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iPhone 5s review: Tomorrow's technology today

At a Glance
  • Apple iPhone 5s

    Macworld Rating

    The iPhone 5s may look a lot like its predecessor. But with a faster new processor, a fingerprint sensor, and an improved camera flash, it's a serious upgrade.

Apple’s pattern of iteration isn’t smooth when it comes to the iPhone. It bumps along: a new case design one year, more subtle advancements the next. The iPhone 5s is, as the name implies, a phone that doesn’t look much different from last year’s iPhone 5. But the mostly static exterior belies the numerous changes inside the device.

The result is, yes, Apple’s latest best-iPhone-yet. From the addictive Touch ID sensor to the clever camera upgrades to the promotion of sensors from part-time to full-time workers, the iPhone 5s is a worthy inheritor of the iPhone throne.

All that glitters

I’ve been carrying an iPhone 5 in my pocket for the past year, and the iPhone 5s feels exactly the same: It has the same curved edges, same dimensions, same everything. Only the updated Home button and the new camera flash betray that this is not an iPhone 5.

That is, unless you count the color. Last year’s slate model (black glass and very dark gray metal) has been displaced by a slightly lighter “space gray” version, but more notably the white-and-silver model has been joined by a second, white-and-gold variation. When the rumor of a gold iPhone first appeared on the scene, the response was a strange backlash. I still don’t get it—were people really expecting that Apple’s exacting designers would release a phone that looks like an Australian’s nightmare?

Image: Robert Cardin
Not a nightmare.

No, this gold finish is very much the counterpart of the silvery aluminum finish on last year’s white iPhone 5. As with the endless ice cream battle between chocolate and vanilla, some people like gold and some like silver. Me, I still prefer the darker look of space gray, but the gold iPhone is attractive and tasteful.

The display of the iPhone 5s is essentially the same as that of the iPhone 5: a 4-inch-diagonal, 1136-by-640-pixel display at 326 ppi, or Retina resolution. It’s a bright, beautiful display. It’s great, but I find myself looking at the larger screens on the phones of competitors with growing envy. The HTC One is a thin, beautiful Android phone—and it has a 4.7-inch-diagonal, 1920-by-1080-pixel display at 469 dpi.

Apple doesn’t need to make an iPhone that’s comically large like the Samsung Galaxy Note, but something the size of the HTC One would be welcome. Perhaps next year Apple can offer a new, larger iPhone model to go with the iPhone 5s and the 5c. In the meantime, people seeking a phone with a larger screen will not find satisfaction from Apple.

Then there’s the new Home button on the iPhone 5s. That old rounded-rectangle image silkscreened on a slightly concave button, the one we’ve known since the very first iPhone, is history. Meet the new button: A metallic ring (colored to match the color of the rest of the phone’s metal) surrounds a flat surface that seems subtly smaller than the old button. The button click feels a bit firmer, a bit like switching from a scissor-key keyboard to one with mechanical switches.

The purpose of this button change isn’t aesthetic. This new button is not just a bit of clicky plastic. It’s a sophisticated biometric scanner, and it’s just as outlandish as it is practical.

Sci-fi technology made routine

Beneath the surface of the Home button is the new Touch ID fingerprint sensor. When I first heard rumors about this feature, I thought it sounded like a gimmick, a feature that brings a frisson of living in a science-fiction future but that probably won’t be useful in practice. After using it for a few days, though, I can say that once you start using Touch ID, it’s awfully hard to stop.

Unlocking the phone with Touch ID is seamless. If I press the Home button and leave my finger resting on the button after the press, the phone just jumps to the home screen. And Apple’s software-design decisions around Touch ID are tasteful, not distracting. After three failed attempts to scan a finger, a passcode/password screen slides in, a reminder that you can also unlock the phone without any fingerprint. On a failed attempt to read a print, the phone’s ‘Slide to Unlock’ text changes briefly to read ‘Try Again’.

