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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  • ummduh - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    Oh, wait.. Nope, your first comment still takes the cake. This one is more insulting than flat out ignorance. Reply
  • Ancillas - Friday, August 29, 2014 - link

    #satire Reply
  • RavenMoon - Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - link

    Yep! People who enjoy music, and even people who make music, buy a nice system and enjoy it. "Audiophiles" are endlessly searching for the perfect system, and sadly, they know very little about electronics or audio. They fall for snake oil claims, like $600 AC power cords, and other nonsense. And to add insult to injury, they listen to vinyl!! That's the least accurate playback medium ever made. Even cassette tapes are more accurate!

    The key is, buy a device, like a smart phone. Learn how to use THAT phone without trying to turn it into something different. Personalize it as much as you need, but if you feel it's never good enough without personalization, it probably never will be.

    But some people feel a compulsive need to tinker.

    And as far as the article; why on earth do I need to see the filing system on my iPhone? I really don't.

    But I have installed an app that shows how much memory each app is using, and how much storage space, and CPU, etc. People have to look a little harder.
    Reply
  • Airyl - Saturday, September 6, 2014 - link

    Again, this is just dumb. You're insulting yourself with these. An audiophile is simply someone who enjoys their music at the best of quality. You're not a human, you're a robot. You do what you're programmed to do, you don't question why, you believe you're the perfect example of a living creature and you insult others who don't agree with you. You're the lowest of scum, the bottom of the barrel, the worst of the lot.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audiophile
    Reply
  • Iconoclysm - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    And there's exactly where you have it wrong - creative types are not trying to create a new phone UI, they're actually using their phone as a tool to create actual useful things Reply
  • idris - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    Well said! ...simply awesome & spot on! Reply
  • ex2bot - Sunday, August 31, 2014 - link

    Your comment doesn't make much sense. Are you saying an iOS user can't use GMail? Because I use GMail through the iOS mail app. I could use Google's client app instead or web client, but I prefer the native client.

    With 1.2 million apps on iOS, there's plenty of tinkering room. Jailbreaking would give you more.

    Seems like people have to create a fictional story of the platform they didn't choose in order to justify their decision. The simple truth is that both platforms offer tremendous power and usability with somewhat differing design philosophies.

    Android melts on hot days. iPhones are only for seven-year-olds who like pink. Samsung's phones explode when used for gaming.

    Silliness.
    Reply
  • RavenMoon - Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - link

    Ummm, Balderdash! In the Mail app in iOS 7, I have gmail, and three pop accounts. What do you mean you can't use gmail by default? You mean the gmail app? Who cares? I have it and never use it. The Apple Mail app works fine.

    I have a very nice audio system, and very expensive Sennheiser head phones. Do I want FLAC files on my iPhone? Are you nuts? It's a phone. I have a 160 GB iPod with 21,848 songs on it. I DO have some music on my 64GB iPhone, but I don't want to clog that up with FLAC files. I won't hear the difference while walking down the street.

    Now if you REALLY want to use lossless compression on an iPhone, or iPod, use Apple Lossless. FLAC is no better. But honestly, what's the point? You won't hear the difference between a non compressed file and a 320kbps AAC file. I'm a musician, and record my own music, so I can do direct comparisons. Plus it's a phone, even though it has very good audio quality.

    iTunes "watching over you"? How is it "watching over you"? You put music (or video, or books) in iTunes and tell it what to transfer to you phone. The end. It doesn't watch over you. The files can come from anywhere. I have music I bought on iTunes, Amazon, my CDs, and from Pirate bay. No one was watching over me. But I guess having an efficient music management app makes no sense?

    No notepad on your home screen? Are you nuts? What is the Notes app then? Surprise! It's a notepad. I also use MS OneNote. And they both sync with my iMac at home. And I also have OneDrive, iCloud, GoogleDrive, and DropBox. And check out the very cool free app DeskConnect. I can send text, the clipboard, photos, and URLs, between my iPhone and Mac.

    Can't type the way you want? Just learn to type on the freakin' keyboard! Just like you do on a desktop computer. Do you move all the keys around there? Quit yer whining! I type very quickly with just my right thumb, thank you very much.

    As far as the phone being your "multitool", I use my iPhone 5 all day long. I use it for email, for the internet (I mostly use Safari, since it works the best, but I have Chrome too), use it as a GPS, both with Apple Maps and Google, I use it to do multitrack recording with Garageband. I edit photos in Adobe Photoshop Express, and several other image editing programs. I use it as a guitar tuner. I record voice memos. I use Dropbox, and not sure why the author of the article said you can't back up your images and movies with it, because that's what I do with it, or share them. I use the timer for a bunch of things. I listen to podcasts and music, I take photos, both with the built in camera app, and a few others. I play some games, and so does my 9 year old daughter. I use it for Paypal, and my bank, and I can even take credit card payments with it, with the free card reader from PayPal. I use it for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. I FaceTime with my daughter. I Skype with friends. I see what the weather is going to be like. I have my CVS and Starbucks cards on it. I put concert tickets on it, using TicketMaster and the Passbook app. I read magazines and newspapers. I use the calendar, and that connects to my Apple, Google, and Hotmail calendars, and I even use the calculator. I add shows to Netflix, and even watch them on the phone. I control my Roku and Plex, and can watch videos in Plex on my Mac on my iPhone. I have the Apple remote for iTunes. And a remote transport control for Cubase. And for more obscure tasks, I have a resistor color code calculator.

    Any "OEM shit" that I don't want, like Stocks, I put on the last page. But most of the Apple apps it comes with are very good, and even my carrier, T-Moble, added nothing at all, not even their own app, which I added myself. That's only some of the 142 apps I have on the phone.

    So what were you saying? Yep, Apple is for creative types. And we learn how to use a tool without having to endlessly modify it.
    Reply
  • milesmutt - Thursday, September 18, 2014 - link

    "Useless OEM shit?" Samsung's got that one down cold. So what if you can't use Gmail or Chrome as defaults? Press the damn icon. Your complaints are completely baseless. I've always "customized" my iPhones. Reply
  • PrimarchLion - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    But I like being able to browse files on my smartphone =( Reply

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