You could be forgiven for thinking that this year's crop of iPhones is a festival celebrating very little. But under the hood, quietly lurking beneath the surface is something special, and makes it the best iPhone yet. Here's why.
What Is It?
The iPhone 5s is the latest iGadget to come out of Cupertino and it’s the most powerful handset Apple has released to date.
It packs the new 1.7GHz dual-core A7 ARM processor, 1GB of RAM, dual-band 4G/LTE, an 8-megapixel camera with a bi-xenon flash, the new iOS 7 operating system and a 1570mAh battery.
Like we said in our earlier hands-on first impressions of the iPhone 5s, it’s amazing how something so marginally different can feel completely new and fresh. After spending more time with it and pushing it to breaking point, we're prepared to double-down on that and say that the iPhone 5s is the best iPhone to date.
Let's start at the top with the design of the new iPhone. If you've seen an iPhone 5, you know what the 5s looks like, except this one now comes in gold. Oooh.
There are striking similarities: the screen is the same and still looks good, the speakers hit the same volume (more or less) and the placement of everything around the handset is identical. However, the new iPhone is actually slightly heavier than before. It stocks a better battery and a steel frame underneath the case holding the whole thing together while doubling as an antenna, so that's something that's contributing to the weight-gain.
When I first saw the gold iPhone, I was personally very much on the back-foot. There was a lot of noooope, until I actually saw it in person and had my mind changed by just how elegant and pretty it is. The vaunted gold colour isn't actually as ostentatious as the press shots let it on to be; it's actually pretty classy. Seeing it for the first time is like seeing a beautiful gold gown on a knockout supermodel: it's gorgeous and just a little bit breathtaking. Apple tells us that it's a "celebration of what [they] can do with metal these days." Right-o.
Of course, if you couldn't care less about the colour of your iPhone, Apple has outed a swathe of new leather cases for the iPhone 5s. They're just your standard leather case everywhere it counts: strong, sexy, smooth with the Apple logo embossed onto the back. The way you can tell it's an Apple product, however, is in the craftsmanship on the bottom of the case. The speaker grilles, microphone grille, headphone jack and Lightning connector port have all been crafted to exactly match your iPhone. They line up perfectly. It's astounding to look at such attention to detail.
Once you start using the phone, you'll immediately notice iOS 7 in all its flat-beauty. You can read our full review of iOS 7 over here, but the bottom line is that it's beautiful and way more than just a fresh coat of paint on an old house.
Siri looks better than ever in iOS 7 and she's more helpful than ever. She can now read you sports results, and gives you the ability to remotely open apps. The changes to Siri reflect the changes in the rest of the device: it's innovation rather than overhaul. She now looks different with iOS 7, tutorials about what you can say are more accessible and easier to remember which makes talking to her easier than ever, and most importantly, response time has hastened so you won't always be waiting for a response looking at a pinwheel.
The changes to Siri is just one aspect in what is a massive overhaul. It's a reimagining of the iPhone you know into the iPhone of the future.
Speaking of the iPhone of the future, the iPhone 5s' new A7 chip is has more transistors than ever. To take advantage of that, Apple overhauled the entire iOS operating system in secret to make the thing run as a 64-bit platform. Holy. Crap. Nobody saw that one coming until it was announced.
The ARMv8 architecture that the new A7 chip runs on allows for the 64-bit upgrade, and in the long run it allows for more RAM to be addressed under the hood. We're talking 4GB of RAM, which is 4x more than the iPhone 5s has right now, but that's not the most immediate benefit. The new 64-bit upgrade will mean that the A7 chip will be able to process computations and numbers faster than ever, so that complex tasks are dealt with faster.
That's why it blitzed our processor benchmark tests like it was no big thing. Geekbench 3 is out now, refined for 64-bit operating systems and it’s what we’ll be using from here on out to test devices. Geekbench 3 scores are calibrated against a baseline score of 2500 (which is the score of an Intel Core i5-2520M @ 2.50 GHz). The higher the score on Geekbench 3 the better.
The most powerful device we’ve had through the labs so far is the 2013 Nexus 7 tablet which clocked in at 2530. The iPhone 5s beats it, running up the meter all the way to 2546. Insane.
Despite the fact that the processor is only a dual-core 1.7GHz on the tin, coupled with what feels like a measley 1GB of RAM, this thing blitzes every other device on the market, be it running Android, Apple iOS or Windows Phone 8.
Apple has also painstakingly gone and made concessions for those who won't have an iPhone 5s by letting developers ship a 32- and 64-bit version of their app in the one App Store package so nobody gets confused about what to buy. Nifty.
