iPhone 5 review: Taking the next step in smartphone evolution

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As with anything cellular, your LTE mileage may vary. In our offices in downtown San Francisco, I was able to measure download speeds of 20Mbps on AT&T and 23Mbps on Verizon. Upload speeds were 17Mbps (AT&T) and 14MBps (Verizon). Compare this to the 4Mbps downloads and 0.3MBps uploads I saw on AT&T's older GSM network. Downloads that are five times faster? Not bad.

That said, LTE coverage can be spotty. Verizon's got the largest LTE coverage in the U.S., though AT&T is rolling out its network rapidly. (Sprint is even further behind.) In San Francisco, I was able to get LTE from both carriers, though outside the city the coverage fell back to older connections pretty quickly. If you're in a city not served by AT&T's LTE network, you'll want to consider Verizon.

Verizon also tends not to play games with its iPhone users the way AT&T does: While iOS 6 supports FaceTime calls over a cellular connection, AT&T has disabled this feature unless you upgrade to a more-expensive Mobile Share plan. You can use other video-chat apps without any penalty; AT&T is just holding FaceTime hostage in order to cadge more money out of its customers.

Similarly, AT&T makes you pay more if you want to use the Personal Hotspot feature (and hasn't even enabled it for iPad users). In addition, the iPhones sold by Verizon and Sprint come with an unlocked nano-SIM card; if you're traveling internationally and can find a nano-SIM card—they're relatively new, so may be hard to come by for a while—you can stick one in the phone and it'll work on the in-country networks. AT&T's iPhone, on the other hand, is locked to AT&T and makes you use its (often quite expensive) international carrier partners.

I have been an AT&T customer for many years, mostly because my neighborhood has decent AT&T coverage but is a Verizon dead spot. If you're in a situation like mine, AT&T might be the best option. But while I have no illusions about phone companies being all sunlight and joy, if all other parts of the equation are equal, I would unequivocally recommend Verizon over AT&T for iPhone users. Verizon offers better LTE coverage, doesn't play chicken with new iOS features, and offers more flexibility for international travelers.

Camera improvements

Like the iPhone 4S before it, the iPhone 5 offers an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera. As we've learned the last few years, though, megapixels aren't the only—or even best—indicator of camera quality. Apple claims that the iPhone 5 camera offers faster photo capture, better low-light performance, and improved noise reduction over the previous model.

In my personal experiences, these claims were proved more or less to be true. Taking pictures is noticeably faster, even with notoriously poky HDR captures. iPhone 5 images appeared to be better in low light and were less noisy.

Close-ups of images taken with an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 4S.

Our lab also compared the iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, third-generation iPad, and the Samsung Galaxy S III in a series of our standard still and video tests. The results show that the iPhone 5 is definitely a step ahead of the 4S (with one exception: the 4S appeared to do a better job in our low-light video test).

The iPhone 5 camera matched or beat the Galaxy S III's camera in every test, though the two were much more closely matched when it came to stills than in our video tests. In general, the iPhone 5 camera appeared to generate images with more pleasing colors, while the Galaxy S III's camera rendered colors a bit more accurately. In our normal-light video test, the Galaxy S III was sharper, but darker, while the iPhone 5 traded a bit of sharpness for a clearer, lighter picture.

In a flash: Mobile cameras compared

 Still colorStill sharpnessStill flash photoLow-light video qualityNormal video qualityAudio quality
iPhone 5 4 4.5 4 3 4 3.5
iPhone 4S 3.5 3 3 4 3.5 3
iPad 3rd Generation 3.5 3.5 2 2.5 3 3
Samsung Galaxy S III 4 4 4 2 4 2

Scores are on a 1-5 point quality scale as rated by a jury of three editors. Higher scores are better.

The big upgrade in the iPhone 5's imaging system is actually its front-facing camera, which is now capable of 720p video. It's noticeably better for FaceTime video calls and self portraits. It seems like a minor thing, but I've come to rely on FaceTime to keep in touch with my family when I'm traveling, and the FaceTime image sent by the iPhone 5 is a noticeable improvement.

HD FaceTime camera in action.

Other small changes

The iPhone 5 offers numerous small changes and new features that weren't present in previous iPhone models. There are several improvements to audio, including multiple microphones to cancel noise and make you sound much better. In a few test phone calls I made, people commented on the quality of the call—even when I was walking down a busy sidewalk with loud trucks rumbling by.

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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