First look: The new iPhone 5S impresses

First look: The new iPhone 5S impresses

Virtually all of the big changes are inside, but they point to a bright -- and speedy -- mobile future

Like countless others on Friday morning, I braved long lines and lack of sleep to be among the first wave of buyers to get the latest iPhone from Apple. Specifically, I wanted an iPhone 5S, the new flagship model that starts at $199 (for a 16GB model with two-year contract).

I'd hoped for the white-and-silver model, but, like the new gold version, those were in short supply. So I wound up with a 64GB "space gray" iPhone 5S. Although it's virtually identical on the outside to the old iPhone 5 -- other than the lighter gray aluminum back and sides -- this phone represents a major update to the hardware. From the new A7 64-bit chip to the M7 coprocessor to updated camera and Touch ID, there's a lot to like in the 5S. No wonder it quickly sold out on Friday (and it's no surprise Apple The new iPhone 5S (in space gray) retains the minimalist design of the iPhone 5. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

I've always loved the minimalist appearance of the iPhone, especially the aluminum-and-glass design of the iPhones 4 and 5: a single button adorning the front, a minimal set of hardware buttons, and the sleek glass face framed by black (or white) trim housed in an aluminum frame with chamfered edges. I thought this was a slick design when it was first unveiled, and it remains so.

The space gray model in hand is the same size and weight as the iPhone 5, but with a lighter aluminum frame and back plate. The other noticeable difference is the sapphire crystal home button, which reflects light differently than the glass that surrounds it and lacks the 'squ-ircle' graphic found on earlier iPhones. This is the new Touch ID sensor, the fingerprint reader that, according to Apple, "defines the next step of how you use your iPhone, making something as important as security so effortless, so simple."

They're not wrong.

Touch ID is really handy

When rumors arose that the new iPhone might have a fingerprint sensor built in, I shrugged them off; I generally ignore Apple rumors because most of them are nonsense, but this one gained traction as the announcement date neared. Even then, I thought ... meh. Fingerprint sensors didn't excite me because I had yet to see one that worked quickly, and without hassle or error. I couldn't see how an iPhone could incorporate a fingerprint sensor with the technology used on other products.

Thankfully, Apple went in another direction, installing the Touch ID sensor in the home button, making it more or less invisible. That means you don't have to do anything different to use the new security feature besides holding your finger on the home button a quarter of a second longer than before.

Setting up Touch ID is simple and takes about a minute. The software walks you through the process of enabling the system to recognize your fingerprint: Simply tap the home button with your fingertip, and the iPhone vibrates after a moment of reading your print, then an onscreen fingerprint graphic fills itself in, indicating that it's OK to release and press your finger against the home button again. After a few seconds of doing this this, you're all set up.

This new feature has already made me change my habits -- and it has made my iPhone more secure. I had always set my iPhone's passcode so it wouldn't engage unless the phone had been inactive for 15 minutes (which would allow a thief plenty of time to get at my contacts and other data if I ever misplaced it). But the ease of Touch ID means I can set the passcode to immediately activate when the phone is locked.

Touch ID is set up by resting your finger on the home button. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

It's so simple to unlock the phone using Touch ID that I decided to step up security even further: I changed the passcode from a four-digit number to a more secure 22-character phrase. Since the password doesn't need to be entered every time you want to use your iPhone, you can make it as long and secure as you want.

The same goes for access to iCloud: I was able to change that password to a phrase more than 20 characters long, since I no longer have to type it in whenever I make a purchase. Nor do I have to type it in for other functions like email.

Though initially unconvinced that Touch ID represented a major technology advance, I've already decided this will be a game-changer. In concert with new Activation Lock features in iOS 7 -- GPS tracking can't be deactivated and access to the iPhone is blocked without entering your iCloud username and password, even after a device wipe! -- it's hard to see this as anything but a major win for security. Considering all of the data stored on a smartphone these days, it's hard to argue about Apple's decision to implement a new security feature that will be embraced by everyday users and enterprise IT departments alike.

That's often what Apple does: Even though it's not always the first to roll out "new" technologies, it's almost always the first to implement them in a way that fits existing lifestyles. The most obvious example: Touchscreens existed before the iPhone arrived in 2007, but Apple devised the right combination of hardware and software to make them new and exciting, and -- most of all -- usable on a daily basis.

Apple's Touch ID offers a security measure that will be embraced by everyday users and IT departments alike. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

Why 64-bit matters

While I was wrong to initially dismiss the potential for a fingerprint reader, I did and do think that the iPhone 5S's move to a 64-bit processor (and iOS 7's ability to work in tandem with the new hardware) is a big deal. It does deliver a performance boost, but most of those improvements will come from software updated to take advantage of it.

As it has for past iPhone updates, Apple boasted that this iPhone is the fastest yet. And it is, since this is the first phone with full hardware and software support for 64-bit technology. In the two days I've been using my new iPhone 5S, it does feel faster than the previous model. But you'll only really notice that improvement under specific circumstances: App animations don't happen any quicker, but the gap between them and content loading is decreased.

For instance, the boot-up times of the iPhone 5 and the 5S were generally within a second or two of each other. The iPhone 5S booted in about 27 seconds, while the iPhone 5 booted in 28; both consistently boot in under 30 seconds and almost always within a second or two of each other.

Loading third-party apps on either phone took about the same amount of time, but things became a little more interesting with the apps recompiled to take advantage of the 64-bit A7 chip.

For instance, Night Sky 2 -- it's among those apps compiled in 64-bit -- clearly gains speed during startup. It launches in 2.7 seconds on the iPhone 5S, compared to 4.6 seconds on an iPhone 5. Although 1.9 seconds may not sound like much, it's still an indicator of the kinds of speed gains we're likely to see as more apps are updated.

A better test of the new architecture is the new game Infinity Blade 3. For this quick test, I rebooted both devices and launched the game before running any other apps. From the moment I launched the game until the introduction animation ran, I found the iPhone 5S to be surprisingly faster than its predecessor. On first launch, the iPhone 5S needed 47 seconds to clear the loading screen and begin the animation, 14 seconds faster than the iPhone 5. For the second launch, I rebooted the phones again before launching the game. The iPhone 5S reloaded the game in 17.8 seconds compared to 48 seconds for iPhone 5. On the third attempt, the iPhone 5S needed 19.8 seconds, the iPhone 5, 37.9 seconds.

That's a significant gap in speed between the iPhone 5S and its predecessor, though, as I noted, performance very much depends on whether software was specifically written for the new 64-bit architecture. Apple is clearly thinking ahead with the hardware changes in the 5S, and is focused as much or more on applications to come as on those already available.

A few final thoughts

As happens every time I get a new iPhone, I've been inundated by people wanting to see and hold the iPhone 5S, especially to test the Touch ID sensor. For the past few days, I've watched people smiling as their fingerprints are rejected, before they turn the phone over in their hands to check out Apple's latest.

I should note that there are already reports that the Touch ID security feature can be defeated, but the hoops someone would have to jump through to hack into the phone -- lifting fingerprints, making a fake print using latex -- are complicated, if they even work at all. For me, this doesn't change its usefulness; it's just a reminder that no security function is 100% foolproof.

I'll be spending the next week or so putting the 5S though its paces, and will soon present a more detailed look at how it and its new features fare in day-to-day use. But I like what I've seen so far. And considering how fast the first batch of iPhones sold out across the globe, I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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