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iPhone 5s REVIEW – Apple’s Best iPhone Yet, But Developers Hold Key to Future

by Todd Haselton | October 1, 2013October 1, 2013 12:00 pm PDT

Apple’s next flagship iPhone is finally here. The company took the stage in September and announced the iPhone 5s alongside the iPhone 5c, the first time ever that it revealed two devices at the same time, and in this review we’re going to focus on the more powerful iPhone 5s.

It’s available on a gamut of carriers starting at $199 and, while the body looks nearly identical to the iPhone 5, there are a lot of hardware changes that need to be discussed, including the Touch ID fingerprint reader, a new camera module, brand new software and more.

Is the iPhone 5s simply a small update to Apple’s smartphone line, or a device worth an upgrade even for iPhone 5 users? We’ll cover that and much more, so let’s dive in.

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iPhone 5s Video Review

Hardware

Apple iPhone 5s-Home Screen

As you might surmise, the iPhone 5s packs the best hardware specs Apple has ever used in a smartphone. It starts with a dual-core A7 processor, a secondary M7 processor for low-power tracking of movements and more, a new 8-megapixel camera, dual-LED flash and a revamped front-facing camera.

The phone itself feels very well built and is just as rock solid as the iPhone 5. Apple also treated us to slightly different colors, this time offering the phone in gold, space grey and silver. As with the iPhone 5, the volume buttons are on the left-hand side of the phone in easy reach, there’s a power button up top, and the 3.5mm headphone jack flanks the Lightning port and two speaker grills on the bottom. A Nano SIM card tray also pops out of the right-side of the phone.

Apple iPhone 5s-Front

While we’re big fans of the speed A7 processor under the hood, which cruises through iOS 7 about as well as the iPhone 5 – though apps load faster – its full potential has yet to be realized by developers. It will take some time to see what the real plan for the 64-bit processor is, though we imagine the first and most powerful apps we’ll see will be in the form of games. The 64-bit support should allow us to see iOS apps end up on the desktop at some point, however, and that should start to kick off the blending of OS X and iOS in some fashion. For now, however, early benchmarks from several sites suggest it’s at least as powerful, if not more so, than the new Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor in the latest Android smartphones.

Apple iPhone 5s-Back

We’re a bit surprised by some of Apple’s other silicon choices. The phone lacks 802.11ac Wi-Fi support, for example, which is an odd omission considering the company’s own Airport Extreme base stations ships with support for the latest standard.

Speaking of silicon, Apple says its M7 processor will enable a whole new array of health and fitness apps. That’s because it can track your movements and can tell if you’re running, walking or driving, and will have the iPhone respond appropriately. Apple Maps, for example, can provide walking directions automatically if it notices you’re not driving, and vice versa. An app called Argus is already taking advantage of the M7 processor and lets you keep track of steps, similar to what the Jawbone UP or Fitbit Flex allow, though we imagine a whole slew of new apps will enable even more interesting experiences.

The display is the same resolution and size as it is on the iPhone 5. That means you’ll get a 4-inch screen with a 326ppi – no, that’s not 1080p like you’ll find on higher-end Android devices, but it gets the job done just fine. We would like to see Apple experiment with larger screen sizes in the future, around the 4.5-inch to 4.7-inch range, and we might see that with the iPhone 6 if current rumors are to be believed.

Apple iPhone 5s-Touch ID-Fingerprint

The Touch ID fingerprint reader works really well. Setup takes just a few seconds, and you register your fingerprints by touching your finger to the home button in various positions. That’s key to remember: you just rest your finger on the new home button, instead of pushing it in, to register a fingerprint. You can log different fingerprints, which is great for unlocking with different fingers or if you want to share the phone with a friend or family member. Touch ID can be used to unlock your device, though there’s always a passcode fallback, and to make purchases in the iTunes App Store.

We hope Apple eventually opens up the API to third party developers for additional support, though for now the feature is locked down. Also, Apple says that it only keeps the fingerprint data stored locally on the phone, which should quell any fears about privacy, though you’ll need to trust the company on those claims.

Overall Touch ID worked really well for us. Jonathan Rettinger had about a 60 percent success rate, though Todd Haselton (the writer of this review), didn’t have any issues with two thumbs registered. Your success may vary depending on your prints, it sounds like, but overall it’s a great addition and there’s always the passcode option.

Software

Apple iPhone 5s-Control Ceter

iOS 7 is the fire that powers the iPhone 5s, though it’s also now available for Apple’s older iPhones, iPads and on the iPhone 5c. We already went into a lot of depth discussing the operating system in our full iOS 7 review, but we’ll say this: there are still a lot of weaknesses, such as Apple Maps and AirDrop, which don’t always work correctly, but we think the new colors and the slight learning curve and really worth it in the end. We also like the frosted glass look that appears in places such as the notification shade and the quick settings panel, though the calendar definitely puts design way before function. Siri is also much better; it’s more on a par with Google search on Android, and we like the addition of the male voice.

