Early reviews of the Apple iPhone 5S make clear a point that was easy to lose track of in the blur of rumors building up to Apple's Sept. 10 announcement and the cacophony of commentary and still more speculation that followed: This is an "S" device, Apple's signal that, preparing for a major design overhaul, it has maintained its previous exterior and updated key features. The S is a gap year. It's a better phone than the phone before it, but not a reimagining of the form factor.
It is not meant to blow your mind.
But it is meant to be very, very good—better than what's already out there—and, by nearly all accounts, it is.
The New York Times' David Pogue, in his Sept. 17 review, makes two very good points: Yes, it was Apple that told us to expect the bar to be set high—"Year after year, Steve Jobs used to blow our minds with products we didn't know we wanted."
But the smartphone market is now mature. "The big holes have been plugged," wrote Pogue. "Maybe, the age of annual mega-leaps is over."
The world will, no doubt, be anticipating a mega-leap from Apple in 2014, but what it got this year is a process that's twice as fast as the one in last year's model, a cleaner, more feature-rich operating system; a much, much better camera; improved battery life; and an evolved response to the fact that most people can't be bothered to use a password: the Touch ID fingerprint reader.
"Take photos side-by-side with the iPhone 5S' predecessor, and the difference is immediately obvious; lowlight pictures are far better on the new phone. Clearer, brighter, better color," wrote Pogue.
Bloomberg's Rich Jaroslovsky calls Touch ID "the most important new feature" and one that "elegantly addresses a significant pain point for mobile users: security."
Jaroslovsky found it to work "far better than any other biometric device I've used, not requiring your finger to be positioned just so. It makes security transparent and even pleasurable."
The Times' Pogue was impressed to the point of having no patience for doubters.
"It's genuinely awesome; the haters can go jump off a pier," he wrote.
The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, known for his regimented battery tests, didn't perform one, but was still impressed by the battery's general performance, finding that it "lasted a full workday, including one day where it still had 15 percent of battery left after 14 hours."
Mossberg also calls iOS 7 a "big improvement."
Apple has modernized its aesthetic, moving toward thinner fonts and a brighter palette and away from mimicking textures—iOS 6's wooden shelves in iBookstore, for example. But it's more than that.
"The fonts are sharper, finer and more delicate. Buttons and controls are thinner and lighter and, in the browser, they disappear or shrink to make a little more room for content," wrote Mossberg. "Overall, the effect is to make the 4-inch screen seem larger."