While we're talking about space, it's worth noting that we're only getting 56.8GB of usable space on the iPhone 5s 64GB model. Keep that in mind if you're an app/photo/music/movie junkie who wants to store a lot of your crap on the device at once (like me, actually. Damn.). That's compared to the 57.1GB you got on the iPhone 5.
The changes to the camera in the iPhone 5s compared to the iPhone 5 aren't much to look at on paper, but there's a lot more going on under the hood than you realise. The new camera on the iPhone 5s doesn’t boast more megapixels than that of its predecessor, the iPhone 5, but Apple has gone down the route blazed by HTC’s Ultrapixel camera seen on the One by making the pixels on the sensor larger. It’s hoped by making the pixels bigger that the camera works better in low-light. Those hopes have been fulfilled: the iPhone 5s is the best low-light shooting iPhone we've ever seen.
Noise is dramatically reduced in darkened areas thanks to the larger pixels, and the difference between the two when viewed up close is all the proof you need that Ultrapixel-style tech is worth the money. Here's to the end of the megapixel-race!
Check out the low-light tests below compared to the previous iPhone below with our other image tests.
Elsewhere, in other lighting conditions, the iPhone continues to shine, but not much brighter than its predecessor, and certainly not more than top-of-the-line camera phones like the insane Nokia Lumia 1020 or even the new 13-megapixel shooter on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
Click to enlarge
Samsung Galaxy Note 3
Nokia Lumia 1020
Download the uncropped versions from Dropbox here.
Apple lost the resolution race on the iPhone 5s against its stiff competition (how can you beat the 41-megapixel Lumia at anything?), but it has all of them beat when it comes to fancy software-based tricks, especially with video.
iOS 7's new camera app features Burst Mode on the iPhone 5s, which can capture up to 999 shots at a time before packing it in and asking you to press the camera button down once more. Stop-motion movie makers will likely come up with something great to do with that feature, I'm sure.
Once you finish your burst, the iPhone looks at stuff like whether the subject is looking at the camera, whether the eyes are closed, if there's motion blur and so on to decide on the best shot you took in that whole Burst before it turns that one into the cover image on the Burst stack in the Camera Roll. You can go through and save your own, however, if you end up disagreeing with the software on what "best" means.
A feature unique to the iPhone 5s is the ability to record super-high speed video footage for slow motion shots. The iPhone 5s drops into Slow-Mo mode on the camera and starts recording at a whopping 120 frames per second. Once stop recording, the new Photos app automatically figures out where you might want the slow-motion section and dumps it in, but that can be tweaked and changed.
The camera on the Note 3 is still way more customisable as it continues to be based on the fancy software included in the Galaxy Camera, but the Android competition still lacks anything as interesting or useful as 120fps slow-motion video.
The bi-xenon flash technology is also awesome for capturing better natural colours in low-light conditions, and the flash is now used as a focus light in super-dark areas. Handy.
The Best Part
TouchID is the feature that defines this new iPhone.
Put simply, it's a touch-activated fingerprint reader cleverly hidden underneath the home button.
It works thanks to a CMOS sensor concealed underneath a sapphire cover. Unlike the chip of the same name in cameras, the CMOS sensor in the iPhone 5s' TouchID sensor takes impressions of your fingerprints and converts it into an algorithm-like key, which is then stored in a special spot on the A7 processor called the "secure enclave". If you've ever heard of a "secure element" on an NFC chip module, this is pretty much the same thing but stored on a processor instead.
By coding your fingerprint or prints, you can unlock the device with a simple touch instead of reaching around the larger, iOS 7 keypad to enter a cumbersome unlock code. The benefits multiply when you pair it with your iTunes account and use your fingerprint for music, app, movie and other purchases.
Passcodes are cumbersome and slow your whole experience down. I’d venture a guess that it’s why a lot of people don’t have one. Apple actually found in its research that less than half of people using an iPhone before the 5s didn't actually use a passcode to protect the wealth of secret data on their devices. TouchID takes the friction out of securing your phone, and makes it space age with a simple bit of kit.
Setting it up takes about 30 seconds and it’s probably a good idea to do both your thumb and your index finger for when you have the phone flat on a desk. The TouchID sensor takes about 10 different impressions of your finger at different angles so it knows who you are even if you’re hurriedly stabbing at the sensor.
What's exciting is not that it's a fingerprint sensor, because we've had those for years, but what it could mean for iDevices in the future, especially the iPad. Sure, it's great to be more secure on your phone, but what if you could leverage the TouchID verification on the iTunes Store to seamlessly switch accounts on a shared tablet?
