apple's graphically overhauled operating system, feels different but not really all that shocking. Even the new colors -- gold and "space gray" -- are subtler than you realize.

That doesn't mean there aren't changes, but many of them seem like roadwork for the future; a cleverly ingenious under-the-home-button fingerprint sensor, a clearly better camera, majorly upgraded graphics, a motion-tracking M7 coprocessor, and a new A7 processor capable of 64-bit computing are a lot of under-the-hood tweaks. But, after a week of using the iPhone 5S, it's hard to find situations that currently take advantage of these features, except for the fingerprint sensor and camera.

Check back in two months; after new apps emerge, maybe the iPhone 5S will start seeming like a truly new iPhone. But, for now, it's more of refined improvement. The iPhone 5 has gotten better. How much better depends on how fast apps and services can take advantage of the features...or whether we'll be waiting until iOS 8 to see them truly take shape.

Editors' note: Updated September 30, 2013, with expanded M7 fitness-tracking section and hands-on with M7-compatible apps, an additional battery test, and observations on real-use battery after several weeks of use. We will continue to update this review in the coming days, based on subsequent testing. Ratings should be considered tentative, and may evolve as testing continues.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Design: Take the iPhone 5, and add gold (or 'space gray')
The iPhone 5 was a somewhat subtle but completely thorough redesign of the iPhone, from screen size to headphone placement. It introduced an aluminum frame, a thinner and lighter build, and came in two colors.


iPhone 5 and 5S. Can you tell the difference?

CNET staff

The 5S is a carbon copy, with some new color variations. You can get last year's white/silver color, or "space gray," which matches black glass and a darker gray anodized aluminum. And, yes, there's gold. But it's not like a prop from Liberace's home: it's mellow gold, more a champagne, or a light bronze. Paired with white glass on the back and front, you might have a hard time noticing the gold in the wild unless it was held in the sun. Of the three colors, I liked gray the best: the metal tones might do a better job hiding scratches, too, a problem I saw pop up on last year's all-black iPhone 5.

CNET staff

A year later, the iPhone 5's design still feels sleek and high-end in the 5S, great in the hand, and more compact than most competitor phones. But, it also has a smaller screen (4 inches) than most of its Android cousins. I love using a more compact phone, but competitors have found a way to make larger-screened 4.7-inch phones with excellent feel, like the Moto X, which has nearly edge-to-edge screen across its face. The iPhone 5S has a lot more bezel framing the display, and I couldn't help wondering if that screen couldn't be just a bit bigger.

A larger screen would have really helped this year: not because the competition has it, but because Apple's newest features and apps would put it to good use. I found editing and appreciating the improved photos and video recording, and even playing games, to be challenging; the better that graphics and camera quality get, the more you need a larger screen to appreciate them.

There's no 128GB iPhone this year; you'll have to once again pick between 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, at the same $199/$299/$399 prices. In the US, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon are the three carriers to offer the iPhone 5S under contract; T-Mobile sells the iPhone 5S in an unlocked, contract-free version that costs $649 for 16GB, $749 for 32GB, and $849 for 64GB.

All versions come with the same A7 processor.

CNET staff

Touch ID: The party-trick tech on the 5S
See that little home button down there? It doesn't have a square on it anymore. It's also flat and recessed, not concave. That's practically the only outward-facing indication the iPhone 5S offers to the world, but lurking under the button is the most interesting piece of iPhone tech in quite some time. Unfortunately, it doesn't do as much right now as I wish it could.

CNET staff

"Touch ID" is Apple's fingerprint sensor, a secret sauce of clever scanning technology that amounts to a home button that's now both capacitive and clickable. The fact it does both can be a little disorienting at first, but the clicking is what the home button normally does, while gently touching the sensor activates the fingerprint scan.

Apple's faster iPhone 5S features fingerprint scanner (pictures)

See all photos

Touch ID's simple round button works on a simple press, versus a "swipe" gesture on a lot of previous fingerprint readers. The scanning technology, when it registers your fingerprint, encourages you to press from a variety of angles, so your fingerprint can be read even on its side or on an edge. It's fast: a simple click on the button and the phone unlocks, the scan happening invisibly. Most people won't even know it scanned them, but try another finger and you'll see that it worked.

