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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  • joelypolly - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    Really depends on if Apps is your main thing or not. Android simply doesn't have enough well built tablet apps
  • joeljfischer - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    I just want to note, that several more of your software issues are "resolved" in iOS 8. Specifically, Apple exposes additional camera control to 3rd party apps who wish to use them (but don't use anything but exposure in their own app), battery stats per application are exposed, and the "all" and "missed" are just "notifications" now.
  • V-600 - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    IOS is something I'm looking forward to seeing. It borrows a lot of good ideas and extends a few more past android (from the look of things so far). There will undoubtedly be cries of copying but....meh...there always are, and it will give android something new to aim towards next time....when there will again be cries of copying.
  • AceMcLoud - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    "cries of copying"
    Many of the features Apple is allegedly "copying" have been in Mac OS for years if not decades ;-)
  • Ratman6161 - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    The "issues" go a lot deeper than adding a few camera features. It's the overall attitude towards users: "This is our phone, take it or leave it". With an android device, if you don't like the keyboard the OEM provided - use a different one. Launchers, cameras, you name it - use the one you like or even mix and match.

    Example: Last Thursday my Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 came in at work. Of course it came with TouchWiz...which lasted about two hours only because I wanted to give it a shot before trashing it. After than it was over to Apex Launcher. I liked Samsung's keyboard though so I kept that. I have my own Exchange Client for work email and a different third party app I like for personal mail.

    Basically through the easy customization I'm never stuck with what the OEM decided to provide. Moreover, I'm able to make my Droid Maxx Phone, Asus personal tablet and Samsung work tablet all look and feel much the same - and that's all without any need to root, unlock ect. I can easily switch between the three and they all work the same.

    All that said, and Android user really doesn't have to do any customization if they don't want to. My wife uses her Droid Mini pretty much as it came out of the box other than putting a couple of widgets on her screen. She really doesn't need to know and doesn't want to know any more than that and it works great for her.
  • Ratman6161 - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    One other thing. For the reasons mentioned above, when shopping for an Android device I can buy without worrying too much about what software does or doesn't come with it and regardless of weather or not I like the software choices the OEM made. With Apple, if you like it as is, you are golden. But If there is anything you don't like about it you are often stuck with it.
  • bernstein - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    > With Apple, if you like it as is, you are golden. But If there is anything you don't like about it you are stuck with it.
    So true. While today that is mostly limited to how the OS works (any app except clock/phone/texts/browser is replaceable) it pains me. Yet for all of androids customizability & diversity i could not find a launcher that works the way i want & has the polish i expect... be it apex, action, nova, miui, touchwiz, sony, google, aokp, cyanogen... they all have cool things yet none is well balanced.
  • Teknobug - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    Since I already have an iPad, I see no reason to getting an iPhone, at times they're slightly less convenient than an Android phone. I'll be sticking to my Moto X for a while, but i have pondered the thought of upgrading to an iPhone 5S someday but rumors is Apple is releasing yet another phone this September.
  • Drazick - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    On the contrary, Windows always supported newer hardware and technologies (High DPI in some ways was there in the XP days).

    Look at the support for SSD (Trim), OpenCL, etc...

    You are right that usually Windows' first implementation is rough around the edges while OS X's bring support only when the technology is mature enough and polished.
  • Ratman6161 - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    Yes, slow adoption of certain technologies is usually not the fault of Microsoft/Windows. A good example is Thuderbolt - which for all the hype is actually an Intel technology, not Apple (which this crowd I'm sure already knows). Its the fact that computer OEM's and motherboard makers have been slow to offer PC motherboards with the technology that's the issue.

    Another example is USB 3.0 where it was Intel standing in the way. For example my Z68 based Motherboard for my i72600K has a third party USB 3.0 controller because Intel did not include support for it in the Z68 Chipset. Windows of course had no problem with it - it just needs a driver from the third party chip maker.

    Of course that's the issue with the Windows platform as a whole: A lot of things from multiple companies have to come together to make the technology available where as if Apple wants to implement a new tech, they can just do it. Its the price we pay for diversity, choice, and competition.

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