For years, the Apple iPhone has been the standard against which other smartphones are measured. Granted, it gets a lot of ridicule for its hefty price tag and tightly controlled app ecosystem. Features like near-field communication, despite growing in popularity elsewhere, are conspicuously absent from Apple's devices. But the iPhone's superior design and easy-to-use interface make it worthy of praise. When a new model debuts, the world takes notice because even the simplest evolutionary changes are always integrated into a polished mobile experience.
This year, Apple debuted two new iPhone models: the iPhone 5c and the iPhone 5s. The 5c is, functionally, a cheaper iPhone 5 with a plastic frame. Aside from a slightly better battery and an improved front-facing camera, the only thing new about the 5c is its outer shell, which now comes in one of five different candy-colored flavors. It's also $100 cheaper than last year's iPhone 5 or this year's 5s, putting it more closely in range of buyers on a budget.
While the iPhone 5c is Apple's new entry-level solution, the iPhone 5s is its true replacement for last year's model. To outer appearances, it looks nearly identical to the iPhone 5, with the same thin-yet-sturdy design and bright Retina display. Inside, however, Apple's added features that, while simple, will have a profound effect on how you'll use the device. They don't necessarily make up for its lack of battery power, expandable storage or other features that are all but expected in modern smartphones, but they nevertheless set the iPhone 5s apart.
Physically, the iPhone 5s is virtually identical to its predecessor. At 3.95 ounces heavy and 0.3 inch thick, its dimensions are indistinguishable from the iPhone 5. This isn't a bad thing – it feels sleek and strong in your hand, while remaining one of the thinnest, lightest smartphones around. Its 4-inch display is smaller than the 4.7- or 5-inch screens that most modern smartphones have, but it's much easier to use with just one hand. At 326 pixels-per-inch (PPI), its Retina display isn't as densely packed as some other phone displays, but many eyes can't tell the difference above about 300 PPI anyway.
There are new color variations, of course: The slate-gray aluminum of the black iPhone 5 has been replaced with a lighter gray on the 5s, and the white iPhone now comes with two different metallic backings: classic silver or silky gold. But put the iPhone 5s in a case and you'd have to check its camera flash or home button to tell it apart from the last model – details we'll discuss a bit later in our review.
With the one-two punch of a phenomenal new camera and iOS 7, the iPhone 5s is a photography powerhouse. Though it still technically sports an 8-megapixel camera, the phone's new iSight lens has a sensor that's 15 percent larger and collects 33 percent more light than the iPhone 5's, thanks to its 1.5-micron pixels. According to Apple, image quality is more a factor of pixel size than pixel density, and after seeing the photos the iPhone 5s can take, we tend to agree. More light on every pixel means pictures with richer colors and fewer artifacts, especially in low-light conditions.
If you find yourself indoors where light is a problem, the phone's new flash should help maximize the quality of your photos. The 5s comes with two LED flashbulbs that work in tandem: one blue, the other amber. They flash in sync at different levels of individual brightness, depending on the color temperature of the ambient light in the room. They're still LED flashes, which means your subject has to be within about 10 feet to be illuminated, but they'll help keep the lighting and temperature of your pictures nice and uniform.
Complementing the new camera and its flash are software improvements in iOS 7 that make on-the-fly fixes and optimizations to your photos. For every picture you take, the camera snaps multiple shots and then automatically picks the clearest, most stable one. It will even process several photos together for a crisper final image. This ability to take multiple photos at once is also used in the phone's new burst photo mode. You can take 10 photos a second and the iPhone will automatically highlight what it thinks are the best, most dynamic and interesting shots.
The panorama feature introduced in the iPhone 5 has been improved in the 5s, thanks to a camera that will now dynamically adjust its exposure as you're moving from left to right. You can start taking your panoramic picture in an area that's in full shadow, end up staring directly at the sun, and every part of your photo will have properly balanced lighting.
Even the camera's video features have been improved. You can now capture movies at 120 frames per second, which allows you to slow portions of the movie to quarter-speed and watch the action in slow motion. You can even zoom in and out live, just like with a real video camera.
Compared to other flagship smartphones, the iPhone's battery life is terrible. Regular users will need to plug their phones in every night, while heavy users might want to carry a phone charger with them and plug in whenever they get the chance. Both the iPhone 5s and 5c now offer over 10 hours of talk, music and browsing time and are rated for 250 hours of idle time, but when you account for push notifications, location services and other power-draining background activities, you'll want to make a habit of topping the phone off whenever you get the chance.
