Apple iPhone 5 review

What Mobile
October 2, 2012

After almost twelve long months of waiting, the much-anticipated Apple iPhone 5 has finally arrived.

But in a year where we’ve seen cutting-edge, market-defining devices launched by Samsung and HTC, among others, can Apple hold onto its crown in the ever-growing smartphone market, or has the mighty iPhone finally lost its touch?

While everyone expected Apple to launch the iPhone 5 at the end of 2011, the rumours turned out to be nothing more than hot air. The excitement then turned to disappointment as we got the iPhone 4S which, while certainly a beautiful evolution of the range, wasn’t the iPhone revolution everyone was expecting.

So it is in the shadow of such expectations and the wake of the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X that the iPhone 5 arrives. And with its striking new design, bigger screen, improved performance and a range of great features, it is certain to be a winner. But is it enough to convince existing iPhone users to upgrade?

Right out of the box the new design is a clear improvement over the iPhone 4 and 4S. While the screen has been stretched from 3.5-inches to 4-inches, it is the thinnest and lightest iPhone to date. The difference in how it makes the new iPhone feel is staggering, with the device feeling almost too light in your hand.

While the iPhone 4 and 4S weighed 137g and 140g, respectively, the iPhone is a featherlight 112g. In fact it’s so light that as we picked it up out of the box we thought we must’ve been sent a faulty device, until we powered it up. When compared to the iPhone 4S, it makes its predecessor feel like a brick in comparison.

The chassis is also slightly thinner than previous iPhones, shaving around 2mm off the iPhone 4 and 4S. Although this may not sound like much, when combined with the new lightweight design, it helps the iPhone 5 feel far thinner than it is, making it the most portable iPhone yet and a pleasure to hold and carry.

Once we’d gotten over our surprise at how light it is, however, we found ourselves a little underwhelmed by just how similar the new design is to the old one. While there’s no doubt the tweaks Apple has added to the tried and tested iPhone design are certainly improvements, this is still a minor evolution of what has come before over the past two years.

The most obvious change is the rear of the device. Where the iPhone 4 and 4S were crafted entirely from glossy glass on the rear, the iPhone 5 uses a brushed aluminium panel, capped by 10mm of glass at the top and bottom, to give the handset a sturdier, scratch-resistant finish.

Other changes are less noticeable but still improve on the look of the device. For starters, where the profile of the screen and rear were previously raised above the metallic bar that runs around the phone, they now sit flush with it for a cleaner, more streamlined appearance helping to shave the 2mm from its depth.

The previously flat metallic bar now sports a polished bevelled edge, which catches the light and sparkles under bright lights. We’re sure some people will enjoy the glitzy look it provides, but we found it a bit too garish for our tastes. The curved edges give the chassis a more comfortable feel in the hand, however.

The headphone port has now been moved from the top of the device to the bottom – a tweak which some will love and others will hate. And the metal speaker and microphone grilles at the bottom of the handset have now been replaced by drilled holes on the left and right, which looks fantastic against the 4S.

Apple iPhone 5 4-inch touchscreen

In a more controversial move, though, the previous 30-pin iPhone connector has now been replaced by Apple’s new Lightning port. The smaller port is certainly easier to use and its small size looks great, but it means that any iPhone peripherals you currently own, such as audio docks, won’t work with the iPhone 5.

That is unless you buy an official Lightning to 30-pin Adapter, which will cost you an extra £30. Considering the iPhone 5 is already one of the most expensive smartphones you can buy and the Lightning port has few added benefits, this move is sure to anger existing customers who will be forced to pick up the new adapter.

Apple has also included a newly designed set of earphones. Where the previous iPhone earphones have often been criticised for being uncomfortable to wear and delivering tinny sound quality, the new earphones – or EarPods, as they’re called – are far more comfortable and provide a noticeably clearer and louder sound.

While they can’t rival the quality of dedicated earphones from audio specialists such as Sennheiser or V-MODA, the improvement over their predecessors is significant. They fail to provide much noise cancellation for blocking out background sound, though, so third-party headphones will still be a preferable choice.

Of course the biggest design change is the new 4-inch screen. Striking a nice balance between the somewhat cramped 3.5-inch screen of the iPhone 4S and the frankly ludicrous 5.5-inch screen of the new Samsung Galaxy Note II, it lends the iPhone 5 a larger canvas without much negative impact on day-to-day mobility.

Still in place is Apple’s stunning Retina display and images are as sharp as ever compared to the iPhone 4 and 4S. The screen resolution has been bumped up slightly from 640 x 960 pixels to 640 x 1136 pixels to accommodate the new screen size, so images and text are still rendered with stunning levels of sharpness and detail.

The increased size allows room for an extra row of apps onscreen and more space to view web pages and read documents. And when you hold the phone horizontally, it also makes it easier to watch widescreen videos in their native format, without intrusive black bars bordering the top and bottom of the screen.

Unfortunately, however, the opposite is true when running apps. Since most third-party apps have yet to be updated to match the new screen resolution, you will have to put up with borders on either side until updates arrive.

