I must confess that the last time I used an iPhone was three or four years ago. While I’ve followed the hardware changes from generation to generation, I’ve never really been able to write about the iPhone or iOS in detail. While objective data is great to work with, a great deal of evaluation relies on subjective experience. To fix this gap in knowledge, I received an iPhone 5s. After a month, I’ve really come to have a much more nuanced view of how Android and iOS compare, along with how Apple’s iPhone compares to the rest of the smartphone market.

At this point, the iPhone 5s is a phone that doesn’t need much in the way of introduction. After all, it’s been almost a year since it was first announced, and Apple is ready to announce a new iPhone within the coming months if their yearly release cycle holds. For those that need a bit of a refresh on the iPhone 5s, I’ve included a spec table below.

  Apple iPhone 5s
SoC Apple A7
Display 4-inch 1136 x 640 LCD sRGB coverage with in-cell touch
WiFi 2.4/5GHz 802.11a/b/g/n, BT 4.0
Storage 16GB/32GB/64GB
I/O Lightning connector, 3.5mm headphone
Current OS iOS 7.1.2
Battery 1570 mAh, 3.8V, 5.96 Whr
Size / Mass 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm, 112 grams
Camera 8MP iSight with 1.5µm pixels Rear Facing + True Tone Flash
1.2MP with 1.9µm pixels Front Facing
Price $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB), $399 (64GB) on 2 year contract


The hardware is ultimately the foundation that software rests upon, so it’s a good place to start. While it’s easy to appreciate industrial and material design by just holding or looking at the phone, everything else requires some real hands-on time. One of the first things I noticed was that the feel of the buttons. Normally, I expect buttons to have a bit of slack before they actuate. In all of the buttons on the iPhone 5s, this doesn’t happen at all. Instead, the button only depresses when triggered. In the case of the volume and power buttons, the activation gives a clean click. On most smartphones I’ve used, the feel and sound of this activation tends to be a bit more mushy and subdued. The home button is the one exception here, which has a noticeably longer travel and less distinctive actuation/mushier feel but I suspect that TouchID is the reason for this difference.

The other difference that I noticed was the size. For a long time now I’ve had the opinion that this generation of Android smartphones have simply gotten too big to be comfortably used with one hand. I still think that the limit for flagship smartphones (not phablets) is around a five inch display, and no larger than the smartphones that we saw in 2013. This includes devices like the Nexus 5, HTC One (M7), and Samsung Galaxy S4, which are all comfortable in the hand and relatively easy to manipulate. As a result, using the iPhone 5s is a significant departure. Reaching the top left corner of the display is relatively simple compared to some of the smartphones on the market today. While physical size is a matter of preference, I suspect that total device width shouldn't exceed 70-71mm, and height is probably shouldn't exceed 140-141mm, although there's a great deal of leeway as the shape of the phone can make a phone seem larger or smaller than it really is. In the case of the iPhone 5s, although the physical size is easy to handle I definitely notice the effect of the smaller display when trying to browse desktop websites, view photos, and watch videos. Anyone coming from Android at this point in time will probably miss the large displays that Android OEMs tend to integrate.

Of course, display is one of the biggest aspects of the smartphone experience, and is more than just a matter of size. In many measures, the iPhone 5s display is great. There’s no overly wide gamut, noticeable saturation compression, odd green tints in grayscale, or excessively high contrast/gamma. However, the resolution itself is noticeably lower than the 1080p and 1440p displays I’ve gotten used to. This doesn’t seem to affect usability much, but some elements of the UI like the rotation lock symbol are noticeably aliased. I find that around 400 to 500 DPI is generally acceptable to avoid obvious aliasing, but there’s value to going to 500-600 DPI for those that want to use a display for VR or are strongly sensitive to even minor aliasing at 4-6 inches viewing distance. Anyone coming from a phone like the Galaxy S4, G2, or One (M7) will probably notice the fuzzier display but it's probably not bad enough to grate on the eyes.

