iPhone 5: the icanthascheezburger review
First off, if you want a full on great description of the phone and details of its feel, read Gruber’s review on Daring Fireball first. It’s a great review, and I’m going to avoid repeating much of what he went into detail about and focus on the impressions I had.
Anybody who tells you that the iPhone 5 is a boring upgrade hasn’t actually used one. Mentioning things like speed increases, adding LTE and being lighter and thinner sound pedestrian to talk about, and having a new connector port sounds awful (sure glad Apple hasn’t had to do it since 2002), but make no mistake: this is probably the biggest leap forward iPhone has made (with the iPhone 3GS -> iPhone 4 transition being a very close second).
The part you’re going to notice most is the speed of the phone. Yeah, sure, it’s got LTE and that’s a great speed boost, but at the moment I’m in the middle of nowhere in Iowa still using 3G, but what I’m talking about is the speed of the phone hardware itself. Apple mentioned that the speed is roughly double that of the 4S, which itself was about 50% faster than the iPhone 4 (yeah, it went to two cores but the result was roughly a 50% boost), which itself was about 50% faster than the iPhone 3GS, which itself was 50% faster than the iPhone 3G (which was no faster than iPhone, much to my chagrin). I don’t know why but I tend to be more demanding of speed than the average user and over the years I’ve become accustomed to these modest speed gains and happily gobbled them down like a half glass of water being given to someone who’s been lost in the desert for two days. But usually within a day I was used to the new speed and didn’t really notice the difference until I was using a friend’s previous generation phone. The phones always feel faster, but still a little sluggish. I will never admit that a phone is fast enough because we’ll always need more speed, but the iPhone 5’s speed really impressed me. Apple really was being rather conservative when they said the speed doubled, because I think they doubled performance of enough components to have a really meaningful effect on some things. In particular, opening the Evernote app is a whole new affair. Previously I had to wait 14 seconds for the app to reach a state where it would respond to input (Evernote confirmed that was normal for a 20,000 note account like mine). On the 5, it’s a 2-3 second thing, and the app hangs a LOT less (still hangs, but Evernote’s shoddy software engineering is to blame here, not the phone). I can actually use it with pleasure and browse through it. If I were in a store and needed to quickly grab a copy of my rewards card in the checkout line, I wouldn’t hesitate to open Evernote to do it because now I know that it will fetch really fast.
The second part you’ll notice is the build quality. Build quality is something that is very easily ignored by most because it’s kind of intangible, but the iPhone 5 is incredibly well built. The iPhone 4 and 4S were built with very tight tolerances but the iPhone 5 really takes it up a notch. The unibody design makes the phone feel great in your hands, and the now chamfered edges make the phone hug your palm a little better as you hold it, mitigating a downside of going from the 3GS’s tapered back & rounded sides to the iPhone 4/4S’s square, flat-backed design. The 4 felt a bit brick-like in your hand, but with the iPhone 5 it’s less so. I was always quite happy with the glass back and was apprehensive about having a metal back with the two-toned look to accommodate the glass bands at the top and bottom. It seemed un-Apple like, but then again, so also did the black lines along the iPhone 4’s surface for antenna accommodation seem un-Apple like (Steve Jobs even acknowledged that when talking about the design). There are plenty of things Apple won’t do to degrade the device’s beauty in the name of practicality. They won’t make the phone thicker, for instance. They probably won’t make it heavier. But adding lines to the look is within bounds. (the two toned back isn’t unprecedented, either. The original iPhone had this look, though it was a more pronounced silver and black color). In any case, I still find the iPhone 5 to look beautiful on the back and the old Apple adage “The back of ours looks better than the front of theirs” continues to hold. Seeing it in person I’m not even sure it was a cosmetic compromise. It’s damn nice looking. In addition to how the device looks, there are some great positive changes to how it feels, too. The home button feels distinctly clicky, far clickier than ever before in an iOS device. This is welcome and I hope this enhancement makes it into the iPod Touch, new iPod nano and the iPad. Generally the iPod Touches I’ve used had decent tactile response but the iPhones I’ve owned (and others’ as well) have suffered from squishy, unresponsive home buttons. If you’re only going to have one button on the front of your device, it may do you well to focus on making that well. It’s the kind of detail I wouldn’t expect Apple to ignore and in the iPhone 5 I think it’s gotten their attention and I hope the button stays this clicky throughout the device’s lifespan. Speaking of tactile feel, connecting the Lightning connector gives a great satisfying click, and the headphone jack feels the same as in previous iPhones (it’s fine).
The transition to Lightning did stir up some controversy. While I can’t cheer about a new connector without sounding like a shill, I understand why Apple did it, and I think they really nailed it with this new connector, which is reassuring because I want this one to be around for 9 years too (if not longer). And if you’re complaining that Apple is changing this, you should keep in mind that it wasn’t long ago when the status quo was that every new cell phone you owned had new connectors, making all your previous cables obsolete.
It’s very small; about as big as a micro-USB connector. It’s a solid piece of metal with eight pins on either side, allowing it to be inserted either way (that’s a big deal to me and others). Having the pins flatly attached to the metal on the outside makes for a sturdy connector; it’s not getting bent from the outside and the inside doesn’t have a tiny piece of breakable plastic with tons of tiny pins in it. It’s able to connect into a relatively hollow socket which is itself less prone to failure because there isn’t much in there to damage. I suspect that damaging the dock connector port is one of the more common repairs Apple sees, and switching to Lightning will make this a lot less common, possibly even as uncommon as a MagSafe port breaking (I’ve never heard of a Mac with a broken Magsafe port. Broken Magsafe cords? Yes, but never a bad port).
