To say that the iPhone 5 is the most anticipated smartphone of the year is an understatement. It is perhaps the smartphone people have waited for two years especially after Apple launched the iPhone 4S last October, which was physically identical to the iPhone 4. At the same time, one has to admit that buying the latest iPhone is not a no-brainer anymore. Android has matured by leaps and bounds over the last year in every conceivable way – be it pure usability, UI innovation, apps, or even hardware. The iPhone has never had it so tough. So where does that leave the iPhone 5? Is it still the best smartphone in the world? Read on to find out.
The iPhone 4/4S was a benchmark in hardware design. It had an ethereal quality to it, which in a way meshed a simple vintage look that never got old in an undeniably modern package. Of course there were problems with the old design. It was bulky for some, at least by modern standards and it was frail. It had a penchant for failing drop tests and people would always end up with cracked glass back. For some, the 3.5-inch display was just too small for a flagship smartphone.
The new redesign does not exactly rectify these known issues, but rather refines the now iconic design. Gone is the beautiful yet flawed glass back. Apple has replaced it with an aluminum finish that is similar to the MacBook Pro laptops, though Apple still retains some glass. There are two strips of glass on the back that flank the aluminum finish in the middle from the front and top, a requirement to let wireless communication antennas to work. In regular usage this may make the iPhone less susceptible to cracks, but the problem is when these two glass strips crack, we don’t see them being replaced easily, like the singular glass back of the iPhone 4S. Apart from this, the new aluminum back feels very nice to hold.
The back is also home to the 8-megapixel camera, which comes with an LED flash. This camera is placed on the top left corner. I personally am not a big fan of the camera placement as my fingers keep coming in front of the flash. However, this could be a problem for users coming from using big Android smartphones where the camera lens is placed in the center. There is a noise cancellation microphone between the camera lens and flash. Talking about noise cancellation, it works brilliantly on the iPhone 5. We could notice significant difference in the in-call audio quality from the iPhone 4S.
On the front, Apple has increased the size of the display to 4-inches and it uses an IPS panel that incorporates in-cell technology that basically combines the touch sensor and the panel in one that makes the text look closer to the top. The display resolution has been increased to 1136×640 pixels to retain the 326 ppi Retina resolution. Above the display we have the new 1.3-megapixel Facetime camera and the standard array of sensors. In a nutshell, from the front the iPhone 5 actually looks very similar to the iPhone 4S, and all the changes are very subtle. Frankly, it’s the details that make the iPhone 5 so much different and better than the iPhone 4S.
Perhaps the biggest change and the most subtle change on the iPhone 5 is on the sides. Firstly, the iPhone 5 is wildly thinner than its predecessor at only 7.6mm. At the same time it is also stunningly light at 112 grams. It almost feels weightless like a dummy unit that does not have a battery inside. Then there are Jony Ive’s ‘chamfers’ that basically eliminate the gap between the side aluminum band and the front and back panels. It’s the chamfers that lend the iPhone 5 a jewel like quality. Many reviewers have already mentioned this, but it’s indeed an important fact because the way the chamfer pops, it really catches the eye. And that’s where one realizes this an entirely different animal from its predecessor.
In terms of pure ergonomics it’s a very easy phone to handle. Despite having a bigger display, Apple has ensured the width of the phone does not increase. Yes, it is marginally taller than the iPhone 4/4S but it offers a 16:9 ratio like competing Android smartphones that makes it better to watch videos. Maintaining the same width also ensures that the user’s thumb still easily reaches every corner of the display, making it a treat for one-handed usage.
Apart from getting a spanking redesign, the iPhone 5 comes armed with such awesome firepower that will even make a Samsung Galaxy S III feel the pinch. On paper the iPhone 5 has a dual-core A6 chip clocked at 1GHz, but be rest assured this is no ordinary chip. Even the A5 chip on the iPhone 4S was dual-core and the current crop of Android phones are going quad-core, so that may lead one to think the iPhone 5 is underpowered, but that’s a misconception.
