Editor's Note, Sept. 2013: Read our review of the iPhone 5s that replaces this model. Also check out our review of the more affordable iPhone 5c that has similar specs to the iPhone 5.
Another year, another iPhone. 2012 brings the iPhone 5, with the usual long lines at Apple stores and lots of hype. But this is actually a very solid upgrade: the iPhone 5 has a 4" Retina display and true 4G LTE. While the 3.5" display on prior iPhones seemed downright old fashioned in terms of screen real estate, the 4", 1136 x 640 display feels like there's room to spread out and read web pages without chronic zooming. The on-screen keyboard likewise is wider in landscape mode and easier to use. There's an extra row of apps on the home screen. Trust me, you'll notice the difference. And at 326ppi and 500 nits of brightness plus high contrast, it's one of the best displays on the smartphone market. Apple claims it has a 44% wider color gamut that covers the full sRGB spectrum (that's pretty impressive). The only caveat? Apps that haven't been updated to support the new resolution will have black bars at the top and bottom (we expect most popular apps will get updated quickly).
Specs mavens will note that high end Android phones have even higher resolution 1280 x 720 displays, but those displays are generally 4.5" to 4.8", and thus the pixel density is lower, making for a slightly less sharp (depending on your visual acuity) display that does indeed show even more of web pages, spreadsheets and the like. I've been using mainly big screen Android smartphones for the past year, and I find the iPhone 5's display a big step in the right direction and finally a usable size (for me 3.5" just didn't cut it). But it still is hard to give up the huge display on other smartphones once you've become accustomed to them.
As ever, that leads to the Apple vs. Android discussion. Both are very good platforms, and nothing has changed (much) in the argument for each. The iPhone and iOS are extremely easy to use with almost no learning curve. It's a very stable and fast platform, and the app and media selection is enormous. Android caters to those who love really big screens, fast CPUs, a customizable UI and a less draconically vetted app ecosystem. It's not so much a matter of which one is better, but rather which one fits your needs.
4G LTE: Really Fast Data
If you're upgrading from an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 with the slower HSPDA or EV-DO flavors of 3G, HSPA+ and 4G LTE will make you feel like you're on a fast WiFi network. Our AT&T iPhone 5 units average 24Mbps down and 21Mpbs up according to the Speedtest.net app. Nice! That's on LTE of course, but you should see noticeably faster speeds compared to older iPhone models that had 7.2Mbps HSDPA or EV-DO. For those of you on Sprint and Verizon, which use EV-DO 3G technology, you won't notice the speed difference unless you have 4G LTE coverage in your area. Verizon has large areas of the metropolitan US blanketed in LTE so chances are good that you're covered unless you live in a less urbanized area, while Sprint has only begun the rollout. Note that you can make a call while using the data connection on the GSM (AT&T) version, but you can't do that on the Verizon iPhone 5, which is a sore point versus some Android Verizon phones that can handle simultaneous voice and 4G LTE data.
Given the various network technologies and bands used in the US and around the world, Apple has started manufacturing different iPhone 5 variants for different networks. Previously they tried to roll it all into one SKU, but that's no longer possible with the addition of LTE. That means you shouldn't buy a Sprint iPhone 5 if you wish to use it on AT&T and vice versa. There's still no iPhone for T-Mobile, but those of you who wish to bring one over can do so: just be sure to buy the GSM model (AT&T or unlocked GSM). The iPhone 5 uses a nano SIM; the smallest SIM card yet (Apple came up with the new standard, which was then accepted by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute).
iPhone 5 Variants
iPhone 5 model A1428 (GSM, US): 850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 4 and 17: 700 and 2100/1700MHz) AT&T offers this model.
iPhone 5 model A1429 (CDMA): CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900, 2100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, 25: 700, 850, 1800, 1900 and 2100MHz). Sprint and Verizon sell this model. It's world capable and can roam on GSM and HSPA+ networks. Word is the Verizon version has unlocked GSM.
Apple excels when it comes to build quality, and the iPhone 5 is no exception. Every seam is perfect and the phone looks like a very expensive and elegant piece of hardware. The glass and metal look stunning and feel great in the hand, even if the design is merely an evolution of the iPhone 4 and 4S lines. The phone is no wider than the iPhone 4S, and it's just a little bit taller. It is thinner and 20% lighter than the iPhone 4S (the iPhone 5 weighs just 3.95 ounces). The weight reduction is welcome and noticeable.
