Mild-Mannered Canadian Fury

Doug Stephen is Politely Peeved

Review: A Weekend with the iPhone 5


Mon, 24 Sep 2012 «permalink»

Friday afternoon, I left work on my lunch break to go buy scalped tickets for DeLuna Fest. I came back to my office with a Black 32GB Verizon iPhone 5.

I wasn’t planning on buying an iPhone 5 on opening day. I didn’t jump on the preorders because I was still dealing with AT&T. And I didn’t think that there would be any available in stores, due to line-sitting type folk. I am not of that ilk.

I went to the local mall, where I was meeting the scalper in the parking lot. I bought my tickets from him, then went in to the mall to meet up with a friend of mine that runs an electronics repair kiosk. We were originally going to go get lunch, but then he mentioned that the Verizon kiosk — not even the Verizon store — had iPhone 5’s available. I had also recently discovered that Verizon will buy out old iPhones, even on AT&T, which for the going rate would effectively cancel out my early termination fee with AT&T. Being a child of the 90’s and a huge fan of instant gratification, I decided to get my new iPhone.

Last year, the iPhone 4S was released on the Friday before DeLuna Fest. Coincidentally, the date of the festival and the date of the new iPhone release once again lined up. This provides a pretty great framing for me write a decent review of the phone, my carrier switch, and other factors. Festivals are a great time to take lots of pictures, use the phone for long periods of time, deal with major congestion, and experience a wide variety of usage conditions. I’ve only had the phone since Friday, so this won’t be a hugely in-depth or majorly “scientific” review, but I feel that I’ve formed a pretty solid opinion on how the phone works. And so, you get this, MMCF’s first real product review.

The iPhone 5 introduces a number of changes to the hardware, from its taller screen, its new wireless connectivity options, the camera optics, and plenty of other features.

Industrial Design

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: the iPhone 5 is beautiful. It’s hard to appreciate without seeing one in person. I’m partial to the black model. I played with both at the Verizon kiosk before purchasing, and a friend of mine who attended the festival as well was using a white iPhone 5 the whole time. Spending time looking at the phone, both myself and a lot of the people we were with agreed that the two-tone look on the white iPhone was not necessarily ugly, but also not nearly as attractive as the black-and-slate models.

The black iPhone 5 almost looks imposing, betraying its diminutive size. Evocative of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the phone looks nearly featureless when the screen is locked. The anodized aluminum unibody lends to the effect, with the precision chamfer on the side band and the new dark color of the metallic support enhancing the presentation. The black model also lends itself well to letter-boxed applications, making the effect seem to be much more subtle, as if the application is simply swimming in the space of the phone’s screen. The contrast between the black pixels and the white glass on the other model is slightly more jarring.

The reduction in overall volume and mass is very, very noticeable. It’s been mentioned before by others like John Gruber, but the lightness of the phone is truly remarkable, which was also one of the first things mentioned by everyone who held my phone this weekend. Even more impressive is the way they were able to make the phone feel so slight without making it feel cheapened or hollowed. The phone still has an appropriate presence to remind you that you aren’t holding a cheap toy.If I had to assign a word to the feeling that I get from holding the phone, it would probably be delicate.

It feels fantastic in the hand, and not just due to the reduced weight. The chamfering along the outer band is subtle but it greatly improves the way the phone rests in the palm of a hand, providing a way for the structure to ease itself in to the contours of your palm. The aluminum body itself feels absolutely wonderful; I’ve heard people use the word slippery but I haven’t found this to be the case at all.

Other smaller decisions in the industrial design process have been very welcome. The mute switch has less compliance in its action; it feels much less like a hardware relay and much more like a mechanical mechanism than the toggles used on the 4/4S. I used to thumb around on the mute switch in my pocket with both my 4 and my 4S when I was someplace that required silence, due not in small part to me being a little neurotic about these sorts of things. I haven’t yet felt a need to do so with the iPhone 5.