A few previous smartphones have added fingerprint sensors before, like the Motorola Atrix, but those were more awkward bars that needed finger-swiping. The Touch ID-enabled home button feels invisible; it works with a tap, can recognize your finger from many angles, and feels like it has less of a fail rate than fingerprint sensors I've used on laptops. It's impressive tech. It worked on all my fingers, and even my toe (I was curious).

Its only limitation, really, is how little Apple has employed Touch ID into the iPhone experience at the moment. Scanning your finger takes the place of entering a passcode in most instances, or entering a password every time you purchase something from the App Store or iTunes. But, that's all Touch ID does for now: it doesn't remember your other passwords on various cloud services, or link to your credit card, or pay for movie tickets via Fandango.

CNET staff

In fact, you'd better remember whatever passcode you used to lock your phone, because Touch ID isn't a pure replacement. If you restart your iPhone, or turn it off and on, or don't use it for 48 hours, it'll ask for your passcode again before allowing fingerprint recognition. That's potentially useful as an extra deterrent for would-be fingerprint thieves, but it proved a little quirky over a week of use. I never knew when the 5S might insist I enter my passcode again.

Worried about a kid pressing his finger down over and over and erasing your phone's memory? Never fear. Touch ID cleverly defaults to asking for a passcode after three fingerprint attempts, and after five bad tries, it requires it. Then you still have 10 passcode attempts before any "erase contents after 10 passcode failures" setting you've possibly enabled kicks in.

How much time does it save? A little, especially since this process skips the "swipe to unlock" gesture. You'll also save a few seconds over entering a passcode. But, in terms of convenience, I really only appreciated it during the day, in those little moments when I quickly needed to hop on my phone.

I have a bigger dream for Touch ID, of its fingerprint scan acting as a password replacement for third-party apps or even a way to make payments, or check in to flights. It could be a mobile wallet killer app, and a companion to Apple's somewhat dormant PassBook app that launched with iOS 6. But those extra features won't be coming anytime soon. Apple currently intends Touch ID and your fingerprint -- which gets encrypted as mathematical data, according to Apple, not an image -- to stay on the A7 chip of the iPhone 5S, out of reach of third-party apps or cloud services. That could be good for added security, but it means Touch ID isn't a magic remember-every-password savior or credit card replacement yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That being said, I expect Touch ID to make its way onto every Apple device: iPads next, and eventually Macs. Why not? It's easy to use.

Touch ID may be getting all the headlines lately, but the iPhone 5S' improved camera is probably its biggest selling point. Cameras are no longer afterthoughts on smartphones: they're becoming the most important feature, for many, as they slowly but surely replace point-and-shoot cameras.

If you're getting a new iPhone for its camera, get the 5S. A suite of new and useful upgrades help make the already-good iPhone 5 camera into something even better...but, in a landscape riddled with increasingly impressive phone cameras, the iPhone stands out a little less than before.

CNET staff

Unlike many megapixel-packing smartphones (41-megapixel Lumia 1020, I'm looking at you), the iPhone 5S camera stays at 8 megapixels, the same on paper as last year and even the year before. The sensor, as Apple will proclaim, however, is 15 percent larger: the pixels are physically bigger (1.5 microns), even if there are the same number of them. The camera's aperture is larger (f/2.2). All of these elements add up to better low-light exposure.


Nice frog.

Scott Stein/CNET

Newer A7-driven processing also enables true burst-mode shooting: hold down the shutter button and you'll snag as many shots as you desire. The iPhone 5 could take multiple shots with quick taps, but the iPhone 5S can capture rapid-motion activities like sports events (or, in my household, random baby tricks). Instead of spamming your Camera Roll with identical-looking images, the new iOS 7 camera app cleverly bundles them in a subfolder, and even autopicks what it considers the best shots. This decision is based on image crispness and other factors; sometimes it's on the money, but I also saw it pick a blurry image of my 7-month-old over a sullen but crisp side profile. You can pick your own favorites easily, and delete the rest at the touch of a button.


Close-up of fabric, coming right up.

Scott Stein/CNET

I took a bunch of shots in a ton of conditions, from indoor photos in a zoo's reptile house to still-lifes of flowers and colorful kitchen accessories. Close-up photos show off pretty incredible detail and a shallower depth-of-field effect, which feels more "SLR-like." See this rug picture, for instance.


