Which phone is best? Screen size is going to be a big factor. Big screens are more comfy for reading, small screens are more comfy for holding and tapping. Is the iPhone 5 a happy medium? Andy Ihnatko Photo
Updated: November 16, 2012 6:22AM
This three-part review began with a long discussion about the iPhone 5’s new camera. Next, I devoted a second chapter to its physical design and its longer screen. It’s time to wrap things up by talking about the iPhone 5’s under-the-hood features. If there’s time, maybe I’ll try to settle the question of whether or not the latest iPhone is, in fact, the greatest phone on the market.
Speed is the most valuable and least arguable improvement of the iPhone 5. Apple has greased every moving part inside this new device. If you don’t notice the bump, you’re just a dope.
The iPhone is the last major phone to arrive at the 4G LTE party. But honestly, who cares? It has it now. And during my testing over the past two weeks, the iPhone has reliably been transacting mobile broadband data at 20 to 30 megabits per second. You will be sickened to learn that this is often faster than your home Internet service. I certainly was.
There’s nothing subtle about that improvement. The iPhone 5 transacts data at three to five times the mobile speed of the iPhone 4S. You won’t use LTE for smooth, HD video streaming if you’re smart (Netflix is a rocketsled towards huge penalties for exceeding your monthly data cap). Instead, it makes data on the Internet feel like local storage. Messages zip in, webpages appear in a snap, and a photo of your breakfast appears on Instagram faster than you can ask yourself “Why exactly am I posting photos of my breakfast?”
The iPhone 5’s WiFi radio also supports new higher-speed wireless protocols. Not all wireless routers support these protocols, so I took a pocketful of devices into an Apple Store to run some benchmarks. I routinely pulled down about 25 megabits per second from the iPhone 5 versus about 8 from the iPhone 4S.
I got about the same WiFi speeds from the Samsung Galaxy S III and the Kindle Fire HD (yes, I tested all of these devices in the same store). The Samsung’s LTE mobile broadband, tested on the same AT&T network, was about the same speed as the iPhone 5’s.
Last year, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about LTE. Network coverage was so spotty that I used to have to make a special trip into the city to test these kinds of devices. These days, I don’t even have to leave my house ... which is located at the hotly contested border between The Burbs and The Sticks.
(Aside: is it time for Apple to get rid of the size restrictions on mobile broadband downloads? The LTE on an iPhone is usually better than public WiFi...and it’s always better than no WiFi at all. When I really, really need to receive a big app update or grab a file from my Dropbox account right now, right here, I don’t care about dipping into my limited monthly stash of mobile megabits. I wish iOS would ask me what to do, instead of forcing me to find a Starbucks with better WiFi than the Panera I’m sitting in.)
The iPhone 5’s CPU performance benchmarks are about twice as high as those of the iPhone 4S. They’re not actually that much higher than other top-tier smartphones released this summer. But, look: a GeekBench number should be thought of as a piece of Interesting Trivia, and nothing more.
The only observation of real value is that the iPhone 5 feels faster than any other phone I’ve tested. And there’s a larger, more abstract benefit of the iPhone 5’s CPU: it enables a whole higher class of apps and features. I can move through and between the features of iPhoto much faster on the iPhone 5, and the phone doesn’t even feel any slower when I’m mirroring the iPhone 5’s screen to an HDTV via AirPlay.
There aren’t many Android apps that translate high CPU benchmarks into “cool things that this 2012 phone can do that a 2011 phone can’t.”
The iPhone 5’s additional application memory also makes it faster and more stable. One of my standard benchmarks is to have the third party AutoStitch app assemble a panorama from dozens of source images, I intentionally max out AutoStitch’s top limits, to put as much stress on the device as I can. Under many circumstances, my iPhone 4S crashed under the load. The iPhone 5 never lost its cool.
