Introduction

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
RAM 1GB LPDDR3
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

Hardware

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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  • Bownce - Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - link

    After nearly 40 years in IT (and building countless business and game machines - as well as fixing their quirks an order of magnitude more than that), I went with the iPhone because it works when I need it to. The referenced "stutter" in use is why I dislike my Android tablet and the phone before that. Reply
  • mcturkey - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    You do realize that you do not need to disable GPS, turn off WiFi, or quit background apps on Android, either, right? Maybe you're describing an experience with a very early version of Android, or a severely broken phone, but the "need" to "fiddle" with things in Android went away a long time ago. The option is there if you want to fiddle or make huge customizations, but if you want the option of "just works", it's there right out of the box. Reply
  • Spoony - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    I have heard people say this before, but it is not supported by the evidence at my disposal. Every Android device I've ever seen is being micro-managed. When I ask why, the answer is always some variant of "if I don't micro-manage this, something I don't want happens". It eats all their data, eats their battery, makes their phone warm, or something else.

    This is the case for both novice users and experienced tech-heads I know. It is the experience across all Android devices and versions I've seen. All the way from the old 2.x versions to today's v4.4. I've nearly never seen an Android device without the quick-access widget to control cellular, wifi, bluetooth, NFC, and GPS front and center because it is actively used.

    Maybe I'm living in some parallel universe and this isn't normal. I just know what I've experienced across three countries and many years of owning, borrowing, and observing Android devices.
    Reply
  • mcturkey - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    It's quite possible that you're seeing that, but it's not in any way required. There has been a long-running myth that you need a task killer. You don't. Android does a great job of controlling memory and processor usage, and regularly killing apps will actually reduce your battery life (because it now has to reload it when you go to open that app again). I haven't had a reason to disable any of the radios other than the rare times I've had issues with a particular wifi connection and wanted to quickly figure out if it was my phone or the wifi.

    There's no need to do the things you've described, and people who do that are misinformed. If the options existed on iOS in the same way as Android, you can bet people would do it there, too. It's just like the folks who think you need to change a bunch of settings in Windows 7+ when you use an SSD instead of an HDD. You don't - the OS already takes care of the couple of changes needed, and doing anything else will make your overall experience less efficient. Once upon a time it was necessary, but that tribal knowledge needs to go away, as it's not accurate anymore.
    Reply
  • Daniel Egger - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    > Android does a great job of controlling memory and processor usage, and regularly killing apps will actually reduce your battery life (because it now has to reload it when you go to open that app again).

    Well, now that is out of the way: How much battery life do you get out of your Android phone? A full day? Bad news: That's because Android *is* terrible at managing battery usage, but don't fret: Windows Phone is too. The only system that gets it somewhat right out-of-the-box is iOS. On any other system you'll have to shutdown background applications/operations as much as possible, disable WLAN, disable location services, limit data to 3G or turn it off altogether (, activate Battery Saver on WP) and then you might end up with 5 days instead. The only thing that doesn't seem to have much effect (although WP likes to suggest otherwise) is BT.

    And yes (DOH!) it doesn't make much sense to shut down a battery sucker like WhatsApp which is in constant use but to keep it running -- it doesn't matter anyway.
    Reply
  • ummduh - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    I have a N5. I don't micromanage it at all. The only app that give me problems is Slacker, I do have to force close that occasionally.

    Otherwise, everything gets left on all the time. I never use bluetooth, though so it stays off. I do toggle airplane mode thanks to t-mobile, and have to manually turn wifi back on.

    As long as I have regular reception I get more than a full day no problem. No task killers.
    Reply
  • akdj - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    N5=different animal. Bone stock Android while incredibly nice (no bloat from Sammy or AT&T), it's also incredibly 'boring' IMHO. Nice you don't have to dick with the settings or micromanagement at all on a Nexus or Play Store purchase but buying a Sammy at AT&T or an HTC from Verizon and take notice of how many AT&T and Samsung applications are not just installed, but running in the background, can't be taken out (without 'rooting') and are of no help at all to the vast majority of folks buying smartphones today

    Ummduh, you're correct as I've still got the Xoom and it works just fine. As does my original iPad to date. That's pretty amazing for the first round of tablets. Four years ago. I'm saving as relics but occasionally pull the iPad or Xoom out for updates, browsing or watching a movie. Basic tasks that don't tax the system, run the battery down to about 20/40% and then tip it off ...so far, so good!