Is Touch ID security going to satisfy spies and handlers of classified material? No. Clever people have already demonstrated that, if you invest a large amount of time, money, and materials, you can fake out the sensor. If you’re James Bond, do not rely on Touch ID to secure your purloined secrets.

Image: Robert Cardin
That’s no ordinary Home button.

But for the rest of us, the point of Touch ID is not to create unbreakable security against all attackers. It’s to make iPhones more secure overall by making it easier for users to lock their devices. Consider why Apple added Time Machine to OS X: Not enough computer users were backing up their systems. The barrier to setting up a backup was simply too high. So Apple created software that made doing so easier, allowing users to plug in a hard drive and then click just one button to start a backup regimen.

Touch ID makes it much easier to unlock your phone—after a day or so, it became habitual for me. Touch ID also requires that you add a passcode or password, and what self-respecting iPhone 5s user would buy this phone and then never use the built-in fingerprint sensor? As a result, I suspect that Touch ID will cause a much larger percentage of iPhone users to lock their phones, and that’s a good thing.

Training Touch ID is a relatively easy process. The helpful training screen (with an animated status bar that shows fingerprint lines gradually turning from gray to red) prompts you when to place your finger on the Home button for scanning and when to lift it. Once the phone has gotten the core of your print, it asks you to press your finger to the scanner some more so that it can read the edges—the parts that might not be visible when you press your finger on the button in the standard position.

The iPhone 5s can store up to five fingerprints. After using the phone for five days, I’ve discovered that I seem to use only three fingers (two thumbs and one index finger) to unlock my phone, depending on how I’m holding it; that leaves me a couple of slots that I can reserve for my wife’s digits, in case she needs to unlock my phone.

Adding a fingerprint sensor was an audacious move by Apple; this is weird, sci-fi technology that could make the iPhone a laughingstock if it doesn’t work right. Not only does it work, but Apple has also shown great restraint in making the entire process feel normal. There are no bright animations or wacky sounds when Touch ID is in use. Sure, you’re unlocking your 64-bit pocket supercomputer with just a fingerprint, but that’s no reason to get excited.

It’s faster, for sure

I didn’t think I would notice a difference between speed on the iPhone 5 and its successor; I mean, really, the iPhone 5 is pretty darned fast on its own. But the moment I started launching apps on the iPhone 5s, I could tell that it was a lot faster. Particularly troublesome or ambitious apps, ones that bogged down on my iPhone 5, ran smoothly on the iPhone 5s, with little or no delays and no jittery scrolling.

Benchmarks: iPhone 5s lives up to the hype

For example, Twitterrific 5—my iOS Twitter client of choice—can get a little ropy when it’s loading a large batch of new tweets, accessing the network and drawing a whole lot of text at the same time. On my iPhone 5 (and even more so on my iPad mini), I usually have to take a deep breath and let the tweets load before I try to do anything. On the iPhone 5s, I saw no delay, and the scrolling never hiccuped; everything that app had to offer me, it offered without hesitation.

So the iPhone 5s feels fast. What do the benchmarks say? You can read our lab results in detail, but to summarize: The iPhone 5s is twice as fast as the iPhone 5c and nearly twice as fast as the iPhone 5. Upgraders from the iPhone 4s will be even more impressed, as the iPhone 5s is roughly six times as fast as the phone that was Apple’s top-of-the-line model only two years ago. And the battery life is better than that of the iPhone 5.

That said, the iPhone 5 remains plenty fast—for now. Most current iOS apps have been tuned for the iPhone 5, by developers who use the iPhone 5 every day. As those developers begin using the iPhone 5s, they will begin to expect the power of the iPhone 5s. As a result, the extra processor power of the iPhone 5s will begin to come into play—and the iPhone 5 (and 5c) might start to feel a bit pokier. That’s one reason perfectly fast phones begin to feel slower as they age.

