After a weekend with the iPhone 5, here’s what I think of the latest Apple device

After countless browser reloads on UPS’ tracking page and waiting for the UPS truck to show up, my pre-ordered iPhone 5 (Black/Slate 32GB) finally arrived on Friday afternoon. Upon opening the box like a slobbering kid in a candy store, I was greeted with a familiar looking iPhone, one that was noticeably taller, but not wider. Despite reading all the reviews online and hearing about how it’s 20% lighter, I was still taken aback by just how much lighter it actually felt in my hand. It almost felt like I was picking up an iPhone made entirely of plastic. And the fact that it’s 18% slimmer is also immediately apparent when held. All in all, the iPhone 5′s form factor is just sleek and sexy as hell. Factor in that I skipped the 4S, this was one heck of an upgrade.

Screen

At first glance, the most obvious change of the new iPhone is the 4″ diagonal screen. By making it taller, Apple was able to add an extra row of apps onto the home screen; including the bottom dock, we now get 6 rows of apps. Apps that have been updated to support the iPhone 5′s 16:9 aspect ratio will fill out the screen, otherwise, apps/games will appear in letterbox mode (a black strip at the top and bottom). This 0.5 inch diagonal growth is significant enough that it’ll provide users with a better experience for games, movies (watch them in their original wide screen format), browsing the web and everyday app usage. Even after using it for just for a few hours, jumping back onto the iPhone 4 made all the app icons feel more cramped, almost like I was using an iPhone Mini.

It’s not only the size, but colors are richer – even when viewed under direct sunlight – thanks to the 44% increase in colour saturation over the 4/4S. As previously reported by the WSJ, the iPhone 5 uses an all new in-cell technology that integrates the touch sensors into the LCD, thus allowing for a thinner and sharper display. Just comparing the (purple) iTunes app icon between the the iPhone 4 and 5, you’ll immediately see that the on iPhone 5, it has more contrast and looks less washed out.

Speed, speed and more speed

Everything is just so much snappier. This is especially true for me since I went from the iPhone 4 to the 5, much like it was going from the original iPad to the iPad 3. The faster A6 chip scored more than double of any previous iDevices in the Geekbench benchmarks and this is more than evident in everyday use. Everything from booting up the phone to opening apps, snapping pictures and surfing the web, you’ll notice the difference right away. It may not be as significant for iPhone 4S users, but the speed bump is still there (Apple says it’s 2x faster than the iPhone 4S’s A5X chip for CPU and graphics). Add to the fact that there’s now 1GB of ram (same as the iPad 3), you can basically have more apps open on your phone without experiencing any slow downs due to low memory.

iOS 6

I won’t go into deal at the moment regarding iOS 6 as you may already have been busy checking it out over the past few days, but I will touch on a few things I like. One of the big ones for me is the Do Not Disturb mode. When turned on, I can schedule a time period when calls and alerts won’t come through. No more being woken up by in the middle of the night by strangers who wrongly drunk-dialled your number. The sub-options of “Allow Calls From” (select groups from contacts who will bypass DND) and “Repeated Calls” (a 2nd call from same person within 3 minutes won’t be silenced) round up DND mode.

The Mail.app has been improved with a number of useful features, including pull-down-to-refresh, the VIP inbox, and ability to Archive OR Delete an email right from within the message (tap and hold the Box icon at the center bottom of the screen to bring up menu). This means that you no longer have to choose which of the two you want from Settings–>; Mail –>; Accounts.

Siri has also gotten smarter and can now launch apps. Just tell Siri to “Launch” or “Open” followed by the app name. Sure beats looking for a particular app if you have pages and pages of them. Finally, iOS 6 now lets you not only set wake up alarms with default sounds like ‘Marimba’, but also with songs from your Music library. Sweet.

Maps

It’s no secret the Apple’s all new Maps app is severely outclassed by Google Maps, at least for the time being. Users have rightfully complained about the lack of public transit routes, incorrect positioning of POIs (points of interest), disappearing cities and buildings, and major graphical glitches in 3D Flyover view to name just a few. Apple even issued a statement to AllThingsD in regards this:

Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service. We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover, turn by turn navigation, and Siri integration. We launched this new map service knowing it is a major initiative and that we are just getting started with it. Maps is a cloud-based solution and the more people use it, the better it will get. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.

