A Week With The iPhone 5

After waiting in line to buy and spending a week with the iPhone 5, living with it, owning it, I can say confidently that it's the best smartphone I've ever owned. Those who think it's boring, or disappointing, or not different enough? I say the iPhone has finally grown up. There's nothing boring about it.

Just to be clear, this isn't some corporate review unit we're talking about — we waited outside at the hellacious crack of dawn in a hell-pit shopping centre alongside people who were willing to actually hit each other for a new phone. I wasn't due for a new contract, so I ponied up extra money for a semi-subsidised handset I was truthfully only buying because I shattered my last one.

I say this both because we got this phone like a most people did, and because it was a gigantic pain in the arse. I had every reason to resent the iPhone 5. And yet...

What's The Big Deal?

We spend the better part of every single year speculating, exhaustively, over how the next iPhone will be different. The screen! The data! The body! What does this little circuit mean? Are these photos real?! We — you and I, all together — have been caring about this thing since far before any Chinese laborer woke up at dawn to begin sifting through its parts. And it's not just us tech writers and readers who have a vested interest; the iPhone is mainstream to the tune of as many as six million handsets sold every single month. Over five million people have already bought this one.

As much as that's an indictment of our society, iPhone releases are small cultural events on their own. There's no point in trying to deny that. This phone will set the phone chatter until the next iPhone comes out, and that one until the next. And so on.

We care because we love caring, but we also care because we should: Apple only builds one phone a year, instead of the scatter-shot approach of the competition. And so the iPhone has been the standard-bearer of all smartphonedom for half a decade: the entire industry looks to it — sometimes a little too closely.

The iPhone hasn't been the only interesting or worthwhile phone for some time now — the Galaxy III and the Lumia 920 and the HTC One X all have a hint of glory — but there's no doubt it's the most venerable by a longshot.

Yes, It's Pretty And Your Friends Will Notice

If the public is at all underwhelmed by the iPhone 5's arrival, it's expressed by the threadbare refrain, It doesn't look different enough, as if the New iPhone should have been hexagonal, a metre wide, or printed on the front of a cracker. At first blush it's an elongated iPhone 4S. After just a day or two with the iPhone 5, actually using it instead of staring at pictures on the Internet, I could appreciate it for what it is: an aluminium jewel.

Every day I came to appreciate it more than the day before, the kind of gratification that takes time to percolate, rather than a quick pop. As soon as you palm the iPhone 5, it pleases you — it's light (think a handful of five-cent pieces) and superthin (think a fraction of a CD case), just shy of feeling cheap — a fantastic balance. Maybe Apple settled on this form deliberately, or maybe it just couldn't make it any skinnier and lighter. Either way, it's lovely to hold and something I appreciated more each day, rather than a dimensional surprise that diminished.

And holding a phone matters, because that's how you use a phone. Unlike other handsets with larger screens, I could operate the iPhone 5 comfortably, quickly, and constantly with one hand and open my apartment door, pet a dog, give a high five, or eat with the other. This is an enormous, quickly forgotten virtue among handsets. Appreciate it here. I was dreading a four-inch iPhone as a blasphemy and a burden, but it turns out to be neither. My hand loves it, and yours will too, barring some anatomical aberration.

But practical is boring. Let's be superficial again. The iPhone 5 is the most beautiful iPhone and — despite some increasingly knockout competition — one of the most beautiful smartphones. It's just not the flashiest; again, time spent with the phone pays dividends. You'll appreciate its minuteness.

For those who care — and it's more iPhone owners than might admit it — rest assured that people will know that it's A New iPhone you're carrying. And there's nothing wrong with craving that geek street cred. You just dropped serious cash on a new thing, you want people to know it's different and better than last year's thing. And the iPhone 5 is plenty of both.

Its 7.6mm thickness is gorgeousness in itself. WolframAlpha tells me this is the typical length of an ant. An ant! The matte black evokes the cold majesty of a stealth bomber, and like the display, I still find myself staring at it. Even after I dropped it on a hard locker room floor, revealing a dainty chip — yes, it does chip and scratch — it's inky and sublime. That coal bezel, faceted and gemlike, makes the old silver one of the 4 and 4S look straight tacky. The white iPhone 5 is fine, but you're missing out on some of the best industrial design of all time if you pick that over the understated black — you'll feel more George Jetson than Darth Vader.

