A month with the iPhone 5

An in-depth look at the iPhone 5 one month after its record-breaking launch

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iPhone 5

Record-breaking preorders. Anticipation. Lines that begin forming a week in advance. Excitement. Launch-day lines that extend for blocks. Chaos. Supply shortages. Heartbreak. Preorder delays. Panic. Record-breaking opening weekend sales. Doubt. Problems that begin to arise. Scandals. Troubles continue to mount. Apologies. Heavy demand persists… These are the makings of an Apple (AAPL) device launch.

When Apple released its third-generation iPad earlier this year, it seemed like the hype surrounding Apple launches might finally be subsiding. Lines were short, inventory was plentiful and some were left wondering if Apple fever had subsided. As it turned out, that was not the case at all. The company’s manufacturing partner had finally managed to build enough devices to satisfy demand while Apple encouraged customers to preorder online rather than making in-store purchases on launch day. Apple ended up selling 3 million iPads during the device’s debut weekend, making it the company’s second-biggest launch of all time behind the iPhone 4S.

But Apple was back to its old self last month when the iPhone 5 finally hit store shelves (albeit briefly). The phone that took less than an hour to sell out on Apple.com was also sold out at many Apple Stores and carrier stores across the country after just a few hours, and it remains extremely difficult to find a new iPhone more than a month later.

All this commotion for a new cell phone?

Demand for a fresh new design had been building ahead of Apple’s iPhone 4S unveiling last year and when the company pulled back the curtain on a smartphone that looked exactly like its predecessor, people were disappointed. They got over it quickly, of course, and the 4S went on to become the fastest-selling smartphone of all time. Even still, people wanted a “new” iPhone.

And now they have it.

I have spent the past month using Apple’s new iPhone 5 alongside various other devices that have launched recently, and I’ve measured it against the competition as well as its predecessors. The device is certainly not without its faults — “Scuffgate” and “Mapsgate” have shown us that — but is the new iPhone 5 really “the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone,” as Apple claims?

Let’s start with the brand new design.

I have owned each generation of iPhone, from the original model through to the current version. From a design and materials perspective, the original iPhone was always my favorite. I was not happy when Apple moved away from aluminum and opted for plastic on the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and while the iPhone 4 and 4S moved back in the right direction by dumping cheap-feeling plastics in favor of glass and metal, I still missed the sleek aluminum housing on the first iPhone.

With the iPhone 5, Apple has gone back to its roots. The face of the phone is still a solid sheet of glass, as it always has been, but the back is now mostly aluminum just like it was on the original model.

The aluminum used on the iPhone 5 is much thinner than it was on the first iPhone and the result is a surprisingly light handset. It’s almost too light. I prefer a phone with some heft to it and the new iPhone took a bit of getting used to, especially considering I had often been using an iPhone 4S, a DROID INCREDIBLE 4G LTE and a Lumia 900 ahead of the iPhone 5’s release, all of which are heavy devices.

In terms of build, the iPhone 5 is in a class by itself. The micro-arc oxidized unibody aluminum on the international version of HTC’s (2498) One S probably comes the closest to approaching the iPhone 5, but no other device I’ve used — and I’ve used just about every big-brand smartphone under the sun — can compare to the new iPhone.

From the oleophobic glass face and the smooth aluminum back to the matte metal bezel with polished chamfered edges, everything about the new iPhone screams high end. The pieces align perfectly, the parts are all snug, the lines are well thought out and elegant, the buttons do not wobble, and there are no rattles or creaks whatsoever. The iPhone 5 is truly amazing considering where Apple’s rivals at in terms of materials and build quality.

The one misstep I’ve found is actually a pretty surprising one: the color of the removable SIM card tray on the black iPhone does not match the color of the antenna in which it is seated, and the result is pretty sad to look at. While this seems superficial, it’s positively shocking considering how much time and effort was clearly put into every last detail on this smartphone. And on the white iPhone 5, the SIM tray matches the antenna perfectly.

On the surface, the design of the iPhone 5 is not a dramatic departure from the previous-generation iPhone 4S. The shape is the same, the face is the same, the wrap-around antenna is the same and the button configuration is the same. Of course flattening the iPhone’s design to a mere 7.6 millimeters in an engineering feat, and it required a complete redesign of the handset’s internal components to accomplish.

Back on the outside of the device, I definitely appreciate each of the external design changes Apple introduced on the iPhone 5. As a whole, however, I’m torn.

The look of the white iPhone screams “Apple.” It’s gorgeous. Period. The black model is a stark departure from other modern Apple products, though. It’s so very, very dark. Whereas the black iPhone 4 and 4S have silver aluminum accents to break up the darkness, every visible part of the iPhone 5’s case is a shade of black. The face, the antenna, the chamfered edges of the antenna, the buttons, the aluminum back, the glass inserts above and below the aluminum back plate… all black or very dark gray.

I think my wife hit the nail on the head when she likened the black iPhone 5 to KITT, Michael Knight’s car in the 1980s TV series Knight Rider.

The new iPhone does have a very dated look to it in black. The device itself is sleek and modern but the color scheme screams 80s. After a month with the phone I’m still torn. Some days I think it looks slick and understated, and other days I think it looks like a prop from a 30-year-old Sci-fi movie.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder — on to function.

With each new iPhone it seems like apps can’t open any faster, scrolling can’t be any smoother and animations can’t be any more fluid. Then the next iPhone launches.

Put plainly, the iPhone 5 is better than its predecessors in nearly every conceivable way. Apple doubled the iPhone’s RAM to 1GB and added the new A6 chipset, and the result is phenomenal. The difference in performance between the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 is instantly noticeable, and I would venture to call Apple’s new handset the fastest smartphone on the market when performing common functions.

