REVIEW: iPhone 5s

Apple's premium smartphone dazzles with biometrics, but the camera isn't that flash. With signs there may be teething problems for the new M7 processor, the iPhone 5s is good but not perfect.

Graph for REVIEW: iPhone 5s

Since the release of the iPhone 3Gs back in 2009, Apple has made a habit of releasing a higher powered iPhone every other year, based on the preceding year's model. Historically, this has meant faster internals with an improved camera, and this year's iPhone 5s follows the familiar format. But in an overcrowded smartphone market dominated by rapid change, does the iPhone 5s do enough to ward off the competition? 

A more secure iPhone with Touch ID

According to Apple, more than half of iPhone owners don’t secure their phones with passcodes. Through the use of a fingerprint scanner, which the company refers to as “Touch ID”, Apple has come up with a way for users to securely unlock their iPhone without the hassle of memorising and entering passcodes.

Of course, this is not the first time we are seeing fingerprint readers on a smartphone, with that honour going to the Motorola Atrix back in 2011.

But through its acquisition of security system firm AuthenTec Apple has developed a fingerprint reader that feels much more accurate than any other implementation we have seen on smartphones and laptops in the past. It has the ability to recognise your finger from many different angles and can store a number of different fingerprints. You can also set up the sensor to recognise prints from someone else’s fingers, which is handy if you normally like to share your phone’s access with a partner or friend.

The fingerprint scanner is hidden underneath the iPhone’s home button and in practical use it works very well. Touch ID is initiated by simply resting your finger on the home button. We found that it was actually quicker to unlock the iPhone with Touch ID than entering a four-number passcode.

Touch ID can also be used to authorise App store or iTunes purchases, saving you from having to enter your Apple ID password every time you buy something.

One issue with Touch ID is that it can be very sensitive to dirt, dust or dampness on your fingers, so you will need to ensure your hands are clean and dry when unlocking your iPhone otherwise it will fail to register.

Our only other other gripe with Touch ID is the fact that you can’t use it to log into your apps as Apple, at least for now, has not opened up access to app developers.

Being a hand-driven device, smartphones are a natural fit for biometrics and we can see fingerprint readers becoming a standard feature in flagship smartphones within the next couple of years.

Minor camera improvement

Instead of increasing the megapixel count, Apple has instead opted to focus on improving the low-light performance, normally the Achilles’ heel of smartphone cameras.

Apple has tackled the problem by developing a new five-element lens, a faster F2.2 aperture and increasing the camera’s sensor size by 15 per cent over the iPhone 5. In addition, Apple has moved from a single LED flash to two  one white and one amber, which Apple calls “True Tone flash”.

So do all these changes result in better low-light shots? Yes, but it’s not by any means a significant leap from the iPhone 5 and at times there was no noticeable improvement at all.

Low-light shooting with no flash, for example, produced a slightly less noisy picture than the iPhone 5 but it also demolished much of the detail in the picture. In other low-light shooting, we noticed no appreciable difference in quality.

Taking the same picture with True Tone flash turned on did however produce a warmer and more natural looking shot than what we were able to achieve with the iPhone 5.

Low-lit shots of up-close subjects also produced a more natural looking picture when compared with other dual LED flash-equipped smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4.

That said, the Galaxy S4 still has the edge when it comes to outdoor shots in ideal lighting conditions but phones were obviously no match for the leader in its class, the Nokia 1020.

Other features include a rather impressive burst capture mode that is triggered by holding down the shutter button, resulting in continuous capture of up to 999 images, making it handy for rapid motion activities like sporting events. The iOS 7 camera app will even auto-select the best shots, which worked quite well in our testing.

Like the Galaxy S4, the iPhone 5s is also capable of recording 720p video at 120 frames per second, enabling slow motion video recording (playing at 30 frames per second), which was an entertaining feature that could appeal to the GoPro camera crowd.

A7 64-bit optimisation

The iPhone 5s is powered by the new A7 64-bit, 1.3GHz dual-core CPU chip, which Apple claim is twice as fast as the A6 chip found in the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c.

Apple has made a lot of noise about the iPhone 5s being the first smartphone to use a desktop class 64-bit processor but the reality is that there are currently very few apps on the market that take advantage of the performance gains that the new chip offers.