Quite honestly, right now the app that’s making the best use of the new A7 processor that powers the iPhone 5s is Apple’s built-in Camera app. On the 5s, it’s now remarkably reactive, performing a huge amount of image-processing magic with almost no delay. And that brings us to the feature that is, in many ways, the most important aspect of the iPhone 5s.

Skateboard revolution

The camera in the iPhone 5s is physically better—it includes a larger sensor and a bigger lens that lets in more light, which together make for better pictures and better low-light performance. But as I just mentioned, I suspect that the star of the show is really the A7 processor, which allows the iPhone 5s to focus and capture photos faster than any previous iPhone.

Apple doesn’t participate in the megapixel arms race, it seems. The iPhone 5s has an 8-megapixel sensor, but Apple has added all sorts of clever software with the goal of making it easy and fun to take great pictures. It’s a very Apple approach.

Take the new Slo-Mo mode, which shoots 720p HD video at a rate of 120 frames per second, four times the rate of standard video, to give you the option of slowing things down to quarter speed. The iPhone 5s is far from the first phone to offer such a slow-motion mode, but when I investigated the Android phones that provide it, I found that the feature was hard to find and not being talked about online. For other phone makers, 120-fps HD video was just another check on a feature list. For Apple, it’s a feature that now stands front and center in the Camera app.

Shooting slow-motion video is easy. Once you select the Slo-Mo mode in the Camera app, you just shoot video normally. When you’re done, the Camera app gives you a set of sliders that let you select the portion of the video you want to play in slow motion. Once you’ve selected that portion, you have a shareable video that can start in regular speed, shift suddenly to fluid quarter-speed, and then flip back to regular. It’s the feature that will launch a zillion totally awesome slow-motion skateboard videos.

iPhone 5s burst mode
In the camera roll, Burst Mode photos appear as a single photo marked with a ‘Burst’ designation until you tap ‘Choose Favorites’.

The Camera app also offers a new burst mode, enabled when you hold your finger down on the shutter. In this mode, the camera takes a whole bunch of full-quality photos, ten per second. The iPhone picks the image it deems best, but you can also burrow down into the entire stack of photos from the burst and pick your favorites. (All of the images appear in your camera roll and so can be imported onto a computer later for analysis and selection.)

There’s more nice synergy between hardware and software in the new True Tone Flash. The new camera flash in the iPhone 5s consists of two separate LEDs, each with its own unique color temperature. (One of them is a bluish-white, while the other is more yellow.) The iPhone’s software analyzes the color temperature of the shot it’s going to take—is the room’s light warm, cold, or somewhere in between?—and then adjusts the intensity of the two LED flashes to match the ambient light as closely as possible. The result is better flashes, no doubt.

The iPhone 5s produced a better image, and the True Tone Flash definitely brought out more natural colors.

However, flashes still have a tendency to ruin photographs. I highly recommend setting your iPhone’s flash setting to Off and turning it on only when getting a shot any other way is impossible. The good news on this front is that the camera on the iPhone 5s is remarkably good in low-light settings. Even if you think that you just can’t get a good shot without using a flash, I recommend that you show a little faith in the iPhone 5s: You’ll be surprised at what it can accomplish with very little light.

I like to move it, move it

One of the iPhone 5s features I find most fascinating is also one that I can’t really test: It’s the existence of the M7 coprocessor, a chip that allows the iPhone to constantly monitor its array of sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, compass) without expending the massive amount of power required to keep the main processor operating.

For now, Apple says that there are two places where it’s using the M7 data already. The first is in the Maps app, which can sense a change in how you’re moving. Let’s say you have to park down the block from your destination. The Maps app will detect that you’ve stopped driving and started walking, and will switch from providing driving directions to telling you where to walk.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    The iPhone 5s may look a lot like its predecessor. But with a faster new processor, a fingerprint sensor, and an improved camera flash, it's a serious upgrade.

    Pros

    • Touch ID fingerprint sensor
    • Camera flash adjusts to ambient light temperature
    • Big speed improvement over iPhone 5

    Cons

    • Screen still feels small next to other high-end phones
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