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Review: iPhone 5s

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September 23, 2013

Gizmag reviews Apple's iPhone 5s, the latest iterative 'S-series' update out of Cupertino

Gizmag reviews Apple's iPhone 5s, the latest iterative 'S-series' update out of Cupertino

Image Gallery (30 images)

Apple has settled into a pattern. While most smartphone makers try to blow our minds once a year with eye-catching new designs, shapes, and sizes, Apple has stuck to its guns: a redesigned iPhone one year, an almost identical-looking iPhone with upgraded internals the next. Is the latest iterative update, the iPhone 5s, worth jumping on? Or is this the year to hold off, or maybe test the Android waters? Let Gizmag try to answer, as we put the new iPhone 5s through the paces.

Same old, same old

We reviewed the silver model (it's also available in gold and 'space gray')

The iPhone 5s is very familiar-looking. If you were hoping for a radical redesign, or something that feels completely different from the iPhone 5, then you're going to be severely disappointed. The 5s' weight and dimensions are identical to its predecessor. And except for its home button, dual-LED flash, and slightly different colors (apparently the gold model is all the rage), it looks identical too. Yep, the 5s is an "s"-series iPhone through-and-through.

The 5s uses Apple's proprietary Lightning connector for charging and syncing

Fortunately for Apple, the iPhone 5's look and feel have made a lot of people very happy, so the 5s isn't likely to give many people fits either. Like its predecessor, it's made of anodized aluminum. It's very light (112 g), very thin (7.6 mm), and comfortable in just about any size of hand. It disappears in your pocket more than any high-end phone on the market.

The iPhone 5s isn't the biggest, flashiest, or even the most stunning smartphone around. You could even argue that the iPhone is starting to look pretty boring next to some of its competitors. But it's still a gorgeous, extremely well-built phone. It's hard to get too nit-picky with that.

Too small, or just right?

The iPhone 5s is a minor update, but it's hard to knock the overall level of quality

The screen is also unchanged from the iPhone 5. The 5s' screen quality is still excellent, and isn't cause for any concern. Though high-end Android phones have jumped into 1080p land during the last year, Apple is standing strong with its 326 pixels per inch Retina Display. And we don't have a problem with that. Everything is plenty sharp, colors are as accurate as ever, and the simpler visual design of iOS 7 really stands out on it.

There are much sharper smartphone displays out there, but there's little to complain about...

The iPhone's screen size, however, is another matter. Apple likes to fashion itself as a company that follows its own values above all else, not letting market trends or its competitors influence its decisions. It's admirable enough, and probably accurate, given the company's recent stay-the-course, come hell or high water attitude.

But screen size is one area where Apple has fallen behind. Way behind. It's not that there's anything terribly wrong with the iPhone 5s' four-inch display. We're sure that many customers with smaller hands appreciate having a smartphone that's both small and high-end. But the smartphone market has changed. Many customers have shown that they love bigger screens, and rivals like Samsung have been happy to capitalize on that shift in taste. Apple hasn't (yet) responded to that.

The iPhone's 4' screen looks very small next to the Galaxy S4's 5' display

The iPhone 5s' screen is very small for a 2013 smartphone. I'd go so far as to call it the phone's biggest deficiency. Now, of course, not everyone wants a huge smartphone or a phablet, and Apple's sales figures prove that. But for the many customers that do want a 5" screen, Apple doesn't seem too worried about you. Customers' tastes may have changed, but Apple is still sticking to its four-inch screen guns.

Is Apple showing remarkable steadiness in the face of pressure, or pig-headed stubbornness that gives its competitors an unnecessary opening? We'll leave that one up to you. But either way, we wouldn't be surprised to see a bigger screen on Apple's 2014 iPhone (likely the iPhone 6). At some point, that turning tide has to play a role.

One advantage of the smaller screen is that it's easier to reach across the screen with one finger than on, say, the Galaxy S4. It makes one-handed tap-typing a little easier too, though a Swype-like trace keyboard would have helped out even more (we're left scratching our heads as to why Apple hasn't added that yet).

That fingerprint sensor

Under the 5s' home button lives Apple's Touch ID fingerprint sensor

Touch ID is the iPhone 5s' fingerprint sensor, and it's also its killer feature. Living beneath the phone's sapphire home button is a biometric sensor that will learn your fingerprint(s), and let you use it to unlock your iPhone and authorize iTunes and App Store purchases.

Touch ID is classic Apple. It's a brilliant marriage of advanced technology and consumer-centric simplicity. Set a passcode for your phone, train your iPhone 5s to learn your fingerprint (it coaches you to hold your finger on the sensor multiple times), and you'll be able to unlock your phone with a short hold of that finger over the home button. You can train it to learn up to five fingers for yourself or trusted friends or family, and you can also edit and delete trusted prints. Anyone who isn't on the VIP finger list will be out of luck, as they'll need your passcode to get in.

