When a new version of a standard-setting product is about to be released, the questions are predictable. They essentially fall into two camps. In terms of excitement, we wonder what fabulous new features it will offer that we didn't know we couldn't live without. In the more pragmatic sense – in which our expectations have been tempered by experience – we can't help but wonder how it will disappoint. In this case, we wonder what the Apple iPhone 5 will lack that we think it ought to have to be the world-beater we want it to be.
It's nearly unthinkable to be able to review a smartphone that doesn't have any room for improvement, but that's nearly the case for the iPhone 5. Apple has elegantly added the key features that we felt were shortfalls of the iPhone 4S, while making the storied design even better and putting it all in a thinner, lighter package than ever before. That's not to say that the newest iPhone is perfect in every way or that there isn't room for preferences to the contrary, but the answer to the question, "Is this the best iPhone yet?" is a resounding "Yes." We'll go so far as to say that, for a large number of smartphone users, it is indeed the best one to date. We have no reservations about choosing the Apple iPhone 5 as our TopTenREVIEWS Gold Award recipient.
For those upgrading from a previous edition of the iPhone, the transition will be simple. The intuitive interface is intact and the Apple ecosystem continues as the standard for device interoperability that the rest of the fragmented mobile market can only dream about. Nonetheless, there are more design changes to the iPhone 5 than previous version changes have offered. The updated design is externally noticeable, but not to an extent that would make adjusting to them difficult. More important, the form follows the function of some pretty incredible new hardware that makes it all possible.
In the U.S., the device is available from the three largest wireless carriers: Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint. Each has its advantages, so the best choice depends on your individual needs and the area in which you're most likely to use the phone. Regardless of the carrier, the iPhone 5 is a world phone that will function seamlessly in most regions around the globe, regardless of whether GSM or CDMA is used locally.
If nothing else, the iPhone's design has been consistent from its introduction through the 4S. Sure, the original curved plastic back cover gave way to flat gorilla glass and the edges changed a bit, but the 3.5-inch touchscreen that is the centerpiece of the device has been untouched. In a world where ever-larger displays are the norm, it was hard not to wonder how long Apple could stick with the comparatively small screen. Apple has answered that question now that the iPhone 5 boasts a 4-inch display. This is still on the small end of the spectrum compared to many Android phones, but it's an improvement on its forerunners. This makes the iPhone 5 taller than previous models but not wider – a design decision that we applaud because most big-screen phones are just too cumbersome to use comfortably as telephones.
Achieving the taller screen was done not only by elongating the device by 0.37 inches, but also by eliminating some of the wasted space surrounding the home button and the earpiece. You can bet that developers will race to optimize their apps for the larger screen, but for now, you'll have to put up with some minor letterboxing. We found that the new screen makes two-handed use more often desirable than before, while retaining the smaller width still allows for one-handed operation in portrait mode.
Size isn't the only upgrade to the screen. The resolution has been increased to 1136 x 640 pixels, so the Retina Display's clarity continues to be stunning. Individual pixels are so small and tightly packed that there's seemingly no limit to the extent to which you can zoom in on an image without encountering pixilation. Video playback is better that ever with the increased display width. Beyond that, the Retina Display has integrated the touch electrodes into the pixels rather than the conventional design of having them as a separate layer. That change both makes for a clearer-that-ever display and is one of many steps that were taken to make this the lightest iPhone yet.
The back panel has also received a makeover. While the iPhone 4 and 4S were backed by a single piece of gorilla glass, the bulk of the iPhone 5 is anodized aluminum – silver (like a MacBook) for the white version and slate for the black model. The material is yet another method of weight reduction, as well as durability improvement.
Though these external design features are significant in making the most capable iPhone to date also the thinnest and lightest, they pale in comparison to the innovative electronics that really make the phone different. Start with the new A6 processor, an Apple-designed chip that is smaller than previous CPUs but boasts double the processing speed. It also incorporates twice the system RAM, now at 1GB. Graphics performance is also said to be up to twice that of 4S. Initial anecdotal testing actually indicates that the claim of twice the performance speed may be modest.
We've said it before, but it bears repeating that iPhones include an integrated iPod touch, the standard-bearer in portable entertainment platforms. Does the iPhone 5 have anything to add to that winning combination? Absolutely. The iSight 8MP camera is better than ever, incorporating some of the most advanced manufacturing techniques we've encountered to make the most of the device's optics. The surface of the lens is sapphire crystal, which is incredibly transparent and scratch resistant.
