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A month with the iPhone 5s

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 8:43PM EST
Apple iPhone 5s Review

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Apple’s iPhone 5s represents the biggest “S” upgrade an iPhone has ever seen. The guts of the phone have been completely overhauled, just as BGR exclusively reported they would be back in May. Beyond the internals, Apple’s new Touch ID fingerprint scanner also makes the 5s the first “S” upgrade ever to include a major new user-facing hardware feature. The processor is better, two of the color options are new, the battery lasts longer, the camera takes better photos and even the display is slightly easier on the eyes thanks to its cooler tone. But as a total package in the context of being an upgrade from last year’s iPhone model, Apple’s iPhone 5s may very well be the least impressive jump to date.

First and foremost, the iPhone 5s is the best iPhone Apple has ever made. This is important, though the same could safely have been said of every single new iPhone model that came before it.

The iPhone 5s is also an improvement over last year’s iPhone 5. In fact, benchmark tests suggest it’s a big improvement over its predecessor. Despite its dual-core processor and only 1GB of RAM, performance tests show that Apple’s iPhone 5s positively slaughters every other smartphone on the market, including quad- and eight-core Android hero phones. It trounces the iPhone 5 as well.

But the difference on paper between the iPhone 5 and 5s is far more impressive than the difference in your hand.

In typical daily use, the iPhone 5s feel no different from the iPhone 5 most of the time. Apps open quickly and moving around the phone is far more fluid than any comparable handset from Apple’s rivals. The same exact compliments can also be paid to the iPhone 5.

I will say, however, that some hiccups in Apple’s latest iOS 7 software are amplified slightly by the iPhone 5s, if only because I had hoped that performance improvements would iron them out.

One annoying example: the zoom-in transition animation that displays when the user opens any app from within the multitasking interface is very smooth up until the last instant. Just as the app screen has zoomed in nearly all the way, there is a brief stutter as the image fills out the last bit of space approaching the edges of the iPhone’s screen.

It’s just one example of several similar hiccups, and it’s very un-Apple. Hopefully a software update will soon fix these and other issues. I have confirmed that not all 5s units exhibit this peculiar animation bug, but I’ve also confirmed that many do.

Using Apple’s various apps that come preinstalled on the iPhone is no different on the iPhone 5s than it was on last year’s model. The new 64-bit A7 chipset designed by Apple and fabricated by Samsung indeed seems to help deliver smoother performance when playing very complex games or while using other graphics-heavy apps, but the average iPhone owner likely won’t notice much of a difference between the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 5s most of the time.

In fact, in some unscientific tests where I launched the same apps on freshly booted iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s handsets each with the exact same iOS 7 software and data, the iPhone 5 was often quicker to launch and load apps than the 5s.

Long story short, this is a huge change from previous “S” updates.

Users who upgraded from the iPhone 3G to the 3GS were immediately able to feel the difference. The 3GS looked the same, but it was obviously recognizable as a brand new phone the moment you powered it on. Apps opened quicker, performance was much smoother and multitasking was dramatically improved. Everything was faster. The jump from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4S was similarly impressive and immediately noticeable as well.

This is simply not the case with the iPhone 5s.

Some have argued that the iPhone 5 is already so fluid that improvements can’t possibly be as noticeable anymore. Of course, that argument just ridiculous. The performance of computing devices, mobile and otherwise, will continue to improve just as it has for decades. Remember, people once thought the combination of Windows 95 and Intel’s Pentium Pro processors was as good as it gets.

As I said, the iPhone 5s is indeed an improvement over the iPhone 5 in many ways. It’s just not the “S” jump iPhone users are used to.

Moving to the iPhone 5s from any phone on the planet other than the iPhone 5, however, is an entirely different story.

There is still nothing in the world as fluid and slick as Apple’s flagship iPhones, and the gap remains with the iPhone 5s. Four cores, eight cores, 2GHz, 2.3GHz, 2GB of RAM, 3GB of RAM… these are all just small pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

Recent tests performed by Anand Lal Shimpi, one of the most highly regarded device reviewers in the world when it comes to the technical aspects of consumer electronics, found that the iPhone 5s bested each and every rival in about a dozen key performance tests. In fact, it didn’t just beat most of its rivals, it absolutely crushed them.

Plainly put, there is more to a smartphone’s story than gigahertz and cores. The software matters. The apps matter. The components matter. The touchscreen technology matters. Like anything else, a smartphone is the sum of its parts.

On to a few particulars.

Reports have been mixed so far, but I have found battery life to be significantly better with the iPhone 5s than it was with the iPhone 5. The new iPhone features a bigger battery and iOS brings several optimizations to the table, and for me the combination has really paid off.

In order to really get the most out of the battery, I have parallax motion effects turned off, I don’t use dynamic wallpapers and I spend most of each day connected to Wi-Fi networks.

The M7 motion co-processor is reasonably accurate and great for run tracking, but it is definitely not a replacement for a dedicated step tracker like the Fitbit Flex or Jawbone UP.

People take too many steps without their phones each day for the iPhone to be used as an accurate step tracker. In my own testing with third-party app Argus, I found that the iPhone’s step count was typically about 20% lower than the counts recorded by the Fitbit Flex, Jawbone UP or Samsung Galaxy Gear. One day it was off by over 35%.

Touch ID will be great someday, but today is not that day.

