The iPhone 5 needs no introduction. Apple’s latest and greatest addition to its iconic line of smartphones has burst on to the scene with all the excitement and hoopla of its predecessors. Once again we have seen huge lines of eager buyers on launch day (myself included, if you’d care to read my thoughts on the experience) and record-breaking sales.
A new design, a new screen, new EarPods and the new Maps app have all been a focus of excitement and review in the mobile industry. We’ve had our iPhone 5 since launch day so we figured it was time we threw up our own iPhone 5 review.
iPhone 5 Design and Feel
Since our unboxing, our views on the design of the iPhone 5 have changed somewhat. Where we originally thought it to be a disappointing mirror of the iPhone 4 and 4S we’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. As we used it more often the slender shape and light-weight feel became increasingly pleasant, making the overall experience a more relaxing experience.
Apple’s now infamously well-known Thumb ad actually had a few things right; the iPhone 5 really is a fantastic size to use one-handed. We’ve become somewhat accustomed to the larger displays of Android and Windows Phone, as both of those OSes release smartphones with wonton regularity where Apple only does it once every 12 months, if that. As such the contrast of one-handed use on a thin 4 inch device was very clear to us and, we have to say, we’ve enjoyed it immensely.
The light-weight of the iPhone 5 coupled with the super thin 7.5mm profile means that it’s barely noticeable when kept in the pocket. We say barely because you can still definitely feel it there without frantically patting yourself down for fear of losing it, but it’s just a slight enough impression to its noticeable presence until the user focuses on it.
The overall look, while still very reminiscent of the iPhone 4 and 4S, is definitely the best we’ve yet seen from Apple. The lack of shiny bezel on the black model makes for an uninterrupted appearance of calm elegance. It looks and feels very much like a single piece of smooth technology, rather than a pieced-together gadget. We still would have liked to have seen something a bit more original from Apple this time around, but at the same time we don’t really feel cheated. It’s a classy looking device and, at the end of the day, it’s how well it works that counts most; not how different it looks from the previous model.
The shifting of the headphone jack from the top to the bottom is a little puzzling. It’s not that it’s particularly worse or better, but that’s kind of the reason it’s a curious move; why bother at all? For years iPhone users (and smartphone users in general) have kept their phones in their pockets top-side-up when listening to headphones and now that’s been reversed. We constantly found ourselves pulling the iPhone 5 out and automatically manoeuvring it until it was upside-down without thinking. Once again this isn’t overly annoying or a bad design, it just seems like a change for the sake of a change.
One small issue is that we did sometimes accidentally hold down the home button when pulling it from a pocket, thus activating Siri. This was a bit frustrating, but felt like something we’d get used to avoiding in no time.
Display and General UI
The longer 4 inch display of the iPhone 5 is great. It’s no secret that iPhones have boasted amazing screens ever since the retina display debuted on the iPhone 4, but the increase in length without affected width or pixel density really does make this the best iPhone display yet.
At first it may look a little stretched, especially for anyone who is used to older iPhone models, but that goes away pretty quickly. The tallness of the screen allows for an extra row of icons as well as a much less cramped overall feel. It’s pretty much just big enough to not feel squished, while small enough to still fit really easily in the pocket or to be used one-handed. Apple has ridden a very fine line here and ridden it well. So, while we don’t applaud Apple for something as simple as finally making iPhone screens bigger, we did begin to appreciate how much thought seems to have gone in to the dimensions after we’d been using it for a while.
Apple’s retina display may no longer boast the larges ppi (pixels per inch) in the market, but it still offers one of the best, if not the best, viewing experiences in the mobile market. Colours are remarkably vibrant without detracting from real-world accuracy, blacks are stark and whites are clear. It’s smooth, incredibly crisp and renders text with awesome clarity.
While it’s true that Android has come a very long way in terms of cutting down on its jerkiness, using an iPhone is always a great reminder of just how fluid a smartphone experience can be. We just didn’t get any lag in day-to-day use; something that, while seemingly small, does leave an overall impression of quality with the user, even if they often can’t put their finger on why.
Another thing we found to our liking was the distinct lack of glare reflected in to our eyes when we held the iPhone 5 in direct sunlight. Unlike many other devices, the iPhone 5 didn’t require us to tweak brightness settings on especially sunny days.
