Wish list: 27 features we want on the iPhone 5

We expect the iPhone 5 to be announced next week. What features would you like to see in the new phone? Here's our list.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

iPhone 5 mock-up created by the author. It'd have a keyboard, but that's harder to Photoshop than you might think.

Update (9/29/11): This article was originally posted in early March and contained a lot of complete speculation about what might or might not be in the iPhone 5. Since then, the chatterers have been chattering at full-throttle and we've got a much better picture of what we think might be in the iPhone 5 that we think might be introduced next week.

To be fair, this is rumor clarified by rumor, so we won't have anything resembling a clear picture until Apple makes its announcement. That said, here's an updated picture of the wishlist and the features that might or might not make it.

My update notes will be interspersed with the text of the article, but shown in italics. Also, a procedural note: since this story was originally published in ZDNet Government, the update is here. Further general tech articles will be in my DIY-IT blog instead.

My wife has started to scope on my iPhone. For years, she was satisfied with her simple, old feature phone (although pretty much its only feature was calling people). But now, she's decided she's interested in getting a smartphone and likes my iPhone 3G.

She got her iPhone 4 in May and loves it. I still have my 3G, but intend to replace it with the new iPhone.

That, of course, gives me an excuse to get a new phone. I'm obviously not going to get an iPhone 4, what with a new iPhone just around the corner. To be fair, I'm not entirely convinced I'm going to get another iPhone at all, since the Android phones seem far more capable and far less restrictive.

See also: 10 reasons NOT to buy an Android and why I'm waiting for the iPhone 5

That said, I decided to take a new approach towards the Apple devices. Rather than complaining about what they don't do, I thought I'd list out the features I'd like to see, features that would make me happy about buying and owning a new phone.

Since the scuttlebutt is that Apple will introduce a new phone in October July (and it might be a whole new iPhone 5 device, rather than an upgraded iPhone 4G), I thought I'd take a few minutes to think about my personal feature wish list.

We originally expected the new iPhone to be announced in July, so my wait has been longer than I expected. the 3G is definitely in need of retirement.

I know you might not agree, and I also know this is not a universal list, or even -- in some cases -- a list of practical requests. That said, a guy can dream, can't he?

1. 4G or LTE

Let's start with the obvious. Verizon and Sprint already have 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution) phones. These have much faster data access than the current 3G phones.

The gotcha is that AT&T doesn't have much of a 4G network in place (it could be argued that AT&T doesn't even have much of a 3G network in place!) and while Apple's new phone will possibly support Verizon, it'll almost definitely support AT&T.

No matter what, I want a 4G phone and if Apple can deliver, it'd be a point in its favor.

We're still not clear on this. We've heard rumors going either way. AT&T isn't prepared for 4G, but Verizon might be. Then there's the rumor that Sprint is coming into the iPhone game, but they're also not really ready for ultra-fast speeds. I'd now call this a low probability, but possible.

2. Unlimited data

It used to be that my number one desired feature was the addition of a personal hotspot capability. I like my MiFi, but I'd rather not carry around an extra device (or bill). Now that iOS 4.3 will include mobile hotspot capability (although, predictably, AT&T is spoiling the fun), I'd like one other feature.

I want unlimited data. I have unlimited data on my iPhone 3G. Actually, that's why I still have an iPhone 3G. I like my unlimited data plan and don't want to have to spend time worrying about whether or not I've exceeded some silly arbitrary limit.

Give me unlimited data on either Verizon or AT&T and you've got my attention.

Neither Verizon nor AT&T will offer an unlimited data plan. Sprint (who has yet to be a confirmed iPhone seller) has stated a willingness to support unlimited plans.

3. Native Google Voice integration

We all know the challenges Google Voice faced getting onto the iPhone, and some users are happy it arrived -- in any form.

But that's not good enough. I want native Google Voice, so tightly integrated into the iPhone experience that you can use Google Voice as your incoming and outgoing number just as if you were using the regular (albeit crappy) iPhone dialing interface.