Local garden photo

Scott Stein/CNET

Kid photos in lower light conditions were less blurry when magnified. Blurriness is a common problem I've seen on many of my iPhone 5 photos taken in lower light that look good enough on-phone, but don't hold up quite as well via Apple TV on a 59-inch display. These 5S pictures looked a lot better, and more consistently so.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple credits this to a new image signal processor (ISP) on the iPhone 5S' A7 processor. It does result in quicker autofocus, faster snapshots, and less blur all around. Considering how shaky the average person's hand is when taking casual phone shots, it's a necessary improvement.

Apple has made a big change to the built-in LED flash, too, doubling its size and creating an intelligent "True Tone" flash that senses the photo environment and serves up the appropriate flash tone from separate white and amber LEDs.

It's a splashy endeavor, but the results do look significantly better, and warmer, than the iPhone 5's flash pics. I avoid flash on my smartphone whenever humanly possible, but this year's improvements may have changed my opinion.

The 1080p video recording also gains a little more digital stabilization, 3x digital zoom thanks to iOS 7, and there's a new Slo-Mo recording mode, which is separately toggled in the camera app. The iPhone records 720p video at 120 frames per second, and applies the slow-motion effect afterward, playing at 30 frames per second.

You can readjust the start and stop points of slow motion with your fingers, much like editing a video clip. It looks great, but the slowed-down footage retains the audio track. You could always edit over it in iMovie (which is a free app, now, anyway). This type of ultrafast recording could earn the iPhone 5S a spot on a skateboarder's helmet or a skydiver's gear in place of the popular GoPro camera.

Now, how different is all of this from competing high-end phones boasting better cameras? The iPhone 5S suffers on physical megapixel count, but its speed/quality ratio are hard to beat. Adding slow-motion recording is gimmicky but works really well, and the improved flash technology is nice to have. But, overall, it's the extra speed and hardware-software-processor integration on the iPhone 5S that produced the best results. The camera is really the iPhone 5S' biggest improvement and feature, even without added megapixels...but it doesn't feel like as dramatic a leap as last year's iPhone 5's camera.

A7 processor: A beast on paper
We're in a pretty great time for mobile phone processors. Much like laptops and PCs a few years ago, impressive year-over-year gains in speed are becoming the norm. The iPhone 5 was more than twice as fast as the iPhone 4S, and true to Apple's claims based on every benchmark we could find, the iPhone 5S and its new A7 processor seem at least twice as fast as the 5 and its A6.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

iPhone 5S (AT&T) 13,858Motorola Moto X (AT&T) 10,694Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint) 10,526HTC One (Sprint) 10,369iPhone 5C (AT&T) 5,691iPhone 5 (Sprint) 5,688
Note: (Longer bars indicate better performance)

Linpack Multithread (MFLOPS)

iPhone 5S (AT&T) 1,634.39HTC One (Sprint) 648.718Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint) 636.478iPhone 5C (AT&T) 583.87iPhone 5 (Sprint) 493.23Motorola Moto X (AT&T) 293.844
Note: (Longer bars indicate better performance)

Sun Spyder 1.0.1 (ms)

HTC One (Sprint) 1,813.8Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint) 1,135.4Motorola Moto X (AT&T) 1,049.1iPhone 5C (AT&T) 720.5iPhone 5 (Sprint) 702.1iPhone 5S (AT&T) 416.6
Note: (Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Geekbench 3

iPhone 5S (AT&T) 2561.8 1412.2Motorola Moto X (AT&T) 1,964 627Samsung Galaxy S4 (Sprint) 1,874 686HTC One (Sprint) 1,028 644iPhone 5C (AT&T) 1,275.8 707.6iPhone 5 (Sprint) 1,296 721
  • Multicore
  • Single-core
Note: (Longer bars indicate better performance)

Numbers are great, but what does speed really mean in a phone? Sometimes it's hard to appreciate. Boot times aren't all that much faster between the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C, and iPhone 5 -- 26.3 seconds for the 5S, and 31.7 for the 5C (and anyway, how many times do we even boot our phones?). Games and applications load up quickly and play smoothly, but the iPhone 5 felt the same way last year, and the iPhone 5C still feels pretty fast for everyday phone tasks.