The problem is so wide spread that users have started to post their own findings on sites like The Amazing iOS 6 Maps. While I have yet to extensively test out the new Maps app, my biggest issue thus far has been the lack of POIs near where I live. Gas stations and restaurants that have been in the area for the past few years are no where to be found. Thankfully, turn-by-turn navigation actually works quite well, even on par or better than a few of the GPS apps I’ve tried on the App store.

Of course, if you’re missing Google Maps, you can always visit maps.google.com to use their web version and even add it to your home screen as an app shortcut. This way, you won’t miss out on public bus schedules and walking routes. Sadly, this means you will no longer get to use Street View on iOS 6.

LTE = Zoom Zoom Zoom

A major upgrade for the iPhone 5 is the inclusion of LTE (Long Term Evolution), which is about 10x faster than the 3G network. Similar to how you won’t know how light the iPhone 5 actually feels until you hold it, you won’t realize how much faster LTE is compared to 3G until you’ve tried it yourself. This relatively new standard is often faster than many home Wifi networks and I can see how this is the case. Using the free Speedtest app, I was able to get insane speeds of 36.92 Mbps (down) and 13.85 Mbps (up) on my Fido LTE network. On 3G, the same test came back with 2.91 Mbps down and 0.54 Mbps up. Needless to say, browsing the web on the iPhone 5 with LTE enabled is like flying down the autobahn with your dream ride. Even graphic intensive (non-mobile) sites load up as quickly as on my 27″ iMac. There’s no doubt that once you go LTE, there’s no turning back. Just make sure that you do have a generous LTE data plan before blazing through online videos. Otherwise, you may be in for a bit of a surprise when your bill arrives at the end of the month.

iPhone 5 Battery Life

Smartphone battery life has always been a contentious issue, especially nowadays when users demand more power for their apps, music, movies and the like. It’s no different with the iPhone 5 and in some ways, the expectations have risen after it was made known during the keynote that the 5 has “matched or exceeded the battery life” of the iPhone 4S. No small feat to be sure, given that the phone is nearly 20% slimmer. According to Apple’s spec sheet, users can expect 8 hours of 3G talk time/browsing, 8 hours of LTE browsing, and 10 hours of surfing and video on Wifi.

Browsing the web on 3G and lost nearly 20% battery life in just over an hour (LTE was turned on for duration of about 10 minutes)

So how has my experience been so far? Sadly, not so good. I’m finding that there’s quite a substantial battery drain on my iPhone 5 and overnight, I could lose 20-30% of power just on standby. It almost seems a process in the background hasn’t quit on its own and is sucking the battery dry. To be sure, I’ve turned off a host of settings, including turning off location services (for apps not required), Raise to speak for Siri, LTE, and ensuring that the option for Diagnostics & usage is set to “Don’t Send” – just to name a few. Strangely enough, none of this helped much, and I got to a point where I was losing about 1% every 3-4 minutes. This was with LTE off and browsing quite literally between 1 or 2 webpages. A quick search online and it appears that others are experiencing the same thing. My guess is that there’s a bug in iOS 6 that causes the iPhone 5 to drain its battery much, much more quickly than originally designed. I’ll have to dig a bit deeper, see if there’s a possible fix and report back. Hopefully, Apple will provide an a minor update soon to address the battery issue.

I also did notice that the back of the phone does get quite warm (not iPad 3 hot) after prolonged use, particularly when using Safari with LTE turned on. But it never gets to a point where it’s uncomfortable, just that it’s fairly obvious in the hand if there’s no case to cover it’s backside.

One minor blemish

Much to my dismay, I did notice right out of the box that my iPhone 5 had a small stain-like mark just below the top left antenna. If you click and zoom in on the image above, you’ll see a darken mark just below the line – as if someone had dabbed a black marker on its side. It’s not even a scratch or dent as the surface is still smooth. I know it’s such a small blemish and it won’t affect the phone in anyway, but seeing how I just spent $799+ tax (plus another $100 for AppleCare+), I wasn’t going to just let it slide. After a call to the Apple Store and speaking with a more than understanding Apple rep, I was relieved to learn that I could bring it into the store and have it swapped out for a ‘replacement’ iPhone 5. Apparently, these are brand new, set aside for launch (they’re not for sale) and used to replace any defective iPhones. While mine wasn’t defective per say, thankfully I was still able to exchange it right then and there at the Apple Store for another blemish free unit — as opposed to shipping it back to Apple Online and waiting god knows how long before one is sent back to me.