The iOS6 user interface (UI) is Apple’s best yet. It’s fast, super-smooth and probably still the most intuitive on the market. That being said at this stage the standard grid icon format is starting to feel a little stale. Yes, iOS does look different to when it debuted in 2007, but not that different.
We know it’s a common suggestion but we have to say it: widgets. We’re not saying that iOS needs huge, battery-hungry and often screen-hogging widgets like in Android, but there’s really no reason that the icon for an app can’t display some basic information regarding recent notifications. Windows Phone is a great example of this, where its small live-tiles still provide relevant, dynamic data at a glance without requiring the user to actually open the app. Not only does it cut down on the time between telling a user that they have a notification and giving them the information, but it also just looks better.
We’re well aware of the old axiom “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, but we’re not sure how much longer that viewpoint is going to keep working with Apple’s increasingly common-looking iOS home screen layout. Is it looking old because other people copied it? Of course, you’ll get no argument here. Does that mean it’s not as eye-catching as it once was? Unfortunately, yes, it does.
In iOS6 Apple has done away with Google Maps and included its very own app simply called “Maps”. The move is somewhat controversial, as more than a few people have become frustrated by Maps’ apparent lack of ability to function as a complete substitute for the world’s most used maps service: Google Maps.
Apple Maps, at first glance, is actually pretty impressive. It’s fast, partly due to 4G connectivity and partly due to the app and iPhone 5 themselves, and even offers alternate routes that can be easily selected and made the main response.
However, after using it for a while the errors start to stack up. People have been directed through water, the wrong way around roundabouts and occasionally to the wrong place completely. Moreover Apple’s new Flyover mode, while once again initially impressive, has been offering bizarre and sometimes hilarious inaccuracies, such as horribly warped roads or mountains in the middle of suburban areas.
We didn’t personally encounter too many troubles during our time with Maps, but the knowledge of its now notorious unreliability definitely detracted from our experience. Unlike with Google Maps, where we often don’t have to put in any energy to figuring out if we’ve been presented with a trustworthy result, we felt as though we had to double check everything that Apple Maps was telling us. Basically it made the entire GPS experience much more hands-on than simple and automatic.
iPhone 5 Camera
The camera in the iPhone 5 has seen updates in areas other than the usual megapixel increase we’ve seen between iPhone generations (both the 4S and the 5 sport an 8MP camera). The iPhone 5 has a reworked sapphire crystal lens that is reported to be more durable and remain scratch-free when bumping around in your pocket. The sensor in the camera has also been improved to produce less noise across all types of shots (viewable in our tests last week) and noticeably improved sensitivity in low light situations. Much of increase for low light shots is due to the maximum ISO seeing an increase to 3200 on the iPhone 5 from the 800 that we saw with the 4S(samples in part 2 of our tests last week).
iOS6 also added a Panorama camera mode that provides a very user-friendly way to shoot panoramas by guiding you through the process, even alerting the user when moving too fast while panning. It is worth noting though that this new Panorama shooting mode is available as part of the iOS6 upgrade; so it is also available to iPhone 4S and fifth-generation iPod touch users via iOS6.
As an added feature, users also have the option of snapping photos while recording video. This is not a function unique to the iPhone, nor do we expect too many users to find it a key feature, but it’s still a nice addition.
There are some other tweaks, such as improved shutter speed and Facebook integrations. Once again these are handy bits of functionality that improve the overall smoothness of the experience, but hardly make-or-break additions.
Overall we’d have to say that the iPhone 5 sports the best camera we’ve yet seen on a smartphone. We’re still keen to see how Nokia’s new PureView camera tech holds up, but that won’t hit the market until late October, if not after.
Music and Media
Another area where iPhones have always excelled is in music. Whether you be a fan of iTunes or not, iPhones offer a great music experience. Just try taking the top-ranked smartphone of almost any other brand and compare side by side to its contemporary iPhone and you’ll almost always find the iPhone to be superior in music sound quality, assuming you’re using the same set of headphones for both devices.
In this respect the iPhone 5 is no different; sound quality is great. Bass is deep without being ridiculous or suffering from distortion while treble rings out true and clear. Having to shunt all of your music through iTunes can feel a bit restrictive and is, indeed, a major complaint for some. But ultimately it’s a simple enough process transferring music on to an iPhone, so long as you have legitimately-acquired music of the correct file-type.
