Buzz for the iPhone 5 began way back in 2010. Many then assumed that the iPhone 4's sequel would be a major redesign; instead we got the incrementally-updated iPhone 4S. It brought a much-improved camera, a faster chip, and Siri, but it wasn't a breakthrough update. We would have to wait a full 27 months after the iPhone 4 to get our hands on the next big refresh.
Now that it's here, was the iPhone 5 worth the wait? To sum this review up in one word: absolutely.
When discussing the iPhone 5, you have to start with design. It may not appear to be a radical departure from the appearance of the iPhone 4/4S, but the beauty here is in the details.
The most significant detail: weight. This iPhone is light – 112 grams to be exact. The iPhone 4 and 4S never felt heavy to me, but they do now. Much like the first Retina Display made the previous iPhones' 480x320 resolution look antiquated, the iPhone 5 makes Apple's prior handsets feel like bricks.
The second most striking design detail is thickness. Apple shrunk the iPhone 5 down to 7.6 mm, way down from the last two iPhones' 9.3 mm. Apple claims that it's the thinnest smartphone ever, and it probably is (the Droid Razr measures 7.1 mm, but that spec conveniently ignores its protruding hump). Regardless of the competition, the iPhone 5 is razor-thin.
Of course the iPhone 5 also sports a longer design (8.6 mm longer than the last iPhones, but the same width) and a longer display. The new shape feels great in the hand. Apple scrapped the glass back this year and replaced it with a unibody aluminum backing. The sides of the phone harken back to the 4/4S's external antenna frame – only this time it too is aluminum (previously it was stainless steel).
Beauty can't necessarily be objectified, but it's hard not to appreciate the unified design of the iPhone 5. It may be Jony Ive's best work yet.
The 4-inch display works better than I expected. The 16:9 aspect ratio makes for a more oblong window into your digital world, but Apple uses it well. Landscape videos play in their native aspect ratio, you can see more of your emails when typing, and you get an extra row of apps on your home screen.
There are some areas where the 16:9 frame feels a little wonky. Photos have black letterboxes in both portrait and landscape mode (until you zoom in). App Store apps that haven't yet been updated for the new display also get letterboxed, though that will soon be a moot point. Browsing Safari in landscape mode could also feel a bit cramped, but Apple added a new full-screen mode to iOS 6, which works brilliantly.
The resolution is 1136x640, with the same sharp 326 pixels per inch (ppi) as the last two iPhones. In the iPhone 5, Apple moved those 727,040 pixels closer to the surface by moving a layer of touch electrodes. The resulting appearance is a welcome change. It's moving closer to the Hogwarts parchment illusion: ink moving on paper.
Apple claims that the iPhone 5 has 44 percent greater color saturation than the last iPhones, and, though I have no way of testing that, colors do look better. It's almost indisputably the best smartphone display on the market.
This baby zips. I didn't notice a dramatic difference at first, but I soon saw it flying through tasks that would have bogged down the 4S. Most notable is the camera app, where I could go from sleep mode to snapping a picture in under three seconds. You can fire a burst of shots with no hesitation. It also flies through the new Flyover (3D aerial) feature in Maps; panning, zooming, and rendering of bird's-eye views happen instantly.
What will developers be able to do with games on the iPhone 5? At the iPhone 5 event, EA offered an impressive preview of Real Racing 3, and that could just be scratching the surface. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft should take notice: the gap between mobile devices and consoles is rapidly shrinking.
LTEAfter four generations of 3G, the iPhone 5 jumps into the land of 4G (sorry, AT&T, but I don't count HSPA+ 14.4). Those who live in an area with LTE coverage will see data speeds that may match or better their home broadband connections.
I haven't yet been able to test LTE on the iPhone 5, but LTE Android phones have been around long enough for us to know what speeds expect. Apps will download quickly, videos will stream instantly, and VoIP apps like Skype will sound near-perfect.
In the US, Verizon has – by far – the most expansive LTE network, followed by AT&T, and then Sprint. Sprint is the only US iPhone carrier that still offers unlimited data, though, so everyone else will need to monitor their usage.
The iPhone 5's camera is only a minor improvement over the iPhone 4S, but it outperforms it in the most important area: low-light shooting. In my tests, indoor and poorly-lit shots looked much brighter and clearer than they did on the 4S.
Apple's redesigned earbuds ("EarPods") are a big improvement. In this case, the company's marketing is right on: they fit much more snugly and comfortably in the ear, and the sound is greatly improved. They won't replace $400 TripleFi premium earphones, but they're excellent economy headphones for most people.
Bundled for free they're a steal, and, for the $30 price for a standalone pair, you can do much worse.
LightningThe new smaller Lightning connector is tiny and convenient (its reversible design is a subtle but nice touch), and it allowed Apple to make the iPhone 5 so thin. There is, however, one big issue: unless you shell out $30 for an adapter, all of your old iPod/iPhone accessories will be useless.
I don't know how much it costs Apple to make the 30-pin to Lightning adapters, but $30 is a steep admission fee just to continue using your old docks and speakers. Even if Tim Cook & Co. couldn't bundle the adapter with the iPhone 5, it would have been nice to see it come in under $20. If any company can afford to eat a little cost for the customer's convenience, it's Apple.
Summing upThe iPhone 5 is a terrific phone. If you're looking for the best smartphone on the market, you'd have to at least start here. On paper, it doesn't bring much that hasn't been done before, but it integrates those elements (performance, larger screen, LTE) into a seamless package. Above all, it's a pleasure to use.
Combine that with iOS's balance of power, simplicity, and elegance (see our in-depth look at iOS 6), and the iPhone 5 is like a remastered version of a classic movie. It's a familiar experience, but its refinements are in all the right places.