Apple launched the iPhone 5s at their September event alongside the iPhone 5c. Dubbed the “Forward Thinking” iPhone, the 5s introduces several firsts for the iPhone, such as a fingerprint sensor called TouchID, a 64-bit processor and a gold color option, along with other changes such as an improved camera and connectivity options. Even on paper it’s obvious that it is the best iPhone made so far. But are the changes enough to make it competitive against the rivals from the Android camp? Let’s find out.
Visually, the iPhone 5s is nearly identical to the iPhone 5 before it. This has now been a trend with the iPhone for a while now, with the 3GS, 4s and now the 5s mimicking the design of their predecessor. Visually, the only things that set the 5s apart from the 5 are the metal ring around the new Home button and the dual LED flash on the back, with only the former being actually noticeable at a glance.
The lack of a brand new design isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the iPhone 5 is one of the best looking phones of all time. Even today, in the form of the new 5s, that design looks beautiful, with an air of class and elegance not often seen on consumer electronics, especially mobile phones. The metal ring on the front adds a touch of class, and one look at the metal and glass on the back and you have little doubt in your mind that this is a premium device.
The iPhone doesn’t just look good but is also very well built. The aluminum and glass enclosure feels solid in your hand, and little touches like the diamond cut chamfered edge, polished edges for all the buttons on the side, ultra tight panel gaps and the drilled holes for the loudspeaker and microphone on the bottom all point towards an obsession with attention to detail.
But despite the solid build the phone still feels very light. Just like its predecessor, the 5s is absurdly light weight, to the point where you feel like you’re holding a dummy unit or an empty shell, especially if you’re used to the iPhone 4/4s or some of the bigger Android phones.
The dimensions of the phone continue to be impressively small. Although the display size had to be sacrificed for this once again, it does mean that the iPhone 5s is perfectly usable with a single hand, which is a big plus for a lot of people who just can’t use a larger device. It also makes carrying the phone around much easier. For someone who wants a high-end smartphone that is also compact, the iPhone is still the only real option out there.
The iPhone 5s has the same Retina display as the iPhone 5. It measures 4-inches diagonally and has a resolution of 1136×640. In terms of image quality, the 5s display is still among the best in the business, with stunning colors and sharpness and ample brightness. The resolution might seem low compared to newer Android phones but it doesn’t really matter since the display is not as large and as such you still have an impressive 326 ppi of pixel density, which is more than enough for most people.
The display size has been a reason of contention for a while now. For things like messaging or using social networking applications, the size of the iPhone’s display feels adequate. But it’s when you’re playing a game, or watching a video or browsing the web when you wish the phone had a bigger display.
While the jury is still out on what is the ideal display size, and there can never be one but considering modern usage scenarios, the iPhone’s display more often than not feels cramped and it’s high time Apple considered going for a bigger display, even if it means sacrificing one handed usage a bit.
Hardware and Software
In terms of hardware, the iPhone 5s is packing in Apple’s latest and greatest A7 SoC. This is a custom designed processor based on ARM’s architecture and uses a 1.3GHz dual-core ‘Cyclone’ CPU and a PowerVR GPU. It is accompanied by 1GB of RAM. On paper it might not sound like much but the A7 has been proven to be extremely powerful and in some cases the fastest mobile SoC on a production device so far across any platform.
But while the added horsepower is definitely appreciated, there are couple of additional tricks her as well. First of all, the A7 is the first Apple mobile SoC and the first ARM based mobile SoC on the market to support 64-bit software. The operating system along with all the built-in apps has been updated to add support for 64-bit and third party developers can do the same for their apps.
As of now, the advantages from switching over to 64-bit hardware and software aren’t much. When in future Apple starts shipping iOS devices with more than 4GB of RAM we would really start seeing the difference it makes but until then the gains would be minimal.
Another important feature of the new A7 is the M7 motion coprocessor. The M7 offloads motion tracking for applications that need this information (such as fitness apps) from the main processor to itself. This lets the A7 idle for longer and conserve battery and the M7 takes care of these tasks for you with minimal power usage.
In terms of software, the iPhone 5s currently comes with iOS 7 out of the box. The latest update to iOS has been a hit or miss with the users, with myself personally not entirely fond of the new design decisions. Functionality-wise, it’s not really hugely improved over its predecessors, but it has some conveniences now, such as the Control Center at the bottom of the screen and improved multitasking.
In terms of performance, the 5s is very nearly flawless, with both the hardware and the software working in tandem to deliver an effortlessly smooth performance nearly all the time. Best thing about iOS is that the performance extends to the third party applications, which feel just as fluid as the operating system, something you can’t say about Android or Windows Phone. Compared to the iPhone 5, the 5s doesn’t seem like a major improvement and really most of the time it’s hard to find any difference between them. Surely, though, this will change with time and a couple of years down the line the 5s will still be usable whereas the 5 would clearly be showing it’s age.
By far the best new feature on the 5s is Touch ID. This feature places a fingerprint sensor underneath the Home button that scans your finger and lets you unlock the phone or make purchases on the App Store or iTunes Store without having to enter the password.
To begin using this feature, you first have to enter your fingerprint into the phone’s memory. You have to scan your finger by placing it repeatedly on the home button in different positions till it scans your print entirely, after which it gets saved. The phone lets you save up to five fingers, so you can have multiple fingers of yours that you usually use to unlock the phone or someone else’s whom you trust. The phone also makes you set a backup password in case the phone fails to recognize your print.