When it comes to unlocking the phone with a fingerprint instead of a PIN or passcode, Touch ID is indeed faster and easier. It is also incredibly accurate and has yet to give me a single error. Apple’s fingerprint scanner takes about 10 seconds to learn and store a fingerprint, and the learning process is as simple as touching different parts of your finger to the home button repeatedly until the scanner has saved enough surface area to account for the majority of your print.

Once prints are stored, it’s actually pretty amazing how fast the iPhone scans and how well it works. That said, I disabled Touch ID’s passcode unlock feature within a few minutes of owning the iPhone 5s.

As I mentioned, Touch ID is terrific and it’s much faster, more secure and more accurate than entering a PIN. But for whatever reason, Apple requires that when Touch ID is enabled for unlocking the phone, the phone must be set to lock immediately each time the display shuts off.

Many users have their phones set to lock immediately anyway, and for them this will not be an issue. I typically have my phone set to lock after 30 minutes or even an hour of inactivity. Why? My phone is always at my side and I don’t want to have to bother with unlocking it each time a new message arrives.

It might seem trivial, but swiping a notification and having to unlock my phone every single time, even with a fingerprint scanner, is a hassle I don’t need — especially when I’m sitting alone in my office for hours at a time without any risk of someone accessing my phone. Sometimes I interact with multiple notifications in a 60-second span and having to unlock my phone each time I do is ridiculous.

I really can’t think of a single reason Apple would require the phone to lock immediately when using Touch ID but not when using PIN code protection. A fingerprint scanner is far more secure than a four-digit PIN will ever be.

The quality of images captured by Apple’s new iPhone 5s is noticeably better than iPhone 5. Color reproduction is also vastly improved despite the fact that the iPhone 5’s camera was already among best to have ever found its way to a smartphone.

Apple’s new flash helps a great deal with color reproduction and illumination in low light, though the Nokia Lumia 1020 is still a far better low-light camera.

The addition of 120 fps slow motion video is also a nifty new feature, but only a small subset of iPhone owners are likely to make real use of it on a regular basis.

I have now been using the iPhone 5s for nearly a month and I can safely say it is the best iPhone Apple has ever made. But Apple has made seven new iPhones over the years — this excludes the iPhone 5c, which isn’t really a “new” iPhone since it’s just an iPhone 5 in a different case — and each and every one has been the best iPhone Apple had ever made at the time.

Measuring the iPhone 5s against iPhones past, I think it marks the least significant upgrade compared to the prior generation. There is plenty of new hardware packed into the iPhone 5s, but the speed improvements are nowhere near as dramatic as they have been in the past and there simply isn’t much, if any, useful new functionality.

I will say, though, that the new black and space gray color combination is a much better option than black and slate for those who don’t want a white phone. It’s nice to finally have an iPhone again that doesn’t look like Darth Vader’s belt buckle.

Despite the fact that the iPhone 5s isn’t the huge upgrade from last year’s model we were hoping for, it still maintains a wide gap in several key areas when measured against rival devices. And for iPhone owners who had been using older phones like the iPhone 4 or the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5s is a monster update that will undoubtedly leave buyers extremely satisfied.

Apple builds iPhones with two-year product cycles in mind, and this has never been more evident than it is with the iPhone 5s.

I have owned every iPhone Apple has launched since 2007, and I have used an iPhone as my primary smartphone for that entire span. That will not change with the iPhone 5s. The fit and finish compared to rival smartphones is in an entirely different league, the software experience is smoother and more fluid, and the apps generally offer much better user experiences, which is key for me. That said, this is really the first time I found myself wishing almost immediately that next year’s iPhone model had already debuted.

Much to my surprise, the main reason for this is the size of the phone. I want a bigger display.

Dozens of phones find their way to my desk each year, and every single one of them features a bigger display than the one Apple uses on its phones. I very much enjoy having a larger canvas, but my problem with nearly all of them is that the devices themselves are too big. Even the HTC One, which is the best Android smartphone on the planet in my opinion, is too big.

Some Apple bloggers used to insist that 3.5 inches was perfect for a smartphone display, and that Apple would likely never stray from that screen size. “Apple decided on the optimal size for an iPhone display back in 2006,” Daring Fireball’s John Gruber wrote back in 2011. “If they thought 4-inches was better, overall, as the one true size for the iPhone display, then the original iPhone would have had a 4-inch display.”

Obviously, that’s not the case.

Apple moved up to 4 inches with the iPhone 5 and it now seems almost certain that the company will use an even larger display on the iPhone 6. This is a good thing in my opinion. My sincere hope, however, is that Apple does a better job than its rivals at packing that larger display into a handset that is not very much bigger overall than the current iPhone. It will have to be somewhat bigger, of course, but chatter suggests Apple will use a nearly edgeless design on the sides of the display that will help keep the overall footprint of the iPhone 6 at a much more manageable size relative to smartphones currently on the market.

If there is one company that can pull this off right now using premium materials and a gorgeous design, I think it’s probably Apple.

In the meantime, the iPhone 5s still provides the best overall user experience of any smartphone on the market right now. As an added bonus, it also gives us a taste of things to come. The 64-bit A7 processor has the potential to really blur the line between conventional PCs and mobile devices, the M7 motion co-processor adds another piece to Apple’s wearable puzzle, and the Touch ID fingerprint scanner might not be very useful right now, but it will likely open the door for exciting new Apple products in the future.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.