When it comes to the iPhone, every review since the 3G has exclaimed one thing: this is the best iPhone yet. And it should go without saying that enough changes and improvements have been made so that the newest models is, in fact, the best. If that didn’t happen, it would point to much more severe problems for Apple. And yet, there’s a first time for everything. Say hello to the iPhone 5s, the first iPhone that isn’t better than the previous model.
The iPhone 5s has a small “s” for exactly that reason. The 3GS and 4S had an S for “speed”, but also because it was a slight improvement over the previous model; new CPU, some hardware adjustments, nothing more. The 5s is also small because of the software improvements, as I wrote about earlier, are not important enough. That said, the 5s is the most powerful, fastest, and the best iPhone you can buy today, so if you’re in the market for a new smartphone and have a 4S or a 2+ year old Android phone, then the 5s is your best bet. If you’ve got the 5 and are mulling over whether you should upgrade, just stop. Now.
On the hardware side, the 5s is a step down externally while a diagonal step forward internally. The body is identical to last year’s model except for the color change. The iPhone 5 sold in black and white; the 5s sells in silver, dark grey, and gold. In other words, two colors that lack the contrast of the 5 and another that’s “champagne”, not gold. Shine any incandescent light on the silver 5s and it’s as gold this model. Hurrah.
All of the buttons have been tidied up slightly. The volume rocker is stronger, the mute lock has slightly more click, and the power/standby button doesn’t wobble quite as much. Then there’s the home button, which is now harder and far less comfortable to press than in any iPhone before it. Why? The infamous fingerprint reader.
Apple very wisely decided that a fingerprint scanner would be a smart, if expensive, addition for iPhone owners. It’s faster and more secure than the typical 4-digit passcode, especially since no one ever hides when they type the code in. I know all of my co-workers passcodes and regularly add funny pictures without their knowledge. It’s their fault for unlocking so carelessly. Android’s lock mechanism is far more intelligent. Apple surely realized this.
The problem is the company only fixed half the problem. The home button is now flat and made of scratch resistant sapphire glass, just like on the camera. This makes the button harder and less comfortable to press. It’s not concave like the previous home button. It’s also blank, so there’s no “home button” ring around it.
Part two of the finger snafu is how it functions. Firstly, my experience is that the fingerprint reader fails roughly 30% of the time. Any moisture on your finger? Fail. Place it incorrectly? Fail. Just went swimming for 10 minutes and have raisin-y fingers? Fail. The human condition means that this happens pretty often, and while typing in the wrong passcode is a human error, how we naturally behave with the phone cannot be. Right now it is.
To top it all off, the biggest reason for the fingerprint reader has a flawed system. You cannot choose when to use the fingerprint scanner. I’d prefer to have no lock on the phone but would scan to unlock more secured apps and to make purchases through the App Store. Apple doesn’t allow for either option; the former because 3rd party developers cannot authenticate with the scanner, and the latter because Apple requires that you lock the phone to use the scanner. Because of how often the scanner fails and the limitations Apple has placed on it, scanning your fingerprint is currently useless.
As the first 64-bit smartphone in the world, there are some problems expected. The same thing happened with PCs when they jumped from 32 to 64-bit ono average. However, 32-bit applications worked well in general after the move. The same can’t be said about the transition on iOS.
On the iPhone 5s, apps crash far too regularly (the same holds true with the iPad Air, which we’ll discuss further in that review). It doesn’t matter who made the app, and I can’t tell if it’s an OS issue or if app makers haven’t made their apps perfect for the system. I’m leaning towards the former because even Apple, who built the system, has failed to make apps that don’t regularly crash.
The rest of the OS updates I wrote about in our review of iOS 7, which you can read here.
The iPhone 5s is the first iPhone to receive noticeable improvement to the battery capacity (from 1432mAh to 1560mAh), but you don’t and won’t notice much difference if any from the previous models. While the new A7 and M7 chips combine to make the phone more efficient, battery life still rests around a day, depending on your use. When compared to the iPhone 5 running a lot of location-aware apps, the difference is very noticeable. Otherwise, call time, internet browsing time, and general usage is nearly identical.
Update: As of iOS 7.1, battery life on the iPhone 5s has gone from bad to worse. I’ve had days where I was recharging from 40% at 11am after a full charge at 7am because of a 30 minute phone call and very minor use. 7.1 is extremely inefficient for battery consumption. This is with several services running, such as location data motion activity, and Bluetooth. To reiterate: in four hours, I went from 100% to 40% with a 30 minute call, a few services, minor music streaming, no push email, and less than 20 minutes of audio playback.
If you need a phone that lasts, I cannot possibly recommend the iPhone 5s unless you buy a battery pack to go along with it. Without one, if you use any number of personal data/tracking apps, connected devices, location-aware apps, or really anything else, battery life goes down the toilet.
The iPhone 5s is a great piece of hardware. It isn’t better than the iPhone 5, nor is it better than several Android phones. The biggest reason is just how it functions, which is more on the software than hardware. On iOS 6, the iPhone 5 is great. On iOS 7, the iPhone 5s is somewhere between good and great. Comparable Android phones beat the iPhone 5s.
Apple’s major selling point with the iPhone 5s has been the fingerprint scanner, which is seriously flawed on both accuracy and implementation; the M7 chip, which is a tremendously powerful additional chip to use; how it works as a world phone, but this is only true of the Verizon and T-Mobile models (AT&T and Sprint models have limited LTE bands); and iOS 7, which as I wrote isn’t everything it’s cracked out to be.
If you’re wondering whether buying an iPhone 5s is a good idea, here are two questions to answer:
- Are you eligible for an upgrade right now?
- If so, are you tied to Apple’s ecosystem?
If you’ve answered no to either one, then you should not upgrade. If you answered yes to #1, then you can upgrade to any phone and the 5s may not be a bad choice, but there are some very good alternatives, such as the Nexus 5, Galaxy Note 3, LG G2, and others. If you said yes only to #2, then wait another year for the iPhone 6, which is expected to have a new design and a larger display.
For those set on getting a 5s, it’s not a bad decision by any means. But it is flawed, and you may want to skip some of the cooler features like the fingerprint reader just to keep the usability the same. After returning to the iPhone 5, I rarely feel like I’m missing anything.
Bottom Line: The iPhone 5s is between good and great, and it’s an excellent option if upgrading for a new two-year contract if you live in the Apple ecosystem. Otherwise, this is the perfect opportunity to switch to Android.