When setting up Touch ID, the 5s prompts you to hold your finger on the home button in bri...

In our testing, Touch ID worked as advertised ... with a few exceptions. The big problem was after I went swimming. Touch ID doesn't respond to wet fingers, which wasn't a surprise at all. But if your fingers get dry and ashy after coming out of the water, it also won't work. A little lotion solved this problem (can't say that phrase has ever popped up in a Gizmag review), but it reminded us that there are times when the feature doesn't always "just work."

The rest of the time, though, Touch ID was the perfect balance of smartphone security and convenience. The cutting-edge technology fades into the background, resisting the temptation to show itself off. Touch ID gives you passcode security without the hassle of entering a passcode.

... just don't expect perfection. And if you're a swimmer, live in a dry climate (I tick both of those boxes), or are just partial to long baths, you might want to lower those expectations even further.

64 bits

The iPhone 5s is Apple's latest S-series update

The iPhone 5s is extremely fast. In Geekbench 3, it scored a 2,533 (the Galaxy S4 "only" scored 1,851). And the experience of using it matches those insane benchmark results. Everything is zippy, responsive, and immediate. Like a lot of recent high-end phones, there's no reason whatsoever to hesitate about its performance.

The biggest item of note here is Apple's shift to 64-bit architecture in the iPhone 5s' A7 system-on-a-chip. What does this mean for you right now? Probably very little, if anything. It gives Apple a weapon against the claims that it's no longer innovating, and it lays the groundwork for mobile computing that behaves a lot more like desktop computing. It means that iPhones and iPads with 4 GB of RAM could be coming down the road (the Galaxy Note 3 is already inching closer, with 3 GB).

But in regular, day-to-day use today? The iPhone 5s takes the speedy, nothing-to-worry about performance of the iPhone 5, and kicks it up yet another notch.

Camera

Apart from Touch ID, the 5s' other physical difference is its dual-LED flash

The iPhone 5s has an excellent camera, easily among the best you can find on a smartphone. In our testing, low-lit shots were improved over the iPhone 5, while well-lit shots looked as good as ever.

Flash photography got a boost with Apple's dual LED flash (branded as "True Tone"), though our testing didn't necessarily reveal any breakthroughs there. The biggest difference we can tell is that flash photos look more saturated than they would on other phones. This helps, and it's a welcome change. We just didn't find it to be an extremely significant upgrade.

What's that? Want some samples? Okay then ...

Here's a simple shot in direct sunlight:

Shot in direct outdoor lighting

Here's the same setting in crappy lighting, with the True Tone flash on:

The same setting, only with no artificial lighting and the 'True Tone' flash turned on

... and this is the same setting without the flash, under low artificial lighting:

Here's the blue orchid under low artificial lighting, with no flash

You can check out this review's image gallery for a few more samples.

iOS 7

The 5s sails through the new iOS 7

Despite its inconsistency, Touch ID is our favorite part of the iPhone 5s. But our second favorite part? That would be iOS 7, with its fresh coat of "flat design" paint.

User interfaces are always one of the most subjective parts of a smartphone experience, but we like the new look and feel of iOS. It's simpler, it's more to-the-point, and it does away with the frou-frou skeumorphism (heavy reliance on shadows, reflections, and real-world objects) from the iOSes of old. iOS 7 makes sense as a 2013 mobile operating system.

There are, of course, other non-cosmetic upgrades in the new edition of iOS. Command Center is a long overdue improvement, finally putting Apple's software on par with Android and jailbroken iPhones by giving it a quick-access settings menu. Improved multitasking (you now get live card-based previews) and AirDrop file sharing round out some of the highlights.

Battery life

Same speaker grilles, same headphone port, same Lightning port

If a smartphone has terrible battery life, no other feature is going to matter. But the iPhone 5s gives you nothing to worry about there. It showed us solid uptimes, in the same ballpark as – though slightly better than – the iPhone 5.

We ran a test where we streamed videos continuously, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on, and brightness at 75 percent. In this somewhat-scientific test, the 5s chugged along for six hours and 15 minutes before conking out. That's the best showing we've seen from a smartphone since we started doing that particular test (and no, we haven't put Motorola's battery beast of a smartphone, the Droid Maxx, through that test).

During more typical use, we don't think you'll have anything to be concerned about. The iPhone 5s' battery should easily last a full day with lighter to moderate use.

