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Apple iPhone 5s review: The best gets better

Apple's latest high end smartphone should always better than the last one and the iPhone 5s proves that with a better processor, improved camera, useful fingerprint scanner, and more.
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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 22 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Apple iPhone 5s review

Apple announced the iPhone 5s on 10 September and I Tweeted that I was going to skip it since I love my HTC One and didn't see the need for another smartphone. I visited my local T-Mobile store last week and walked out with a 32GB Apple iPhone 5s.

Hardware

Of course the new iPhone 5s is the best iPhone Apple ever made, just like every new high end iPhone Apple releases each year. The iPhone 5s is difficult to distinguish from last year's iPhone 5 so if you liked that hardware you will like this one as well.

The iPhone 5s retains the 4 inch screen, which is quite small in comparison to Android and Windows Phones today. This was one area I was most apprehensive about and I do find text to be a bit small at times, but that may also be due to how light the fonts are in iOS 7. A reader pointed out I can change the font weight in the buried Accessibility options so it looks much better now.

The display looks fantastic though and having a phone that is so pocketable is handy. Apple still rules in touch responsiveness and that is another refreshing aspect of using an iPhone.

The new Touch ID home button is slick and works very well. I have programmed my two thumbs and an index finger to unlock my iPhone and it works nearly every time. In addition to unlocking the iPhone, it is very convenient for purchasing apps and I would love to see the ability to unlock websites with passwords or other apps, ewallet for example, via touch.

You do not press down on the home button, just place your finger over it. My wife kept pressing down to try to unlock it and I showed her you just rest it on the home button and the ring around it reads your fingerprint data. The HTC One Max I tried required that you swipe your finger in a very specific manner and that sensor rarely worked.

The new A7 chip is "future proof" due to the 64-bit architecture and I look forward to seeing what developers can do with it. Everything still flies on the iPhone and performance is outstanding.

There is a new M7 motion coprocessor in the iPhone 5s that allows developers access to the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. Runkeeper and Nike Fuelband apps are currently available to take advantage of this coprocessor and allow your iPhone to capture data similar to what a life tracker captures.

I ended up with a white/silver iPhone 5s since I wanted at least 32GB of storage. The front is white with the top and bottom back pieces being white plastic while the main part of the back is silver metal. The edges are beveled, like what HTC did with the One, and it really looks great.

There is only a mono speaker on the iPhone 5s, but Apple did a fabulous job with it and it sounds great with loud volume. The speaker performance is one reason the iPhone 5s is staying and the Nexus 5 is going back today. A good speaker is important to me for podcasts and phone calls.

Apple put an improved camera on the back that includes a new flash, called True Tone flash, tha adjust color and intensity for over 1,000 combinations. I am taking some comparison photos with other devices and so far like what I see in the iPhone 5s camera.

In addition to the improved camera hardware with f/2.2 aperture and a larger sensor with 1.5 micro pixels, the iPhone 5s has software to capture burst mode and slow motion video. Android devices have had these capabilities for a while so it is nice to see Apple adding them on the iPhone.

I like having a physical ringer switch too and the volume buttons on the iPhone 5s are easy to find and control.

The battery has gotten me through long days, but is not a multi-day performer for my usage. It may get better over time as I manage my notifications and figure out what I really need running in the background. It is better than the Nexus 5 and there are plenty of charging options available for the iPhone 5s.

Software

The iPhone 5s includes iOS 7, which has been covered quite a bit here on ZDNet. I won't repeat all the details and recommend you check out ZDNet's article written by Zack Whittaker.

I find the Control Center to be quite useful, LOVE the new webOS-like multi-tasking experience, enjoy the new notifications format, and am using Siri more and more every day.

After talking about the iPhone 5s with Kevin Tofel on MobileTechRoundup show #309 I conducted tests between the iPhone 5s and Nexus 5 using the updated Google Now app on iOS and found repeatedly that the iPhone 5s offers up an even faster experience than the Nexus 5.

The Google experience on iOS is arguably better than on Android. I have my email coming through the Gmail app, Google Now rocks with new hands-free search capability, and Google Maps performs very well too.

Usage and experiences

It's been a few months since I have had an iPhone and it honestly is refreshing to be back on iOS on a phone. I am very pleased with the touchscreen performance, speed and responsiveness of the device, speaker volume and clarity, camera functionality, and premium feel in my hand.