Repositioning of the headphone jack to the bottom of the phone is taking some getting used to, but I also think it was a smart move, for quite a few reasons. When I put my phone in my pocket, it almost always ends up going in upside down; pick up your phone, pretend you’re on a phone call, and then go straight from that position to your pocket. The natural mechanics of your arm will leave the phone with the top pointing down, so putting the phone in “right side up” would require a change in orientation. Same, if you want to extract your phone from your pocket, having it in upside down means you don’t have to fiddle with it once it’s out. Whether on purpose or not, I’d wager that his is how most people store their iPhones and so moving the headphone jack to the bottom is clever. It also keeps the headphone jack away from pocket lint and dust that can build up. I’ve had to use a paper clip to remove lint from headphone jacks on more than one occasion, both for myself and for friends.

The design is elegant and delicate, and in more ways than one it is nearly an homage to itself. It’s definitely not an accident that the iPhone 5 bears more than a passing resemblance to its two most recent younger siblings. The subtler, elementary differences in color, contrast, and branding are even more evocative of the Dieter Rams influence on the device. One thing that interested me, though, was that nobody stopped me to ask me about the phone. Not that I bought the phone so that I could get attention, but when I purchased my iPhone 4 two years ago, I was asked about it all the time. Even when I bought the 4S, which looked the exact same, I was always being asked if the phone was a 4 or 4S. I see this as nothing more than a testament to the prevalence of the iPhone’s design and how it has invaded our culture over the years; it’s a clear picture of just how important the look-and-feel of this device is, of how trade dress can truly impact a brand, and why Apple wanted to defend their product from ripoffs so viciously.

Wireless Connectivity

WiFi

Apple has finally introduced true dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n 2.4GHz/5GHz support to the iPhone. Unfortunately, it seems that something has gone wrong somewhere along the way. Some people have been reporting issues with WiFi in the new iPhone 5. Some people are making claim to having no WiFi connectivity at all, whereas others are reporting extremely slow speeds.

One post from the Apple Support Forums:

Just spoke with iPhone AppleCare and they are definitely aware of the problem and Apple engineers are working on it. I asked if it was hardware or software related and she said the WPA2 issue seems to be software based and the non-connecting issue may be hardware based, but that they are still trying to identify the cause.

I haven’t seen any official statements on this anywhere, but I can confirm that I have experienced the WPA2 based problems discussed above; when running the SpeedTest.net application on my iPhone 5, I hit speeds of no more than 2-3 Mbps down on my home network which is secured with WPA2/WPA mixed security. Interestingly, this problem doesn’t seem to have any impact on upload speeds; I have around 7 or 8 Mbps in uplink bandwidth, and this is reported accurately by the SpeedTest.net app. These reduced speeds bear out in practice; when I browse on my iPhone 5 around the house (especially on sites like reddit, which can be data heavy), I see marked performance issues. I’m encouraged that this issue might be a software problem, because I don’t live anywhere near an Apple store so replacing a device is a bit of a hassle for me.

LTE

With my purchase of the iPhone 5, I decided to switch over to Verizon in order to take advantage of their LTE service, which AT&T doesn’t yet have in my area. I’ll be discussing my experience with Verizon itself later, but for now all I have to say is that LTE is just as blazingly fast as most people have said elsewhere. If I didn’t have a capped data plan, I’d most likely just turn off my WiFi antenna entirely and rely solely on LTE. It’s really that good. The fastest speed I received in my testing was 28 Mbps, in the middle of downtown Pensacola. Slower speeds hovered around 10 Mbps.

LTE technology itself has the potential to reach speeds much faster, in the same way that HSPA has grown so much faster over the years. It’s not impossible that in the next 5, LTE speeds will not just be comparable to our home WiFi networks but may actually exceed their speeds. This is working under the assumption that most American broadband ISP’s will continue to offer terrible products and services.

The New Screen

One of the headlining features of the new iPhone is its taller screen. While the increase from 3.5” to 4” might not seem like much, it plays out to have a much greater impact in reality. The amount of information that can be displayed is increased by quite a bit, and it makes reading longer articles or parsing Twitter streams or browsing reddit much more enjoyable in practice. But the increase in resolution isn’t the only change that was made to the screen.