The types of games and applications that can really take advantage of the iPhone 5S and its faster, more graphics-rich A7 processor aren't here yet at the time of this review, but expect them soon. I'm just sensing, perhaps, that there will be a limit as to how much pop you'll truly notice on a 4-inch display.

Is the iPhone 5S faster than other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One? Based on every benchmark we could throw at the 5S, the answer is yes. How much? That depends on the test. Linpack suggests that the iPhone 5S is a lot faster -- and about twice as fast as the iPhone 5C. Geekbench 3, which recently updated its app to allow for 64-bit testing, suggests a nearly 3x gain over the iPhone 5C's A6 processor.

The 64-bit computing potential of the iPhone 5S and its A7 chip is, at the moment, largely theoretical. It could pave the way to more computer-like experiences on our phones, or even a future merge between Mac OS X and iOS.


Infinity Blade III on 5S: impressive.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Apple's core apps on the 5S are 64-bit optimized, but I didn't anecdotally appreciate huge gains in most of them...except for the camera. It's hard to tell how the A7 will make the iPhone 5S better, even if you can sense the speed. The killer apps don't seem to be here yet.

Gaming and the iPhone 5S
I've been curious to try out more games that take advantage of the iPhone 5S and its clearly improved graphics capabilities. Infinity Blade III, demonstrated at Apple's event, is the first of the "5S-optimized" games that's now available. I played it through the first few levels.

The game's crisp graphics actually look good on the iPhone 5C, 5S, and iPhone 5 (running iOS 6), and so similar to the casual eye that you probably would have a hard time telling the difference -- on the iPhone's four-inch screen, at least. Certain far-off details and possibly subtle textures seemed to lurk on the 5S, but it became more of a perception test than a game experience difference-maker. But, regardless, look at the above screenshot: the game looks damn impressive.

CNET staff

These are early days, though: Infinity Blade III was very quickly adapted for the 5S and its 64-bit processor. Future games are bound to take better advantage. One clear difference right now is load time: on the 5S, Infinity Blade III took an average of 7 seconds to start up after quitting out and closing all multitasking windows. On the iPhone 5C, it took 1 minute 22 seconds. That's a crazy gap, and maybe the game will post an update adjusting that difference, but it also shows where 5S-optimized apps might be heading versus the 5.


Giving XCom a go: It loads quickly.

CNET staff

Using downloaded gaming-benchmark apps, which are never that clear of a real-world test for a phone's abilities, the iPhone 5S still scored an impressive 13,858 using 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test, compared with 5,691 on the iPhone 5C; the 5S ran the graphics tests at 101 and 61 frames per second, versus 27.1 and 19.7 seconds on the iPhone 5C. Apple claims at least 2x graphics improvement over the iPhone 5 and 5C's A6 processor, but it looks like that gap could be even wider. These numbers are better than the Samsung Galaxy S4 and any other recent Android phone we've tested, making the iPhone 5S a theoretical paper champion for mobile gaming.

Previous graphics-intensive games like Riptide GP2, Need for Speed Most Wanted, and XCom: Enemy Unknown loaded quickly and played well, but didn't look very different from the way they played on the iPhone 5/5C. But you could imagine great games that not only take advantage of the A7, but use forthcoming iOS 7-compatible game controller cases and future Apple TV AirPlay compatibility to make for experiences that could feel gaming-console-quality.

I think it'll be game controller accessories that will drive game developers towards more advanced console-quality games, which will find ways to take advantage of what the A7's graphics can accomplish. The A7 is compatible with OpenGL ES 3.0, an API that adds more advanced visual effects and graphics capabilities. The ceiling for what the iPhone 5S can do with games hasn't come close to being tapped.

The M7 processor: Future of motion (and the iWatch?)
There's another new processor onboard the iPhone 5S, and its presence might be a wink to iPods and wearable tech to come. The M7 consolidates the collection of motion-sensing data from the iPhone's accelerometer without taxing the A7 processor.

It could be a gateway to a new generation of improved health-tracking and motion-aware apps that work without significant battery drain, much like Bluetooth 4.0 allows for connected wearable devices like the Fitbit and Pebble Watch. Could it also be a processor that sneaks its way into a future iWatch, and even the next generation of iPods, which were conspicuously absent from Apple's September event? I'd bet solid money on it.

