How the iPhone 5s has made me fall in love with iPhones all over again

Craig Grannell explains how Apple's latest smartphone rekindled his iPassion

The iPhone 5s has been hailed as a hit but also slammed as merely iterative and lacking in innovation. 

Two months later, now the initial wave of excitement and hype is over, Craig Grannell explores what life is really like with Apple’s fingerprint-scanning, 64-bit smartphone. (Short version: life is pretty good.)

A stale marriage

I treasured my first iPhone, a 3GS. To get it off of me, you’d have had to prise it out of my cold dead hands. Even then I’d have found some way to return as a zombie, eat your brains, and get my iPhone back. It did convergence right for the first time: email, web, reading, photography, video, gaming, mapping, music-making. It looked good too.

Remember this chunky thing?

Subsequently, I got the feeling of diminishing returns, despite Retina displays freeing my eyes from the horror of visible pixels. By the time the iPhone 5 arrived, upgrade enthusiasm had dwindled. I didn’t really care, a feeling cemented by a demo model that lurked in my office for weeks while put through its paces. It was too big, too light, and the new connector irked.

But Apple apparently laces devices with pixie dust that soaks into your skin and reformats your brain. I’d not thoroughly enjoyed the iPhone 5 experience, but my iPhone 4s suddenly felt cramped, squat, slow and heavy.

I started to read rumour sites about the iPhone 5’s successor, alternating such episodes with pouring bleach into my eyes to take away the pain I was experiencing from the sheer deluge of stupid. (“Apple rumoured to be working on seven different iPhones, two of which are made from koalas’ tears.” “Sources state iPhone 5s to be a pyramid that sings Tom Jones songs.”)

Eventually, the iPhone 5s arrived, championed by Stuff as “ingenious, forward-thinking and powerful”, although the same review added that the iPhone was “stuck in its ways”. Two months of daily iPhone 5s use later and I’m inclined to agree — but Apple’s latest nonetheless reinvigorated my passion for the line.

SCREEN SAVER

I still hate the screen, but I also love the screen. Hate first: there’s that nagging irritation of not quite comfortably being able to reach everywhere with a thumb when holding the device one-handed. I have to stretch a bit — a real first-world non-problem — but reason that at least I don’t need the kind of banana fingers required to operate certain Android monsters.

What’s better about the bigger screen is it feels more natural for the content that’s usually welded to my iPhone: in portrait, Twitter, Safari and other text-oriented apps show more content; games in widescreen are less obscured by fidgeting thumbs, thereby making me approximately one per cent better at Boson X. (If you have a Boson X addiction, you’ll know just how terrifically important this is.)

Like the 5 before it, the 5s’s case design to integrate the larger display is rather clever. Apple almost managed to retain the older iPhone’s dimensions, meaning you get a lot more screen in an only slightly longer unit. It’s still very pocketable, even when entombed in a natty cover (or, in my case, one that looks like a cassette tape, because I’m old). Two months in and I wouldn’t go back — not that I could, with Apple being a one-screen-size-fits-all kind of company. But the device feels about right to me, and having also used a Nexus 4 (more on that later), I’ve no desire for a significantly larger display.

POWER-HOUSE

An apocryphal internet yarn claims an unsuspecting frog in cold water won’t notice if you slowly cook it. An entirely true internet yarn (this one) states a certain writer won’t notice as technology slowly degrades around him until it’s, in technological terms, ‘cooked’. Make of that what you will — perhaps an angry frog with a warm behind should be writing this feature.

That I perhaps stick with devices for too long means I also notice leaps in power. It was immediately apparent on first using the iPhone 5s and firing everything I could think of at it. Music apps! High-end games! Art apps! It just shrugged off my pitiful attempts to introduce lag. “Is that all you’ve got,” it seemed to growl, although that might have been something I heard after one too many sessions of Death Ray Manta.

A swift look at specs explains all. My old 4s was wheezing along with 512 MB of RAM and an 800 MHz A5 chip; the 5s boasts twice the RAM and a super-powered 1.3 GHz A7, presumably composed entirely of ground unicorn.

There’s an argument today’s Apple concentrates too much on specs, notably at press events (to the point you want to hurl a Mac mini at an overly chatty exec’s head, just to shut him up). But it’s hard to complain too much when the result is a device practically begging you to challenge it with the newest, most powerful apps, which enable you to have fun and create new things.

A PRETTY PICTURE

The iPhone’s camera was once a laughing stock, although it was primarily laughed at by point-and-shoot cameras. Over time, the iPhone point and shot — lots of photos and all of the cameras. On Flickr, it rose to the number-one spot and never relinquished it, evolving technology combining with a bewilderingly large app ecosystem to make even the most ardent Lomography advocate consider going digital.

I realise now that my photo-taking antics had slowed with the iPhone 4s. It’s not much cop waiting seconds for everything to warm up when life around you moves so quickly. But the iPhone 5s has nailed it, retaining the satisfying volume press to activate the shutter, but ramping up other aspects of the hardware and software.