The smaller display bothers me at times, but the fact that I get the latest 3rd party apps and services first on an iPhone makes up for that. This is partly due to Apple's control over their hardware, including their Bluetooth radios.

Pros and Cons

To summarize my experiences with the Apple iPhone 5S, here are my pros and cons.

Pros

  • Very high quality hardware
  • Super fast performance
  • Latest and greatest apps and services
  • Good point and shoot camera replacement
  • Useful fingerprint scanner

Cons

  • Battery life could be better, give me iPad-like performance
  • Display is small, by today's standards

Pricing and availability

Apple's iPhone products are expensive and the iPhone 5s starts at $199 for the 16GB with a 2-year contract up to $399 for the 64GB model with a 2-year contract.

To gauge the real cost of the iPhone 5s, you have to look to T-Mobile or the unlocked versions. The 16GB model is priced at $649.91 with the 64GB model priced at $849.91. When you look at the 32GB Nexus 5 at $399, that seems like quite a deal compared to the 32GB iPhone 5s at $749.91.

Availability varies, with most retail carrier stores carrying only the 16GB model in space gray or silver. There is an elusive gold model and higher capacities are generally available directly from Apple in 2-4 weeks. I lucked out and scored a 32GB model at my local T-Mobile store, but they only had two of them in the silver color.

The competition

I listed the competition in my top 10 smartphones for the 2013 holiday season post with the iPhone 5s in the number one position.

The best Android phones are either the Note 3 (if you want a large device with stylus support) or the HTC One (fantastic design and latest OS). The Nokia Lumia 1020 competes in the camera department and there are plenty of other worthy Android devices, such as the Nexus 5, Moto X, Galaxy S4, and more. All are priced less than the iPhone 5s too.

Specifications

  • iOS 7 operating system
  • Apple A7 64-bit processor with M7 motion coprocessor
  • 1GB RAM and 16/32/64GB flash storage memory options
  • 4 inch 1136x640 pixel resolution display at 326 ppi
  • 8 megapixel rear camera with True Tone flash and five element lens
  • 1.2 megapixel front facing camera
  • Fingerprint sensor under the home button
  • Estimated 1,570 mAh non-removable battery
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 low energy
  • Sensors include proximity, accelerometer, finger print, and gyroscope
  • Dimensions of 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm and 112 grams (3.95 ounces)

There is quite an assortment of cellular SKUs for the iPhone 5s. The one I bought at T-Mobile is the A1533 (GSM) model that covers all UMTS/HSPA+/GSM/LTE bands needed in the US and throughout most of the world. To understand all the intricacies of the wireless bands and benchmarking results, I recommend you check out the Anandtech detailed review.

Conclusion

The iPhone 5s looks like last year's iPhone 5 and even works with most all of those accessories. However, the improved internal processor, Touch ID implementation, and improvements to the camera make it a device to consider even if you already have an iPhone 5.

It's an easy upgrade to make for 4s and earlier owners and may even bring over some Android users. I purchased one in large part because I am tired of seeing cools apps and services launching first on iOS and then not being able to test them until they come to Android. Android still doesn't have consistent radios and standards so many of them won't be getting support for services like Pebble or Fitbit.

The smaller display bothers me a bit, but Apple's hardware is stunning and the trade-off for apps and functionality is worth it to me. If the iPhone 5s had a 4.3 to 4.7 display, an IR port for remote control capability, and Qi wireless charging then I would have given it a 10 out of 10.

Contributor's rating: 9.5 out of 10

Further reading

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Back of the white/silver iPhone 5s

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iPhone 5s disappears in my hand

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Touch ID is compelling on the home button

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The speaker performs very well

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A physical ringer switch is nice to have

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The camera is improved on the 5s

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iPhone branding with no carrier affiliation

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Apple logo on the back

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Love those beveled edges and design

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nanoSIM card slot

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webOS-like multi-tasking

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Using the M7 motion coprocessor

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Easy backup of photos

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Privacy settings

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Managing the Control Center

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Setting up Touch ID

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Programming your fingerprint

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Use touch for App Store purchases too

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New dynamic wallpapers and effects

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Wallpaper selection for dynamic effects

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Control Center available with a swipe up

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