iPhone 5s Review

Screenshot 2013-10-22 11.24.40The best iPhone just got better.

The old is new again

Every other year, Apple refreshes the iPhone lineup with either an entirely new phone or an “s” update. This year was the latter’s turn, and we got the biggest “s” update ever seen. With the iPhone 5s (the first “s” update to be officially stylized with a lowercase “s”), Apple changed the game and introduced a radical new feature that literally changes the way we use our phones every day – fingerprint authentication technology called Touch ID.

Beyond the updated Touch ID-compatible home button, the iPhone 5s is virtually identical to last year’s iPhone 5 model. We get the same high quality aluminum metal frame in roughly the same colors as last time – with a flashy addition. Sticking with their love for the basics, Apple offers the iPhone 5s in black (sorry, Space Gray), white (Silver), and the newcomer: Gold. Yes; Apple went there.

Internally, the iPhone 5s is almost like a brand new phone. The Apple-designed A6 of the iPhone 5 was replaced with a zippy 64-bit A7 – a first for any smartphone. The new 64-bit A7 advertises processor and graphical performance that’s up to twice as fast as the A6 in the iPhone 5. An exciting brand new chip also makes its debut: M7, the motion coprocessor. Think FitBit or Nike FuelBand in your pocket.

Though Apple skipped adding 5G Wi-Fi (802.11a/c) to the 5s, the iPhone 5s finally unites the major cellular GSM, CDMA, and LTE bands under one universal radio. You still have to select which carrier you use when purchasing the 5s, but these new bands available on each model greatly improve the ability to roam around the world. Truly a welcome addition for travelers. Prior to this merger, AT&T users were (surprisingly) kind of screwed when it came to LTE access outside of the US. The Verizon model had an LTE radio capable of connecting to many times more foreign networks than those using the AT&T model. That’s no longer the case.

Keep reading for our breakdown of all of the new features of the iPhone 5s.

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Touch ID

The killer feature of the iPhone 5s. Fingerprint authentication changes how you use your iPhone every day, each time you use it. Gone are the days of manually entering a four-digit passcode (or longer). A simple touch of your finger replaces the need for clumsy passcodes. Remember having to enter your password quickly when you wanted to unlock your iPhone to show a friend something cool? Forget it.

Simply pressing the new touch-enabled home button, letting it release, and leaving your finger touching it for a split second is all it takes to unlock your iPhone 5s. It is incredibly simple and feels very futuristic. It’s true that things like pizza crust or damp hands will trip up Touch ID, but overall it works very well and learns your fingerprint better each time you use it.

To get started, a training session must be done to teach your iPhone how to recognize your finger. This is accessed via Settings -> General -> Passcode & Fingerprint. Surprisingly, training the iPhone was the most frustrating part of Touch ID. It’s maddening to watch as the iPhone struggles to read your print each time you lift and press down. When I added my first thumb I worried that Touch ID was not ready for primetime and the anti-Apple pundits were right: Touch ID might be something everyone just turns off.

After getting both my thumbs, index fingers, and my dog’s paw set up, I immediately locked my phone and tried to unlock it with each finger. It worked. Flawlessly. This isn’t always the case. Touch ID is not perfect, and I’m reminded of this a couple of times a day when I have to re-touch the home button to successfully log in. I’m unlocking my phone many tens of times a day, so a couple of failures is not the end of the world. Errors due to speedily trying to enter my old passcode happened at least as often before.

In addition to unlocking your phone, your fingerprint with also authorize iTunes and App Store purchases. Touch ID is not currently accessible by third party apps, so that’s pretty much all you get right now. A little disappointing, but it makes me excited for the future. Hopefully Apple opens this up to other apps.

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Gold

What more can I really say? The iPhone 5s is available in a surprisingly pleasing tone of gold. The tone that Apple chose is not nearly as gaudy as I thought it would be and it is hardly something that will stand out as overly obvious or flashy in a crowd. The iPhone 5s’ gold is subdued, sophisticated, and really just looks cool.

If you’re considering buying the gold model, I highly encourage you to check it out in the Apple Store first. Make sure you like it. Gold is not for everyone.

