Looking back on the day I picked up the iPhone 5S I can still recall the anticipation of getting my hands on some new hardware as I waited on line watching numerous would be Best Buy customers get turned away because they didn’t preorder. They were either unaware of the whole preorder process or thought there would be more than enough available that they could just stroll on in and purchase one. Fortunately, for me, I know better and walked out with my new gadget. My job being only a few short blocks away I was in my office in no time flat. The first thing I did upon opening the box was to pick up the 5S, weigh it in my hand, rotate it around for good measure then gave it one final yet firm grip before placing it back in the open box. Finally thinking…, this is truly a nicely designed piece of hardware.
What immediately grabbed my attention was just how well designed and assembled the 5S is. Each piece seems to be perfectly matched to each other. I couldn’t detect any uneven parts or flaws in manufacturing. The seams are tight leaving only the difference on the surface’s texture to let you know your finger moved from one type of material to another. I’ve used a lot devices over the years and very few are designed with such precision on a consistent basis as the iPhone is. When it comes to quality control and design Apple is a hard company to compete with. This year is no different the 5S looks good, it’s light yet solid and its well balanced. The upgrades are modest with a few added bonuses that I think are future proofing their devices.
Staring at the 5S I’m reminded that Apple is on this two year Tick-Tock cycle of upgrades for the iPhone much like Intel does for their processors. We have had the 3G followed by the 3GS and then the 4 being proceeded by the 4S. This year follows the same modus operandi which places us in the “Tock” portion of the cycle therefore, on the surface the 5S sports the same design as last years 5 which represents the “Tick” but with a few notable changes. The first change comes in the form of new color choices, space gray, gold and silver. Now I prefer all black regardless of what a phone looks like but as that is no longer an option I went with the next best thing, space gray. It not only compliments the 5S quite nicely in my opinion but it as well as the other new colors also seem to be a solution to real issue that was kind of a thorn in the side of some iPhone 5 users… chipping. I suspect hard anodizing aluminum to certain colors proved to be more difficult than Apple bargained for. Changing the color in metal is unlike changing the color on your bed room wall. It can’t just be “painted” on. It’s a process that if done incorrectly can weaken the material destroying its durability. So in this case it was a smart design decision to avoid a second round of scuffed and scratched right of the box iPhones. So hopefully the 5S will turn out to be more durable than the 5. Due to this change this is around and for the first time since the original iPhone I’m even contemplating going without a case, at least when I’m not using the BookBook. Although, in my line of work that idea may be short lived.
Hidden behind that pill shaped cutout on the back of the 5S are two LEDs, one white and one amber. Apple has dubbed this True Tone flash. What makes this work is the new built-in software. When a picture is taken the 5S calculates a number of lighting options based on the surrounding ambient light. In turn the calculated light output should give just the right amount of illumination to produce a more naturally lit picture. To achieve this you also have to take in to account the upgrades made to the actual camera. The improvements here are also a mix of hardware and software such as larger pixels measuring at 1.5 microns up from the previously used 1.4 microns resulting in a larger image sensor. Another spec bump is the larger ƒ/2.2 aperture compared to last years ƒ/2.4 aperture, and a brand new hybrid IR filter. Combined with the further tweaked auto white balance, auto exposure, improved image stabilization and other updates to the camera software, its all geared for cleaner, sharper, brighter images and videos. Apple’s changes to the camera are conservative yet judging from the few photos and videos I’ve taken I’d have to say that the resulting pictures are better than what the specifications would suggest. What I found most interesting is that the camera simultaneously takes multiple shots and picks the best one based off its calculations. I think it would be cool if we could view all the shots it takes to see how well this really works since this ability is available in the new burst mode.
