iPhone 5 Review: Part 1

This is my Next First: 32GB Black & Slate

Introduction

Although the iPhone 5 will sell regardless of almost anything, the real question is, to what regard will "anything" come to define it?

Entangled and confused was I mere weeks ago, when my saddened pockets yelped at the mercy of a terrifying thought; my large hands reaching, but failing to grasp what I was aiming for, among the lottery of objects that clanged around as I roamed the streets of downtown. However, as the sun settled towards the bleak, muddled cluster of clouds that quickly approached, I would need to heed the advice that my pair of jeans had longed for me to follow. Comparing the present penitence in my soul to the maps that I would soon replace, I decided to follow my destiny, and proceeded to open the black box that presented itself to me. With my Samsung Infuse and old iPod Touch both tucked within a chamber of solitude, an immediate feeling of courage overcame me. It had been more than two years since my "phone without the phone" had been removed from its case, and just over a year since I had felt the power of half a dozen widgets magically dilute the battery of my Infuse. I hesitated, followed the contour of the glistening (and patented) shape with my finger, and spoke what seemed to be the first words of relief of mine in a long time; "Hello, iPhone 5."

I like to believe that I am a "Tech-enthusiast", as many so-called Tech-enthusiasts like to call themselves now. I reciprocate the fiery-emotional responses of dozens of arguments daily, with fanboys and flame wars only slowing me subtly, as I yearn to get my message across; Yes, I have switched from owning two, multi-purpose yet personally-limiting devices, to obtain one which Phil Schiller has described as "an absolute jewel". After using it for over two weeks, I tend to agree with his un-hyperbolic statement, but I won’t end it there, of course. In the end, the message I actually wish to get across, is this; choose the device that suits your needs best, and don’t count on reviews to define your results and expectations; even at their best, critiques merely guide. With that in mind, the real aim of my review is to act as a guide for people with even a mild interest in this device, and to hopefully help potential customers to make their decisions that much easier.

Interfaces, interactions, and content preferences are subjective in their very nature, and to explain where my personal stance lies, in as short a manner as I can; Android was bad, it has since become fantastic, but iOS I feel is still where I would rather go. My personal beliefs of a phone operating system are concerned less with "cars with more cup holders, horsepower, and dashboard knobs than the competition," than they are with "cars with a more balanced combination of speed, efficiency, features, and consistency". Also, my somewhat thorough experience with all of the current major operating systems, does give me a relative objectivity, as far as being humanly impartial can go. However, my rant about iOS against Android is much greater than I could care to fit in less than a gazillion words. That is why in this review, I will mainly speak about the hardware, and the relationship between the changes in software and the aforementioned exterior. Lastly, I also believe that with the current state of iOS itself, all I need mention is the G.U.I. has not changed much, save for a few hundred little nips and tucks around the system since Version 5[dot]x. And with everything but the product itself out of the way... Here. We. Go...

Design: Thinner, Lighter, Better?

Numerical Score: 9 out of 10

In 2010, the iPhone 4 began a trend in the design of Apple's flagship seller, that has not been broken as of yet. Although the iPhone 5 has a noticeably different look and feel from the previous two generations, the main premise is still similar. The front of the phone is now more than ever, dominated by the display, with the entire front of the device covered underneath a piece of strengthened glass akin to the 4S. The shape and placement of the "pieces" fit very elegantly, and the rounded perimeter of the phone can best be described as shimmering. A beautifully-cut chamfer surrounds the edge, and gone is the band of stainless steel, with an anodized aluminum siding now holding the buttons, audio, and connector placements. Extending to the rear, the metal also produces a genuine sensation of durability and quality that feels more comforting than plain glass. Still, the back of the device is not entirely a slab of slim stone, as top and bottom slices of glass pierce the uniformity, in exchange for necessary reception and antennae action. The black version, which I am reviewing, combines a sleek, grayish-blue hue of metal with the same color of scratch-resistant material used before. For comparison, the design changes are magnified in real life, when in relation to simply viewing the phone in pictures and imagery. For example, depending on the lighting, the metal plate can either show a visible distinction from the glass, or can blend in almost seamlessly into a homogeneous and stealthy cloak of allure. The chamfer will also shimmer depending on the angle, and overall the metal back is not slippery, with a slight friction that tends it to those with butterfingers. It is for those reasons and more, that I encourage users of all phones, regardless of loyalty to actually hold and feel the device in hand.

