iPhone 5s review

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Apple recently released the iPhone 5s with all the fanfare, long launch lines and inventory shortages that characterize an iPhone launch. In early reviews, the iPhone 5s was deemed to be the best iPhone to date and, surprisingly, the best smartphone on the market. I’ve been using the handset for a few weeks now and are ready to chime in with my own opinion on Apple’s latest iPhone model. Read on as I take a deep dive into the design and some of the major features of the iPhone 5s.

Hardware and Design

If you are coming from the iPhone 5, you’ll notice right away how similar the iPhone 5s is to the iPhone 5. The two handsets almost look and feel the same. What sets them apart is the coloring, with a gold or silver option as well as space grey, which is lighter in shade than the black/slate of the iPhone 5. The next thing you’ll notice it the home button — say good-bye to the traditional home button and hello the new Touch ID sensor. Another subtle difference is the True Tone flash, which now is oval and sports a dual-LED flash.  If you are moving from the iPhone 4s or another older iPhone model, you’ll notice several significant differences with the iPhone 5s. The glass backing of the earlier iPhone models is now aluminum. The edges are chamfered, and the overall feel of the phone is sleeker and lighter.

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The iPhone 5s has a 4-inch retina display with 1136-by-640-pixel resolution at 326 ppi, making it slightly longer and a bit more narrow than the iPhone 4/4s. The front of the device of the device has a speaker and the FaceTime camera at the top. The FaceTime camera has been improved and now takes 1.2MP photos and supports 720P HD recording. At the bottom is the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The bottom of the device is home to the headset jack, the speakers and the lightning connector. On the left hand side are the volume buttons and the mute switch. The top houses the power button, while the right side contains the SIM card slot. The back of the iPhone 5s is home to the new iSight camera with dual-LED flash.

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Camera

One major feature of the iPhone 5s is the camera, which is among the best of its smartphone class. Instead of going with a high megapixel count, Apple opted to keep the eight megapixel sensor, but boost image quality with better hardware and improved software. The camera module itself now has 1.5µ pixels resolution. It has an f/2.2 aperture and a back-illuminated sensor that’ll improve low-light photographs. Speaking of low-light, the iPhone has exceptional low-light capabilities  thanks to a new True Tone flash. The flash is built with white and amber LEDs for greater color accuracy, especially when capturing skin tones. The camera also includes a five-element lens, hybrid IR filter and Sapphire crystal lens cover. All of which contribute to the impressive picture quality of the images captured by the iPhone 5s.

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On the software side of things, Apple has improved the Camera app by adding filters, burst-mode shooting and slow-mo video. The 10FPS burst mode is easily activated by tapping and holding the shutter button.  Slow-mo is a stand-alone option in the camera app and accessible when you swipe all the way to left of the Camera shooting options.

All this new hardware and software options look good on paper, but the real proof is in the real-life images below. You can check out some sample photos from the iPhone 5s in the gallery below. These are raw photos taken by me, a non-photographer, in a variety of outdoor conditions. I also included a slow-mo video of a turtle that I released from the side of a kayak and a video of my dog running in a field. The latter video showcases the quality microphone in the 5s as the last segment in the clip is shot from across the field. Despite the difference, you can still hear my children laughing at their rapidly approaching dog.  Those videos are embedded below. If you want to see how the iPhone 5s performs in the hands of a professional, check out this gallery from travel photographer Austin Mann.

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Touch ID

The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is what sets the iPhone 5s apart from other iPhone models and from its competition. Unlike other phones with a fingerprint sensor ( I’m looking at you, Motorola Ativ,) Touch ID in the iPhone 5s actually works. It takes a few minutes to set up the fingerprint sensor as the software needs to scan several different angles of your finger to get an accurate profile.

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Once the sensor is configured, all you need to do to unlock your phone is to tap the Touch ID button and hold for a few seconds until the sensor authenticates your fingerprint. It authenticates quickly and reliably almost every time. I did encounter some problems with the Touch ID when my fingers were greasy or the phone was grimy. I also noticed that the addition of a case forced me to re-configure the Touch ID because the case changed how my finger sat on the sensor.

Besides unlocking the phone, Touch ID can also authorize your iTunes purchases. This was hit or miss with iTunes often requiring you to enter your password before the fingerprint authorization would kick in. Overall, Touch ID is a wonderful addition to the iPhone, so much so that I have developed a dislike for the plain jane home button on my iPad mini. My only critique of Touch ID is that it is underused in iOS 7. It’s great for unlocking your iPhone, but I would love to see the technology used in other iOS and Apple-developed apps. The first one that comes to my mind is Pages — Wouldn’t it be great if you could secure your documents with the scan of your finger?

