HANDS ON: Apple iPhone 5

It's here. At last. The sixth-generation iPhone, confusingly called the iPhone 5, was launched by Apple last night. So what's it like, and do you need to upgrade?

As usual with Apple, its keynote was a polished affair with slick, well-rehearsed executives talking fluently and passionately about the latest products. Tim Cook, speaking in the Yerba Buena Centre in San Francisco, and beamed to a small conference hall in King's Cross, London, was relaxed and confident. And why not? After all, Apple had much to celebrate. It has sold 400 million iOS devices (of which 350 million are iPods), and it took the number one spot in notebook sales in the US for the last three months for its MacBook range.

But this event was, mostly, about the iPhone.


Apple iPhone 5


The first feature pointed out by exec Phil Schiller was the bigger screen. Nowhere near the size of the Samsung Galaxy S III display and slightly weird looking at first, it's the same width as all previous iPhones, but longer, making it a four-inch display. Current apps, Schiller explained, will work and look just as they used to, with black bars at either end of the screen. In practice, these black bars weren't as noticeable as you might expect. The payoff comes when you watch video in 16:9 ratio, but in everyday use the practical effect is to squeeze in an extra line of apps (twenty apps plus four in the dock).


Apple iPhone 5 back


The other major feature of the updated design was the back - an aluminium band with glass at either end. The black version had a dark grey metal reverse (slate, in Apple-speak), the white one a lighter-coloured panel. Both looked stylish and elegant – somehow classier than the iPhone 4S with its glass back.

But more striking than the improved style is the feel. The metal case feels good and the edges are smoothly angled to fit the hand better. Above all, the iPhone 5 is exceptionally slim (7.6mm and the thinnest smartphone in the world, Schiller said) and noticeably lighter than the current version.

It’s when you pick the phone up that you really feel how different this phone is. Though it’s light, it still feels solid.


Apple iPhone 5


It’s still fast, with a super-responsive touch-screen and a display that now shows more of a webpage, say. Apple’s own apps like Pages and iPhoto also take advantage of the screen’s extra real estate, and more will follow.

The new Maps app as announced with iOS6 gleams, thanks to TomTom-supplied mapping that you can rotate to help get your bearings, with the street names cleverly staying the right way up. Google Maps has this trick, too, but it looks just as good here. The Flyover effect with its photo-realistic 3D renderings of cities from around the world may just be a gimmick, but it’s a gorgeous one. The arrival of turn-by-turn voice instructions is welcome, but note that like Android’s mapping, you need a data connection to make this work, unlike Nokia’s system where you can download maps in advance.

But the most striking feature of the new phone is its 4G LTE capability, confirmed as being compatible with EE’s newly launched network. It wasn’t possible to test this last night as the network isn’t running publicly yet, but the thought of fast data is very appealing – especially as Apple claims the iPhone’s battery life has grown. Hallelujah.


Apple iPhone 5 dock connector


But it wasn’t all smiles at the event: the replacement of the 30-pin connector ever-present since the first iPod with a tiny one called Lightning means a world of docks and speakers were rendered incompatible. Apple had adaptors, it said, and we can expect other companies to make their own. A lot are going to be needed.

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