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Apple iPhone 5S Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Touch ID - not just a gimmick

The Bad

  • Non-expandable

The iPhone 5S has landed and is available in three shades no less. While it looks otherwise unchanged when compared to the iPhone 5, the refresh has seen some marked improvements across both the processor and camera; and did we mention the fingerprint scanner?

But the question most people are asking is: “should I buy one?” Is it as good as Apple says it is? But most importantly, is it worth an upgrade from an iPhone 4, 4S or 5?

Same, but different

With every other year giving us a new ‘S’ variant of Apple’s latest flagship design, we already had a pretty clear picture of what to expect from the look of the new iPhone 5S. It was more a case of distinguishing the subtle differences between it and its predecessor.

The similarities are as expected, commonplace. It’s a beautiful design, assembled with all the precision and attention to detail you’d expect from Apple. In the hand the 5S is incredibly lightweight, beating even the Huawei Ascend P6 at just 112 grams.

Its weight is also a by-product of the smaller size compared to most Android devices, not to mention the dainty 4-inch Retina display. It uses a 1136×640 IPS LCD panel that’s bright, vivid, and offers excellent viewing angles – just like its predecessor.

The body itself is a mix of textured aluminium and glass, with micro drilled holes for the speakers and microphones at the base. There are also metal hardware controls, and a diamond cut chamfer along the phone’s edge which serves as a nice contrast to the lightly textured aluminium on the back of the handset.

The biggest visual differences on the new body are the ‘True Tone’ dual-LED camera flash and a redesigned home button, which houses one of the key new features of the 5S – Touch ID. The metal ring acts as the sensor, detecting when a thumb or finger has been laid down. After that, the reflective face of the home button reads the user’s fingerprint, letting you unlock the device or pay for apps on Apple’s martketplace.

Looking sharp: iOS 7

Along with the new iPhone 5C, the 5S is running the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 7 – and we really like it.

Apple’s interface is now very, very different from iOS 6, much better complementing both the iPhone 5S’s refined body and the 5C’s colour options. Fonts are crisper, icons have adopted an entirely new aesthetic, and there are a number of new features and tweaks, such as an unlimited numbers of apps now being allowed within folders.

The notifications tray has been eased into the new Notifications Centre, which offers a more in-depth record of communications across your iPhone over the past 24 hours. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen, meanwhile, opens Control Centre, a fantastic new feature that should have been part of iOS much sooner.

Control Centre features toggles for features like Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, and screen rotation, as well as sliders for brightness and volume, media playback controls (which we would have liked the ability to hide when not in use), the new Airdrop feature, and shortcuts to services including the calculator, camera, timer and a flashlight.

Untapped potential… for now

The heart of the iPhone 5S is another of the key improvements over last year’s flagship. Apple’s A7 dual-core processor is said to perform twice as efficiently as the older A6 chip thanks to the 64-bit architecture. That makes the iPhone 5S the first device to jump to 64-bit in the smartphone world, which should make for some impressive performance hikes.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to gauge just how much power the 5S really has, as beyond artificial benchmarking, performance between Apple’s flagship and the iPhone 5C feels almost identical. At the unveiling of the 5S, Apple used the new Infinity Blade 3 as its technical demo, designed to showcase both the new graphical power of the 5S and a game that made use of the new architecture. But again, our testing left us hard-pressed to see any differences across devices.

Other hardware tweaks include an improved FaceTime HD camera on the front, broader 4G LTE support across UK networks, and a larger 1,560mAh battery which comfortably lasts a day unlike the fast draining cells of previous iPhones.

Tangibly better pictures

With its 8-megapixel sensor, you might think that the iPhone 5S camera is virtually identical to its predecessor. You’d be wrong.

Three major updates to the imaging experience include an improved sensor, with pixel size increasing from 1.4μ to 1.5μ. The flash on-board the iPhone 5S is also a set of two LEDs, dubbed ‘True Tone’. With a warm and cool light, it intelligently ensures colour temperature isn’t blown off when it fires. Finally, thanks to the 64-bit A7 processor, 120fps slow-motion recording is a reality, as is 10fps full resolution photos.

Each one of these factors helps make the imaging experience significantly better. It’s not just better than the iPhone 5, but better than most smartphones out there. You can see for yourself in the photos.

You should be able to make out the strength of both colour and detail in the above. Considering the 8-megapixels on offer, the Apple iPhone 5S churns out a sharp, compelling image nine times out of ten. Flash performance is also greatly improved, proving that Apple’s marketing surrounding True Tone isn’t lacking substance.

There’s little point dwelling over the multimedia side of things as there’s little new here. Apple has iTunes nailed for people who don’t mind paying for it. Movies, TV shows, and music are all easy to get your hands on and enjoyable to view on the phone. Even the phone’s loud speaker pumps out impressive sound, especially given its size.

The only thing we would urge anyone thinking about picking up an iPhone 5S to consider is this: go for the 32GB version at a minimum. If you have any desire to download content, 16GB just won’t be enough.

A giant leap or a small step?

Has Apple made a worthy successor to last year’s best seller in the iPhone 5S? As is often the case with these ‘S’ revisions, not quite.

If you like the design of the iPhone 5, you’ll no doubt like the 5S – it’s just as premium, handsome and elegant. Touch ID has more resilience than the novelty of Siri as it offers genuine convenience. Unique features like slow motion video recording are enticing too, and the new flash system is amongst the best we’ve seen on a phone. The whole package won’t warrant an upgrade from the iPhone 5, in our opinion, but this is still a very compelling phone.

By the time next year’s iPhone makes an appearance, developers will have had more time to really make use of that 64-bit architecture – then we should start to see some really powerful new applications come out of the woodwork. Hopefully, the next iPhone will also see a larger display.

In the meantime, if your iPhone 4S is on its last legs, or you’re after one of the safest flagships available, then you should pull the trigger. If the thought of £629 for the 32GB version scares you, though, then look towards the HTC One as a viable alternative for under £500.




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