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A7 processor – system on a chip

One of the most impressive piece of the new iPhone is something you will never see. The new Apple-designed A7 system on a chip (SoC) provides boosted CPU and graphical (GPU) performance that’s up to 2x faster than the A6 in the iPhone 5. On top of that, the A7 sports 64-bit architecture – the first for any smartphone. Games run better and look more beautiful than ever when designed for the A7. Infinity Blade III is truly gorgeous, giving dedicated home gaming consoles a run for their money.

System applications, like the Camera app, now take advantage of the new processor. This means faster autofocus, quicker snaps, and higher video frame rates.

All of this great performance comes with the same awesome battery life that we’ve come to expect of an iPhone.

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M7 motion coprocessor

The M7’s motion tracking capabilities have the ability to shake up the fitness wearables market. Instead of having to wear something like the Jawbone Up or FitBit Flex/Force on your wrist, just pop your iPhone in your pocket wherever you go. You’re already doing this, right? Then iPhone 5s is already tracking your steps. Apple also claims that the M7 can determine whether you are walking, running, or driving a car. This means that apps can use this data to change the information they provide you based on what you’re doing. Maps can switch from driving directions to turn-by-turn walking directions when you get out of the car.

You’ll need an app to take advantage of the M7’s motion tracking features. Maps can take care of your navigation, but if you want to track steps like a FitBit you need to download something from the App Store. Argus is the best option available right now, but it lacks certain features like a Friends list to let you compare your steps to your friends. Thankfully, Argus doesn’t affect your battery life at all – it just pulls data from the M7 whenever you run it.

Nike has promised its own M7-based motion tracker, called Nike+ Move – launching on November 6th. Nike+ Move is similar to Nike’s Fuelband in that it tracks your motion and gives you a “Nike Fuel” score based on your activity for the day. The app for the Fuelband is great, and hopefully Nike doesn’t remove too many of those features with the Move. Nike’s previously stated that the Move will offer basic features – temping users into the Nike+ ecosystem and hopefully getting them to buy a Fuelband. Move will also take advantage of Game Center, likely giving you an easy way to compare your activity against your friends. Sounds great.

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Cameras

iPhone 5s received a slightly upgraded camera, too. Many of the new things it can do are software based – there was no megapixel bump this year. The sensor in the new iSight camera does up the quality of photos taken, thanks to the newer, bigger, pixels. This contributes greatly to the quality of low-light pictures. The difference is immediately noticeable and profound. If you look at your screen while taking a photo on the iPhone 5 and 5s at the same time, there’s no doubt which camera is king.

On the software side, slow-motion video recording makes its 5s debut. This feature is very cool. Slow-motion videos look great, though there is about a second added to the beginning and end of each video that plays in normal speed. It looks great at the beginning of the video but is a little jarring at the end. Watching something move slowly and then suddenly jump to normal speed is awkward.

Along with the camera sensor, the camera flash got some love as well. A new dual-tone (“True Tone”) flash combines white and amber light as the camera sees fit. This produces much more natural colors in lower-light situations and makes photos look much more normal.

The front side camera now has a new sensor that also has bigger pixels and better backside illumination, making FaceTime calls in lower light much more usable.

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LTE

In a move long overdue, Apple finally brings more LTE bands to each model of the iPhone. Whether you get the GSM or CDMA-based models, LTE access is now available in a ton of countries worldwide. The Verizon iPhone previously took the cake when it came to LTE compatibility outside of the US. For a while, the Verizon iPhone was the phone to get if you were an international traveler. Apple did away with that and now every carrier’s iPhone model is on the same playing field.

Wrap-up

Apple’s latest addition to the iPhone family is definitely the best iPhone they’ve released. While the 3GS and 4S were questionable upgrades for owners of the previous generation, the iPhone 5s brings enough new features to the table to make the upgrade smart for all iPhone owners. It may not be a “must” upgrade for everyone, but if you’ve been looking for a quicker, more secure, way to login to your iPhone, love taking pictures, or play tons of mobile games, the iPhone 5s is definitely for you. If you have an iPhone older than the 5, the move to the 5s is a no-brainer.

You know why you want to upgrade, but should you? It’s hard to say. I find it difficult to recommend “s upgrades”, since a dramatically redesigned model is likely heading our way next year. If that’s not important to you or you have a much older model, the 5s will definitely serve you well. If you bought the iPhone 5 and a fingerprint reader doesn’t sound like your thing then wait until next year. The iPhone 6 will probably look different than the 5s and will definitely receive bigger upgrades of what you read about above.

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