iPhone 5 review: Taking the next step in smartphone evolution

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At a Glance
  • Apple iPhone 5

It's been a little more than five years since Apple released the original iPhone. During that time the world has changed. People now expect fast, reliable Internet connections and bright touchscreens on devices they can fit in their pockets.

In the meantime, the iPhone has remained recognizably the iPhone. Each successive generation has added welcome features, but none have strayed so far from the previous one as to be unrecognizable. Indeed, from the very first iPhone upgrade, Apple has been taken to task by critics for following that initial exciting burst of revolution with years of steady evolution. (Meanwhile, the iPhone has become wildly successful, proving that phone buyers are excited by the product even if the pundits aren't.)

Now here's the iPhone 5, and is it any surprise that this model doesn't reimagine the iPhone in a completely new way? No, it too is recognizably an iPhone, an evolution of previous models—yet it offers major advances on almost every front. In the technology industry's fastest-moving product category, it's the very best version of the most successful product produced by the world's most valuable company. If the iPhone 5 bores you, you are deficient in joie de vivre.

Improving on the unimprovable

Almost every new Apple product is thinner, faster, and lighter than its predecessor. But I've wondered how much further down that path Apple could go with the iPhone without rewriting the laws of physics. Given that the iPhone 4S was just 9.3 millimeters thick and weighed a meager 140 grams, I had assumed that any changes in future iPhone dimensions would be perceptible only on spec sheets, but not by regular people.

Turns out I was completely wrong.

In photos, a silver-and-white iPhone 5 looks not much different from the white iPhone 4 or 4S. But photos don't do justice to how thin it feels when you pick it up; the thinness is palpable, not theoretical. Thanks to major materials upgrades (including thinner glass and the elimination of a layer of touch sensors), the iPhone 5 is about 80 percent as thick as its predecessor.

Even more impressive is the weight. As one observer pointed out to me on Twitter, the iPhone 4S was as dense as a slab of Pyrex glass. At just 112 grams, the iPhone 5 doesn't have that same density. It feels almost like a movie prop when you pick it up for the first time, as if behind that glass screen there's foam rather than circuitry.

To make room for its taller display, the iPhone 5 is nearly nine millimeters taller than the iPhone 4 and 4S. (It creates an optical illusion: Several people have told me the phone seems less wide than older models, but it's not. And, of course, black is slimming.) Yet the iPhone 5 is so thin that its overall volume is 12 percent less than that of the iPhone 4 or 4S and a third less than the original iPhone.

And yet for all of this reduction in weight and thickness, the iPhone still feels solid, not cheap; it's all metal and glass. Apple likens it to a fine watch, though to me it feels more like a Braun razor crossed with the Monolith from "2001." (My God, it's full of apps!)

Darth Vader's phone

Robert Cardin
The black iPhone 5 (left) and iPhone 4S (right).

In overall design philosophy, the iPhone 5 is a clear descendant of the iPhone 4, rather than a clean break. It's still got a flat front and back, a raised metal ring around its sides, and those signature rounded edges. The most notable change is the replacement of the all-glass back of the iPhone 4 and 4S. On the iPhone 5, the bulk of the back is made from the same aluminum material as its sides; there are still small glass panels top and bottom.

The metal ring itself is now beveled (okay, chamfered), which makes the phone feel more comfortable in your hand. It also gives the front face of the white-and-silver model a silver halo that reminds me of the original iPhone.

In the past, iPhone color choices have been pretty limited. The iPhone 3G came with either a black or a white back, but that was it. The iPhone 4 came in black and (eventually) white, front and back, but the metal ring was the same regardless of color choice. The white iPhone 5 does closely resemble the iPhone 4/4S, with its white glass and silver metal.

But the black iPhone 5 model is completely different. It's like the Spinal Tap iPhone. (How much more black could it be? None more black.) The front and back have black glass, yes, but the metal band and metal strip on the back are both what Apple calls "slate"—a metallic matte black. The switches are black. The Apple logo on the back is black. Even the box it comes in is black, with "iPhone 5" printed in shiny black lettering. If the white-and-silver iPhone 5 is Gandalf's iPhone, the black-and-slate model is Darth Vader's.

