Apple iPhone 5 – was it worth the wait?

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With a gorgeous new four-inch screen and fantastic photo and video quality, the stunningly thin and light new iPhone is better than the previous versions, but can it measure up to the Samsung Galaxy S III?

After almost 12 long months of waiting, the much-anticipated Apple iPhone 5 has finally arrived. But in a year in which we’ve seen cutting-edge, market-defining devices launched by Samsung and HTC, among others, can Apple hold onto its crown in the ever-growing smartphone market, or has the mighty iPhone finally lost its touch?

While everyone expected Apple to launch the iPhone 5 at the end of 2011, the rumours turned out to be nothing more than hot air. The excitement then turned to disappointment as we got the iPhone 4S which, while certainly a beautiful evolution of the range, wasn’t the iPhone revolution everyone was expecting.

So it is in the shadow of such expectations and the wake of the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X that the iPhone 5 arrives. And with its striking new design, bigger screen, improved performance and a range of great features, it is certain to be a winner. But is it enough to convince existing iPhone users to upgrade?

Lighter than ever
Right out of the box the new design is a clear improvement on the iPhone 4 and 4S. While the screen has been stretched from 3.5 inches to four inches, it is the thinnest and lightest iPhone to date. The difference in how it makes the new iPhone feel is truly staggering, with the device feeling almost too light in your hand.

While the iPhone 4 and 4S weighed 137g and 140g respectively, the iPhone is a featherlight 112g. In fact it’s so light that as we picked it up out of the box we were certain that we must’ve been sent a faulty device without a battery included. When compared to the 4S, it makes its predecessor feel like a brick in comparison.

The chassis is also slightly thinner than previous iPhones, shaving around 2mm off the iPhone 4 and 4S. Although this may not sound like much, when combined with the new lightweight design, it helps the iPhone 5 feel far thinner than it is, making it the most portable iPhone yet and a pleasure to hold and carry.

Once we’d gotten over the surprise of how light it is, however, we found ourselves a little underwhelmed by just how similar the new design is to the old one. While there’s no doubt the tweaks Apple has added to the tried and tested iPhone design are certainly improvements, this is still a minor evolution of what has come before over the past two years.

Tweaked design
The most obvious change is the rear of the device. Where the iPhone 4 and 4S were crafted entirely from glossy glass on the rear, the iPhone 5 uses a brushed
aluminium panel, capped by 10mm of glass at the top and bottom, to give the handset a sturdier, scratch-resistant finish.

Other changes are less noticeable but still improve on the look of the device. For starters, where the profile of the screen and rear were previously raised above the metallic bar that runs around the phone, they now sit flush with it for a cleaner, more streamlined appearance helping to shave the 2mm from its depth.

The previously flat metallic bar now sports a polished bevelled edge, which catches the light and sparkles under bright lights. We’re sure some people will enjoy the glitzy look it provides, but we found it a bit too garish for our tastes. Although the curved edges give the chassis a more comfortable feel in the hand.

The headphone port has now been moved from the top of the device to the bottom – a tweak which some will love and others will hate. And the metal speaker and microphone grilles at the bottom of the handset have now been replaced by drilled holes on the left and right, which looks fantastic against the 4S.

In a more controversial move, though, the previous 30-pin iPhone connector has now been replaced by Apple’s new Lightning port. The smaller port is certainly easier to use and its small size looks great, but it means that any relevant iPhone peripherals you own, such as audio docks, won’t work with the iPhone 5.

That is unless you buy an official Lightning to 30-pin Adapter, which will cost you an extra £30. Considering the iPhone 5 is already one of the most expensive smartphones you can buy and the Lightning port has few added benefits, this move is sure to anger existing customers who will be forced into buying the new adapter.

Apple has also included a newly-designed set of earphones. Whereas the previous iPhone earphones have often been criticised for being uncomfortable to wear and delivering tinny sound quality, the new earphones, or EarPods as they’re called, are far more comfortable and provide a noticeably clearer, louder sound.

While they can’t rival the quality of dedicated earphones from audio specialists such as Sennheiser or V-MODA, the improvement over their predecessors is significant – although they fail to provide sufficient noise cancellation for blocking out background sound so third-party headphones will still be a preferable.

Spacious screen
Of course the biggest design change is the new four-inch screen. Striking a neat balance between the somewhat cramped 3.5-inch screen of the iPhone 4S and the frankly ludicrous 5.5-inch screen of the new Samsung Galaxy Note II, it lends the iPhone 5 a larger visual canvas without much negative impact on day-to-day mobility.

Still in place is Apple’s stunning Retina display and images are as sharp as ever compared to the iPhone 4 and 4S. The screen resolution has been bumped up slightly from 640 x 960 pixels to 640 x 1,136 pixels to accommodate the new screen size, so images and text are still rendered with stunning levels of sharpness and detail.

The increased size allows room for an extra row of apps on screen and more space to view web pages and read documents. And when you hold the phone horizontally, it also makes it easier to watch widescreen videos in their native format, without intrusive thick black bars bordering it at the top and bottom of the screen.

Unfortunately, however, the opposite is true when running apps. Since most third-party apps have yet to be updated to match the new screen resolution, you will have to put up with borders on either side until updates arrive.

Apple claims the iPhone 5 offers 44 per cent greater colour saturation than before and while we found the difference wasn’t quite that dramatic, it certainly looks
better than the iPhone 4 and 4S. Colours do appear more vibrant and striking, lending images a more natural and vivid look than we’ve seen before.

But it’s not just external changes that the iPhone 5 brings – it also packs a performance boost courtesy of some welcome and much needed internal hardware improvements.

Performance boost
The dual-core A5 processor and 512MB of RAM of the iPhone 4S has been upgraded to an A6

processor and 1GB of RAM and the improvement in power is more than noticeable.

We were hoping for a huge speed boost over the already speedy 4S and the iPhone 5 blows its predecessor out of the water. With performance that more than doubles that of the 4S, this is by far the fastest iPhone to date, delivering a smooth and silky user experience.

For a phone at the top end of the market, though, this is also where the iPhone 5 feels a bit underwhelming. With devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy S III using powerful quad-core performance, it’s a shame that Apple didn’t follow suit. Although our benchmark tests still revealed that it is a faster phone than all but Samsung’s flagship device at present.

Full article in Mobile News issue 524 (October 8, 2012).

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