The camera is another major surprise for me. While I’m no optical engineer, it’s clear to me that the camera output is relatively free of smudging from aggressive luminance noise reduction, and the low light performance is much better as a result. I also don’t seem any odd color casts in low light, or noticeable color/chroma noise. Issues like sharpening kernels, halos from unsharp masks, and other artifacts from poor post-processing just aren’t present. In general, Apple has managed to ship a well-tuned camera that seems to be a step above. While I'd like to see a move to larger sensor sizes, it's likely that the thickness of the phone is a gating factor.

Finally, TouchID, the fingerprint sensor on the home button of the iPhone 5s, was a revelation. For reference, I’ve tried the fingerprint sensor on the One max, Galaxy S5 LTE-A, and Galaxy S5 T-Mobile USA. In practice, I would rank them in that order as well, with the One max’s almost 100% reliability to the Galaxy S5’s hit or miss reliability. In general, I’ve found that swipe-based fingerprint sensors can have a good experience on a smartphone, but in cases like both Galaxy S5 variants the ergonomics of swiping on a home button are less than ideal.

While I understood that TouchID was a better solution because of its press and hold nature, the truly compelling aspect of Apple’s implementation has more to do with software than anything. With the systems I’ve used before, enrollment was absolutely critical. Poor data during enrollment would basically make it impossible to actually use the fingerprint sensor. This isn’t true at all with TouchID. While I mapped the center of my fingers relatively well in initial enrollment, I left the extreme edges unmapped. This was easily resolved by slowly edging towards the very edges of my finger to get it to unlock based upon a partial match. In short, it has only gotten better and faster with time. There’s no deliberate effort needed to unlock the device normally at this point, especially because it’s as simple as pressing down the home button and unlock is almost instant for full matches.

In short, the attention to detail on the hardware side is one of the best I’ve seen in this industry. While I would like a larger display and higher pixel density, even now I find very little fundamentally wrong with the iPhone 5s. Of course, it’s not possible to ignore the software side of things. After all, installing Android on an iPhone 5s isn’t realistically possible. While iOS 7 has already been reviewed, for the most part such experiences have been evaluated from the perspective of people that have used iOS extensively through the years.

Software and Final Words
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  • Ofaring - Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - link

    I've gotta strongly disagree with the writer's software conclusions and agree with what others have said here. But before I continue, two points: 1. I used to solely love Android from the Froyo days on and mock the iPhone. 2. I still use all the OSes because I work with them in my job. That said...the writer spoke about a true PC experience. If he was referring to hacking your computer and puttering around with files and settings to see what you can do, then yes, that's a computer experience. (And I do it on Android.) If, however, he wanted to accomplish actual work other than fiddling, Google apps, and social media, good luck! I use smartphones to accomplish more work on the go than anyone else I know, and the reason I stopped mocking iPhone is because they offer the only real computer experience on the market today. I've even produced gorgeous documents and spreadsheets with Numbers and Pages, software which doesn't have a rival on the Play Store. (And I use Dropbox all the time.) Never mind the host of quality, beautiful, well-made apps available over the clunky, occasionally-useful apps which tend to plague the Play Store.

    As for GPS controls, it's as simple as turning wifi on/off to "fine tune" it, and there are apps available to show satellites, but that's minor. Real fine tuning is being able to tell a specific app, "No, you may NOT use my location." To get that kind of fine tuning on Android you have to install a custom ROM – and there you will find countless hours of fiddling, er, using a PC. (According to the writer.) That's speaking from personal experience.