Perhaps the most impressive new feature of the camera is the panorama capability. Certainly there are apps that allow you to take super-wide panorama photographs, but this integrated feature makes doing so far easier and more precise. There's little more to using the feature than adhering to the on-screen directions and following the arrow across the width of about eight photos. In real time, the software stitches the images together into one seamless masterpiece in remarkable detail.
The rear-facing camera records video in full 1080p HD, and you can easily take still pictures during video recordings. Low-light photography is notably better than before. There is an LED flash, and the image stabilization for both still photography and video recording is very effective.
There's even been noteworthy improvement to the included earbuds. While typical earbuds route sound directly into the ear, these earbuds also have external ports that allow air to flow into and out of them to enhance the bass response. The design is reminiscent of traditional bass reflex speaker design. They're not likely to replace the urge to buy after-market devices but they're certainly an improvement over other standard Apple accessories.
The larger screen was at the top of our wish list for the external redesign of the iPhone. Functionally, the greatest shortfall of prior editions was the lack of 4G LTE. With the iPhone 5, that wish has also been granted. Data transfer speeds are so much better with LTE that what has passed for acceptable will now seem to resemble a snail's pace. Don't be fooled by the theoretical claim that 4G LTE can provide up to 100GB download speeds, though. That's still a fantasy, although the download speed has proven to be quick enough to be faster than a home or office network's Wi-Fi connection.
As a result of this development, FaceTime, one of our favorite iPhone 4S developments, can now be used on a cellular network when 4G LTE is available. However, a note of caution is appropriate in that regard. The iPhone 5 4G LTE data transfer speed is so good that many will be tempted to largely abandon Wi-Fi connections in favor of it. That can consume data plan allowances at an alarming rate, resulting in overage fees and data speed restrictions.
There are three microphones on the iPhone 5 that make the quality of voice calls markedly better. There is one near the earpiece, the typical microphone near the mouth and a third on the rear of the device, which is for noise cancelation. The upgrade helps speakerphone calls as well.
On a slightly technical note, the voice and data chips, typically separate on world phones, have been combined into one. This is yet another significant factor in allowing Apple to shrink the device and reduce its weight while improving performance.
Battery life has not been the strongest suit for iPhones over the years, and greatly enhanced performance in a device can generally be counted on to reduce battery life. The efficiency of the A6 chip, along with some other design innovations, refutes that conventional wisdom. You can expect up to eight hours of browsing and talk time, or 10 hours of video playback on a charge. Actual results will depend on your individual use, but it's likely enough power to get most folks through a typical day. Like other Apple products, the battery isn't removable, but that's becoming just a minor irritation that we've had to accept.
Of a bit more concern is the continuing lack of expandable storage on the iPhone 5. It comes standard with 16GB of internal storage, with 32GB and 64GB versions available at a higher price, but what would be so terrible about adding an expansion card slot? True enough, Apple's iCloud is intended to provide all the storage anyone could possibly need, but the option would be nice.
An Apple hallmark has always been the close integration of software with hardware. This concept is improved upon with the iOS 6 that is at the heart of everything the iPhone does. It allows for voice-activated apps, provides most of the camera improvements and makes Siri more useful than ever. It's at the core of the Apple ecosystem that allows smartphones, computers and tablets to seamlessly share the same data via iCloud. It's also the basis for those hundreds of thousands of apps that further expand the iPhone's boundaries.
The new, thinner design of the iPhone 5 has forced a rethinking of the connector. The familiar 30-pin connector has been replaced by a much smaller, all-digital connector called Lightning. The name notwithstanding, it doesn't do anything faster or better than its predecessor. It's simply smaller and, conveniently, reversible.
The Lightning connector is located at the bottom of the phone along with the relocated headphone jack. It's not a big change, but we like it for improving the ease of slipping the phone into a pocket while you are listening to music. Larger speakers are also along the bottom edge.
If you're looking for the best smartphone on the market, the Apple iPhone 5 has to be on your shortlist when you make comparisons. It's true that some competitors offer larger screens, so if that's a primary factor for you, they may be a better alternative. It's also true that some devices offer longer battery life and expandable storage. There will always be trade-offs. But for superb software and hardware integration, not to mention exceptional execution of great concepts, the Apple iPhone 5 is tough to beat. We find ourselves trying to think of uses for a smartphone that have yet to be imagined, because at this point, it seems like we're nearing the end of what we can expect from a phone. But that's where genuine inspiration comes from, isn't it?
A larger screen, thinner and lighter design, and 4G LTE connectivity make this superb smartphone better than ever.
Like its predecessors, the iPhone 5 lacks expandable storage and, though its display is brilliant, it's smaller than some competitors.
The Apple iPhone 5 is a superb example of brilliant execution of ground-breaking ideas. It may well be the best smartphone yet.