The M7 seems to help with power management, which could help eke more battery life out despite a faster processor. It didn't add up to something I could immediately appreciate. The new iOS 7 Maps app automatically senses whether you're driving or walking to deliver the correct presentation on the fly, but I didn't see this in effect (or couldn't tell if it was in effect) while using turn-by-turn directions to drive to the local zoo.


The Argus app imports M7 pedometer data.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

M7 apps, and how the M7 works: Databank for your motion data
When I first reviewed the iPhone 5S, the intriguing M7 co-processor was essentially untestable, since no apps took advantage of it other than, to some small degree, the Maps app and some other semi-invisible iPhone subprocesses.

That's no longer true. Azumio updated its Argus health-tracking app to tap into the M7, and there are others that do the same. These apps show exactly what the M7 can do.


Steps, a free M7 pedometer that's also in the App Store.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Basically, the M7 is its own fitness tracker, buried deep inside your iPhone 5S. It never turns off, and it records your motion and activity via a three-axis accelerometer. That activity gets recorded, and goes back a full seven days.

Apps that want to take advantage of that data have to ask your permission: you toggle those settings under Privacy/Motion Tracking. But what's interesting is that any app can be off, and simply turn on later and suck up the collected data as needed. The Argus app, once I signed up, actually back-populated with my last seven days of activity. It's weird, but useful -- and since it doesn't even seem to need to be online to work, it could be handy when away on vacations.

The step-count of the M7 seems roughly equivalent to what a Misfit Shine I wore on my wrist recorded over that same span. Pedometers aren't perfect step recorders; they all have some variance based on how they turn accelerometer-collected data in "steps." But the fact that the iPhone 5S does this without sapping battery or requiring background apps to run is a huge plus. My biggest problem with most fitness gadgets and apps is forgetting to turn them on or wear them. The 5S makes the process pretty much automatic.

Does this mean the iPhone 5S is the ultimate fitness phone? In a sense, yes, since no other smartphone I know of has a true always-on dedicated tracker of this sort. But, how will the M7 work with accessories and wearables? The answer for now is it isn't clear; the M7 is meant as a supplement to other fitness tools, it seems. Obviously, most people won't be wearing an iPhone all the time when working out. But it's a far better thing to have than not have. It's just surprising that the data-collecting is always on.


Control Center: An overdue and very useful flip-up settings page.

Sarah Tew/CNET

One thing the iPhone 5S lacks is its own central baked-in health app, like Samsung's S Health. S Health is a comprehensive attempt to track fitness data and even fold in blood pressure and other medical readings from accessories, and provide a centralized guide and database. Apple's M7 processor is hardware that enables other software, but Apple has -- for now -- chosen to sidestep a health app of its own. Maybe such an app is waiting for a future iWatch, or other wearable products using the M7 processor. The M7's potential is very, very big, and could be a hardware disruptor in the health and wearable tech world, but only so far as other apps will take it. It is nice, however, that the M7's data-collecting mini-bank can be used by various health app ecosystems. I'm looking forward to trying apps like Nike+ Move.

iOS 7
Both the iPhone 5C and 5S come preinstalled with iOS 7, Apple's latest version of the mobile operating system. Much like the iPhone 5 was to iPhone hardware last year, iOS 7 is a soup-to-nuts graphical and design overhaul: familiar apps have new layouts, Siri has been greatly enhanced to do more and show more, and there are even new ringtones and alert sounds to play with.

CNET staff

As an operating system, iOS 7 runs smoothly and seamlessly on the iPhone 5S, as you'd expect, but its aesthetics sometimes feel like a mixed bag. New display-maximizing layouts in many apps like Safari are a huge plus, but these come along with sometimes-confusing new interfaces and menus. Much like a Facebook redesign, I think many longtime users will find themselves suddenly (and hopefully temporarily) confused. Some additions, like an expanded Notifications pull-down screen, are welcome; others, like a new, confusing Calendar app that lacks appointment lists, will throw hard-core iPhone users off their game. It all grew on me after a few weeks, though.