M7 motion co-processor

The M7 motion coprocessor is a new chipset for Apple and is exclusive to the iPhone 5s. It takes motion data from the iPhone 5s and turns it into steps that approximate your physical activity level. The data for the motion is compiled from the gyroscope, accelerometer and compass that are housed inside the phone.

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Though some claim the motion data is inaccurate, I haven’t had any issues with the motion information that is reported by the M7 . When I use a motion app like pedometer ++ and compare it to the steps tracked by my Fitbit Flex, the two are close in value. The key to using the iPhone 5s as a motion tracker is to make sure the phone is on your person when you are moving.

For example, the iPhone is accurate when I am hiking and have the iPhone in the pocket of my pants. A quick comparison to my FitBit data confirms the M7 is picking up almost every step. When I am at home doing chores around the house, though, the iPhone is usually on my desk and all my movement while doing laundry, vacuuming and more is not recorded.

Like the Touch ID, I believe the M7 is underutilized at this point. It’s more of a novelty feature that most people will lose interest in very quickly. We need to wait until a handful of killer apps come out before we can begin to realize the M7’s full potential.

Performance

The iPhone 5s has Apple’s new 64-bit A7 processor with a clock speed of 1.3GHz and 1GB of RAM. In my testing, the handset scored around 1400 on Geekbench’s single-core test and 2500 on the multi-core test. This beats out the iPhone 5 and the 4s which scored 1028 and 634 in the multi-core test, respectively.

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 From a user’s perspective, performance with the new A7 chip was slightly better than the iPhone 5. Apps open faster, and they switch faster, even with all those zoom animations.  I also noticed that Siri was faster to respond, Maps rerouted faster and dictation was improved. You might not notice the speed when you pick up the iPhone 5s randomly in a store, but you will notice it if you have just used your iPhone 5 and then grab the iPhone 5s to give it a spin.  Needless to say, the 5s is noticeably better than the iPhone 4s and the iPhone 4.

iOS 7

The iPhone 5s launched alongside iOS 7 and includes some features that are specific to the 5s and other more recent iPhone models, like AirDrop and the parallax effect used on the Home screen. The most notable new features in iOS 7 include Control Center, iTunes Radio, Air Drop, a revised Camera app, and an improved Siri. The experience of iOS 7 on the iPhone 5s is top notch, and there is little doubt the phone and the handset were designed to work together. We’ve already covered iOS 7 already extensively, so I won’t rehash what’s been already said. You can read our summary of the major features of iOS 7 here.

That being said, the experience was not not flawless. I did encounter the occasional glitch that caused the phone to reboot. Because the phone is so fast, these reboots only took about 15-20 seconds. It happened so fast sometimes that my iPhone had already rebooted before I even figured out what happened.

Conclusion

I have to agree with other reviewers, the iPhone 5s is the best iPhone that Apple has made to date. Though the form factor is about the same as the iPhone 5, the 5s is faster and has more features than it predecessor. It’s the tried and true design of the iPhone 5 with noticeable improvements in key hardware like the camera and home button/Touch ID.  It’s only competitor is Nokia’s Lumia 1020, but that Windows phone-powered handset does not have the app catalog that exists for the iPhone 5s. The Motorola Moto X is also a close competitor, but choosing between the iPhone 5s and the Moto X comes down to apples and oranges.  Do you prefer the flexibility of the open source Android or the reliability of the carefully groomed iOS?

Now that you know the iPhone 5s is spectacular, you may be asking yourself whether you should upgrade? I will try to answer that pressing question in the next section below.

Should I upgrade?

If you are a mobile photographer or just a general fan of taking photos with your smartphone camera, then the improvements in the iPhone 5s camera are significant enough that I would recommend upgrading to the 5s. If you upgrade, you’ll also get  a faster phone, new color choices and Touch ID, another compelling piece of hardware that’ll only get better over time as Apple further extends its support of the sensor in iOS 7.

That being said  — if you are an iPhone 5 owner who is not into photography, then you’ll want to think long and hard about your decision to upgrade to the iPhone 5s. Do you really need a better camera or is the iPhone 5 good enough? Is the convenience of the Touch ID something you really need or are you just curious about it? If you are happy with the iPhone 5 and don’t have an available upgrade, then I would hold onto your iPhone 5 handset and explore the new options made available by iOS 7.

If you’re an iPhone 4s or an iPhone 4 owner, then upgrading to the iPhone 5s is a no-brainer. The 5s is leaps ahead of the 4/4s, and most people will appreciate the faster processor and all the new whiz-bang features. Since you have an older phone, you likely have an upgrade available, so why not use it to get the best smartphone on the market.