The Rest: EarPods, Camera, Lighting Cable

For the first time ever, the iconic iPod earphones have been completely redesigned and were unveiled during the same iPhone 5 media event. Now called ‘EarPods’, the customary round earbuds have been replaced by a cone-shaped like design that actually fits snuggly into your ear. In fact, I have to say that they’re one of the most comfortable earbud type earphones I’ve ever tried. Once on, it feels like its barely there (at least for these ears), and unlike its predecessor, these don’t constantly threaten to slide off. As for how they sound, the EarPods are actually surprisingly good; while I haven’t spent hours listening to music with them, I’ve found the EarPods to be a fairly huge step up, especially when it come to the bass department. They’re certain not the best sounding earphones around – far from it – but for $29 and the fact that they come bundled with the iPhone 5, I think they’re great value and I’ve certainly been satisfied with them so far.

The iPhone 5 camera is similar to the iPhone 4S’ in that it’s the same 8MP, f/2.4 aperture and 5-element lens, but it’s 25% thinner and 40% faster when snapping photos. And with the help of the A6 chip, it further reduces noise and offers a new dynamic low light mode, which gives up to 2 f-stops greater low-light performance. Add to that a new sapphire lens crystal cover that Apple claims is more durable and clear, this all helps make one of the best smartphone cameras on the market even better. From my brief tests, I was really impressed by its image quality. By and large, the pictures that the 5 is able to take even rivals some of the mid to low range point and shoot cameras I’ve come across. All the more reason to ditch that mediocre camera and just rely on the iPhone 5 for causal photogrphy.

Shooting in panoramic mode

One really cool feature of the new camera is the panorama mode, which essentially stitches together a bunch of images to create a large panoramic photo. To enable it, go to Options within the camera.app, then select Panorama. Once you tap the shutter button, pan the iPhone vertically from left to right and iOS 6 will do all the heavy lifting. This is a great mode for landscape photography or taking portraits of a large group of people positioned side-by-side. Do note that the resulting image file is a pretty large one, anywhere from 20 – 30MB in size. The front-facing camera has also gotten an upgrade; it is now 720p and as such, FaceTime gets a nice bump up in resolution. One final tidbit: you can now take stills while shooting video. I suppose that this will come handy in certain situations.

Another big change is the new Lighting Connector. It places the old 30 pin connector an it’s now supposed to be much more durable, all digital and 80% smaller. And small it is. I didn’t realize how tiny the connector was until I held the cable in my hand. The best part about this design is that it’s completely reversible, so that means you don’t have to fumble in the dark trying to plug ‘lighting’ in. That said, despite its all digital claim, I haven’t noticed any differences in speed while transferring data or backing up my phone when compared to the 30 pin cable.

Final Thoughts

Without a doubt, the iPhone 5 is the best phone Apple have released to date. The faster processor, improved iSight camera, LTE, 4-inch screen and re-engineered designed that’s shaved off 20% of its weight and thickness, all add up to making it a fantastic iPhone. Holding the phone with one hand is just as comfortable and navigating with one thumb is still possible thanks to the unchanged width of the body. The more I use it and appreciate the taller Retina Display, the harder it is to go back to the 3.5″ screen of the iPhone 4/4S. Not to mention that it feels really light; after a full day’s use, the absence of the extra 25-28 grams from the iPhone 4/4S in weight does make a difference.

Of course, iPhone 5 is not perfect. It’s fairly easy to chip the chamfered sides when dropped (particularly the black model), the battery drain issue seems to be a wide spread problem and affecting many (though not all), and Apple Maps is currently not completely reliable. Granted, the battery and map problems can be remedied via an update or two. So the million dollar question is when Apple will be able to offer a fix. Hopefully, it’ll be much sooner rather than later.

If you’re still using the iPhone 4 – maybe even the 3G/3GS, the iPhone 5 is most definitely a worthwhile upgrade. The difference in speed and overall user experience is quite substantial. Whereas if you’re already on the 4S, the line gets a bit more hazy, as upgrading to iOS 6 will pretty much give you all the features of the iPhone 5, including turn-by-turn navigation and panoramic camera. Regardless, the bottom line is that no matter which iPhone you’re upgrading from or even if you’re a completely new user, the iPhone 5 is arguably the best smartphone money can buy — at least for now.

  • rodney

    Agreed. The iPhone 5 is one awesome phone. Had a 4S and very happy with upgrade. Battery life has been so-so and I really hope that it is software related.

  • Sam Cappello

    I don’t have the iphone 5 but i have noticed that iOS 6 has been draining my iPhone 4S quickly. Not impressed

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