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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  • OldTechLover - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    Androids may be micro-managed, but not for the reasons you say. They are micro-managed because they CAN BE, not because they need to be. Work gave me an apple phone after Blackberry started declining (Verizon salespeople are fabulous for this!). I was given an Iphone 4, it was NOWHERE near as capable for email as my blackberry was. Now, if I could have micro-managed it and put a different email client on the device, maybe that would be different. The experience was horrible. I was being forced to use the email client. What a joke. Getting on average of 700 emails a day, and getting to delete 5 at a time was a joke. Also, looking at the log files of the iphone showed the thing crashed several times a day. I admit it recovered nicely from the crashes.
    After complaining about this phone to my company (this took months, though I wasn't alone in complaining), I got a Galaxy Note II. I 'micro-managed' the crap out of it. Don't like the stock email? No worries, just download a different one (there are AT LEAST 2 dozen other clients out there). I currently use K-@ mail. Its simply wonderful!
    Don't like the stock browser? No worries, just download another (and its not just an overlay to the stock browser either). I'm using Next browser. Its no frills and fast.
    Don't like the icons or the launcher? No worries, just change it!
    Best yet, click on a sound file from file manager (oh thats right, file manager, yet another micro-managed thing) and click 'set as ringtone'. Try that elsewhere.
    As it is now, I ftp flac and mp3 files from my home network to my note and can play them in the music player of choice. I am using Media Monkey, and it also controls Media Monkey on my home system.
    Micro-managed my ass. Its called customization.
    Reply
  • bernstein - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    yada yada yada... got a galaxy note 3 because i thought getting a new iphone too expensive & too small... guess what, after trying a dozen (imho crappy) launchers, roms, hundreds of apps (caldendars, dialers, mail, ...) i gave in and bought an iphone5s... despite hating apple. *customize my ass*

    just one thing: even right out of the box the note 3 has worse battery life than the iphone4s. it gets mesurably better when you toggle bt/wlan/gps/... manually off. but not much.
    Reply
  • cupholder - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    You're a liar. The end. My Galaxy Note 3 gets ~36 hours of battery typically if I don't screw with it, and that translates to about 8-9 hours of screen on time. This is with BT on(yay Ford car), Wifi on, LTE on. The iPhone 4 I had previously would make it through a day, usually. More than that? No. The 5s I had briefly before returning it and getting the Note 3 didn't really make it through the day at all. Reply
  • ESC2000 - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    Yeah at least the trolls could pick android phones for which lame battery life is a possibility instead of picking the notes which have awesome battery life (easily more than a day) while the beloved iPhone can't make it 24+ hours without a charge *rolls eyes* Reply
  • JRX16 - Saturday, August 30, 2014 - link

    That's amazing because I regularly get two full days with everything on out of my iPhone 5s. I admit that's my average light usage, but even on heavy use days I've never been able to kill the phone before 10pm. There are bad batteries in faulty iPhones, and those cases are the ones you hear about (people who don't have problems usually are never heard from). Also, background app refresh causes more battery drain, something which is also micromanaged by most people by app on Android (I've owned a few and don't want weather updating every 15 minutes of course). Reply
  • Bownce - Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - link

    With a 'day 1" iPhone 5 (not an S), I was recently seeing shorter durations between charges. A 2 year phone? Surprise? NAY NAY! Free battery swap via Apple. I thought it was doing fine before but now it's 2+ days between charges. Reply
  • RoninX - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    Oh, nonsense. I have a Galaxy Note 3, and I leave everything on, and never have any trouble getting through a full day, including 8+ hours of listening to music, push email for both Gmail and Exchange, web surfing on WiFi and 4G, GPS navigation, etc. Reply
  • vFunct - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    You know what's better than customization?

    NOT customization.

    There is absolutely no compelling reason one needs to customize a smartphone. They were all designed to work as-is. You don't need to add anything else to make the experience better. You just need to "hold it right".

    If you have to customize your phone, that means you're using it wrong.

    Use it the way the manufacturer intended for it to be used, and you'll be happy.

    Customizing a phone is the equivalent to customizing a refrigerator. Just don't do it. Be happy with it as is.

    Don't do stupid things like listen to FLAC files (seriously? people care about lossless? Are you a bat?) Don't do stupid things like FTP or change icons, or any of the other pointless things people do with their phones. Don't have 700 emails a day. Unsubscribe from all your email lists. Have your email server set up filters.

    Do things like go to a bar and have drinks, or play sports, or go outside.

    Don't do things like browse files on your smartphone.

    No one ever needs to customize their phone.

    Ever.
    Reply
  • MobiusOne - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    Maybe I don't want every single useless, permanently installed app on my homescreen? You're delusional if you think no one wants their smartphone to be more efficient.

    People have needs beyond angry birds and Facebook, and putting tinkerers down is just retarded. Your phone is your multitool, and if you don't want it to be as efficient as possible you're frankly a bit dull.

    .FLAC is for audiophiles, people that own -not shitty- audio equipment. Real headphones instead of that fruity beats shit.

    I don't want useless OEM shit clogging up my home screens and I definitely don't want ugly looking folders everywhere.

    You can't change your main browser, you can't use gmail by default, you can't use a different gallery by default. You can't transfer MP3's without iTunes watching over you, you can't auto-backup photos, you can't type the way you want, and you can't even have a notepad on your home screen.

    Don't change anything, don't personalize, don't change shit that you don't like. Don't make things the way you want them to be, Tim Cook knows best.

    So much for Apple being for 'Creative' types.
    Reply
  • vFunct - Sunday, August 24, 2014 - link

    There is no such thing as an audiophile. That is just a misnomer for people with manic OCD.

    Nobody has actually ever enjoyed FLAC over 256kb MP3. You don't even notice it. That's why you don't need an FLAC player, which is why you don't need to customize your device because you don't need a FLAC player.

    FLAC is basically for people with psychological defects.

    And i'm talking as a guy with 20/5 hearing with a full SACD sound system in a custom acoustically engineered recording studio, as expensive as it gets.

    I don't consider myself an audiophile either, because I'm self-aware enough to know that I can enjoy music on crappy headphones in the subway just as well as in my studio.

    Again, there is absolutely no need to personalize or customize a smartphone. It is better to fix your own psychological problems first before you waste time on your phone.

    Admitting you use FLAC is like admitting your psychological problems publicly.
    Reply

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