Hands-on with the iPhone 5s

iPhone 5S

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Though the iPhone 5s won’t be available in stores until September 20, we were able to use some demo models for a little while on Tuesday after Apple’s media event announcing them. We scanned our thumbs, took pictures, and tried to imagine what part of space is gray. Here’s our hands-on first look.

Look and feel

The iPhone 5s feels an awful lot like the iPhone 5. It isn’t noticeably heavier in hand, nor is the look particularly different—save for its new color options.

When the iPhone 5s was only a rumor, much was made about one of those new color options: the gold version. But this isn’t some crazy, Vegas-style iPhone: It’s a muted metallic color that’s the gold equivalent of the iPhone 5’s silver. The gold iPhone 5s has a white front and gold metallic sides and back. The new “space gray” iPhone is basically the old black iPhone, with the slate metal shade brought up into a dark gray. (Space, by the way, is completely black—not gray.)

In using the iPhone 5s briefly, we found it speedy and snappy, and iOS 7 looks great. We weren’t able to run any benchmark tests or particularly hungry apps, so there was no way to put to the test Apple’s claims of it being twice as fast as the iPhone 5 in many tasks. As we said, the iPhone 5s feels more or less like the iPhone 5. It’s truly an iPhone with an “s” at the end at its name—a whole bunch of upgraded internals built on top of a phone design that seems quite familiar.

iPhone 5s
The iPhone 5s feels a lot like the iPhone 5. They can even use the same cases.

We also got a chance to see Apple’s new leather iPhone 5s case during our time on Apple’s campus. To our hands, the cases didn’t actually feel—or even look—especially leathery. They fit extremely snugly, and even the Apple representatives on hand mentioned that the cases can be a chore to remove or put back on. And because the iPhone 5s is exactly the same dimensions as the iPhone 5, you can use Apple‘s new case for your iPhone 5—or iPhone 5 cases on your new iPhone 5s.

Touch ID

The big thing we got to play with in our brief time with the phone was the new Touch ID fingerprint system. The fingerprint sensor is built into the iPhone 5s's Home button, which as a result feels ever-so-slightly different.

Thumb scanning on iPhone 5S
If it can't read your finger, the iPhone 5s will tell you to try again.

Configuring and using Touch ID is a breeze, and feels a bit like the future. First, a disclaimer: Touch ID does not preclude you from locking your phone with a passcode. In fact, to use touch ID you must also have a passcode on your phone. If the fingerprint scanner somehow gets borked, or if you hand your iPhone to someone else while driving, or if you lose your hand in a freak accident, you can still get into the device by using the passcode. (For more on that, see Rich Mogull's FAQ about Touch ID.)

In the Settings app, under Passcode and Fingerprint, you can tap to add a new fingerprint. To add one, you’ll need to enter in your device’s passcode first. The upshot: Even if someone snags your unlocked iPhone, they can’t add their own fingerprints willy-nilly; they’d need to know your passcode first.

Because the iPhone 5s will store up to five fingerprints, you can have the phone memorize two of your own fingers—say, both thumbs or a thumb and an index finger—and still have room left over for your significant other or kids to add their prints, too.

The iPhone 5s has you tap the Home button several times, until it has a good enough scan of your fingerprint.

When you tap to add a new fingerprint, iOS 7 prompts you to tap your finger on the Home button several times. After a while it may also coach you to change your grip on the phone, so it can map a larger portion of the surface area of your fingertip—just as though you’re getting fingerprinted down at the police station. A fingerprint icon continues to add details as you tap, until finally the phone tells you that the process is complete.

You can name each stored fingerprint—My thumb or Lauren’s index, say—to keep track of which is which. And if you want to edit a print’s name, or delete it, there’s an easy way to figure out which is which when you’re in the Touch ID portion of the Settings app: Just put your finger on the Home button, and the saved fingerprint linked to that finger gets briefly highlighted in the list.

Once you’ve saved the fingerprint, you can use it for two purposes: You simply put your finger on the Home button, and the device will unlock after a moment. If it can’t identify your fingerprint, you’ll see a Try Again message. After a few tries, the iPhone will flip over to the passcode keypad, giving you not-so-subtle encouragement to just give up and use a passcode instead.

The other place you can use your fingerprint is anywhere you’re prompted for your Apple ID password—specifically, iTunes Store purchases. When you go to buy an app, for example, the iPhone 5s will prompt you to provide your fingerprint. But if you can’t or don’t want to, you can choose to tap in your actual password instead.

Those are our impressions after an all-too-brief session with the iPhone 5s. We'll have more to say when we get our review unit.

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At a Glance
  • 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.


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


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