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HITB Review: iPhone 5 - Apple's Best Phone Ever?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/l33tdawg/sets/72157631618295228/

Pre-orders selling out in less than an hour, people queuing up a week in advance, one would think Apple was giving out the iPhone 5 for free! They've already sold a record 5 million iPhone 5s in the first three days of launching, basically selling out its initial supply. Customers who ordered online are apparently now finding that wait times for their device could be as long as 4 weeks! The fervor surrounding the iPhone 5 is not surprising really, as this marks the first major design overhaul since the iPhone 4  - In fact I’m sure I’m not the only one who held off purchasing the iPhone 4s when it came out last year because the design was the same (I dabbled or should I say ended up suffering with Windows Phone 7.5 while I waited).

When Apple announced the 4s last year, they added the mouth watering retina display, a faster processor and introduced Siri (though it’s effectively useless if you live outside the US). A minor upgrade at best. The iPhone 5 on the other hand now actually feels like a real upgrade as it not only brings a new design in a slimmer and lighter package but a faster processor as well (an A6 chip clocked at 1Ghz) and super fast LTE connectivity (theoretically 100Mbps though availability is scarce to say the least) and also dual channel 802.11n wireless. The BIG upgrade is of course the new 4” retina display with a resolution of 1136x640 allowing for more information to be displayed (duh) and 5 rows of icons. Apple has also introduced a new Lightning connector that replaces the old style ‘dock’ that’s been in use since the first generation iPod believe it or not! All this hardware goodness coupled with the next iteration to iOS, iOS 6, which itself brings over 200 new enhancements and you can see why it seems like everyone is clamoring for the new model. 

But there are some who’ll say that the iPhone 5 is a bit ‘ho-hum’ in the hardware department with specifications that are only now reaching the numbers that Android phones have seen over a year ago (the A6 is a 1GHz, dual-core chip while Samsung’s Galayx SIII is quad-core beast running at 1.4GHz). Add to this the lack of NFC (Near Field Communication) which would have made sense especially coupled with Apple’s Passbook application and these detractors aren’t wrong. The iPhone 5’s hardware isn’t the greatest but Apple has never been about putting out the latest and fastest silicon just for the brief bragging rights of saying ‘we have XX GHz more processing power than Y’. They’re about elegant hardware design coupled with awesome software that ‘just works’ and I think they've got it right in the iPhone 5 (okay, except Maps, which is now utterly screwed).

So, What’s in The Box?

iPhone 5 - What's in the box

Fig 1: Inside the Box

As with any Apple product, the attention to detail even down to the packaging and materials is amazing and the unboxing of the iPhone 5 is still ‘an experience’ – Open the box and beneath the phone that greets you, you’ll find the usual ‘envelope’ that has the manual, safety information and of course the SIM tray eject tool. Below that, a three pin power adaptor, and the new EarPods.

 

EarPods - Better but nothing to write home about

Fig 2: The redesigned EarPods – Nice, but nothing to write home about

Yup, the familiar white ear buds have been given a redesign courtesy of Jony Ive himself, with a design that is apparently ‘defined by the geometry of the ear’ which is supposed to make them more comfortable and of course not fall out – sorry to say they still do. While the sound quality has indeed been improved, Apple’s claim of the EarPods being able to output sound quality that rivals more expensive headphones is a bit of a stretch. Needless to say I’m not ditching my Sennheiser’s anytime soon and the EarPods are definitely not an independent accessory I’d recommend buying. Moving along…


New Lightning connector

Fig 3: The new Lightning connector (now with hardware based security?)

Below the EarPods, you’ll find the Lightning connector cable. One thing that I was sort of hoping for was that the connector would have been a more of a ‘MagSafe’ type rather than one that fits super snugly – needless to say, should you ever trip over your cable while it’s plugged in, expect your iPhone 5 to catch some air time. Apparently Apple has also embedded some form of hardware security chip into the Lightning connector (http://www.techradar.com/news/phone-and-communications/mobile-phones/report-apples-lightning-connector-wont-work-without-unique-chip-1099441) nobody knows at the moment if it’s designed to regulate power or aimed at preventing third-party charging solutions.

