The iPhone 5 is the best iPhone yet, but it's ultimately an evolutionary phone, not a revolutionary one.
The iPhone 5 may look somewhat similar to the iPhone 4S, but it's not until you pick it up for the first time that you realise this is a very different beast. It's an almost identical shape to its predecessor but is significantly lighter and thinner despite having a taller screen.
The biggest design change is the glass back that was a highlight of the the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. It's been replaced by an anodised aluminium backing that is flanked by two glass strips at the top and bottom of the phone, creating a two-tone look. Most buttons are in the same place — volume keys and a silent slider switch on the left, a lock/power button on the top and a home button on the front below the screen. Even though the home button appears the same as previous models, it feels slightly more responsive to press than the one on the 4S.
The featherlight 112g weight is one of the best features of the iPhone 5. Apple deserves a huge amount of credit for managing to make the phone significantly lighter while increasing its overall footprint. The end result is a device that almost feels inviting to hold and one that's comfortable to use single-handedly. At just 7.6mm, the iPhone 5 is also one of the thinnest smartphones on the market.
Despite its light weight and thin casing, the iPhone 5 certainly doesn't feel hollow or cheap. The bevelled edges on the sides, the machine drilled speaker and microphone holes at the bottom and the glass panels at the top and the bottom of the back are typical Apple touches. There's an extraordinary attention to detail in the construction of the iPhone 5 and it's something that most competitors lack.
However, the anodised aluminium used on the back and the edges of the iPhone 5 seems to be easily scratched and marked, particularly on the black model we reviewed. The blemishes are hard to see in photos, but our review model picked up two scratches on the back and a number of small chips on the edge of the right side, towards the back.
Although these scratches and chips are relatively minor and not immediately noticeable, they are very hard to avoid. On a device that commands a significantly hefty price tag, wear and tear from a few days of careful use shouldn't be acceptable.
There are a few key changes on the iPhone 5 if you're upgrading from previous iPhones. Firstly, the device uses a new SIM card called a nano-SIM. It's even smaller than a micro-SIM and it's thinner too, which makes it more difficult to cut down your old SIM to size.
Most Australian telcos will provide you a nano-SIM free of charge, so the change isn't going to be an issue for most people. The nano-SIM is accessible by using a supplied pin to pop open a SIM tray on the right side of the iPhone 5, a method no different to previous models.
Apple has moved the headphone jack on the iPhone 5 from the top to the bottom. We aren't a fan of the change but it doesn't have a significant impact on the overall use of the phone, aside from the need to put the phone in your pocket with the bottom facing up when you're using headphones. Whether you like the change or not will ultimately be a personal preference.
Of much more significance is Apple's decision to change the dock connector on the iPhone 5. Gone is the standard 30-pin connector that Apple has used in most models of its iPod, iPhone and iPad devices. Replacing this is a much smaller, 8-pin dock connector that Apple calls 'Lightning'.
The best feature the Lightning port brings to the iPhone 5 is the ability to plug in the cable either way up, unlike the old dock connector or the industry standard micro-USB port. However, the new port means that the iPhone 5 is no longer compatible with any accessories that use the old dock connector.
Apple sells two Lightning adapters to make most of your old accessories compatible with the iPhone 5, but they aren't included in the box. In Australia, it will cost you $35 for a regular Lightning to 30-pin adapter or $45 for a Lighting to 30-pin adapter with a 0.2m cord. Despite the 'Lightning' name, the iPhone 5 doesn't charge quicker than the iPhone 4S, nor does it transfer data to and from a computer any faster than the previous dock connector.
The iPhone 5 has a larger 4in screen, but it's the same width as the screen on every other iPhone, only taller. Apple says the decision to keep the phone at the same width ensures that the span of a user's thumb can reach all the way across the display when using the phone single-handedly. The iPhone 5 is definitely more comfortable to use with one hand than many of its bigger rivals, including the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X.
The iPhone 5's screen has a resolution of 1136x640 but keeps the same 326ppi pixel density of the previous iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. In a side-by-side comparison with the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5's screen is slightly brighter at the full brightness setting. It also displays deeper blacks, most notably when watching video content. These improvements aren't groundbreaking and are even less pronounced when compared to devices like the Galaxy S III, but there is no doubt the iPhone 5's screen is one of the best on the market.
The taller display means Apple has added an additional row of iOS app icons on the iPhone 5's home screen. You can also see an extra few emails in the list view and more phone numbers in a contacts list but the increased screen real estate means that developers need to update their apps to take advantage of the extra space. Apple's default apps like Safari, Mail, Calendar and Reminders obviously already take advantage of this, but many third-party apps are yet to be updated.
Apps that aren't updated remain the same size as the old iPhone, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. They aren't too noticeable on the black iPhone 5, but they're easily seen on the white model and they're pretty annoying. Oddly, when you're in an app that hasn't been optimised for the iPhone 5 and a notification arrives, the notification will still appear on top of the app rather than over the black bar. This issue will become less of a problem over time once apps are updated, but for now, it's not the most ideal use of that extra space.