The Google Voice app has gotten better, but there's no way there will be native integration. On the other hand, a surprise announcement about iOS 5 is how tightly integrated Twitter will be.

4. Less sucky traditional phone experience

That brings me to my next wish list item: sucking less. Look, we know everyone seems to love the iPhone, but that's despite the iPhone calling experience, not because of it.

AT&T's legendary dropped or failed calls are certainly part of the suck, but definitely not all of it. In order to call or be called, you often have to do a bunch of swipes and button pushes, which makes using the phone a more difficult and distracting experience than it needs to be.

It looks like iOS 5 will have a more capable home screen. Whether it'll suck all the suck out of the phone experience remains to be seen. Then, of course, there's still the matter of AT&T's terrible network, but we're probably going to see a marked improvement.

While we're on the topic, let's talk about a wish list item in a wish list item. Ford Sync instantly turns a perfectly functioning iPhone into a lump of autistic plastic. You all know I'm a huge Ford fan. I also know that Ford now has a MyFord Touch system in place, but I gotta tell you, I'm hating on Ford Sync. Every time I get into the car, it takes over the iPhone, turning it essentially into a dumb screen and blocks almost all the functions of the phone.

I know some people like Ford Sync, but I dislike it -- intensely. Today I got a call on my phone while in the car and I just wanted to answer my phone. Instead, Sync decided to pipe the call through the car's speakers (good so far), but when the call ended, I actually had to pull into a nearby gas station, stop the car, and fiddle with the iPhone screen by hand to end the call. Sheesh!

My wife loves using her iPhone 4 with Ford Sync. I'm starting to think it may be that Sync and the 3G don't get along all that well. Either that, or my wife gets along better with consumer electronics than I do. If it doesn't have a command-line, I tend to get frustrated.

5. An antenna that doesn't suck

According to Consumer Reports, the iPhone 4 -- even on Verizon -- still fails when gripped in certain ways.

It's pretty simple. I don't want to buy a phone that fails when you hold it. If Apple can fix this, I'd be more interested in the iPhone 5.

We're seeing rumors of a so-called "teardrop" design for the iPhone 5. That's more of an Air look than the older, boxy iPhone 4. This would imply that there was an antenna re-design, but it's anyone's guess whether we'll see anything better. It has been some months since we've heard complaints about the iPhone 4's antenna, so maybe everyone got themselves bumpers and cases and the problem is behind us.

Next: Features 6-10 »

« Previous: Features 1-5

6. iPad2-like dual-core CPU

This is probably a no-brainer, but if the iPad 2 has a faster A5 CPU, I want it in the iPhone 5.

This is almost a guarantee. Although we're also hearing about a more cost-effective iPhone, and that (if it exists) will probably have a less expensive processor.

7. Screen rotation lock on a switch

Some wish list features are simple. The iOS 4 firmware introduced a screen rotation lock capability, but it's buried deep inside swipes and taps. I'd like a setting that lets me turn the side switch into a screen rotation lock switch.

I don't always need to lock screen rotation, but I'd like to be able to turn it on and off with a simple flip. I found the feature in the first iPad iOS release to be very helpful and I want it back on the iPhone 5.

A later iOS update re-introduced this as an option. Booyah!

8. Ability to set icons on folders

While we're on the topic of little software features that can make a big difference, I want the ability to set an icon for a folder. I do appreciate that Apple made it to the 1980s and discovered folders, but those little tiny icons -- all pretty much the same -- don't go far to support Apple's vaunted claim to digital design skill.

It's a simple request: I'd like to change the icons on folders. Windows 95 could do this. This way, for example, the folder for games could look different than the folder for network diagnosis apps.

This is one of those features that'd have been fixed in a heartbeat if Apple allowed developers to write utilities. Instead, we're all inconvenienced and have to wait for someone in Cupertino to grow a clue. Sigh.

Bizarrely enough, at least from Apple's early promotion of iOS 5, folder icons will still not be customizable. It boggles the mind.

9. Wireless iTunes sync

My loathing of iTunes is only exceeded by that of my colleague Ed Bott, who has been known to say, "I dislike iTunes with a passion that burns like the fire of a thousand suns."