CNET staff

iOS 7 does have its distinct advantages: AirDrop for local person-to-person wireless file sharing; crisp and excellent-sounding FaceTime audio calls, which don't use up much bandwidth and can be used to make calls over Wi-Fi for free; and also the brilliant flip-up Control Panel, which puts many necessary settings and controls at your fingertips at any time. Siri is smarter and can do more things, like turn on Bluetooth or play requested movie trailers.

CNET staff

AirDrop creates a little local area network for sharing documents, and it pings anyone you want to reach who has AirDrop turned on: a specific person, personal contacts, or even perfect strangers. It should be interesting to see how AirDrop ends up playing out in the wild.

iTunes Radio, a free streaming-music service similar to Pandora, comes baked into the Music app. Make-your-own artist-generated playlists had a good selection of content. The streaming is ad-supported, but iTunes Match customers get the experience ad-free. Considering it's free either way, it sounds pretty good and is nice to have, but unsurprising.

Redesigned Camera and Photo apps are part of the iOS 7 package, and both feel like big improvements. Digital zoom for video and added photo filters, plus an Instagram-esque "square" photo-crop mode, come built-in. The Photo app presents previous photos in a large timeline organized by year and location. It's a great way to sift through thousands of photos, but this level of presentation feels better-suited to a Mac version of iPhoto. That archive-style presentation would be a lot better if iCloud enabled full syncing and uploading of Mac/PC photo libraries. But, as I said before, the Photo app's elaborate presentation practically begs for a larger screen.

Apple is also offering Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMove and iPhoto apps for free with new device purchases, a nice little package of tools that finally gives iOS devices the type of productivity software that's increasingly being bundled on competing mobile products. You can get many alternatives on the App Store for these features, some of them already free, but these universal apps also run on iPads, with more effective layouts.

Display and speakers
The 1,136x640-pixel 4-inch 326ppi Retina Display on the iPhone 5S is the same as the one on the iPhone 5. It's bright, color-accurate, and extremely responsive to touch. But, it's feeling just a tiny bit small compared with the screens on the competition. Many smartphones now boast 1,920x1,080-pixel displays, and have more screen real estate.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Now, not everyone wants a mega-large phone, and the iPhone has always had a smartly discreet feel, but more Android phones have gotten a sweet spot right with 4.3- and 4.7-inch displays, like the Moto X, which feels great and is still pretty compact. The iPhone 5S screen could be a little bit bigger.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Audio is still pumped out through the speaker grille on the right side of the Lightning connector on the bottom: it's possible to accidentally cover it up and muffle playback with just a single finger. Even though there aren't stereo speakers per se, audio playback still sounds loud enough to enjoy videos and movies without headphones...but I'd generally choose the headphones.

Antenna and wireless connectivity
The iPhone 5S has dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, just like the iPhone 5, along with Bluetooth 4.0. Apple's AirDrop technology in iOS 7 allows for local file sharing, perhaps minimizing the omission of NFC in the iPhone, but it's worth noting that NFC still isn't in any Apple device. Both the iPhone 5C and 5S also lack faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which has been introduced in many products including 2013 MacBook Airs and AirPort routers. It's a surprising omission on the otherwise feature-packed 5S.

Last year, the addition of LTE cellular broadband in the iPhone 5 resulted in dramatically faster Web browsing. For the most part, your experience won't change here: you'll browse about as fast in the US, but Apple has added more carrier support for international compatibility.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Trying it out anecdotally in my office, I got around 20.7Mbps download and 2.5 Mbps upload over AT&T's network at three bars of service, compared with 18.3 and 4.1 on the iPhone 5C. You shouldn't see a difference.

Call quality
Over days of average use, the iPhone 5S feels like the same call-quality experience as on the iPhone 5. I had the same average level of missed/dropped calls, and the audio seemed similar on my AT&T review model. That's no surprise: the 5S has the same fundamental design.

Call quality, if you're curious, can be heard below. It sounds about the same on an AT&T iPhone 5S as it does on an AT&T iPhone 5C.

iPhone 5S call quality sample Listen now:

Sarah Tew/CNET

FaceTime audio calls made over Wi-Fi on iOS 7 do sound a lot better and more present, and could be the start of a lot of people opting to make FaceTime phone calls versus standard calls.