I'm still finding new things about it that make me smile — and yes I realise how corny that sounds. It's awful enough that I wouldn't write it if it weren't true.

Tasteful On The Inside, Too

The iPhone 5 doesn't have NFC, wireless charging, or other early adopter fantasies that might've been on your wish list. That's fine; those things don't matter in the real world, not yet. Do you know how many times over the past week I wished my iPhone 5 had NFC? Zero times, because there are nearly zero opportunities to use it. I can't yearn for something I can't use. Wireless charging looks more practical on paper but also uglifies your desktop for nominal gain. If you're disappointed by the absence of these things, you're looking for a reason to be disappointed — and you need to snap out of it.

The first iPhone didn't have 3G. It didn't have apps. You couldn't even text people pictures. But the conceit of a perfect touchscreen with Apple software poured into is every bit as compelling a reason to buy an iPhone in 2012 as it was in 2007. Apple is a gadget yacht club: beautiful, pristine, exhaustively perfectionist, planned down to details you probably won't notice and entirely conservative. The iPhone 5 is the consummately conservative phone. It dares to do nothing new; it's determined, instead, to do what already exists in the most stellar manner possible. And it's always been that way.

Every day I found some improvement in the new phone, whether within or without: the machine gun speed of the camera's shutter when I was trying to snap a running puppy. Temple Run, my favourite 3D game, running a little more smoothly and booting up a hell of a lot more quickly. Being able to read the New York Times site in Safari by the water near my apartment in an LTE instant — an area where I'd gotten poor (or no) service in the past. Distracting myself with old episodes of The Office and the vibrancy of Drive during a long train ride — media that just wouldn't quite have been very much fun on a 3.5-inch screen. Ryan Gosling appreciates it. Being able to plug in the new Lightning plug when arriving at my desk and then back home without there being an "upside-down" to worry about.

And then there's the display. That 1136 x 640 screen is the best of any phone in the history of phones. Everything looks wonderful — it's still "Retina" at 326 ppi — and the tallness allows you to get that extra bite of email, texting, or the web, without feeling like you've got a trout in your hand. There's no great mystery to it; it's the stuff you were doing on your last iPhone, only more so. Picking out a next song to play in the music app and realising you can now see an entire album's track list is a treat — a lengthy mixtape like Late Nights with Jeremih was more digestible than ever. My mobile photos look better than I've ever seen them, and there was, of course, more room than ever to pinch deep into the details of Instagrammed grass and drunk bar candids. It'll make you want to take more (so maybe reconsider that 16 GB model). Sometimes I just stare at the screen — the George Condo oil painting wallpaper I settled on looks like it's actually on canvas. Shout out to George and Kanye.

It's entirely possible that Apple only made the display longer because that's what the kids buy these days and not because they actually think it's better than the 3.5-inch models before. Part of growing up is compromise, though, realising the demands of the world and bowing to them. If the iPhone 5 had to be larger, then very well, it had to be larger. Let's just be glad it's not any larger than it is — Apple has balanced realism with restraint.

Obviously not everything is perfect. I have gripes, and you will too. Apple Maps is, well, Apple Maps. It trips me up sometimes. The headphone jack switch from top to bottom seems arbitrary and feels clumsy. I often found myself trying to twist a headphone cord out of the way of my wrist, or accidentally triggering Siri mid-song while pulling the thing out of my pocket. It makes for an awkward pocket position.

Even with all of this internal augmentation, the battery remains the same — the ol' nightly recharge will be a mainstay, like it's always been with the iPhone. Sometimes you'll get a little less, sometimes you'll get a little more. With regular use, lots of Spotify streaming and lots and lots of bathroom gaming, I almost always made it through an entire day. But in the age of Droid Razr Maxx and its beefily batteried kin, almost falls a little short.

The elongated four-inch screen too, although perfectly ergonomic and delicious for widescreen videos, doesn't always make sense. In fact, sometimes it's a real drag: unoptimised or older apps are letterboxed. Letterboxing always sucks. Always.