The iPhone 5 is available in white with an aluminum back or black with a slate back (very dark gray coated aluminum). Both are good looking, with the white model carrying on the spirit of the iPhone 4 line while the black model has blacked out Darth Vader sides. Early user reports suggest that the black model is more prone to back scratches (ours hasn't scratched yet, but it's only a few days old). The slate back does show some fingerprint oil, though not a lot, while the white with aluminum back stays tidier.
The iPhone 5 uses the new Lighting connector, a much smaller 8 pin, double-sided connector that replaces the ancient 30 pin connector. Some folks pitched a fit over this, but connectors need to evolve over time and we're happy to see something that's much smaller and easier to plug in (since it's double-sided, there's no "this side up"). It does mean that accessories that depend on digital iPod out won't work: Apple sells a pricey $29 8 pin to 30 pin adapter but it provides power and analog audio only.
Apple includes their new earbuds, dubbed EarPods. These sell for $29 if you wish to purchase them separately, and they are indeed more ergonomic than the old earbuds while sounding noticeably better too. They come in a little case so you can keep them tidy when not in use.
Call quality is very good on our AT&T iPhone 5 units. Voice on both ends is full and quite clear. Volume is slightly above average, being just a bit louder than our HTC One X. Reception is likewise good. Data speeds are excellent (we are in a good LTE coverage area). We tried to "death grip" the phone (covering large portions of the sides) and didn't note any drop in reception since the antenna areas are now on the back top and bottom ends. Clearly, Apple has learned their lesson from the iPhone 4 and its "Antenna-gate" issue.
Performance and Horsepower
As you'd expect, this is Apple's fastest iPhone yet. Manufacturers may play marketing games with various specs, but Moore's Law holds fast for CPUs and they really do get significantly faster every year, as do graphics processors. Apple developed the new A6 chip in house, and they've done a tremendous job. Not many phone manufacturers also develop mobile CPUs and GPUs (Samsung is one of the few with their excellent Exynos CPU). It's particularly interesting to see a small company (in terms of R&D employee numbers, not market valuation) develop phone CPUs in-house.
The iPhone 5 has a triple core PowerVR SGX 543MP3 graphics chip and a dual core 1.3GHz ARM compatible A6 SOC (system on a chip) designed by Apple. A 1.3GHz dual core might not sound impressive compared to the quad core and 1.5GHz dual core CPUs used in Android phones and upcoming Windows Phone 8 models, but boy does this thing kick butt. In cross platform benchmarks, the iPhone 5 edges out the fastest Android phones on the US market, including the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X (the One X actually comes close to the iPhone 5 in Geekbench 2). As a refresher, the iPhone 4S and fifth gen iPod Touch have a slower dual core CPU with dual core GPU, while the New iPad has a 543MP4 GPU quad core GPU and A5x processor. The New iPad needs extra graphics punch to drive its extremely high resolution display.
Higher numbers are better unless otherwise noted.
iPhone 5: 1643
GS III: 1482
HTC One X (US Qualcomm S4): 1594
iPhone 4S: 623
Sunspider (lower numbers are better):
iPhone 5: 935
GS III: 2027
HTC One X (US Qualcomm S4): 1617
iPhone 4S: 2241
iPhone 4: 4015
iPhone 5: 191,105
iPhone 4S:88,416 (iOS 5)
iPhone 4: 35,901 (iOS 5)
Samsung Galaxy S III: (stock browser): 96,557, (Chrome): 59,072
LG Optimus G (AT&T, stock browser): 94,921
The iPhone 5 ships with iOS 6, Apple's latest operating system for their phones and tablets. It features the following improvements and additions:
- Apple's new maps (Google Maps is gone from the stock firmware)
- Improved Siri that can now handle queries about location-based things and more
- Passbook: think Keyring loyalty reward card keeper plus tickets for movies and airlines with boarding passes
- Do Not Disturb: turn off all those annoying reminders to play Words with Friends when you want to sleep. Don't worry, your wakeup alarm will still sound. You can schedule DND, so you don't have to remember to enable and disable it every morning and evening.
- Facebook integration with the address book, calendar and the Safari web browser
- Shared photo streams
- Panorama mode for photos
And yes, Apple's maps can be quirky, though it hasn't guided us to Uganda yet for Mexican food. Mostly we've noticed POIs oddities when zooming: with no rhyme or reason POIs disappear when zooming and returning to an old zoom level, but that doesn't bring back suddenly missing POIs. And some landmarks like the Eiffel Tower look foreshortened or squashed. But keep in mind that Google Maps had us going in endless circles around our big box store destinations and told us to drive into a creek when it first came out 5 years ago. Nokia Maps in the US were even more likely to send us two countries away for dinner. I suspect that Apple will hone Maps soon enough, and since all data comes from their servers, they can iterate it quickly and easily. But until then, rely on your carrier-bundled navigation solution (often powered by Telenav) or third party offerings for mission critical destinations.