Otherwise, there are some other changes concerning the device's exterior embellishments. The camera and LED flash placement have not changed, with the "home" and side buttons not affected either (the home button is ‘clickier’ than before, though). The headphone jack has moved to the bottom, which means that those accustomed to the iPod touch (like me) will not have to adjust, leaving the top now to only serve a lone sleep/wake button. Additionally, it also means that when viewing content in portrait, the wire from the headphones does not drape over the front. The underside of the device now holds the headphone jack as mentioned, along with a microphone and mono-speaker, whose arrangement and size have been altered; the pill-shaped cuts have been replaced with grills similar to the new iPad. Also, a new dock connector is wedged among the other placements, called Lightning. The front of the device sees a centered FaceTime camera, now above the newly-enhanced earpiece and ambient/proximity sensors. There is still an accelerometer and a gyroscope, but the total microphone count has been increased to three.

Finally, there are also 3 aspects of the iPhone 5 design that I would like to address in one fell swoop, as they encompass the entirety of the phone, rather than just cogs in the machine. As many have predicted and noticed, the iPhone 5 is thinner, lighter, and volumetrically smaller than its older brethren. When first picking it up, while two of the changes are less pronounced, one caught me off guard in regards to pure expectation; the same feeling when first reaching for a MacBook Air, but only knowing the heft of a Pro. Without any hands-on, the specifics might seem negligible to those that already know of the numbness of their current devices, but boy did it make an impression. Again, to compare, the old iPod Touch that I previously owned weighed 115g, while the new iPhone weighs in at a lighter 112g! That is an overall decrease in weight over the span of 3 years, while adding dramatic inner and outer changes that does indeed make my older product seem like a dinosaur (not that it isn’t). Additionally, although I thought that the lack of density would initially detract from the experience, after normal use it honestly grew natural. Overall, the feeling can frankly be compared to holding a hollow metal box, save for any lasting impression of cheapness.

With a similar footprint to all past iPhones, the design is also extremely welcoming to hands of all sizes. Testing the device with users of both small and large screen phones, overall the iPhone 5 drew noticeable glances and lent ‘gotchas’ to people who were expecting something akin to my predictions. However, although the weight and volume were praised, the thinner design was all but mentioned; nevertheless, it is also a welcome change.

Ultimately, for those who enjoy using devices with screens 4-inches or smaller, the iPhone 5 does not disappoint. The device feels beautiful yet sturdy, and the changes are very appreciable. However, for those that are either relentlessly careful or have a habit of dropping their phones, a case is still recommended. The iPhone 5 feels like it can take a tumble, but the glass still seems fragile; also, some users are reporting scuffs and scratches out of the box. In the end though, I would rather be safe than sorry, and I think that many others will agree.

Screen: A True ‘Retina’ Display
Score: 9.5 out of 10

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via images.apple.com

"There is no perfect screen size for everyone," I said when first comparing my iPod Touch to my Samsung Infuse; while one had a 3.5 inch LCD display, the other flaunted a 4.5 inch Super AMOLED Plus panel. Although I felt that both of them were great for their respective reasons, there were also tradeoffs to each: A smaller screen did make a more compelling case for fitting in pockets, whereas multi-media viewing benefitted tremendously from a roomier surface area. Overall though, I also felt that the Nexus S, another device which I had used for extended periods before, was the sweet spot for me personally, with a 4-inch display sitting perfectly in between the Apple and the Droid. Although the iPhone 5’s identically sized screen is what I find to be the most accommodating, I understand that everyone has their preferences, and that is why I have chosen not to give the display a perfect score. Still, the technical aspects of the panel are fantastic, and corroborated by other analyses that have found this to be one of the best LCDs on the market, regardless of product or price.

The Retina display found on the iPhone 5 is an LED backlit, liquid-crystal display (LCD) similar to the one employed one the previous two generations. It has the same In-Plane Switching (IPS) tech, and viewing angles are great, save for an unavoidable decrease in brightness when viewed from the sides. The increase to 4-inches means that the resolution also sees an increase of 176 vertical pixels, to reach a grand total of 1136 x 640 pixels, with a new 16x9 ratio replacing the old 3:2 as well. As such, the pixel density remains the same at 326 PPI, which also means that the individual pixels are as squint-worthy as before. For those who claim that higher pixel densities are still needed to achieve ‘true’ panel perfection, I believe that without sacrificing significant processing resources and battery life, there are other aspects that are higher on [at least my] personal priority list. Regardless, without actually trying to spot the separation, the display is almost perfect for general use, and under even more stringent observation it does admirably. Specifically...

