The iPhone 5 review

The world needs another iPhone 5 review.  So I’m here to give you one.

I’m not going to get into all the specs.  Maybe in a past life, but plenty of other folks have done that quite well in today’s day and age.  So I’m just going to stick to impressions.

Box and packaging

The iPhone 5 comes in a nice box like the older iPhones. The main difference here is that instead of a USB AC adapter cube you get some bigger EarPods.  I couldn’t give a whit about the EarPods (I do not like things in my ears)  so I’ll leave those out of this review.

Weight

First impressions upon holding the phone … it is quite a bit lighter than the iPhone 4 (22% lighter, if I recall correctly).  I find the extra lightness to be a notably successful challenge of constraints, but practically of little use.  But good bragging rights for the hardware engineering team.

Thinness

The iPhone 5 is about 20% thinner than the iPhone 4 series.  Contrasting it with the previous generation, it is as if the back layer of the glass sandwich design simply went away.  While there are thinner phones out there today, this is probably the thinnest phone that you would care to use.  Again, I consider the “thinness wars” today to be of little practical use.

The front

The front of the phone is obviously taller now.  This is the most obvious change to the iPhone 5.  You get one extra row of icon space in the vertical direction.  This has been accomplished by both making the phone slightly taller and removing some extra space between the vertical edges of the screen and the edge of the phone.  So the phone is itself is only about 10% taller, whereas the screen itself is taller by 20%.

The taller screen is less useful than one might think.  The primary issue of tiny text on a phone is constrained in a horizontal direction, not a vertical one.  So when browsing a webpage in vertical format, you see more tiny text, not bigger and more visible text.  I find the lack of additional scrolling/swiping supposedly afforded by a taller screen to be of little extra importance.  Where the taller screen really shines is giving you extra space when the onscreen keyboard is in use, such as when texting or entering data into web forms.  There is far more screen real estate here; in this area, it is welcome.

In addition, the taller screen pushes the limit of one handed use.  At 5′ 8″, I have average or perhaps slightly larger than average hands, when you take the fairer sex into account.  I find it hard to bring the thumb over to the top right corner of the screen.  In addition, with the taller size of the phone, there is some confusion as to how to hold the phone.  If you hold it centered, you need to really stretch your thumb to hit the home button.  If you hold it at the bottom and treat the taller screen space as an extra bonus in the vertical direction, then you have quite a hard time getting to the top of the screen.  Arguably, Apple did a good job of walking the line here, as I can’t imagine it could get any larger without impacting usability for smaller handed folk.

Aesthetically, the front is similar to the iPhone 4S.  But while the top looks OK in terms of negative space, I feel the bottom area containing the home button looks cramped.  I think we should do away with the front location of the home button altogether.

The back

The phone itself is a much newer design when viewed from the rear.  Instead of the glass front and back, there is a mostly unibody aluminum band on the back with two tiny glass windows at the top and bottom of the phone.

There has been much ado about ScuffGate … wherein the black anodized aluminum case scratches through during normal use to reveal the raw aluminum underneath.  The phone is supposedly especially vulnerable at the chamfered edges where the unibody construction is cornered off from sides to back.  I cannot comment on this as I chose the white iPhone, but it seems valid.  I went with the white iPhone primarily for this reason (any scuff just reveals more raw aluminum anyway).  I also felt it was time to have a change of pace from the black iPhone.

It’s probably a quite difficult engineering exercise to cut the top and bottom glass panels exactly to fit flush with the aluminum case.  This is pretty impressive from an engineering standpoint.

Sides

The sides are largely similar to the iPhone 4 series.  The main changes are that the headphone port has been moved to the bottom, the speaker grill at the bottom is a series of drilled holes and not mesh ports, and the venerable 30 pin port has been replaced by a much smaller 8 pin Lightning port.  The new port does not care what orientation you plug the cable into it, which is a hugely welcome change in terms of usability.  In this case, I say this is one of those genius little changes that really matters.  However, there was no speed increase.  Not a deal breaker, but puzzling.

This port change, of course, causes quite an upheaval in the accessories industry.  I know I have a lot of gadgets that are going out the window.  But it was a necessary evolution.

Design as a whole

I believe that the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S are simply better looking than the iPhone 5.  The pure glass and steel looking of the iPhone 4 series has always appeared very modern, refined, and symmetrical.  I feel the white/black bands at the back of the iPhone 5, while presumably necessary to maintain the proper reception characteristics, look aesthetically out of place.  As does the front home button.  This was a very hard exercise in constraint.

Coming back to the unibody construction … the use of aluminum to house the entire phone and the back makes the phone significantly more sturdy and resistant to drops.  So while the glass sandwich design of the iPhone 4 and 4S looks great, the glass was structurally vulnerable to shattering and weighed the phone down.  So there were gains to be had by switching to more aluminum construction, and Apple eked them out.

