Friday, September 21, 2012

iPhone 5 Review: Hands On

Quick, do you remember where you when the Samsung Galaxy SIII launched this year? Think hard, it wasn't that long ago...

Yes, it's iPhone rollout day, and depending on how you view it, the annual lineups are either tradition or cliché. But one thing you have to hand it to Apple, you know when the phone is out. The lineup outside the store is living, breathing advertising banner. Samsung advertises as if specs are what sells phones; it's sort of like how McLaren is pursuing track time numbers with it's new road cars as a means of competing against Ferrari. Few people will take a Ferrari all the way to the limit, just as few will ever use the full potential of their phones... that's not why people chose brands. You buy a Ferrari for all of the qualities that make it a Ferrari, and you will never beat Apple on specs alone. This has nothing to do with the so-called 'Cult of Apple', but rather, it is the way of the world. No matter what market you are in, if you want to compete against the market leader, you have to have better specs....that's the beginning, but it's not the end. Ask Hyundai how it feels about the supposed demise of the inferiorly spec'd Honda Civic.

However, I'm not going to dive into the specs for two reasons. First, you've probably memorized them to heart with all of the coverage that's come out in the past two weeks. The second is that I'm just like you, I see the thing when it comes out for the unwashed masses. And knowing what day it was today, it was impossible not to stroll past the local Apple Store. First of all, everything is very similar, but different. The size is different, there are tweaks to the operating system here and there, but when you pick it up, the familial characteristic remains. However, there are two things that jump out at you, that really aren't being conveyed well.

The first is that this thing feels light. The iPhone 4s is a glass sandwich, which does not lend itself to saving weight. The new aluminum back shaves off the weight of the shatter-vulnerable glass backing of the 4 and 4s, and looks very well made. It is thinner, but it's the weight drop that you notice most, but it still feels very solid, in a way that the Samsung phones most definitely do not feel. As you can see in the promotional pictures, the edges have been polished to give it a bit of sparkle: this is a completely cosmetic touch, something that you get from Apple that nobody else is bothering with. Because the phone is longer and lighter, the weight difference between the 4s and the 5 are pretty stark.  I'm not sold on the workaday utility of the longer screen, but the extra lightness doesn't make the phone feel clumsy. The other thing that isn't being touched on is the extra boost in horsepower. It's subtle, but everything has a nice zip to it, sort of like going from the 4 to the 4s.

Operating wise, it's still a one handed phone, and the way that it's constructed, it's still a phone that's quick to use for those "in-between" moments when you're trying to squeeze a little extra productivity or alleviate boredom. The problem with finding an optimal solution, is that you don't have anywhere to go from there. The original 3:2 aspect ratio of the iPhone is a better multitasker than the 16:9 screen. The classic interface did most things well; the new one does somethings better (movies and games) and most other things a bit clunkier. I think my mind will be changed when App writers start taking advantage of the extra screen real estate in a more thoughtful way other than stretching their current versions. All told, I would still prefer to have a phone in the classic proportions, but with the new aluminum back.

I'm of the opinion that white doesn't suit the new iPhone. It looks pristine on the 4 and 4s, because the brightness of the white blends in with the activated screen. On the 5, it accentuates  the extra length, but it doesn't flatter. Black hides the bulk.

I didn't get a chance to play around with the camera much, but it works as advertised, new panorama mode all all. I can't really discern any meaningful image quality differences between this new iPhone and the 4s, but there are some reviews and samples coming in from acoss the web showing that there is a difference. What I do see is that they've changed the way the tone curve works in the 5 compared to the 4s, which is a good thing, because I've never been a fan of the somewhat heavy handed output saturation and sharpening wise that the 4s seems to produce, I think the tone curve is too steep.  But the again, as a Nikon shooter, you get used to cameras with a light touch. The lens cover is sapphire, which is harder and more scratch resistant than glass. It's the same stuff that high end watches like Rolex and Omega use, but one catch is that it's more shatter prone than ordinary glass. I think this bit is an extravagance; the limiting factor with such a small sensor is diffraction, and at most normal viewing distances, iPhone is going to be diffraction limited through its whole aperture range. A few scratches on the lens cover aren't going to make that big a difference; if you are getting gouges in your cell camera lens, then the issue is really you and not the phone; you really ought to be taking better care of it.

Going back to those lineups... between cliché and tradition, I firmly believe that it's tradition now. Samsung would have you believe that's cliche, but I'd be careful if I were them; last year's ads were genius, but you'd be very brave to carry a snarky advertising campaign into a second year. Don't blame Apple, the stores are swamped, if there was was no lineup to control the crowds, it would be a feeding frenzy. But if it feels like we're doing it again fro the sake of doing it again, well, yes. The smartphone market is quickly maturing; when everybody has one, it's a replacement market. Everybody has a refrigerator; everybody has a refrigerator already. There will be lineups again next year, but from here on out, the excitement gets less and less. The iPhone rollout is like Thanksgiving dinner. If it's been a while, Thanksgiving dinner is great. If you've lived through a few (or have in-laws), then it sort of becomes's still good, you have to do it, but it's slipping into the neither-nor region between tradition and chore.

Or you could have turkey at some other time of the year. Nothing is stopping you from doing that; neither is there anything from stopping you from buying an iPhone at any other time of the year. Just don't buy one in August, is all I'm saying. Oh, about the excitement part. Once all of this clears, then comes the iPad mini....


  1. This phone is as delicate as a new born baby. I am looking for good iPhone 5 covers. Can you help?