Battery life
Using a video playback battery test that looped CNET content as a music video in the iOS Music app, in Airplane mode and half-brightness, the iPhone 5S lasted exactly 11 hours. On a second test running a 720p video of Toy Story 3 over and over again, the battery lasted 10 hours and 57 minutes. That's better than the iPhone 5C, which lasted 10 hours 16 minutes and 9 hours 45 minutes on two battery run tests. Both are a step above last year's iPhone 5, at least on pure video playback.

Of course, you won't be using your iPhone in Airplane mode looping nonstreaming video. Over normal full-day use, I found I could get to the end of the day with about 20 percent charge left -- unplugging around 8 a.m., and looking for an outlet around 8 p.m. I'll need to use it even more to get a better sense, but it's roughly equivalent performance to what the iPhone 5 had during my first week of using it. This isn't the iPhone-with-superpowered-battery that I sometimes dream of, but at least the newer, faster A7 processor hasn't hurt battery life at all -- in fact, it seems a little improved.


From left: HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, Moto X, iPhone 5S.

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After a few more weeks of usage as my main phone, SIM-swapping from an iPhone 5 running iOS 6, I found the everyday performance pretty identical. I heavily use my iPhone in the morning: streaming music, e-mailing and Web-browsing, a handful of phone calls and some games. I use it less midafternoon. Still, like before, I found I needed a good midday top-off to make it home again. I tend to hit 50 percent battery life by lunchtime, and the red-zone 20 percent mark by around 6 p.m. It's fair for the phone's size and my intense use, but I really wish iPhone battery life would get over the hump to magical all-day-plus territory.

iPhone 5S versus its competition
Versus its fiercest competition, the iPhone 5S stands on somewhat shakier ground. With Touch ID as its only compelling hardware innovation, Apple opens the door wide for Samsung (Galaxy S4), Nokia (Lumia 1020), HTC (One), and LG (G2) to woo customers with an array of phones that include bigger screens, exciting design, and advanced camera offerings.

Likewise, software parity on the big-ticket items -- compared with Android especially and with Windows Phone to some extent -- means that Apple has very little to offer that's different or new beyond iOS 7's glossier look.

Customers will choose the iPhone 5S for many reasons: because they trust the brand, because they like the phone, because they're already entrenched in Apple's ecosystem -- but not because it can do a lot of important things that other phones can't. Time will tell whether Touch ID becomes a new standard in smartphone security, or if the M7 processor ushers in a new era of connected wearable tech and apps, or if 64-bit mobile computing will be a phase shift. None of those elements is currently positioned to be major difference-makers.

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Bottom line: if you want a splashier, larger screen, expanded storage capabilities, or a camera with a larger lens and physical zoom, well...don't look for an iPhone.

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Which do I get: iPhone 5S or 5C?
If you've waited for an iPhone all this time but skipped a generation or two, get the iPhone 5S. You'll appreciate the better camera and the cover-your-bases future-proofing. But, if you just want a basic and very good smartphone that works well, the iPhone 5C will do just fine. There are few, if any, critical features that it doesn't have.

Upgrade or wait?
Whether you believe in the future potential of the iPhone 5S' embedded offerings amounts to a leap of faith. Will Touch ID spread out to work with all sorts of apps and services? Will the M7 processor reinvent health apps on phones and context-aware mobility? Will 64-bit computing turn out to be a huge step forward in iOS history?

All you can really count on for sure with the iPhone 5S is that it has a noticeably better camera, is faster, and has better graphics punch. The rest is "future stuff." Odds are that Apple will make good on many of these claims, but it's never a guarantee. For the immediate now, the impact is incomplete. As the iPhone 5S and its apps evolve, so will this review.

The iPhone 5S feels like a "pro" phone more than ever, the iPhone equivalent of the MacBook Pro. Its features don't feel as immediately consumer-understandable. For many, the iPhone 5C will do just fine. The biggest wished-for features -- a MacBook Air-level battery life improvement and an even larger screen -- aren't on either new iPhone yet.

If you're deep in the Apple ecosystem, the 5S could be the first step toward some new directions. Its improved speed, graphics, and elements of battery efficiency make it a better phone than the iPhone 5, in case you've waited to upgrade.

But if you already have an iPhone 5, I'd say it's not a bad year to just wait.