Apple iPhone 5s review: Great, but should have been greater

Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

It's getting harder and harder to objectively judge new iPhones. From a consumer POV, the iPhone exists in a vacuum, in a universe apart and separate from the rest of the smartphone hurly burly. Since this is the latest iPhone, Apple's new iPhone 5s is by default the best iPhone ever in this isolated universe and takes its place as tech's top object of desire.

But from a pure geek POV, the iPhone 5s can't be judged in a vacuum but against more technically advanced Android and even Windows Phone smartphones. Under this geek microscope, iPhone 5s is a disappointment.

Sure, it has the admittedly kind of cool Touch ID fingerprint reader, a vast improvement of what was already the best smartphone camera, the first-ever 64-bit processor and a separate M7 motion co-processor. None of which individually or as a group makes the iPhone 5s worth upgrading to for iPhone 5 owners or equal in technology compared to the current spate of Android super smartphones.

And with the possible exception of the HTC One, the iPhone 5s remains the most solidly built smartphone available.

With the iPhone 5s, we're still stuck with a practically antediluvian 4-inch screen, still no NFC (really? seriously?), still only 1GB of RAM, still no stereo speakers, still no 802.11ac Wi-Fi (even though Apple Airport router proudly supports the faster wireless standard), still only 64GB worth of storage and not 128GB to hold additional uncompressed music files. Most of iPhone 5s' best features aren't iPhone 5s-specific hardware but software, iOS 7, and can be enjoyed regardless of which post-2010 iPhone you own.

Okay, there are cool and different two-toned gold and silver 5s models. Except the gold sold out almost immediately and the silver there soon after, which is why I only ended up with the "Space Gray" — fancy talk for plain black with a grey rear. Good planning, Apple.

It's apparent Apple thinks my list of missing geek tweaks would mean little or nothing to the mass audience iPhone 5s is clearly targeting. Maybe Apple is saving them for the iPhone 6 a year from now.

But this is this year and the iPhone 5s is the phone we have to deal with.

Is 64-bit A Thing?

As with past iPhone "S" updates, iPhone 5s is physically identical to the iPhone 5 save for its cosmetic paint job options and two minor tweaks. The Home button no longer has a square imprinted on it and is now surrounded by a stainless steel gasket as part of the Touch ID fingerprint reading array, and the True Tone rear flash comes with a standard and an amber LED to correct for skin tones and low lighting.

Inside, of course, there are many differences between the 5s. The iPhone 5s is powered by Apple's new first-of-its-kind 64-bit A7 processor, partnered with a first-ever motion coprocessor, dubbed the M7.

The problem is, there are only a handful of 64-bit apps available, and there is some controversy over the benefits of 64-bit processing without other supplementary technologies, which the iPhone 5s lacks, such as expanded RAM.

I don't pretend to understand these inside baseball pro/con 64-bit technicalities. But on a practical usage level, I detected few performance boosts in normal usage compared to the iPhone 5 with its 32-bit A6 processor. Heavy gamers and video makers are more likely to experience speed and performance boosts than the hoi polloi.

The benefits of the M7 motion coprocessor may be more apparent, mainly for exercise apps. For instance, the Argus fitness tracking app has been updated for M7 exploitation — it can track activity without accessing the main A7 processor, saving battery life. I suspect a host of exercise apps — and possibly the rumored iWatch — will issue M7-enabled updates.

One area where the 64-bit architecture and the M7 coprocessor do improve 5s matters is battery life. I ran identical YouTube videos on both a 5s and a 5, and the 5s still held 15 percent of its battery life when the 5 died — and the 5S was drawing power for cellular connectivity while the 5 only used Wi-Fi. I suspect the gap would have been greater had I been moving around with both phones.

Touch ID: Gimmick?

Confession: I never used the passcode. It is way too cumbersome considering the only time it would be useful was on the off-chance that I lost my phone — and even then, I could remote erase it.

But Touch ID is not only not a bother, but kind of cool to use. You set it up during the phone's initial set-up by placing and lifting your finger (usually your thumb) on the Home key when instructed, around a half dozen repeats so the phone can capture your entire print, including the edges.

Once your print is memorized, you just gently lay your thumb on the Home key in any orientation and, within a second, iPhone 5s reacts. No more inputting a passcode or your Apple ID to make iTunes content purchases. It successfully read my print regardless of how centered I placed it or at what angle. Touch ID can even store additional prints, such as a different finger or your spouse's.

Even if the iPhone failed to read my print the first time, which was rare, it succeeded the second time. Repeating the print reading process is still faster than inputting a four or more code of password characters.

If you're paranoid about Touch ID's security, you can skip the setup and not use it. But until if/when Touch ID is hacked, it's kind of cool to use.

But while really cool, Touch ID isn't nearly as useful as, say NFC, 128GB of storage or a 4.5-inch screen would have been.

Camera Improvements

iPhone 5s' most visible improvement is its camera, arguably the most startling leap forward of any pinhole smartphone camera (as opposed to smartphones with specialty or actual lenses such as the Nokia Lumia 1020 or the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom). This thing takes hellaciously great photos for a smartphone in low light or backlit situations.

Credit the quality leap to 15 percent larger pixels (larger pixels mean more light is captured), the wider f/2.2 aperture and the new True Tone flash — one standard cold light element and a new amber element.

As you can see in the samples (in the gallery below), indoor scenes are more evenly lit, back lights are better compensated for, and flesh tones — all colors, in fact — are more natural and realistic.

Video-wise, the 5s' image stabilization results in noticeably less jitter than in videos shot with the 5, meaning less headaches while watching your home movies.

Without a doubt, 5s' camera is its finest and most impressive upgrade.

The Verdict

No one who owns an iPhone 5 and is somehow eligible to upgrade to the 5s need not. While 5s' camera is impressive, all other upgrades are incremental. For disgruntled Android users, iOS 7 is the reason to switch to iPhone, though not necessarily the 5s unless, again, you seek the best pinhole smartphone camera extant.

This is not to say the iPhone 5s is a bad smartphone — in fact, all things considered, iPhone is still the standard by which all mainstream smartphones will be measured. It has a better camera than any other smartphone, a faster processor than any other smartphone, it offers longer battery life than most, is more solidly built than most, and is the only smartphone with a fingerprint reader that has the potential to be huge for making purchases. And, of course, all 5 accessories will fit and work with the 5s.

The iPhone 5s is Apple's best. It's just not the super smartphone it could and should have been, or the super smartphone hopefully the iPhone 6 will be. Hopefully.

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