Apple claims the iPhone 5 offers 44 per cent greater colour saturation than before and while we found the difference wasn’t quite that dramatic, it certainly looks better than the iPhone 4 and 4S. Colours do appear more vibrant and striking, lending images a more natural and vivid look than we’ve seen before.

Apple iPhone 5 white aluminium and glass chassis

But it’s not just external changes that the iPhone 5 brings; it also packs a performance boost courtesy of some welcome and much needed internal hardware improvements.

The dual-core A5 processor and 512MB of RAM of the iPhone 4S has been upgraded to an A6 processor and 1GB of RAM and the improvement in power is more than noticeable.

We were hoping for a huge speed boost over the already speedy 4S and the iPhone 5 blows its predecessor out of the water. With performance that more than doubles that of the 4S, this is by far the fastest iPhone to date, delivering a smooth and silky user experience.

For a phone at the top end of the market, though, this is also where the iPhone 5 feels a bit underwhelming. With devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy S III using powerful quad-core processors, it’s a shame that Apple didn’t follow suit. Although our benchmark tests still revelealed that it is a faster phone than all but Samsung’s flagship device at present.

Apple has managed this increase in power, while also boosting battery life. Compared to the 7-hour talk time of the iPhone 4S, Apple claims the iPhone 5 gives you up to 8 hours of talk time. You can also enjoy as much as 10 hours of video playback, for comfortably keeping entertained on the daily commute.

As with the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 can be picked up in a choice of 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models. But also as before, however, there is no MicroSD card slot for upgrading storage at a later date, so you’ll need to choose the right amount of storage when you buy the phone.

It also packs 4G connectivity for faster high-speed internet access on the move, although this will only be available through specific network providers to begin with. EE will be the first to offer the service at an as yet unconfirmed date, with other networks set to follow, so consider your needs when you buy.

And the camera has also been upgraded. While the 8-Megapixel count has stayed the same from the iPhone 4S, the addition of better low-light performance, improved noise reduction on images and a claimed 40 per cent improvement on photo capture speeds all make this the best iPhone camera we’ve used so far.

Photos and videos are captured with more clarity and colour accuracy than ever and this is a fantastic phone for photography fans. And with the handy new Panorama feature you can snap panoramic images with a speed and ease that is pretty staggering for a smartphone.

The feature works by letting you snap a picture and then scan the phone from side to side, while keeping an onscreen arrow focussed on a white line to ensure you keep the device level. Once you’ve moved across your full panorama, you press a button and the iPhone stitches all the photos together into a single widescreen image.

Apple iPhone 5 iOS 6 Panorama Mode

The results are amazing. The images are stitched together quickly and we noticed no obvious signs of where one image blends into the next. You can capture panoramas up to 240 degrees and the easy interface and fast performance makes this one of the best phones we’ve used for capturing panoramic photos.

At this point it’s worth noting the Panorama Mode is just one feature of the iOS 6 operating system that comes installed on the iPhone 5, though, and while it offers an incentive for photography fans, iOS 6 is available as a free update for the iPhone 4S, 4 and 3GS, bringing many of the same features to older devices.

If you’re new to iOS it is one of the world’s most popular smartphone operating systems and offers a great user experience for newcomers and experts alike. But despite its new features, there’s no denying iOS is starting to feel a bit long in the tooth.

With both Android and Windows Phone coming along leaps and bounds in recent months, it’s clearer than ever that despite Apple’s boasts of iOS 6 packing 200 new features, iOS hasn’t fundamentally changed much since it was first introduced back in 2007. And in 2012 that’s just not good enough.

Don’t get us wrong, the icon-based grid system is still as intuitive and user-friendly as ever and the new features are welcome. But in the face of the excellent live tiles of Windows Phone and the easy, open-source usability of Android, iOS is starting to lose its edge. A bigger refresh is needed soon and this is not it.

There’s also the greatly-publicised issue of Apple’s new Maps app and the many errors it currently produces, including missing towns and incorrectly placed points of interest. While these will certainly be ironed out as quickly as possible, it hinders your out of the box enjoyment of the device until they’re resolved.

And in light of the excellent features and usability of Google Maps on Android, this is one more reason why Apple needs to work a bit harder on iOS, as the competition is incredibly strong. And while Apple Maps looks great and works decently at present, there’s a lot of work to do before it can match up to Google’s excellent in-built navigation service.

Apple has also dropped the ball slightly by not equipping the iPhone 5 with NFC. Clearly the current lack of device compatibility and market penetration means NFC is not an essential feature for now, but the ability to synchronise data and share files with other iPhones with a simple tap would’ve been welcome.

It is the absence of little touches like this which prevent the iPhone 5 from excelling compared to rivals such as the Galaxy S III. And while it is a fantastic smartphone and one of the best you can buy, it’s just not quite enough to knock Samsung’s masterpiece off its pedestal as the best smartphone in the business right now.

If you’ve never owned an Apple iPhone and have your heart set on buying one, then rest assured the iPhone 5 is the best one yet. But if you’re upgrading from the iPhone 4 or 4S, then it’s just not enough of an evolution to justify the high price tag against the sheer quality offered by its rivals.

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