Apple claims it to be twice as fast as the iPhone 4S and it is. But then you will think, how is that possible? The A6 is a custom designed solution that is optimized to only work with iOS. It does not come from a third party like Qualcomm or Nvidia, but Apple has actually custom designed both the cores that eek out every ounce of power. Additionally, this particular chip is based on a newer ARM architecture, which is a hybrid of last years Cortex A9 subset and the latest Cortex A15 instruction set. In comparison, Samsung’s Galaxy S III uses a quad-core chip, which is based on the Cortex A9 architecture, so there is a massive difference between both chipset platforms.
It’s just not the processor but even the GPU offers twice the performance and games that are optimized for this chip will deliver stunning graphics. Apple has also doubled the RAM to 1GB and like all previous iPhones it is available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB variants. As mentioned above, the iPhone 5 has a larger 4-inch display with a resolution of 1136×640 pixels and also has a 8-megapixel pixel camera that Apple claims delivers improved low-light performance.
The iPhone 5 runs iOS 6 and well, it looks and feels almost exactly like the previous version of iOS. That said, like the way we talked about the hardware design, the changes are under the hood and secret sauce is in the details.
Let’s start quickly with the bad stuff – the gradual elimination of Google from iOS. Apple has replaced Google Maps with its own home-made solution, which is useless in India. Google is yet to roll out a Google Maps app for iOS, so users are stuck with either Google or Nokia web apps for Maps or they can pay for a service like MapMyIndia or Waze, which is a decent free alternative on the App store. That said, Nokia is launching its HERE app for iOS that will be available in a couple of weeks, which should mitigate this atrocity to some extent. Apple has also removed the stock YouTube app, but the good news is that Google has made a YouTube app that is decidedly better than the one that was integrated in iOS.
Now coming to the positives, one can easily argue that most of the most important things one cares about is actually integrated at the OS level. In iOS 5 Apple introduced Twitter integration and iOS 6 adds Facebook integration. Shared photo streams is another nice feature that creates a quasi photo-centric social network. The new PassBook feature that allows users to integrate coupons and flight tickets and what not is again not useful in India.
Apple claims that Siri is better and can do more things, but still it does not pick up the Indian accent very well and ends up being rather redundant. On the bright side users can download the Google search app from the App Store, which works fantastically, though it cannot launch apps. With Mail Apple has added a feature called VIP that allows users to dedicate an inbox to specific contacts. This is indeed a very handy feature. On the web-browsing front, Safari is now lighting fast, suffice to say besides Chrome it is the best mobile browser.
Another feature called Do Not disturb works really well as it allows users to allocate certain instances when the phone will not ring.
And perhaps the most killer feature of iOS is the App Store, which is home to over 700,000 apps. This is the best platform if you are an app junkie.
If you went through the software section you’d imagine this to be a rather uninspiring update and in a way it truly is one. Android has leapfrogged iOS in terms of general feature set. It has widgets, apps can talk to each other and apps have true multitasking. All that said, the number of under the hood refinements in iOS make it the most fluid mobile platform. The level of simplicity and fluidity is so high that one can overlook the above-mentioned advantages of Android especially on the iPhone 5.
As mentioned above, the dual-core 1GHz A6 chip on the iPhone 5 is an absolute screamer. Star Trek fans will say that it runs at Warp 10, F1 fans will say its straight line speed is in excess of 350 MPH, but the simple fact remains there is just no smartphone in the world that can compete with the iPhone 5 in terms of speed. After thinking about it, we reckon that Apple actually makes up for the UI and Multitasking deficiencies of iOS by pure speed. There are no stutters and apps rarely crash.