Out of the Box

One of the first few things you notice about the iPhone 5 when you pick it up is just how light it is. Sure, you’d expect it to be thinner and lighter than the 4s since that’s exactly what Apple promised, but you don’t really appreciate how much lighter and thinner the device actually is till you have it in your hands. There are however some people complaining that the phone is TOO LIGHT! Go figure. The new chamfered edge and aluminum back feels silky smooth to the touch and looks brilliant, though there are numerous reports starting to pop up regarding chipping or scuffing (very evident on the black models though the whites are apparently also affected) – the issue is bad enough that it’s already got it’s own Twitter tag - #scuffgate. I’ve got the white model and thankfully so far haven’t had any scratches or dings show up – yet. 

On a positive note, the extra 1/2 an inch increase in screen size really doesn’t look noticeable but you definitely feel the difference when using the phone with one hand – the extra height just makes the phone a lot more comfortable to use – In comparison, the HTC Titan at 4.7 inches feels ‘too big’ and a little unwieldy and the iPhone 4 / 4s now feels downright heavy and clunky.

On the front of the iPhone 5, you’ll notice the new upgraded FaceTime HD  camera – now with 720p video recording (oohhh wow!) and on the bottom the headset port which has been moved down from the top – a somewhat strange design choice to me as it now means you can’t stand the phone up vertically and always have to put it on it’s side; or upside down. Odd. Next to that you’ll find speaker and mic grill and in the middle of all this, the new Lightning port – Apple’s way of throwing a big FU to anyone who’s bought an expensive set of speakers or other accessory that depends on the old dock. Sure, you can get adaptors from Apple, but at USD30 per piece, they don’t come cheap.

All new Lightning dock - Bye bye old iPhone accesories, hello USD30 connector

Fig 4: Headset port, Speaker, Lightning port and Microphone

While we’re on the subject of ‘things that don’t come cheap’ – let’s talk a bit about the new Nano SIM card that the iPhone 5 uses.

No sooner had Tim Cook left the stage following the keynote announcement did the rumor mill start churning about how Apple’s new SIM standard would mean that anyone wanting to buy an iPhone 5 for use in a country where an official telco operator was not already selling it would be out of luck while everyone else would need to pay their operator for the privilege of owning a new SIM. Why? Well, Apple’s proposed spec listed Nano SIMs as not only smaller than the current Micro SIMs (used in the iPhone 4 and iPad) but also THINNER! So not only would you have to cut your existing Micro SIM down to size (more than possible) but also look into ways of making your SIM card thinner by sanding or filing it down so it wouldn’t get stuck! Out came the digital calipers and sandpaper, as various bloggers and even CNet went about trying to produce a sanded down Nano SIM converted from a Micro SIM (http://asia.cnet.com/can-you-convert-a-micro-sim-into-a-nano-sim-62218746.htm).

Nano SIM cutting guide - no need for sandpaper! Just cut to size and you're done

Fig 5: Tools of the SIM card cutter without a cutter

I’m happy to report however that not only do converted standard -> Nano or Micro -> Nano SIMs work, but there is absolutely no need at all for sanding – the SIM tray in the iPhone 5 has more than enough ‘depth’ to accommodate standard thickness SIM cards and there’s really no risk in it getting stuck (unless of course you screwed up the cut somehow). So in short, save your money and get yourself a pair of scissors and download a template. If you screw it up, you can always go get a replacement SIM to try again.  Need some proper instructions? CNet has a follow up to their sandpaper experiment (http://asia.cnet.com/hacked-iphone-5-nano-sim-thickness-doesnt-matter-62218820.htm)

Cutting a Micro SIM down to a Nano SIM

Fig 6: Why pay for a Nano SIM when you can just cut your old one

First Boot & Performance

Home screen with 5 rows of icons

Fig 7: Home screen with 5 icons

Booting up the device, the first thing you notice is of course the beautiful retina display with the new 5 rows of icons on the home screen. App loading and switching is almost instantaneous and even browser page loads seem more responsive and snappy. Over the past 3 days I’ve not bothered with ‘quitting’ any apps and have instead let iOS manage the memory usage. So far nothing has crashed or hung nor has there been any discernable slow down.