Lots of families, couples and flatmates share devices these days, especially the iPad. What if, rather than signing out of an iTunes account and signing into another one, the login was fluid, meaning that when you buy an app you touch your registered finger to the device and it matches it to a user, billing the account and setting the permissions on the device accordingly.
It would work for securely managing users too, so when one person tried to open an app purchased by a friend, a setting could be enacted to scan the fingerprint of the purchaser or user so that data doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
TouchID, if leveraged properly, has the potential to solve shared device headaches while it keeps our iPhone data safe in the meantime.
Of course, if you're a security paranoid then it's fair to think that your crazy other half might just unlock the device for you as you sleep and see all the other girls you've been sexting, Snapchatting and being a douche about town with. The fingerprint scanner was demonstrated as vulnerable just this morning, and that's no big surprise, nor am I particularly concerned by it. If someone wants to see my collection of selfies and cat photos that bad, then God-bless them and I'll show them myself.
This Is Weird
iOS 7 is the best thing to happen to the iPhone and iPad in a long time, but the weird thing comes in the new multitasking animations, which are beautiful while still being slightly flawed.
You're now given app cards to switch between when you double-tap the home button that you can swipe up if you want to close the app. Selecting one gets you a fancy zoom back to where you were when you left the app, but this zoom animation means that there's about two seconds of lag where the app appears to just hang frozen. So if you're trying to quickly zap in and out of apps, and pressing the screen quickly thereafter, you'll be frustrated by the weird app hanging.
We've tried it on multiple devices, and depending on the specs of said device, the speed at which things hang varies. On an iOS 7 device with lower specs, like say the iPhone 4S, the delay is far more pronounced than the two seconds we experienced with the latest iPhone 5s running 7.0.1.
Not a flaw per sé, just annoying when you're in a hurry.
It's the main complaint with the iPhone every year, and it's as true now as it ever was: the battery on the iPhone 5s is less than impressive. On the iPhone 5 running iOS 6.1.3, we managed to squeeze just over eight hours of heavy use out of the device before it begged for power. We didn't even get that on the iPhone 5s.
The 1570mAh battery gives way after around 7 hours of heavy usage. Don't throw away all those battery-saving tips you picked up on previous iPhones when it comes to the 5s. You'll need them now more than ever before. It's worth noting that we haven't had a chance to test drain on an iPhone 5 running iOS 7.0.1 yet, so it might be a software thing rather than a hardware issue. Regardless, it's disappointing.
If you really want this phone to last all day, pack one of the Sony CycleEnergy battery packs before you leave. It's my new best friend and for only $25, it's well worth it.
Despite the fact that the iPhone 5s is meant to be sturdier than ever thanks to the re-enforced steel frame underneath the case, this iPhone feels a little flimsy. No, wait. Flimsy is the wrong word. It's certainly sturdy in the hands, but it feels like it's a more difficult to keep a grip on. The materials it's made out of feel like they want to jump right out of your hand without one of the leather cases on, like some slippery fish. I felt that if I dropped the device it would smash into a million beautiful pieces, but I'm not game enough to test my theory just yet.
The TouchID fingerprint reader, as discussed above, is built on an incredibly fragile CMOS sensor which can wear out over time if handled too much. These things may be a ticking time bomb according to teardown-legends, iFixIt, who expressed concern that the sapphire cover on the sensor may degrade over time, compromising the quality of the sensor. That's something we'll have to wait and see, but you can always unlock your device with a passcode if the whole futuristic fingerprint thing wears out.
There's no two-ways about it: this new iPhone is expensive. As you may have seen in the lead-up to the launch, the new iPhone is the most expensive one we've ever seen on contract from the nation's major telco players, Optus, Telstra and Vodafone. It's also the most expensive outright, too, with the prices starting from $869 for the 16GB model, and ranging up to a whopping $1129 for the 64GB model. It's certainly the most advanced iPhone ever, and that's represented in the price tag. You get what you pay for, I guess.
Should You Buy It?
Despite the battery and the price, the new iPhone is the best yet. It's another slam dunk for Cupertino.
You might not notice anything different on the surface other than a shiny ring around the home button and a new gold colour, but trust us, the innovation is there below the surface, just waiting to wow you at every chance it gets.
From the much-improved low-light camera, the beefed up security that TouchID brings and the blistering hardware speed that comes from the A7-driven, 64-bit revolution the iPhone has guts that represent much more than just an off-cycle device refresh.
You certainly should buy this if your iPhone 4S, iPhone 4 or anything older than that is starting to show its age, and if you're a lover of fast new hardware and clever innovations with cash to burn, iPhone 5 owners should also consider purchasing. For iOS-lovers, the iPhone 5s is a dream.