Heh. Couldn't have said it better. While I dislike the iTunes application, what's worse is having to schlep my iPhone and iPad to the computer, find the right cable, and connect the device in order to perform a sync.

This should be a wireless process. Heck, Apple introduced the wireless AirPort back in 1999. You'd think the iPhone and iPod teams would have figured out how to program WiFi syncing after all these years.

This is confirmed. It will be available. Nice -- finally!

10. Better battery life

My iPhone 3G can't make it through a single day of moderate use without desperately needing an overnight recharge. While the iPhone 4 has about 25% better battery life, it's still pitiful when considering daily use.

We don't know anything about the new hardware's battery, but it's fair to expect some improvement. Also, back in May, my wife pointed out a feature that's proved to be a huge boon in battery performance.

Next: Reasons 11-15 »

« Previous: Reasons 6-10

11. Proximity charging

You wouldn't think Palm would beat the iPhone on any major features, but the idiotically named Palm Pre actually did. Palm introduced electromagnetic induction charging with their Touchstone charging dock.

All you need to do is place the phone on the flat surface of the dock and it charges. No cables, no muss, no fuss. If that's not something you'd expect out of Apple, I don't know what is.

Nothing new on this. Don't expect it to happen.

12. Removable, replaceable battery

While we're on the topic of batteries, let's cover one of my bigger pet peeves. The iPhone doesn't have a replaceable battery. It's like Apple thinks the iPhone's battery life should define our useful work day. When the iPhone is out of juice, it's time for its human to take a nap.

But nay, I say. I want a replaceable battery. I could just use add-on battery packs, but I'd also like a replacement battery pack so if my battery begins to deteriorate, I can get a new one. Sure, I know that'd defeat Apple's goal of selling me a new device, but I don't want to have to sign up for a whole new, two year plan and a phone that hangs up when you hold it, just because my battery needs replacement.

Making phones without replaceable batteries is simply a scummy marketing move and I don't like it. Make an iPhone 5 with a replaceable battery and I'd be more tempted to get one.

I'd say there's a zero percent probability of this. Won't happen. That's a shame.

13. Bigger screen

The iPhone 4's Retina display is actually pretty impressive, and at a 640x960 resolution, beats many comparable Android devices.

That said, I'd like a bigger screen. Of course, I'd like more resolution on the bigger screen (isn't it time for 1024 pixel-wide screens?), but I'd settle for just a physically bigger screen.

The rumors seem to insist there will be either more resolution or less bezel.

14. Less non-screen real-estate

On one hand, I'd like to see a bigger screen. On the other hand, much of the iPhone's face is used up by physical space that's devoted to a simple button and speaker. I'd like to see much more of the physical real-estate dominated by the screen.

This would either result in a smaller phone if the same size screen is used, or the same size phone if a bigger screen is used.

Like I said, the rumors are not clear, but we think there will be more screen or less border, or both.

15. Physical, slide-out keyboard

Okay, I know Apple will never do this, and I further know that this is what distinguishes me from the typical iPhone lover. I hate, despise, detest, and loathe the iPhone keyboard. To paraphrase Ed, I dislike the iPhone onscreen keyboard with a passion that burns like the fire of a thousand suns.

I want a slide-out keyboard. I'd like to actually push buttons and not have to use my pinky to type. This, of all the items listed above, is the biggest reason I might go with an Android device instead of the iPhone.

There's no chance that Apple will make a device with a slide-out keyboard, but as our own Adrian Kingsley-Hughes writes, there is a third-party option. Honestly, this almost convinced me to go out and buy an iPhone 4, then and there. Let's hope the company makes one for the iPhone 5.

Next: Reasons 16-20 »

« Previous: Reasons 11-15

16. Integrated AM/FM radio

Here's another no-brainer. Even the unreliable, but oh-so-slick iPod nano has an AM/FM radio, and that thing is the size of my thumbnail.

We've heard nothing about this, but I'd say there's a one-in-five chance. Don't count on it.