One big change is the weird pink fringe effect I found when using the iPhone 5 demo unit’s flash — this appears to have been banished. The new flash has two LEDs — one each of white and amber — and software figures out a scene’s colour temperature, determining the intensity and colour of the flash it should use. The result isn’t always perfect, but I do more often get photos that don’t need colour-correction.

Then there are new toys in the form of Burst Mode (ten frames per second) and 120fps slow-motion video, previously the domain of third-party apps, and noticeable improvements to image stabilisation and speed, especially when shooting panoramas. Spec-wise, the iPhone remains nothing special on paper (although the front-facing camera is now HD, thereby excitingly showing extra wrinkles in perfect detail when using FaceTime), but the combination of hardware and software has got me taking loads of photos again, much to my Schnauzer’s chagrin. (He’s really against privacy invasions, unless first bribed with a biscuit.)

More after the break...

BETTER CONNECTIONS

When I had the iPhone 5 demo unit, I was irritated by the Lightning connector. I stubbornly decided it was the Worst Thing Ever, which in no small part was driven by my owning so many 30-pin Dock cables that I could fashion a rope from them and flee my upstairs office via the window should the need arise.

Dramatic weight loss

Meanwhile, the press and the EU frothed that surely Apple if it needed to change should use micro-USB, because micro-USB is more commonly used. They cunningly ignored contrary arguments, as did I — until I had my iPhone 5s for a couple of days.

The moment it clicked was when I without thinking just plugged in the charging cable. I’d not looked to see which way round it was, because I didn’t need to. That might not sound like much, but small changes can make a big difference to user experience, and also, as it turns out, reduce those occasions when you’re dead tired, bleary-eyed and trying to mash, say, a micro-USB cable into a device upside-down.

People cleverer than I note that Lightning has many other benefits: a higher power capacity (handy for iPads); the means to add to the tech via firmware updates; increasingly common usage as a device support in docks; quality control (which ups costs but lowers risk); and bi-directional power, enabling the device to charge an accessory.

Really, though, I’m just happy with my never-upside-down power cables, because I’m apparently astonishingly easy to please but fast to rile. (Hits dodgy micro-USB lead with a hammer.)

PERFECT TOUCH

Every time Apple releases new hardware, there’s a laundry list of complaints about what the company didn’t add. But Apple doesn’t do bullet-point lists, instead adding technology people will actually use, even if it’s not immediately obvious why these choices were made.

At first, Touch ID — the iPhone 5s fingerprint identity sensor/system — looked like a gimmick, but after two months of use, it’s such a natural part of using the device that I miss it when I grab an iPad. Instead of unlocking the phone by tapping in a four-digit PIN, like some kind of caveman, casually holding a finger or thumb on the Home button for a second does the trick.

The same’s largely true for app purchases. This is about sweating the details and inserting some joy into technology. With the device storing an abstraction of your prints on the A7 chip and not online, the system’s also secure, which is reassuring. (That said, if anyone wants to hack off my digits to access my device for nefarious purposes, I suspect I’ve got bigger problems.)

REALITY CHECK

There’s never really been a point where I’ve seriously considered ditching iOS and venturing elsewhere, but I did grab a Nexus 4 a while back. This was in part to see how ‘the other side’ lives, but also an attempt to rekindle my technology spark. It didn’t really work.

The Nexus 4 is a perfectly fine device, and Android does some things I wish Apple would steal, ‘like an artist’ (not least the alphabetical list of on-device apps, and being able to install new apps from the web), but the experience in general just felt a bit cheap, from the plasticky and overly large device itself through to the Android operating system. It certainly wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t anything compelling that made me want to switch permanently.

The iPhone 5s, while not revolutionary and perhaps while, yes, playing it safe, remains in a different ballpark — at least for my usage, which is more about getting things done and being creative than tinkering with the operating system or embedding myself so much in the Google ecosystem I legally have to start calling myself Craig Schmidt.

APPLE OF MY EYE

It’s not all plain-sailing. The iPhone remains a bit battery-hungry, due to iOS 7’s background tasks (which can, mercifully, be disabled), and there’s a definite sense of design-before-usability in some of Jony Ive’s interface texture whitewashing.

It’s no wonder he wears T-shirts so often in Apple videos, given how much he seems to hate visible buttons. Also, putting the headphone port at the bottom of the device was just plain wrong, and if you disagree, you are also just plain wrong.

Furthermore, there’s the reality that part of the value of any item you own is in the investment. Do I like the iPhone 5s more than the 5 I had hanging around because it’s mine, and because I paid for it? Is part of my rekindled fondness for the iPhone line rationalisation?

Undoubtedly, but I’m far from alone in that, and _objectively_ the iPhone 5s after a couple of months remains the best iPhone — and best smartphone — I’ve used. It’s suitable, stable, fast and smart, boasts the best app ecosystem, and has new features that are genuinely useful.

After the hype died down, the new features are ones I continue to use daily, rather than getting excited about them once or twice but then never using them again. And although Apple might have played it safe, the iPhone also still understands that the details — the small things — really matter.

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