TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: The hands-on iPhone 5 review

Thinner, lighter, brighter – the iPhone 5 may not have been the revolutionary leap forward some had hoped but it's still an amazing engineering feat.


Technology Spectator


It's been a long time coming, but was Apple's iPhone 5 worth the wait?

The short answer is "yes". The long answer is "yes, but there are sacrifices to make".
Pick up the iPhone 5 and you're immediately struck by how light it is. Ridiculously light, like the sensation of picking up a remote control only to immediately realise that it has no batteries in it.

It's not until you turn the phone over in your hands that you start to appreciate that it's also significantly thinner, well at least "significant" in terms of smartphone design where millimetres feel like miles. Even the Samsung Galaxy S III looks and feels a little bloated alongside the iPhone 5, which is an amazing engineering feat.

The phone is no wider than its predecessor, so it still fits comfortably in your hand. Of course, the big selling point with the iPhone 5 is the larger display but it doesn't jump out and smack you in the face. Unlike the 4.7-inch Android giants, a 4-inch iPhone just feels incredibly natural, especially as it's no wider than the 4/4S. You get an extra row of icons on the home screen, but it's not until you dip into a few apps that you really notice the extra screen real estate.

To be honest I'm not all that fussed about the larger screen. I don't think long-term iPhone users were crying out for extra screen real estate, I think they were just sick of the "mine's bigger than yours" taunts from the Android crowd. Thankfully Apple hasn't just made the screen bigger, it's also improved the picture quality. It's not striking, but when you pay attention you can see that the colours are slightly more vivid than the iPhone 4 while not as overblown as some Android AMOLED displays.

image

A white iPhone 5 alongside its predecessor, the black iPhone 4.

The iPhone 5's colours are also slightly warmer -- the whites are whiter than the iPhone 4 which, alongside the iPhone 5, seems to have the slightest of blue tinges. It comes down to personal taste, the iPhone has always offered whiter whites than most Android phones (the early AMOLED models looked terrible) but the iPhone 5's whites are almost too warm for my liking. To be honest we're talking about the slightest of differences and you'd only really notice if you sat the phones side by side.

It's interesting to note that the iPhone 5's display and aluminium edges don't feel quite as smooth and inviting as the last model. It's not a big deal, but surprising considering Apple's habit of paying attention to every little detail. It's interesting that Apple has also ditched the glass back in favour of aluminium, which should make the phone less fragile and probably helps with the weight loss.

As you navigate your way around the phone you'll find that everything feels that little bit zippier, as you'd expect with the new A6 power plant under the bonnet. Along with the faster processor, the jump from 512MB to 1GB of RAM also helps when you start pushing the phone to its limits. If you've felt your current iPhone groan under the weight of multi-tasking, the iPhone 5 is likely to offer some relief.

Picture perfect

Launching the camera is always a good yardstick with a new iPhone and the shutter is open and ready to shoot noticeably sooner. There's also less of a lag when you take shots or press the video button.

Once again Apple has improved the dynamic range of the camera, helping it take better shots in low-light conditions as well as scenes with bright backgrounds. You'll certainly pick up more detail in the shadows, offering better looking shots. You'll also find a slick panorama mode for stitching together photos (which sadly didn't come to the iPhone 4 with the iOS6 update).

Improved happy snaps make it easier to leave your compact digital camera at home, but perhaps of more interest is the front camera's leap to five megapixels. It's allowed Apple to significantly improve the image quality of Facetime video sessions, which can now run over 3G or wi-fi on the iPhone 5. With two iPhone 5 review units, from Optus and Vodafone, I could clearly see the improvement in Facetime video sessions compared to the two iPhone 4s in my home. Faces are far less fuzzy and soft. Even between a 5 and 4 you can see the improvement in the video coming from the 5.

The iPhone 5 also supports high-def voice calls on Telstra, which I'm looking forward to as a Next G customer. I should be able to test this when I get my hands on a Telstra-issued iPhone 5 review unit next week. I'm told it should also work between an iPhone 5 and a Samsung Galaxy S III if both on Next G.

Of course the iPhone 5's other major selling point is LTE high-speed mobile broadband, but due to current coverage limitations I could test LTE on the Optus unit and not the Vodafone unit. Of course if you've spent any time messing around with mobile broadband you'll know the performance can be very hit and miss. I only managed to squeeze 8 Mbps out of Optus on LTE, compared to around 4 Mbps when it fell back to HSDPA. Meanwhile I got 3 Mbps out of Vodafone's HSDPA network. What was interesting is that LTE offered higher ping times but, like I said, your mileage may vary. Personally I'm keen to see what the iPhone 5 can squeeze out of Telstra's LTE and Dual-Cell HSDPA offerings.

Of course no iPhone 5 hands on would be complete without mentioning the new smaller "Lightning" 8-pin connector. Some consider it necessary for the redesign of the phone, others consider it change for the sake of change. I'm in the second camp and I'm quite frustrated that the larger screen size and small dock breaks backwards compatibility with all my existing iGadget accessories. Adaptors won't be available for several weeks, but it doesn't look like they'll do the job in every situation (for example trying to squeeze an iPhone 5 into TomTom's iPhone 4 car kit).

The Lightning plug connects with a satisfying click and seems sturdy enough to balance the weight of the phone, although I'm not sure I'd trust it. Apple reportedly won't even offer a standalone cradle for the iPhone 5 because "people don't use them". That's bullshit. It's the kind of "father knows best" arrogance that makes it so easy to hate Apple as a company, even if you like its gadgets.

So what's the verdict? Apple's iPhone 5 improves on the older models in so many areas that it's a no-brainer upgrade if your old iPhone 4 is at the end of its two-year contract – as long as you appreciate the hassles of the changed screen size and connector. To be honest if Apple sold a second iPhone 5 model which stuck with the iPhone 4's dimensions I'd happily forsake the extra screen real estate in favour of backwards compatibility. But that's not Apple's way. If you're happy for Apple to dictate the upgrade cycle of all your iGadget accessories, you'll be very happy with the iPhone 5.