The camera on the iPhone 5 remains at 8-megapixels, but it captures excellent photos with great detail. It's one of the best cameras we've ever used on a smartphone and many of the shots produced are comparable to some dedicated point-and-shoot digital cameras.
During testing, we found that the iPhone 5's camera consistently produced more accurate colours than the iPhone 4S. Macro performance is excellent, and the lens is quick to focus on close range subjects — an issue we found on the 4S. The biggest improvement on the camera is the ability to take better quality photos in low light conditions, though these images are still noisier than most good point-and-shoot cameras. Video performance is impressive, particularly the stability of video during movement.
Perhaps the biggest improvement is the front facing camera. It now supports 1080p video and its performance in video calling apps like Facetime, Skype and Tango is significantly better than previous models. There's still a fair bit of noise in these apps, but there is much more detail on show and the overall image is clearer.
Software and performance
If you've used an iPhone before, you'll have no trouble using the iPhone 5. It's a very similar experience to previous iPhone's. Apple says its new iOS 6 software, which comes standard on the iPhone 5, has added over 200 new features to the platform. Most of these are minor, but there's are a few that particularly stand out.
The most significant change is the abolishment of Google's Maps application, which has been replaced with Apple's own Maps app. At this stage it's a change for the worse as the Maps app appears to be a half-baked, unfinished solution that lacks both the detail and the accuracy of the Google Maps app it replaced. Apple says it expects the Maps app to improve over time but since has gone to the extraordinary step of apologising for the app, even going as far as suggesting consumers use alternatives until it improves.
There are a few nice features in Maps, the highlight of which is an admittedly impressive Flyover mode that shows selected, major metropolitan areas from the air with 3D views. The issue here is that Apple appears to have settled for style over substance. While it's undoubtedly cool to flyover a 3D view of Sydney on the iPhone 5, wouldn't it be better if the Maps app knew where the Apple Store in Sydney was? If you could find Sydney University? If it knew where Sydney's M4 motorway is? If you could search for the SCG instead of the Sydney Cricket Ground. If you could distinguish between the Domestic and International terminals at Sydney Airport? You get the picture.
There are a few other improvements in iOS 6 that add to the overall user experience. Integrated Facebook information means you can now post status updates directly from the notifications screen, while contacts and calendar information from your Facebook account can be added to your phone (and easily turned off if you wish). A new share menu presents a list of options in a neater arrangement, while you can pull to refresh your email inbox in the Mail app.
We also liked the addition of a panorama camera mode (though panorama images can only be taken while holding the phone in portrait mode), the do not disturb mode that silences incoming calls in a selected time period and the ability to reject a call by SMS when you can't answer it. However, all of these features have been available in competing operating systems like Android for some time now, so Apple is merely playing catch up.
The iPhone 5 is a fast smartphone with next to no lag or slowdown. General performance is excellent, opening and closing apps is almost instant and switching between apps is slick and fast. If you're coming from an iPhone 4S you won't notice the increase in speed too much in day to day use. However, the faster speeds can be seen when you open the camera app from the lock screen, as one example.
If you're using the Telstra, Optus or Virgin Mobile networks in Australia, you'll be happy to know that the iPhone 5 is compatible with the 1800MHz LTE network band. That means you'll get 4G mobile coverage where it's available.
4G coverage is still fairly limited at the time of writing but when you are in a coverage area serviced by LTE with the iPhone 5, you're in for a treat. We managed to achieve download speeds of up 35 megabits per second (Mbps) on Telstra and up to 32Mbps on Optus when 4G was available, though the speeds you'll get will widely vary depending on location, time and network congestion. Unfortunately, Vodafone users are out of luck right now as the company isn't launching its 4G network until sometime in 2013.
Apple says the iPhone 5's battery will last for up to eight hours on 3G and LTE Internet use and up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi, while talk time is listed at up to eight hours. However, during testing we experienced far less battery life than Apple's stated figures, regularly having to charge our review unit well before the end of the day.
LTE appears to be the biggest battery drainer but even when on 3G the iPhone 5 didn't achieve the best results. As an example of the poor battery life we experienced, on a regular Tuesday morning our review unit was down to 57 per cent after just one hour and 35 minutes of usage and three hours and 17 minutes of standby.
Obviously your battery life experience will vary depending on your usage patterns, your location and the signal strength of your carriers mobile connection (especially when in a 4G area), but it was certainly disappointing for us.
If you're a current iPhone user, if you've invested heavily in the Apple iOS ecosystem and if you're happy with the way the iPhone works, you'll more than likely be very pleased with the iPhone 5. It's thinner, lighter and faster than previous models and has a large screen and an outstanding camera.
However, if you're not a current iPhone owner but are looking for a smartphone, the choice is more difficult. If you want a larger screened device and more flexibility than an Android phone might be a better choice for you. The iPhone 5 is without a doubt one of the best and most polished smartphones on the market, but whether Apple's rigid albeit slick user experience is beginning to tire will ultimately be a personal choice.