It’s also worth remembering that the greatest benefit of moving to 64-bit architecture is the ability to use more than 4GB of RAM. The iPhone 5s currently uses 1GB of RAM and it’s hard to see Apple pushing past the 4GB limit within the next year or two.

So why the jump now? It’s entirely to do with setting the groundwork for the future and making sure that there is a huge library of apps optimised for 64-bit performance by the time Apple’s entire iPhone and iPad product line-up makes the jump to 64-bit processors.

That said, there are a few apps that have already been optimised to take advantage of the 64-bit architecture of the iPhone 5s, such as the graphically demanding Infinity Blade III game which boasts quicker load times, full-screen anti-aliasing, high-resolution shadows, environmental reflections and other processor intensive tasks.

Music and video mixing apps such as Algoriddim’s djay 2 and vjay are some others that take advantage of the new and improved chip, which has resulted in improvements such as quicker audio analysis and the ability to edit high-definition video in real-time within the app.

Autodesk (known for its professional-grade desktop software applications) has also updated a number of its photo and 3D graphics editing apps such as Pixlr Express PLUS, 123D Creature and SketchBook Mobile, all of which leverage the 64-bit chip to offer desktop editing tools.

While immediate benefits can be had from select content creation apps and demanding high-end games, performance while navigating around iOS 7 was otherwise comparable to what we experienced with the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c.

M7 teething troubles

Another aspect that is unique to the iPhone is the addition of the M7 co-processor which handles the processing of the accelerometer, compass and gyroscope – a task that would otherwise be delegated to the main A7 chip. Apple claims that leveraging the M7 reduces battery strain for apps that utilise those sensors.

An example of an app that takes advantage of the M7 is a fitness-based app called Argus. The app is designed to track all your steps throughout the day and also tallies up the number of kilometres you walk all without taxing the A7 processor.

The M7 chip can also detect whether you’re walking or driving and will switch the Apple Maps navigation app from driving to walking automatically, a feature that worked seamlessly in our testing.

We can also confirm (Apple's new 'antennagate': The iPhone 5S sensor woes, October 8) that both the compass and level apps were out by at least five degrees when compared with the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c. Both functions use a combination of the accelerometer, compass and gyroscope to provide a reading. While the inaccurate readings didn’t have any noticeable impact on other motion-control enabled applications we tested, it’s an indication that there may be teething problems for the new M7 processor.

Finally, one other noticeable improvement is that the output volume and clarity of the stereo speakers have been noticeably improved over the iPhone 5. The speakers aren't as impressive as on the excellent HTC One but are miles better than the tinny mono speaker of the Galaxy S4.

Good, not perfect

While Apple has made some strides when it comes to performance and an innovative new fingerprint reader, it has failed to increase the screen size and improve the battery life, which were our primary complaints with last year’s iPhone 5.  

In a market where 1080P 5-inch displays have become the norm for a flagship smartphone, Apple’s reluctance to move beyond the 4-inch screen size is a notable omission, especially when considering the number of apps that would benefit from the additional screen real estate. Video and photo editing in particular could do with more breathing room – not to mention productivity suites such as Apple’s very own iWork apps. Day-to-day tasks such as web browsing, emails and viewing a crowded calendar would also benefit from a larger screen.

We appreciate the easy, one-handed operation of the iPhone but competitors have shown that you can still achieve a compact design with a larger screen. Apple could have employed the use of edge-to-edge display design and quite easily sacrificed some of that substantial bezel space for a bit more screen.

Disappointingly, no improvements have been made to the battery life of the iPhone 5s either. If you struggled to get a full workday out of the iPhone 5 then expect a similar run-time with this year’s follow up. You may however notice an improvement in battery life if you frequently use fitness-orientated apps.

These negatives aside, there is no denying that the iPhone 5s, along with the much improved iOS 7, will be enough to keep existing users on the iPhone upgrade path and it’s easily one of the best smartphones currently available on the market.

But as much as we loved the implementation of Touch ID, we doubt that there are enough hooks in this year’s refresh to sway existing Android and Windows Phone users. 

Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering business IT and consumer technology.