We also found that Spotify was a nice way around the old iTunes experience. Spotify members that have access to the mobile app (i.e. premium members) can skip iTunes all together and simply rely on their Spotify account. Of course, this is just trading one restrictive service for another, but there’s at least a choice. One issue with this was that we found Spotify, as a 3rd party app, had the tendency to mute when we loaded games. This could certainly be annoying at times and was a little disappointing, but it didn't happen 100% of the time.
The new EarPods are surprisingly good for a stock-standard headphone offering. They offer great sound quality and are rivalled perhaps only by the Beats by Dre headphones included with the HTC Sensation XE. We compared them to a pair of MEE A161P (RRP around $100) and they were roughly equivalent. Where the Apple EarPods were superior in bass the MEE A161Ps sounded better when it came to treble. We really had no preference between the two, but fans of bass might actually find they like Apple’s Earpods over these very highly-rated earbuds.
Comfort-wise, the EarPods are a little odd to get used to and, after more than a week of continual use, we’re still not sure if we prefer them to regular inner-ear or over-ear options. At the very least they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the old circular-style that Apple and many cheaper headphone brands employed that ended up leaving the ear feeling almost bruised in places when worn for hours on end. What the user is left with is some EarPods that feel kind of weird at first, but quite natural after a couple of days and that never caused us any physical discomfort.
Instead of actually sitting deep within the ear, as many modern earbuds do, the EarPods almost hang within the ear, using the natural curves and ridges present in (according to Apple) most people to hold itself in place without resorting to wedging itself in there by force. It’s a surprisingly sturdy approach that for use never came close to falling out by its own accord.
However, this method is much more susceptible to random tugs and pulls that can happen when out and about. While the EarPods certainly never slipped out due to normal walking, they were far more likely to come flying out when caught on something. We also discovered that the EarPods didn't isolate the music they generated as effectively as other earbuds. When running at the same volume, our co-workers could hear what we were listening to much more distinctly than when using more common headphone designs.
Browsing and Keyboard
Browsing on the iPhone 5 is incredibly quick. This isn’t entirely due to 4G, although it helps, but more because of the actual browser itself. Even on WiFi or when using 3G we found the iPhone 5’s browser to be one of the fastest we’ve ever used.
Of course, once you’re on a 4G network that fast browser gets even faster. We often loaded the full version of web pages faster than a fixed-line connection on a PC.
The larger 4 inch screen really comes in handy here, too. The taller, but not wider, screen still allows readers to scan text very quickly, as the eye doesn’t have to move too far to the left and right. Not only that, but the ability to cram more text vertically means that scanning is even faster, as the reader doesn’t have to scroll as often.
The keyboard, as always, was very fast and had no trouble keeping up with our speedy fingers. We would like to point out that the iPhone keyboard is starting to feel a little dated in terms of layout. Where the keypads of other manufacturers offer the user to hold down a key to access other symbols, the iOS version still requires the symbol button to be pressed. It also feels a little less accurate in terms of text prediction and auto-correct. We found ourselves wanted to disable auto-correct pretty quickly.
In portrait mode typing still feels a little cramped for large fingers like ours, but it's not terrible. Landscape mode typing is much better, due to the improved length of the iPhone 5.
4G LTE is incredible. Even with speeds at the lower end of 4G (around 10-14Mbps) the general internet experience of using a smartphone is increased out of sight. While using 3G on a smartphone could sometimes be frustrating, especially when loading an image or video, 4G is as smooth as traditional fixed-line broadband, assuming the signal is strong.
We actually found ourselves using the internet much more on 4G, as it was so fast that it just felt like another part of in-built phone functionality. That is to say, we often forgot that the services we used were internet-based, as there was little difference in speed and fluidity between internet and non-internet functions.
GPS was so vastly improved that we actually used Apple’s new Maps app more often than we usually use Google Maps. That’s not to say that Maps is a superior service; while it’s impressive what Apple has accomplished here we think Maps has a ways to go before it can take on Google’s version, but the speed at which 4G allowed GPS routes to be calculated made the entire affair super easy.
All of this being said it’s important to keep in mind the fact that 4G LTE is in no way exclusive to the iPhone 5. Both Windows Phones and Androids also come in 4G flavours, with many new 4G enabled handsets on their way.
