The response to Apple’s huge iPhone 5 launch was more mixed than a Fatboy Slim album. Many applauded Apple on creating what was sure to be the best iPhone yet, complete with larger screen and a new slimline design. But many others felt deflated, expecting that dependable ‘one more thing’ that was going to tip the iPhone 5 into insta-buy territory, and coming away disappointed.
Still, regardless of first impressions, there was never any doubt that the iPhone 5 would be Apple’s best smartphone to date. The real question is, is it worth the steep asking price (£529 for the most basic 16GB version, rising to £699 for the 64GB model) if you already own an iPhone?
* Check out our full iOS 6 review for a run-down of the iPhone 5's operating system and new software features! The following review focuses mostly on the hardware...
While iPhones to date have shared a strong resemblance, the iPhone 5 is definitely the black sheep of the family with its new ‘stretched’ look. Imagine an iPhone 4S that’s been lovingly crushed by a steamroller. The iPhone 5 is not just longer, it’s also noticeably thinner (18% according to Apple) and lighter too at just 112g. That reduced weight is one of our favourite things about this new iPhone, putting it more in line with the latest Androids and making older models feel decidedly chunky and heavy.
The iPhone 5 (bottom) is a good chunk longer than the iPhones 4 and 4S (top and middle)
And also more slender, thanks to a cutback in the front glass
Aside from the longer screen, the only other difference from the front is the iPhone 5’s FaceTime camera, which has moved to a more central position. The thinner edges retain the same buttons as before – volume and mute keys on the left edge, SIM card slot on the right – but there have been three major changes.
First, and least importantly, the earphone port is now on the base of the iPhone. It’s a basic change, but it means you don’t have to twist the phone around when you slip it into your pocket for listening to music. Second, and a big change for current Apple fans, the old docking port has been slimlined and rebranded ‘Lightning’ (more on this later on).
Finally, the iPhone 5 only accepts the new ultra-tiny ‘Nano SIM’ cards, which are even dinkier than the existing Micro SIMs. These things are so small an ant could choke on them. We’re not entirely sure if we needed cards this small, especially as it means you’ll need to swap your existing card with your provider, which is pure hassle if you’re buying the iPhone 5 out of contract.
Those gosh darn Micro SIMs were too bulky and cumbersome, so say hello to the new Nano SIM (far right). Sneeze anywhere near it and you're screwed.
Design-wise, the rear of the phone has also been altered. Instead of the one-piece glass of previous iPhones, the iPhone 5 sports an aluminium back with two thin strips of glass at the top and bottom. We love the new look, even if the metal segment picks up scuffs far too easily. It’s just a shame that the funky new design will be hidden under our iPhone case, as we’d be hesitant to carry the iPhone 5 unprotected.
So the new 4-inch stretched screen is bigger than previous versions, but is it as good as the iPhone 4S’s fantastic Retina display? Well, that extra space hasn’t made the iPhone 5’s screen any less sharp, as it packs the same mind-boggling 326 pixels-per-inch. Photos still look stunningly realistic, but also more vibrant thanks to great colour saturation levels. This side-by-side screenshot shows the iPhone 4S squaring up to the iPhone 5: you can clearly see the photo on the top has bolder, deeper colours in both the sky and sea than the photo below.
Unfortunately the larger screen isn’t currently supported by the bulk of available apps. Load up an unsupported game or app and you’ll find it’s displayed with black borders around it, whereas supported apps stretch to fill the screen.
This is how the (so far very few) compatible apps look on the crisp new screen...
And this is how everything else looks.
As you can see, most apps will therefore play exactly the same on the iPhone 5 and earlier models, until developers adapt.
The iPhone 5’s screen is just as bright as previous models, with excellent viewing angles as ever. We were hoping for some kind of super-tough glass to protect it during those unfortunate tumbles or knocks, but as far as we can tell it’s the same construction and glass as the iPhone 4S, so you best have some kind of case and screen cover if you’re accident prone.
YouTube fans will notice their favourite video streaming app is absent from the iPhone 5, thanks to its dismissal from iOS 6. Thankfully you can download it from the App Store, although once again your vids will be played with that ugly black border around them. Still, you can always download videos and store them on the 16GB hard drive (upgradeable to 64GB if you pay out extra) instead. Once again there’s a lack of a memory card slot, so whatever you opt for, you’re stuck with it.
The music app is excellent as ever, making it easy to browse your albums or search for songs by specific artists as well as set up playlists. Hold the iPhone 5 horizontally and you get a scrollable row of album covers, which you tap on to view the track list – very simple but very cool. Our only complaint is that we still have to use iTunes to sync the iPhone 5 with our computer for copying movies and music, which always grinds our patience with its laginess, crashes and constant updates.