When comparing the displays of the iPhone 4S and the new iPad, there were dissimilarities that I thought only I was noticing. That was partially true, at least until I researched more technical aspects of the screens, with DisplayMate and Anandtech’s analyses great reads for those interested. As it stands, the iPhone 4/4S screens had terrific resolutions and great brightness, but there was a major issue for those who had either been accustomed to OLED panels, or were more technically-inclined. The contrast ratios and color reproduction of the previous displays were sub-par, and their performance under sunlight and reflections could have been much improved. That is where the 3rd Generation iPad came in, proving that Apple had raised the bar for their mobile products in a surprising way; with almost full-SRGB coverage and terrific color reproduction, the display was actually on par with professional-monitors and higher-end HD-TVs. Skin Tones were more accurate, and more shades of blue for example, were available to see than the iPhone 4S. Furthermore, unlike the AMOLED found on my Galaxy Infuse, the iPad did not oversaturate colors to an extreme; there was a noticeable lack of ‘alien-green’ present.

With all of the qualities mentioned, it seems hard to provide an even better display, especially when considering that Apple’s newest product is a pocket-phone. However, to my surprise, the iPhone 5 actually does kick it up a notch, in a few meaningful & key ways: first of all, the phone does include the aspects that were brought with the iPad, including the terrific color accuracy and same level of near-perfect saturation. Additionally, it incorporates ‘In-Cell’-esque touch technology, reducing the layers of the glass and overall thickness as well. Although the sub-millimeter differences might not mean much at first, the change actually aids with reflectance and sharpness. A microscopic view of the sub-pixel arrangement shows the differences clearly, and in real-world usage, the iPhone also reflects less than even the iPad display! Also, the contrast has been boosted to over 1200, resulting in deeper blacks and greater vividness (my actual usage reaffirmed this when comparing it against the iPad). Finally, even though previous "i-Devices" have had terrific touch response, the iPhone 5 does indeed feel different. The in-cell tech generated a finely-tuned, and accurate response, and when playing games, there was a certain sense of snappiness that could possibly be attributed to the touch layer. Finally, as always the brightness can get painstakingly high, and at above 500 nits, it should (and has) sufficed in direct sunlight better than most other displays.

To verify some of my observations, I opened Safari on both the iPhone 4S and the 5. Using the "Lagom LCD Test", which can help to verify quantitative aspects of a display, I pitted the 5 against the 4S in a grayscale/black level test. As per the instructions, the test showed blocks of color, ranging from white to black, on a completely black background. As each square decreased in color and brightness, it was obvious that the 4S could not display all of the individual blocks, which represented a shift on the grayscale. However, with the 5, even the last row of darkest squares were distinct from each other, resulting in a continuous pattern of accurate reproduction. The test claimed that on an ‘ideal’ monitor, all of the blocks would be distinguishable, and indeed on the iPhone 5, this was true. The results reflect the ability of the iPhone 5 to display accurate and uniform colors, as well as verifying that the panel is capable of extraordinary black levels for an LCD. Furthermore, with usage of apps letter-boxed in the real world, the black bars on either side were also very-well camouflaged with the black bezel (a real treat for those used to OLED panels). Speaking of which, the new widescreen aspect ratio feels better tuned for the iPhone 5, whereas on a tablet, it doesn’t seem to make as much sense. Watching video was comfortable, and it felt truly leaps and bounds beyond my old iPod Touch. It also compared favorably to the 4.5 inch on my Infuse, and although it wasn’t as large of a viewing area, I felt that overall I wanted a smaller device that could fit in my pockets easier.

Overall, the display on the new iPhone 5 is truly marvelous, with both its technical aspects and real-world usage asserting is dominance in the mobile space. The caliber of the panel is simple remarkable, and in every aspect of measurable quality, it succeeds where others might not. However, ideal screen size is still a subjective matter, and as with all types of hands, every individual pair of eyes seems to be comfortable with different real-estate. Either way, the iPhone 5 still has a screen that is not only drool-worthy, but ‘retina’ worthy as well, and I could not be more pleased with it.