The ‘cost’ for this performance? Less than stellar battery life. As it stands, streaming audio over 3G and playing games simultaneous will result in about a single % drop of power per 2 – 3 minutes. That pretty bad no matter how you cut it, but it could be that the battery requires more conditioning and it just simply hasn’t reached it’s full potential. There are however various forum postings and even an Apple support thread seeming to suggest that the poor battery life issue is software based rather than something hardware related. In heavy usage, the phone does become ‘quite warm’ (yes, very scientific measurement) though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ‘hot’ – perhaps in comparison with a 4 / 4s it does feel ‘hotter’ most likely thanks to the aluminium back being a better conductor than glass.

When it comes to outright benchmark performance numbers though (numbers don’t lie right?), the iPhone 5 simply screams! Despite being clocked at a modest 1GHz with 2 cores, we managed a score of 1635 in Geekbench even while running an app update in the background! What does a score of 1635 really mean? Well according to Geekbench (http://bit.ly/ScUylI) that’s basically more power than a 2004 PowerPC G5 running at 1.8GHz. I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty impressive to me.

The iPhone 5’s ‘real competitor’, the Samsung Galaxy S III scores around the 167x – 17xx range (http://browser.primatelabs.com/android-benchmarks) and it’s running 400Mhz faster nevermind the additional cores. Of course, all benchmarks are just synthetic testing and the proof is in the pudding – how does the device perform in real world usage and graphics intensive gaming. I tested out a handful of games including Asphalt 7 and Temple Run and they both ran absolutely beautifully. The graphics in Asphalt 7 almost feels close to the experience you’d get on a PSP (PlayStation Portable) infact.

Awesome gaming performance - Practically close to PSP level of graphics I'd say (Asphalt 7)

Fig 8: Asphalt 7 on an iPhone 5 – Close to PSP performance on a phone

Of course a lot of older games and apps have not yet been updated to take advantage  of the increased screen real estate and you’ll see the ugly black ‘letter boxing’ in the meantime.

Camera

The camera sensor in iPhone 5 has been upgraded (though it's still 8 MP) and Apple has also done some tweaking to the lens (its now made of sapphire glass). In some rudimentary testing, the results are certainly an improvement over the 4 / 4s with much faster shutter response that feels like it has almost no lag. The default Camera app has also been improved and there’s now an option to call up the camera from the lockscreen itself, though it still can’t hold a candle to the likes of Camera+ (my app of choice with it’s shoot first, process later work flow and ‘semi pro’ features like being able to set the exposure indepent of the focus point). More indepth testing of the iPhone 5 camera against the 4s seems to indicate that the improvements are pretty significant especially in low light conditions and even captures much greater detail in bright light.

iPhone 4s compared with iPhone 5 camera image quality

Credit: TUAW (http://www.tuaw.com/2012/09/24/iphone-5-camera-tested-in-iceland-shows-low-light-photo-comparis/)

iPhone 4s compared with iPhone 5 camera image quality

Credit: Gizmodo (http://gizmodo.com/5945262/iphone-5-camera-battle-is-it-the-best-smartphone-shooter)

Some iOS 6 Specific Enhancements

As I said at the start, Apple has always touted the ‘it just works’ mantra when it comes to their devices and by coupling the hardware and the software they manage to deliver a much more ‘cohesive’ user experience especially if you’re already on OS X.

iOS 6 brings with it a whole bunch of superb enhancmeents and tweaks including some really important ones like per application security permissions for access to things like notification services and what apps have access to your address book and photo albums etc.