Wrap-up

The back of the iPhone 5s

We can see the iPhone 5s from two opposing points of view. On one hand, you could easily argue that it's the best overall smartphone out there. It's constructed like a piece of jewelry, it might be the fastest phone in stores right now, and the fingerprint sensor is a breakthrough feature. The 5s delivers a streamlined, rock-solid, fool-proof experience.

On the other hand, you could argue that the iPhone is now the most conservative kid on the block. There's nothing risky about the 5s, and there's nothing that departs much from Apple's successful formula. When you're as profitable as Apple is, "more of the same" is probably a good thing. But the 5s also feels like a very safe update. The most solid phone out there? Could be. But the most exciting phone out there? Not likely.

Hold your finger on the home button for a brief moment, and your iPhone 5s will unlock

Which side of that fence you fall on will probably be determined by where you're coming from. If you own an iPhone 5, there's little reason to upgrade. Sure, Touch ID is a handy feature, but really, are you going to plunk down for a new phone just to have better and easier security? The camera is better, but not by such a longshot that it's a selling feature. The 5s is faster, but the iPhone 5 is still plenty zippy for most uses.

If you're coming from an older iPhone (4S or before), then this is going to be a much bigger upgrade. You get a bigger screen, a lighter and thinner build, and upgrades in just about every other area. If you're still on one of those older phones and you're comfortable in the iOS ecosystem, then, by all means, get the 5s. You won't regret it.

The iPhone 5s' box art shows off iOS 7's redesign

If you're coming from a high-end Android phone with a large screen, then the 5s gets a lot harder to recommend. After spending time with a spacious (4.7" to 5") display, switching to the iPhone's four-incher isn't easy. Its screen looks pretty piddly next to its high-end Android competition. Those big screens aren't for everyone, but neither are smaller screens like the iPhone's. You'll need to figure out where your sweet spot is.

So the iPhone 5s is either the best phone on the block, or the most predictable. Or both. Maybe it's like a Rorschach test or a work of abstract art, and your opinion about it says as much about you as it does the phone itself.

Either way, the iPhone 5s is one of the easiest phones of 2013 to recommend. It might have the least wrong with it of any smartphone out there. It isn't revolutionary, but it is the best iPhone yet. And for many, many customers, that will be enough.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
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17 Comments

A fair and balanced review, and certainly matches my own opinion; it's a big leap for a 4/4s owner and relatively little for an iPhone 5 owner. And of course that's the point of the 's' models. Given people are generally tied into a contract for 24 months these days, you can argue it's a genius move by Apple to have everyone given a new device to switch to every two years.

Now that the new 'c' line has been created, even the fact it hasn't sold well doesn't change the fact that I can see where Apple can now go with the iPhone. The next iPhone 'c' model can retain the same screen as the 5s, thus satisfying the market that doesn't want a huge phone where one-handed usage is either tricky or impossible.

Leaving the iPhone 6 to push the boundaries a bit further, for all the people that don't mind one bit because they can enjoy bigger photos, games and movies. I fall into that category, and Samsung/Sony/HTC and others clearly show many others do too.

Jonathan Morris
24th September, 2013 @ 03:06 am PDT

Gad, I'm sick of hearing about the small screen size of iPhones. How about if Apple added a phone to the ipad and ipad-mini would that make everyone happy? That way those of use who want a phone that fits totally inside a shirt pocket can buy the "tiny" iPhone.

Tom Swift
24th September, 2013 @ 07:59 am PDT

@Tom - it's not so much that Apple really should make a "huge" screen phone, but rather that the iPhone5 now looks quite small, even compared to mid-range Android or even Windows phones.

I have a Nokia 928 that fits QUITE nicely in my shirt pocket. The GS4 fits quite nicely in a shift pocket. The iPhone does fit well . . . but there's nothing magic about its size. It could, and I would argue, should, be larger.

It's a problem, and I would think that Apple would address it. IMHO, they would have done themselves a significant service had they upgraded the 5 and then created a SLIGHTLY larger one - and just scale up the screen (and down the DPI a touch to keep their ratio) . . .

socalboomer
24th September, 2013 @ 09:37 am PDT

Your review was all about the "Smart" and fully neglected the

phone"! Voice is still the primary application in any smartphone. What is the voice quality? How is it as a phone? I have found my 4s to have terrible voice quality.

smithsabom
24th September, 2013 @ 09:45 am PDT

I agree with Tom .. I like that my phone fits in my pocket and I can't tell it's there. i don't want a bigger screen.. I don't want to carry a computer with me I want a phone that has those functions but still feels like a phone noy an ipad. Stay the Course Apple!