    It's all perspective, right?
  • invinciblegod - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    I don't understand how you got that impression. He praised touchid and the other differences are quite minor besides from the app sharing. He mentioned many downsides of the android method in addition to the downsides of the ios version. And I question your need to see other people "condemn" the os.
  • Mugur - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    I have a friend which is essentially a power user but with a 100% non-technical background. I have always helped him with his various PCs, tablets, phones technical issues. Last autumn his HTC One M7 was stolen and he received an iPhone 5s from work. Although he now appreciates the ease of use and the polish (hardware and software) of it, some frustration still remains. Exasperation was his exact word for the first 3 months... :-)

    He seems overall happy now with the iPhone, but I have asked him and he still says that if given the opportunity (i.e. for free) he would exchange it for an M8 One any time.
  • CaptSkunk - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    He doesn't need to condemn the iPhone. The 5S is a very good phone. I have had it since the end of May and have very little, if anything to complain about. Before that, I had the 4S and it too, was a great phone, just not as good as the 5S.
    I find iOS cleaner than Android. True, my last venture was on Gingerbread, with a phone that never received an update to Android. I found Android stable but just too much in the long run. Why do I need file system access on a phone? Do I really need to type word documents and excel spreadsheets on my phone? I have my computers for that.
    Android is confusing for most people, until you really dive in and learn every nook and cranny. This is coming from someone who very much so, knows their way around a computer, knows how to use bash and can build computers and the like.
    People that bash iPhones are mostly just fanboys or want way too much from a phone. When you want too much, you get what that GPS picture shows. That looks horrendous on Android.
  • Samus - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    I replaced my Galaxy S III with a 4S after about a year with the Galsxy (my third Android phone since 2009) and I just got tired of Android's quirks. The simplicity of IOS and the fact it just works as a phone is what makes it great, even for tech-oriented people.

    My favorite phone of all time is the Palm\HP Veer, though.
  • milesmutt - Thursday, September 18, 2014 - link

    Are you kidding me? You've either never used the iPhone for a discernible amount of time, or you're just talking out of your ass. User-friendliness is the hallmark of iOS, and suits the vast majoritiy of smartphone users out there. Sure, there are numerous customizations available for Android, but who really needs all that shit? On a smartphone? If I want to tinker, I'll tweak my custom-built Windows gaming PC (don't use Macs and never will). I just want my smartphone to be quick and easy to use, whether it be for email, texting, watching ripped movies, listening to music, or even (gasp) making phone calls!

    The Samsung S4 that I owned for a few months (yes, I actually did try out Android for a while) was absolutely horrid for movie playback because of stutter, and not quite as easy to use for playing music. Also, games were not as fluid on the S4 as they were on even the older iPhone 4S! Okay, there are a lot more pixels to push on the S4, but the experience suffered greatly because of this. Perhaps these issues disappeared with the S5 and Note 3 because horsepower was bumped up, but I will never know.

    Bottom line is that iOS is and probably always will be, the gold standard when it comes to multimedia in a smartphone.
  • jonodw - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    I would be interested to see you do this one month test with a Lumia 930.
  • MonkeyPaw - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    I'm still at a loss for why they never fully reviewed the 1020. I guess a 41MP sensor in a phone wasn't noteworthy enough.

    I have an iPhone for work. What amazes me most is just how poor the battery life is, and I only use it for calls and texts. Apple tunes their signal bars to make you think you have better signal than you really do (less than 4 bars = no data). The screen is tiny, but the camera is pretty good. I would never own an iPhone by choice. I thought it was cool at first launch, but it has since been eclipsed by many other devices.
  • chizow - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    Haha wow I was just about to post the complete opposite! What model iPhone do you have? I have a 5S for work and the one remarkable thing I've found about it is the amazing battery life for light usage scenarios. Checking texts and emails, snapping pictures, 2-3 calls a day. I even run Pandora on my iPhone over my GS4 because it handles battery life while running apps when the screen is off better. I can often go 2-3 days before I have to charge my iPhone GS4 needs to be charged daily without fail, and on heavy usage days, I need to whip out the microUSB adapter and pull some juice from my laptop.
  • MonkeyPaw - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    4S. Even just idling this weekend with no email accounts to sync, it's almost dead. Granted, my cheap employer probably bought a refurbished model.

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