Last Friday afternoon, while waiting for the UPS man to show himself, a number of first impressions were rolling in about the iPhone 5. Most common among these were comments about how lightweight it is. The weight is one of the first differences to notice, but the change was repeatedly overstated by people. While it is 20% lighter than its predecessor, it is far from feeling “hollow” as many exclaimed. It has an even weight distribution, and the heft is quite justified given the thinness and new materials.
What was more unexpected was the size of the Lightning connector. The marketing images don’t quite do justice to how small it is, and the size isn’t the end of the improvements. Plugging in my phone at the end of the day, usually in the dark, is no longer replete with fumbling and second guessing the orientation of the connector while snapping it in place. And snap it does! You couldn’t be more convinced that your cable is properly seated. There is some pain in no longer having a handful of extra cables lying around, but I’m doing fine with just one so far. I haven’t built up a decade worth of iPod accessories that I’m dependent on either, though this change will likely frustrate people who have.
The home button has a strong click that is very satisfying. And while I’m glad to have such a responsive button for handling so many important functions, many of my previous iPhone home buttons felt quite clicky initially as well. I’m wondering if it might be something that settles into a softer click over time. In general, the build quality is up to Apple’s usual standards, but unifying the steel frame and glass back from the iPhone 4 into one piece of aluminum certainly helps this phone feel that much more seamless. No one will miss the previous mesh speaker and microphone grills that are now bored directly into the casing, and the “chamfered” edges throw beautiful glints of light from time to time that really lend the phone a high level of polish.
As for the color, I’ve unintentionally been on an alternating pattern: white 3G, black 4, white 4S, and now, a black iPhone 5. The black bezel blends nicely with the screen when its dark or off, and having anticipated dealing with letterboxing for a while, it was surprising how quickly nearly all of my frequently used apps were updated. It certainly hasn’t been as painful of a transition as the switch to the Retina display. My wife got the white model. I had worried that the silver back would too strongly contrast against the white glass transceiver windows, but it is a very bright silver that blends surprisingly well. Also, the back of the white model looks like it will hide scratches better than the black one, but both make for sharp looking phones.
During the iPhone 5 announcement, the slides detailing battery life were a bit of a disappointment. Not that the numbers are poor, but the hope was for a good increase over the 4S. As of the start of the iOS 6 betas, battery life was getting more painful on the 4S. About once a week my phone would die or need to be plugged in before its usual charging time at the end of the day, and it was often a conscious effort to stay on top of preserving power. Despite the quoted numbers the iPhone 5’s charge has been lasting longer in a normal day than its predecessor. I left work every day this week with a charge of at least 80%, and it has reported above 50% almost every night before plugging it in. Maybe the difference is in comparing a brand new battery to the one in a year old 4S. However, thinking back, this level of battery life still outweighs my experience with the 4S when it was new.
The first week wasn’t without a bout of poor battery performance however. Leaving work Thursday with 80% charge remaining, I went with some coworkers to watch the UW Huskies beat Stanford. After the hour and a half car ride through Seattle traffic during which I was steadily browsing, networking, and reading (I was a passenger), my battery had already dropped to 55%. It didn’t fair any better once we got to the stadium either. By 10:30, charge was in the single digits, and I stopped using the phone altogether except for responding to incoming messages. The main difference between this and the rest of the nights this week was a prolonged lack of WiFi access, which leads me to guess that the thorn in the side of the iPhone battery is our new friend LTE.
AT&T brought LTE to Seattle within the space of two or three days prior to the iPhone 5 launch. It wasn’t something I was banking on when I ordered my phone, but it was a pleasant surprise when it rolled out. It will take some time before LTE’s effect on battery life is predictable, but it appears that what is lost in battery life is gained in speed. Apple wasn’t joking around in comparing LTE to WiFi speeds. At my home, where I’m typically stuck with 2/5 bars of signal, I was getting between 10 and 15 Mbits/second download bandwidth. Which prior to upgrading to FiOS recently, was faster than any home broadband connection I’ve ever had. And in stronger areas, I’ve seen closer to 25Mbits/second. These numbers are tangible too. It’s almost shocking to see data load this fast when you’re on the go. If there is one top selling point with the iPhone 5, this is it. Which is funny considering the iPhone is late to the LTE party. iPhone is the only device many of us have with ubiquitous internet connectivity, and LTE speeds make for an even bigger improvement than 3G had over Edge. In other words, this speed on a mobile device is a game changer.
Apple dropped in a new custom A6 chip and boosted the RAM to a 1GB module. The new tech has been holding up very well under the usual benchmarks. Some typically slow processing tasks get a good boost, but in day to day usage, the speed increase isn’t something I notice very often. Why would Apple build improvements that do seemingly little to improve the overall experience? Remember, Apple is probably going to have this phone on shelves for three years. There is likely a software roadmap in progress that will need this kind of power down the road. These processor improvements are generally incremental, but always welcome. It’s pretty safe to say the iPhone 5 architecture will have a few years of life in it.
The camera has been improved again, although a bit more modestly this time around. Same 8 megapixel resolution, same number of lens elements, but with a slightly improved sensor. The biggest difference shows in low-light performance, which is quite exceptional. Brightness, contrast, and color are all better in low-light compared with previous iPhones, and this will be the difference between a blurry mess and a usable picture more than a few times.
The new screen sports a taller 16:9 aspect ratio, but the change isn’t that startling. Within the first few hours, this felt like the new shape of the iPhone, leaving the previous models looking slightly squished. As someone with small hands, reaching across the screen hasn’t proven to be much of a problem. The reduced weight of the phone allows you to loosen up your grip slightly and get a bit more mobility out of your thumb. The reservations that some of us had that a new screen size might cause painful fragmentation issues for developers was shown to be mostly unjustified as evidenced by how quickly many apps were able to adapt to the change, most without access to a device to test on. By changing only the vertical dimension the majority of apps simply display more content than before. Some games may have a harder time adapting, but this is clearly not fragmentation on the order of the Android ecosystem.
My first week with the latest incarnation of the iPhone wasn’t without its misgivings, but it’s not too early to affirm the marketing rhetoric. This is indeed the best iPhone yet.