And when apps are optimised, sometimes you're getting absolutely nothing in return for that bigger screen you paid for: every time I've used Instagram, perhaps the worst infractor, I'm bummed. Instead of using the extra space to make the app better, its devs just filled in the space with blank grey pixels. Great. Thanks for that. Instagram certainly isn't the only offender: plenty of my favourite games are letterboxed, and will probably be forever, given a lack of recent updates. Wasteful app moments like this might make you wince or roll your eyes — or maybe they'll force developers to be more creative with vertical space. We can hope!

Are Maps A Dealbreaker?

And then there's Maps. We need to have this talk. Apple Maps is nowhere near as good as Google Maps. This is potentially a huge deal, as instant, near-perfect directions for the entire world have come to be one of the most vital and taken-for-granted parts of owning any smartphone. It's a thing that genuinely makes our lives better. If a phone's maps are trash, the whole thing might be scuttled.

I urge you to do some online homework and see if Apple Maps is completely screwed up in your locale — if so, wait to buy an iPhone 5.

Odds are, it's fine.

There are problems aplenty, sure. Search results are off, sometimes. This needs to be fixed. The absence of integrated public transit directions is infuriating and unforgivable. This needs to be fixed. Some geo-queries drop multiple pins for the same place, which is irritating and confusing (Pro tip: the one with the integrated Yelp info is usually the correct one). This needs to be fixed. Some spots are just flat out wrong, which almost screwed me for crosstown meetings on a couple of occasions. This needs to be fixed.

But all of these were exceptions. Flareups. Errors. None of which prevented the iPhone 5 from being livable and usable every day I've carried it.

Ideally, yes, Apple would've stuck with Google Maps. This is a backslide, a noticeably inferior user experience. There was no reason for this switch-up beyond a corporate middle school slap fight between two rich companies.

Apple Maps is flawed, not broken and the hysteria surrounding its release is overblown. I've been using iOS 6 and Apple Maps every single day for months on an iPhone 4S and now 5, walking and driving through New York, Washington, coastal Massachusetts, and rural Maryland. I never got lost. Isn't that what matters? I found the clam shack I was looking for on Apple Maps. Turn by turn works spectacularly. Is it Google Maps good? No. But for now, most times, it's good enough. Of course, outside the US, one's experience will be less positive, so that needs to be considered.

Yes, 3D terrain feature is goofily warped. Often completely broken. But really, were you ever going to use it for anything more than an eye candy dazzle-show? It's a demo, not a feature. I never triggered it, unless by accident, or just to show off a "cool 3D thing" my new phone can do, which is stupid. Unless you're a CIA analyst planning a Predator drone strike, you've never needed satellite view for anything beyond the novelty of "hey there's my house". You still don't need it.

This is what matters.

Not this.

The iPhone Grew Up. So Should You

The only thing that could stop you from being excited by the iPhone 5 and recognising it as a great phone, is this past year's expectations, or deep-seated habit. Let 'em go. If you're an Android or Windows Phone diehard, this probably won't win you over — it's more of the same. But the same has never been so good, so refined, so useful. Now that the wowza factor of a touchscreen smartphone has worn off after half a decade, refined isn't enough to stir everyone up into a frenzy of orgiastic expectation fulfillment. But if you were expecting a groundbreaking phone, or a startling phone, or some sort of phone quantum leap, you were kidding yourself. Wireless charging folly, NFC futurism — those are immature demands for immature technologies.

The iPhone 5 is a mature phone. It's also a brilliant phone. Apple identified, one by one, every way in which an already solid phone could be improved. And then it made those things better. It didn't set out to startle and amaze by face value. It won't dazzle you with a breathtaking new design. Your breath will remain with you. But the very feat of making progress toward perfection with a device that was already the best phone out there is a giant feat in itself. Body, processor, colors on screen, a much-improved camera with some clever new tricks. There's no shame in incremental progress, in toddler steps, when those steps are along a golden road covered in candy canes. Sure, Apple Maps might make it hard to find this road, but the point remains: the iPhone 5 can be phenomenal without being a phenomenon unto itself. It can be the best gadget you've ever owned without being the harbinger of a tech revolution.

The iPhone 5 is the best smartphone Apple's ever made. If that on its own isn't enough to excite you, then it's your loss.

iPhone 5 Test Notes

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