    I've got the Note 3 and yes, it's essential you're not 'syncing' all day (one of I believe 16-20 choices of my 'top 8‘ single pulldown control panel (can be changed and tailored to what you use or don't like S-Beam, NFC, Sync, orientation lock or 'sound?' Never got that one. But it's there if you don't feel like turning the phone down or muting it ...as well, pending your location to wireless routers if you're leaving wifi on or even silly overlooks ...I somehow enabled, unintentionally, developer mode when I originally got the Note 3. Everytime I'd charge her, she'd top off and the display wouldn't shut off. Two weeks after I bought it, took back to AT&T. They were clueless and as well convinced it was just broken, handed me a new one and off I went. It was only by digging again deep into development I was able to find the display sleep functionality and sure as can be, the culprit to my original. Sometimes they're a PITA. Most Android users for a length of time are familiar though with it's settings. There's only so much time you can fart around with the settings and widgets though ...at some point you've got to get work done!

    It's correct, a task killer isn't necessary, yet a half dozen live in the 'top 100' free and paid apps available in the PStore. Even the top ten, half are 'tools' for monitoring, rooting and/or just tinkering with the internals and programming of your phone. Kinda silly as it's an easy way for someone 'new' to a smartphone or Android can very easily screw their phone up! Jail breaking has always been there for iOS and Cydia, a trustworthy store with excellent customization options. That said, enough of those functions have now been built into iOS as the hardware became more and more capable and exceed their counterparts on Cydia's stores performance wise in almost any measurable and objective situation. I think many believe Apple to be stealing ideas, copying software, etc ....but when it comes down to it, my Note 3 uses almost 2GB RAM in stasis. While in standby and without apps running (using a couple of these 'tools'). Load up a decent game, bam! 2.8GB RAM being used. In contrast the same game plays more smoothly, without stutter or lag on the same generation iPhone with half the cores, half the clock speed and a third the memory. Not sure who's better at memory management ...but subjectively and as an owner, IMHO hands down iOS is the killer. As they've done with Mavericks, memory compression works well. You're able to listen to Spotify while writing a letter quickly four finger swiping left or right to your research page online for reference. Again, IMHO iOS has multitasking for a phone down 'better' than Android! Apps are allowed to stay 'on' in the background pending permissions, Audiobus support has been a God send and who's using the split screen functionality on their S5? Note 3? I own one, the latter and have for almost a year. I've tried it twice to show friends that I can type and email while watching YouTube.
    Reply
  • Bownce - Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - link

    "As long as I have regular reception..."

    That seems to be the key to all the comments about leaving everything on. It would appear that few of those proponents travel to remote locations where WiFi or Cell reception is marginal (or non-existent). Those who do understand the nature of these "radios" and how they cast an increasingly-strong "ping" in an attempt to get connected. Failing to disable these radios will greatly reduce your battery life... regardless of manufacturer.
    Reply
  • ET - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    I have a cheap Chinese Android phone with a low capacity battery, and I still get 3 days if I mostly do nothing with it (which is normal, I talk just a little and hardly do anything "smart" with it). That's with WiFi on and 3G and WhatsApp installed (but rarely getting messages). Bluetooth eats battery on this phone though, and talking drains the battery quickly.

    So obviously what you say is not really correct. I think it's very much an issue of use. If you have a lot of apps running in the background, then I agree that Android doesn't manage them that well. I felt the need to kill games on my Nexus 7 (2012) because it looked like they were draining the battery even in the background.
    Reply
  • ESC2000 - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    You are just flat out wrong. We have four iPhones (all iPhone 5), one android phone (nexus 5 with a rather anemic battery) and a windows phone (HTC 8x) plus I have a blackberry z10 for work. The blackberry is far and away the best in terms of battery but ignoring that since it pushes many less pixels, the Android phone and the windows phone are about the same (last around a day) and the iPhone lags behind terribly. None of the four iPhones lasts more than past late afternoon without a charge and sometimes they need to be charged by lunch! It's ridiculous. Clearly it's not because a particular person misuses bc it is four different people with four styles of using their phones. My stepfather is a computer expert who is very careful about battery and he's even had to resort to a mophie. I owned an iPhone 5 a few years ago that died the very first night I owned it. Apparently it went from 90% to dead in the span of eight hours bc it was pushing email every half hour. Well, guess what, my nexus 5 pushes my email every 15 minutes with no issues.

    So yeah there may be many things that you can viably argue the iPhone excels at but battery life is not one of them.
    Reply

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