LTE radios and multiple-core CPUs are notorious power hogs. What’s their impact on the iPhone’s battery life? None that I can tell. I can still count on a full day’s usage. And its standby life is extraordinary, thanks to iOS’ power management system. Android phone batteries tend to trickle down to nothing after a few days whether you’re using the device or not.
You’re a sharp-eyed reader and it’s possible that you’re wondering why I wasn’t charging the iPhone 5 up every day during my testing. Ah. Well, because I only have this one sync/charging cable that works with it, and I often left it in the car.
Welcome to the reality of Lightning, Apple’s completely-redesigned dock connector. Lightning brings a few hassles which you’ll completely have forgotten about after a couple of weeks, and a number of benefits that will last the life of the device.
The bad news: if you’re a longtime iPhone user and want to maintain your pre-Lightning lifestyle, you’re going to have to buy a bunch of new $19 USB sync/charging cables. Lightning is an active system (electronics inside the cable are necessary to enable communication), so you shouldn’t count on cheap knockoff cables entering the marketplace anytime soon.
If you want to keep using your old-style dock accessories (such as speaker docks and car docks), you’ll have to buy one or three dock adapters. They cost $29 and $39, depending on style. Apple tells me that if you have a button on your steering wheel that pauses the music or skips to the next track, then it’ll work fine with the iPhone 5 through these adapters.
We’re just talking about the dollar inconvenience, here. But do factor that cost in. I would be out another $60 or so to put new Lightning cables everywhere I need them.
Once you’ve paid your Visa bill, Lightning is nothing but good. It’s much smaller, and the connector has no Up or Down; just click it in. Apple kind had no choice but to introduce a new connector. The classic dock connector was immense and required every iPod and iOS device to include a big, ugly slot. It was so big, in fact, that you’d think the iPhone was billing you on a cash-as-you-go basis. Every time you needed another 50 megabytes of mobile data, you might have tried to drop another quarter into it.
It’s worth noting that other phones use simple Micro-USB connectors for charging and syncing...and many phone makers have come up with plugs that can be used to spit out video (like the Apple dock connector) while still being compatible with the popular standard.
The cables are cheaper than dirt...and about as easy to find at 1 a.m. in a strange city. I don’t think Lightning is a disadvantage by comparison, overall. But, yeah, every time I pack for a trip that involves an Android device, I’m aware that I can grab pretty much any charger.
The iPhone 5 and you
And now we finally arrive at the key question: Should the iPhone 5 be your next phone?
First off, I dismiss any serious discussion of whether or not the iPhone 5 is the best phone on the market. No one device can possibly satisfy a large enough percentage of the market to make such a declaration relevant. Everybody has their own peculiar (and completely correct) set of hopes and demands for a phone. In fact, there’s only one definition of “The best phone ever” that we can all agree on: it’s the phone that was in your breast pocket when gunfire erupted, and which prevented a bullet from entering your heart.
(I’m really not willing to benchmark the iPhone 5 that way. Even if I were so careless with my own life, this sample iPhone 5 is Apple’s property.)
The “which phone?” question has never been more difficult to answer. That’s a great development, isn’t it? We finally have a wide assortment of great phones to choose from, and each device targets a different kind of buyer.
Screen size is the most practical feature to focus on. If you already own an iPhone and you don’t particularly care that the iPhone is longer than the iPhone 4S and a little more difficult to operate one-handed, then clearly, the LTE data speed makes the iPhone 5 a no-brainer upgrade.
If you want a smaller, more manageable phone and you own an iPhone 4 or earlier, don’t ignore the iPhone 4S. The 4S is still one of the very best phones you can buy — yes, go ahead and compare it to 2012-edition Android flagship phones — and it’s just $99. That piece of news was just as big as Apple’s unveiling of the iPhone 5.
Don’t recognize yourself in those two scenarios? All right. I see only one real limitation of the iPhone 5: Apple made a conservative decision about its screen size. They chose to keep the width the same, and just added some more pixels to the length of the display. This choice delivers “larger screen” benefits when you’re scrolling vertically through lists, and when you’ve turned it on its side and are watching movies. But otherwise, there’s no real upside.
