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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  • solipsism - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    Not having email accounts to sync is pointless. What matters is the power it needs to have a cell signal. If you have "no data" then your device is working much harder to try to get you a connection than other devices in a decent area.
  • rkcth - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    This was my thought too. If I have poor signal my battery life is quite bad, if I have strong signal its much better. I think it has to use higher power to send the data back and forth when there is poor signal. Also I have noticed that I can surf on my phone via wifi for many hours and have plenty of battery, but talking on the phone at work (where I often have 1-2 bars) drains my battery very fast. A 1 hour phone call could take 30% of my battery life. I have AT&T and work in the basement of a cinderblock building, so its basically a worst case scenario. Still I can count on one hand how many times I didn't make it the whole day on one charge and about half of those are because I forgot to plug my phone in over night.
  • MonkeyPaw - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    My 1020 sits beside my 4S, both with similar signal quality (3 bars). The 4S has dropped 10% in the last 4 hours. My Lumia hasn't lost a % since I unplugged it 5 hours ago.
  • solipsism - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    That's a start in the right direction but it's not nearly enough information to make an informed decision. What the are the age differences of the devices, or rather what the current health of the battery. The 4S came out in 2011 (even though yours could be years newer). Isn't the Lumia 1020 less than a year old? Have you ruled out a faulty battery (note: Apple just issued a replacement program for certain iPhone 5 batteries)? Did you use the 4S at all during that time? Did any calls come in for the 4S, even if it went to voicemail? Was the 4S placed somewhere that would impede it's signal compared to the 1020? Are there different types of services that could be using power that aren't present on the 1020? Was the 1020 connected to WiFi whilst the 4s wasn't? Doesn't the 4S have a 1432 mAh battery while the 1020 has a 2000 mAh battery? There are just so many variables to consider which is why we see simple breakdowns of battery life on sites like AnandTech during their thorough reviews.
  • MonkeyPaw - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    Both are connected to WiFi, both doing nothing. If I had to guess, I'd say they are evenly aged. I got the 4S about 9 months ago, and the 1020 I think is from late 2013 (I bought it used from eBay). Both phones sit next to each other. Still, I've always felt the 4S has had poor battery life from the start.

    I'm not trying to make a grand conclusion, but I've had several iPhones through the years, and, while I admire the build quality, my experience is as described above. An iPhone with a 4.5-5" screen and better battery life would be a big win for me.

    My 1020 works hard most days (music, podcasts, Pandora, photos, calls, texts, browsing, email, and most days I'm at 65% when I get home, and 50% by days end.
  • solipsism - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    @ MonkeyPaw,

    Which one(s) did you buy used from eBay? If the iPhone then it's not 9 months old simply because you bought it 9 months ago. Regardless, I have no doubt your telling the truth, but it doesn't say why it's not performing as it's rated. This is why cycle count and battery health are important factors. It's definitely not normal to drop 10% in a few hours without you using it at all. That's indicative of an issue somewhere.

    Have you read AnandTech's review of the 4S? The battery life was excellent then, and only until the Samsung Galaxy S5 have we seen smartphones bests Apple on the important tests. (Unimportant tests would be the excessive talk-time durations which is simply because they've added such a large display which has a large battery, which doesn't need the display when using it for maintaining a phone call)
  • V-600 - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    I put myself through a similar testing scenario last month with an iPad, coming from an android background (and a macbook from a windows background). My thoughts were similar. The hardware is first class, and is limited by software. Subjectively, after a month of consistent use of work, playing around and research, I felt I couldn't do as much as easily on iOS as with android. For me personally, comparing kitkat with iOS 7 android is the better OS.
  • rkcth - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    I think you get used to whatever you use. I find android completely unusable. I'm a big tech geek, but have never really found android easy to use. I have no tolerance for a few weeks of learning curve to get used to my phone, I want it to "just work". For other things, sure I'll fiddle with it, but not a phone. Despite iOS being much easier to use, there is still a learning curve between OSes, and there are definitely limitations caused by Apple's way of doing things. If you get used to not having that limitation it would be much harder to switch, just like I've gotten used to how incredibly simple and easy to use iOS is.
  • franzeal - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    You might be confusing geek with idiot in your case if it takes you more than 5 minutes to acclimate to any of these phone environments.
  • - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    if you want something to "just work", then you are not a "geek". Geeks are people who want to know how things works so "they can fix problems themselves without having to go to Crapple store and pay per fix"

    with all the glitches in IOS , syncing to anything else, IOS sucks big time when ANYTHING go wrong.

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