As is obligatory, Apple has boosted performance in the iPhone 5 with its brand new A6 processor. While you won’t notice any difference when skimming through your desktops, browsing the web or playing around with most basic apps, there’s a definite drop in load times when you boot up some of the latest intensive games. For instance, The Dark Knight Rises intro took 44 seconds to load on the iPhone 4S, but just 34 seconds on the iPhone 5.
It may seem like a small difference, but in games with lots of cutscenes it all adds up, especially when you simply want a quick game between train stops. Of course, most iOS game developers make sure their titles are compatible with as many models of iPhone as possible, so we doubt that gamers will desperately need to upgrade if they’re already sporting a 4 or 4S.
Despite the increased performance, the iPhone 5 still lasts a full day with medium usage (occasional app play, texting and emailing, plus some music playback and the odd random camera shot). However, start streaming video and you can watch the percentage counter tick down. Our iPhone 5 died in just five hours with the screen turned up to maximum brightness (compared to six or seven hours, which is the norm for rival phones).
One feature that hasn’t changed much is the iPhone 5’s camera. It’s still an 8-megapixel lens with almost identical technology to the iPhone 4S’s snapper, although the lens can now suck in a little extra light for those evening or dim interior (e.g. pub) shots. We noticed a respectable improvement in brightness levels when taking photos in our local, while our daytime shots were typically sharp with realistic colour reproduction.
Unfortunately that ability to suck up extra light isn’t always a good thing. Prodding the virtual camera button causes the phone lens to tremble ever so slightly, and while this rarely affected iPhone 4S shots, we found a lot of our evening snaps on the iPhone 5 came out blurred. And while our pub shots undoubtedly are brighter and clearer on the iPhone 5, they’re still just as grainy and ugly – we recommend simply using the flash.
The iPhone 5's identical shot is more blurred, thanks to that tiny bit of hand tremor.
The only big new feature in the iPhone 5’s camera app is the ability to take panorama shots. This is something we’ve seen on plenty of rival Android phones from HTC, Sony and others, and it’s once again well implemented here: simply pan the iPhone from left to right and you’ll capture a wide scene, perfect for remembering those dazzling landscapes. You can also now take photos while shooting Full HD video.
The FaceTime camera has seen a bump in resolution unlike the main camera, so your loved ones can check out your nasal hairs and acne in beautiful HD.
Another change, and one that has caused the most raised eyebrows since it was rumoured way back when, is that new Lightning connector. Shunning the uber-wide Apple connector of the past, Lightning is a slimmed-down model that has the handy benefit of being reversible, meaning you can slot it in either way around. No more stabbing blindly in the dark hoping it’s the right way up.
All well and good, but what about those loyal consumers who own Apple docks and other accessories that use the old connector? Well, Apple will kindly sell you a small plastic adapter for the princely sum of £25. And don’t expect to see any cheap knock-off versions, because Apple has trademarked the technology to avoid rival replications. We’re baffled as to why Apple can’t charge just a few pounds for this adapter, especially considering the steep asking price of the smartphone.
After subjecting us to years of aural abuse on the daily commute, Apple has finally redesigned its famously leaky earphones so they don’t spew out music to everyone within twenty yards. The ‘earpods’ sport a simple glossy white design, with heads that are fully plastic instead of the soft rubber tips used by most earphones.
Sound quality is fine with none of that leaking, although the fit is a little awkward and lets in lots of external noise, a real problem when you’re traversing noisy London streets or crammed into the Tube. Our inner ears felt strangely sensitive after just a couple of hours of use too, likely a result of the sharp edges.
It was no great surprise when Apple announced the iPhone 5 would support 4G networks here in the UK, when they finally roll out. We haven’t been able to test this feature so we’ll say no more about it, but we’re definitely looking forward to enjoying some greatly increased mobile download speeds. Sadly there’s no built-in NFC, so you won’t be using the iPhone 5 to make contactless payments or swap files and details with your buddies.
We've covered the updates to Siri, the new Apple Maps app, Passbook and other new software features in our full iOS 6 review.
Is the iPhone 5 the best ever iPhone? Of course it is, that was never really under any doubt. But is it the iPhone we were hoping for? In short, no. Newcomers to Apple’s world will find a slickly designed smartphone boasting a super-sharp screen and a strong camera, albeit bogged down by the usual Apple quirks such as a lack of memory card support and ageing iOS and iTunes software. The rest of us have little reason to upgrade however, considering the steep asking price and lack of killer new features.
You can buy your shiny new Apple iPhone 5 on Vodafone's website, with several models still in stock right now. There's a choice of 12-month plans from £36 a month, and 24-month plans from £34 a month.