iPhone 5s Review: A Great Phone With Some More Forward Thinking Needed

Some more 'forward thinking' may be needed.

ByABC News
October 2, 2013, 2:44 AM
Apple's iPhone 5s.
Apple's iPhone 5s.
Joanna Stern/ABC News

Oct. 2, 2013 — -- "Forward thinking." That's the tag line you'll find splattered across Apple's iPhone 5s billboards or commercials. "It's not just what's next. But what should be next," the company writes about its latest phone on its website.

It's Apple marketing at its best -- flowery, affirmative, well-crafted phrases -- but on paper the phone is really just a set of updated specs from its previous iPhone 5. The iPhone 5s packs only three new noteworthy features: a faster 64-bit processor, an improved camera and flash, and a new fingerprint sensor. Oh, and, of course, there's that new gold color choice.

But when those features are combined with the iPhone 5s' beautiful aluminum design and high-quality Retina display, does the phone really pave the way for the future of smartphones? Does it set a new bar for the hundreds of other phones that will be released this year? Or is it just an example of darn good marketing?

The Good Changes
I can tell the difference between my iPhone 5s review unit and my own iPhone 5 in two ways -- the gold, shimmering hue on the back and the golden ring around the home button of Apple's 5s.

PHOTO: Gold iPhone 5s
The iPhone 5s is available in a highly-anticipated gold hue.

Yes, the phone has the same elegant design as the 5, though that shouldn't bother anyone. It is still one of the most beautiful gadgets ever created. The only phone this year to even try to overshadow the iPhone's design and craftsmanship has been the HTC One. Just that one phone out of an interminable number of Android and Windows phone devices even came close to matching Apple's design prowess.

But where the iPhone 5s begins to show its first signs of forward thinking is with the fingerprint sensor now embedded in its home button. Called TouchID, the technology works just as Apple promised. Register up to five fingerprints, tap on the button and you're logged on to the phone. No need to input a password or swipe to unlock.

PHOTO: iPhone 5s fingerprint sensor
The iPhone 5s's TouchID or fingerprint sensor.

It works extremely well, which is not something always said about fingerprint technology. Just try some of the ones on a Windows laptop, and you'll know that constant pop-ups and other malfunctions stand in the way of it being a seamless experience. That's not the case with Apple's solution, and it makes logging on to the phone much faster than entering a PIN or password.

The phone itself is also faster, or at least that's what Apple's 64-bit A7 chip promises. While some apps and games, including Infinity Blade 3 and Sing! Karaoke, have been built to take advantage of the processor, and the improvement over the iPhone 5 is clear when it comes to everyday activities such as launching apps or surfing the web, I haven't noticed a difference. Still, this is one fast phone; you'll be hard pressed to find lag, and it will give you the power you need in the years to come. Future thinking, indeed.

It's simply worth it for the better Instagrams alone.

The Camera
Apple says more apps will be on the way to take advantage of the faster silicon, but its own camera app is already tapping into that speed, including the slow-mo and burst mode features. Both of the new features are really fun to play with and add a lot to the already top-notch camera experience.

And the improved camera sensor, which now captures more light, might be the biggest upgrade for most people. When it comes to performance in darker settings, especially in dimly lit restaurants, shots are noticeably better and clearer when taken with the 5s than with the iPhone 5 or 5c. Even photos I took on a bright sunny day seemed to look crisper.

The iPhone 5s' camera is one of the main reasons to buy this phone over any other out there. Yes, the Nokia Lumia 1020's 41-megapixel camera takes great shots, but it is a very chunky phone. And while the Galaxy S4 and HTC One take good shots, they do not capture photos as well balanced and crisp as the ones taken with the iPhone 5s. It's simply worth it for the better Instagrams alone.

All those aforementioned changes keep Apple's iPhone ahead of the pack in very crucial ways, but there are some other places where the case for the most forward-thinking phone hasn't been made.

The first is with battery life. Apple said users of the iPhone 5s should see a 25 percent bump in endurance, but I haven't experienced that. It could be some of the early iOS 7 battery problems, but I still have been getting a little less than a full day of juice -- about 10 hours or so. Some Android phones, such as the Moto X, seem to last at least 20 percent longer, although they are thicker and not as well-designed as the iPhone. We have come a long way since the first iPhone's five or so hours of battery life, but I haven't given up on a smartphone future that does away with ugly battery cases.

The seven things you need to know about using the new software.
The seven things you need to know about using the new software.

And then there is the screen. I'll be the first to admit that a 5.5-inch or 6.3-inch screen is overload for a smartphone, but there are times now when I feel the 4-inch display on the iPhone is too cramped. The Moto X's 4.7-inch display seems to be the ideal blend of screen real estate and manageability.

Lastly there is the software. Despite some people having problems adjusting to the change and some getting sick, iOS 7 is a very worthy upgrade, especially when it comes to the addition of such new features as Control Center. But as I said in my review of iOS 7, there are places where I wish Apple had gone further. Android's deep customization options and integration with Google Now provide software features that go beyond what we expect from our phones today.

There is plenty more forward thinking Apple can do

The Bottom Line
The iPhone 5s is a great phone, especially if you are upgrading from the iPhone 4 or 4s, but it's not as compelling if you have the iPhone 5 or even some competing Android handsets. When it comes to camera performance, the security convenience provided by the fingerprint reader, general design and app selection and quality, the iPhone 5s is at the top of the heap and does set the bar in the crowded smartphone market.

But while the iPhone 5s is the most forward thinking iPhone and one of the best phones to have in your pocket or bag, some of those various non-changes sure do indicate that there is plenty more forward thinking Apple can do.