In my experience, Touch ID worked nearly four out of five times. All I had to do to unlock the phone was press the Home button, release it but keep the thumb on the button for a second for the phone to wake up and instantly unlock it. Usually this works remarkably well but there were occasions when it wouldn’t, either due to some bug or me placing the finger at an extremely odd angle.
The most convenient use case for this feature is while making purchases on the various stores on the phone. Instead of having to enter my long winded password, all I had to do was place my thumb when it asked and the purchase was made.
Unfortunately, as of now, this feature is not available to third party applications, possibly for security reasons. So you can’t, for example, use your thumbprint as a password for apps like Dropbox or Simplenote that let you set a password to open the app. Apple doesn’t even upload the prints to its own servers so it’s understandable why it wouldn’t let third party developers access to it.
The iPhone 5s has an 8 megapixel camera with auto-focus and dual-LED flash. The camera is one of the features that Apple has consistently updated on every single iPhone since the iPhone 3G and the tradition continues with the 5s.
On the surface it might not seem as if Apple has done much to change the camera. After all, it still says 8 megapixel on the spec sheet, which is what most laypeople use to compare anyway. But dig deeper and you’ll discover that the sensor is now larger than it was on the 5, which means it can now capture more light with lower noise. Apple has also updated the aperture and the f/2.2 lens now also allows more light to fall on the sensor. Other things such as backside illumination sensor, hybrid IR filter, five element lens and sapphire crystal lens cover are carried forward from the previous iPhone.
Another change is the presence of a dual LED True Tone flash. The two LEDs are of different colors: white and amber. Depending upon the scenario, the phone intelligently decides the intensity of each LED and fires them in just the right ratio to get the correct color flash. This prevents objects from getting the white cast that you see in most LED flash photos and provides more natural colors.
Lastly, in the video department, the 5s now has support for 720p slow motion video recording. The phone captures the video at 120fps and then you can play the video back at either normal speed or in 30fps slow motion. The camera software gives you a convenient slider to set which part of the video you want to be in slow motion and depending upon that it automatically flits in and out of slow motion, which when done right, looks really cool.
In terms of image quality, the iPhone 5s is brilliant. The images are very detailed and generally look superb in almost every lighting condition. The camera boosts the saturation slightly and the images are warmer than they should be but in most cases the results are pleasing and how most people like their images to be anyway, which means you can share them instantly with minimal post processing. The camera is not a huge leap forward over the iPhone 5 (except in low light conditions where the difference is very apparent) but then again the iPhone 5 also had an exceptional camera so it’s not such a bad thing.
The True Tone flash works as advertised, and in most cases produced warmer, more natural results than any other LED flash I’ve used. I still wouldn’t use flash for photography though but if I had to then True Tone certainly helps.
Video recording quality remains just as brilliant as always. The videos are smooth and very detailed and the digital image stabilization is the best in the business, only beaten by optical image stabilization on phones like the Lumia 1020 and HTC One. The 720p slow motion videos are also brilliant and it surprised me how usable this feature is even indoors in not so brilliant light (slow motion video usually requires bright conditions because the shutter is open for a very short period of time which doesn’t allow a lot of light to go in). Clearly the larger aperture and bigger sensor are helping here. You can get some very creative results with this feature and you can already find several of them on services such as YouTube, Vimeo, Vine and Instagram shot from the 5s. Only flaw with the video on the 5s is that it records audio in mono despite having three microphones on the device.
Overall the camera on the iPhone 5s is absolutely brilliant. It’s easy to use, blindingly fast and takes stunning photos and videos in most lighting conditions. It’s one of the best features on this phone and one of the best cameras on the market today.
Audio performance on the 5s is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand you get very good audio quality from the built-in loudspeaker as well as the supplied EarPods, which are one of the best bundled earphones you can get with a phone. But on the other hand, the built-in audio and video players miss out on several codecs, such as FLAC and MKV, respectively. Thankfully, you now have apps like VLC Player that can fill this void, but then again you probably wouldn’t be watching a lot of videos on a 4-inch display.
One of the disadvantages of making a small phone is that the battery inside also ends up being tiny. You can maximize its size as much as you can and optimize the living daylights out of the software but you can only get so much charge out of a 1560mAh battery.
For what it’s worth, Apple has done a remarkable job optimizing the hardware and the software. An Android phone with a battery as small and a processor as powerful as the iPhone’s would be dead within a couple of hours. The 5s still manages to last around eight hours on a good day. That’s not a lot and you’ll be looking for a charger well before the end of the day but it is not completely out of ordinary for a modern smartphone. Only a handful of Android phones can manage to last a full day or beyond, and most of them are massive.
With prices starting at ₹53,500 for the base 16GB model, the iPhone 5s is less of a consumer electronic and more of a luxury product. For the price, you get a finely crafted product with a design and build worthy of the price tag. The phone also packs in powerful hardware and a software that is designed to get the best from it. iOS 7 may not be the most functional OS out there but in most cases it gets the job done and has an unmatched library of applications and games. Then there is also the camera that is right up there with the best in the business.
Where the iPhone falters is in things like the display size and battery life, where it falls behind some of the bigger flagship Android devices on the market today. Granted, not everyone wants a big display but most people do and the kind of multimedia and internet capabilities these devices possess a big display certainly helps get the best out of them.
Comparing the 5s with Android or other smartphones on the market seems futile now. It almost feels like a chalk and cheese comparison at this point, with both targeting a different group of people. The iPhone has carved a niche for itself and is in a different class of its own, not necessarily better but just different. It has its fan following and loyal users who will purchase it despite its shortcomings. If you are one of them, and you’d know if you are, the only question is, can you afford it?