iPhone 5: thinner, longer, ready for LTE

iPhone 5: thinner, longer, ready for LTE

A detailed look at the new iPhone 5

The Apple iPhone 5 unveiled Wednesday is the company's first LTE model, a smartphone that's longer and thinner than previous versions though it remains a pocket-able and one-handed device.

The iPhone 5 doesn't pretend to make any technology breakthroughs: Apart from being taller, at first glance it seems to preserve many of the exterior design elements of the iPhone 4S. Instead, Apple has continued to refine and improve a range of features that are intended to preserve the superior "user experience" that has made the iPhone the leading smartphone brand.

SIDE BY SIDE: How iPhone 5 stacks up vs. the latest Android, Windows Phone 8 smartphones

WAYBACK: A look back at the first iPhone debut day

The phone was unveiled in San Francisco, kicked off by Apple CEO Tim Cook at exactly 1 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. The event also included announcements of a redesigned iTunes interface and a new crop of iPods, including a new iPod touch. The entire presentation was crisp, brisk and focused.

The new iPhone is 0.30 inches thick, 2.31 inches wide, and 4.87 inches tall, weighing 3.95 ounces. That compares to the 4S: 0.37 inches wide, 4.5 inches tall, 2.31 inches wide, weighing 4.9 ounces. Apple says the new phone is 12 per cent smaller "volumetrically."

Missing were a range of rumored or hoped-for items, including near-field communications (NFC, a wireless technology usually touted for mobile transactions and digital wallets), a quad-core processor, support for USB 3.0 in the redesigned, smaller dock connector, removable storage, and an even larger screen.

The screen is now 4 inches diagonally, versus 3.5 inches for all previous models. The resolution is 640-by-1136 pixels, versus 640-by-960 for the 4S, but it shares with the latter the same pixel density of Apple's Retina display technology: 326 pixels per inch.

The taller screen's most visible result is to allow an extra row of icons on the home screen. But in demonstrations onstage, apps reworked to fully exploit the larger screen seemed much "larger" by virtue of being able to show more content, in either portrait or landscape mode. Every app "shows more data," said Apple's Phil Schiller, senior vice president of marketing, speaking to a packed hall of reporters and bloggers.

Yet every effort was made to ensure the phone was "designed for the hand," Schiller said. By that, he meant "designed for one hand." "It should fit in your hand and be easy to send messages, type emails and surf the Web," he said.

The thinner design is made possible by use of what's called in-cell technology, which in a sense embeds touch sensors into the display, eliminating what had been an extra layer in the sandwich-like mobile display screens. That one change cut 30% from the unit's thickness. [ says it's found three Android phones that are thinner than Apple's newest.] 

But in-cell technology also improves the screen's quality: images are sharper, there's less glare in full sunlight, and it has 44 per cent more color saturation, creating what Schiller said is the "most accurate [color] display in the industry."

Existing applications can run without any changes on iPhone 5: The phone automatically centers them, and adds black bars around the sides as needed. At the same time, Apple worked with a select group of outside software developers and discovered that very little work is needed to change those apps to make use of the larger screen, according to Schiller.

The body is made entirely of glass and aluminum, available in black, with a slate metal backplate, or white, with a silver backplate. The metal sideband seems to have a brushed texture and more pronounced bevel compared to the 4S. Without going into detail, Apple executives, and a video, stressed the "exacting level" of build quality in the new phone's manufacturing process. That's something that doesn't translate into visible changes, but has a direct impact on how users "feel" the device and make decisions about its quality.

Apple's first LTE phone has a single baseband chip for cellular communications, presumably from Qualcomm, its traditional supplier. That's important in terms of holding down costs and maximizing available internal space. The chip supports GPRS, EDGE, EV-DO, HSPA and now HSPA+, DC-HSDPA and LTE. LTE, which is currently in the U.S. only a data connection, has a theoretical maximum throughput of 100Mbps.

Also for the first time, Wi-Fi is enabled over the 5GHz band, in addition to the traditional 2.4GHz. That's an important step: It lets iPhone 5 connect on a much less crowded frequency, with more channels, and higher throughput: up to 150Mbps, according to Apple.

Apple opted for an improved dual-core processor, dubbed the A6. The A series chips are designed by Apple and currently manufactured by Samsung. As an application processor, the A6 is twice as fast as the A5 in the iPhone 4S, and offers twice the graphics performance. Apple appears to have achieved this by moving to a smaller silicon process: The actual chip in the phone is 22% smaller. Again, that frees up more internal space, and it improves power efficiency.

Importantly, Apple has improved battery life, despite the more powerful CPU, the larger screen and LTE support. Talk time on 3G is the same for iPhone 5 and 4S at eight hours; standby time for the new phone is 225 hours, versus 200 for 4S. Internet use on iPhone 5 is eight hours on 3G and on LTE, and 10 hours on Wi-Fi. For iPhone 4S: six hours on 3G, nine on Wi-Fi.

Thanks to other changes in the new CPU, photo and image processing is faster. The A6 has a new image signal processor (ISP) built in, with a feature called spatial noise reduction and a special filter that essentially guides the ISP.

The new iPhone retains the 8-megapixel iSight camera and its f/2.4 aperture. But if offers better low-light performance, 40% faster photo capture, more precise lens alignment and a highly durable sapphire lens cover. Overall, the unit is 25% smaller. Apple also improved the camera's image stabilization, to minimize blurring.

The front-facing camera now supports 720p high definition for higher quality Facetime video chats.

Two new features are the ability to take a panoramic shot with the main camera, just by tapping, selecting and then sweeping the camera around, and "shared photo streams," which will automatically share photos with your friends when you add them to the stream.

Apple says the new iPhone has an improved audio system, with additional microphones and improved speakers. The earpiece now has noise-canceling technology to "screen out" surrounding noise.

The new dock connection, dubbed Lightning (apparently a play on the Mac-based Thunderbolt data interface) is redesigned as an all-digital, eight-signal unit that's 80% smaller than the traditional 30-pin dock. Apple is offering an adapter cable to connect iPhone 5 to existing peripherals.

Apple executives showed another walk-through of the iOS 6 firmware, first unveiled last June, with more than 200 changes or additions. Besides on iPhone 5, the new OS version will be available on Sept. 19 for iPhone 3GS, 4, 4S, iPad 2, new iPad and the new iPod products also announced today.

Pricing, with a two-year cellular contract, remains the same as for iPhone 4S a year ago: $199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB and $399 for 64GB. The iPhone 4S will sell for $99 available only in a 16GB model; and iPhone 4, with 8GB, will be free with a two-year contract.

Pre-orders begin this Friday, Sept. 14, and iPhone 5 will be released a week later, on Sept. 21 on AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the U.S. Notably, Apple has greatly accelerated its iPhone rollouts in overseas markets: That should lead to a huge surge in sales for the final quarter of 2012.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: Email: Blog RSS feed:

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