Garnering probably the most attention this year is the change to the front of the device. Gone is the iconic concave Home button with the white square at its center. It has been upgraded to a flat piece of sapphire crystal that gives the new fingerprint scanner underneath a clear window from which to operate. Touch ID as it’s being called works just like its name. When the iPhone is locked simply touch the Home button and it instantly unlocks it giving you immediate access. It can also be used to authorize purchases through iTunes and the App Store although, it remains closed to third party development at this time. Of course, nothing this easy comes without some setup first but the easy to follow on-screen prompts and a few haptic responses helps make short work of it. The consistency at which Touch ID works is outstanding compared to others I have used in the past. I would estimate it at roughly 99% from my experience during the past 30 days and I use it a lot. During the initial setup it did not recognize my finger all the time resulting in about a 95% accuracy rate for the first day or two. While that’s actually not bad it’s also not good for the average consumer as they would find it aggravating and just turn it off entirely. That’s when I decided to wipe out all the scanned prints and started over from scratch. Since then I haven’t experienced a single failure as of this writing. Hence, the 99% as I’m averaging in the initial misreads during the first two days. Until proven otherwise I believe the rate of accuracy you get from Touch ID is completely based on how well you scanned your finger. Simply put, the more area of your finger you scan the more accurate Touch ID will be. One of the only times you will be required to manually enter your passcode is upon a device reset. While this may annoy a few users and I’m sure it will it’s no different than the built-in security of iOS 7 which prompts you to do the same if you attempt use a computer to wipe a locked device. It’s hard to imagine it getting any easier than this on a consumer grade device. Apple’s acquisition of AuthenTec was well spent.
This next upgrade has higher ramifications down the road than in the immediate present but that does not mean it is any less beneficial right now. Apple’s latest system-on-a-chip goes all in with a 64-bit ARMv8 based A7 processor. Every previous iteration of the iPhone has consistently performed smoothly year after year without having to be on the cutting edge of processor speed, core count or larger amounts of RAM added to it. Now with the new 64-bit architecture it is even more efficient at data and object processing than the quad-core A6X processor in last years 4th generation iPad. It also allows Apple to still maintain lower amounts of RAM in their iPhones without sacrificing speed due it’s ability to handle larger data chunks upfront before having to pass it off to RAM. Most importantly I think is that it ups the ante by bringing desktop-class processing power to the iPhone while still maintaining its smooth performance record and great battery life. This is nothing but a solid win for both software developers who can now create even more complex applications and more graphically intense games and the consumers who crave for them. The A7 is coupled with a low-powered M7 coprocessor handling all things motion (running, driving, walking, etc.) without ever waking the A7. I have had the unexpected pleasure to see the Maps application immediately switch from driving to walking directions one day as got of the bus and started walking to my destination which was pretty cool. Currently there’s no available software that can push the limits of the A7 so in the meantime I will gladly settle for the speed benefits it offers current applications. This is something I look forward to testing as apps update to take advantage of the A7 and M7 processors.
All in all the upgrades to the iPhone 5S makes it a great device to own and use. Innovation is not lacking here at all. It takes a lot of imagination and a great feet of engineering prowess to fit more technology into the same package as last years iPhone 5 in a way that not only makes sense but without making things unnecessarily complicated for the user. The camera has lots of improvements yet maintains its simplicity of use making it easy for anyone to just pickup and create some memories. Touch ID is quick, secure and addicting. I use it multiple times a day and I can’t tell you how much nicer it is to not have to manually enter my passcode while using public transportation or when I just need to show someone a photo or a bit of information on my phone. Touch ID is going to be tough to beat due to its implementation and execution. Adding it to the Home button creates a more natural action by the user because of it’s logical placement. Minimizing its functionality to only Apple’s Stores and unlocking the device I think is a matter of security that should not be taken lightly. Finally, there’s the A7 processor. I shouldn’t have to make a case for efficiency and speed since there is nothing negative about it unless you need an excuse to work slower. The 5S is full of upgraded software and hardware and an all new OS to give it a fresh look but most importantly it has enough new smart technology that is cutting edge without being gimmicky to give the 5S a fresh feel which may have been missing for quite some time.