Here's our iOS walkthrough, for those who are particularly interested in OS improvements. Some of the same material is covered in our iPhone 5 video review above.
The iPhone 5's 8 megapixel "iSight" rear camera has a sapphire crystal lens like high end watches because it's much more scratch resistant than glass or plastic. That means the lens cover is less likely to get scratched and reduce image quality. Though the resolution is unchanged from the iPhone 4S, the camera takes photos faster, and you can take photos while also recording video, just like recent high end HTC and Samsung Android smartphones. Video is recorded at 1080p, 30 fps with the usual simple, if not simplistic set of controls. The backside illuminated sensor and 5 element f/2.4 lens are still state of the art for camera phones, and the iPhone 5 takes some of the nicest photos and videos we've seen from a smartphone. The rear camera module is made by Sony (the same is true of the iPhone 4S), and Sony really knows how to do mobile cameras right (just look at the Sony Xperia Ion's excellent camera).
The 1.2MP, 720p front FaceTime HD camera is significantly improved in terms of resolution and quality. It replaces the VGA front camera used on prior iPhones and it delivers very sharp and bright video for FaceTime and Skype chats thanks to the BSI sensor and face detection (both rare on front cameras).
As per usual, the phone's Lithium Ion battery is sealed inside. You can charge the phone over USB or the included 5 volt, 1 amp charger (the same charger bundled with prior iPhone models). Apple claims up to 8 hours of talk time on 3G (currently no US LTE network supports voice over 4G LTE). They claim 10 hours of video playback, 8 hours of web browsing on LTE or 3G and 40 hours of music playback. Apple's battery life estimates for their products tend to be fairly accurate, and in our tests, the iPhone 5 is no exception. Our AT&T unit on LTE had no trouble making it through the day with both push data for iCloud and every 15 minute fetch settings for Gmail and Google calendar.
The iPhone 5 is as ever a thoroughly enjoyable and capable smartphone. It's easy and fun to use and it's secure and stable. The latest generation model clearly gives users what they wanted (look how many have sold): LTE 4G and a larger display. While Apple was at it, they've doubled hardware speed, kept the phone small and pocketable and added compelling new features to Siri, the ever popular and frankly useful voice assistant. The already good iPhone 4S camera is improved here with simultaneous photo and video shooting and panorama mode. The app selection is absolutely staggering. Apple's support is top notch. The Maps experience? Not so much... yet.
While the iPhone vs. Android argument makes a presidential election look like a safe topic, I'll say that as a mostly Android smartphone user, the iPhone 5 doesn't feel lame or backwards in the least. Yes, the UI has evolved little and we don't have some of Samsung's fancy features like Smart Stay, but the iPhone 5 is still a pleasure to use thanks to the excellent software and ecosystem. It's easily one of the most enjoyable smartphones on the market.
Price: $199 for 16 gig, $299 for 32 gig, $399 for 64 gig with 2 year contract. $649-$849 without contract.
Display:Retina Display: 4" capacitive IPS multi-touch display running at 1136 x 640 resolution, 326ppi, 800:1 contrast ratio, 500 cd/m2 max brightness. Supports both portrait and landscape modes via accelerometer. Has ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, compass and gyroscope. Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable. Claimed talk time on 3G: up to 8 hours. Claimed standby: up to 225 hours.
Performance:Apple dual core A6 1.3GHz CPU (ARM compatible, custom Apple design). 3 core PowerVR SGX 543MP3 GPU.
x 2.31 x 0.3 inches. Weight: 3.95 ounces.
Phone:Available in GSM and CDMA versions, all with LTE 4G.
Camera:Rear (main) camera: 8.0 MP with BSI sensor, 5 element lens and LED flash. Can shoot video at 1080p, 30fps. Has front-facing 1.2MP 720p camera with BSI sensor and face detection that can be used with Facetime video calls and Skype among others.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
GPS: GPS with GLONASS and digital compass.
WiFi 802.11b/g/n (dual band 2.4GHz and 5GHz) and Bluetooth 4.0.
Software:iOS 6 operating system and core applications. Siri, iCloud, Google Maps, Safari web browser, email, threaded text/MMS messaging, Stocks, Apple Maps, iTunes, App Store, Phone, Clock, Calculator, Photos, Camera, Voice Memos, Reminders, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Compass and Settings.
Storage:Available in 16, 32 and 64 gig capacities.
In the Box: iPhone, charger, Lightning USB cable and EarPod headphones with inline mic.