It is not only fast, but is also extremely reliable. Comparing performance with Android benchmarks is not fair so we did not go down that road, but one just needs to use a Samsung Galaxy Note II running Jelly Bean side by side with the iPhone 5 to understand what we mean. Microsoft calls it Fast and Fluid, Google calls it Buttery Smooth, and with Apple there are no grandiose statements. A simple twice as fast as the iPhone 4S works. And we all know how fast the iPhone 4S is! Even the web browser performance is superlative; on the BrowserMark benchmark it scored a searing 1,90,456. That was a good 40,000 higher than the Samsung Galaxy S III.
Coming back to the display on the iPhone 5, one has to admit that it is among the best in the business if not the best. Viewing angles are brilliant and it is bright as hell. Another good bit about the display is that it does not have tendency to oversaturate things like the way Super AMOLED panels do so on Samsung smartphones. If that’s something you like then perhaps the iPhone 5 is not your cup of tea. It reproduces a very neutral palette that looks every bit as good one can imagine the image to be in real life. What’s there not to like? Perhaps, the limiting 4-inch size? But that’s a matter of personal preference.
Apple claimed that the camera on the iPhone 5 had been improved further even though it retains the 8-megapixel resolution of the iPhone 4S. In fact, it even has the same aperture size at f/2.4, which is lower than that of the HTC One X and the Nokia Lumia 920. That said, the iPhone 5 just has an superb camera by what ever metric one would judge it. It has reached a point where it can easily replace a point and shoot without any problem. It has good depth of field and it works well both for wide and macro shots. Color reproduction was impressive and very natural unlike most Android smartphone it would not oversaturate the image in post processing. That said all these are still incremental upgrades over the camera in the iPhone 4S.
The real magic happens on the software front. It captures images at light speed, though one has to admit that the Samsung Galaxy S III was slightly faster in this regard and the new low light performance really does make it possible to click images in the dark without the flash. And the new Panorama mode just about blows away any Panorama mode we have seen on an Android smartphone. Apple has nailed the implementation and it is not only much simpler to use, but the image quality is clearer than most and its just faster. Even for shooting video, the quality was robust and that’s frankly what one expects of an iPhone.
The one thing most people forget about the iPhone is that it is a phone first and a handheld computer later. And the iPhone 5 for once delivers the goods on this front. The call quality is just fantastic. Even in a basement, the phone had four signal bars on Airtel’s network and the call quality was solid. The noise-cancellation feature works as advertised.
Another area where the iPhone really shines is in terms of battery life. In our regular tests we would do a lot of web browsing and social networking and obviously make calls. In addition to this we would often use the camera to shoot videos and pictures and also use it like a MP3 player with 3G on in the background. We managed to eek out around 35 hours out of the iPhone 5 on a single charge, which is very impressive.
The iPhone 5 may not be the revolutionary product that everyone was waiting for but it sure as hell is the best smartphone in the world. Android is definitely catching up, but there is no single smartphone on the planet that can marry the supple elegance of hardware, with a super fast and simple operating system. At the same time it also manages to have one of the best cameras on a smartphone, the best apps ecosystem and fantastic battery life.
That said if there is a phone that comes close to offering such an experience then it has to be its predecessor the iPhone 4S, so we will not recommend iPhone 4S users to make the jump to the iPhone 5. It’s just not worth the splurge. But if you still want to buy a new smartphone then there is no denying that the iPhone 5 is the complete package. It is an all rounder. Yes, the maps gaffe does tarnish its sheen a bit, but the wealth of choice on the App Store overcomes this. No other smartphone can claim to be so well rounded, not even the Samsung Galaxy S III. But it is expensive. Very expensive. Starting at Rs 45,500 for the 16GB model, it is actually worth the extra Rs 10,000 over the Galaxy S III, but that’s only if you can afford it.
If it goes beyond your budget then the Galaxy S III remains the phone to beat, but that may not last long as the LG Nexus 4 and the Nokia Lumia 920 are going to be launched soon and they will definitely make things difficult for the Galaxy S III. If money is not a criteria then one can just go ahead and buy the iPhone 5 with your eyes closed. Without an iota of doubt, it is the best smartphone in the world.
Photo Credits: Eshan Shetty