iPhone 5 Review

iPhone 5
iPhone 5. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Good

  • Larger screen without compromising portability
  • Faster processor and cellular networking
  • Impressively light and thin without feeling cheap
  • Improved camera

The Bad

  • iOS 6 has some limitations

The Price
with a two-year contract:
$199 – 16GB
$299 – 32GB
$399 – 64GB

For the past few iPhone models, pundits and users have held their collective breath waiting to see something as revolutionary as the original iPhone was in 2007.

Each year they've gotten something that seemed merely evolutionary, a gradual improvement. At first glance, that's the reaction many have to the iPhone 5. Its features are very similar to the iPhone 4S and the price hasn't changed. But that first glance is deceiving. While the iPhone 5 may not be revolutionary, it's far from a mere evolution. Thanks to its greater speed, larger screen, and super light and thin case, it's amazingly different from the 4S—and much better.

Bigger Screen, Bigger Casing

The most immediately obvious change in the iPhone 5 is that it’s bigger than its predecessors thanks to a larger screen. While earlier models sported a 3.5-inch display (when measured diagonally), the 5 offers 4 inches. The extra size comes from height, not width, which means that even though the iPhone 5 has a bigger screen, the width of the iPhone, and the way it feels in your hand, is virtually unchanged.

To add that much more screen but retain the user experience is an impressive engineering feat.

It’s an ingenious compromise, really. Android phones have been offering steadily bigger screens, sometimes to the point of absurdity. But, as usual, Apple has deftly balanced the need to stay current while still maintaining the experience that has made the iPhone a hit.

I don’t know that making the screen only taller truly addresses the calls for a larger display, but it’s a great place to be right now.

Some people will find it a challenge to reach to the far corner of the screen with their thumb. I’ve experienced it. Not so often as to be an issue, but if you have very small hands, be warned. Good thing you can rearrange apps to put something you don’t use that often into that faraway space.

Besides the shape and size of the screen, this is the most beautiful iPhone screen to date. It offers richer, deeper colors and everything looks more lively on it.

Faster Processor, Faster Networking

The iPhone 5 isn’t just bigger; it’s also faster, thanks to an improved processor and new networking chips.

The 4S used Apple’s A5 chip; the iPhone 5 uses the new A6 processor. While the speed isn’t hugely noticeable in launching apps (as I’ll demonstrate in a moment), the A6 is able to tackle much more processor-intensive tasks, especially for games.

To get a sense of the speed difference, I opened a few apps on the 4S and the 5 and timed them (for web-enabled apps, both phones were connected to the same Wi-Fi network). The time to launch in seconds.

 iPhone 5iPhone 4S
Camera app23
iTunes app 46
App Store app23

As I said, not huge improvements, but you’ll see bigger gains from the more heavy-duty tasks.

In addition to the faster processor, the 5 also sports new networking hardware for both Wi-Fi and 4G LTE. In both cases, it’s much faster than earlier models. On Wi-Fi, I performed my standard speed test of loading the desktop versions of five websites on the same network (time is in seconds).

 iPhone 5iPhone 4S
iPod.About.com 22

Not huge gains, but some noticeable improvements.

The place where the biggest gains are realized is in 4G LTE networking.

The iPhone 5 is the first model to support LTE, the successor to 3G that delivers cellular download speeds of up to 12 Mbps. The downside of this feature is that 4G LTE networks are still relatively new and don’t cover nearly as much territory as older, slower networks do. As a consequence, you won’t be able to access them all the time (I can get on them in some parts of Providence, RI, where I live, and some parts of Boston, where I work). When you can get on LTE, it’s much, much faster than 3G. When 4G LTE networks are more widely available, this feature will really help the iPhone 5 shine.

Lighter, Thinner

As I mentioned when discussing the screen, the iPhone 5 walks an impressive tightrope between making its screen larger without bulking up its casing.

It’s hard to understand how the changes in its frame affect the iPhone 5 until you hold one. This is especially true if you’ve used any previous model. The 5 is shockingly light and thin—but shocking in a good way, like you can’t believe it’s real, that it feels so sturdy and well made. The iPhone 4S, which felt solid and relatively light when it was released, seems like a brick when compared to the 5, especially if you hold one in each hand.

Despite the 5’s thinness and lightness, it never feels flimsy, fragile, or cheap. It’s a pretty amazing industrial design and manufacturing achievement. And it creates a phone that’s wonderful to hold and use.

iOS 6, the Pros and Cons

If not for some of the shortcomings of iOS 6, the version of the operating system that the iPhone 5 ships with, this would be a 5-star review.

There are a lot of things to like about iOS 6, but at least one important flaw (and you probably know what that is) diminishes it.

The benefits of iOS 6 are numerous: the improved camera software, panoramic photos, Do Not Disturb, new options for responding to calls, improved Siri features, Facebook integration, Passbook, and much more. While these might not be headline-grabbing additions, in almost any other OS update, they’d make for a substantial and solid upgrade.

In this case, though, they’re overshadowed by two major changes. One is the removal of the YouTube app. That’s easily fixed—just grab the new YouTube app (Download at iTunes) and you’re back in business.

The other, and more talked-about, shortcoming is the Maps app. In this version of the iOS, Apple replaced the Google Maps data that used to underlie Maps with a combination of homegrown and third-party data. And it’s been a famous failure.

Now, Apple’s Maps is not nearly as bad as some people would lead you to believe—and it will, no doubt, get better. However, my phone is my primary navigation device, what I use to get directions whenever I drive anywhere unknown. As a directions app, Maps falls short. The addition of turn-by-turn directions is awesome—and the interface for that is very good indeed—but the data itself is lacking. Directions can be overly complicated or inaccurate. For some like me, and probably many of you, who relies on my phone to get me where I’m going, that’s unacceptable.

It will get better (and in the meantime, you can still use Google Maps), but it’s not better right now and that’s a serious deficiency.

The Bottom Line

This is one very impressive phone. If you’ve got an iPhone 4 or earlier, it’s an absolute must-have upgrade. If you don’t have an iPhone, start here. You won’t be sorry. If you’ve got any other kind of smartphone, the iPhone 5 is likely to represent a major upgrade. While there are still problems with iOS 6, and while the upgraded feature set isn’t as sexy or groundbreaking as many had hoped, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find a better smartphone anywhere.