Scott Kowalski
24th September, 2013 @ 09:47 am PDT

Nice review. Been an android user from the start and have thought about switching. Still not 100% convinced. Biggest complaint I have about my android is battery life. I have it plugged in when I'm at home, at work and in my car...silly. Oh, and I actually prefer the smaller iPhone screen..easier to use with one hand.

reddrum
24th September, 2013 @ 10:10 am PDT

The 64 bit addition has to do with eliminating dropouts and handshake delays while using the phone when traveling.

HappyPhil
24th September, 2013 @ 10:51 am PDT

Fairly solid and respectable review. The only thing that makes me wonder about the 5s is your best thing comment being the Touch ID. It seems a little like a last resort to bring something new to the table instead of just another safe iPhone. Apple fans will / did jump all over it being diehards.

emac4909
24th September, 2013 @ 02:59 pm PDT

John Ive absolutely is a very fine designer and he got sickened by all of the ornate, gilt crap out there and has the guts to demand the App designers get on board hence making iOS devices look, clean, neat, modern and precipitating no baso vegal events.

I phones clearly, the most handsome, effete, and elegant.

But it is absurd that the clock does not read seconds, insulting no choice.

And the Calendar really sucks, utterly retrogressive. This day and age? NaaaaaaAAaaaAAah! Grow up and get down to work!

The sound of the phone is very high quality.

And yes a row of 5 icons would be awfully handy and still fit in the pocket.

No talk of waterproof yet??

I just don''t get that they would hand over education to the damnable TI junk... That seems so dense, I can't believe it!

Lewis M. Dickens III
24th September, 2013 @ 03:47 pm PDT

If you want a fast exceptionally good handling car....buy a Ferrari, If you want good performance with style.....buy a Mercedes... Same with mobile phones...flash doesn't always cut it.

Robert Meurant
24th September, 2013 @ 07:01 pm PDT

Even though IPHONE 5S review as posted by you is great, I would rather wait for the IPHONE 6.

The reason being, IPHONE has switched to 64bit architecture and on this phone as per your reviews, it is not having much use of this.

My opinion is that it is saving the best upgrades for IPHONE 6. As soon as Apple hits it's sales target with the IPHONE 5S, it is my belief that IPHONE 6 will be launched with some real worth to look for upgrades which utilizes it's 64 bit architecture properly.

Yusuf A Pankhawala
24th September, 2013 @ 11:18 pm PDT

I disagree about the fingerprint stuff. Why not coordinate with Authentec and make a military grade security system? As far as anything else is concerned slight upgrade in speed and nothing else. They fail in screen size, display resolution, any significant battery upgrade = no, 3d gaming, price (really the 5c what a joke?), iOS 7, that thing crashes more than a blind turtle, Siri upgrade (now links to Wikipedia well hold the phone there bro, eventually maybe it will get somewhere near where it was before it went to Apple). It is still not doing dual band wifi like the kindle fire hd, I mean what did they do make it sparkle? I am going t pour some glitter on myself and put on an apple outfit maybe some of the review guys/girls will drop there digits for me? Tell me 1 significant improvement because I could hack that fingerprint display with my limited tech knowledge. If I had an iPhone 5s it would be sold so fast.

Before apple fanboy's come crying I have an iPhone 4 and an ipad 3 so don't say I am an apple hater I also have a galaxy s3 and probably soon a nexus 7 gen 2.

Johnnyboi
25th September, 2013 @ 12:19 am PDT

As with each incremental upgrade, the suckers will be overcharged for an Apple, and convince each other they did not get reamed.

The rest will wait 6 months to a year, and get an Android.

Bob Komarek
25th September, 2013 @ 02:36 pm PDT

Buy whatever you want, i will stay at iphone. Android do big mistake doing only huge screens. 4' is the perfect size, i liked even 3,5 size to type messages by one hand. For movies and games are tablets (maybe here android would be better choice), phone is for working, reading inet and playing some quick games at WC, iphone with it size and performance do these tasks perfectly.

Alexey Rastseluev
28th September, 2013 @ 09:37 am PDT

Keeping the same form factor for 2 years allows a mature market for assessories to develop. My Dad has a nice leather wallet fold up case, several farmer friends have rugged cases, waterproof if need be, my sister has a pink blingy thing. All good quality. My HTC phone has yet have a decent case made for it. But that's ok, it will get replaced after a year or two.

Baden Holt
14th December, 2013 @ 11:18 pm PST

Thank you , Will Shanklin.

This is the best fair review I ve ever read

Mannan Tabban
1st January, 2014 @ 09:22 am PST

I have gone from BlackBerry Curve to an iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, iPhone 4s and then to a Galaxy S4. I love my galaxy, its just a large screen I was after. I know what's right for me. With random restarts and data issues on my android is why I am embracing Apple again.

Michael Lee
3rd August, 2014 @ 09:27 pm PDT
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