The color saturation has been improved by “44%”. In practice, I notice this mainly in colors with a lot of Blue in them. Purple seems much more royal, blue app icons (most app icons) seem much more alive and less likely to swim together in a sea of similarity, and everything comes across as sharper in general. The touch digitizer is now embedded in the screen as well, lending to the thinness and lightness of the device. Some people have been reporting issues with their screens such as “bubbling”, but I haven’t encountered this myself.

Regarding the height of the screen, many people were wondering if the increase in size would be bad for people who enjoy using their phones with one hand. Jim Dalrymple has said a few times that he was surprised that he could continue to use his phone one-handed without effort. I don’t know if this is 100% true for everyone, though. I am not a man of imposing stature, clocking in at only 5 feet 9 inches, wearing a US Size 8 1/2 shoe, and I am the proud owner of tiny child hands. No, I did not sever the hands from a small child. They are my own hands. Outside of being a little heavy set, I’m not a big person. I can use the iPhone 5 one handed, but not without a small amount of effort. Reaching the top left corner when holding the phone in my right hand is a little bit of a strain without changing the way I hold the phone slightly; however, by doing so, I make it a little harder to reach the bottom row of the phone, where action buttons or the Springboard Dock live. It’s not a huge effort, and it’s one that I’m okay making given how much more information can fit on the screen now, but it’s still a factor, and I can imagine that I may not be in the majority on this one.

The Camera

While maintaining many of the same specs as the iPhone 4S’s 8 MP camera, the improved low-light performance is a plus. A lot of the improvements to the camera, however, don’t come from the imaging system itself but rather the image processing power opened up by iOS 6 and the A6 processor.

There are a multitude of factors that can have an impact on the “exposure” of an image. Exposure is a measure of how much of the light bouncing off the objects in a composition reaches the camera sensor, or in layman’s terms, exposure is a way of measuring whether or not photograph is too dark, too bright, or just right. These factors are sometimes simplified down in to three major elements; shutter speed, aperture, and ISO speed.

Shutter speed is a measure, typically in seconds or fractions of a second, of how long the door that keeps light from hitting the sensor stays open before closing again. The shutter on the iPhone is what is known as an electronic rolling shutter; it means that instead of a literal door that opens and closes, the electrical information that is generated by the light hitting the camera sensor is recorded line-by-line by passing through the signal to a paired photosensitive piece of electronics for a certain amount of time. It’s technical and physics-y, so I won’t explain it more here, but it emulates (if not perfectly) a true shutter. The iPhone doesn’t have a shutter speed that you can control directly, but the shutter speed is variable.

Aperture is a measure of how big the opening from which light passes through to the sensor is. If you’ve ever taken an introductory physics course, you were probably introduced to the idea of ray tracing (not quite the same thing as ray tracing in graphics, though extremely related). The size of this opening controls how much light is allowed in and also has an effect on the way the light gets scattered. Apertures are presented as ratios that are related to the focal length (not focus distance) of the imaging system. A smaller number means a larger opening. A larger aperture allows for cameras to use faster shutters while still letting enough light in so that the picture isn’t underexposed; the tradeoff here is that because forcing light through small holes leads to the rays being scattered, you decrease what is known as the “depth of field”. Imagine a wall of magical glass. Everything inside of this glass is clear and sharp, while everything outside of this glass is very blurry. This wall, this plane in space, is the depth of field. It lives at the focus point of the camera; when your iPhone camera focuses on a subject, it erects this wall around them so that you can see them. Large apertures cause this wall to be very thing, where small apertures allow for this wall to be very thick. This can lead to artistic effects, and it is the primary mechanism used to frame portraits or closeups against blurry backgrounds for contrast and static composition. But it isn’t always desired. The iPhone 5 has the same aperture size as the iPhone 4S; f/2.4 (remember that the smaller number means a larger aperture). 2.4 is a fairly large aperture, and it is why the iPhone 4S and 5 are fairly good at taking portraits and macros. Because this aperture is fixed, though, there’s not much you can do with it.

