Apple struts lighter, faster, bigger iPhone 5

Pre-orders start Friday, sales on September 21

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, and other company executives have unveiled the iPhone 5, a faster, slimmer upgrade that for the first time in the five-year history of the smartphone, boasts a larger screen of 4 inches.

None of it was much of a surprise, analysts said after the 90-minute presentation, which took place in San Francisco.

"It was an hour to tell a five-minute story," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research, referring to the first 60 minutes where talk of the iPhone 5 dominated. "They essentially said, 'It's all you thought it was, no surprises, have a good time,'" said Gottheil.

The Apple rumor mill had, as Gottheil noted, nailed all the high points of today's unveiling - e most important new features, the look of the iPhone 5 - weeks before.

But analysts still had things to say about the new phone.

"What really strikes you about the iPhone 5 is how light it feels in your hand," said Carolina Milanesi, a Gartner analyst who covers Apple, comparing it to the older iPhone 4S's heft. "But it still retains a quality feel to it. That was the most surprising to me, that when you touch it, the quality is obvious."

In his second iPhone introduction since he took the reins in 2011, Cook kicked off the iPhone 5 launch, then introduced several top Apple officials to spell out details.

"Today, we're taking it to the next level, we're making a huge leap," said Cook at the start of the event. Near its end, he added, "This is the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since the [original] iPhone," referring to the first-generation smartphone that former CEO Steve Jobs launched in January 2007.

The iPhone 5 will go on sale at 8am. local time Sepember 21 in Apple's retail stores in the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the UK. Carrier partners and some authorized resellers will also being selling it that day. Online and phone pre-orders will start two days from now, on Friday, Sepember 14. The iPhone 5 will be priced at $199 for a 16GB model, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB of storage space.

Apple is also retaining the last-generation 16GB iPhone 4S, and pricing it at $US99, a 50 per cent reduction. In addition, it will continue distributing an 8GB iPhone 4 -- the 2010 version -- for free, the second time its dipped into two-year-old inventory.

The three-tier line-up impressed analysts, who saw it as a much more integrated family of phones, design-wise, and believed Apple had a lot of upside with the free, discounted and full-priced models.

"They'll gain market share on all fronts," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "The iPhone 3GS had an industrial design that stuck out, but these three look like they're from the same family. And the [free] iPhone 4 is the value proposition."

On the outside, the iPhone 5 looks dramatically different from 2011's iPhone 4S. "It is the most beautiful product we have ever made, bar none," said Philip Schiller, who heads Apple's marketing.

The iPhone 5 takes the tape at 4.9-in., about 7 per cent taller than all previous models. It's thinner -- just 0.3-in., or 7.6 millimeters -- by 18 per cent and lighter by approximately 20 per centcompared to the iPhone 4S. Its 4-in. screen boasts an 1136-x-640-pixel resolution. The case is a combination of aluminum and glass, with the chassis composed of the former.

The new 16:9 aspect ratio will display existing iPhone apps in their current resolution, with black bars either beside the app, if the iPhone is held in landscape fashion, or at the top and bottom if held in portrait fashion. "All your software works just like before," Schiller said.

"Developers don't have to change their apps," said Milanesi. "They will, of course, take advantage [of the larger screen] when they create their next versions. But you can buy an iPhone 5 today and not feel all of a sudden that thousands of apps are suddenly not relevant."

Apple used that same strategy in 2010 when it launched its first iPad, making it possible to run iPhone apps on the new, larger-screen tablet.

Inside, the iPhone 5 relies on an Apple-designed A6 chip that Schiller said was approximately twice as fast as the A4 in last year's model. Apple revealed no details about the A6, however, such as its clock speed and the number of cores it contains.

The iPhone 5 also supports the faster LTE data networks operated by some carriers worldwide. In the US, Verizon has the largest LTE network. "It just screams," Schiller said.

"After the Samsung trial, Apple has addressed the two things that people love about Samsung phones ... they have larger screens and LTE," said Moorhead. "Well, look, Apple just rolled out a larger display and LTE."

Powering the iPhone 5 is a larger battery that Apple rated at 8 hours of both talk time and browsing over 3G, as well as 8 hours of browsing using LTE. The talk time number is identical to the 4S, but 33 per cent more on 3G browsing. Apple claimed the iPhone 5 runs 225 hours in standby mode, 12.5 per cent longer than the iPhone 4S.

A new connector - smaller by 80 per cent - replaces the 30-pin port that the iPhone has relied on for the last five years. Schiller dubbed it "Lightning", a play on its "Thunderbolt" display and storage connector brand available in newer Macs.

During the event, Scott Forstall, Apple's head of iOS development, demonstrated several new features of iOS 6, the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone 5.

Apple's own mapping technology takes a bow in iOS 6, and for the first time, includes turn-by-turn directions, said Forestall. Other improvements he cited ranged from a full-screen mode in Safari that takes advantage of the new 4-in. display, photo streaming to other iOS devices, and Passbook, the company's ticket and boarding pass manager.

Siri, the voice-activated digital assistant that debuted a year ago in the iPhone 4S, has been enhanced, Forstall said as he demonstrated her new-found skills at locating restaurants and movie theaters.

None of the Apple executives mentioned near-field communications (NFC), the technology that lets mobile device owners wave a phone over a short-range wireless receiver or tap the device to make a purchase, or bring a pair of compliant devices close to each other to transfer data or sync content.

Analysts earlier mentioned NFC as a possible part of the iPhone 5 intro, but concluded that the technology wasn't ready for prime time, or worth Apple's interest at this point.

But there were lots of improvements experts were ready to highlight, among them those in Siri, camera enhancements, better noise suppression and a new directional microphone system.

The last two seemed aimed straight at Siri.

"They not only jazzed up Siri, which I think is more popular than the press thinks, but the microphone and noise suppression changes are there to improve the experience with Siri."

Milanesi echoed Gottheil. "If Siri can hear me better, that's important," she said.

Apple also launched a fifth-generation iPod Touch that closely resembled the iPhone 5, with prices ranging from $US299 for a 32GB device to $US399 for a 64GB model.

The iOS 6 upgrade - which will be available to owners of iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S smartphones, as well as the second- and third-generation iPads and the fourth-generation iPod Touch - will debut Sept 19, two days before the iPhone 5 reaches customers.

"There are two types of buyers, those who care about specs and those who care about experience," said Moorhead. "Apple expertly addressed both. They upgraded what they needed to upgrade to stay competitive and improved the differentiators that are Apple's hallmarks."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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