I’ve now been using an iPhone 5 for a couple of weeks. I’m still pining for the larger displays of the Android phones I’ve been using all summer. For the things I do with my phone, a conventionally larger display is a much better choice.
My phone spends lots of time on my dashboard: I can see much more map data on the Samsung Galaxy S III than I can on the iPhone 5. I do lots of reading on my phone: websites, email, and books. It’s the reading device that I use when I’m on a subway or out on the street or in any other situation where pulling out my iPad (or even a smaller tablet) would either be clumsy or would call unwanted attention to myself. Compared with the iPhone 5, these Android phones deliver the same size text at nearly the same clarity, with wider margins and more text per screen. They’re noticeably more comfortable to read.
Comfort of reading isn’t the only factor in choosing a phone. But in this specific category, a wider screen beats a narrower one...no contest.
And the “psychic price” of using an Android phone has never been lower. Here I speak of the wonkiness of the software, the limited selection of the Google Play App Store, and the consistency of the experience. Android is still below the overall level of the iPhone and iOS, but in 2012 the system clears the bar of “Good” with plenty of air to spare.
So if you don’t have a specific preference about OS or ecosystem, you should handle a few different kinds of phones before locking yourself into a two-year contract.
I’ve been mentioning the Samsung Galaxy S III throughout this three-part review because it’s the Android phone with which I have the greatest amount of experience...and for which I have the greatest amount of respect. It’s been in my pocket almost every day since I published my highly positive review, earlier in the summer. Many readers have recently asked me if I intend to switch to the Galaxy instead of getting an iPhone 5.
I’m sticking with the iPhone. I’ll never be completely happy with its smaller screen (just a personal preference, of course). But:
♦ I need a laptop, and my MacBook Pro is my favorite laptop running my favorite desktop OS and my favorite apps.
♦ I need a tablet. Here, I insert the obligatory note that I’m writing this paragraph on an Amtrak train and that I felt no need to bring my MacBook along on this trip. The iPad isn’t just the best tablet on the market today: At this moment at least, the iPad is the only credible full-size tablet you can buy. The Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets I’ve seen look very nice (verrrrry nice). But it’s going to take at least a year for Windows 8 apps to show up in meaningful numbers.
The ease with which a Mac, an iPad, and an iPhone interact with each other trumps my disappointment about the iPhone 5’s screen. If I used an iPad and an Android phone and a Windows laptop, for example, my word processors would be file-compatible and could share access to Dropbox or SkyDrive. Lovely. But because I’m an all-in Apple user, though, it feels like it’s all one experience, projected into screens of three different sizes.
So what if I weren’t an iPad user, or a Mac user?
In my mind, it’d be a cage match between the iPhone 5’s best-in-class camera and the Samsung’s luxurious 4.8-inch screen. At this point in time, I think Android and iOS are close enough that you could be swayed by a specific hardware feature that’s done very well on one device and doesn’t exist on the other.
None of the above should be taken as a criticism of the new iPhone. It’s exemplary in every way. It’s merely a reflection of the fact that Android has finally gotten its act together. A company like Samsung is willing to make phones of every shape, size, and distinction to serve the desires of every consumer with money. Good god, between the Galaxy Note II, the Galaxy S III, and a new mini edition of the S3, they’re maybe one year away from just custom-tailoring a Galaxy phone to the dimensions of the most convenient pocket of your favorite garment.
Apple’s sole disadvantage in the phone marketplace is that they come out with just one new iPhone a year. If that’s somehow not the right fit for your lifestyle...well, even a longterm iPhone user’s eye might wander.
Without question, however, the iPhone remains the Prime Meridian of the phone market. Though an iPhone isn’t necessarily the best choice for every consumer, it remains the point of reference by which all other phones are marked and judged.