It is worth noting that if you aren’t a phone dropper, the iPhone 4 series and the glass back would actually be more durable to light scratches and other wear and tear use.

Speed

The iPhone 5 contains a new A6 series processor, running at 1.2 or 1.3 GHz.  The old iPhone 4S ran an A5 dual core processor at 800 MHz.  The new processor is remarkably fast … easily doubling the iPhone 4S in benchmarks, while utilizing less power.  I had slight complaints about the speed of the 4S, but have virtually none about the 5.  Apple did a fantastic job in managing constraints here.  I do not feel that I need extra speed in anything but web browsing right now anyway, so this represents a potential plateau in terms of my requirements for speed from mobile phones.  Hopefully something new and innovative will change my mind.

Speed (LTE and Wi-Fi)

The LTE support is excellent.  It is not uncommon to get speeds from 10 to 40 mbps down.  Combined with the A6 processor, the iPhone 5 truly feels unconstrained, and, paradoxically, users are likely to have a faster internet connection through their phones than their home broadband setups.

However, it also seems to sip battery life.  See below.

In terms of Wi-Fi, the iPhone 5 now supports the 5GHz band, as well as dual antennas for more throughput.  I am a big fan of 5GHz wireless, especially in crowded living environments such as apartments and condos.  But while this is a necessary evolution of the technology, and Amazon made a big deal out of it, it is a negligible real improvement for users.  Mobile devices generally don’t need that much bandwidth.

Battery life

Apple claims the battery life matches the iPhone 4S – 8 hours of talk time, web browsing, etc.  In practice, I find the iPhone 5 battery drains quickly, which makes me keep an eye on it through the course of the day.  I have been using a Mophie battery pack on my iPhone 4S, which, while somewhat unwieldy, has really given me enough battery life to truly make the phone a little more fire and forget, especially on trips … where I think the extra battery may just be necessary.  I don’t much enjoy the idea of tending my phone so I can use it throughout the day.

The new iOS 6

I find iOS 6 does little in the way of truly necessary new features.  The best changes … iMessage sync with your phone number across devices, faster safari performance, turn by turn directions, smoother app store interactions and less “enter your password” scenarios.

Apple Maps is getting a lot of flak, but the real bottom line is that it’s not as bad as you think.  I find turn by turn directions to be incredibly useful, and I don’t anticipate losing enough IQ points to drive into a ditch or head to the top of a building to get gas.

Some apps are still oddly lacking … Reminders continues to be a UI disaster, the Stopwatch portion of clock looks like it was coded as a sample app and never updated, and I still find organizing apps to be underfeatured.  The settings area is completely unorganized and really needs a complete rethinking.  More on that later.  Still, iOS 6 is better than not upgrading … but I really think more polish could have been had here.

Conclusion

Overall, the iPhone 5 may well round off the rapid pace of evolution that smartphones have undergone over the past year.  I enjoy the little design details and commenting on them … but the dominant change is that web browsing with LTE and the new A6 processor is blazingly fast … and there’s a cap on how fast I need web browsing to be.  I would be happy with this phone for a long time if web pages don’t get much more complex, and a battery pack will probably round out my biggest complaint with the phone.  You can tell Apple ran up against some tougher design constraints this time around, but it’s still the best phone out there.

Changes for the iPhone 6 I would suggest

Move the home button to the side.  The iPhone is so ubiquitous that users don’t really need an “intuitive” way to hit the home button right now.  It will save significant space and it will be easier to hit one handed than the home button anyway.

Kill the sim card tray.  Build some sort of sim cloning tool into the hardware and “load” sim cards into it with a lightning accessory.  Sim cards are a ridiculous waste of space.

Take the screen out to the edges horizontally.  This would help text size issues, and it’s pretty much the only way to go without killing one handed usability by further increasing the screen size.

Make an iPhone for business.  This may go against some design sensibilities, but there are a lot of people that would benefit more from extra battery life and buttons nowadays.  I would gladly buy a thicker, denser iPhone if it had more battery.  I really feel like this niche is underserved.

Wireless charging – I want this badly, but it may be difficult to accomplish.  Ignoring the technical challenges of coil windings and inductive charging, etc … it would be great to see it.  Setting down your phone and having it charge on its own means one less thing to worry about.

More battery – Granted, it’s hard to make this a selling point in specs, but, honestly, this is one of the few additional changes I would really benefit from now as things like speed reach diminishing returns.  As it stands now, I’m going to need an extra battery case anyway, so all that painstaking design work from Apple is sort of out the window hidden behind an ugly plastic case.

Merge the headphone jack with the lightning port – Again … more space for more battery.  Make tiny lightning to headphone adapters for everything else that needs to plug in.

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