 

New Privacy Settings   Per Application Permissions

Fig 9: Per application setting for which app has access to what

iOS 6 also finally brings Facetime over 3G so you don’t have to carry a MiFi device around with you or hunt for a hotspot. You can also now tweet / post to Facebook directly from the Notifications area. It would have been nice if Apple did what Microsoft Windows Phone does - a single text field and check boxes for which social network to share to, rather than separate buttons for each. Simple and easy. There’s also a new contextual menu for sharing items and adding them to your home screen.

New contextual sharing menu

Fig 10: New contextual menu for sharing

The new ‘do not distrub’ function also works brilliantly, allowing you to set times at which no notification sounds or call alerts should come through with the exception of those on your favorites list or if the same phone number calls you twice in quick succession. Siri has also been improved and now knows about English Premier League football matches so you can ask it things like ‘What time is Arsenal playing next week’ or ‘What was the score from the last Man City game’… A feature I’m sure all football loving Malaysians will clearly make use of! It’s also nice to see apps resume EXACTLY where you left them – regardless of reboots. These are all ‘small things’ no doubt, but it adds up to the ovreall user experience.

Do Not Disturb

Fig 11: Do Not Disturb

On the flip side however, Apple’s decision to exclude Google Maps in favor of their own mapping ‘dis-solution’, is a really bad one. Maps in iOS 6 is not just broken and botched up, it’s simply unusable. I don’t think you can even say it’s beta and Apple’s claim that it’s cloud based so it’ll improve with time is just bull. The thing is that you don’t really realize how much you depend on maps till it’s not there – looking up simple directions to places that you’ve not visited before is now impossible as everything is ‘not found’ and some users are reporting that they get sent in a completely OPPOSITE direction to where they should be headed.

There is work being done to get the old Google maps from iOS 5.1.1 working on iOS 6 however it requires jailbreaking (somethng I’ve done for all my iOS devices, but perhaps something not all of you would want to venture into). Of course I’m pretty sure we’ll see an iOS 6 version of Google Maps from Google themselves, the only question is when. In the meantime, a temporary workaround, but far from a proper solution, is to use the web version of Google Maps at http://maps.google.com/ but this doesn’t even come close to offering the same level of integration of the native app.

What’s Else is Bad?

So apart from getting lost in a foreign city (or even your own!) and running out of juice before you can call for directions, there isn’t really much else I can complain about the new device (note that I said I) If however you’re one of the unlucky few with scuffs and dings (some apparently straight out of the box!) or strange rattling noises (possibly loose volume buttons) to knocking sounds when you shake the phone (most likely due to a loose battery) or perhaps one of those complaining about not being able to connect to WiFi or that their screen appears yellow, then your list of complaints is probably longer - a lot longer.

Should You Buy It?

Well that really depends – if you’re on an iPhone 4 or earlier, then definitely YES – You’ll LOVE the new phone and the performance will simply blow you away. If you’re already sporting an iPhone 4s however, then perhaps wait for a while to see how this whole scuffgate / other manufacturing issues play out.

On the flip side if the device is readily available where you are then get it! Of course beware of scuffgate or if you’re one of those who like to wrap your phone in a case (do you also wrap your couchi in plastic?) then you’re all good. Honestly, though, knowing all the above I’d say wait till at least iOS 6.1 is out. There are definitely some strange manufacturing QC issues going around along with some other problems that can hopefully be fixed with a software update.

You already bought one? ENJOY IT and becareful of them chamfered edges! :)

 

2 comments for 'HITB Review: iPhone 5 - Apple's Best Phone Ever?'

Oh yeah and set this up if you don't like being tracked - Settings --> General --> About --> Advertising and turn ON 'Limit Ad Tracking'

Found more stuff that can be turned off (which appears to also improve battery life):

Head to Settings->Privacy->Location Services->System Services and disable the following: Diagnostics & Usage, Genius for Apps and Location-Based Ads + Traffic (since Maps is fscked at the moment anyway)