Apple iPhone 5s-Folder

We’re also fans of the redesigned stock applications, such as the camera user interface and that it, overall, adds a lot of life back into iOS. Jony Ive certainly did a great job with the operating system, and we’re glad to see such a major update launch.

We think that iOS 7 will continue to mature, especially as we see new applications that are developed to take advantage of the A7 and M7 processors. As our own Ashley Esqueda pointed out, this is definitely a start of something much bigger to come. Apple is clearly using iOS 7 as a launching point to get users adjusted to a new look and feel. The iPhone 5s is going to be your best bet for taking advantage of iOS 7 as it moves forward, too, since Apple largely future proofed the device. It’s possible, we think, that Jony Ive might be taking a similar approach to iOS as Apple does with the iPhone. We might see design changes every other year with refinements in between, similar to how Apple updates the iPhone from one model to an “S” model, though that’s purely speculative on our half. It’s entirely possible Apple will continue to release brand new versions each year.

Overall, we think you’ll like iOS 7. But this isn’t an Android/Windows Phone/BlackBerry war here – everyone has their own tastes, and each platform has its own strengths.

Camera

Apple updated the camera module on the iPhone 5s with better low-light performance. We won’t get too technical, but basically it did something similar to what HTC did with the One by increasing the pixel size to allow for better low-light photography with less grain and clearer images. We found that it worked really well and that images, indeed, were better than those shot with the iPhone 5.

We also particularly like the dual-LED flash, which actually blasts two different colored LEDs to help grab more accurate skin tones. Shots also look less washed out, largely because there’s a secondary LED this time around, and in general we saw brighter colors and darker blacks in our images.

Apple iPhone 5s-Camera-Back

The user interface has changed, and while Jonathan Rettinger wasn’t a fan, I actually liked it. It’s super easy to use and you can quickly apply real-time filters, switch to slo-motion video, to shoot square photos, to snap panoramas and more. Slow-motion video records at 120 frames-per-second and you can adjust certain parts of the video to slow it down and highlight whatever action you’re filming.

Also – side note, Apple now includes iMovie for free with its new iPhones, you can easily edit your HD videos on the fly. That’s in addition to iWork and iPhoto.

Overall, we think the iPhone 5s is a great phone camera, but you’re still not getting crazy point-and-shoot quality images, like you would from the Lumia 1020 with its 41-megapixel sensor. Better than the iPhone 5, though? Yes, and that’s saying a lot since it’s one of our favorite phone cameras on the market, next to the HTC One and the aforementioned Lumia 1020.

Call Quality / Data

Apple iPhone 5s-Dialer

We tested the iPhone 5s in several locations, including in and around Irvine, California, and in New York, New York. Call quality was really solid, though we didn’t notice a huge difference from the performance on the iPhone 5.

In New York City, we received an average of 6.14Mbps down and an upload average of just 3.23Mbps.  That’s on the slower end, but speeds really depend on where you are, how loaded the network is and more. Generally, we found that sites loaded really quickly, and we were able to quickly download and store Spotify songs locally without an issue.

Battery

Apple iPhone 5s Space Grey Back

When we first started using the iPhone 5s, we noticed a huge battery drain on one of our units, where the device lost about 30 percent of its charge in just about two hours without any real usage. After a clean restore, however, the device seems to be fixed. A full day’s use usually leaves us with about 40 percent battery life left at night, though with heavy usage we’ve seen the battery die by 5 p.m. after taking it off the charger at 8:30 in the morning.

We think overall we’ve seen about a 5-10 percent decrease in battery life over the iPhone 5 — most people should get through the day just fine, though moderate to heavy users may want to carry a battery pack or charger with them.

Apple iPhone 5s-Front-2

Wrap-Up

We still need to wait and see what developers do with the new A7 and M7 processors

The iPhone 5s is a great phone. Do we recommend it? Absolutely. It’s clearly the best iPhone Apple has ever built. But if you’re an iPhone fan we need to answer whether or not it’s worth an upgrade from an older device. That depends on the device you have currently. Yes, we think there’s enough here to upgrade from the iPhone 4s or older, but that it’s a bit too similar feeling for anyone with an iPhone 5.

If you want the newest iPhone or really want an iPhone with a better camera, or a new color scheme (gold, anyone?), then dive right in. For most people, especially those without an upgrade, waiting for the iPhone 6 is probably a safer bet, since we just don’t see anything just yet that’s “must have” on the iPhone 5s.

Of course, the trouble with this conclusion is that we still need to wait and see what developers do with the new A7 and M7 processors – those applications could really make this device worthwhile in the end, and anyone who buys it should know that, on paper, it’s very future proof at this point. Still, by that point Apple’s next device could be on the horizon. Overall, it’s a great phone and a very good evolution of the iPhone line.

TechnoBuffalo purchased multiple iPhone 5s units. The device was tested in Irvine, California by Jonathan Rettinger and Ashley Esqueda for seven days as a daily driver, and notes for this review were provided to Todd Haselton, who also owns and used the device. This review was crafted by Jonathan Rettinger, Ashley Esqueda and Todd Haselton.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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