The biggest change to the design of the 5s over the original iPhone 5 is hidden away inside its shell. While every other modern phone continues to use 32-bit processors like the desktops of yesteryear, the 5s is the first mobile phone with a 64-bit CPU. Apple's new A7 chip is up to twice as fast as the A6 processor that drove the previous iPhone. The company has even supplemented the A7 with an integrated motion-processing chip called the M7. The M7 takes care of computing data gathered from the phone's accelerometer, compass and gyroscope, leaving the A7 open to drive content-rich apps and graphically stunning games.
When you compare the specs of the iPhone against competing phones, it seems like Apple's device should be slower. It only has one gigabyte of RAM, where other phones have two. Its CPU is still just a dual-core processor, where phones from manufacturers like Google and HTC use quad-core technology. But when we compared the iPhone 5s against other big names in benchmark tests, it easily and consistently eclipsed their speeds. The 5s is the fastest phone you can buy right now, and it will likely stay that way until another manufacturer manages to come out with a 64-bit phone.
The A7 chip also powers iOS 7, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system. iOS 7 has been redesigned from the ground up for a more fluid, clean, minimalistic experience that's visually stunning and extremely snappy. Most of the interface elements are a translucent white, which show blurred bits of color from whatever is underneath those elements. We found ourselves loving the subtle yet striking effect, since it always gives you a sense of place within the interface.
Sadly, when it comes to internal storage, the iPhone 5s doesn't improve upon the iPhone 5 at all. The phone still comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB variations, but none of them allow for expandable storage. Given that almost any modern Android device comes with storage slots for extra data cards, the iPhone's lack of expandability is vexing. In fact, several of the Android users in our office cite this lack as the primary reason they choose not to buy iPhones. Apple's iCloud storage is intended to alleviate the issue, but it's an expensive cure.
One of the most intriguing additions to the iPhone 5s is the arrival of Touch ID, a fingerprint scanner that's been integrated into the iPhone's iconic home button. Touch ID is intended to be a new layer of security that replaces lock screens. It can even be used to verify your identity for iTunes purchases so you don't have to type in your Apple password. It's not the first fingerprint scanner on a smartphone, but its precision and ease of use set it apart. You don't have to swipe your finger multiple times or make sure to orient your thumb just right; like we've come to expect from Apple, Touch ID just works.
The surface of the iPhone 5s's home button is now a sapphire crystal lens – incredibly clear and durable – that helps focus your finger's image onto the capacitive scanner underneath. It's a 360-degree scanner, which means your finger can be oriented in any direction and the scan will still work. When you touch the home button, a new steel sensor ring detects your finger and activates the scanner. It takes a sub-epidermal picture of your fingerprint, bypassing the first layer of skin for a clearer, crisper image, and checks it against its internal database. The scanner isn't a camera; it's not taking a visual picture of your thumb. Instead, it's measuring the infinitesimal differences in curves and whorls that make each of our fingerprints unique.
In theory, Touch ID is very secure. The scanner connects to an isolated portion of the A7 chip, which is dedicated to Touch ID alone and doesn't interact with any other part of the system. Apps can't try to steal your fingerprint, and the security data is never sent to the cloud. Once you've scanned in your prints, only they will grant access to your phone.
Whenever Apple releases a new iPhone, there's always an inevitable debate. Is iOS better than Android? Aren't Apple products overpriced? There are stalwart fans on both sides. Almost twice as many reviewers in our office use Android phones as they do Apple phones, due to things like price concerns, the lack of expandable storage, and simple ideological disagreements with Apple.
But it's tough to argue with the consistently superb experience Apple provides. If it had expandable storage, a better battery and newer technology features such as NFC, we'd probably call it the perfect phone, but neither the 5c nor 5s is quite there. Nevertheless, their build quality is phenomenal, the new iOS 7 operating system is elegant and cohesive, and the iPhone 5s's photos are simply stunning. It has its flaws, but that doesn't stop Apple's flagship from being a superb device.
The new iPhone 5s is the fastest smartphone ever made, and it packs one of the best mobile cameras around.
Its battery is atrocious compared to the competition, and it continues to lack expandable storage, near field communication and other features that have become commonplace in today's smartphones.
With a beautiful new operating system, a stunning camera and Apple's trademark polish, the iPhone is one of the best smartphones you can buy. We only wish it offered the same feature set that comes standard with so many Android phones.