17. Integrated internal HDTV tuner for OTA broadcasts

Many of us get our HDTV from cable or satellite connections. But many local stations broadcast HDTV over-the-air. Now, quite obviously, Apple and antenna technology don't mix, but it'd definitely be quite cool to be able to pick up and display over-the-air HDTV on the iPhone 5.

This one also goes into the "ain't gonna happen" category, but it's still a cool idea.

Yeah. No.

18. Ear thingies that don't suck

Now, this one might well be personal, in that many of you seem to like the earbuds that come with the various Apple devices. I can't stand them. First -- and by far -- foremost, they don't stay in my ears. They fall out, all the time.

I'm not thrilled with the sort of earbuds that actually go into the ear, because they're kind of gross, but at least they don't fall out as quickly. And while I often use regular earphones, those are often too bulky and big.

Here again is where Apple can innovate as only Apple tends to do. Solve the crappy ear-thingie problem, create ear devices that are not earbuds, that stay in my ear, and that are actually comfortable. If you do, I'll definitely be interested.

Apple seems quite happy with its earbud choices, as do many customers. I don't expect this to ever change, which means I'll probably be forever annoyed. Like that's somehow new!

19. Biometric security

ZDNet's own Jason Perlow has often talked about the need for biometrics. This is a less-than-sexy area where Apple could really change the game.

First, of course, the iPhone 5 could have biometric security to avoid having to type in a passcode for access. But imagine the potential if Apple could build a biometrics API that could allow other applications on the PC and Mac to use the iPhone as second factor, biometric security device. In one move, PCs and Macs would have a nearly ubiquitous method for doing biometric validation.

This wouldn't be the first time Apple pushed a technology into the mainstream with near universal adoption. Few remember then-CEO John Scully's interview in Playboy, where he predicted CD-ROM would revolutionize personal computers (it did, until the Web upstaged everything). Apple also drove adoption of Firewire and WiFi, both previously obscure technologies.

So, if Apple adopted biometrics in its iPhone, it could be awesome.

We've heard no rumors about this. I put it at maybe 5% probability.

20. Card slot (SD or otherwise)

Here's another place where Apple apparently won't budge off it's high horse. Many of use would rather put large amounts of material on the iPhone and iPad without having to go through some weird upload/download dance or the abuse that comes from using iTunes.

To be honest, this avoidance of a slot really disturbs me. If Apple makes media machines, there are better ways to move information around, and while GSM and CDMA connections might be growing in availability, neither is universal. Sometimes, it's still better to physically move data.

Again, there's no chance. Sigh.

Next: Reasons 21-27 »

« Previous: Reasons 16-20

21. Integrated, flip-out stand

Apple designers seem to like things that feel like smooth pebbles. They seem to hate seams. So the possibility that Apple might introduce the iPhone 5 with an integrated, flip-out stand seems pretty far-fetched.

That said, watching things on the iPhone can be annoying, especially since we all wind up propping the thing up on all sorts of strange contrivances. Sure, there's an army of add-on devices out there, but it'd be nice if a simple feature like this was integrated into the phone.

For the reason articulated (see how I did that?), don't count on this coming from Apple. On the other hand, there's an entire industry in iPhone and iPad stands, so if Apple doesn't, someone else will.

22. Tripod-mount screw-hole

Most cameras have a small screw-hole somewhere on them that allows the camera to be mounted to a tripod or other steady filming stand or structure. The iPhone, quite obviously, is too thin for such a screw-hole.

But, if Apple were to implement an integrated, flip-out stand, as I suggested earlier, the stand could have the screw-hole, giving us all a win-win.

Not available from Apple, but it turns out there are a bunch of these for the iPhone 4. We'll probably see some of these manufacturers tool up for the iPhone 5. One note, though: if the iPhone 5 truly does have a teardrop shape, that'll make it harder for manufacturers to build nice, slide-in frames. It'll be interesting to see if the expected wedge shape adds more structural stability, or less.