The last factor is ISO. Often strangely referred to as a measure of speed, the ISO is more accurately a representation of how sensitive the image capture medium is to light; in this way, it is a measure of speed in regards to how fast light causes a change in the sensor. If the ISO is very fast, then it will be very easy to over-expose an image. Conversely, though, fast ISO measurements will allow you to take better low-light photographs by being more sensitive to the distinct lack of light. However, fast ISO isn’t always good. It can lead to artifacts in the resultant image; in traditional film this is known as film grain, and in digital photography this is known image noise. In the case of film, the grain effect is a result of needing larger silver halide molecules to react with the light. In digital sensors, it is simply the result of errant electrical activity as a result of making the imager so sensitive. The ISO of a digital sensor can be changed on the fly (using basic gain control for the signal processing geeks out there), and so digital equipment is often specced out with an ISO range. The iPhone 5 seems to increase its ISO range over its predecessor.

The fast image capture hardware translates to an effectively faster possible shutter speed; this combined with the increased ISO range and the already large aperture on the camera allows for the iPhone 5 to have a wider variety of “exposure stops” and lends itself to the increased low light performance, though in some cases with increased image noise.

Camera

The camera app itself has had its UI optimized for the taller display. The bottom bar is taller, giving the controls more room to breath. Additionally, on the iPhone 5, the shutter button is now a large circle instead of a squat oblong button. It seems like a little thing, but it’s actually quite nice.

Panoramas are nothing short of black magic. They’ve been around for a while in apps and on other platforms, but none of them have been nearly as usable as this. The Panorama overlay displays a bar with an arrow, and it’s almost like playing a mini-game: scan the phone across the scene you want to snap a picture of, and the arrow moves with you by tracking the spatial sensors in the phone. If you start to drift up or down, the arrow drifts with you, and you adjust accordingly. If you go too fast, the app tells you to slow down.

I took several panoramic photographs over the course of the festival. If you take them well, you get images like this:

Pano 1

If you drift too much, you get images with edge artifacts, like this:

Pano 2

Unfortunately, because of how fast the rolling shutter needs to record images for the Pano to work, low light performance decreases greatly when using panorama. This isn’t a big deal, and it’s sort of to be expected, but worth mentioning.

Additionally, the flash on the iPhone 5 is much, much, much brighter. It makes for a wonderful flashlight.

Here you can see an iPhone 5 on the left, and an iPhone 4S on the right. Care was taken to make sure the difference in appearance was not the result of the angle that the lights were being pointed in:

Flash comparison

iOS 6

This isn’t a review of iOS 6; just know that it really shines on the iPhone 5 hardware. The A6 SoC is a screamer, and the under-the-hood optimizations like the improved JavaScript engine in iOS 6 and other little tweaks fantastic. Messages allowing for the merging of email addresses with phone numbers is a huge, huge plus. Note that in order to send/receive iMessages in Messages on OS X 10.8.2+, your phone must be running iOS 6. Messages itself and the iMessage protocol seem to be much, much, much faster now. If both of my devices are connected to WiFi (and I’m not getting connectivity issues on the iPhone), a message sent from my phone will be visible on my Mac nearly instantly.

The only real software bug I’ve encountered in iOS 6 up to this point was a little hiccup when I first received the phone. Messages notifications wouldn’t make noise and the banners would stick until actioned. This stopped after I rebooted the phone, and is obviously not a hardware issue.

Hardware (A6, Battery, etc.)

The A5 processor was a dual-core 1GHz system that was (at least in the iPhone) under-clocked to 800 MHz. The A6 is a dual core 1.2 GHz system with a customized instruction set. In layman’s terms, not only is it faster on paper, it’s been heavily customized to work with iOS devices. And it shows.