When I had only spent time with the white iPhone 5, I felt less excited about the iPhone 5's design. It was thinner and lighter, yes, but it didn't look much different from the white iPhone 4S I've used for the past year. The black model completely changed my opinion. It's gorgeous. Not everyone will want to embrace the Dark Side, but the black metal and black glass really tie the design of the phone together in a way that the white-and-silver tone doesn't.

Movies and apps trade letterboxes

Before the iPhone 5, all iPhone models had a 3.5-inch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. The iPhone 5 breaks that mold, slightly: its display is just as wide as previous models (640 pixels on a Retina display), but is now 176 pixels taller. The result is a 16:9 aspect ratio—the same shape as an HDTV.

Beyond increasing the phone's height and adding roughly 113,000 pixels, this change allows every page of the home screen to fit an extra row of icons, so you can stick four more apps in places you couldn't stick them before. App folders are similarly expanded. Widescreen movies and TV shows fill the screen instead of displaying letterboxed (or with their sides cut off). When you shoot video with the iPhone 5 camera, you can see the entire frame of what you're shooting without double-tapping to zoom out as on previous models.

Now see everything you're shooting when you shoot widescreen video.

Apps, on the other hand, display with black bars around them unless they've been updated to take advantage of the iPhone 5 screen's height. In practice, this isn't a big deal—the black bars are so black as to basically disappear into the rest of the display, especially on the black model. It does mean that the onscreen keyboard is shifted up from where it usually is, which requires a minor adjustment.

Weather uses the added height to add an hourly view.

Apps that have been updated to support the taller screen appear to have taken one of two approaches. Some just show you more of what you had before: more emails, more tweets, taller webpages. That makes sense for apps that are essentially just lists of things. But other apps can use the greater space to add information that wasn't visible before. Apple's Weather app, for example, now displays an hourly forecast that's only available on older iPhones after you tap on the current day. The iPhone 5 is hardly an iPad, but there's enough extra room on its screen for some iPhone apps to spread their wings in a way they couldn't do before.

Size aside, the iPhone 5's display does appear to be an improvement on the one in the 4 and 4S. Colors appear more saturated and blacks seem blacker. It's not a major improvement, but it does look better.

Lightning strikes

The old dock connector and the new Lightning connector.
Jason Snell

For people with a large hardware investment in Apple's iOS ecosystem—connecting cables, speaker docks, car chargers and the like—the iPhone 5 signifies a major transition. This device marks the beginning of Apple's replacement of the nine-year-old 30-pin dock connector with the new Lightning connector.

While Lightning-to-30-pin adapters will be available, this will almost inevitably mark the death knell for many older accessories. When Apple dropped FireWire support from the dock connector a few years back (a midstream change that many people seem to have forgotten), several of my chargers and a speaker system just stopped working. I bought a FireWire-to-USB adapter, but never really used it because it didn't fit well and using it was awkward. Lesson learned. This time I'm going to be wary of buying adapters to patch up old systems. I think I'll save my money and buy new accessories when I need them, rather than trying to stave off obsolescence with a series of ugly, ill-fitting adapter hacks.

Still, any transition like this is bound to be frustrating. I've got dock-connector cables all over my house and office. The iPhone 5 comes with a single cable, meaning that if I want to charge my phone at home or at work, I need to carry my cable with me (or buy a spare for $19). In time this will all work out and Lightning USB cables will be as common as ninjas in 1980s comics. But in the meantime, we'll be paying for adapters and cables and grousing all the way.

So why did Apple replace the venerable dock connector with Lightning? There are plenty of reasons, starting with size—the new connector is shockingly smaller than the old one. It's smarter than USB. It's also better, because there's no wrong way to insert the cable into the device—either way will do. And presumably it's been designed to last Apple for the next nine years, give or take, so that we won't have to make this unpleasant transition again in a year or two. (Fingers crossed.)

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Slim, light case
    • Taller, roomier display
    • Improved performance
    • Higher-resolution front-facing camera


    • Lightning connector incompatible with older peripherals
    • Features limited by some carriers
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