23. Integrated IR transmitter

In our ongoing quest for that one-device-to-rule-them-all, the iPhone has come close. But there are some tasks it just can't perform, and one of those is changing channels. Yes, I know, if you have an Apple TV, the iPhone can act as a remote control. But the Apple TV does not live alone in a well-equipped entertainment center.

Adding an IR transmitter to the iPhone would open all sorts of interesting possibilities for integrated device control. Plus, it'd just be neat. Once again, there are add-on devices that do this, but they're clunky and hang off the phone in unattractive ways.

I do wonder about this one. We haven't seen anything announced, but with Logitech's announcement of the Harmony Link, an IR transmitter might not be necessary anymore.

24. Laser detection

Okay, so while we're dreaming, how about adding some laser detection technology into the iPhone 5? There are already some apps that attempt to determine distance through the iPhone, through a combination of imaging, the LED flash, and sound. Unfortunately, these tools are far from reliable.

One of the better ways to go is through laser range detection. A laser is shot out, and then it's read by a detector, producing an almost perfect reading. Another use of laser detection is for telling temperature.

I'm sure that if Apple put a laser detector API in the developer kit, we'd see some amazingly creative uses in the App store.

No rumors, probably not.

25. Full, 1080p HD video

The iPhone 4 actually as a pretty good camera capability (setting unfair expectations for all those soon-to-be iPad 2 owners who wanted a camera on their iPads). However, the iPhone 4 can only capture 720p video, which is a poor cousin to full 1080p.

It's probably time for the iPhone 5 to provide 1080p video recording capability. After all, the $99 Kodak Zi8 has captured 1080p video for a few years now. It's time -- especially with Apple's claims in the media world -- for Apple to catch up.

No rumors, but I'd give this a 50% probability.

26. More colors

Many of you are probably too young to remember when Apple didn't see everything in terms of black and white (and silver). There was a time when Apple had products that were in all the colors of the rainbow (you could even get an iMac in purple or orange).

Actually, that's not strictly true. Apple has been willing to produce the iPod nano and iPod shuttle in a variety of tacky colors for years now. But all Apple's main-line products are monochromatic.

Isn't it time for Apple to sell iPhones in silly colors as well? Yeah, you know you want it!

Also a continued low probability.

27. Steve to introduce it

You all know I've had a lot of disagreements with Steve Jobs over the years. But I have nothing but respect for what he's accomplished, his strength of vision, and his sense of focus. Fighting an illness is never fun and with such a public persona, it's even harder for Steve Jobs and his family to get the privacy they deserve.

That said, while I may have had my reasons for suggesting you wait before buying an iPad 2, nothing made me happier than to see Steve on-stage, able to introduce it.

Look, it's far more important for him to take care of himself, and if that means he has to stay home during a product introduction, so be it. But now, more than ever before, it's just nice to see him up on stage, doing what he clearly loves to be doing, introducing new, insanely great Apple products.

That's why -- while it doesn't strictly qualify as a "feature" -- there's nothing more I'd like to see come with an iPhone 5 than a healthy Steve Jobs to introduce it.

This story has gotten much sadder since March, now that Steve suddenly stepped down as CEO of Apple. It's okay if we don't see him on stage. We just hope he has a long and happy life ahead of him.

Bonus: things not on the list

Before I close out this wish list for the iPhone 5, I'd like to point out three things that didn't make the list.

The first is availability on other carriers. While the iPhone was locked to AT&T (and AT&T's dismal performance), it made sense to suggest other carriers. But now, that's not terribly important. Verizon has the iPhone 4 and will probably have the iPhone 5. Sprint is a big question mark.

Flash is the second item not on this list. I think Flash is important for the iPad, which attempts to replicate a real browsing environment. On the other hand, the iPhone screen is small enough that there's really no need for Flash. No Flash, no way.

Finally, Nintendo is going whole hog with the Nintendo 3DS, a device that can display 3D games without the need of glasses. I have one word for the entire 3D thing: meh. Still meh.

What do you think?

So there you go. My full list of wish list items for an iPhone 5 that may never exist. What's on your wish list? TalkBack below.

Editorial standards