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.
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.
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.
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.)