iPhone 5 Review: The Best Smartphone for the Masses

Is the iPhone still the best smartphone around?

September 21, 2012, 1:02 AM

Sept. 21, 2012 — -- For months one technology question has drowned out all the others: Should I wait for the iPhone 5?

Two million people ordered the larger and faster phone as soon as it went on sale -- sight unseen. Sure, they knew that the new phone had a different design, a larger 4-inch screen, LTE, and a faster processor, but they might not have known much more than that. Did it make calls well? Was it faster than other phones?

That's a testament to Apple's brand and its products, but the question remains: Does the iPhone 5 live up to its impressive list of specs when you finally get it out of the box?


A Phone Too Beautiful to Cover

This is not a phone you will want to put a case on. Okay, yes, many people will understandably want to protect their new phones from scratches and nicks. But this is a device you want to keep bare so that its beautiful aluminum and glass body is visible.

But it's not just how the phone looks, it's also how it feels. Even though it's only an ounce lighter and .07 inches thinner than the iPhone 4S, it feels dramatically lighter when you pick it up. Yet, it doesn't feel too light -- it still feels very substantial, weighty enough to suggest great build quality. The new aluminum back changes how the phone feels in comparison to the 4S' glass, but I prefer it, especially since it is no longer a fingerprint magnet.

Yes, the 4-inch screen (compared to the 3.5-inch screen of all the other iPhones up until now) makes the phone taller, but not too tall or big like some large Android phones. The size feels just right to me, and I've been using the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus for about six months now.

But it's really the 1136 x 640-resolution screen that lets you now see more on the display, including an extra row of home-screen icons. In the Facebook app a full image and the "Like" count are visible; on the 4S the bottom of the image was cut off. (Not all apps have been updated to take advantage of the screen, however, and distracting black bars flank them.)

To me, though, the biggest benefit is that the keyboard is wider in landscape mode. The extra room makes it easier to type notes or emails.

The screen itself is stunning -- its bright colors look realistic (not too green or yellow like some AMOLED screens) and vivid.

Sharp Shooter

That screen quality is matched by a sharp 8-megapixel camera, which is still one of the best on any smartphone out there. The iSight camera has been updated with some new features, including better low light performance, but by and large it is the same camera as the one on the iPhone 4S. I did find that the iPhone 5 captured clear shots at night in New York, but not drastically better than the iPhone 4S.

You can see the quality by clicking the photo below:

The biggest camera improvements are in the speed with which you can take photos. There's no waiting between shots. The new panorama feature, which is software based, stitches images together as you turn. It works very well if you get the pacing right.

The front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera shows some significant improvement. The step up also makes for clearer video calls over Facetime, which you can now make over 3G and LTE. Calls over Facetime and over AT&T's cellular network were clear and callers at the other end said the same thing.

New Speed, Equal Endurance

I believe LTE is the biggest upgrade you get by going from the 4S to the 5. While other Android phones have been using LTE for two years, the iPhone has been poking along on 3G. Until now.

I have been testing the AT&T version of the phone around New York City and have seen incredibly fast website load times on the network. The desktop version of ABCNews.com popped up in four seconds; it took the Verizon 3G iPhone 4S eight seconds to load the same page at the same time. Similarly, streaming video using Google's new YouTube app was smooth, with almost zero load time.

Coupled with a new processor inside, the entire phone feels faster. The power of the two together is apparent when you fire up Apple's new Maps app. In 3-D mode, New York skyscrapers just popped up and panning around didn't delay the rendering of the buildings in the distance. Multitasking also seemed faster; while using the maps app's turn-by-turn directions the phone was able to manage simultaneously loading pages in Safari and showing traffic data using Waze's navigation app. The phone did get warm during heavy use; it wasn't uncomfortable, but it was noticeable.

Also, during heavy use you'll watch the battery level slowly creep downward. After 4.5 hours of almost non-stop use with brightness cranked up, the phone had a little bit less than half a charge left, which is on par with what I'd get on the iPhone 4S. That's impressive considering the thinner body and more powerful parts.

But you'll still have to charge the phone and the new dock connector is likely to be a small frustration. The new Lightning port is smaller and is cleverly reversible, but it does mean you'll have to invest in new accessories and cables. There is a $30 adapter so you can still use your old cords.

Improved, Not Overhauled Software

It wasn't a coincidence that I was using two navigation apps. In iOS 6, the operating system that ships with the iPhone 5 and was recently released for older iPhones and iPads, Apple has ditched Google Maps for its own homebrewed Maps App. The maps are graphic-rich, especially the 3-D satellite views, and in New York they have been quite accurate in providing turn-by-turn driving and walking directions.

However, they lack the Street View of Google's Maps, and while they have traffic data, it isn't as robust as what you get with Waze's app. (Even though Apple has been working with Waze on the solution.) Others have noted that the maps will wrongly route you, but I haven't experienced that in New York City. There's also no transit data pulled in as of now either. Apple has said that the maps will improve as more people use them and that it is working to fix the issues.

But Maps are just one part of the software. The other additions, like Facebook integration, the Do Not Disturb feature, and Siri's improved IQ are well implemented and easy to use. I found Siri to be more accurate than before, and the inline movie times and sports scores are handy. Check out our full review / guide to iOS 6 here.

Overall, the new features make iOS 6 not only a worthy upgrade but also make it the most user-friendly mobile operating system. While some have complained that the general look and feel of the operating system hasn't changed -- the grid of apps, the four shortcuts on the bottom of the home screen -- third-party apps continue to grow in quantity and quality and are the best of any other mobile platform.

Bottom Line

The iPhone 5 is beautiful and even though it's thinner and lighter, it's much faster and still has strong battery life.

Apple says it's the biggest thing to happen to the iPhone since the iPhone. Yet this iPhone enters a world very different from the one of the first iPhone, or even the last iPhone. It's a world in which Android phones (and soon Windows Phones) with comparable features are a dime a dozen.

So is the iPhone better than Samsung's Galaxy S 3, which I consider to be the best Android phone at the moment? Samsung's phone is fast and packed to the brim with features, but they aren't always easy to find. And the iPhone highlights that; new features are as easy to use as old ones. Also, Apple's phone is much more eye-catching.

The iPhone 5 is hands-down the best smartphone for the masses. While there are many other phones out there with similar spec sheets, this is the one all those people were waiting for. And luckily for those two million, it proves to be worth the wait.

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