So here we are again. Another year, another iPhone. Apple releases these things like clockwork. iPhone releases are like Old Faithful. Every year we get blasted with marketing hot air from press conferences and unveilings and breathless previews that promise this to be the one model you’ll really want.
The iPhone 5S should be derivative. A slightly better iPhone 5. Something we can safely pass by without noticing.
The problem is Apple’s created something impressive. The iPhone 5S is the best iteration yet of one of the best smartphones ever made. It makes improvements in all the right places to become something remarkable.
The iPhone 5S Review
Hardware – 4/5
The iPhone 5S sticks close to its predecessor in terms of aesthetics. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before in the body. It’s still aluminum, still 4 inches of screen, still has square edges and a two-tone back.
Apple hardware always impresses. The iPhone is the most refined version of their vision for how a smartphone should look and feel. The 5S feels good to hold – light, solid, and small enough to get a good grip around. Unlike the phablets that are all the rage in Android, iPhones are easy to use with one hand.
That size comes at a price, though. The iPhone is miniscule compared to other smartphones. In an age where almost every Android and Windows Phone flagship starts at 5 inches, 4 inches can feel cramped sometimes.
I feel like the Moto X hit the sweet spot. 4.7 inches is perfect. Not too uncomfortable, but large enough to display everything. Maybe we’ll see a larger iPhone 6 around that size. I hope so. Until then, we’ll make do with the 5S’s smaller screen.
Not that it’s a bad screen. Apple put in another 1136 x 640 LCD display that looks fantastic. The colors, contrast, and brightness are all where I want them. iOS 7 shines on this display.
Beneath the display is one of the interesting new additions – Touch ID. Apple changed the home button into a fingerprint sensor. Set up the system with your thumbprint and you can unlock the phone with a simple touch of the home button. It’s security without the inconvenience of typing in a password.
I liked Touch ID. It worked most of the time, providing a seamless way to open my phone. It’s certainly nicer than typing in a passcode every time.
The other major change Apple made was to the flash. It added a two-tone LED flash to produce more realistic images when you’re snapping photos in the dark. That and a few camera improvements keep the iPhone at the head of the pack in terms of photography.
Overall, the iPhone has its usual impressive hardware. Nobody makes premium materials like Apple. I just wish it were larger.
Recommended Reading: Op-Ed: What a 64-bit iOS Means for Apple’s Future
Performance – 5/5
The iPhone 5S performs better than most flagships. This thing has a beast of a processor hiding inside its diminutive exterior.
Apple introduced its new A7 processor with the 5S. GFXBench identifies the processor as a 1.2 GHz dual-core chip with 1 GB of RAM.
A straight one-to-one comparison to Android flagships makes the 5S look underpowered. However, simple specs do not reflect the iPhone’s performance when you factor in Apple’s software optimizations. The advantage of making hardware for your software is that you can do more with less.
The 5S excels for everyday use. I never saw it lag once. All the swooping, diving, and zooming in iOS 7 never skipped a beat. Couple that with iOS’s high touch accuracy and you’ve got a lag-free phone. That’s impressive.
It works for high-end games as well. I played Infinity Blade 2 without seeing any dropped frames. iOS gets a lot of graphics-intensive, high-end games. The iPhone 5S can play them all.
I’d also like to recommend this phone for its potential longevity. The A7 is the first 64-bit mobile CPU. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that Apple will start rolling these chips out to the rest of its devices.
As 64 bits becomes the norm, more applications will be written for it. The iPhone 5S is in a unique place because it can run every legacy 32-bit app and all the 64-bit new arrivals. This phone is the best option for Apple fans looking for something future-proof.
Battery – 4/5
The iPhone 5S has mixed battery life. On one hand, Apple rates it for the same run time as every other iPhone. iPhones are still the longest-lasting phones under 5 inches.
On the other hand, the 5S suffers increased drain from its power-hungry chip and iOS 7.1 problems. The new CPU takes up slightly more power than the A6 in the iPhone 5. That and some software problems with 7.1 make the 5S slightly worse on battery.
It’s not that it’s bad, it’s that it needs work to be better.
Software – 4/5
I’m of two minds on iOS. Part of me wants to laud Apple for creating the world’s most user-friendly operating system. Everybody can use iOS, and it’s easy to see why they would want to. What’s not to love about something that’s simple, user-friendly and lag-free?
And yet there remains a problem. iOS 7 itself.
I liked the new version of Apple’s when I previewed it last year. It seemed like exactly what the company needed to bring its mobile products into the modern age and away from the icky green felt.
After spending some time with it, though, I’m not sold. I’m not saying we need to go back to fake stitched leather, but there was something to be said for proven design elements.
iOS 7 feels like a product still in development. There are too many flaws, too many weird patches that feel unfriendly. Why are the App Store and Messages so white? Why does the notification drawer have three separate tabs? Why do third-party apps have to keep their settings in the Settings app?
You can see that same lack of certainty in the 7.1 update. Apple keeps adding UI toggles under the Accessibility settings. While I’m always a fan of giving the user more choices over how their phone looks (especially on iOS), this feels like a temporary patch to keep users happy while Apple figures out what to do.
I’m curious to see what version 8 looks like, and how close they’ll hew to the course they set out in 7. Right now it feels like it still needs some changes.
Apps & Ecosystem – 5/5
You can’t say a bad word about the ecosystem on iOS. Apple has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams at attracting developer talent.
The App Store has the most, and best apps. It’s where people launch new products and test them before building an Android version. I would kill to get this level of third-party support for my personal Android phone.
There are so many apps, and they’re all at least acceptable. Apple’s draconian policies do a good job of keeping out the crap. There are still too many free-to-play games clogging up the top charts, but that’s a minor complaint. iOS still offers the best app ecosystem on the market.
Apple picks up the rest of the slack with iTunes. The iPhone 5S comes with a first-class ticket to Apple’s ecosystem of music, movies, books, magazines and TV shows. iTunes is the gold standard for content stores for a reason.
Updates & Support – 5/5
Apple again reaps the benefits of building its own software when it comes to updates. Every iOS device enjoys lifetime support. As long as it physically can be updated, it will be. That’s a hell of a lot better than Android, where even Google will only commit to 18 months for Nexuses.
While we obviously cannot rate Apple’s future support, the likelihood of updates makes the iPhone a good choice for people who like to keep their phones for a long time.
Hackability – 1/5
It’s an iPhone. It’s not for hacking.
I cannot recommend someone get an iPhone 5S for tinkering in good faith if you consider the state of the jailbreaking scene today. Breaking iOS gets harder and harder every year. It’s a crapshoot to figure out whether the hackers can get past Apple’s security.
No disrespect to the jailbreaking guys. They do great work. But every time they use an exploit, Apple patches it. Every time it introduces a new chip, hacking gets harder.
Jailbreaking is unsustainable. At a certain point, we’ll have to wait unacceptable times to find exploits for custom software.
It’s possible. It’s just not probable, practical, or sustainable.
Final Thoughts – 4/5
The iPhone 5S is a good phone. It’s small, fast, and integrates with Apple’s best-in-class ecosystem. However, I don’t know if I’d recommend buying one. If you have to, it’s a perfectly good phone that will work perfectly well for a long time.
The problem is iOS 7. The software feels unfinished. Unpolished. Unbalanced. If you can, wait to see if Apple will give us a better iOS 8 on an iPhone 6 with a larger screen. Now that would be something.