The graphics portion of the system is similar to the one being used being used in the current iPad, however, with one less GPU “core”. This also shows. Graphics are buttery smooth, games look brilliant, and the game demos shown off at the announcement even should be a testament to this.

I have yet to notice these revamped internals causing a lot of strain on the battery in terms of thermal profile. The phone didn’t get hot once this weekend. However, my friend using his white iPhone 5 noticed his phone becoming screaming hot for no good reason, even after force-quitting everything in his application tray and doing a hard reset on the phone. He disabled cellular data, and the problem went away. It should be noted that his phone was running on AT&T, which was all but unusable at DeLuna Fest due to the number of people in attendance. My only working theory is that the phone was getting hot from the antenna going in to overdrive trying to pull down all of his push data and iMessages but not being able to. I have no way to back up this claim, but his phone was hot and I can only hope that this was simply an artifact of the festival and not some as-yet-to-be-discovered problem with the new phone.

Battery life has been strange for me. Anecdotally, both my friend and I found the battery life to be much poorer on the iPhone 5 than it was on the 4S; and he was only out at the festival on Sunday. Friday and Saturday were normal days for him and he still felt he was getting much worse time from his 5 than his 4S. He is also hesitant to blame LTE, since he is on AT&T and has no LTE data so has the antenna disabled on his phone. I’m going to reserve making a final comment on the battery until I spend some every-day non festival time with the phone, but at this point I can say that I’m a little underwhelmed by the battery life.

Lightning

There’s not much to say when reviewing a cable. I love the smaller form factor of the connector. Even the subtle tweaks to the USB end of the cable, with its stronger angles, is nice. However, the overall USB connection side seems to be smaller, and fits in to USB ports a little more snug. As such, I find it really hard to remove the USB cable from the little white wall adapter brick. This could go away over time after natural wear-and-tear on the plug makes it easier to remove. But it looks nice, and the Lightning side of the cable feels sturdy and dependable. The reversibility is also incredibly nice.

The shortage of lightning-to-30 pin adapters, however, is not nice.

Speaker

It sounds wonderful; I’ve been listening to music on it while I get ready in the morning since I can’t take the phone in the shower with me and my iHome can’t be used until the Lightning adapters start selling again in October. Obviously, the speaker isn’t really meant for this sort of thing all the time, but it is definitely louder and less tinny on the ears. I do, however, find that it is much easier to accidentally cover it up, and when it is covered up a lot less sound gets through than the predecessor. Not much to say here.

Verizon

My experience with Verizon has been fantastic. Locally, I get great coverage. I obviously haven’t had a chance to travel with the phone yet, so that will have to wait. The fact that they unlock their SIM slots from the get-go is also a huge bonus. Verizon phones seemed to be the only phones that worked properly at the festival, but then again Verizon also deployed portable cell towers so it’s not fair to judge the infrastructure based on that.

My experience at the kiosk was also pleasant. When the people there realized that I wasn’t tech illiterate and that I had an intent and knowledge of what I was doing, they didn’t try to hock anything at me that I didn’t want (cases, etc.). They bought out my old phone for $230 (16 GB 4S) and ported my number over to Verizon instantly. I’m sad that I had to give up my unlimited plan, but I’m ecstatic to finally be done with AT&T.

And, as I said earlier, LTE is blindingly fast, even when trying to slurp off of portable cell towers at a crowded music festival.

The Verdict

The iPhone 5 is easily the nicest phone I’ve ever owned. Each one of the small things that I discuss here seem small and incremental by themselves. But the iPhone 5 is truly an example of holistic excellence. Using the device is an absolute pleasure. If you can afford it, and you want it, you should buy it. After using it, I can assure you that there is no good reason to talk yourself out of it unless you just can’t spend the money. If you can afford an early upgrade but are on the fence, I can assure you it’s worth it; I paid for an early upgrade last year when I went from the 4 to the 4S, and going from the 4S to the 5 has been a hundred times more enjoyable still. It might not seem like much when you stand it up next to a 4S, but when you stand it up next to an original iPhone, it really becomes clear just how far these devices have come.