Apps open instantly and are ready to go as quickly as you can bring your thumb back to the display after tapping an icon. Music and video streams start instantly as long as there’s a decent data connection, and there is no discernible lag whatsoever while moving around in apps or jumping from one app to another.

Apple’s new iPhone also gets a big speed boost thanks to LTE. Rival smartphones from manufacturers like HTC and Samsung (005930) began adopting 4G LTE last year and I can be counted among the many consumers who were disappointed when the iPhone 4S was unveiled and LTE support was absent. AT&T’s LTE network was just starting to roll out at that time though, so Apple was likely waiting for more expansive coverage in the U.S. and abroad before rolling out an LTE smartphone.

LTE speeds have been comparable to what I’ve seen on any other device, typically bouncing between the high teens and low 20s on the download side in and around New York City — much faster than 99% of users will need any time soon. With high speeds and low latency, the line between Wi-Fi and cellular connections is really starting to blur. To me though, the bigger deal is the fact that I am now able to use data on an AT&T iPhone in the middle of the day in midtown Manhattan, a feat that was next to impossible on AT&T’s HSPA network.

Despite the addition of LTE on the iPhone 5, I have found battery life to be significantly better than it was on the iPhone 4S during an average work day. Granted, my handset is connected to Wi-Fi for most of the day at my office or at home, but with the iPhone 4S I found that I needed to charge my phone roughly every 24 hours. As I write this, it has been about 24 hours since I last charged my iPhone 5 and the battery currently reads 31%. That’s a huge improvement.

When I’m out and not connected to Wi-Fi for most of the day, I’ve found battery performance is still slightly better than it was on the iPhone 4S.

iPhone 5 Review

The other big change on the new iPhone is the display.

I wrote a piece this past summer noting how dull the iPhone’s display was starting to look compared to the big, bright AMOLED panels on rival devices. In it, I said that the new brighter and more vivid display was likely an indication that the iPhone 5’s panel would show marked improvements, and this is indeed the case.

Apple’s new display is, yet again, a class leader. Clarity has never been a problem for Apple, and the difference is instantly apparent when a Retina display placed next to any rival panel. Apple’s iPhone screens were bested by offerings from Samsung, HTC and others when it came to brightness and color reproduction, but the game has now shifted in Apple’s favor once again. It really is a sight to behold.

In terms of size, however, the difference really isn’t that great.

I had suspected as much ahead of the new iPhone’s launch, and my suspicions have now been confirmed: the iPhone 5’s taller display doesn’t change much as far as the user experience is concerned. User interface elements are still exactly the same size and the new aspect ratio is actually kind of awkward. It’s nice to fit more lines of text on the screen but the improvement is minimal.

In a way, it seems like the iPhone 5 has a bigger display just so that Apple can say the iPhone 5 has a bigger display. It doesn’t add much to the overall experience.

Sadly, though predictably, most of my biggest issues with Apple smartphones are still present in the newest model. Auto-correct shows some minor improvement in iOS 6 but is still a sad joke, there’s still no widget solution to present users with real-time data on home screens, time- and location-based actions are still years behind the competition, notifications still aren’t actionable, apps still won’t update automatically, third-party apps still can’t share data effectively and the iOS email client still stinks. Searches in the Mail app are actually even worse for me now, in fact, because if I select a listed result before the search has completed, the phone closes the email I opened and switches to the email that took its place in the results list.

And yes, the infamous iPhone skull quake is still alive and kicking.

Apple clearly had other priorities when putting iOS 6 together — like ousting Google and launching its own awful mapping solution — and the software is a significant improvement over earlier versions of iOS. I’m also certain that Apple will add functionality to iOS in the future that addresses many of the issues I noted above. The wait is becoming difficult to bear in some cases, however, especially considering mobile operating systems had some of this functionality nearly a decade ago.

Interestingly, most of the opinions I formed after just a few minutes of using the iPhone 5 remain unchanged now, a month later. The build is incredible, the feel is remarkable, the performance is class leading, the look of the white model is gorgeous, the look of the black model is peculiar, and the taller screen is awkward.

In terms of hardware, Apple is not exaggerating — the iPhone 5 represents the most significant physical change to Apple’s smartphone so far. In terms of software, iOS 6 moves in the right direction barring a few exceptions, but Apple still has a lot of work to do.

In the end, the complete package is what matters most and the iPhone 5 presents users with a product that is attractive, powerful, smooth and elegant. Moreover, the iPhone 5 delivers an experience out of the box that is exactly what Apple envisioned. There is no stuttering, stammering, skipping, crashing or freezing as is the case on other smartphones.

While a jitter or even a freeze here and there on Android or Windows Phone isn’t a huge deal and people have been living with these hiccups since the dawn of the PC, not having to suffer through these performance issues makes interacting with the iPhone unique. Install one poorly made third-party app and you’re knocked back down to reality, of course, but the iPhone experience at its core is a cut above the competition.

Apple let its new design do the talking with the iPhone 5. There is precious little in the way of new and exciting innovation introduced by iOS 6, but the overall experience has been refined and turbocharged. The new display also changes the iOS user experience for the better — not because it’s bigger, per se, but because the panel quality is vastly improved.

The iPhone 5 is undoubtedly the most impressive iPhone Apple has launched to date, but it’s also more than that: it separates Apple from its rivals by a wider margin than ever before. In terms of hardware quality and in terms of core software performance, the new iPhone has no peers.

Apple’s competition still offers a number of advantages over the iPhone in different areas, but the complete package the iPhone delivers — the end-to-end experience that results from hardware, software and services that are cohesive and elegant — is in a class by itself.

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