The current standard connector for smartphones as of late is MicroUSB, and Apple is under fire for not just going with that in the new iPhone. Why go against what the entire rest of the industry’s doing? There’s plenty of evidence to believe it was just a business decision meant to milk more cash out of iPhone users. After all, every Lightning cable has an authentication chip in it, keeping an otherwise nice and simple design from being implemented by the likes of Monoprice and other purveyors of cheap cables. For a simple USB & charging cable, that’s a dick move on Apple’s part, though I can understand wanting a chip to authenticate accessories (to give Apple a chance to vet the accessory or require that the accessory maker’s in their program). If you are convinced Apple just likes imposing Orwellian restrictions on its users then there’s probably nothing I can do to convince you that’s not the case. I will say, though, you won’t get an objection from me about the authentication chips for the cables being unnecessary. Any problem that’s trying to solve is a made-up one. If Apple was doing excessive iPhone repairs because third party cables weren’t made quite right, Apple is partly to blame for making the dock connector cable needlessly complex.
Joe Biden once said “don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” When you look at something like Lightning, Apple’s priority wasn’t just making it different and incompatible. They could have done that really easily without spending the time they did on this connector. Apple built on years of knowledge about what the dock connector port was bad at, and on that foundation built a cable that solves all of those problems. Put simply: I might not have the luxury of being able to buy a dozen MicroUSB cables on Monoprice for $1 apiece to charge my iPhone, but I can also rest assured that the cable that came with my iPhone 5 is probably going to still be in use 10 years from now and be working nicely, which is a big step forward for Apple as evidenced by my growing collection of overly-thin Apple device cables that frayed at some point.
The switch from 30 pin to 8 pin means that some functionality is going to be lost here, though. If you’re going to have an adapter that outputs video, you no longer have a dedicated pin that’s streaming that to you; it’s now on the adapter to do that digital to analog conversion (which helps justify the $29 price of the adapter Apple’s offering). Dropping the analog output probably simplifies the logic board on the iPhone too, making it smaller and potentially lighter.
I would say Apple’s biggest misstep in this transition is not making the adapter cables available en masse, leaving me with just the USB charger cable that came with the iPhone. I couldn’t even buy extra Lightning USB cables when I picked up the phone. If you’re going to pull a dick move by putting unnecessary authentication chips in your cables, at the very least have a bountiful supply of the new cables people are going to need to use with their new device. I can somewhat excuse not having Lightning-ready versions of every adapter (only somewhat, though, because again, people who are buying these adapters probably have more strict specifications for what they can hook up to their phone, otherwise they’d just be moving with the flow and getting AirPlay enabled stuff) but cables? Come on.
Why do I spend so much time talking about something as freaking mundane as a connector? If you look at an iPhone 4S and the first iPod with dock connector, that dock connector is quite possibly the only thing those two pieces of hardware have in common. The same will likely hold true in a decade or so when we’re looking at what iPhone has way off in the future.
Yep, it’s taller. Apple picked a good height for it; all parts are still quite reachable by my relatively stubby thumbs, and the screen looks great (it’s more than just taller; it’s got better color and there is now even less space between the glass and the screen itself). I really am enjoying the height; more than I thought I would. However, Apple picked a horrible way for non-iPhone 5 optimized apps to behave by putting them in the center of the screen. It completely effs up my typing because it moves the keyboard a quarter inch up on the screen and destroys five years of muscle memory. iOS COULD move the keyboard to be on the bottom when it’s visible, but it doesn’t. Likewise, iOS on iPad COULD have given users a native iPad keyboard when iPhone apps were run on iPad, but Apple decided instead to degrade the experience and shame developers into updating their apps. That’s all well and good, but I’ve still got a few apps and games that have yet to gain Retina display support, so maybe it’s time to find their more well-supported counterparts. In any case, the new screen size is good. I actually wonder if Apple truly wanted to move to this size of display, or if they just did it either to allow for the innards of the phone to be spread out more (helps make it thinner), or if (more likely) mounting pressure from the outside world caused Apple to cave on the screen size they originally thought was best.
I love it, and if you are ready to upgrade your phone and can afford it, get it. If your contract isn’t up for renewal, get it anyway if you can afford it (the market for used iPhones is holding strong and you can probably upgrade for not too much money). If you have a carrier choice (i.e. you aren’t up for renewal and wanting to stick with it on the one carrier you are on), choose Verizon if you’re in the US. You will receive far more LTE coverage than AT&T or Sprint offer (in fact, Verizon offers a great deal more coverage than the other two providers combined). Furthermore, you get a SIM unlocked phone that will work on any GSM carrier in the world (provided you can get or trim yourself a nano SIM card), and the LTE coverage you get around the world is pretty good with the bands Verizon is using. One notable missing feature if you use Verizon’s LTE: you don’t get simultaneous voice and data unless you use WiFi. Allegedly that will come later when Verizon works out the LTE voice details but it’s unknown whether that will come to existing iPhone 5s. Apple’s good about giving users new features but that might be something reserved for the iPhone 5+1.
If you aren’t using one of the dozen or so carriers iPhone is on in the US, should you switch? Perhaps. Apple has done an impressive job of adding carriers in the US over the past year (current count is an astonishing sixteen carriers) so chances are more will come this year. I suspect US Cellular will jump on board this year, assuming that one of the three LTE phone versions support the particular 700 MHz band they are using (they were said to be waiting for Apple to add an LTE iPhone before they made that capital investment in tons of iPhone subsidies, which was probably a smart long-term move if they don’t lose too many would-be iPhone users in the meantime).