One thing we will note about 4G with specific regards to the iPhone 5 is a curious dilemma we were often faced with. Many apps require users to access a WiFi network to download them. This is because they are large in size and can use up sizeable chunks of a monthly data cap. However, with 4G being faster than WiFi in many areas we usually had WiFi disabled. This meant that every time we wanted to download an app we had to exit the App Store, go in to settings, enable WiFi and then reopen the App Store. We'd like to see the option to enable WiFi via the drop-down notification bar, like in other OSes. This would definitely help to address the issue.
Battery Life and Heating Issues
Battery life on the iPhone 5 is a mixed bag. Generally, we found it pretty solid in terms of how efficiently it managed power, lasting a full day at medium-to-heavy use. However, due to our increased tendency to use internet services, we found that we would often push the envelope come sundown. Users who find their love of 4G mirroring ours should definitely keep one eye on the battery bar whenever possible.
We found that when using copious amounts of 4G the iPhone 5 tended to heat up quite a bit. This was surprising as we’d never really encountered such an issue before with an iPhone or other iOS device; usually just Androids are the culprits here.
The iPhone 5 didn’t get so hot as to be unusable, but it could get a bit uncomfortable to hold it for extended periods when heating occurred.
We’re pretty sure this issue is related specifically to 4G, as we experienced no such problems when we switched the 4G SIM card out for a 3G variant.
It’s a sad fact for many English speakers who don’t rock an American accent that voice recognition software can often have trouble identifying the countless ways each word in English can be pronounced. While recent years have seen that issue decrease significantly, we still found that Siri often simply couldn’t understand what we were saying when speaking with regular speed and inflection.
It’s a problem we encountered with Siri back when the iPhone 4S was released last year. Searching for more generic information like sports scores still works fairly well, but other functions such as anything involving a place name often caused issues with us.
Admittedly, Australian place names tend to be quite different to those found in other English speaking countries. So, while directions to something like “The Australian Museum” came through pretty well (so long as you asked while in doors), queries like “Driving directions to Turramurra” came back with “Driving directions to Tamar” and even once something to do with a person called “Kyle Morrow”.
While it is a shame that Siri doesn’t seem to work as well for us Aussies as it does for our US cousins, we didn’t find it too big a drawback. At the end of the day we still feel a bit uncomfortable being that person on the bus or train who talks to their smartphone instead of entering commands manually, so we didn’t feel too ripped off by Siri’s difficulty with our accent.
The WhistleOut Opinion
Our time with the iPhone 5 has been one of multiple opinions. At first, during our iPhone 5 unboxing, we were a little underwhelmed and felt that the iPhone 5 looked very similar, both on paper and aesthetically, if not too similar to the iPhone 4S.
Then, after about a day with it, we found that we were liking it more and more. We were loving how quickly apps launched, the increased shutter speed of the camera and we’re still definitely big fans of how it handles panoramic shots.
Now, after around 2 weeks with the iPhone 5, we have to say that we’re still pretty impressed, if not as much so. We still feel like iOS might need a bit more of a mix-up in the future if it wants to remain competitive, but for now the iPhone 5 is definitely still a great smartphone. It really is a fast, fluid machine that destroys most of its competitors.
It still has the best camera on the market and in our iPhone 4S vs iPhone 5 Camera Showdown we showed the many improvements in the photo department.
Siri and Maps ended up being a bit of a let-down, but probably not as much as reports on the internet has been letting on. When a company as big as Apple releases something that doesn’t work perfectly there are always going to be thousands of examples of mistakes posted all over the web, but in our experience both services functioned adequately. Of course we would have preferred Apple to wait a generation or two until Maps could really contend with Google Maps, but once again we didn’t find this to be enough of an issue to scare us away.
It’s difficult to recommend an update to the iPhone 5 for anyone with an iPhone 4S who is in the middle of their 24 month contract. The iPhone 5 is certainly an upgrade, but we’re divided as to whether it’s enough of one to fork out $799 or more, especially if you’re just going to do it again in 12 months’ time when the iPhone 5S (or whatever it’s called) hits the market.
Anyone upgrading from an iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5 will definitely feel the raw increase of speed, as well as an overall more polished experience. We see no reason why happy iPhone 4 users should feel reticent to make the jump to iPhone 5.
The iPhone 5 may not have ended up being the incredible step forwards that many users had dreamed of, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that it’s a great device that’s well-worth consideration for smartphone buyers. iOS is still probably the most intuitive interface out there and Apple software update support is unsurpassed.
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